Saturday, December 26, 2009


Sidney Nolan, Ned Kelly, 1946. National Gallery of Australia
The second tale from the inhabitants of the land surrounding the Little Ocean, after The Skeptic King

On the first day Hanilnaro from Gydans tested his musket on a wooden target, he would remember the events that led him to become a fighter for justice. It was when the barbarians from the Sea of Laptev still held its grip over the Ob valley: Following the invasion of the Laptevians, who had come from thousands of miles away in the east, was the subjugation of crippled hunter-gatherer tribes to the Laptevian men who did whatever they wanted with them, be it extortion of supplies and women or outright raiding. Occasionally a whole confederacy of tribes were sent to the eastern coast to be slaves, and Gydans was one of them.

It was ten summers ago when they invaded, razed the merchant's settlement to the ground, and seized the nine tribes who were up till then trading with the merchants. Hanilnaro was the son of the Gydans merchant, and he noticed, while they were being marched to the east, the toddler child from the tribe who traded fish from the Ob estuaries. Close to succumbing to fatigue and dehydration, the toddler broke from his file and slumped over to the Laptevian raider at the file's right flank. The Laptevian, who was not in the best of moods, flew into a rage. He hacked the child to pieces with his sabre relentlessly, and with one stroke decapitated the fisherman chief who tried to stop him. The corpses were thrown aside in the wastelands, and the entire file behind them watched, as they marched past, the dead child and his father.

Hanilnaro contemplated the Laptevian and his impulsive killing. In that instant he fantasised about the Laptevian soldier dropping dead as soon as he completed his dreadful deed, as if due to some divine justice. In another instant that followed he imagined that, instead of the scoundrel dying all by himself, that he himself should cause the death of the Laptevian who had made such an ugly killing before his eyes. These he never forgot as he grew into a young man; while the Laptevians lost their grip on the peninsula and their unity; while the Gydanese returned to their lands; and while the first firearms were passed hand-to-hand, through trade, from the inventors of the Lena valley.

Hanilnaro, at the age of eighteen when he escaped the bonds of slavery, was in the process of setting up another market where the newly-liberated peoples now traded, was naturally excited at the first sight of a musket. A hunter chief had received a musket as a gift from the Lenese (the inventive and industrious people to the east ultimately responsible for the Laptevians' downfall) and was boasting it to him and the other chiefs. The hunter chief spotted a small cluster of mallards flying south-east, shouldered the loud metallic tube and took aim at the birds. With one deafening shot, a cloud of feathers spread out where the birds had been.

This display of sudden death left a profound impression on the Hanilnaro. The next day he bought the hunter's musket and left the market under the charge of a metallurgist. In the empty plains near the Sea of Laptev he made an oath to himself to protect the innocent and to punish the evil as soon as he lays his eyes upon them, just as instantly as that day he willed the Laptevian to die after killing father and child together. As soon as the metallurgist opened a route from his market to settlements in Lena, he jumped back in, this time as a protector of a trading party.

By this time, the Laptev barbarians had ceased to be an organised power or a threat on the tribal scale, though small bands of merchants still prove vulnerable to Laptevian bandits, who eye hungrily the tools and supplies that loaded the caravans. Initially the bandits were able to take advantage to Hanilnaro's party, and often the caravan returned to Gydans with a hefty load of casualties to make up for lost goods.

But Hanilnaro, his determination unabated, honed his skills furiously to counter the bandits: he learnt the use of knives in close combat to complement firepower; he gathered observations on the tactics made by the raiders, to help drawing up devious counter-offensive strategies; he even obtained a batch of five muskets from Lena (when he did manage to reach) and trained some craftsmen from the market to use it. Eventually, the escort was able to repel any wandering belligerent who targeted their riches.

Hanilnaro had fulfilled his obligations to his own tribe. To fulfil his other, universal obligations that he took upon himself, he decided to leave the trading party. The bandits were by now a subdued lot; beaten to the point they equated his name with death, they made scarce wherever he went. Deprived of bandits, Hanilnaro began to found injustice even in largely peaceful tribes. Here and there in Laptev or Lena there were people in need of help from the evil ones, always to be defeated by his musket in time: a giant brown bear terrorising a Lenese village here, there a band of bullies subjecting a whole tribe to their tyrannical whim; monumental problems solved with two shots to each, an efficiency no sharp tool could reach.

On the day that his fate turned, he was by himself in Lena when he saw, not too far away, the same scene that had haunted him since childhood. At the corner of the rock were two men thrashing a child, with a third shielding the child from the blows. Hanilnaro watched the man as he loaded the musket ball. As soon as the one of the assaulters reached for the knife he took aim and shot him. The man was lifted off the ground in the impact and flew backwards.

The mother and child stayed where they were. They surveyed the man as if in a daze. As Hanilnaro approached them the one who had shielding the child, who turned out to be a young woman, recognised him and hurled curses at him in Lenese. Hanilnaro had shot her brother, now dying by the rock in a pool of blood. The child was her illegitimate child of four years, and the brother had conspired with a cousin to corner the child away from the settlement to polish him off. That aside, it puzzled Hanilnaro as to why he was not thanked, but cursed instead when he killed the child's would-be murderer.

Later in the day, the leaders of the Lenese settlement repaid his rash act with twenty strokes of the staff and banished him from the settlement. Hanilnaro left without a trace of guilt, still convinced, regardless of what the Lenese say, that he was in the right; he prevented a murder by shooting the man. What he did not understand, and was unwilling to find out, was that the woman's brother was as much a part of the tribe as the child; that he had committed an act of murder himself. And because news travelled quickly in Lena, he became universally detested there following his banishment, and eventually he was pushed back to Laptev.

There, in the regions close to the sea, he met his old adversaries. Whenever a tribe of Laptevians passed by, he would sneer as their deep-set eyes, their thick brows and light skin reflected the hateful mien of his captors in his childhood. He tried to satisfy his bloodlust on the Laptevians. Solitary bandits he targeted at first, regardless whether they displayed hostile intent. Then came whole bands that passed by. Any group of Laptevians was bandits as far as he cared; he would even imagine them as the slave drivers, like they were when they still dominated western lands through violence. To these groups of Huns he dealt swift and deadly justice.

What he did not know was that at this point the Laptevians had most completely lost their former character. Subdued and assimilated by the Lenese agrarians to the east and Taimirian hunters to the west, the Laptevians had begun to live off their own land, and while Hanilnaro was combating the forces of evil in Lena, commenced trade with the markets in Taimiria, Gydans included. The Laptevian traders had no will to fight, but following the intrusion of Hanilnaro into their lands, begged for help from the musketmen in Gydans, the original regiment trained under Hanilnaro's charge.

The Gydans musketmen had reservations about sharing knowledge of the musket with the Laptevians. Nevertheless, they agreed to be the armed escorts to this caravan as they took their return course to Khatanga, the Laptevian market by the coast.

They were surprised at dusk by a solitary gunman who started firing at them. The oldest musketman from Gydans, who recognised the miscreant immediately, could barely react as his three younger compatriots returned fire instinctively. Presently one well-aimed shot caught the gunman on his thigh, and he crumpled into the tall grass. The musketmen approached the body cautiously when suddenly another shot rang and one of the three howled clutching his bleeding face. Alarmed, the remaining musketmen charged to the supine gunman and, with decisive shots, made short job of the gunman who had terrorised Laptev in his final days.

- The man that we have just killed is Hanilnaro the Gydanian, said the older musketman wistfully.
- You cannot be serious! exclaimed the others. The person Hanilnaro had been elevated to a mythical status back in Gydans. Tales of his heroic deeds had been seeping back to the place of his birth from Lena, giving hope to those who perceive injustice everywhere. Such a narrative hardly fitted with what they saw now; a vagabond dressed in rags, a rusty musket, a hateful grimace.

They set up camp to treat the wounded musketman and buried Hanilnaro where he lay. In the end nothing but a mound of earth and a wooden stave marked the place of his burial. Though the escort from Gydans decided to tell of the death of Hanilnaro as a cautionary tale, the charisma that his character carried in the hearts of the people was hard to deny. Perhaps he had fallen from grace from a simple character flaw? Perhaps, they would hypothesise, than the Gydans escort had shot at him first?

As it turned out Hanilnaro the musketeer remained a hero in the people's hearts. Nonetheless, for a long time after his death, an occasional youngster passed by his grave on the road to Khatanga every few months and learnt about his justice, so rife with brutality and caprice, as the true reason to his downfall.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Blogging from Christchurch

Day 7: In the night of day 7 I have finally decided to settle down and blog, in the absence of tight schedules, van trips, kiddy distractions and impulses to shop (I have run out of money). The previous 6 days have been long, because the van and coach trips were long. The time spent in the wilds, interacting with local people and local birds etc. was preciously short, sadly speaking.

Today was spent in Christchurch's cultural precint, the bohemian heartlands of South Island. Spent the afternoon lubbing around town like a layabout, because I had visited the Art Gallery (twice), Arts Centre, CoCA, the Canterbury Museum and the Botanical Gardens before in day 5. Besides, I had run out of money.

Had fun out of whatever social contact I could establish. When I couldn't, I had fun watching the folks play chess at the giant chestboard in Cathedral square.

The Europeans that one meets in NZ, in general, are friendlier and more warm-hearted than your usual Anglo-Saxon. They are almost always easy to talk to, and their accent amusing and soothing. The German bratwurst seller at the Arts Centre is a nice guy. And so was Cyrielle, the French girl I met on the whalewatching boat. The German waiter at Kaikoura was nice too, although it was hard for me to conjecture how a German would have landed a job like this in such a place.

Day 6: Day 6 was spent on a day-trip to Kaikoura. Kaikoura means eat-crayfish and true enow, I got to eat crayfish. Mom's complaints on the non-freshness of crayfish notwithstanding, I was happy as long as it was served with tartar.

The seas were rough on the day we took the whalewatching boat over the underwater Kaikoura Canyon and the passengers spotted only 5 sperm whales who scurried away unhurriedly as we drew near.

I also found the French (Ardéchois) girl called Cyrielle who, after ~20 minutes of sitting beside me and not talking, shattered the ice at first opportunity. She was (and still is) on an 8-month holiday globetrotting, from S. America to NZ to Australia to Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan, Nepal etc. with her parents.
What about school? I asked. Ach, home-schooling was what she swore by, that lucky wommon.
She was struggling in English, but drawing on a notebook and my infantile French got the conversation chugging along quite nicely all the way ashore.

On an unrelated note, I was reminded that lack of social interaction can be terribly suffocating, yet breaking the coccon of introversion is also hard.
I have been walled up in home and van confines for long enough!
"It is God's calling for Catholics to reach out to others!" proclaims Father Richards.
In my last days in Christchurch and thereafter in Singapore, I must follow this philosophy to the best of my ability.