Collective euphoria

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Collective euphoria (Image courtesy : Dreamdis)

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On the morning of Aug. 14, 1945, 21-year-old Greta Zimmer, reported for work as a dental assistant on Lexington Ave, New York City.

All morning, Greta had been hearing rumors that the Japanese had surrendered after being hammered by those two atomic bombs, ending World War II. When the announcement finally came over the radio, businesses across New York (and in fact all over America and the world) downed their shutters and countless men and women spilled into the streets in a giddy and chaotic revelry.

It was a cathartic release from not only the pent-up anxieties and fears of six years of brutal warfare but also the bottled up anger over the previous two decades of economic meltdown that had come to be known as The Great Depression.

Greta Zimmer’s joy was sobered by her past – she had landed in America as a Jewish refugee who escaped Austria in the nick of time in 1938, leaving her parents behind. As of that euphoric day in the photo, she hadn’t heard from them and presumed they didn’t survive.

Nevertheless Greta took off and for an hour, simply wandered aimlessly west toward Time Square, which was – as it is even now – ground zero for spontaneous celebrations.

At the very moment when Greta Zimmer was wandering into Time Square, 21-year old US Navy Ensign, George Mendosa was inside a cinema with his date, Rita, watching a war movie with Robert Mitchum in it. All of a sudden the show was halted and the lights came on and over the theater’s PA system came the announcement that the war had ended. Those inside the theater, George and Rita included, sprang up and rushed out into the street.

They couldn’t find a bar that wasn’t jam-packed, so the couple decided to simply mingle into the crowds that meandered around Time Square and just soak up the historic moment. George had been enjoying the last few days of his shore leave and now he was overjoyed that he wouldn’t be redeployed in the Pacific.

If you were a woman on Broadway or Times Square that day, chances were good that you too would be scooped up and kissed by random strangers and most likely you wouldn’t mind it even a bit. Still, Greta Zimmer was shocked when she suddenly found herself jostled and then before she could gather her wits, grabbed and kissed by a brawny young man in a sailor’s uniform – Navy Ensign, George Mendosa.

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Navy Ensign, George Mendosa, kisses nurse, Greta Zimmer, on a euphoric impulse. Greta has her left arm up, perhaps in instinctive defense.

Every man was kissing every woman that day, so George’s date, Rita, wasn’t even a bit ruffled when he scooped Greta up. In fact if you check out the photo closely, that’s Rita, visible over George’s right arm, with a grin on her face. (pic courtesy Life Magazine)

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This photo is a different one, perhaps taken seconds after the previous one. I figure this one was a few moments after because the nurse no longer has her left arm up in defense, resigned perhaps to the sudden assault. The kiss must have been a sloppy one, because Greta’s fist is clenched in cringing, grudging acceptance.

Judging by the reactions of others in the photo, the action has universal approval.

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I am sure the feeling among most women in America that day must have been one of gratitude, like they owed the men in uniform a debt. Letting themselves be grabbed and kissed (aka sexually assaulted) was seen by them as a gesture of that appreciation perhaps.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the two kissers, noted Life Magazine photographer, Alfred Eisenstaedt, had captured the moment. The photo was published a few weeks later but both, Zimmer and Mendonsa, would go years without knowing about “the photo that ended the Second World War” and of their newfound status as icons. The sailor kissing nurse photo has since spread around the world, as an iconic representation of the power of collective euphoria.

I recall sensing that euphoric feeling once in 1983, when India won the Cricket World Cup. The whole city of Pune – at least a million folks – had gathered around the Lakdi Pul and girls were out dancing with abandon, letting themselves be hugged, squeezed and cuddled openly, by total strangers. Of course, straight-laced as I am, I found all that open rub-a-dub very very gross, even though I remember having hormones that were barking like a dobermann pinscher.

Latter on I walked into a store to buy cigarettes and gestured at the still running commentary and on-pitch interviews on TV, saying to the store keeper – a young Muslim woman in hejab, “Wasn’t that simply awesome?”

“Mubarak ho! Mubarak ho!” she replied and smiled, as her hubby looked indulgently from behind her. The woman, someone who had probably been schooled to not speak with male strangers, was bubbling with the desire for release.  Historic moments seem to bring out the base hidden instincts in us humans.

I am sure that would hold for even impending events of biblical proportions. Like for instance, just suppose an asteroid the size of ten city blocks was a week away from wiping out all life on earth and any hope that it would pass us by had evaporated. I am certain you would be able to walk out into the streets and make love to just about anybody right then and there, wouldn’t you?

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Rita and George later married and stayed that way until 2012, when George passed on, at 90. Greta meanwhile lived to be 92, passing away in September 2016. Folks who knew both are unanimous that they lived happy and healthy lives.

But don’t get carried away thinking the moral of the story is – ‘grab and kiss any random woman and your gal will approve and you’ll live a happy and healthy life’. It works only if there’s just been a World War and your side won or if the world is coming to an end. Other times you’ll end up with a knee in your nuts.

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The Erastes, the Eromenos and the Pathikos

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A civilized world is one where there are no taboos – Socrates

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‘Abduction of Ganymede’ (painting by Peter Paul Reubens, 1611)

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For any female, born in an urban slum or in rural India, there is an 80% likelihood of her being either raped or molested at least once in her lifetime. For a boy who was born in 500BC Greece, the odds of something similar happening to him were identical.

Ganymede was a Trojan boy barely out of his teens, whom the 8th Century BC poet, Homer, had described as the most beautiful of mortals. Even the Gods couldn’t take their eyes off him. So taken by his beauty was the lecherous old Zeus that he stole in one day, disguised as an eagle, lofted Ganymede into the heavens and whisked him away to his pad at the Mount Olympus.

Oh yeah, Zeus had this habit of appearing in disguise as a bird whenever he felt horny. He once appeared before Leda, the Spartan King Tyndareus’s wife, as a swan and ravished her. Legend has it that, out of the union was born Helen of Troy. Helen of Sparta actually. Helen of Troy is a misnomer.

As for Ganymede, in exchange for steamy anal sex, Zeus gave him eternal youth and immortality and a permanent position as the official cup bearer – like a bus boy – to the gods.

There is no record of what Zeus’s old lady, Hera, had to say about this new love-affair. Probably nothing. Given the times and the open practice of pederasty that was the custom among adult Greek noblemen and their Gods in those days, she may have just yawned and said,” Tennis anyone?”

The same milk of forgiveness ran through Roman wives as well. The emperor, Hadrian (76-138AD), took a male lover in the form of a Bythinian youth named Antinous. As a foreigner it was perfectly acceptable for Antinous to appear in public next to the emperor and his wife Sabina.

Hadrian and Antinous were lovers for five years until Antinous fell overboard from a galley into the Nile and drowned. Grapevine has it that Sabina had a centurian persuade the boy to jump one night when Hadrian wasn’t looking but I can’t submit any evidence of it. Heartbroken, Hadrian had Antinous declared a god, built temples to him all over the empire, named a star after him and built a city in Egypt, Antinopolis, in his honor.

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Up until the Roman Empire turned Christian under Constantine the Great and Christianity began being rammed down everyone’s throats under threat of death all across Europe and beyond, homosexuality in all it’s forms was a universally accepted practice in the so-called ‘civilized’ world. Sodomy was practiced mostly among the upper classes. (The hoi-polloi were too busy trying to survive invasions and deprivation).

In the pre-Christian world, men f–king other men was du jour.

Philosophers of the day, Aristotle and Socrates, waxed eloquent on how the human anatomy had placed the anus in just right level and orientation to be shtupped by the erect penis of another man, so convenient that even the anal passage had the same angle of inclination to the horizontal as a fully erect penis.  Therefore they surmised that, we were all meant to be fucked up our asses. I can see Euclid exclaiming, ‘QED!’

Around the 400BCs there were other ancient cultures that practiced homosexual sex. The Indian philosopher, Vatsayana, writing in his “Kama Sutra”, waxed eloquent on the number of ways adult males could pleasure each other orally.  But the deluge of direct evidence of homosexual liaisons in ancient Greece that archeologists have dug up is astonishing. Hundreds of vases have been unearthed along the Aegean Sea coast of Greece, that have erotic paintings on the sides, depicting males in sexually intimate positions, dating back to 1000BC.

The vase paintings have a common theme running through them – the sexual intimacy depicted is invariably shown happening between a bearded adult male and a pubescent or adolescent boy, usually the son of another free citizen with whom the adult has a business or family connection. One might wrinkle his nose in disgust today but that was the norm then. The boy knew that his coming-of-age required submitting to anal penetration by a grown adult male, who took him under his wing like a mentor and proceeded to take charge of his education. It started invariably with a period of elaborate courtship when the mentor showered the boy with presents until he eventually broke and submitted.

The Greeks had developed a strict code of conduct as regards homosexuality. An adult Greek male could not have sex with another adult Greek male. It would make the man being penetrated (the pathikos or passive partner), seem effeminate and submissive. That was something which the Greek society – essentially a martial culture – deemed a humiliation and therefore inappropriate. It would bring down the submissive male to the level of women, who at that point in history were considered lesser mortals in this highly patriarchal culture. He could be ridiculed and laughed out of town and even lose the right to hold public office.

The ban on adult to adult male sex did not extend to slaves however. It was open season on slaves. You could do absolutely anything you wanted with your slave, since you owned him. An adult Greek male could f—k an adult male slave till he was blue in the face. Slaves, usually the citizens of conquered lands, were acquisitions and had no rights whatsoever.

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In ancient times, you had to be prepared to be a slave if your city-state got invaded and sacked by an invasion force. A run-of-the-mill invasion usually netted around 15-20000 able-bodied slaves who could then be sold for hard cash. The slave trade was the by far the largest and most profitable business venture in ancient Greece.

During his 8-year long expedition of conquest through the Middle-East, Asia Minor, right up to the banks of the Jhelum River in present-day Pakistan, Alexander the Great is reported to have taken into captivity and sold more than 500,000 slaves from the lands he conquered.

Thanks to Alexander’s zeal, soon there was a glut in the market. Supply outstripped demand and the powerful slave cartels in Greece and Asia Minor, pretty much like the OPEC of today, hated him for flooding the market.

Besides the booties that Alexander looted from the vanquished Persian King Darius III’s coffers, the slave trade was a major source of revenue that helped pay his soldiers’ above-average salaries and frequent bonuses. It is said that on one occasion, after he had sacked the city of Tyre, he paid his troops the equivalent of 8 years’ pay as bonus. If it hadn’t been for his largesse, his men, tired of the fighting and homesick, would have turned and gone back much earlier.

Alexander was huge on the slave trade but he was also a fair man. If a state readily submitted to his invasion force and acknowledged him as their monarch without a challenge, he not only spared them a massacre but in fact enthusiastically waded into their culture, encouraging his commanders and troops to go forth and marry their women and intermingle. He allowed the citizens of the annexed lands to retain their culture and traditions and even offered sacrifices to their Gods at their temples. The slaves came from the states that tried in vain to repel his invasion and faced his wrath as a result.

Alexander was a horny bastard too, of that there is very little doubt. He didn’t believe in harems like his arch-rival, Darius III, who had 365 concubines, one for every night of the year (I suppose he rested on leap years). Alexander however had a string of affairs and wives and he also had at least two male lovers that I know of. He was very respectful of folk he had sex with and there was no rough stuff, unlike other conquerors of his time.

Alexander was a good looking guy, as per the 1st Century AD historian, Plutarch. Says he, “…Not very tall, perhaps a little over five podes and a half, Alexander was light brown skinned and had a tinge of red on his face and upon his breast. Aristoxenus, in his memoirs, spoke at length of Alexander’s sharp features and bright blue eyes. He had heard Aristotle speak in amazement of a most alluring scent that emanated from his skin. His breath and his body were so fragrant that they perfumed his undergarments……” Yuck! Ugh!

Powerful city-states like Athens and Sparta and empires too, like the Persian and Roman empires, had large populations of slaves who had been nabbed from conquered lands and put to work in mines or construction and even as domestic help. At the height of it’s golden age – around 450BC – one in three inhabitants of Greece was a slave.

The slave-to-citizen ratio was even higher with the Romans and that could be a reason why in the 1st Century BC, a Thracian slave named Kirk Douglas managed to band together a well-organized fighting force of 70000 slaves against the Roman legions and was able to get as far as he did, massacring thousands of well-trained and superbly equipped Roman legionaries, before he was finally apprehended and killed. Even though he did not succeed in the end, Douglas is still an interesting example of how far the will to be free can take you, but I shall have to leave that for another occasion.

What? Did I say Kirk Douglas? Oh, sorry, the slave was called Spartacus. Kirk Douglas only played the role of Spartacus and co-produced the 1960 Stanley Kubrick movie by the same name. At my age, it is easy to get mixed up a bit. Do watch it if you get the chance.

But during the heroic and classic ages of the Greek civilization, a few centuries before Spartacus, the thought of organizing their own ‘Greek Spring’ hadn’t yet occurred to the slaves.

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While the adult-to-adult male sex was a no-no in ancient Greece, the acceptable practice was what we term today as pederasty – sex between an adult male (the erastes) and a boy in the age bracket of around 10 to 17 (known as the eromenos). It was pedophilia with a slightly narrowed age range. Pederasty was a practice that was regulated by the State as an institution, no kidding. It was generally taken as a supplement to a heterosexual marriage, which the Greek deemed as essential for the purpose of procreation. Thus, the adult men who practiced pederasty were basically bisexuals.

Today, the age of consent varies from country to country but overall, pederasty is considered just as heinous a crime as pedophilia and most nations in the modern world have strict laws against it. The same Socrates, whom we like to lionize, would be cooling his heels inside a maximum security penitentiary, serving a lengthy sentence, had he been around today.

Back then, institutionalized as it was, pederasty was commonplace. There were even public places where noblemen met and swapped their boy lovers. The Grecian baths for example were places where nobles lazed around and exchanged boys. If they had internet they would probably call it swapboy.com or something.

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An Erastes with his Eromenos, on a Greek vase (Image coutesy: Wikimedia)

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The pederasty practiced in ancient Greece was in fact cyclic – as soon as the eromenos began to sport a beard, it was a sign that he was now an adult and therefore could not continue his sexual liaison with his erastes. He could in fact himself start leading life as an erastes now and have his own eromenos. Oh Goody!!

In ancient Greece, if you were a male from the upper classes, you were either an erastes or an eromenos. You didn’t fight it. You humped or you got humped. By another male. That was that. Grecian stores even stocked different varieties of depilatory products to help you keep your eromenos looking young and therefore ‘acceptable’.

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The Greek poet, Anacreon, and his little lover. Anacreon’s poetry was all about passion, love, infatuation, revelry and parties, like an ancient version of Jackie Collins, except in his case, the protagonists were invariably pederasts. 

Interestingly, most sculptures, bas-reliefs and paintings depicting ancient Greek pederasty, are found in the Vatican palaces and museums today. Should this be a surprise at all?

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The Greek city-state of Sparta mandated an austere existence, devoid of any kind of extravagance (and hence the word ‘spartan’). Military training was mandatory and stretched right through a boy’s formative years, starting at age six, right up until twenty-two. During this period, the little boys got paired off with the older boys or men in the military academy, who became their mentors. They spent long hours working out inside gyms and arenas, practicing the five exercises of the pentathlon – wrestling, races, long jumps, throwing the discus and hurling the javelin.

The youths in the gymnasia were always naked and sexual intimacy was inevitable and encouraged as an essential part of the kid’s education. The word ‘gymnasium’ is reported to have been derived from the Greek word ‘gymnos’, which means ‘naked’.

It got so bad with the 22-year old graduating cadets of the Spartan military academy that, on their wedding night, their brides had to resort to dressing like men in order to arouse their grooms and help them make the transition from homosexual to heterosexual sex.

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It’s an irony that we term the ancient Greeks as the very fountain of western civilization, when most of what they practiced – pederasty, slavery – would land them inside a supermax prison today.

Seeking comfort in inanity

“Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Do pay it. Don’t forget”

― Socrates to personal aide, minutes before he was forced to kill himself by consuming hemlock, 399BC

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The citizens of Athens bore a massive grudge against Socrates.

The philosopher preached totalitarian dictatorship as the only feasible way to govern and spawned through his teachings, students who specialized in overthrowing democratically elected governments and instituting a reign of terror.

Socrates shaped the world view of at least two of his star pupils, Alcibiades and Critias. Alcibiades (450-404 BC) was an Athenian General who proposed that the only successful mode of governance was not democracy but an oligarchy of a few powerful leaders who should decide the fate of the populace. The other pupil, Critias, became a member of a group of bad guys called the thirty tyrants, a pro-Spartan oligarchy that unleashed a reign of terror on the Athenians for more than a year, around 404 BC.

Together, with Spartan support, Alcibiades and Crtitias usurped power and wreaked havoc, in which thousands of Athenians were deprived of their property and either banished from the city or executed.

Aside from his extreme views on governance, Socrates was also well known for his pederasty, the practice of forcing young pubescent boys into having sex with him.

The world lionizes this guy today.

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Ancient Arab merchants had a saying – “if you teach your pupils how to kill, it is only a matter of time when you will yourself be the victim”. So it came to pass with Socrates.

No one knows exactly when or how Socrates fell afoul of the oligarchs or if his open sexual deviance did him in. One day in 399 BC, he was made to stand trial before a  jury of 500 of his fellow Athenians.

Those days, just about any offense could be deemed a capital crime. Long story short, Socrates was found guilty and sentenced to die by lethal poison. His famous student, Plato, has recorded what happened next – an executioner handed Socrates a cup that contained an extract of hemlock called coniine and said,” Just drink it and walk around until your legs begin to feel really heavy. Then lie down. It will soon act.’

Socrates did as directed and then walked around until his legs began to feel heavy like the executioner had said they would and then, he lay down on his back.

As the chill sensation got to his waist, Socrates suddenly rose up on his elbows as if he had remembered something, rubbed his eyes and said to his faithful Crito, “ Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Do pay it. Don’t forget.”

Do you just believe this guy? He was about to die and here he was, thinking of something as inane as repaying a personal debt of a cock.

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Socrates’ last-minute command to his servant might be considered trivial but inanity at a moment of deep personal trauma is not uncommon. At the point of death, condemned men seek to suppress the conscious knowledge of the direness  of their circumstances by speaking of inane things and trying to maintain an illusion in their minds that everything is normal.

The English King Henry VIII’s Queen, Anne Boleyn, insisted on leaving detailed instructions for the maintenance of her potted plants. The serial murderer, Ted Bundy, repeatedly reminded a warder to post a letter of complaint he had written, to a magazine that had incorrectly mentioned his place of birth.

Nobel Laureate and Nazi concentration camp survivor, Eli Wiesel, has written about a neighbor whom he heard asking an SS storm trooper (who was shoving him into a truck bound for the Bogdanovka Concentration Camp) in an everyday matter-of-fact tone, to turn off the lights inside his apartment, since electricity was expensive. The act of turning off lights in an empty apartment of a man who knew he was being carted off to his death, would in no way change his circumstances and yet that was the first thing that came to Wiesel’s neighbor’s mind.

Just seconds before the trapdoor he was standing on, gave and he plummeted to his death, Saddam Hussein was asking the Shiite militia guy adjusting the noose round his neck, to move the knot a bit to the side as it was tickling his nose. The executioner obliged, in a final act of kindness toward a man who did not deserve any.

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A similar urge toward the inane also happens when one is on the verge of saying farewell to loved ones, just before the last call for departure is announced at the airport or when the signal turns orange at the rail station. As parting becomes imminent, the mind goes sort of numb, unable to think of anything consequential to say. Desperate to keep a conversation going, to maintain the feeling of being together, we say the most inane of things.

When I left India for good, my mother was at the airport. There was a wall-to-wall plate glass window inside the lounge where we sat waiting, watching aircraft take off and land. Security had already been called and it was just minutes before departure would be announced. I had no words to say to the one person to whom I owed so much.

“See how cute that kid is?” I said pointing at a toddler who was trying to break free from his mother’s grasp by biting on her fingers. My mother smiled and nodded, trying hard to hold back her tears.

“Can you read what’s written on that counter over there? I do have to get my eyes checked. Haven’t done it in a while,” said she. I nodded and smiled.

We kept up a banter, while inside us raged emotions like wildfire, real conversations, that remained unsaid. Instead one was trying to read something hung up on a counter while the other found a pain-in-the-ass unruly kid, cute. The closer you are, to the one you are leaving behind and the closer it comes to the good-byes, the more inane the conversation seems to turn.

Ah, but for the soothing emptiness of inanity. We are brimming with inanity. Getting rid of our inanities cannot be achieved without getting rid of ourselves.

 

My First Editions

That’s the First Editions rack in the library in my den downstairs. Oops, shouldn’ta disclosed the location. There are folks who could kill for my collection.

And that’s Thor on the top shelf, guarding them hard covers with his rapid-fire proton zapper.

What? Of course that’s Thor. He has discarded his crummy hammer, that’s all.

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Collecting First Editions is a hobby that is enriching in more ways than one. First, financially – I swear all those books are going to be worth a pila cash if I let them hibernate a while and sell ‘em in maybe 2050. That’s supposing the world is still around by then. Second, they are classics and i love reading.

I have a JK Rowling that can easily go for a grand, even by 2020, maybe 2025. I got her in pristine condition at Nova, the second hand book store by the river, for 25¢. Touching it is like running my fingers over Rowling herself. Selling it for a grand will be a 4000-fold return on investment if you know yore math. I got a Herman Wouk, some John Grishams, an RK Narayan, a Walter Isaacson, a John Irving. Even a Sidney Sheldon, signed by Sid himself. All in mint condition.

I am looking for a Paul Gallico or maybe a Faulkner or a Wodehouse – early 20th century first printings. If anyone can meet me up with the owner of a hard cover ‘To kill a Mockingbird’ or ‘Screw it, Jeeves’, I’ll be eternally grateful. Take it easy, there’s no ‘Screw it, Jeeves’. I made it up ta make you laf.

First editions are worthless if you don’t keep ‘em in good condition. To protect my stash, I have a climate controlled basement. Temp 10°C, humidity 35% and Edvard Grieg. Yes, books love music, I swear they do. I reckoned first editions would go for classical stuff. Thor being highly partisan, I have ta play Grieg’s Peer Gynt in a continuous loop for him. The piece is based upon the folk legend of a 19th Century Norwegian kid named Peer Gynt and his pining for his homeland as he sails from his homestead near the Norwegian fjords, down to the North African desert and it captivates Thor. I have even seen him tear up listening to it, some days.

And I don’t collect paperback first editions. They aren’t majestic like hard covers. Besides, Thor doesn’t like paperbacks. “Ingen paperback”, says he, in a Nordic warlord-like grunt. Yes, Thor can talk, even if only in old Norse. At least he doesn’t have gas, like most other Germanic peoples.

Listen, everything in the previous two paragraphs was a lie actually. I just have First Editions on a book rack, that’s it. Thor is just a LEGO jedi my son built when he was seven.

If you are interested to start collecting First Editions as a hobby, the first thing you got ta acquaint yourself with is the definition of ‘First Edition’ – it is a first printing of a title by a specific publisher. However, a popular title (a Rowling or a Grisham) may have multiple publishers – all of whom will naturally have their own first editions.

If the initial print run of the first edition sells out and the publisher decides to produce another printing with the same typeset, no changes, the book is described as a first edition – second printing. On the other hand, if changes have been made by the author or the publisher (like updating the latest status of an event described in the first edition or adding a new chapter or a foreword), the book is then described as the second edition.

If you are a collector like me, you’ll go for the true first edition – ie: the very first printing of a title, the one that precedes all other first editions chronologically. So, open the copyright page and it will tell you the printing history. Assuming you have an average level of intellect (which you must have, since you’re reading my blog), you’ll be able ta decipher the gobbledegook on the page.

So, a recap – just because you got a book brand new at your local Indigo outlet, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is a First Edition. You will have ta learn to recognize a First Edition and here’s how….

First of all, if you’re lucky the copyright page will mention the words ‘First edition’, like the Naomi Klein hard cover on her seminal work on ‘Disaster Capitalism’, see below…

If you see ‘First printing’, instead of ‘First edition”, it’s the same thing.

Sometimes, you won’t find any of these terms on the copyright page. No problem. Look for the ‘number line’. It is a series of numbers that usually appear at the bottom of the page. If the line begins or ends with a ‘1’, it’s a first edition.

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Other times the number line is preceded by the term ‘First edition’, but be careful because some publishers leave on the words ‘first edition’ even when the book is in its third printing and that fact is reflected in the ‘3’ in this number line….

First edition

3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

The following sequence is supposed to be on a book that is in it’s 2nd printing (the ‘2’ at the end) and has come out in 1975 (the ‘75’ in front) …..

75 76 77 78 79 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2

What do you do if neither the ‘First edition’ nor the number line appears on the copyright page? Relax, read on….

In many cases, you may not see either the number line, or the ‘First edition’ mentioned on the copyright page. Not a problem. Just check if the copyright date and the printing date match up, like it does above, in the copyright page for astronaut, Scott Kelly’s ‘Endurance’, about his 340-day saga aboard the International Space Station.

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I am careful how I handle my first editions. They have got to be looked after, since their value is directly dependent on their condition, unless you happen to have an ancient original.

Of course, certain first editions can’t be found in mint condition. In those cases, their archaeological value trumps everything. Like the 2700-year old Dead Sea Scrolls that the ancient Jewish sect – Essenes – produced and secreted for posterity inside earthenware jars in caves around the Dead Sea. Since they didn’t have xerox back then, they must be first editions.

The most valuable part of a first edition hard cover is it’s dust jacket. A dust jacket is 90% of the value of a first edition. So, don’t be a shmuck and fuck it up, like dropping coffee on it or jotting down your grocery list or something. Make sure there are no stickers or handwritten markings on it either.

Libraries usually use mylar jacket covers to protect dust jackets. I use Brodart™ dust jacket covers for all my first editions and other hard covers that I specially treasure.

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Unfortunately I don’t own any signed first editions. That Sydney Sheldon I spoke about earlier is a signed first edition but the signature is a print, not an original signature by the author’s own hand. Original hand signed first editions are serious cash – maybe 10, 20 times the value of an unsigned first edition. I have decided to begin frequenting book signings. To that end, I have created an account on Chapters.com. If you are a collector, make sure you get a photo taken with the author signing your copy. It’s not incontrovertible proof but it is still valuable circumstantial evidence that the signature on the book is authentic.

In case you think it’s crazy to collect books, even first editions, remember vinyl records? They are back with a bang. I was such a schmuck to throw away my LPs and the Garrard record changer. We humans are nuts – we don’t care about stuff when we buy them new, but we go ape shit for them when they are vintage.

I could kill myself for chucking out my illustrated hard cover of Vatsyayana’s Kama Sutra after it’s pages got sorta kinda crinkly and brittle with all the dried DNA I had inadvertently splashed on it. Imagine how priceless that Kama Sutra could have been by maybe 2150AD. Forensic archaeologists would be creaming over the ancient life form they detected on it.

And no one, but no one has ever creamed over me.

That Christmas

That Christmas

A month or so after Shanta passed on, in May of 1969, I began going out with the Culvers for breakfast every morning at the Tim Hortons, the one down by the ESSO pump, on Sherbrooke West and Grand.

I’m referring to Irv and Sally Culver, recent retirees like me, living on the same floor, down the corridor, by the fire escape.

At first they felt I needed company and that’s why they invited me to join them at Tim Horton’s for turkey bacon sandwiches one morning, early July 1969. They must have liked the experience because they insisted on having me around everyday thereafter. I felt comfortable with them and came to enjoy those outings.

There’s a certain freshness to the early morning hubbub and the rustle of newspapers inside a Tim Hortons. Bright young counter girls, steaming hot coffee, the muffins and of course, those awesome toasted sandwiches. Breakfast in a cafe could be a bit expensive, if one wanted to do it every day. But at that point in time, I guess I needed to be out. Besides, once you’re over 65, your pension can allow daily cafe jaunts like this, no problem, if you stick to those 3-in-one combos.

And if you had planned your retirement in advance and put away some money when you were in the workforce, then maybe you could take a cruise or visit your native land once in three or four years. As I used to do, when Shanta was alive. Not anymore. The travel is quite tiring, 25-30 hours in a plane or at airports, with my knees acting up. Besides, there just isn’t anybody there I know, anymore.

Irv and Sally, they follow the Canada geese down to Florida in October, every two or three years.

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I was telling you about our breakfast outings. I remember the morning of July 20th, 1969. Irv, Sally and I were talking animatedly about the moon landing the day before. In fact I am sure that everyone else in the cafe was wrapped up in it too.

“Did you watch Neil Armstrong’s little speech? One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind?” That was Irv.

“Of course. Apt, wasn’t it?” My interest perked up.

“Sally says Armstrong actually said ‘one small step for a man’ but I clearly remember him saying ‘one small step for man’.  Sally rolled her eyes at that and I couldn’t help thinking how lovely she still looked, even at 52.

“Interesting, how an article can twist the whole meaning of a sentence. Did you know him, Irv? Neil Armstrong?”

“Not personally, but I’d seen him a few times over the years. The first time was when he was visiting the Skunkworks, this must have been around 1962, maybe ‘63.  He was a member of the ‘new nine’ group of astronauts, invited to take a look at the new YF-12A prototype, the fore-runner of the SR-71 Blackbird. We had tested out the TEB igniter on the JP-7 fuel inside the lab and were going to have a test flight that day.  Things were pretty antsy around the huge shed. JP-7 burns only at elevated temperatures and is therefore quite safe to have lying around, but TEB ignites on contact with air. And without TEB injected into it, JP-7 wasn’t going to light up.”

Sally and I exchanged glances and smiled. Irv was in his elements and unstoppable now, “While the others in the group spoke only with our Chief Engineer, Kelly Johnson, Armstrong made it a point to go around, stopping by every member of the Skunkworks team and even the Pratt and Whitney guys working on the J-58 power plant. He listened attentively to each one of us. My last glimpse was of him shaking hands with a contractor’s man who was holding a ladder while another changed a light bulb.”

I was primed by now and bristling with questions. “Wait, don’t move, I’m going to get us some more coffee and you’re going to tell me more.” I hurried back holding three mugs and I was firing away as I placed them on the table,” How did the Skunkworks get that name?”

“Well, when we started, back in ’43, it was in a converted circus tent as there was no other space within the Lockheed facility. And we happened to be right next to a plant producing manure, its odor permeating our tent. When my phone rang one day, I jokingly said,” Skunkworks inside man, Culver speaking.” The name caught on right away. Since then, the term skunkworks has been widely used to describe a group, within an organization, given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, tasked with working on advanced or secret projects.”

Irv and Sally had an engagement that day and had to leave and so my curiosity had to wait till the next breakfast at Tim Hortons. A year slipped by – 365 blissful days of walks, breakfasts and stimulating conversation with the Culvers. Shanta would have loved these two.

I reckon it was around that time that Irv began fading away. Gradually. Right before our eyes. It began with him not being able to locate the car keys. Alzheimer’s crept up on him steadily for the next nine years. Until one particularly frigid December night in 1980, when he quietly died in his sleep at the Montreal General. Of course, one doesn’t die of Alzheimer’s. One just fades away. Irv actually succumbed to colon cancer. Sally had always pestered him to eat more greens but he never listened. Anyway, for Sally, Irv’s passing was more like the grand finale of a nine year long goodbye.

After Irv, Sally and I would see each other at least once a day. We’d accompany one another to our doctors’ appointments. I had a painful knee condition that got aggravated in the cold. Sally was trying to keep her cholesterol and BP down. I had no living relatives in Canada and Sally’s only daughter, Cora, lived somewhere on the west coast.  Therefore, for the most part, we had just each other. While we couldn’t bring ourselves to enter the Tim Hortons again, we had our daily walks down Sherbrooke.

Some days we took the pedestrian path up to the Westmount Library where we sat for an hour catching our breath and browsing through the journals. I loved the National Geographic and I loved watching Sally peer through her bifocals into the People Magazine or Vanity Fair.

Sometimes we ambled west, toward the Montreal West train station. We’d flop down on the benches by the tracks and watch the ebb and flow of the commuters. Once in a while, a long distance freight train thundered by. We’d sit a while and then make our way back, stopping at the Pharmaprix, right across from our apartment block, to pick up a prescription or maybe a toilet paper roll or something. We would then trudge back. To our separate little worlds.  I don’t know when it first happened but it gradually seemed natural that we held hands as we walked.

I don’t remember too good these days but I think it was the Christmas Eve of 1985. For Sally and me, it was like any other day. Except for the daily Christmas carol bombardment on TV and radio. She didn’t want to go for the mass at the St Joseph’s this time. Said she was tired. So we went for a walk, a shorter one, up Cavendish and back. And as I said before, my knees didn’t like the Canadian winter. Sally too had grown gaunter, with all her food restrictions. And so, while the whole city seemed to explode in merriment, we were back, waiting, while the elevator took us up to the 14th floor.

The ritual thereafter began predictably. Like hundreds of other evenings. Me, giving Sally a quick peck on the cheek at her door and walking down the length of the hallway to my apartment. And her, waiting till I reached my doorstep and giving me a tiny wave.

Only this time, she wouldn’t let go of my hand. She slid her arms through mine and pressed up against me. “Don’t go…stay….please.” Her voice was a whisper.  Afterwards, we lay in the dark, our faces inches away, lazily giving each other tiny kisses all over. My head felt heavy, like all this was a dream.

The Christmas eve excitement was ramping up outside our tiny oasis as we lay back and listened to the sounds coming from the hallway. Squeals of delight, hurrying footsteps, the pitter patter of kids running ahead, to catch the elevator. Across from us, a mother was shutting her front door with,” Nicholas, did you remember to take your mittens?” A door opened somewhere, with sudden slurred shouts of welcome and then muted as it was shut.

When I turned to look at Sally, she was fast asleep, a smile still playing on her face, like some supernova remnant. “Goodnight, darling,” I whispered and held her close till I drifted off.

Sally surrendered her lease and moved in with me on Christmas day. It seemed only natural. We might follow the Canada geese next fall. If my knees can take it.

Jamai Shashti

According to the Hindu lunar calendar, today, 8th June, is being celebrated among Bengalis as “Jamai Shashti, an annual Hindu ritual when men are feted and feasted by their in-laws.

In horrendously patriarchal Hinduism, the Jamai (son-in-law) is like God on earth.

If you’re a Bengali man, you get invited on Jamai Shashti to your in-laws and they mollycoddle you and stuff you with sweetmeats and goodies and you come home loaded with presents. If you are non-Bengali and your daughter is thinking of getting married to a Bengali, Jamai Shashti might set your bank balance back a bit.

With me Jamai Shashti has been different. If I said anything about Jamai Shashti to my mum-in-law, she wouldn’t know what I was talking about. She’s Iranian, a dear woman who brought up a small army, five kids, one of whom was lassoed and reeled in by this Bengali cowboy. At the time of writing this, she remains lassoed proper.

On Skype, weekends, my mum-in-law chatters away, bubbling with news and repeatedly asking after my welfare.

“Salaam, jan!! Holé shomo khubé?” (Hello dear, how are you?).

“Mèrci, mamanjan, man khubam. Shomo khubee? Aghajan khubé?” (Thank you, Maman, I’m fine. How are you and father?)

That’s where my Farsi begins showing cracks in it’s foundations and while Maman chatters on, I look around helplessly for Farah and wait for her to come over and translate. While I’m waiting, I catch some familiar snatches like ‘love you very much’, ‘waiting to see you in Iran’, ‘look after your health’, ‘don’t work too hard’. The sort of thing that parents say to you.

After our son was born back in 2000, Maman came over to India to lend a hand. She stayed a few weeks and we have no idea what we’d have done without her. She cooked, scrubbed, cleaned, washed and waited. And all the while that she was there, my mum-in-law never once asked to be taken out sight seeing, go shopping or anything else.

On the day she left, I accompanied her in the Deccan Queen Express to Mumbai for her Iran Air flight back, while Farah stayed home with our baby son.

Most of the way she was quiet, huddled in her seat with her nose touching the window glass. She stared out the window at the countryside rolling by and I sat next to her with an issue of Time magazine that I’d picked up at the AH Wheeler’s and listlessly leafed through it. That morning even Joel Stein’s irreverently funny column, which was on the Tech bubble, couldn’t make me burst into laughter and I wasn’t even an investor.

Soon the DQ cleared the Lonavala platform, clattered over multiple track changes and finally settled on one as we ran lickety split into the Western Ghats.

At one point, the coach suddenly swayed a bit more vehemently than normal. My shoulder bumped into Maman’s. Turning to apologize, I saw she was quietly crying. I reached around and held her gently by her tiny shoulders. She turned, sighed and rested her head on my arm, the tears now rolling down both cheeks.

“Thank you for everything, Maman,” I said to her softly. Even though she doesn’t speak a word of English, she nodded. Her head was still nestled on my shoulder when the DQ sallied into Dadar Central, platform-4 and eased to a halt. We took a cab to Sahar, reaching there just when they were announcing check-in and security for the Iran Air flight. It was on time.

Those days, if you were seeing someone off at Mumbai’s Sahar International Airport, you couldn’t go in. The entrance tickets for visitors had been cancelled. You had to say your goodbyes from behind a barrier at the entrance to the departures area.

At the barrier, Maman loaded her one small bag onto a trolley and started toward the Iran Air counters. I don’t usually do this but I tarried and I craned my neck to catch a last glimpse of the small, dear, scarfed woman as she disappeared round the corner of the hall with a pause and a wave.

This is a grateful Jamai’s tribute to that most precious lady…….

“Mamanjan, shomo doos daram!”

 

 

Angered Goddess

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Human life is far more important than getting on top of a mountain

– Sir Edmund Hillary

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Everest at night, as seen from the Nepalese town of Namche Bazaar from which every assault on the south side begins (Photo source: Wikimedia)

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When I was little, my eldest bro once went along with our father, to a little village in Nepal called Pokhara in the foothills of the Himalayas. From there, as the crow flies, the 26,550 foot Annapurna-I is at a distance of 20 kms.

One morning they went up on the roof of their hotel just before sunrise and sat staring north. It was going to be a brilliantly clear day but at that moment the mountains, from their foothills upwards, were shrouded by thick mist and it seemed as if the Himalayas did not even exist.

The hotel manager had said to hang on and they would be rewarded with the sight of their lives. And they were. As they waited, the mist at the foothills began to rise. And rise and rise, until my brother was looking directly up into the heavens and the mist had still not cleared the peak. The white of the peak glowed bright orange and glinted in the early morning sun while the top one fifth of the Annapurna remained shrouded. The sheer magnificence of the sight was something that has remained with him.

The Annapurna-I is one of the ‘14 Sisters’, the world’s tallest 14 peaks located in the Karakorram and Tibetan Himalayas, that are the only peaks higher than 8000 meters, an altitude above which lies the “death zone”, where the air contains just 15% of the oxygen it has at sea level and chances of survival even in full gear, beyond 18-24 hours, are nearly zero.

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Annapurna-I (centre-right), as seen from the south. Of the 167 successful summit attempts, she has held back permanently in her folds, 63 unfortunates (Photo source: Wikimedia)

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The Himalayas, and particularly the Everest, have held our fascination for centuries. Formed when the Indian plate collided against the Asian plate 50 million years ago, the greatest mountain range in the world has been growing ever so gradually taller and inching laterally toward the north-east as new crust emerges and the two plates continue to grind against each other. Since the 1850s when the first attempts at scaling the ‘14 sisters’ began, the Himalayas are believed to have grown taller by about 37 inches.

As the sisters have aged, they have demanded more and more respect from us. Of the 14, the Annapurna’s demands have been the most strident. Believed to be the most hazardous climb, she has claimed as her own, 63 climbers, drawing them into her deep crevasses and shrouding them in her ice. Taken against the 167 who summitted and made it back alive, this is a death-to-summit ratio of 38%. Two of the other sisters, the Kanchenjunga(28500ft) and the K2(28700ft), both similarly extremely hazardous climbs, have been nearly as vengeful as Anna has been toward us.

300 kms east of Anna, striding Nepal’s border with Chinese-occupied Tibet, is Anna’s big sis, Chomolungma (‘Mother Goddess’ in Tibetan), the tallest mountain in the world. In the English speaking world, she is known as ‘the Everest’, but let’s call her ‘Chomo’.

Compared to Anna, Chomo is almost warm and cuddly. Only 250 have succumbed so far, against 5600 successful summit attempts, a death to summit ratio of just over 4%. Of the duo who summited Chomo first, the white guy, Edmund Hillary, became Sir Edmund Hillary even before he had made it back to base camp.

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Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, May 1953 (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)

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The other guy, (without whom Sir Hillary would probably have ended up as a permanent part of the scenery), happened to be a brown guy, unworthy of knighthood. He was a brave sherpa, named Tenzing Norgay. He got some crummy medal called the George Medal from the UK, the explanation given – ‘because he was Indian’. I hold nothing against Hillary himself though, as he has, in his personal capacity, done an immense amount of charity and social work for the ordinary Nepalese over the years.

After the Tenzing-Hillary summit, the Everest remained the exclusive domain of the elite among expert alpinists for three decades until an American rancher and businessman named Dick Bass became the first non-alpinist to summit it, in 1985, with the help of an alpinist named David Breashears and army of guides and sherpas.

Suddenly it began to seem like the Everest summit was within the reach of the average person and all he or she needed was a lot of cash($100000 per head plus that a summit package operator will charge). Simultaneously, the Nepalese Government began to see the huge amounts of money it could make from the permit fees it could charge every climber and the spin-offs from the surge in tourism.

Bass began the ‘post-modern’ era of Everest summits where folks from all walks of life – school teachers, dentists, firemen, cops, nurses – they all began climbing, aided by tour companies that mushroomed to carve out the niche in a growing new tourism business.

Many never made it back alive, of course. Over the past century, the slopes of the 14 sisters have been dotted with the corpses of climbers who did not make it, strewn along the routes that climbers usually take. If you are scaling the Everest, you will come across these grim reminders as you climb higher and higher, their bodies perfectly preserved, frozen in time, their faces blackened by the sun’s unrelenting ultra-violet radiation. Of course, at that height you’re yourself struggling to survive, so you’ll just step over them and move on.

The dead have grown so recognizable that they have even been given nicknames. ‘Green Boots’ lies on his side in a small open-mouthed cave-like overhang at 27800ft on the North face. He had been an Indian, a member of the crack Indian Special Forces Commandos, the ITBP. He was a part of a 6-man Indian team attempting to summit from the Tibetan side on a stormy afternoon in May, 1996.

Separated from his group, Green Boots had sought refuge from the elements in that overhang. As he sat there shivering in the cold, he slowly froze to death. He was seen by other passing climbers, sitting rigidly upright for a year or two before the wind blew his body over on his side into the position that you see him in, below. Two others from his team also perished, their corpses never found. Green Boots now serves as a wayside marker that climbers use, to gauge how near they are to the summit.

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Green Boots, perished 1996, this photo taken by another climber in 2006 (Photo courtesy: Wikipedia)

The cave where Green Boots lies has since been named the ‘Green Boots Cave’. Nine years after he breathed his last, he finally acquired a cave-mate, another climber, who had stopped by to rest in 2005, a 32 year old Britisher, David Sharp. Sharp is still seen sitting there today, another grotesque marker that climbers are forced to pass by on their way to the summit. Sharp’s body froze in place as he sat down to rest, rendering him unable to move.

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David Sharp, perished 2005, photo taken 2011 (Photo courtesy: Wikipedia)

Over 30 climbers passed Sharp by as he sat freezing to death.  Some heard faint moans and realized he was still alive.  They stopped and spoke with him.  He was able to identify himself but was unable to move.  Some brave ones among the passersby moved him into the Sun in an attempt to thaw him but eventually realized that he would never be able to move. They were forced to abandon him.

Nine years have gone by since and the two must be friends by now, one sitting up and the other lying on his side, frozen in time, immobile, silent against the howling winds. In time, over a century, I am sure Green Boots Cave shall grow into a fraternity, of deluded thrill and fame seeking souls, of whom Green Boots and David Sharp shall have the honor of being the founding members.

Why do we humans bring this kind of torture upon ourselves? Is it the mesmeric challenge, the irresistible fascination of besting the seemingly insurmountable?

Then why do we cheat? Why the supplemental oxygen? Why the Nepalese Sherpas who prepare the trails in advance, fix all the ropes and set up all the tents prior to the start of the summit season? Why the mules to carry all the load? Doesn’t all that seem like the end justifying the means?

In what way then are performance enhancing drugs criminal? Surely, an oxygen cylinder in Alpine climbing, must be the equivalent of steroids in cycling?

An Everest summit attempt has been reduced to a contrived and sterile pantomime today. Preparations begin way ahead of the start of the climbing season in early May. A group of forty of the best Sherpa guides set about breaking trail and fixing ropes and ladders, right up to the summit, an enterprise so hazardous that one in ten don’t return. Breaking trail is when someone has already waded through waist-high snow ahead of you, making it easier for you to do the trek. It also acts as a real trail, showing you the way. Without this initial work, climber deaths would sky-rocket.

So, where is the sport, the adventure, if your hand is virtually being held all the way? Those 16 sherpas who died, being swept away in a deadly avalanche  on the Khumbu Icefall in 2014 were doing exactly that – breaking trail and fixing ropes and ladders over crevasses so that amateur climbers who paid $100000 a pop, could get to the top without incident.

Sherpas do many other auxiliary duties, such as preparing the four base camps on the Everest, installing and clearing toilet tents and transporting garbage down the treacherous slopes. I will not even mention the pittance ($125) that they earn per climb and the peanuts that their families get by way of insurance payouts if they perish. All for the great white adventure tourist. The work that a sherpa does is 15 to 20 times more dangerous than the most hazardous job in North America, which is commercial fishing.

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Apa Sherpa(a.k.a. “Super Sherpa”), used to hold the record for reaching the summit of the Everest more times than any other person in history. Apa made his 21st summit in May 2011, but he has since been overtaken by another Sherpa, Kama Rita, who made his 24th summit this May, summitting twice in the same week.

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I imagine what must have happened that led to the 2014 Khumbu Icefall disaster. For a week prior, Chomo had been rumbling and sending smaller seracs (boulders of ice) crashing onto the Khumbu Glacier intermittently, between periods of calm, as she waited to see if we would get the message and stay the hell out of her pristine slopes.

We didn’t and 06:30am on 18th Aril, 2014 she finally spoke. An already well-known supermarket-sized serac that had been hanging for quite a while off the Everest’s west shoulder broke loose and crashed downward on to the Khumbu Glacier just as droves of Sherpas were carrying supplies into the base camp, obliterating 16 of them instantly.

Chomo sent another stop-fucking-with-me message this May. This time it is the overcrowding and the hours-long waiting in queue at the Death Zone and the subsequent delay in getting back down before sunset.

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No, this is not a line outside a rock concert. This year’s climbing season will be defined by this photo, taken 23rd May by a Nepalese military vet, Nirmal Pujra at the Death Zone where the oxygen level is just 15% of that at sea level. This is where you have to stop and take 5-6 breaths for every step that you take. It is also where most deaths occur on the Everest.

The pic shows a line of around a hundred climbers, balancing themselves precariously on a knife-edge ridge just a short distance from the summit. They are tethered to one of only two safety ropes that had been attached to the rock face with pitons, before season began. Just imagine the strain on those pitons….. 

The toll so far is 11 and expected to rise into the 20s by the time season is over(Photo source:Wikimedia)

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I think that extreme sports or adventure tourism are just delusional arrogance, though there are some who will ask us to see in it the ‘glory of human endeavor’. Remember that Swiss female adventure tourist who was gang-raped in 2013 while trying to cycle through one of the world’s deadliest places, the dreaded Chambal valley in Madhya Pradesh, central India? Later on she said to NDTV that she “had wanted to see if she could make it”.

She is no different from those dead climbers. She and them, they were all asking for it and got what was coming to them. The grieving families back home wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about the glory of human endeavor, let me tell you that.

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I have a colleague named Sylvain who is one of those macho types who go on marathons and cross-country swim-a-thons every summer. He loves coming to work in a 2 km/litre Ford truck in winter and a 1900cc Harley in summer.

Sylvain obviously thought that a trek to the Everest Base Camp couldn’t possibly be any worse than the 123km TriMemphre that he regularly ran/swam, so he signed up for a $35000 package that would take him to the Base Camp and back.

The Everest Base Camp is situated at a height of 19500 ft, at the foot of the Khumbu Glacier, a river of ice that creeps down the valley between the Lhotse and the Everest. The Base Camp is where climbers and their back-up crew gather and while the back-up crew settle down, the climbers begin the month-long process of acclimatization before launching their final summit attempts.

On his second day at the base camp, Sylvain developed HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) an affliction where fluid rapidly starts filling up inside the lungs till the victim literally dies of drowning, in his own fluids. HAPE can happen at altitudes usually higher than 8000 ft and is fatal if not treated immediately.

Sylvain was transported down in a chopper, barely alive and later recovered in a Kathmandu Hospital sufficiently enough to fly back home. The entire experience cost him an extra $75000.  He thought that the Everest base camp would be a cinch. He is lucky to be alive.

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Climbing Everest is a 7-week effort that includes a series of acclimatization rotations. Over a 4-week period climbers climb higher and higher and come back down each time to rest, gradually acclimatizing the body to the lack of oxygen. These rotations take them up as high as Camp-3 at 24,500 ft and then down again, until the time arrives for the actual summit attempt. Beyond Camp-3 is the Death Zone where acclimatization no longer works.

So, lets say you have completed your acclimatization rotations and you’re back at Base Camp gearing up for the final summit push. You cannot wait too long because your body will lose it’s acclimatization and you’ll have to acclimatize all over again. You try to think positive and wait. You wait for a narrow window of calm weather, that appears at a specific time in June every year and remains in place for just 5-12 days, when the jet streams are diverted by seasonal storms on the Bay of Bengal, opening up that tiny weather window.

That’s when you, along with hordes of other climbers, rush upward to the summit. That’s why the overcrowding and the massive line-ups. And the deaths. And the barbarism of stepping over bodies, your oxygen-starved mind unable to even feel sorry for the guy, trying to concentrate on just trudging ahead.

But then I pause and hear the words of T.S Eliot – “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.”

Eliot failed to add that those who take that risk foolishly, shall instead find themselves shattered and broken, buried in snow at the bottom of a crevasse.

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ps:

Recommended for further reading – the ill-fated 1996 Everest disaster, when Murphy’s Law was once again conclusively proven……

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That Diwali

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Some things from that evening seem faded, so faded that they could very well have just been dreams. Dreams of how I’d have liked things to have turned out, rather than actual events. It takes a lot of effort now, remembering each detail.

After all it was more than half a century back – Diwali, 1965. But it’s a Diwali that still shimmers, in the haze, except that the haze – it grows denser as the years roll by and the lines, once sharply etched, now seem blurred.

Sukhoranjan, our Jeeves, lit the oil lamps and arranged them along the terrace parapet, the balcony balustrade and even on the window ledges – of employees’ quarters, Type-E, No.34, MAMC Colony, Town: Durgapur, Province: West Bengal, Eastern India.

The October breeze was mild, but the lamps flickered and inevitably some went off after a sudden gust, making Sukhoranjan scurry around, relighting them. “Oof! Aaj eto hawa hobar ki dorkar chilo ? **”of all the days, did it have to be so windy today?”***he fussed.

Meanwhile right after the first fire crackers went off in the neighborhood, our dog, Shepherd, took refuge under the bed – my bed, our bed, mine and my two elder bro’s. Shepherd made frightened, whiny noises as he slinked in, tail well between his legs. He didn’t emerge till it was dinnertime, the festivities were over and the neighborhood had fallen silent.

My father had his arm round my mother’s shoulders, with her head tilted and resting on his, while they stood back and watched their three kids waving crackling fuljhari sticks wildly around. My favorite was the thubri, a firecracker crammed inside an onion-shaped clay pot with a hole on top like the caldera of a volcano, through which it kept spewing stuff out high in the air like a fountain.

The thubri was a dazzling display of colors that lasted around 30 seconds and then the pot lay spent but smoldering, with a tiny flame still licking up from within. I loved giving it a hard kick then. Who lit the first thubri – Chorda? No, perhaps Dada. Heck, I just can’t seem to remember that clearly anymore.

What I do remember is that the war with Pakistan had just ended in a ceasefire and while the mood was upbeat on the one hand, there was also some grieving at the sudden death of the revered Indian Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri. The Gnat fighters from the nearby Panagarh airbase had finally stopped screeching past at treetop level, by the time Diwali came around.

The squeals of excitement of that Diwali, the laughter – it all comes back in snatches, like when you are turning the knob of an old radio and the music from a short wave station keeps swooshing in and out.

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Some other moments are still etched. Like the fact that the stash of firecrackers that our father could reasonably afford happened to be far smaller than those of all the other Joneses in the neighborhood. And we didn’t want to finish before the others. A dark and silent house in the midst of bursting crackers would be an embarrassment.

My father had an ingenious way to address that. He took us for a long walk round the neighborhood, ostensibly to admire the Diwali pradeep lighting on the houses and the crackers others were bursting. It killed time till it became unbearable and the three of us raced back to our individual fire cracker stashes, to begin.

Afterwards, there were heaped plates of mutton pulao for dinner. This was a big deal because we had meat on the table only once every fifteen days or so. We usually ate mutton – chicken being prohibitively expensive in those days. Though there had never been any discussion on it, beef was never an option, even though it was the least expensive. (I’m not sure if in fact were even any beef stalls where I grew up).

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As always, my mother busied herself laying the table and waiting on her four men while they ate. By the time she took her seat, all the mutton was gone and only a bit of the pulao (the rice) was left, stuck to the walls of the pan like a thick plaster. When Dada protested that she didn’t have enough, she smiled and gave him a hug,” If you kids are full, I’m full.” I can still see her scraping the bottom of the pan with her thumb and licking it appreciatively,” You missed the tastiest part, you know.”

I remember Sukhoranjan well. How can you not remember someone you grew up with? Sukhoranjan was a 16 yr old guy from Orissa who had found work as a chaprasi (gopher) in my father’s office. In return for free lodging and board in the servants’ quarters attached to our house, he became our odd-job man, getting the groceries, fixing things around the house, mopping and sweeping, a job that he took as gospel..

Sukhoranjan had left his native Baleshwar with his uncle when he was 6, at the peak of the 1955 famine and the cholera out-break that had claimed both his parents and his younger sister.

After a brief stay with abusive relatives in Chakradharpur, Sukhoranjan ran away and boarded a train to Durgapur, alone, as a frightened 8 yr old. Years of toil in tea shops and grocery stores followed and it was when he was 14, working as a door-to-door fruit seller, that one day his shadow fell across our doorstep.

It had been a blisteringly hot day and Sukhoranjan struggled to lift the fruit basket back on his head, when my mother persuaded him to lay it back down on the ground and asked him to rest a while in the shade of our front porch. Soon a sumptuous lunch followed, which he wolfed down in seconds.

My mother took him in that day and he had been with us ever since. A bright and cheerfully illiterate country boy, a year older than Dada, Sukhoranjan still called him ‘Borda’ (big brother). And he was especially invaluable in my leisure-time pursuits, having taught me the intricacies of gulli-danda, marbles and how to make a gulti (sling) out of a forked wooden twig and rubber strips cut from bicycle tubes.

It was only when you tried to ask Sukhoranjan about his parents or sister that he clammed up. My mother had once seen a photo inside that tiny steel trunk of his that held all his worldly possessions. It was a picture of a couple in front of a hut. He had simply nodded and looked away when my mother had asked him if they were his parents.

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And Shepherd. He was a good looking, unusually large, dirty white mongrel pup when he found us. India is teeming with dogs without a home, that loiter around every street, scrawny and emaciated, with open sores and wounds from fights over scraps, with other dogs.

But Shepherd was different. With a dark grey stripe through the middle of his forehead, from between his eyes to the tip of his nose, he was unnaturally fluffy and plump. As he grew, Shepherd got this bushy white tail and when he confronted another dog, it rolled up tight and went into a high frequency, low amplitude quiver, while his bright aggressive unwavering eyes stayed on the other guy and a low growl escaped from his slightly parted lips. Most dogs quickly figured out that the odds against having a ear torn or a shoulder gashed were very little and made a whining exit which sounded more like, “Fuck it, tennis anyone?” to me.

I have a hunch that Shepherd’s father was one of those Siberian huskies that the Soviet experts brought over with them. This was 1965 – at the apex of Indo-Soviet cooperation. We were living inside a township that had technical experts from the Soviet Union helping us build coal mining machinery. The husky must have fallen for a local babe somewhere along and one thing had lead to another. We never got acquainted with his mother. Guess she’d passed on by the time Shepherd, the pup, found us.

Shepherd truly was a Soviet dog. The KGB couldn’t have done any better, penetrating a third world country. Shepherd eased himself into our house gradually in strategically planned moves. He was first spotted sunning himself occasionally on our garden wall parapet and then we noticed he had promoted himself to the top of one of the two concrete garden gate posts. It was not long before he drew my mother’s attention,”Dakh re, kukur ta ki mishti dekhte” (look guys, isn’t that a cute pup?).

Soon Ma was flinging leftovers to him after our meals. One day, when Sukhoranjan was about to garbage an old frying pan, Ma decided to keep it and use it as Shepherd’s dinner plate. She had Sukhoranjan remove the handle and clean it out and began having one of us kids go out and leave it filled with scraps, on his favorite gate post.

As Shepherd grew however, that gate post proved to be too small and he kept inadvertently knocking the pan off it in his eager enthusiasm. Soon we started leaving the pan on our doorstep instead.

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The monsoon of 1965 was particularly severe and I remember this one late night. Ma and Baba were asleep, their bedroom door shut. I suddenly woke to see Dada and Chorda standing by our bedroom window, holding the grills and looking out, talking in a low tone. I jumped out of bed and went up behind them. My eyes were at the level of their waists and I had to push my little head through to see what was grabbing their attention. In the blinding sheets of rain, I saw Shepherd, bedraggled, on top of his gate post, trying to find a comfortable position to settle himself in.

Dada looked at Chorda, got a nod and turned to me,”Sshh. Mukh theke ekta shobdo jeno na shuni. Noito gatta khabi, bujhli?” (Ssh. One sound from you and you’ll get one of my bare knuckle raps on your head). He was obviously worried about my parents waking up.

Dada was tough and I never took his words lightly. If he said he was going to beat me up, he was going to beat me up. You couldn’t reason with him. You couldn’t placate him. You couldn’t seek refuge under the law. He was the law. He might easily have been born in the turn of the century in the town of Corleone or Palermo.

So, here we were, by the bedroom window,  me held by the ears, slowly being shaken but not stirred, by Dada. He continued, “Teen shotti bol, shatti, shatti, shatti” and I repeated after him in a hushed, awed voice, “Shatti, shatti, shatti”. Repeating ‘shatti’ thrice meant giving your word to the other guy that you wouldn’t rat out on him. This was the first time they were going to trust me not go blab to our parents the first chance I got. It was awesome. I was in! I’d suddenly grown up. I was now being taken as a man by my peers.  Laga Chaka Baga Chaka! (relax, that’s Bengali for Yippee!).

My euphoria was short-lived, for Dada hit me with a gatta anyway. I started, “What the…!!%^*” and he swiftly clamped his palm on my mouth, “That was just for taste. There’s more from where that came, remember that.” Jesus Christ, they should have named this guy Joey Gallo.

The gatta was painful and unprovoked and when it became evident that I was going to burst out crying, Kissinger (Chorda) stepped in,” Now relax, take it easy, ok? You are now one of us. We gotta stick together, right?” I nodded hurriedly, gulping back my tears.

Dada took charge immediately, “All right, here’s what we’ll do” he jabbed a finger painfully into my chest sending me reeling back,” you get that spare mat from the prayer room and meet us at the front door.” With that curt command, he and Chorda swung on their heels and slinked down the stairs, while I made my way in the dark, to the prayer room, to retrieve the spare mat, making sure I kept a safe distance from that pashbalish (round cushion) on the whatnot that scared the bejesus out of me every time I was made to enter the prayer room alone in the dark. I grabbed hold of the mat and raced downstairs to where my elder brothers were waiting.

They already had the front door open and Shepherd was standing there, dripping and forlorn, his wet fluff now sticking to his body making him look half his size. There was this cove under the stairs next to the front door which housed the family bicycle (my father went to work on it when he didn’t manage to get a lift).

Shepherd came in and proceeded to the cove where he shook himself dry vigorously, soaking us all in the process. I hugged him. He was cold. Chorda had brought a bowl of milk which he placed next to the mat. Shepherd curled himself up on the mat and lapped at the milk gratefully. He was done in a microsecond and lay stretched out, eyes half closed, bushy tail wagging lazily in appreciation. In another minute he breathed a deep sigh and was out like a light. The next morning we were taken aback to note that our parents didn’t mind Shepherd’s new lodgings at all.

The penetration of the household was now complete, the culmination of a totally successful ‘hearts and minds’ exercise – the only casualty being my forehead – from Dada’s gattas.

Sukhoranjan got a permanent unionised job at MAMC, married soon after and moved away in ’68.

Shepherd passed on in the summer of ’69 around the time of the first moon landing. He failed to recover from a tonsil operation. I had just turned 14.

 

Just imagine you’re Hank the 8th

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“…..He used to marry a new wife every day, and chop off her head next morning. And he would do it just as indifferent as if he was ordering up eggs. ‘Fetch up Nell Gwynn,’ he says. They fetch her up. Next morning, ‘Chop off her head!’ And they chop it off. ‘Fetch up Jane Shore,’ he says; and up she comes. Next morning, ‘Chop off her head’ – and they chop it off….”

– Excerpt from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn

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Richard Burton as HankVIII and Genevieve Bujold as Anne Boleyn in ‘Anne of a thousand days'(This is a publicity still, not a movie scene)

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The guy Huck Finn was referring to was Henry VIII, King of England from 1509 when he ascended the throne, at 18, until his death in 1547. Though Huck’s was an amusing remark, it came pretty close to being very accurate.

Henry VIII sure was a piece of work. The closest guy I know of today could be Vladimir Putin if I can imagine him being a patron of the arts. But more about that later, maybe in a follow-up piece.

Imagine you are a commoner, a serf, a helot, a menial. Take it easy, I’m just showing my vocab off, relax.

Imagine you’re a fucking nobody born in sixteenth century England, a dark and treacherous place in a dark and treacherous time, reverberating with squelching sounds as folk step on horseshit on the roads. If you are taking a morning walk, you learn to stay away from the sidewalk and walk in the middle of the road even though a passing horse might kick you in the nuts.

You avoid the sidewalks because folks clear out their ablutions by simply opening a window and chucking the contents of their bedpans out and you wouldn’t want that in your face, would you? They haven’t yet gotten on to the concept of bathrooms and toilets and sewer systems.

Hey, hey, hey, stop right there. The history that we usually study doesn’t tell us about the world that folks like you – shit shoveling ornery dumb suckers – lived in. Instead, the history we read is actually the biographies of famous men and the battles they fought. So if your dad happened to be king, chances are good you’d be in the history books and I’d be reading about who you fucked and who you ordered whacked and so on.

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So let’s imagine you’re not a commoner and instead, you’re a member of the elite. It is the 16th century England and your Dad is King. In those days Kings would give anything to have a male heir to carry on the dynasty and your Dad is no different. He has two sons, you and your elder bro.

You are a magnificent specimen, tall, well built, with flaming red hair and you enjoy jousting, a sport where two knights bear down at each other on their steeds, with long lances in hand and try to unseat each other with the tips of their lances.

You don’t have to worry about being unseated from a horse. You are King Junior. The other guy won’t touch you, unless he fancies having his own little dungeon in the Tower of London and likes to help the executioners’ union with some overtime pay. But of course, nothing stops you from letting the knight have it with your lance. What the fuck’s he going ta do? Sue you? Hot damn, you are the heir to the fucking throne, you’re the fucking law.

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Jousting. Relax, this is a 21st century demo. Spectators didn’t wear jeans those days (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)

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Your elder bro is a frail, scrawny kid who is always falling ill. Not surprising. With all those charcoal and wood burning stoves right in the middle of the hearth and London’s typically dank and muggy climate, folks are always just a step away from contracting tuberculosis, which right now is a terminal illness. Why, even a bout of flu can get you killed these days. Add to that an unhealthy diet of almost exclusively red meat, probably slightly putrefied in the heat, and you have to have a pretty solid constitution to get to the double digits.

And so it is with Arthur, your big bro. Your Dad had gotten him hitched with the daughter of the Spanish King Ferdinand when he was just two. That is quite normal with European monarchies, this advance booking, since royals want to marry only other royals and there aren’t many going around. Besides, marriages these days have little to do with love. A lot of gold, territory and favors change hands as dowry and new wartime alliances are forged.

A cute plump and unassuming 16yr old, Catherine of Aragon, unfortunately never gets laid. By Arthur, that is. Arthur dies before the marriage has been consummated. They call it ‘sweating sickness’, whatever that is. Your Dad doesn’t break out in a sweat either, since he still has you.

Now, you are quite unlike your elder bro, may the Lord rest his soul. You’re a horny stud. You’ve been escorting Cathy around, holding her soft pudgy hands through her bereavement. You’re just 12 but your crotch-hugging long hose breeches are bulging fit ta burst. You can’t wait to have your left hand inside her bodice while your right wants to blaze a trail into her padded skirt. That’s you with Cathy below:-

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 Hank and Cathy

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The moment your Dad gives up the ghost in 1509, you are pronounced King, being next in line. You’re 18 now and young dames and duchesses are being lined up for you ta marry but you decide to marry old Cathy. You’re pushover for sweet young widows with puffy, unexplored pussies.

You fuck. All the time – in the antechamber, in the chapel, before a joust, after a joust. Like your father and his before him, you want a male heir, remember? And besides, you’re just a plain horny guy. Alongside, you carry on affairs galore, with women who are commoners. You have a commoner-girl fetish. Hey, I live in the twennie-first century and I have a commoner girl fetish. If you’ve seen those Malayalee Indian farm girls who don’t wear bras, you’ll know what I mean.

But hey, take it easy, this isn’t about me, its about you, Hank the 8th.

The years go by but Cathy fails to give you a male heir. She does give birth to the famous future Queen Mary I, but that doesn’t matter to you. You want a guy, period. When Cathy starts gaining too much weight, you realize that your interest in her is inversely proportional. It is round and about the same time that you set your horny eyes on one of her maids-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn.

Maids-in-waiting are nubile young girls from noble families who are ostensibly employed on an honorary basis by the queen to keep her company and help her get dressed and all. However, their actual job profile and key performance criteria are to be spirited away and get laid by the King whenever he wishes. In this, Anne Boleyn excels and you’re soon infatuated. She has there massive breasts that resemble those East African baobab fruits and you love getting lost in ’em.

(Actually there is no evidence that Anne had big tits. But then this is my blog and if I say Annie had big jugs, she had big jugs).

You want Anne Boleyn but can’t, because there’s only one church these days and that’s the Roman Catholic Church and it won’t allow you to divorce Cath because Catholicism says divorce is a sin. The church’s message is that you can fuck all you want and whomever, even your horse if you are into such dalliances. But you can’t get a divorce.

Anne is a nymph, adroit at getting to your erotic zones and you are one big erotic zone, you. She is dark complexioned, perky, impish, impertinent and has a flash of a temper. She drives you nuts and leaves you with one perpetually sore richard.

The Roman Catholic Church has not morphed into the ‘Facebook for pedophiles’ yet. That will happen in later centuries. Right now it has enormous power and greed and it is represented in every European country by its archbishop who runs things like a parallel government, collecting taxes directly from the citizens while the monarch sucks his thumbs and picks up the crumbs and bows allegiance to the fucking Pope.+

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Hank weds Annie-big-boobs

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But you are King, dammit. And you are hot headed. You have been chafing against this no-divorce papal leash for some time. You see an opportunity here. When the Pope refuses to allow the divorce so you can marry Anne, you show him your bejeweled middle finger and establish your own church, the Church of England.

What the Almighty would think about all this – creating a new church just for the sake of a pussy – does not cross your mind.

You go ahead and have all those bishops who still insist on allegiance to the Pope, beheaded. Oh yeah, an executioner’s is the only recession-proof job around these parts. All that a rookie executioner needs to know is how to swing a fifty pound axe and get the sucker square on the neck.

After you’re done with the bishops, you confiscate all church property and wealth, which is enormous and parallels the King’s. Anne, a power hungry harlot, is thrilled. You wed her, you import a kama sutra expert from the land of spices and gold and you fuck Anny-big-Boobs any which way but alas, she has an air but no male heir and we all know what you do with broads who don’t give you a male heir.

All that frenzied fucking does provide Anne with a baby – England’s most successful monarch of all time, Queen Elizabeth-1. But she is a broad. Not good enough. You are fixated with having a son.

Like I said before, your new queen, Anne, is brash and arrogant and that doesn’t go down well for a lady – even a queen – in 16th century. Soon she ends up making powerful enemies in your court – men you have ta depend upon and occasionally mollycoddle, in order to maintain your own power.

Very soon Anny-big-Boobs turns into a perceived liability. From this point, her days are numbered. Soon you begin looking for ways ta get rid of her.

You fabricate a story about Anne sleeping around and even screwing her own bro and plotting against you and all and then – after having laid the brick and mortar groundwork, you sentence her to death. You had originally wanted her to be burnt at the stake but then, thinking of all the times she gave you awesome head, you decide to have her beheaded.

For the execution, you get an expert swordsman from France. (You have your own executioner but you don’t trust the bastard alone with your wife). The swordsman is an authentic French knight, hung like a bull, his biceps (and his stretch pants) bulging. You schedule the execution for the next Friday. You have plans with another MIW that weekend. MIW Maid-In-Shtup…err..Waiting.

Anne is thrown inside the Tower of London. This is a forbidding structure made from huge blocks of stone. There is a dark dank dampness and the air of death in there, torches flickering along the walls, stone steps leading down to infinity. Umm…that was in Ben Hur, sorry, I get mixed up these days.

Anyways, Anne calls for the executioner and tries one last time. She tells him, “C’mon big boy, you an’ me, we could be in Hawaii in six months, I got a fast boat. How bout it? Let’s split, hunky-doo, ooooh.”

Doesn’t work. The swordsman is gay. Sorry, Annie, Monsieur Swordsman has a date with Hank’s executioner as soon as he has your head on a platter.

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I have to go now. Will definitely let you know what happens after Anne’s beheading and all Hank’s other wives, soon as I fill up my mug with another Stella Artois. Story telling makes me thirsty.

Even when its yore own story I’m tellin’ ya.

Toodle-oo.

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On the Road to Jericho

‘Every day, each one of us

goes out on the Jericho road…’

– Mother Teresa (Oslo, 1979 – Nobel acceptance speech)


jericho

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Noah’s Ark was patched together by volunteers. The Titanic was built by professionals (Anonymous)


It is a busy life. You’re an immigrant. Canada has taken a while longer getting to know you, than you had expected. But you have made your bones, started from scratch, working hard at building your career, balancing your family obligations, trying to stay in shape and finding time to pursue the stuff you really love doing – reading and writing.

After ten years in your new home, your life has finally attained a little stability. Financial freedom, cars, kid through private school, his university nest egg building up, vacations, a manageable mortgage, beer and neighbors who no longer look quizzically at the way you are dressed on weekends, in your kurta-pyjamas. And beer.

Did I say beer twice? Must have been an echo.

Yet, there is this emptiness. The years are rolling by and soon you’ll be 65, an age when interesting things stop happening to you when you would like them to go on happening to you. The feeling, that you have amounted to very little and that you have made no impact whatsoever on the community at large, that feeling has acquired a studio apartment at the back of your mind.

One day you open the letter box and there is nothing in there except for this little bland pamphlet, from an organization called Volunteer West Island. Emblazoned over it are the words, ‘The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself, in the service of others’ – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

Usually you gather up all the pamphlets with an annoyed sweep and grumble,’I wish those m—er f—ers would stop dumpin’ this shit in my letterbox’ and you proceed to chuck them in the blue recycle bin in your driveway. North America is pamphlet country.

Not this time. This time you pause and you take the pamphlet home, flipping it over and over between your fingers. You fling it on your desk in the den downstairs and there it stays for a month give or take, during which time it gets pushed around the desk by the mouse and the keyboard.

Soon the pamphlet begins to age, acquiring a coffee stain here and a beer stain there (lots of beer stains actually), a few quick scribbles, a couple of phone numbers and some hasty interest calculations. North America isn’t just pamphlet country. It is also credit line, credit card debt, balance transfer and overdue interest country.

You peer at Gandhi’s words from time to time. You are an agnostic, steadily tilting toward atheism. One day, your elder bro sends you a short piece that the Indian journalist, Mukul Sharma, had posted in his column, The Spiritual Atheist, in the Economic Times. The title of the post is ‘A caring universe’. Here is an excerpt from it…..

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“Does the universe care about what we do or what happens to us or whether we live or die?

If we were to believe hard-core amoral nihilists who say that the universe is just a physical phenomenon with no spiritual component, that events are random and have no deeper meaning or purpose and that there are no consequences to our actions, then the answer is obviously no.

Yet, even if that were true, it certainly doesn’t mean that we can’t care about the universe because, unlike it, we have evolved into sapient creatures that are capable of wonder and love. Meaning, we can infuse it with the same whether it cares or not. In fact, with that kind of involvement on our part, who cares whether it cares or not?

If we were to do that, we could begin living in a basically spiritual universe, ordered by feelings of good and bad; a cosmic order that would in turn, underpin and motivate all our actions. It would be like a moral force where our actions have definite effects that we carry with us. In this respect, its meaning would then be close to the Hindu concept of Karma.

The notion of a moral universe would also buttress spirituality and form the basis for kindness, compassion, altruism and caring for others. This is because it places a value on human life and living things that goes beyond what seems suitable if we regard people and living things merely as a collection of atoms, and essentially no different from any other unfeeling, non-sentient structures such as rocks soil, mountains or planets”.

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Like Mukul Sharma, you have chosen to believe in a moral, caring universe, though somehow you do not believe that there is a connection between religion and morality. One can be good and caring without having to lean on the crutch of religious fervor. Why, it is now well on its way to be scientifically proven that goodness and caring are actually the work of certain identified neurons in the brain and can actually be tweaked and fiddled with, through a fast emerging science known as neuroscience. It is a matter of time before a sociopath can actually be converted into a deeply caring individual (and vice versa of course), through treatment.

Back to you now and one day, pre-Christmas, on your way to work, there is this radio program calling for volunteers at St Anne’s, the Military Veterans’ hospital, a long-term end-of-life care facility, to help the 90+ year old war veterans through the especially crushing loneliness of the Christmas holidays. Numerous activities are planned for the seniors in order to keep them occupied and not dwell upon why even their own don’t find the time to visit them.

‘I have nothing special planned this Christmas’, you say to yourself. You get to your den and look around for that pamphlet. It has gotten so badly crumpled that you can barely read it. You call the number and a Ms Grenville, head of Volunteer Services at St. Anne’s, answers.

The 50% discount at the cafeteria makes up your mind.

You fill out a form and the RCMP checks you out. It takes another week for you to become a volunteer, with your own volunteer’s badge and ID. You are now one of the 12.5 million registered Canadians (that is 1 in 3 Canadians), the second largest volunteer population density after the Dutch.

The words of a 69 year old Albanian nun, standing in front of the world and accepting it’s highest honor, the Nobel Peace Price, Oslo 1979, are at the back of your mind – ‘everyday, each of us goes for a  walk on the Jericho road.’

You are a registered traveler on the Jericho road now and you are scheduled to travel that road for two hours every Wednesday.

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“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your redemption is tied up with mine, then let us work together.”

— Lill Watson, American aboriginal activist  – to all wannabe volunteers

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Six months have slipped by at St. Anne’s and that anguish that you constantly felt before, at a meaningless wasted life, has vanished. In these six months, you have been around a good deal of illness and even death. Witnessing the challenges residents face on a daily basis has helped you appreciate your own life all the more.

Besides that, volunteering in a hospital has connected you with many like-minded people, volunteers like you, men and women trying to find fulfillment. You have formed personal bonds with nurses, doctors and of course, the residents and it has been gratifying. You have been treated with a different kind of respect that is reserved for those who offer a helping hand.

Here’s what you do at St.Anne’s. You come in straight from work around 6pm. It is a sprawling complex which is easy to get lost in. You did get lost trying to find the employees’ entrance the first time, but only that one time.

You swipe your card through and get straight to Volunteer Services, which is this tiny room with a closet where volunteers hang their coats and store their backpacks and stuff. You stoop and fill in your attendance in the file that is always lying open on this table.

After you sign in you straighten and on the wall right in front are these two white boards, both having names scribbled on them. One is always full of names with numbers written next to them. Like ‘Bernard Bonneville (805) – Bingo’ or ‘Martin Beauregard (904) – Cribbage’ and so on.

If the name is crossed out it means another volunteer has come in ahead of you and taken charge of that resident. The number beside the name is the room number, 805 – Room 5 in the 8th floor. If it is Mr. Bonneville, it is his Bingo evening and you have to proceed to his room, take charge of him, wheel him down on his wheelchair, to the Bingo hall and take him back to his room, after. That’s the way it works.

Your conduct with the resident in your charge is governed by a few very strict ground rules and taboos that Ms Grenville warned you about, right at the start. Here are some of them…..

‘Almost all the residents are veterans of WW2 or the Korean War. Never talk about the war unless the resident opens the subject. ‘Latent’ PTSD is a real issue and many of these 90+ year olds are actually afflicted with it and have never known it. So, please, don’t be a shmuck and rekindle painful memories. If you plan to blog on war stories, it shall have to wait till the resident opens up on his own.’

– ‘Do not ask about a resident’s personal life unless he starts talking about it first. Most times he has no family. I mean family that cares. Wife long gone, siblings probably long dead too, children grown, with no time to visit, the desire to catch just a glimpse of them and the grand kids, all that yearning and the abandonment – it can be crippling.’

– ‘Smile and be positive, sunny and cheerful when talking to them. They crave that. Most have been enlisted men and then, after the war, blue collar workers. They love to listen to raunchy humor, no matter how old they get. Bring along a stock of dirty jokes if you want to brighten up their evenings.’

– ‘Do not get emotionally attached to a resident. Most likely he will not live long and the separation can be very painful. Do not take a resident home or out on a drive with you, even if he begs you to. If anything happens, you will be held responsible. The hospital does not cover the costs and neither does your own auto insurance.’

– ‘Some of the residents, especially the lonelier ones, will try to show their gratitude because you chose to spend time with them. It’s understandable. Aren’t we all overwhelmed when perfect strangers step forward to help us? But in your case, they might offer money as a tip or reward. Do not accept it. Remember that you are a volunteer and you are here because you want to find meaning in your own life.’

– ‘If you promised a resident you would visit him on a particular day, make damned sure that you keep that date. You have no idea how much they look forward to your visit and how despondent a resident can get if you don’t turn up. Besides it may be the last you see of him or her.’

– ‘Do not try to contact the resident’s family under any circumstances, even if the resident implores you to. His family may not welcome the contact. Call the nurse in charge of the floor and let her deal with it.’

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“When we feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean and won’t make any difference at all, we must remember that the ocean would be less if that drop was missing.”

– Mother Theresa

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I told you about 2 white boards and I explained about one, if you have been paying attention.

Now let’s get to the other white board.

The other board has a shorter list, with two, maybe three names on it. It has reddish orange poppies and lilies all around it. Sometimes there are real flowers, roses and cards stuck behind it. On top is written “Décédé la semaine dernière”.

Once in a while, you recognize a name. Like, today. Today there is one name on the second board that you immediately recognize and stare at in disbelief – Ron Nimitz, Corporal, RCN (Retd).

Once in a while, the no-emotional-attachment rule is fated to be broken, as in the case of Ron, a 96-year old ex-sapper. He was a dear dear little man whom you loved spending time with. You looked forward to seeing him more than he did, seeing you. Full of mischief, Ron raised hell at Bingo. “Sonuva bitch! I’ll never get the numbers! What the f—k am I doon here?” “Hey, get lost, chump, that’s my seat.” “Oh baby, come n light mah fayah.” The last one to Rosy, a 91-year old WW2 radio operator who screams back,” You shut your foul mouth, you dirty old man! Sally (**Rosy’s volunteer minder**), come here! Move me to another table, will you?”

You haven’t finished reading Ron’s name on the second board and you are racing through the corridor toward the elevator banks. You dive into an elevator that is about to go up. You get off at the 6th floor and hurry down the short distance past the nurses’ station, to Ron Nimitz’s door.

It is open. The room is empty, completely sanitized, ready to take in the next vet. The wall above his bed is bare. His beloved war photos, of his regiment and his buddies, grinning, legs dangling over the mud skirt of an M4 Sherman tank and all those family photo collages – they are all gone.

It is almost as if Ron Nimitz had been just a figment of your imagination.

You stumble down to Volunteer Services. You are empty. Devoid. You just want to skip and just go home.

You pick up your stuff from your locker and on the way out the door, your glance falls on the first white board. No one has picked up David Boucherville yet and you know how much he loves his Bingo. Your eyes light up and you chuckle. Dave Boucherville and his Alzheimers makes friends with you all over again, every time. Every ten minutes or so, Dave asks the same question as he sizes you up suspiciously,” You’re not Cheryl? Where’s Cheryl? Has she come home yet?” You have been taught by the nurses to answer with a cheerful tone, as if you heard him ask that question for the very first time,” Oh she’ll be here in a half hour’.

You stash your stuff back into your locker and you head for the elevators to fetch Dave.

There is a spring in your step.