International Relations Theory and the Hegemony of Western Conceptions of Modernity: A Critical Review

The following critical review was originally submitted as an assignment for my university and was graded a 2:1.


Halperin, S., 2006. International Relations Theory and the Hegemony of Western Conceptions of Modernity. In: B. G. Jones, ed., Decolonizing International Relations. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, pp.62-88.

This essay aims to critically review the arguments presented in chapter two of Decolonizing International Relations. First, I will provide a concise summary of the chapter detailing how the author structures their overarching argument. Then, I will analyse the critical points posited in their argument before concluding with my opinion on the chapter.

In her chapter, Halperin aims to provide an alternative history and ontology to critique mainstream IR theory by examining areas left wholly untouched by other critical theorists. Halperin asserts that critical IR theory fails to critique much of mainstream IR theory’s historical and ontological basis, reproducing many of its misrepresentations. She then exposes the myths surrounding the “rise of Europe” and the industrial revolution by highlighting how it would not have been possible without the legacy left by the Islamicate world. Halperin concludes that to challenge the Western hegemonic perspective, one must view progress as a product of transnational classes/networks rather than individual states/regions as done in mainstream IR.

Halperin begins her chapter by asserting that critical IR theory has failed in challenging the misconceptions brought about by the prevailing Eurocentric narratives of mainstream IR. Henceforth, critical theorists must ensure that they cover the pitfalls Halperin discusses in her chapter. Namely, a lack of examination concerning Europe’s representation of itself and the outdated notion that progress has historically occurred on a national/regional scale rather than a transnational/global scale. Should critical theorists meet these new requirements in their analysis, they will be able to challenge the Western hegemonic project without drawing from the same classical misrepresentations of the Eurocentric narrative. Furthermore, by pushing the benchmark of critical theory, Halperin forces theorists to become critical of themselves and their shortcomings. Through this continual self-critique, a more accurate picture of history can be painted and new ideas generated in IR theory.

In the main body, Halperin debunks the myths surrounding the “rise of Europe” and the industrial revolution to highlight the gross inaccuracies of the Eurocentric narrative. By choosing to focus on the European experience and contrasting it with that of the post-classical Islamicate world, Halperin demonstrates how later developments were not as unique and exclusive to the West as mainstream IR theory would have us believe. Halperin’s analysis clarifies that the progress in early-modern Europe was simply a continuation of the Islamicate legacy, fitting more broadly into a grander narrative of global human advancement. Furthermore, Halperin points out that the false Eurocentric history of enlightenment is an imperialist tool used to cover up the reality of Western predation. If the wider IR community adopts this approach, it will debunk all notions of Western exceptionalism in progress; instead framing progress as an international human endeavour. Doing so would lay the groundwork for new ideas in IR theory that are not tainted with old fashioned ideas of colonial superiority.

Halperin concludes that to avoid contributing to the falsity of the mainstream Western hegemonic project, critical theorists must develop a new account of world history with a different ontological basis. This different ontological basis should be that of transnational/cross-regional exchange between ruling groups and elites both in and outside Europe. Progress should be viewed as being spearheaded by the urbanised industrial societies located all over the globe, rather than the sole achievement of one particular nation/region such as Europe. This new approach will allow IR theory to uncover much of what is obscured by the mainstream Western hegemonic project, allowing for a more nuanced understanding of social power and its many forms seen across the world. Furthermore, Halperin’s approach would let us better acknowledge the impact of colonialism on non-Western societies, the roles non-Western elites played in it, and the limited nature of Europe’s industrialisation. Lastly, it will also challenge the view that modernity was the achievement of the West alone; instead, making modernity the achievement of humanity as a whole.

Overall, I largely agree with Halperin’s argument. To challenge the Western hegemonic project, we must rebuild our account of world history with a new ontological basis; otherwise, we risk propagating the Eurocentric narrative of mainstream IR. However, in this regard, Halperin’s chapter falls short in two ways.

Firstly, much of Halperin’s account of world history still relies on a comparison to the Eurocentric narrative. While the comparison helps highlight where the Eurocentric narrative is incorrect, continuing to include it when attempting to build a new narrative will position the new narrative in relation to the old one, thereby allowing the Eurocentric narrative to propagate further rather than be forgotten. The next step for Halperin would be to write up a brand-new account of world history from the ground up using the ontological basis she discusses in this chapter. Doing so will provide a new foundation for other critical theorists to build upon.

Secondly, Halperin’s new ontological basis does not explain Europe’s exceptionalism; it only reframes it as exceptionalism in domination rather than progress. If we were to use it to construct a new account of world history, we would still be left with the question of how European urbanised industrial societies came to dominate those of other parts of the world. To remedy this, we should view the predation of European societies as a “mutation” in societal evolution. Similarly, we can view the Islamicate exceptionalism in scholarship as another societal “mutation”. Then, we can link these “mutations” together by highlighting how one is dependent on the other. For instance, early-modern European exceptionalism in colonial dominance depended on the scientific advancements of post-classical Islamicate exceptionalism in scholarship, which relied on adopting classical Persia’s exceptionalism in administration. In other words, we would remove the notion of European exceptionalism by demonstrating the exceptionalism of other societies. Western civilisation can no longer be exceptional and independent if all civilisation is exceptional yet dependent.

Despite these shortcomings, Halperin still delivers a much-needed evaluation of the critical theorists’ approach. Without her contribution, we would not understand how critical IR theory fails to challenge the Western hegemonic project. As a result, IR would continue to stagnate where other social sciences are not. I hope that Halperin’s ideas are taken up by the wider IR community so that theorists can acknowledge the Eurocentricity of mainstream thought and begin actively dismantling it as is done in other social sciences.

What Is Power and Who Has It?

The following essay was originally submitted as an assignment for my university and was graded as a 2:1.


One of the critical areas of study in political science is power, its forms, sources, distribution, modes of exercise, and effects. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assert that political science itself is very much the study of power given its preoccupation with constitutions and institutions, which are themselves simply ways of regularising and defining its distribution and exercise (Partridge, 1963). With this in mind, it is vital that we, as political scientists, can define what we mean by power and determine who or what it is that has it. As such, this essay aims to arrive at a qualified definition for power and explain its mechanics. Following this, the essay makes the case that the distribution of power follows an elitist-leaning framework and that, while almost any entity can exercise power, the majority of absolute power is held by the ruling class.


Definition of Power

In 1957, political scientist and originator of pluralist theory Robert Dahl defined power as follows: “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do” (Dahl, 1957). For example, a teacher has power over a student to the extent that they can get the student to complete their classwork. Both the teacher and student are agents who decide what actions to take, and both command a relative degree of agency – the freedom and autonomy to decide what actions to take. It just so happens that within the classroom – the structure within which these agents operate – the teacher commands more agency than the student and can utilise their greater agency to make the student complete their classwork. Therefore, power can be viewed as the disparity in agency between two or more agents, allowing one agent to influence or compel the actions of others.

The major flaw in Dahl’s definition is the use of the pronoun ‘he’, which is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, Dahl’s definition implies that the entity exercising power must always be masculine. By associating power with masculinity, political scientists who strictly follow Dahl’s definition will be blind to situations where women exercise power. Secondly, by using a pronoun typically associated with humans, Dahl’s definition implies that the entity exercising power must also always be human. As a result, political scientists will also be blind to situations in which non-human entities exert power. For instance, the power culture and religion have in shaping our preferences. Therefore, the pronoun ‘he’ limits our understanding of power, constricting political science as a field of study. Given this, Dahl’s definition of power should be amended: “A has power over B to the extent that A can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do”. By replacing ‘he’ with ‘A’, the application for Dahl’s definition is now widened in its scope.


Mechanics of Power

Between 1959 and 1965, social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven developed a set of six bases to analyse how power operates in specific relationships (French & Raven, 1959) (Raven, 2008). According to French and Raven, power depends on the specific understandings that A and B apply to their relationship. A must draw on a base or combination of bases of power appropriate to their relationship to motivate B to change in the way A intends. Failure to use the correct bases of power may result in a reduction of A’s power. These six bases include:

Legitimate power – power due to one’s authority given by their relative position in a power structure. Military generals use legitimate power to command their soldiers.

Referent power – power due to one’s charismatic ability to attract followers. Celebrities use referent power to influence consumers into buying their sponsors’ products.

Expert power – power due to one’s skills or expertise. Doctors use expert power to convince patients to take their medication.

Reward power – power due to one’s ability to provide incentives. Employers use reward power to incentivise employees to work harder.

Coercive power – power due to one’s ability to negatively impact another. Dictators use coercive power to oppress and threaten their citizens into doing what they say.

Informational power – power due to one’s access to information. Social media platforms use informational power to influence the type of content their users interact with.

In 1974, political and social theorist Steven Lukes proposed that power has three distinct dimensions: the three faces of power (Lukes, 1974). The first face of power refers to its direct decision-making capabilities to identify an issue and respond to it. When the government implements new COVID-19 restrictions, it is clear who makes decisions and why they are making them. The second face of power refers to its indirect agenda-setting capabilities to control the context in which decisions are made. When lobbying groups influence government policy behind closed doors, it is unclear who makes decisions and for whose benefit. The third face of power refers to its subtle manipulation capabilities to shape preferences and control responses to new decisions. When the government uses propaganda and rhetoric to deliberately shape people’s values before a new law is passed, it is not always clear to people that they are being influenced.

In 1992, political scientist Peter Digeser expanded upon Lukes’ three faces of power by introducing a fourth face of power (Digeser, 1992). The fourth face of power refers to its capability to control and shape the current paradigm. A paradigm is an unquestioned set of fundamental beliefs that shape the reality of everyone in society. All actions and decisions taken by agents will indefinitely be influenced by the parameters set by the paradigm in which they operate. Controlling the paradigm allows one to, in effect, control all agents operating within the paradigm. The actions of any government will inevitably always be the result of the cultural paradigm it operates in. For example, it would be improbable for the United Kingdom’s government to criminalise alcohol consumption, given how pubs are central to British culture.

Digeser’s fourth face of power is synonymous with Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s idea of cultural hegemony, which he developed during his imprisonment under Italy’s National Fascist Party (Gramsci, 1929-1935). According to Gramsci, the ruling class manipulate society’s culture so that their worldview becomes the accepted cultural norm. This universal dominant ideology presents the social, political and economic status quo as natural conditions that benefit every social class. In reality, the status quo only benefits the ruling class. Currently, the USA has a global cultural hegemony evidenced by its considerable social, political and economic influence in countries worldwide. The USA maintains its geopolitical dominance by using its media to present its goals as righteous and for the greater good. In addition, the threat that the US military poses to subordinate states also ensures that they do not step out of line.

In summary, power has two aspects: bases and faces. For A to get B to do something that B would otherwise not do, A must draw on the appropriate power base or combination of power bases. This is A’s source of power. There are six potential power bases: legitimate, referent, expert, reward, coercive and informational. A’s source of power can then be used in four distinct ways: the four faces of power. To illustrate this conceptualisation of power, one can refer to the example of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica Data Scandal.

Social media platform Facebook exposed the data of up to 87 million of its users to political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica which utilised it to influence the outcome of the 2016 United States presidential election in favour of Donald Trump (Vox, 2018). The main power base that Cambridge Analytica drew from was informational power in the form of user data. Cambridge Analytica then utilised the third face of this informational power to shape the preferences of Facebook users in favour of Trump without them knowing. When it came to election time, these same users voted for Trump. Therefore, Cambridge Analytica had power over Facebook users as it could get them to vote for Trump, which they may not have done otherwise.

Based on this essay’s conceptualisation of power, it can be concluded that any entity can exercise power so long as it has access to a sufficient base of power. Almost anyone can exercise the first two faces of power. For example, a child has the power to decide which flavour of ice cream they wish to consume (first face of power). Similarly, the child’s parent decides whether the child is allowed to consume ice cream in the first place (second face of power). However, the last two faces of power, which are far more absolute in nature, are usually reserved for entities with access to far larger power bases, namely the state. As such, the remainder of this essay concerns the distribution of state power, focusing on the third and fourth faces of power.


Distribution of Power

There are two predominant theories for the distribution of state power: elitism and pluralism. The main difference is that pluralists assert power is horizontally dispersed, whereas elitists assert power is vertically concentrated. Therefore, pluralism and elitism can be viewed as two extremes on the same scale. However, as we will come to see, the truth is really a mix of both views with a slight leaning towards the elitist framework.

Classical pluralism is predicated on the idea that society comprises vastly different groups vying for power (Smith, 2006). These groups compete to influence different parts of the state; however, no single group is able to dominate policy-making. Power is dispersed between these different groups. As a result, the state remains relatively neutral, balancing the weight of different demands in the national interest. Classical pluralism thus sees all groups as having an equal say in the decisions taken by the state.

The fundamental flaw in classical pluralism is that certain groups’ interests are not reflected in the national agenda, having zero say in policy-making decisions because they lack the necessary resources to influence the state. In other words, some groups lack the necessary power bases to exercise the third and fourth faces of power while others do. For instance, the championing of neo-liberal ideas under the Thatcher governments of the 1980s led to increased depoliticisation as many decision-making powers were given to non-governmental organisations, taking them out of the purview of the general public. In addition, tax and welfare reductions transferred resources from poor groups to wealthy groups (Harvey, 2005). Subsequently, some groups felt their concerns were not being addressed by the state leading to widespread dissatisfaction, particularly amongst the working class. The continuation of depoliticisation measures in the decades since has contributed to anti-politics and the recent rise in populism (Hay, 2007).

Reformed pluralism addressed this flaw in the pluralist model by conceding that certain groups exercise greater influence over the state than others. (Smith, 2006). Groups achieve this by forming close relationships with the state and pooling their resources together in policy networks, such as the British Chambers of Commerce. Power is still dispersed but only amongst a particular set of groups. Despite this, reformed pluralism maintains that countervailing powers can develop in other parts of the state to challenge the position of the dominant groups. Overall, this concession moves pluralism closer to the position held by elitists; power is concentrated.

Classical elitism is predicated on the idea that there are two classes in every society: the ruling class that holds power and the subordinate class that does not (Evans, 2006). The ruling class constitutes a single socially cohesive group territorially closed-off from the subordinate class. Power is concentrated amongst the ruling class. As a result, the state is dominated by a single group, whose ideas become the ruling ideas of society. This is an inevitability in all societies making direct government by the masses impossible. Classical elitism thus sees society as the dictatorship of the majority by the minority.

The major flaw in elitism is that the ruling class is one homogeneous group with a single goal in mind. If this were the case, opposition parties would not exist, and all democracies would be reduced to single-party systems. In addition, if power were concentrated in a single group, they would do as they please without anyone having the power to challenge them. In reality, the decisions made by the executive are checked and balanced by the legislature and judiciary. For example, in 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that introducing employment tribunal fees of up to £1,200 in 2013 was unlawful (BBC, 2017). Therefore, it would be disingenuous to reject the pluralist’s ideas outright. In other words, power bases must exist outside the control of a single homogenous group.

Contemporary elitism rectified this flaw by conceding that the ruling class comprises multiple factions engaged in an ongoing process of competitive elitism (Evans, 2006). These factions must retain links with global elite networks, such as the European Commission, to maintain their power bases in society. Power is still concentrated, but it is now concentrated amongst a particular set of groups rather than a single group. Overall, this concession moves elitism closer to the position held by pluralism; power is dispersed.

By consolidating these two opposing viewpoints, one can assert that power is distributed at three different levels (Evans, 2006). Each level consists of competing factions vying for state control with different degrees of power at their disposal. At the bottom level, there is the politically fragmented society of the masses. Agents only have access to the sufficient power bases needed to exercise the first two faces of power. At the middle level, there is the semi-organised stalemate of interest groups and legislative politics. Groups have access to the sufficient power bases needed to exercise the first three faces of power. At the top level, there are those in command of major institutional hierarchies, otherwise known as the ruling class. The ruling class has access to the sufficient power bases needed to exercise all the faces of power. The vast majority of absolute power is concentrated amongst the dominant ruling faction. However, there is still the potential for other ruling factions to amass countervailing powers, keeping the dominant ruling faction in check. Therefore, the distribution of power follows an elitist-leaning framework; power is concentrated in its dispersal. To illustrate this power distribution model, one can refer to the United Kingdom.

At the bottom level, there is the British public. In everyday life, British citizens can exercise the first two faces of power as they make direct decisions about their own lives as well as exert nominal control over those around them, whether it be family, friends or colleagues. At the middle level, there are multiple interest groups and political parties with varying degrees of influence competing to exert their control over the state. These groups can exercise the first three faces of power as they have the resources to produce propaganda and influence the values of the British public. For example, UKIP’s political rhetoric concerning immigration significantly influenced the outcome of the EU referendum. At the top level, there is the political elite with control over the United Kingdom’s major institutions. The political elite is divided into multiple factions and can exercise all four faces of power. Currently, the dominant faction is the Conservative Party, with control over the executive and the majority of the legislature. The Conservative Party’s power is countervailed by other factions of the political elite, such as the Labour Party with its control over the remaining legislature and the Supreme Court with its control over the judiciary. Despite this, all factions of the political elite remain part of the same ruling class.

Based on this model for the distribution of power, it can be concluded that the ruling class holds the most absolute power. They have access to the sufficient power bases needed to control and shape the current paradigm. By shaping the paradigm, they control all the agents operating within it. In other words, only the ruling class can exercise the fourth face of power. In addition, the ruling class retains the greatest degree of agency as they are at the top of the state structure. Overall, the ruling class are the most powerful actors in society.


Conclusion

To summarise, power is the extent to which one entity can influence another to do something it otherwise would not do. The entity must draw on the appropriate power base or combination of power bases to exercise power over another and achieve its desired outcome. There are six such power bases (legitimate, referent, expert, reward, coercive and informational) that can be utilised in four distinct ways (the four faces of power). While almost any entity can exercise the first two faces of power, only certain entities have the necessary agency and sufficient power bases to exercise the third and fourth faces of power. These entities are best typified by the ruling class. Therefore, it can be concluded that absolute power is an influencing force concentrated and dispersed amongst the political elite.


References

BBC, 2017. Employment tribunal fees unlawful, Supreme Court rules. [Online]
Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-40727400
[Accessed 21 12 2021].

Dahl, R., 1957. The Concept of Power. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 2(3), pp. 201-215.

Digeser, P., 1992. The Fourth Face of Power. The Journal of Politics, 54(4), pp. 977-1007.

Evans, M., 2006. Elitism. In: C. Hay, M. Lister & D. Marsh, eds. The State: Theories and Issues. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 39-58.

French, J. & Raven, B., 1959. The Bases of Social Power. In: D. Cartwright, ed. Studies in Social Power. s.l.:University of Michigan, pp. 150-167.

Gramsci, A., 1929-1935. Prison Notebooks. s.l.:s.n.

Harvey, D., 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hay, C., 2007. Why We Hate Politics. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Lukes, S., 1974. Power: A Radical View. s.l.:Macmillan.

Partridge, P. H., 1963. Politics and Power. Philosophy, 38(144), pp. 117-135.

Raven, B., 2008. The Bases of Power and the Power/Interaction Model of Interpersonal Influence. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 8(1), pp. 1-22.

Smith, M., 2006. Pluralism. In: C. Hay, M. Lister & D. Marsh, eds. The State: Theories and Issues. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 21-38.

Vox, 2018. The Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal, explained with a simple diagram. [Online]
Available at: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/3/23/17151916/facebook-cambridge-analytica-trump-diagram

The Aqil Ghani Media Awards 2021

Alas, we have arrived at the end of yet another year of pandemics, environmental crises, and political turmoil. But despite the doom and gloom that has accompanied 2020 2.0, there were still moments to be enjoyed and memories to be treasured. And so, to commemorate the end of 2021, I’m going to share with you my favourite media from this year.

This year I’ve seen a total of 70 movies, read 44 books, listened to 28,428 minutes of music, binged an uncountable number of TV series and played a troubling amount of video games. Given this and my exhaustive credentials as a media critic, it seems fitting that I give my verdict on the top movies, books, songs, TV series and video games of 2021. Without further ado, I’d like to give you all a warm welcome to the Aqil Ghani Media Awards!

DISCLAIMER: Not everything on this list came out this year, but I did consume them this year, and that’s what really matters. We like to do things differently here at the Aqil Ghani Media Awards.

First up, we have Video Game of the Year. This year marks the eighth year since I made my Steam account and started gaming properly. According to the platform, I’ve amassed over 4,254 hours across 110 games, and that’s just what I’ve played on Steam. During this time, I’ve come across a lot of great games. My honourable mentions for this year include Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord, Wasteland 3, Crusader Kings III, and League of Legends. But my Video Game of the Year for 2021 has to be Amplitude’s new turn-based, 4X (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) strategy game, Humankind.

Humankind takes the 4X genre to a new level by moving away from the standard mechanics of other 4X games like Civilisation. My favourite mechanic has to be Humankind’s culture feature. Instead of picking a single faction to play for the entire game, you choose a different culture for each era. For example, you can start the game as the Ancient Egyptians, switch to the Romans, then the Aztecs, the Mughals, and the Zulu before finishing off as the Soviets. This, alongside many other innovative mechanics, makes for a refreshing take on a genre that’s long been stagnating.

For our second category, we have TV Series of the Year. By TV series, I mean both series that can be found on regular television and streaming services like Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime. This year I watched lots of series, so much so that I lost count. That being said, the series that stood out to me this year include Black-ish, Loki, Star Wars: The Bad Batch, and The Walking Dead. However, the best TV series of 2021 has to be animated Amazon Original Invincible.

Based on the comic book series of the same name by Robert Kirkman, Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley, Invincible is a new spin on the classic superhero genre. The animation style is superb, the story arc is a masterpiece in storytelling, the final episode was shockingly entertaining, and let’s not forget the glorious memes that it generated. I don’t wanna give away too much, so be sure to check it out yourself. Just know that it bangs.

Next up, we have Song, Album and Artist of the Year. According to Spotify Wrapped, my most played track this year was All I Want by Olivia Rodrigo. Which, to be honest, I have no explanation for. Seems I’ve been channelling my inner teenage girl a little too much. Other honourable mentions for Song of the Year include Meet Me At Our Spot by Willow Smith and Tyler Cole, Freedom by Pharrell Williams and Letter to the 1% by Lowkey. But if I had to pick my top song of 2021, it would have to be Koi toh miley ga by Pakistani band The Tamaashbeens.

When it comes to albums, it’s no competition; Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda reigns supreme. There’s pretty much a song for any occasion in this album, whether it be a gym workout or sad boy hours. If you haven’t already, I highly encourage you to watch the play on Disney+. Insha’Allah, I’ll get to see it live one day.

Our Artist of the Year is someone I’ve been listening to since year 8. It’s the alphabet assassin, the lyrical genius, the one and only Lowkey. He was the first music artist I ever really followed and the key to my political awakening. I was fortunate to be able to go see him live in Birmingham earlier this month to celebrate 10 years since the release of his album Soundtrack to the Struggle. Seeing one of my idols up close was a most surreal experience indeed.

For our sixth and seventh categories, we have Fiction and Non-fiction Book of the Year. This year I set out to read 60 books; however, since starting university, finding time to read amidst assignment deadlines and rampant socialising has been difficult, meaning I fell short of my goal by 16 books. Still, 44 books are quite an achievement for a man like myself, so I’m not particularly disappointed. Before we announce our winners, though, a few honourable mentions are in order.

For fiction, we have Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh, I stared at the Night of the City by Bakhtiyar Ali, Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. For non-fiction, we have Azadi by Arundhati Roy, Thoughts on Pakistan by BR Ambedkar, The Anarchy by William Dalrymple, and The Hundred Year’s War on Palestine by Rashid Khalidi. But of course, only two books will reign supreme this year, and those are Bitter Fruit by the legendary Saadat Hasan Manto (fiction) and Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary (non-fiction). Check out my bookshelf to find out why I love these books so much.

For our final category, we have Movie of the Year. Many good movies were watched this year, including One Night in Miami…, Mogul Mowgli, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and The Mauritanian. Still, only one movie can be crowned king, and that king is the phenomenal Spider-Man: No Way Home.

Without saying too much, Spider-Man: No Way Home was like a coming together of my childhood. Not only did it redeem what came before, but it was also a crucial moment for Tom Holland’s Spider-Man. Plus, any movie that can get UK audiences cheering and shouting in the cinema is most definitely a special movie indeed. I can’t wait to see where the MCU takes Spider-Man next.


Video Game of the Year: Humankind

TV Series of the Year: Invincible

Song of the Year: Koi toh miley ga by The Tamaashbeens

Album of the Year: Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Artist of the Year: Lowkey

Fiction Book of the Year: Bitter Fruit by Saadat Hasan Manto

Non-Fiction Book of the Year: Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary

Movie of the Year: Spider-Man: No Way Home


That concludes the Aqil Ghani Media Awards 2021. Happy new year to all those reading. May you grow and learn evermore. For myself, I aim to really perfect my storytelling skills on this here blog and finally get around to finishing Midnights In London.

That’s it from me this year. See y’all in 2022!

Peace be with you.

Mass Surveillance and The Erosion of Our Civil Liberties: Why You Should Be Concerned

The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) uses powerful computer systems, such as Tempora, to spy on the British public.

Big Brother is watching you.

Nineteen Eighty-Four
George Orwell

In 1785, Jeremy Bentham, the founder of modern utilitarianism, designed a prison where a single guard could observe all the prisoners without them knowing, compelling them to regulate their behaviour out of fear of being watched. In effect, the prisoners could be controlled without having to lift a finger, power firmly in the hands of that single guard. The prison came to be known as the Panopticon, and since 1785, not a single one has been constructed. However, with the power of mass surveillance, Britain is becoming a nationwide Panopticon where citizens are the prisoners, and the state their all-powerful guard.

If the documents leaked by Edward Snowden back in June 2013 taught us anything, it’s that not everything is as it appears to be on the surface. The state may appear to be a neutral actor allowing us to get on with our lives without interference. However, as the documents have shown us, computer systems capable of intercepting and storing large amounts of our personal data have been utilised by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) to spy on the British public without our consent[1]. Worse still, our data is being shared with the US, giving Uncle Sam a direct view into our private lives.

Mass surveillance is no longer bound to the pages of science fiction; it has become the reality of the world we live in. The question is: how did we get here?

After 9/11, the US used its global hegemony to launch an international War on Terror. As President Bush put it to the world: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”[2]. From then on, governments the world over introduced new measures that curbed our freedoms in the name of national security. And we, in our grief and fear, accepted these new measures believing it to be common sense, blind to the fact our hard-fought civil liberties were being stolen before our very eyes.

No government would go further to support the US in their endeavour to murder nearly 400,000 non-combatants[3] than Tony Blair’s. Throughout his government, laws were introduced that severely impeded our civil liberties, including giving police the power to stop and search without reasonable suspicion (Terrorism Act 2000) and arrest and detain without charge for up to 28 days (Terrorism Act 2006). As you can imagine, these powers were virulently abused by police, particularly when it came to shutting down political dissent.

In March 2003, anti-war protesters were prevented from reaching RAF Fairford, a British military base used by American bombers during the Invasion of Iraq. They were sent back to London under heavy police escort, violating their right to protest[4]. Or take the case of Walter Wolfgang, a Jewish refugee who fled Nazi Germany in the lead up to WWII. In September 2005, he was kicked out of a Labour conference by police after calling Jack Straw’s policy on Iraq “nonsense”[5]. These incidents of abuse prove the police are nothing more than the coercive arm of the state.

But perhaps none of Blair’s enactments was quite as Orwellian as the Identity Cards Act 2006, requiring citizens to register for an identity card linked to a national database. The National Identity Register (NIR) stored detailed information regarding each citizen throughout their lives with plans to include even more in the future. This information would make it easier for the state to single out anyone who disagreed with its policies, bringing us all one step closer to living under an authoritarian regime. The intention was to make it compulsory to enter your details into the NIR when you apply for a new passport. Luckily the scheme was scrapped, and the NIR was destroyed under the 2010 coalition government before this could happen.

Thanks to agitation from various human rights groups, subsequent governments continued to repeal or amend some of the provisions introduced under Blair. That being said, it would be naive to assume the days of mass surveillance are behind us.

As it stands, the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 gives the government unprecedented power to spy on the British population. A total of 48 state authorities, including GCHQ, have the power to access our internet connection records without a warrant. And with tech companies willing to sell our data to the state and private firms around the world, there is nowhere left on Earth where we can be safe from the prying eyes of the political and economic elite.

But surely there’s no need to worry if we have nothing to hide? After all, these measures are designed to catch terrorists, not spy on innocent civilians.

The problem isn’t about whether we have something to hide; it’s about what can be done with our data once it’s in the hands of the state. As the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica Data Scandal demonstrated, tech companies have already harvested our data and used it to shape our preferences, influencing our response to key political events in favour of the global elite. If private firms are doing this, then it’s highly likely that state apparatus, such as GCHQ with its advanced surveillance technology, is being utilised by the political elite to do the same. Surveillance is simply another means to maintain power via the manufactured consent of the public.

So, what can we do about it?

While it may seem too late to stem the tide of mass surveillance, organisations such as Amnesty International have already been fighting on our behalf. Earlier this year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK’s surveillance capabilities violated our human rights to privacy and freedom of expression[6]. The ruling was a huge step towards getting this issue on the world stage, and now it falls to us to see our governments held accountable lest we find ourselves living in the world described in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. If we keep the pressure on and continue to petition our government to cease its invasion of our private lives, I’m confident that one day we will see the abolishment of mass surveillance altogether.


[1] Amnesty International UK, 2020. Why we’re taking the UK government to court over mass spying. [online] Available at: <https://www.amnesty.org.uk/why-taking-government-court-mass-spying-gchq-nsa-tempora-prism-edward-snowden&gt; [Accessed 23 October 2021].

[2] The Washington Post, 2001. Text: President Bush Addresses the Nation. [online] Available at: <https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/specials/attacked/transcripts/bushaddress_092001.html&gt; [Accessed 22 October 2021].

[3] The Costs of War. 2021. Human Costs of U.S. Post-9/11 Wars: Direct War Deaths Major War Zones | Figures | Costs of War. [online] Available at: <https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/figures/2021/WarDeathToll&gt; [Accessed 22 October 2021].

[4] BBC, 2013. RAF Fairford protesters win legal battle against police. [online] Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-gloucestershire-21382889&gt; [Accessed 23 October 2021].

[5] Busby, M., 2019. Walter Wolfgang, antiwar activist and Jack Straw heckler, dies aged 95. The Guardian, [online] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/may/29/antiwar-activist-walter-wolfgang-dies-aged-95-labour-cnd&gt; [Accessed 23 October 2021].

[6] Amnesty International, 2021. UK: Europe’s top court rules UK mass surveillance regime violated human rights. [online] Available at: <https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/press-release/2021/05/uk-surveillance-gchq-ecthr-ruling/&gt; [Accessed 23 October 2021].

Midnights In London, Part 10

The Third Midnight

Captain Robertson paced the length of his hotel room with absent urgency, contemplating the implications of the Duke’s ornamental lamp. The soreness of his shoulder no longer insisted its presence at the forefront of his consciousness. He had bigger things to worry about.
There was no doubt the Duke’s lamp matched the description of the kind Spring-Heeled Jack warned them about. If so, then it meant everything the ghul had been saying about The Company plot was true, and the Eighth Duke of Argyll was at the very heart of it. It would also mean Captain Robertson himself had delivered Mr Daim right into the palms of their hands. He had condemned his friend, and potentially Jinnkind as a whole, to a lifetime of imprisoned servitude. And for what? A letter of commendation and a month’s vacation? Had he really sold out an entire people to an empire that wouldn’t bat an eyelid if he were to die on the field of battle? The Captain felt used.
Yet, at the same time, a tiny part of him felt relieved. With Mr Daim out of the picture and the mission accomplished, Captain Robertson could finally put all this madness about jinn and ghuls behind him. He could finally return to the comfortably simple life he had before he met the mysterious jinni as old as humankind. But that was only a tiny part of him, for he knew the truth was: no matter how much he tried to pretend that all of this wasn’t real, he could never return to that simple life as a rifleman in the British Army.
The events of the past month had flipped everything he thought he knew on its head. Everything he’d ever known about humanity, the world and his little part in it, inextricably altered beyond recognition. It was as though he had been standing on a sand dune made with grains of lies, and Mr Daim was the sandstorm that washed it all away to reveal the bedrock of truth beneath. Having seen the unseen, how could one go back to a life of willfully blissful ignorance?
Captain Robertson had made a mistake. He had let himself be used as a tool of imperialism for far too long. But no longer. With renewed vigour, Captain Robertson removed the shackles of empire, banishing all the intrusive lies of loyalty to queen and country from his conscience. No longer was he going to be a pawn on the chessboard of pillage and plunder. He was going to be free; write his own destiny. But first, Captain Robertson needed to right his wrongs and save Mr Daim from the clutches of The Company.
And with that final thought, the clock struck twelve, the distant chimes of London’s macabre Clock Tower echoing in the night as a cold chill drifted through the open window.
“YOU!”
Captain Robertson was left in want of time once the ghul was swiftly upon him, pinning him to the far wall before the minute hand had a chance to reach twelve o’ one.
“YOU WRETCHED SCOUNDREL!” roared Spring-Heeled Jack in his hauntingly guttural rasp, “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t gut you where you stand and leave your carcass as carrion for the ravens to feed upon.”
Captain Robertson’s voice escaped him as he was hauled up by the throat with a single arm.
“Well? Has the cocksure Beni Adam anything to say for himself?” scowl etched into the ghul’s fiery crimson eyes, “No? A pity. I would’ve loved to relay the traitor’s last words to Mr Daim once I’d foiled his wicked schemes.”
Spring-Heeled Jack raised his other arm into the air, his claws glistening in the moonlight, striking blood-curdling fear into his prey. With nothing more left to say, the ghul made for the traitor’s head.
“WAIT!” screamed Captain Robertson through a compressed windpipe, halting the jagged cutters an inch from his forehead, “Please! I can explain!”
Spring-Heeled Jack released the Captain, letting him collide with the floor in a pathetic heap gasping for air.
“Well, be out with it, human,” hurried the ghul, “I haven’t got all day.”
“I’m sorry. I had no idea what the Duke was planning,” snivelled Captain Robertson, “I was just following orders, being a good soldier.”
“We’ve all been there, Beni Adam. It doesn’t mean our hands are clean of sin,” dismissed Spring-Heeled Jack.
“I know. I know. I have made a grievous error. But please, let me make it right. Please, give me a chance to redeem myself,” begged the Captain.
Spring-Heeled Jack paused, giving the idea some thought.
“Give me a chance to redeem myself the same way you did during the Mutiny,” Captain Robertson entreated further, “Let me help you deal a final blow to The Company once and for all.”
“And what use could you possibly be to me in this endeavour?”
“For starters, I can go places you cannot.”
Spring-Heeled Jack raised a sceptical eyebrow, “I’m listening.”
“The Duke doesn’t know I intend to move against him. We can use that to our advantage. I can get close to him without raising suspicions and find out exactly what his next moves are,” elaborated Captain Robertson, “with that information, we can discern the perfect time to strike and dispatch The Company in one fell swoop.”
Spring-Heeled Jack had to admit the Beni Adam made a good point. The only reason it’d taken him this long to destroy The Company was that they could smell him coming a mile away. With a military man on the inside, he had a real chance at putting an end to his nemesis. But there remained one cause for concern:
“Why should I trust you?”
“Given the circumstances, you shouldn’t,” answered the Captain in utmost candour, “But I’m your best shot at saving Mr Daim.”
A moment of silence passed between human and ghul.
“Besides, if I were to step out of line, you’d no doubt strike me down before I drew in a second breath,” jested Captain Robertson.
With a light chuckle, Spring-Heeled Jack was convinced. He presented his hand to his newfound ally, who hesitated at the ghastly claws for but a moment before graciously accepting.
“Very well, Beni Adam,” smiled the ghul, “It must be said you most certainly have a way with words.”
“I’m glad we could come to an agreement.”
That smile soon became a scowl as Spring-Heeled Jack tightened his grip, causing Captain Robertson to wince through gritted teeth.
“Remember this: if you so much as err out of line the length of a mongrel’s lice, I will remove you from existence in the most excruciatingly painful way that can be possibly fathomed,” the grip tightened, “Is that clear?!”
“YES! Yes, it is!” panicked Captain Robertson, fearing his hand would be crushed beneath the ghul’s might.
As soon as he was released, the Captain immediately rubbed his injured hand, thankful it wasn’t broken. Truth be told, he probably deserved that.
“Good. Now that we’re in agreement let us get down to business.”

The Double-cross

The Eighth Duke of Argyll studied the ornamental lamp, mesmerised by the intricate emerald inscriptions, cool beneath his touch. In his hand, he held the key to untold power. And oh boy, was it intoxicating.
Everything had succeeded as planned; the jinni was bound to his will, and with Spring-Heeled Jack finally out the picture, nothing stood in his way. But this was just the beginning. The path that lay ahead would change the world, leading the British Empire to greater heights than the world had ever seen, leaving no corner untouched by her majesty’s grace. All he had to do now was wait for all the pieces to fall into place.
A knock at the door told the Duke it was time he put his new toy away, closing it behind the glass casements of his display cabinet.
“Come in!”
The Duke didn’t have any meetings planned for the day, so he was surprised to find that the man who entered his office was none other than the good old Captain Robertson.
“Captain!” beamed the Duke, “I thought you’d be halfway up to Scotland by now. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Truly it is my pleasure, Mr Secretary. I was hoping I could have a word with you in private before I left. You know… without the insufferable Henderson,” smirked Captain Robertson.
That last remark made the Duke laugh. The Commissioner was indeed insufferable. Just because he played his part didn’t mean the Duke had to like him. The Captain, on the other hand, was a man who was both useful and likeable. He would go far in his career.
“Of course, of course. Please, take a seat,” insisted the Duke as he walked over to his desk drawer, pulling out two glasses and a bottle of scotch, “would you like a drink?”
“I really shouldn’t, Mr Secretary, I—”
“Nonsense! You’re off duty. Relax,” reasoned the Duke, pouring both glasses, “just pretend we’re two friends having a good old chat.”
Captain Robertson awkwardly smiled before grabbing one of the glasses and raising it in thanks. In response, the Duke also raised his glass, clinking it against the Captain’s before taking a generous swig.
“Ahhhh. That hits the spot. So, tell me, what is it you wished to discuss?”
“Henderson.”
“Henderson? What of him? I know he’s a nuisance, and, believe me, I despise him as much as the next man, but I can’t be slandering him when he’s not here. After all, how’s he going to hear me insult him?” jested the Duke.
“Mr Secretary, I have reason to believe Commissioner Henderson has betrayed us,” divulged Captain Robertson, seriousness etched into his voice.
“You can’t be serious! That man hasn’t the guile nor courage to do such a thing,” the Duke was shocked into disbelief, “What makes you say this?”                                            
“He lied to us. Yesterday. When he claimed to have succeeded in dispatching Spring-Heeled Jack.”
“And how do you know this?”
“Because Spring-Heeled Jack visited me last night.”

To be continued…


This is part of a larger series called Midnights In London

Acting Tings: A Tale of Valour

In July, I filmed a YouTube series called A Tale of Valour: Children of Muslim. It’s an educational drama aimed at children to teach them about early Islamic history during the month of Muharram.

I got involved with this project because my friend Zaynah, whom I met in sixth form, brought me on. The series was made for a non-profit community-focused organisation known as Fourteen (named in reference to the Fourteen Infallibles of the Imamiyyah branch of Shia Islam).

Fourteen is based in East London and hold various indoor and outdoor activities such as camps, youth clubs, sports days, online sessions, and even international trips for all cross-sections of the community. By combining Islamic education with fun events and sessions, Fourteen aims to encourage positive social and religious progress and create an environment where Muslim youth can freely discuss their beliefs.

A Tale of Valour follows the story of the children of Muslim ibn Aqeel, Husayn’s (a.s.) emissary to the people of Kufa ahead of the Battle of Karbala. Following the battle, his two sons, Muhammad and Ibrahim, became fugitives on the run from the tyrannical regime of Yazid I, the second Umayyad Caliph.

The character I play is a slave called Fulaih who has fallen in love with a woman called Sulafah, played by Zaynah. Of course, to get married, Fulaih must first buy his freedom and to do that, he needs money (I’m guessing Mahr was also pretty steep back then too). Conveniently, there’s a considerable bounty on the heads of Muhammad and Ibrahim. And so begins, Fulaih’s struggle with a moral dilemma that plays out over the course of the series and brings him into direct conflict with his master Haarith.

As far as I know, I was the only non-Shia person working on the project. Hence, it was eye-opening for me to learn about an Islamic tradition different from mine and parts of Islamic history rarely discussed outside the Shia community. To be perfectly honest, I had never heard of Muslim ibn Aqeel before participating in this project.

For those interested, I consider myself a non-denominational Muslim and do not ascribe to the Sunni, Shia or the oft-forgotten Ibadi branches of Islam. This isn’t to say that I consider these branches to be wrong or heretical. Islam is a vastly intellectually diverse religion, and nobody has a monopoly on the truth regarding what is considered the “correct” form of Islam. Instead, we should celebrate this intellectual diversity and stop limiting Islam into a single rigid doctrine that condemns those who do not ascribe to it.

At the end of the day, no matter which branch of Islam you belong to (or whether you even consider yourself a Muslim at all), we should remember:

إِنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ وَٱلَّذِينَ هَادُوا۟ وَٱلنَّصَـٰرَىٰ وَٱلصَّـٰبِـِٔينَ مَنْ ءَامَنَ بِٱللَّهِ وَٱلْيَوْمِ ٱلْـَٔاخِرِ وَعَمِلَ صَـٰلِحًا فَلَهُمْ أَجْرُهُمْ عِندَ رَبِّهِمْ وَلَا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا هُمْ يَحْزَنُونَ

Surely, those who believed in Allah, and those who are Jews, and Christians, and Sabians, -whosoever believes in Allah and in the Last Day, and does good deeds – all such people will have their reward with their Lord, and there will be no reason for them to fear, nor shall they grieve.

The Qur’an [2:62]

In total, I was on set for four days. Three of those days were filmed at Zaynah’s house, where she had put together a beautiful set depicting seventh century Kufa, and one of them was filmed outside at Hollow Pond near Walthamstow.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my time working on A Tale of Valour. Not once did I ever feel out of place, thanks to the amazing people I had the pleasure of working with. In particular, I want to shout out Zaynah’s family for being so hospitable and welcoming me into their home with open arms.

Midnights In London, Part 9

The Hospital

Captain Robertson awoke sometime later – how much time? He wasn’t sure – to find himself in a place he did not recognise. His body: stiffness that straddled the line between lassitude and torpor. His mind: a murky haze that comprehension’s lantern couldn’t penetrate. His sight: blinded by light with an intensity that rivalled the sun.
With time, Captain Robertson’s eyes adjusted to the blinding light, allowing him to take in the details of his surroundings. He found himself in what he believed constituted a civilian medical ward. Having spent much of his adult life on the frontlines of battle, Captain Robertson was used to the urgently raised tents of haphazard chaos the military optimistically referred to as field hospitals. The place he found himself in now replaced that chaos with a quiet serenity that left him with a feeling of unease as he tried to piece together the fragments of his shattered memory.
Before long, Captain Robertson was able to discern some past events from his mind’s murky haze. He had collaborated with the Eighth Duke of Argyll to ambush Spring-Heeled Jack at the Temperate House. As per the Duke’s orders, Captain Robertson didn’t inform Mr Daim about the plot due to concerns over whether the jinni’s allegiance lay with the jinn or the crown. That more or less marked the boundaries of his recollection. The contents of the meeting itself were still a blur, much like the details of a far distant memory, and the last thing he remembered was lying on the ground with Mr Daim as policemen stormed the premises. It seems Spring-Heeled Jack must have got the better of them.
“Oh, you’re awake.”
Captain Robertson turned to face the newcomer, a raging pain burning through his stiff shoulder. She wore a simple black dress covered in white overalls akin to that worn by the dwellers of a nunnery.
“Um… hello,” Captain Robertson wasn’t entirely sure how to proceed, so he opted to ask the obvious, “where… where am I?”
“St Thomas’ Hospital,” answered the nurse.
“How long have I been here?”
“Two days.”
“Okay.”
The nurse nodded in agreement, and so did Captain Robertson in what soon became an excruciatingly awkward pause.
“Well, I guess I’ll be off then,” declared the Captain, slowly making his way out of bed to get dressed.
“I’m afraid I cannot allow that, Mr Robertson. You need more rest,” insisted the nurse.
“Unfortunately, I have urgent business to attend to with the Indian Secretary,” Captain Robertson quietly winced as he buttoned his shirt over his bandaged clavicle, “You wouldn’t happen to know the whereabouts of the gentleman they brought in with me, would you?”
“As far as I’m aware, you arrived alone.”
This made sense. After all, Mr Daim was a jinni and probably didn’t need human medicine to recover from his injuries. He was most likely back at the hotel reading poetry or whatever else it is he did in his spare time. Captain Robertson would go see him after stopping by the all-important India Office.
“Sir, I really must advise you to take a leave of absence before returning to work,” continued the nurse.
“Then, by all means, advise away, but regardless I will be leaving,” countered Captain Robertson, ceasing the nurse’s insistence as he donned his overcoat. Realising that he may have come across a little too harsh, the Captain added a smile to soften the blow, “I promise to return and take advantage of your prescribed rest as soon as I am no longer preoccupied.”
It wasn’t until he crossed Westminster Bridge that the thought occurred to Captain Robertson that perhaps promising to return to a hospital wasn’t exactly the most optimistic of assurances.

The Epiphany

After his brief walk across the Thames, Captain Robertson arrived at the India Office. Once again, he traversed the marble Durbar Court overlooked by interlocking crescents and crosses, ascended the Muses’ Staircase flanked by the fossils of millennia-old sea lilies frozen in stone, and entered the Indian Secretary’s office, to find the Eighth Duke of Argyll immersed in discussion with Commissioner Henderson.
“Ah, Captain Robertson. Glad you could join us,” greeted the Duke, “we weren’t expecting you to be discharged for at least another week.”
“I’m a fast healer,” responded Captain Robertson, glossing over the fact he outright disobeyed the nurse’s orders.
In the wake of their salutations, the three men got down to business discussing the events of two nights prior.
“So, Captain, tell us what you remember of your meeting with Spring-Heeled Jack,” entreated the Duke.
“To be perfectly honest, I do not remember much other than being shot in the shoulder—”
“For which the Met deeply apologises,” interjected Commissioner Henderson, “the officer responsible has been discharged, and we will cover the cost of your medical bills.”
The Duke gave the Commissioner a slight nod of acknowledgement as if to say: Okay, you can shut up now. Of the many things Captain Robertson and the Eighth Duke of Argyll agreed on, their impatience for Commissioner Henderson’s nuisances ranked amongst the highest.
“Please, Captain, continue with your account of the meeting,” adjured the Duke.
“Of course, Mr Secretary,” Captain Robertson took a moment to gather his thoughts, “Mr Daim and I arrived at Kew Gardens about ten minutes to midnight. As requested, I did not inform him of our plan to ambush the meeting. As soon as the clock struck twelve, we entered the Temperate House, where we encountered Spring-Heeled Jack. However, as mentioned before, the next thing I remember was lying on the floor as Commissioner Henderson stormed the building.”
“Do you remember anything that was said between Mr Daim and Spring-Heeled Jack?”
“Unfortunately, I do not,” frowned Captain Robertson, “Quite frankly, I have no idea if the ambush was even a success. Did you manage to capture the target?”
A look was shared between the Duke and Commissioner.
“Captain, are you sure you don’t remember anything that was discussed between the target and Mr Daim?” asked the Duke, concern etched into the wrinkles of his forehead.
“That is correct.”
Again, a look was shared between the two men of authority. It was as if they’d found some magical way to communicate in the absence of speech. Captain Robertson patiently waited for one of the two men to speak. Preferably the Duke. Commissioner Henderson was annoying.
“I can confirm that we succeeded in dispatching Spring-Heeled Jack,” affirmed Commissioner Henderson, in that annoyingly smug way of his, “he will no longer pose a threat to the good people of London. Thank you for your service, Captain. The Met will forever be in your debt.”
That last bit of gratitude caught Captain Robertson by surprise. He didn’t expect such humility, but he accepted it with grace nonetheless.
“Indeed, not only have you protected the citizens of London, you have protected subjects of the British Empire the world over,” seconded the Eighth Duke of Argyll, “I’ve already sent a letter of commendation to your superior officer. You’ve also been cleared for a month-long leave of absence. I trust you’ll be on the next train back to Scotland? It’s been a while since you’ve visited home, hasn’t it?”
“Most certainly,” beamed Captain Robertson.
“Good man,” the Duke patted Captain Robertson on his good shoulder, leading him to the door, “I look forward to working with you again, Captain. But for now, go and get some well-deserved rest.”
Before he was ushered out the door, Captain Robertson had one last question:
“May I inquire as to the whereabouts of Mr Daim? I wish to bid him farewell before he leaves for India.”
The Duke frowned, “Unfortunately, Mr Dame had an important matter to attend to and left for India last night. However, he did wish me to pass on his thanks for your help in his investigation.”
“That is most unfortunate. Oh well, perhaps we may cross paths again in the future,” hopefulness gleaming in the Captain’s voice, “It’s been an honour working with you, Mr Secretary.”
“Likewise.”
The two men bid farewell with the shake of a hand. Just as the door was closing, Captain Robertson was able to sneak a peek at the latest addition to the Duke’s display cabinet. A beautifully golden ornamental lamp studded with glistening emerald inscriptions, written in a forgotten oriental tongue. The sight of the lamp was enough to brighten comprehension’s lantern, clearing the murky haze of Captain Robertson’s mind. He remembered. He remembered everything.

To be continued…


This is part of a larger series called Midnights In London

Bitter Fruit by Saadat Hasan Manto: A Review


Book #35 of 2021. This year I aim to read 60 books. This was one of them. Be sure to check out my Goodreads.


The first time I heard of Saadat Hasan Manto was during the start of year 12. We used to do something called Cultural Perspective classes (CPs for short). These were essentially extra-curricular classes where we learned new skills in addition to our main A-level subjects. Unfortunately, I could not get the CPs I wanted and was subsequently put into a creative writing CP.

Funnily enough, this is where I began to take storytelling seriously. Indeed, Allah works in mysterious ways. I began working on a novella called Home Is Where the Heart Is. Like many other projects of mine, it’s still unfinished, and I haven’t touched it in a long time. Perhaps I may post it on my blog someday. That is if my one singular reader would like to see it. Would you like to see it, reader?

Alas, I have digressed. As part of the CP, our teacher asked us to bring a short story from our respective cultural backgrounds (we were a very diverse cohort). I had never read a book by a Pakistani author, so I had no idea what story I’d bring in. I asked my dad, who suggested I take in a short story called Toba Tek Singh, by Saadat Hasan Manto.

This essentially kick-started my exploration into South Asian history and literature. Every book I’ve read since, from The Sole Spokesman, by Ayesha Jalal (fun fact: her mum was Manto’s sister-in-law), to Twilight In Delhi, by Ahmed Ali, started with Manto. In fact, seeing as I started this blog with research into Pakistani history, you could say that if it wasn’t for Manto, you wouldn’t be reading this right now.

Recently, I decided to revisit Manto and purchased Bitter Fruit: The Very Best of Saadat Hasan Manto, translated by Khalid Hasan. This book collects 51 short stories, 1 play, 32 literary sketches, 15 literary portraits, 9 letters to Uncle Sam, 4 pieces by Manto about himself, as well as 3 appendices by Manto’s friends and family about the author. And so, there is a lot to get through in this here book review. But first, a bit of background about this groundbreaking Urdu writer.

Saadat Hasan Manto was born on the 11th May 1912 in Punjab, British India, to a Kashmiri Muslim family. His father was a local judge, and after his retirement, the family moved back to Amritsar, where Manto grew up. He had what seems like a difficult relationship with his father, who discouraged Manto from writing at an early age after he announced he would be writing for his school’s newspaper.

Manto struggled in school, failing his final examinations twice. Ironically, one of the subjects he failed to pass was Urdu, yet he would go on to become one of the greatest – if not the greatest – Urdu writers of all time. Despite his academic shortfalls, Manto was able to get into an Amritsar college but dropped out after failing his first-year examinations twice. It seems to me that Manto didn’t believe in “third time’s the charm.”

The biggest turning point for Manto was in 1933 (aged 21) when he met Bari Alig, author, critic and historian, who encouraged Manto to read French and Russian literature. Bari Alig persuaded Manto to undertake an Urdu translation of Victor Hugo’s The Last Days of a Condemned Man, which he completed in two weeks and published in Lahore. He also translated Oscar Wilde’s play Vera; or, The Nihilists. During this time, he wrote his first short story Tamasha about the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919, which was published anonymously due to fear of British reprisal.

In 1934, Manto enrolled in the famous Aligarh Muslim University, where he wrote more short stories for magazines. Predictably, he did not do well as a student and left after nine months after being falsely diagnosed with tuberculosis. He subsequently moved to Lahore, where he got his first regular job at a magazine called Paras. He also got involved with the Indian Progressive Writer’s Movement, a group of anti-imperial writers that spoke out against British Rule.

In 1936, Manto moved to Bombay to write for a film weekly called Mussawar. Thus began his love affair with India’s movie capital. He fell in love with the city and spent the next decade living there, only briefly leaving in 1941 to work for All-India Radio. Manto would go on to form friendships with many of India’s leading film stars, including Ashok Kumar, Noor Jehan and Sunder Shyam Chadda. He joined Filmistan in 1943 and began writing screenplays for movies such as Aatth Din, Shikari, Chal Chal Re Naujawan and Mirza Ghalib.

Unfortunately, due to the Partition of India, Manto was forced to leave Bombay behind and move to Lahore in 1948. This move was one that deeply saddened him, causing him to fall into the jaws of depression and the grip of alcoholism. His life in Pakistan was one of financial difficulty, emotional devastation and physical ailment. However, it was in Pakistan that he wrote his most poignant pieces on the horrors of Partition, single-handedly creating a new genre of literature.

Manto eventually lost his battle with alcoholism on the 18th January 1955 and died due to cirrhosis of the liver at the age of forty-two. He was survived by his wife and three daughters. Manto wrote his own epitaph; but, it did not appear on his gravestone due to his family’s fears that it would enrage the orthodox Muslim Ulama:

Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto. With him lie buried all the arts and mysteries of short-story writing. Under tons of earth he lies, wondering who of the two is the greater short-story writer: God or he.

The 51 short stories collected in Bitter Fruit are considered by the translator to be Manto’s best works. Each and every one of them serves to bring to light the shadows of the world Manto lived in. It is for this reason that the subject matter is not for the faint-hearted. Almost all the stories tackle taboos in some way, whether it be prostitution, alcoholism or rape; however, despite the grim themes, Manto’s humanist approach shines through. The stories set during Partition are particularly gripping. The endings of which hit like the punchlines to an obituary.

While all the stories in Bitter Fruit are worthy of praise, I believe a few of them deserve special mention in this review. Here are five stories that stood out to me amongst the collection: By the Roadside, The Last Salute, The Great Divide, The Return, and The New Constitution.

The play In this Vortex is a short melodrama depicting the struggles of newlyweds Amjad and Saeeda. They had just gotten married and were on their way home when they got involved in a train accident in which Amjad was subsequently paralysed. The story follows on from there as Amjad struggles to come to terms with being an invalid, and Saeeda begins to look elsewhere for sexual gratification. While it may not be as good as his short stories, it is still a decent play nonetheless and serves as a testament to his range as a writer. I may even try to get a group of people together and perform/film it when I’m at university.

Most of the 32 sketches depict the rioting and looting that followed Partition. Being literary sketches, there isn’t much to say about them other than the fact they represent brief flashes of Manto’s imagination. That being said, they were entertaining. Here’s one such sketch:

Ritualistic Difference

‘I placed my knife across his windpipe and, slowly, very slowly, I slaughtered him.”
‘And why did you do that?’
‘What do you mean why?’
‘Why did you kill him the halal way?’
‘Because I enjoy doing it that way.’
‘You idiot, you should have chopped his neck off with one single blow. Like this.’
And the halal killer was dispatched in accordance with the correct ritual.

The 15 literary portraits were most entertaining due to Manto’s signature wit yet, at the same time, still deeply insightful. The one he did on Muhammad Ali Jinnah focused more on the Quaid-e-Azam’s home life than his political one, thus presenting him in an entirely new light compared to anything I’d read before. Manto also dedicated a heartfelt portrait to his mentor, Bari Alig. However, most of the portraits were of famous figures within the Bombay movie industry, so now I consider myself an expert in 1940s Bollywood gossip. Ashok Kumar, V.H. Desai and Kuldip Kaur were quite the characters.

The 9 letters to Uncle Sam are satirical letters to the US government. It is via these letters that Manto’s wit and political knowledge is brought to the forefront. Manto talks of all manner of subjects from the cold war to the differences between American and Pakistani women. He also expresses concern over the US’s military involvement in South Asia, which would plague the Subcontinent for years to come. Thereby illustrating that Manto was way ahead of his time. All in all, they make for very entertaining reads due to their absurdly wacky nature.

The 4 pieces by Manto about himself gives the reader an insider’s view into the writer’s life, much like a journal does its author. To My Readers is a heartbreaking account of Manto’s emotional turmoil about having to leave Bombay and the struggles he faced while in Pakistan. Meanwhile, in Manto on Manto, he becomes victim to the same sharp wit he so generously heaped on others.

The 3 appendices are the reflections of those that knew Manto best: his friends and family. They allow the reader to understand the kind of person Manto was behind the page. Uncle Manto, by Hamid Jalal, is the tale of Manto’s struggle with alcoholism and the strain it put on his family. It ends with a detailed account of the writer’s final moments before he died, a most tragic end to the greatest short-story writer that ever lived.

In a literary career spanning over twenty years, Manto wrote over 250 short stories alongside a large body of plays and essays. His legacy is one rife with controversy. He was tried six times for obscenity; thrice in British India and thrice in Pakistan. Yet, he is still acknowledged as one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century in both India and Pakistan.

In an age of political turmoil, Manto wasn’t afraid to write about the darkest depths of human depravity, and his contribution to literature continues to inspire generations of writers (including yours truly).

Midnights In London, Part 8

The Second Midnight

It had only been a week since the events at Murdstone & Co, but despite his better senses, duty forced Captain Robertson to stare into the crimson eyes of trepidation yet again. For the past week, he had been in covert conversation with the Eighth Duke of Argyll about the upcoming meeting with Spring-Heeled Jack, unbeknownst to his companion Mr Daim.
Part of him felt guilty about going behind his charge’s back, but the truth was that any loyalty Captain Robertson felt towards Mr Daim was overshadowed by that which he had towards queen and country. After all, the jinni was but a means to an end. If everything went to plan in the coming hour, then Captain Robertson would finally be able to put all this madness about ghuls and jinn behind him. He even considered requesting a leave of absence to visit his parents in Scotland before being shipped off to another far-flung colony.
For Mr Daim, the past week was spent in secluded contemplation on the possible implications of Spring-Heeled Jack’s assertion of innocence. He had assumed that this would be yet another routine hunt, but then again, there was nothing routine about it.
For starters, he had been approached by Europeans. It’s not that Mr Daim didn’t like Europeans; it’s just that they were usually blind to the possibility of the unseen, opting to explain away the existence of jinn with flawful human rationality. So, when that letter arrived from the Viceroy requesting his services, Mr Daim was caught by surprise, his untamed curiosity driving him to comply with the Viceroy’s wishes.
The second red flag was the insistence of a bodyguard. Mr Daim was used to working alone, and governments would usually give him free rein to go about his work unhindered. The Ottomans were so hands-off to the point that Mr Daim felt as though he had impunity. The British, meanwhile, were crippled by bureaucracy. Whenever he requested more information on Spring-Heeled Jack, it was classified. Whenever he wished to leave the hotel alone, it was unsafe. Even when he finally got down to work, there was always the threat of Commissioner Henderson’s interference. The British were indeed a well-oiled machine. They ran an enterprise of such proportions even the jinn were put to shame. But at the same time, one always got the feeling they were being watched.
Then there was his conversation with Spring-Heeled Jack himself. Experience had taught Mr Daim that ghul’s weren’t usually so hospitable. The average ghul would attack you and rip you to pieces the first chance they got. The fact Spring-Heeled Jack was willing to converse instead gave credence to the possibility that he was telling the truth. Guilty people don’t talk; they run. Then again, there was always the chance that perhaps Spring-Heeled Jack was just a particularly cunning ghul. If so, what game was he playing? Regardless, something larger was afoot, and Mr Daim was going to get to the bottom of it.

“Of all places to meet, why here?” Captain Robertson gesticulated towards the large glasshouse bathed in the faint glow of the crescent moon.
“I’m guessing he must be a plant enthusiast,” hypothesised Mr Daim.
The pair found themselves standing amongst the foliage of Kew Gardens. The building that stood before them was made of clear crystal glass roofs pitched by wrought-iron ribs, the penetrating moonlight halted by the thick vegetation that lay within. Just as the Koh-i-Noor was the centrepiece of her majesty’s crown jewels, the building that stood before them was the centrepiece of her majesty’s botanical gardens: the Temperate House.
“How can you be so sure he’s going to show up?” asked Captain Robertson.
“The word of a jinni, ghul or not, far outweighs that of a human,” answered Mr Daim.
This wasn’t true. Jinn were just as cutthroat as humans; he just didn’t want to be made a fool of. Mr Daim was gambling the entire investigation on the word of a ghul. A ghul who was either extremely cunning or extremely honest. He prayed it was the latter.
“If he said he will show, he will show,” insisted Mr Daim, more so for himself than his companion.
A few moments later, Captain Robertson consulted his pocket watch, “it’s midnight.”
“Very well. Let us see what Jack has to say for himself. And, please, try not to shoot him this time.”
“I’ll try.”
Mr Daim took the lead. Captain Robertson followed.

The Temperate House

The Temperate House was packed with flora retrieved from around the furthest extremities of the globe, which together transpired to create its humid atmosphere. There were enough exotic specimens in that greenhouse to rival the grandeur of Babylon’s Hanging Gardens, from the brightest azaleas to the rarest lilium, all of which were towered over by the jubaea tree, primed to burst through the ceiling. Mr Daim was impressed.
Captain Robertson, on the other hand, couldn’t care less. To him, the greenhouse was just a greenhouse. Albeit a large greenhouse – most certainly the largest he’d ever seen – but a greenhouse nonetheless. The variety of flora it exhibited were not rare specimens to be goggled at but rather potential hiding spots from which a ravenous ghul could pounce on you with the ferocity of a panther. Captain Robertson kept his wits about him.
After a few minutes of aimlessly wandering about in the darkness, Captain Robertson decided to snarkily puncture the jittery silence of the night, “it seems as though the word of Spring-Heeled Jack isn’t worth much after all.”
“YOU WOULD DO WELL NOT TO DISHONOUR ME,” bellowed a guttural rasp that reverberated throughout the Temperate House.
Captain Robertson froze to the spot, an unsettling chill running down his spine as he remembered what it was like to be petrified. On the contrary, Mr Daim was unphased, exhibiting the epitome of politeness.
“Jack, it’s good to see you! I’m glad you could join us. How have you been?”
The jinni was staring into the rafters. Captain Robertson tracked his eye line to find Spring-Heeled Jack, donning his mangled tailcoat and contorted top hat, leaning against the balcony of an iron walkway in the moonlight’s bluish tinge. Just like before, his attire failed to obscure the fear-inducing countenance of his crimson fire eyes, resulting in a hauntingly peculiar appearance that made a mockery of the ideal Victorian gentleman.
“I see you brought the human,” averred Spring-Heeled Jack.
“He insisted he come,” explained Mr Daim, “he owes you an apology after what happened last week and wished to express his regret in person.”
“Is that so…”
Within the flutter of an eyelid, Spring-Heeled Jack dived off the walkway, gliding across the ground before coming to a halt, looming his slender frame over the terrified Captain Robertson with the agility of a formless shadow. Captain Robertson could feel the monster’s putrid breath against his forehead as he eyed its menacing claws, his fingers grasping for the clasp of his revolver’s holster.
“I’m waiting, Beni Adam. I believe there’s something you wish to say,” sneered Spring-Heeled Jack, licking his chapped lips.
“S-s-sorry.” Captain Robertson gulped down the urge to scream, “I’m sorry for shooting you. Please don’t eat me.”
Spring-Heeled Jack let out a grisly guffaw, “Oh, aren’t these humans just delightful? For the record, young one, I was never going to eat you.”
Captain Robertson breathed a sigh of long-overdue relief.
“I’m not particularly fond of the taste of Scotsmen.”
The Captain was now confused as to whether he should be relieved or offended after that last remark.
“Okay, great. Now that we got that out of the way, shall we get down to business and discuss what we came to discuss?” offered Mr Daim, attempting to steer the conversation away from Spring-Heeled Jack’s discriminatory diet.
“We shall,” accepted Spring-Heeled Jack as he leaned against the wrinkled trunk of the jubaea tree.
“Very well. Why don’t you begin by telling us how it is you came to be living in Albion?”
“I have always lived in Albion. This island has been my home for millennia, long before the arrival of the Beni Adam.”
“If your claim is true, then explain why we’ve never heard your name until now?” interjected Captain Robertson, immediately regretting his pronouncement.
Mr Daim shot his companion a glare that said: Stop agitating the ghul and let me handle this. The ghul, on the other hand, wasn’t agitated but simply amused by the Captain’s boldness. Especially considering that it was only a moment ago that he was terrified beyond measure.
“Oh, but what you fail to realise, young one, is that I have been given many names throughout the ages. It wasn’t long ago that the people of Albion revered me as a great wizard by the name of Merlin. Of course, this was many centuries before I came to be affected by my current affliction.” Spring-Heeled Jack, formally known as Merlin, stared into the abyss of darkness in abject woe as though he suddenly remembered a life that had been snatched away from him. “I wasn’t always a ghul, Mr Daim. I was once a jinni just like you. But then I was betrayed.”
“Betrayed by whom?” inquired Mr Daim.
“The Company.”

The Betrayal

“I was approached by The Company in the early spring of seventeen fifty-five. To my surprise, their board of directors were well acquainted with the existence of jinn. I have no doubt that their agents abroad had their fair share of run-ins with the unseen. My job was simple: use my knowledge and power to expand the territories of The Company.
“I set sail for India alongside Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Clive. By this point in his career, the Lieutenant-Colonel had already achieved great feats of warfare over the previous decade, but these would pale in comparison to those he achieved when I was in his service. We arrived in Madras to find The Company’s holdings to the north in a sorry state. Fort William had been captured by the tyrannical Nawab of Bengal, who subjected his British prisoners of war to conditions that violated every modicum of moral decency. With a righteous fury, we made our way to Calcutta and, from the jaws of defeat, liberated the city from the tyrant’s grasp.
“By this point in our expedition, the Seven Years’ War was well underway against our arch-rivals: the French. I remember the time King Richard and I spent fighting Philip Augustus with great fondness and jumped at the chance to wage war against our perpetual nemesis. Together we travelled up the Hooghly and laid siege to their colony of Chandernagore.
“With the French out of the picture, we turned our attention back towards the tyrannical Nawab and dealt him a whopping defeat at Plassey. In time, the entirety of Bengal was liberated from his despotism, and we placed our own puppet on the throne. Clive soon found himself made Commander-in-Chief of Fort William while I returned home with the satisfaction that I had brought honour and glory to king and country.
“You may think my motivation was purely economic, but the truth is that I did it out of sheer love for my people. I have lived amongst this island nation from its very inception. In that time, I had grown to love the British like a father does his children. I was prepared to do anything to help them become the greatest nation amongst the Beni Adam. You can imagine my heartbreak then when I was betrayed by those I had dedicated my life to nurturing.
“As time went on, our rule in Bengal was cemented, and I returned to Calcutta in seventeen seventy. To my dismay, the state of the country was far worse than it had ever been under the rule of the tyrannical Nawab. The streets were filled with starvation, entire towns were deserted, mothers sold their children into slavery, and the land was wrought with vile bandits looking for an easy score. I was appalled by the turmoil I helped create.
“Yes, it was true I wanted Britannia to rule the waves, and I was even willing to do it at the expense of other nations, but the scenes I witnessed during that great famine etched themselves into the deep rifts of my conscience. We were meant to bring peace to that region that had so far been ravaged by ceaseless war. Yet, we depredated that land for our own senseless greed.
“Upon my return to Albion, I left The Company, but of course, they were not willing to let their most valuable asset leave so easily. The directors begged me to stay. After all, I was the real determinant behind Clive’s success and had turned The Company from a group of mercantile holdings into a fully-fledged sovereign state. However, the horrors of famine were a burden too cumbersome for my spirit.
“A month after I left their employ, The Company, on the brink of financial ruin, began sending envoys to my door, each of whom I turned away. Then one day, Clive, now a Major-General, paid me a visit. He had with him a wooden box that I assumed contained some sort of farewell gift. Owing to the fact we had served together on the battlefield, I welcomed him into my residence and poured him a glass of ale. He begged me one last time to return to The Company’s employ. I refused.
“With great remorse, he opened the box to reveal a golden oil lamp carved upon with emerald runes written in the old tongue. Many centuries ago, I had heard tales of such vessels built by the Beni Adam to imprison jinn. How he came to possess one such vessel, I do not know. What I do know is that it is a fate I would not wish on my worst enemy, for it is a fate I was subjected to for over sixty years.
“For decades, I was bound to the will of the directors, forced to do their bidding. I was compelled to commit acts of great evil for the pursuit of wealth, the most wicked of human vices. The only respite I had was the confines of that abhorrent prison. My torture continued until one day a Governor-General, in service of The Company, required my usage in the summer of eighteen thirty-six. He was concerned about recent complications in neighbouring Afghanistan and compelled me to intrude upon the heavens to ascertain the trajectory of future events.
“There is a reason this act is forbidden amongst the jinn. To intrude upon the heavens is no small feat, and it almost cost me my life. I had made it as far the gates before I was struck down by a blazing comet, reducing me to my current ruin. As painful as it was, it did free me from my servitude. I’ve spent the last forty years wandering the streets of London attempting to bring an end to The Company. I even travelled back to India for a short time and instigated the Sepoy Mutiny. As it stands, The Company is still operating, albeit in a vastly vestigial state, but I fear the directors are in the process of attempting one last grab at power, right here in London.”
“Well, that was most certainly a lively tale,” jested Mr Daim, the only laugh being those of the crickets nestled amongst the Temperate House’s collection of flora.
“This is no laughing matter, Mr Daim. If their scheme succeeds, it could spell the end of the jinn,” warned Spring-Heeled Jack.
“You still haven’t explained what happened with that poor lad in the East End,” chimed in Captain Robertson with a renewed interest in the conversation that was slowly dispensing with his fear of the ghastly ghul.
“That’s a good point,” seconded Mr Daim, “I was just about to ask you the same thing. What happened in White Chappal?”
“Whitechapel,” corrected Captain Robertson.
“What happened in Whitechapel?”
“That poor man worked as a clerk at the India House and had some information regarding The Company’s nefarious plans that reached all the way to the top. It was supposed to be an easy, straightforward exchange, but we were intercepted. Just when he was about to give me names, someone attacked him.”
“Did you manage to catch a glimpse of the attacker?” probed Mr Daim.
“No, but he was most certainly a Beni Adam, dressed in all black.”
Mr Daim wasn’t sure what to make of the ghul’s claims. For one thing, they didn’t explain how the body came to be so mutilated. Spring-Heeled Jack seemed the most obvious suspect, given his menacing claws. However, that conclusion seemed to fit a little too easily for Mr Daim’s taste. After all, who’s to say a Beni Adam didn’t take a knife to the body to make it look like the work of a ghul?
“What were you doing at the bottling factory?”
“I was following up on a tip I received from an insider about a new contract The Company had signed. They had ordered a batch of golden lamps studded with emerald inscriptions written in the same old tongue that confined me to my prison. Murdstone was tasked with acquiring those lamps. Mr Daim, I am convinced The Company may be planning to do what they did to me, but on an industrial scale. And I have good reason to believe you have been lured to Albion as their first victim.”
This revelation was met with scepticism from Mr Daim. There was no way The Company had the means to embark on such a venture. In that same moment, Captain Robertson came to a guilt-ridden realisation.
“Gentlemen, I fear I’ve made an egregious error.”
All at once, the western wall of the Temperate House burst into a thousand shards of angry glass that nicked at the Captain’s skin. Chaos filled the empty air as policemen stormed through the thick jungle, firing sporadically towards the jinn. Captain Robertson was caught in the erratic barrage as a stray bullet collided with his clavicle. He instantly buckled over in agony, his consciousness receding.
He spotted Commissioner Henderson, through the smoke of gun barrels, giving orders to secure Mr Daim, who lay on the ground in a befuddled heap. Upon seeing Captain Robertson’s predicament, the Commissioner ordered a medic to be brought forth to tend to his wounds. Once he was turned on his back, the last thing Captain Robertson saw was Spring-Heeled Jack perched atop the jubaea tree. Within an instant, the ghul was gone. And within the next, so was the Captain.

To be continued…


This is part of a larger series called Midnights In London

The Fourth Battle of Panipat

Jayadeep and Arbaaz were sitting beneath the shade of a mango tree in deep discussion. They had just completed their first academic year at the English college and were due to embark homeward the following week. Jayadeep, the son of a Marathi moneylender, would be travelling southward to the beaches of Bombay. Meanwhile, Arbaaz, the son of a Pashtun subedar, would be travelling northward to the mountains of Peshawar.
The topic of discussion was of utmost importance, controversial in nature, but in need of urgent conclusion, for the honour of two great religions was at stake: Who had really achieved victory at the Third Battle of Panipat?
Being a proud Muslim, Arbaaz contended that it had been a great victory for Islam because Ahmad Shah Abdali had only one lakh soldiers against the Marathas’ six. This was the general consensus among the practitioners of history. Even the firangi British, who counted the Pashtuns as a martial race, agreed that Islam had triumphed over Hinduism that day. As far as Arbaaz was concerned, the strength of a Muslim Pashtun was worth ten times that of a Hindu Marathi, so there was no doubt the superiority of Islam had prevailed. Of course, you couldn’t expect a Hindu to accept the truth for what it is the same way a Sayyid, like Arbaaz, can.
Being a proud Hindu, Jayadeep countered that the real victory belonged to Hinduism because even though they may have lost the battle, the blow dealt to the Muslim invaders was enough to halt their advance further south. In other words, a victory to the vanquished. No more than a decade later, the Marathas had reconquered what they’d lost and installed their own puppet emperor. Thereby symbolising the inevitable triumph of Hinduism over Islam and the relegation of Muslims to their natural state beneath the heels of superior Hindus. Of course, you couldn’t expect a Muslim to see the bigger picture the same way a Brahmin, like Jayadeep, can.
“Bhaijaan, what happens after battle is of no importance,” asserted Arbaaz as he ripped into the sweet flesh of a ripened mango with his bare hands, “the fact remains that we Muslims defeated your people on the plains of Panipat that fateful day.”
“Arbaaz Ji, my dear friend, what you fail to realise is that what happens after battle is of the most importance,” rebutted Jayadeep as he carefully peeled away the skin of his mango with a pocket knife, “after all, as the great General Sunzi said ‘sometimes one must lose a battle to win a war.’ We Hindus did not set out to win the battle, but to simply halt your people’s advance so that we would claim the ultimate victory.”
“I do not know of this Sunzi you speak of, but if he really said such a thing, then he is not of sound mind. How can one claim to win the war if they fail to win the battle? It is a delusional fallacy,” argued Arbaaz with a mouth full of mango.
“You would do well not to speak ill of General Sunzi. He is the most respected figure amongst the Chinese,” warned Jayadeep.
“Then the Chinese are a delusional bunch, and if you really believe what he says to be true, then you’re Chinese too,” quipped Arbaaz with a mango-stained grin stretching across his face.
Jayadeep politely smiled, but deep down, he was disgusted. This man lacked all forms of etiquette. Just look at the way mango was dripping from his unkempt beard. And while yes, it was true they had been classmates for the past year, he was just another unclean Muslim at the end of the day. It amazed Jayadeep that the man had even managed to pass his exams, given his obscene insolence towards men of far greater wisdom.
“I wouldn’t expect you to understand anyway. Let us discuss another subject,” offered Jayadeep.
“Don’t be like that, bhaijaan. I meant no offence with my last remark. I was just playing with you as brothers do,” apologised Arbaaz, “Why don’t you explain to me how your people were the real victors of Panipat then, Pandit Ji.”
Jayadeep ignored the twang of sarcasm in his companion’s voice and went about enlightening him to the truth of what happened on the plains of Panipat more than a century and a half ago. But not before he sliced off a chunk of mango and plopped it into his mouth with satisfaction.
“As I mentioned before, our aim wasn’t to win the battle. It was to halt your people’s advance into our heartland. You may recall that the Muslim army of Ahmad Shah Abdali had sustained such heavy losses from the battle that he was obligated to send an envoy to the esteemed Balaji Baji Rao, begging for forgiveness after killing both his son and brother. Tell me, Bahadur Ji, which man asks for forgiveness after waging war except one who cowers before the prospect of retribution? In fact, he was so terrified of the courageous willingness with which the brave Hindu warriors gave their lives to martyrdom that he fled back to the mountains of Kabulistan and never dared step foot in Hindustan ever again. No more than a decade later, we Hindus reclaimed Delhi for ourselves and installed a puppet emperor so that your people would be none the wiser. It is for this reason that the Battle of Panipat was a great victory for Hinduism. Such is the ingenuity of the Hindu mind.”
After concluding his lecture – for Jayadeep considered himself an enlightened individual whom others would do well to listen to – he returned to slicing and consuming his mango in neat little chunks.
Arbaaz was rankled though he did not show it, instead opting to return a polite nod of recognition to his companion’s words. This man thought himself to be God’s gift to the world. Just look at the way he ate his mango, too afraid of getting his hands a little dirty. And while yes, it was true he considered him a dear friend, he was just another pompous Hindu at the end of the day. It amazed Arbaaz that the man had even managed to pass his exams, given his foolish delusions about clear-cut historical events.
“Do you finally understand why it is you are wrong, Arbaaz Ji? Or would you care for greater elaboration to widen your limited scope of view?” taunted Jayadeep, the corner of his mouth curved into a sly smile.
“Bhaijaan, it seems to me that you have been carried away by your own delusions,” retorted Arbaaz, “the truth of the matter is that one lakh Muslims had defeated six lakh Hindus upon the plains of Panipat that fateful day. Let us not forget that the real reason the illustrious Ahmad Shah Abdali marched into Hindustan was to deal with the troublesome Sikhs. He was not concerned with the Hindu Marathas. After all, what threat could your people possibly pose? He had just defeated them six to one! Upon concluding his business with the Sikhs, he returned to Kabulistan but not before extracting an annual tribute of four million rupees from the Mughal Emperor. And so, you see, we Muslims were never subject to a Hindu Peshwa but a fellow Muslim Padshah just like ourselves. It is for this reason that the Third Battle of Panipat, just like those that preceded it, was a great victory for Islam. Such is the dignity of the Muslim Ummah.”
After putting an end to the matter – for nobody could deny that Arbaaz was right – he consumed the last of his mango before nonchalantly tossing away its empty husk.
“You Muslims are too busy thinking like the mindless empty-headed ants that Jains take care to avoid soiling their feet with to ever see the bigger picture,” scoffed Jayadeep.
“And you Hindus are too busy stuck up your own arse sniffing the psychedelic fumes of your own excrement to ever tell reality from delusion,” retaliated Arbaaz.
A heated moment of quiet hostility passed between the two students. The only sound was the drip, drip, drip of mango juices from Arbaaz’s unkempt beard onto the sun-dried grass.
“Bhaijaan, it seems there is only one way to settle this,” ventured Arbaaz after enough time had passed for the two young men to cool down. “We must conduct a Fourth Battle of Panipat to determine the true victor once and for all.”
“Very well, Arbaaz Ji. What are your conditions?” inquired Jayadeep.
“The conditions will be as follows: on the first Saturday upon our return from term break, we will meet on the outskirts of Panipat. I will bring with me seven hundred Muslims as there are seven crores of Muslims living in Hindustan, and you will bring with you twenty-two hundred Hindus to represent the twenty-two crores of Hindus. The proper thing would be to disallow the use of guns, tanks or bombs. Only the use of swords, javelins, spears, daggers, and bows will be permitted. Seeing as the inclusion of Pashtun Muslims would be an unfair advantage, I will only recruit Hindustani Muslims of good repute. Rest assured I will be the only Pashtun you’ll have to face on the battlefield. Agreed?”
“Agreed.”
The pair shook hands, Jayadeep wincing at the sticky mango residue left on Arbaaz’s fingers.
“So, it is settled then. We shall meet again after the term break,” concluded Arbaaz. “May Brahman bestow his ever-glorious favour upon you. And may your travels be both smooth and free of hindrance. Be sure to pass on my best wishes to your parents. Khuda hafiz, bhaijaan.”
“Likewise, Arbaaz Ji,” seconded Jaydeep. “Pass my salaams onto your family. May the all-merciful Allah bless you all with a thousand blessings. As-salamu Alaykum, my friend. Until next time.”
And so, the two students bid their farewell before going their separate ways. Arbaaz northward to the mountains of Peshawar and Jayadeep southward to the beaches of Bombay.

On the first Saturday, upon their return from term break, Arbaaz and Jayadeep met on the outskirts of Panipat in a large clearing just south of the town. Jayadeep had with him twenty-two hundred Hindus recruited from the surrounding villages. Arbaaz, too, kept to his promise and was accompanied by seven hundred Hindustani Muslims of good repute recruited from the nearby city of Delhi. Neither army possessed guns, tanks, or bombs and only employed the use of the agreed-upon weaponry.
The Hindu army approached the clearing from the east while the Muslim army approached the clearing from the west. Once they were a suitable distance apart, both armies closed ranks and made preparations for the upcoming battle, but not before their two generals had a chance to negotiate.
“Arbaaz Ji, your army is outnumbered. You would do well to surrender and spare your mens’ widows a lifetime of mourning. Simply relinquish your claim to victory at the Third Battle of Panipat, and we can be done with this mess. Why must we waste precious lives when Muslims and Hindus are already slaughtering each other across the country?” entreated Jayadeep, his hand fiddling with the bejewelled dagger strapped across his chest.
“Bhaijaan, you are well aware that I cannot relinquish the honour of the Muslim Ummah. I am too moved by the atrocities that have enveloped the country. That is why I beg you to withdraw your delusional claims and spare the lives of your good, honest men. Remember that Panipat is the battlefield upon which Islam always achieves victory,” adjured Arbaaz, his hand resting upon the hilt of his steel sabre.
Neither man could bring themselves to surrender and forfeit the honour of their respective religions. Having reached an impasse, there was only one course of action: war. Both men rejoined the ranks of their troops and steadied themselves for battle. Adrenaline seeped into Arbaaz’s bloodstream as he tightened his grip on his sabre while sweat dripped down the brow of Jayadeep as he slowly unbuckled his dagger.
Cries of Allahu Akbar and Har Har Mahadev erupted into the still, humid air as both armies charged towards each other in a blind frenzy. Steel clashed against steel, quaking the earth as those who were once brothers slaughtered each other with a bloodcurdling rage that rivalled the hatred of Iblis. The ensuing cacophony of screams signified the release of souls from their mortal chambers, echoed by the wailing of widows in the near future.
The music of battle was suddenly cut off by the thunderous roar of gunfire from the south. Plumes of red vapour erupted into the sky as warrior after warrior collapsed to the ground in a petrified heap of death. The bullets did not discriminate as they tore into the flesh of those seven hundred Muslims and twenty-two hundred Hindus.
As it turns out, a local cantonment of British troops had witnessed the gathering mass of natives armed with swords, javelins, spears, daggers, and bows. Fearing another potential cross-communal rebellion, they rode out with machine guns in tow to swiftly put an end to the uprising. And so, it was the firangi British who were crowned the victors of the Fourth Battle of Panipat.
When all was said and done, and each cartridge had been emptied, there remained a clearing of lifeless corpses. At the centre of which lay the bodies of an unclean Muslim and pompous Hindu.


The inspiration for this short story came from multiple places, so I thought it’d be interesting to share with you the thought process that led to this piece. If anything, the following will illustrate to you just how strange my brain is.

If you haven’t worked it out already, I’m a huge sucker for South Asian history. And any student of South Asian history will be able to tell you about the three Battles of Panipat, each of which led to dramatic political shifts in the Subcontinent.

The First Battle of Panipat (21st April 1526) saw Babur, descendent of Timur and Genghis Khan, defeat and kill Ibrahim Lodi, leading to the end of the 320-year-old Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526) and the establishment of the illustrious Mughal Empire (1526-1857). It also served to introduce the use of gunpowder arms and field artillery into the Indian Subcontinent.

The Second Battle of Panipat (5th November 1556) saw the 13-year-old Akbar defeat the Hindu King Hemu, who had previously served as a general and chief minister of the short-lived Sur Empire (1540-1556). Emperor Akbar would go on to become the greatest Mughal ruler, beloved by both Hindus and Muslims.

The Third Battle of Panipat (14th January 1761) saw Ahmad Shah Abdali of the Durrani Empire (1747-1823 and 1839-1842), alongside a coalition of Mughal, Oudh State, and Rohilla forces, defeat an army of the Maratha Confederacy (1674-1818). It was one of the largest battles of the 18th century, involving over 125,000 troops (lower than the exaggerated 7 lakhs of my story but still significant nonetheless) and lasting over several days. It was also the last major battle between South Asian-headed military powers until the Indo-Pakistani war of 1947.

I had only decided to write a short story centred around this topic because I am currently reading the works of Saadat Hasan Manto. For those who don’t know, Manto is regarded as one of the greatest writers of the Urdu language. Perhaps one of the greatest writers of all time. He is most famous for his short stories about Partition that capture the brutality and savagery of the times without obscuring the humanity of those lost to the violence. Manto had also written extensively about life in British India as well as post-independence Pakistan. I intend to dedicate an individual post to Manto in the future, but for now, his work inspired the setting, theme, and style of this short story.

The actual plot was inspired by something I read about in B.R. Ambedkar’s Thoughts On Pakistan. Again, for those who don’t know, Ambedkar is one of the giants of the Indian Independence Movement and one of the leading voices who campaigned for Dalit (untouchable) rights. In his book, Thoughts On Pakistan, published in 1945, Ambedkar explains both the case for and against the creation of Pakistan without being partial to either side. In chapter 12, Ambedkar referenced an absurd event that stuck with me.

It turns out that, in 1925, the controversy surrounding who really won the Third Battle of Panipat caused a certain Maulana Akabar Shah Khan to challenge Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya to a Fourth Battle of Panipat in order to settle the score. The challenge was issued in all seriousness with conditions laid down as to the types of weapons and number of men allowed. They never went through with it, but the absurdity of the event laid the basis for my short story. What if some people were really mad enough to go through with the proposal?

The names Jayadeep and Arbaaz were taken from the video games Assassin’s Creed Syndicate and Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: India, respectively. According to Assassin’s Creed lore, Arbaaz Mir was a Kashmiri Master Assassin of the Indian Brotherhood of Assassins at Amritsar. He ended up marrying Princess Pyara Kaur, with whom he had a son, Jayadeep. Jayadeep Mir, a.k.a “the Ghost” or more commonly Sir Henry Green, was a member of the British Brotherhood of Assassins, based in London, during the 1860s. He assisted the twins Jacob and Evie Frye in thwarting a Templar scheme to assassinate Queen Victoria. He later married Evie Frye, and the two moved back to India.

I was in conversation with my friend Isaac, who is from Tamil Nadu, about a new character coming to League of Legends, another video game we play obsessively. The character goes by the name Akshan and is most definitely coded as a South Asian. This led to a general discussion about South Asian representation in video games which allowed me to recall Arbaaz and Jayadeep from Assassin’s Creed. When I came to writing this story and needed character names, these two were already floating about inside my head, inevitably making it onto the page.

The consumption of mangoes was inspired by the chopped mango my lovely mother prepared for me while I was writing this story. It goes without saying that my mum is most definitely better than yours ;P