That Diwali

thatdiwali

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.

 

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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)


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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.

Gold Star Suckers’ Day

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The typically American concept of the ‘gold star parents’ is an interesting one. There are other monikers – Gold Star Families – Gold Star Fathers – Gold Star Mothers(image above) – Gold Star Wives – Gold Star Pooches, you get the hang. For those who don’t have a clue as to who these folks are, they have something in common – they are the parents, husbands, pets of American soldiers who have lost their lives on active duty. I was kidding about the pets but why leave them out in this farce? There is even a Gold Star Mothers’ Day – the last Sunday in September each year.

I am not sure whether Gold Star status applies to even service personnel who died accidentally during a conflict, like maybe while the dude was handling explosives in a military base or while on a training flight. It probably doesn’t. But I have decided not to lose sleep worrying over the sham.

You must think I am being really really insensitive. Just hear me out.

When I watched Khizr Khan and his wife on TV at the Democratic National Convention in 2016, proudly announcing their Gold Star status, it struck me that my country of birth, India, has no such ‘exclusive club’ of parents. Thousands of Indian Army soldiers die every year trying to secure their motherland’s borders against Pakistani infiltrators, but you don’t get to see either the Indian Government or the public going overboard and forming cult-like fraternities of Gold Star families. They honor the sacrifices of their martyrs and they move on with their lives.

I am sure its the same on the Pakistani side. Neither do the Europeans nor even the Russians or the Chinese have anything close to ‘Gold Star parents’. America is the only nation which raises the parents of dead soldiers to a kind of God-like status. An even bigger irony is that those American soldiers that do survive and manage to get back home, are shunned and treated like crap by a corrupt bureaucracy.

The ancient Spartans had moms who handed their 6-year old male children over to the state, to be groomed to do battle and die as heroes. When they did inevitably die, the parents were honored – if only symbolically – pretty much like the American Gold Star parents of today.

There is however a difference between the Spartan parents and the American parents. In the case of the Spartans, that was the law and the parents had little say in the matter. It was either give up your child to go get trained to be a soldier and die in battle or let him remain at home and have the authorities snatch him when he is an adolescent, to go work in the hazardous arsenic-laced gold and silver mines and die there. Spartan parents had little choice.

There is another huge difference – The Spartans drew their soldiers from all strata of the society, the elite as well as the hoi-polloi finding equal representation. The American elite do everything in their power to avoid serving in the military. Remember Donald Trump’s bone spurs?

Only one modern-day parallel to the American Gold Star moms and dads exists and that is in North Korea. I am told that the North Koreans have a well established system of badges of honor doled out to the parents of dead soldiers. The parents walk around with those badges proudly displayed on their drab tunics and total strangers walk up to them to shake their hands.

But then, in North Korea those strangers are mandated by law to shake a Gold Star parent’s hands, unless they want to find themselves rotting inside a gulag. I guess any nation which places greater value on putting on a show, rather than actually behaving honorably, will have inane institutions such as ‘gold star families’.

For America, it is a perfect win-win situation – the nation starts a war, invades another nation that was simply minding its own business half a world away and just when the body bags begin coming home and morale begins flagging, it is artificially boosted with organizations like ‘Gold Star Mothers Inc.’ and ‘Gold Star Fathers Inc.’

“Always give ’em something to look forward to, even in death”, seems to be the dictum. So what if the real hero is dead. Make his parents the heroes by giving them fancy titles like ‘Gold Star Mother’ or ‘Gold Star Father’. They’ll be thrilled when total strangers walk up to them and shake their hands and repeat the same inane BS…. ‘thank you for your son’s service’. It will make them forget the fact that their son or daughter died fighting a war that was cruel and unjust, very likely having been active participants in some kind of atrocity or the other, against the innocent citizens of another sovereign nation whom they loved calling ‘gooks’ and ‘barbarians’. Remember Mai Lai? Remember Abu Ghraib?

Do the alleged ‘mothers’ in the above photo look grief stricken to you? I think they seem a little too smug and definitely tickled to have their pictures taken. I wonder what they must be thinking – perhaps something along these lines……’I wish I had a couple more sons to let The White House send to their deaths. Then maybe I could get to be Gold Star Mom of the Month’.

Perhaps those Gold Star Moms just can’t wait to be on the receiving end of those flag folding ceremonies, where three or four soldiers, members of the coffin bearing platoon, begin folding the flag that had been draped over the coffin, in an excruciatingly slow and painstaking process that takes several minutes and is designed to make you grit your teeth. At the end of it, the flag turns into a tightly wrapped triangular bundle that resembles a cushion. The bundle is then handed over to the Gold Star Mom, who receives it with an expression that looks like she is the one who should be grateful.

The amount of ceremony that goes into a military funeral in the US is unbelievable, though for what purpose escapes me. No one bothers to remember the fallen anyway. Before Mr. Khizr Khan spoke up about his son Humayun at the DNC, did Americans even know that there existed on earth a dead American soldier named Capt Humayun Khan? The day after the morning that he gave his life in 2004, did even a single American civilian on the street hear about his sacrifice?

We know the answers to those questions, don’t we? And then, let’s look at the other side in the so-called ‘war on terror’. Are the mothers in Raqqa, Molenbeek or Mosul also aspiring to be Gold Star Moms, I wonder. Maybe they’ll call themselves ‘All Star Moms’? (All, short for Allah). And why the hell not? (Though, I suspect there won’t be any bagpipes there).

Perhaps the biggest irony is the fact that in America, while the dead are honored by giving their parents the gold star status, veterans who are still alive – barely able to adapt to civilian life, ridden with alcoholism and drug addiction brought on by PTSD and/or Moral Injury – their plight is pathetic, administered by an institution called “Department of Veterans’ Affairs” which is universally known to be one of the most corrupt, inept and apathetic public sector organizations on the planet.

The ‘Gold Star’ status is a ludicrous farce, especially for a nation that does not have to worry about an invasion, since it is bound by two vast oceans on either side and friendly neighbors in the north and the south.  Therefore, for an American GI mom, alas, Gold Stars can only be won when her Li’l Billy catches a bullet between his eyes, while engaged in an act of naked aggression, against a country half a world away that never did America any harm.

My God, this has got to be the perfect jerk-off. I know what I want to be – just a father, not a Gold Star Sucker.

 

Being the little guy (Part-2)

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“Be the little guy. That way, they don’t see you comin’.”

“The only way you reach perfection is when there is nothing more left to steal.”

– FBI wiretap transcripts of Carlo Gambino, head of the Gambino crime family, New York, giving sagely advice to a newly ‘made’ rookie mafioso at his initiation ceremony.

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Carlo Gambino under arrest. He was acquitted in this one, as in everyone of the other indictments he ever faced. (Photo courtesy: LA Times)

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Remember that Roman emperor guy in Part-1 and I said I’d to tell you about another guy who liked to keep a very low profile? No? You really should be paying more attention to your Alzheimers, you know. Have you moved to an assisted living facility yet? No? Maybe I can help ya with that. It has female nurses in grass skirts with too few blades at the massage center. But this isn’t about girls in grass skirts, don’t lead my sharp intellect astray.

Do you play Scrabble? If you play it with family and friends casually, that’s okay, but if you play competition, it pays to be aware of those little two and three letter words that you never knew existed, which can be connected to existing strings, especially those little ‘hook’ words that connect the letters in your tray to something that leads to a big score on the board. In an intense competition, it is those little words that decide if you’ll win or you’ll lose. Did you know that ‘ed’ is a word? I bet you didn’t. No, it doesn’t stand for ‘Erectile Dysfunction’. It means ‘specialized’.

The second man was a diminutive person who never drew attention to him. You could equate him to a scrabble hook word – tiny, waiting in the wings to strike when the opportunity presented itself. He was from the same region of the world as the guy in Part-1 (Claudius), only he was born 1900 years later – in Palermo, Sicily – in a dirt poor household. In his teens, unable to get work, he stole away in a freighter to the US when he was just 17.

Like Claudius, this man too went on to become an emperor in his own right. Only, in his case it wasn’t a country, but a tightly-knit and murderous fraternity. The members of the fraternity didn’t just call him an emperor, but as a sign of respect and fear that he generated for a while in the 1940s through much of the 70s, Carlo Gambino was known as the Capo di tutti Capi, or ‘boss of all bosses’, arguably one of the most powerful American mob bosses in history and the most respected, judging by the fact that he was one of the handful of mafia bosses who managed to die a natural death, of old age.

A diminutive man with beedy eyes, a large nose and a mild, pleasant and deferential demeanor, Gambino was anything but imposing in stature. He never made his orders sound like demands, he issued them with a request that was deferential in tone. A compatriot of his, Joe Bonnano, one of the powerful heads of the five New York crime families of the 50s, once called Gambino a ‘squirrel of a man’. Maybe he did have the looks of a squirrel but he was anything but that. In fact Don Carlo Gambino had the heart of a daring cheetah, the cunning of a fox and the venom of a viper.

To wade through the vicious world of the mafioso right around the time organized crime was coming of age in America and be able to reach the very pinnacle, keeping at bay and earning the respect of the legends of the time – Lucky Luciano, Albert Anastasia, Vito Genovese, Frank Costello and Meyer Lansky – needed a special kind of nerve and only Don Carlo had that.

Gambino had the rare ability to see two moves ahead and act without hesitation when he saw an advantage. His mantra was ‘when you want to get at the other guy, first make him believe you are giving in to what he wants’. When the ambitious Vito Genovese tried to grab territory that belonged to him, Gambino laid a trap for him. He knew that Genovese was heavily involved in drug trafficking, an activity that was still in a nascent stage and frowned upon by the mafia bosses of the day. He also knew that three other bosses – Frank Costello, Meyer Lansky, and Lucky Luciano – hated Genovese.

Gambino saw an opportunity. He roped the other three in and put together a lucrative drug deal that was too good for Genovese to pass up. Then Gambino paid a Puerto Rican drug dealer $100,000 to rat on Genovese. The dealer was small fry and could not possibly have had access to mafia bosses. Besides, his testimony should have been struck down as hearsay. But the FBI wanted Genovese real bad – another thing that Gambino knew, from his law enforcement contacts. They swallowed the Puerto Rican’s account as authentic and managed to win a conviction that put Vito Genovese away for 20 years. Genovese  dying, while still incarcerated, of a heart attack.

In the film “The Godfather”, Michael Corleone says to his lover, Kay Adams, “My father is no different than any other powerful man, Kay. He’s like a President or a Senator, any man who feels responsible for others, his friends, his family, his people…” That would aptly describe what Carlo Gambino thought of himself to be, a sentiment that played large in his psyche – that he was the savior.

While the other New York mafia bosses lead ostentatious lives – owning palatial mansions, flashy limos and strings of high-priced mistresses, Gambino was a singularly unpretentious man who was content living in a modest 2-storey brick house in Brooklyn that he shared with his wife of 40 years, the only difference being that the house was inside a heavily guarded cul-de-sac, with the other buildings owned and occupied by trusted family men (an aspect that was recorded by Mario Puzo, in his mafia opus ‘The Godfather’).

At the height of his reign as Capo di Tutti Capi, Carlo Gambino is said to amassed a fortune that was worth upwards of fifty billion dollars. His underboss, Aniello Dellacroce, once quoted Gambino exclaiming exultantly,” Well, what do you know, we are bigger than US Steel!” (The line was later used by the character, Hyman Roth, in the Francis Ford Coppola hit The Godfather- Part II).

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The singer all America loves to idol worship – Frank Sinatra, feted by Republican Presidents and politicians who just love to run their campaigns on ‘ platform of law and order’. Here is Sinatra and his law breaking sponsors – Frank Sinatra (standing, second from left) and Carlo Gambino (standing, second from right) (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)

(Personally, I hope Sinatra is rotting in hell.)

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Gambino could bear a grudge too, as was evident by the Scialo killing…….

A feared soldier of the Colombo crime family, Dominick Scialo, was once at a restaurant when he spotted Carlo Gambino and began to harass and insult him in front of others. Gambino kept his cool and did not say a word.

Scialo was not touched, not a hair on his head bent. Instead, some time later, he was grabbed as he was entering a Colombo family social club, driven to Brooklyn and gently set down inside an open space that had a flat concrete surface, enclosed by vertical wooden slats that stood upright.

It was the foundation of a high-rise under construction and as Scialo stood there trussed up like a chicken, concrete was poured over him. Gambino is reported to have stood over the guy and watched. Then, while his head was still clear, the gooey concrete now lapping against his chin, Gambino stooped and placed a cigarette between his gasping lips and said,” Here, have a drag. It will calm you down.”

Concrete shrinks as it hardens and sets. A human body placed inside concrete when it is still wet, would be crushed by the contraction caused by the drying, shrinking concrete. Since the murder of Scialo, the near-perfect method of disposal and complete disappearance – leaving victims alive inside setting concrete became the disposal mode of choice for the American mob.

If you are walking by a construction site in Queens and you see the concrete churning on its own, inside the setting molds and you happen to hear wails and moans, like “Glub..glub… help..”, chances are good that the mixer operator is from Sicily.

In 1969, Don Carlo Gambino became the ‘Chairman of the Board’ of what became known as the National Crime Syndicate or simply “The Commission”. And then, in the early morning hours of Oct 15, 1976, he died of cardiac arrest at his home. The excitement of watching the New York Yankees winning the previous evening must have gotten to him.

He lay in state inside a Brooklyn church for two days, so that thousands of ‘the faithful’ could come to pay their respects to the little, soft-spoken man who had been the real life counterpart of Mario Puzo’s fictional ‘Godfather’. At the time of his death, the Gambino crime family was raking in 40-50 billion dollars a year.

Don Carlo left his mark even at his own funeral. A number of unmarked cars stood on the opposite curb with FBI agents inside, filming the people going in and out. The FBI agents waited, shivering in the chill of the fresh October rain, unable to even get out to relieve themselves.

That’s when members of the Gambino crime family brought trays of lemonade and sandwiches to them. Don Carlo had always reminded his men that the “FBI are just doing their jobs, feeding their families, seeing their kids through school, just as we are…”

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I don’t condone what Carlo Gambino stood for. He stood for crime as we all know it. To any student of Catholicism, Carlo Gambino should not have been allowed to die peacefully and yet he did.

I simply question the Abrahamic (and in fact, universal) belief ….“as we sow, so we reap”. Who invented that BS????

 

My tears aren’t cheap, Mr Khizr Khan

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Parents of a fallen Pakistani-American US Army Captain, Mr. Khizr Khan and his wife, speaking at the DNC Convention, July 2016, waving a pamphlet version of the US Constitution at Donald Trump

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With his grieving wife at his side, Khizr Khan delivered a moving stump speech at the national convention of the Democratic Party of the US during the pantomime that the world knows as the 2016 Presidential Elections.

It is amazing how the man held it together and remained stoic all the while that he spoke, his wife looking up at him from time to time, a mixture of concern and devotion in her eyes. I believe that their dignity added to the impact of his address.

After he had said what he had come to say, all hell broke loose. The talk shows united on one thing – that Mr Khan struck a chord, even among many Republicans and in a ratings-driven nation, Trump’s standing took a brief nose dive. I am certain that the volume of tears shed by Americans during Mr Khan’s amazing address would be enough to fill up a football stadium.

First, here’s what their son, Capt. Humayun Saqib Muazzam Khan, did for America, as per the citation that his parents received from the US Army…..

In 2004, Khan was assigned to the 201st Forward Support Battalion, 1st Infantry Division in Vilseck, Germany, when he was deputed to Iraq.

Three months into his tour of duty in Iraq, on June 8 near Baqubah, Khan was inspecting a guard post when they observed a taxicab approaching too quickly, raising concerns that it was going to ram the guard rails and detonate an explosive device. Ordering his subordinates away from the vehicle, Khan ran forward 10–15 steps to the taxi to caution it to slow down.

His suspicions turned out to be well founded. At the wheel was a suicide bomber and the car had been rigged with a powerful remote-controlled explosive device that went off the moment Khan came close. He caught the blast before it could reach the gates or the nearby mess hall where hundreds of soldiers were eating breakfast.

By that single act of bravery, Capt. Humayun Khan probably saved 100-200 Americans that day. He rests at the Arlington National Cemetery, in Virginia, USA. That he has not been cited for the Medal of Honor for his heroic act of sacrifice is inexplicable. (Not that it matters to someone who is dead).

For those interested to lay flowers there, the location of his grave is identified below….

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KHAN, HUMAYUN SAQIB MUAZZAM
CPT US ARMY
DATE OF BIRTH: 09/09/1976
DATE OF DEATH: 06/08/2004
BURIED AT: SECTION 60 SITE 7986
ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY

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Fresh flowers around Capt. Humayun Khan’s gravestone at the Arlington National Cemetery.’

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It does not matter that no one in America paused a moment to consider that Capt. Humayun Khan died fighting a war that is now universally recognized as an insanely unjust and unnecessary war. It is a war which has left the Middle-East in tatters, a war whose incomprehensibility shocks us and makes us wonder why those leaders who started it have not only not been convicted of war crimes and horrendous human rights abuses, but how it is possible that they are today walking freely among us – proud strutting puffed up men – holding forth on the lecture circuit on how they brought democracy to the Muslim world.

Instead of a prison cell at The Hague, George W. Bush drives around his Texas ranch when he isn’t appearing in TV talk shows with the Kimmels, the Fallons and the  DeGenerreses of America, greeted as he steps on the stage with deafening cheers and standing ovations. (At the moment even a baboon will seem like a savior to liberal America)

But then I had been naive to believe that those cells at The Hague were ever meant for folks like Bush and not for black African heads of state. After all, look at the sterling pedigree he sports – his dad, George H W Bush, the one who pardoned all those thugs in the Iran-Contra affair and prior to that, took it upon himself to persuade a US Attorney to go easy in the prosecution of one of America’s most corrupt politicians, Spiro T. Agnew.

It does not matter that Capt. Khan voluntarily took part in an invasion of a sovereign country, on the side of the invaders, for reasons as blatantly and ludicrously facile as what the invasion’s military code name suggested – ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’.

I am confused – ultimately what does Mr. Khizr Khan’s speech at the DNC Convention tell us about America? That this is a Muslim whose son was willing to martyr himself for America? That he is not the kind that Donald Trump demonizes?

Or does it show America up as a nation that repeatedly and needlessly sends its young into the jaws of death, training them to kill on its orders thousands of innocents, a majority of whom have never lifted a finger to hurt it? And then return home – broken plastic fighting figures, ticking time bombs, riddled with PTSD and Moral Injury?

I wonder how Capt. Khan’s father’s speech has been received by Muslims, within America and without – the one’s that Mr Khan Sr. appears to want to represent? Some will surely tear up like the rest of us, but there will be many in the Muslim world who will dismiss the death of Capt Humayun Khan as something that he had coming to him. After all, Capt. Khan was not forcibly drafted – he chose to enlist.

I don’t know, help me out here – if the parents of a foot soldier in Genghiz Khan’s western divisions or Attila the Hun’s hordes made a speech about how their son gave up his life while actively engaged in the effort to subjugate and annihilate thousands in the overrun territories, were their audience then supposed to tear up?

After all, if we look closely, there is no difference between a Hun Chieftain in Attila’s legions and Capt Humayun Khan. One died securing the fig orchards in overrun Anatolia and the other gave his life securing those billion dollar no-bid reconstruction contracts for the Bechtels and the Haliburtons of America.

Or is the message hidden inside Mr Khan’s address telling us that sacrifice, any sacrifice, is noble? That war, any war and dying in that war is a heroic thing and must be honored, regardless of whether the hero fought for the invaders or the invaded?

“You have made no sacrifice, you have lost no one,” said the bereaved Mr. Khan, addressing Donald Trump in his speech, making it seem like there is no difference between a just and an unjust war, as if sacrifice and being martyred is all that matters. In a sense Mr Khan was being true to form. The Abrahamic faiths do place sacrifice and martyrdon at the very top of their to-do lists.

But then, what is the difference between the Capt. Khan who fought with the Americans and those other Khans who fight with the Taliban? When will America start seeing the bigger picture, instead of playing to the gallery every time?

Am I the only one who refuses to tear up at PR exercises?

 

Amish – Islands of sanity in a whirlpool of change

 

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“To air-dry clothes by choice is counter-cultural.

And who, more than any other group in twenty-first-century America, is counter-cultural?

Who have intact families, healthy communities, home-cooked meals and uncluttered homes?

Who are restrained in the use of technology, have strong local economies and no debt?

Most of all, what group has kept simplicity, service and faith at the center of all that they say and do?

The Amish!

Few of us can become Amish, but all of us can try to be…… almost Amish.”

― Nancy Sleeth, in Almost Amish: One Woman’s Quest for a Slower, Simpler, More Sustainable Life

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Giving his Dad a hand (Photo courtesy: Amishphoto.com)

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Close-knit, in a world of their own, an Amish family on the way to church (Photo courtesy: efoodsdirect.com)

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A road sign alerts drivers to an Amish community ahead (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)

October the 3rd, 2006, was just like any other day for me. We had bought our first car in Canada just the previous day. Albeit, it was 8 years old but it was our first car and the feeling of suddenly being able to just take off any which way we could, was exhilarating.

We named her Bertha, tanked her up, flipped a coin and took off west on the Trans-Canadian. Just like the Grant Trunk Road does in India, the Trans-Canadian cuts right across Canada. Bertha is no longer with us, having long been sold off to a college student for $500 couple of years back.

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For pretty 13-year old Marian Fisher of the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and her little sister, Barbie, October 3rd 2006 was a vastly different day. It was the day when the two girls unhesitatingly put into practice what had been preached to them all their young lives – sacrifice.

At 10 am, 32-year old Charles Carl Roberts IV, a non-Amish milkman from the nearby Bart Township, entered the one-room Old Order School where the two girls were taking lessons along with other little children like them. With him, Roberts had a 9 mm handgun, a 12 gauge shotgun, a rifle, a bag of black powder, two knives, tools, a stun gun, 600 rounds of ammunition, wire, and plastic tie-wraps. Aiming to stay there a while, he had also brought with him, change of clothing and a toothbrush.

He first let the boys go, all 15 of them, and then he ushered all the adult women with infants out of the school unharmed. The remaining 11 students, all girls, aged from 6 to 15, he bound their hands with plastic tie wraps and began to load his guns.

Suddenly, in an attempt to buy time for the rest of the girls, Marian Fisher stepped forward and asked that she may please be shot first. Her younger sister, 7 year-old Barbie, then fell in behind her and asked Roberts to ‘shoot her second’. He acquiesced. He shot them both and the other 9 girls. Only five survived, maimed for life. Marian and Barbie were not among them.

The deranged Roberts turned his gun on himself when the police stormed the school.

In the immediate aftermath the horrendous deed, the first announcement that went out from the community leaders to the international press was, “We do not think that there is anybody among us who wants to do anything but forgive and not only be there for those who have suffered a loss but also to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts…”

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Accepting. And grieving. An Amish family after the massacre (Photo courtesy: Ibelieveinlove.com)

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Members of the press reported that neighbors of the deceased girls met the father of Charles Carl Roberts and embraced him. Roberts’ widow was even invited to attend the funerals. It is not known if she went. Here are some excerpts of blog posts from journalists and writers…..

Columnist Rod Dreher wrote:

“Yesterday on NBC News, I saw an Amish midwife who had helped birth several of the girls murdered by the killer, say that they were planning to take food over to his family’s house.”

Journalist Tom Shachtman, author of the book Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish, said:

“This is a stark imitation of Christ. If anybody is going to turn the other cheek in our society, it’s going to be the Amish. I don’t want to denigrate anybody else who says they’re imitating Christ, but the Amish walk the walk as much as they talk the talk.”

Gertrude Huntington, a specialist on Amish children, said:

“They know their children are going to heaven. They know their children are innocent and they know that they will join them in death. The hurt is very great, but they don’t balance the hurt with hate.”

Lancaster Online reported:

“During the service, which lasted just over an hour, heads were bowed and tears flowed for the loss of schoolgirls’ tender lives and for their killer, a man described as a loving husband and father of three young children.”

I recall that the beheading of the freelance journalist, James Foley, by the ISIS in Iraq, had made me think of the whole concept of evil one more time and this time, from a new angle. I thought that if I wanted to understand evil, I would have to understand good first, or more appropriately, why there is good at all and to what purpose this good exists. Have the ISIS ever heard about the Amish, I wondered.

Of course they haven’t. The ISIS are an isolationist community of individuals who use terror to the ends that they see as true and just. For the Amish the ends are the same, only the means are the opposite.

The Amish practice what is known as ‘intercessory prayer’, which is pleading with God on behalf of others, not the simplistic bargain or unsaid agreement that we all try to contract with God when we pray. The Amish way is practiced by the Buddhists too…..

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The story goes that after the People’s Republic of China annexed Tibet, there was a mass destruction of Tibetan monasteries, holy libraries and other cultural artifacts. Along with it, whole groups of Buddhist monks too were imprisoned and made to do forced labor.

One such labor group happened to be carrying their prayer beads with them and would chant their mantras from time to time, till it came to the notice of their guards who confiscated the beads. No matter. The monks began praying without them till, once again, they were told not to talk aloud. Unfazed, they then began reciting their chants silently in their minds.

Then one day the order came down for them to be executed by firing squad. Lined up facing the executioners’ rifles, the monks began praying again, which appeared ludicrous to the Chinese since nothing could possibly save them now.

One PLA officer approached the monks and asked what god they were praying to and what they had to gain by praying at this juncture, when death was a certainty. One monk replied, “Actually we are not praying for ourselves. We are praying for you.”

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2000 years prior, there had been another man who believed in intercessory prayer. Beaten and tortured and then impaled to a cross, he had raised his eyes to the heavens and said,” God, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This piece is on folks who follow that man more closely than any other religious group or sect on earth – the Amish.

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The Amish are an orthodox Anabaptist Christian sect that believes in remaining as close to Jesus Christ’s teachings as possible. The more I read about them, the more I love what I am reading…. and the more stark the contrast between the Amish and the rest of us appears.

Let’s get to know them a bit. Very interesting folk they certainly are, sprinkled sparsely over parts of the US, like roses growing inside a cesspool of consumption. (Yes, I said cesspool. Only in America does a father gift his 8-year old son an Uzi automatic assault rifle for Christmas. This actually happened in 2010 in Manchester, Conn. The boy accidentally shot himself in the head and died on the spot).

The Amish were a part of the European Free-Church along with Mennonites, Brethren Quakers and other denominations that first broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in the mid-1500s with the German reformist and founder of the protestant church, Martin Luther. They generally hailed from Germany, Switzerland and The Netherlands.

Breaking away from an entrenched and essentially evil institution like the then murderously oppressive Roman Catholic Church, was not easy. What followed were decades of persecution and wholesale murder, as the Catholic Church tried to wipe out ‘emerging competition’.

But the Free Church survived and soon after, one of Martin Luther’s colleagues, Menno Simons, formed his own sect, the Mennonites, a sect that believes in living a simple life, of peace and brotherhood, single-mindedly dedicated to the way Jesus Christ intended life to be led.

As time went by, a group within the Mennonites emerged, that wanted stricter adherence to the Christian faith. Led by a Swiss tailor turned Anabaptist leader, Jacob Amman, the Amish movement was born. The Amish belief is – if you want to live as a true disciple of Christ, you have to do without some of the comforts, pleasures and conveniences that others around you take for granted.

Some Amish and Mennonites migrated to the United States, starting in the early 18th century. They initially settled in Pennsylvania. There they spoke a language that gradually morphed into a guttural tongue that is today known as Pennsylvania Dutch. Other waves of Amish immigrants established themselves in New York, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri and Ohio. Around the same time, one group traveled north and settled in southern Ontario.

Over the years, the Amish have attempted to preserve the 17th century rural European way of life, consciously avoiding the use of modern technology and developing practices that isolate them from modern American culture. Many ordinary Americans, especially the bible-belt folks, think of the Amish as freaks who belong in the looney bin.

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Innocence, bewildered by excess. A group of Amish teenagers in New York’s Times Square (Photo courtesy: nypost.com)

The Amish are more fundamentalist than the Mennonites, the differences being in how they practice their faith. While the overall doctrine followed by both is similar, the Mennonites are generally more tolerant of technology and the outside world than the Amish.

A few Mennonite congregations accept higher education. They believe that it strengthens their religious beliefs. The Amish, on the other hand, feel that the outside world and its ways only corrupt the purity of their faith. They forbid education beyond secondary school, believing that today’s high school curriculum corrupts young minds by introducing moral sciences that teach students to accept alternative lifestyles such as homosexuality and the study of Darwin’s theory of evolution as the accepted origin of mankind.

Amish children are truly angelic. Go through the photos at the website amishphoto.com and you’ll see what I mean. The kids go to Old Order schools that are one-room joints where they learn only the basics. Here are some of pics I took from amishphoto.com, that are especially cute…..

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Cuddling must be a major pastime among Amish adults, with angels like these. Amish kids walk around without any footwear (Photos courtesy: Amishphoto.com)

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When the children reach adolescence, they enter a period that the Amish call Rumspringa, in which boys and girls are given greater personal freedom and allowed to form romantic relationships, usually ending with the choice of baptism into the church or leaving the community. Rumspringa is a Pennsylvania German word for ‘running around.’

Amish men keep untrimmed beards and wear jackets and coats that have hooks and eyes instead of buttons. Their women dress in plain 18th century-style rough cotton clothes with long sleeves and ankle length skirts. In the case of Mennonites, you might find a few dressed the way we do.

The Amish mode of transportation is horse and buggy and the farm lands are tilled with horse-drawn implements that are forged in coal-fired black-smithies. They don’t draw power from the grid and have no electricity, either at homes or at the places of work. Mennonites differ in that while they do not go overboard with the latest gadgetry, they do not believe that using electricity or motorized farm machinery and trucks shakes their faith.

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The iconic Amish horse-drawn buggy (Photo courtesy: kidsbritannica.com)

The Mennonites have historically sought to increase their fellowship through missionary activities throughout the world. Today, there are Mennonites churches from Bolivia to Ethiopia and Nigeria to Indonesia. There are 1.7 million Mennonites worldwide.

On the other hand, the Amish have never felt the need for reaching out across the seas and converting others to their faith. Today there are just 290,000 Amish in the world, of whom 250,000 are living in the US and another 2000 in Canadian province of Ontario and the rest in Europe.

Two hours’ drive south-east of Montreal is a tiny Mennonite community of 15 families in a picturesque village called Roxton Falls, population – 1300. These Mennonites are making plans to leave their homes and farms behind and move to neighboring Ontario so that their children will not be forced by the Quebec government to attend government-sanctioned schools.

Provincial Quebec officials have threatened the families with legal action, including the potential loss of their children to the Child Welfare Services, if they do not abide by the mandatory education curriculum taught here.

But leaders of the community have decided that they will leave Quebec before giving up their children to ‘state indoctrination’.

It is sad to see them go, given that there is something refreshing about them. They lead clean healthy lives devoid of alcohol, drugs and crime. They bother no one and in fact, except for their quaint lifestyle which makes them something of a tourist attraction, they enjoy a good rapport with their non-Mennonite neighbors.

A couple of years back we packed a picnic basket and headed to Roxton Falls to see and maybe meet some of the Mennonites but the congregation was at church and while we couldn’t hang around we did love seeing the old-style barns and farm machinery everywhere. And horses, lots of horses and windmills and just about every structure made from wood. Mennonites being not as rigid as the Amish, we did see cars and electric lines.

Amish beliefs are quaint and one would imagine that the Amish would gradually disappear from the face of the earth, overtaken and overwhelmed by the technology and the avarice of the outside world, but quite the opposite has happened. The Amish have grown in numbers. From 165,000 in the US in 2000, they are now 250,000 strong today.

Inside the community, there are no secrets. Grudges or resentment toward others or rivalries over a girl’s attention are normal human emotions and these are discussed and resolved peacefully, without any fallout. As we saw in the Nickel Mines shootings, the Amish’s capacity to collectively forgive and move on is deeply spiritual and moving.

This is not to say however, that violence does not exist at all. In October, 2011, there was an altercation between two religious groups within an Amish community in Holmes County, Ohio, where members of one group used shears to chop off the hair and beards of a 79-year old Amish bishop and his family, accusing them of ‘not living right’.

Inside Amish communities, crimes such as robbery or homicide are practically non-existent, though there has been one case of cocaine trafficking at the Alberta/US border in 2013. There are no locks on doors. Every member is aware of everyone else’s lives and problems and involved in trying to make sure everyone is cared for. Male members call themselves ‘brethren’. Love is expressed as a spiritual kinship within the community. The community provides social and economic support, sheltering its members from cradle to grave.

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A bit of ‘Rumspringa’ – Adolescent Amish girls happy in a ball game. Rumspringa, in Pennsylvania German, means running around having a bit of fun and frolic (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)

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The Amish believe that only within a stable community will individuals find security and satisfaction, not by being individualistic. No one strikes out on his own or refuses to share. It’s a society that is devoid of alcoholism, divorce, alienation and loneliness in old age and this ensures a suicide rate far below the national average in both, Canada and the US.

The Amish foster group activities and there are many things that they do together, besides those related to farming. One is called barn raising, an event that looks more like a social event than hard labor that it really is.

Occasionally, there is a need for a new barn to be built in an Amish community. A new member may be starting up farming. Sometimes disaster strikes and a barn may burn down. The men get together and build a new barn for the member. Even little children help out, running chores, handing tools and stuff to the men. The women gather together and lay out tables full of food and refreshments for the workers.

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An Amish community gathers together to construct a barn for a fellow family – an amazing feat that is typically accomplished within a just few days.  (Photo courtesy: Pennsylvania Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau / Terry Ross).

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Though women are involved in almost every activity, even the more arduous ones such as tilling, sowing and harvesting, the Amish are still a staunchly patriarchal society, with women playing second fiddle. Amish women are expected to obey the dictates of their men, cook and feed them and bear their children.

There have been exceptions though. Like Katy Stoltz.

Growing up, Katy was forbidden from having her picture taken because of tradition. On top of school work she spent hours in the fields pitching hay as well as cooking, cleaning and looking after her siblings. Before school she would go out and feed the cows. After school she had to take care of the calves and then make dinner for the family. She spent six hours at a time out in the fields raking hay. Her clothes were shapeless dresses and bonnets and she had to cover her head at all times.

But in 2012, Katy’s life changed forever. She appeared in a reality TV show Breaking Amish. Soon afterward, she was signed up by a modelling agency and now she looks gorgeous in saucy lingerie shoots.

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Amish model, Katy Stoltz, before and after. Innocence transformed (Photo courtesy: dailymirror.com)

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Amish women are startlingly beautiful, with flawless complexions and direct, guileless eyes. It was just a matter of time before one of them did what Katy did. But Amish elders think modelling is one of the worst things a woman can do. They see it as flaunting your body and being vain. The elders in the community took Katy’s photo spreads with sighs of resignation.

Katy’s parents have forgiven her transgression. They did not engage in honor killing as some other fundamentalist societies would probably have done. They keep urging her to come back home, but Katy has no desire to return to the Amish way of life. She in fact signed up to do a second series, Return to Amish.

Will girls like Katy start an exodus from the Amish way of life? The world is changing faster than the Amish can hold it back. I am afraid she might have set in motion a trend among other Amish girls.

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Amish girls are startlingly beautiful, with flawless complexions that are born from eating organic farm fresh foods. The sport direct and guileless stares and ready, innocent smiles. I am considering asking the Lord to make me an Amish man the next time. With a woman like one of these, who needs electricity? (Photos sourced from Google Images)

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The Amish way of life is led by the truths as taught in the Book of James, which exhorts followers to live with simplicity, grace and obedience to elders. Not being very literate, the Amish avoid immersing themselves in any deep theological study. Besides, with all the hard manual labor, farming, tending, fixing and mending, there is very little time for sitting around deep in spiritual reflection.

Constancy is valued above novelty and innovation, qualities that they view with suspicion. The Amish take pleasure in repeated patterns of life, greetings, and rituals. They do not believe in multi-culturism either. You are welcome to visit them as a tourist but you would be discouraged from living among them if you weren’t from the community. For them, other values, practices and beliefs are not legitimate and therefore not to be tolerated.

Marriages outside the community will lead to immediate expulsion. Congregations being small, the ban ensures a limited gene pool and consequently, genetic birth defects are not uncommon. On the other hand the clean living, supported by fresh organic farm produce, endows Amish communities with 60% less incidences of heart disease and cancers than the North American average.

While I look upon the Amish’s quaint lifestyle and isolationist beliefs with amusement, I cannot help but admire their courage in believing in themselves and their faith. I hope to visit one of these ‘islands of sanity’ that are settled in Ontario, some day.

Better still, as Nancy Sleeth dreamed of in the quote at the start of this piece, I dream that some day the world shall turn ‘almost Amish’.

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Being the little guy (Part-1)

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“Don’t get too cocky, my boy. No matter how good you are, don’t ever let them see you coming. You gotta keep yourself small. Innocuous. Be the little guy. You’d never think I was a master of the universe, now would you?”

– Al Pacino, in “The Devil’s advocate”

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It takes a lot to get a porcupine excited. Nearly always, you’ll find it hunched up, huddled in a corner, not moving and only if you go real close will you notice its torso expanding and contracting with every breath. The porcupine is a low-key, unassuming guy, making hardly a sound. But go too close, try to touch his bristles and you will live to regret it. The bristles are not smooth but have tiny razor sharp hooks that won’t let go till you have an ugly gash. Just leave the porcupine alone and you’ll be fine.

The same holds for the two men I am going to tell you about. One was a Roman, born in 10 BC in Lyons, Transalpine Gaul (present-day France) and he went by the name of Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus – simply ‘Claudius’ to most historians and casual students of history like me.

Claudius had an illustrious pedigree. Nephew of Emperor Tiberius (the guy who was in power when Jesus was crucified), he was also grandson of the famed but ill-fated general, Marc Antony.

Wait, that’s not all…….The first emperor of Rome, Augustus, was his grand uncle and his immediate predecessor, the bacchanalian emperor Caligula, was his nephew. And if that weren’t enough, the infamous tyrant, Nero – who played on his fiddle while his soldiers set fire to Rome – was his adopted son. Talk about living inside a nest of vipers.

In short, a lot was happening at that point in time, as Rome was establishing itself as the leader of the civilized world and Claudius was in the thick of it all. Rome in those days was a treacherous labyrinth of power-hungry generals, senators, consuls and regional governors.

And of course, the vicious Praetorian Guards, whose only mandate was supposed to be protecting the emperor. Imagine if the US Secret Service had the power to determine who should be President or if a President needed to be assassinated because they had someone else in mind, ancient Rome’s Praetorian Guards were something like that. If you were emperor and you were smart and wanted to live a long life, your first priority was to keep the Praetorian Guardsmen very very happy.

And then there were the greatest threat of all – the emperor’s own family members who invariably held PhDs in inorganic and biochemistry with specialization in poisons. As emperor, you were under an overpowering and constant threat of death by poisoning. Then again, if you were smart you constantly topped up and monitored the expiry dates on your inventory of arsenic, viper venom potions and poisoned mushrooms. You never knew when you’d need to use them.

If Du Pont had been there in ancient Rome, their Zyklon-B Division would be bigger than Google. Bigger than Du Pont would be the McAffees of the poison manufacturers – the antidote industry. Among the highest paid job profiles must have been the food and wine-tasters who lead short but spectacularly rich lives. There was even a wine with the brand name ‘glug-ugh!’, the first instance of consumer branding in the world with a skull and cross-bones as its logo. I’m not kidding. My good friend Plutarch told me all about it. Yeah, I am that old.

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To those who knew him, Claudius came across as a spineless wimp – short, effeminate, squeaky, unwilling to raise his voice when he spoke. And when he did talk, he had an unsure stutter and disgusting spittle flew from his mouth. Sickly, his nose was continuously running and he was coughing and sneezing all the time. Emperor material? Are you kidding me? 

No one took any notice of Claudius. While his predecessor (nephew, Caligula) was emperor, he was made a consul, which didn’t bat any eyelids. Hey Caligula made even his horse a consul. No one stood at attention when he passed by, they jeered instead. In private they invented hurtful nicknames for him, such as ‘Claudius the Idiot’, ‘That Claudius’, ‘Claudius the Stammerer’ (Clau-Clau-Claudius) or ‘Poor Uncle Claudius’. According to the historian, Seneca the Younger, the ignominy didn’t faze Claudius a bit. At least, he didn’t openly exhibit his resentment.

When Caligula was assassinated by his own Praetorian Guards in AD 41, as a close family member, Claudius feared he might be killed too. He fled to one of the apartments inside the palace and hid behind a curtain, but he was betrayed and discovered by members of the Praetorian Guard.

Aiming to install him as a harmless puppet and rule from behind the throne, the Praetorian Prefects proposed Claudius as the next emperor. Believing him to be nothing more than an imbecile, the senators were appalled that he should be given the power to make or break the empire, but they were worried about their asses. They did not want to antagonize the Praetorian Guards. Besides, they didn’t give a shit who emperor was, as long as they were free to carry on their corrupt, bacchanalian ways.

Thus, Claudius became the first in a long line of Roman emperors elected, not by the Senate, but by the Praetorian Guard who relished the thought of ruling through a wimp.

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Claudius, discovered behind the curtains, begging to be spared and the Praetorian Guardsman saying, “Okay, your highness, you can get up and rule now.”  (Painting by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1867)


Claudius however turned out to be entirely something else. The early Roman historians all agreed on one thing – that he was a fair, even-handed and astute ruler who led by example. And in time, realizing that in his success lay theirs, the Praetorian Guard gradually turned into his ardent supporters.

Claudius proved to be a skilled military leader. He fought and lead his troops to battle with the barbarians in Britain and annexed it completely, earning the title ‘Britannicus’. The historian, Marcus Rufus, wrote about how, oblivious of his own wounds,  Claudius at the end of a day of battle, would sit among the wounded, and direct his staff to record and execute their dying wishes, which included messages to family back home.

Known widely as one of Rome’s most successful emperors, Claudius ruled with a truly enlightened style for 13 years, during an era when the average reign of a Roman emperor did not exceed 2. He would have gone on to reign forever, had he not been poisoned by a treacherous wife, but we’ll come to that later.

Not only did he prove to be an adroit military commander, but Claudius was exceptional at statecraft too. He reformed the financial affairs of the empire, creating a separate fund for the emperor’s private household expenses. As almost all grain had to be imported from Egypt, Claudius offered insurance coverage to merchants against losses on the open sea, to encourage potential importers and help build up stocks against times of famine.

Claudius was a builder too. Not of fancy palaces though. He didn’t have the time for such nonsensical expenditures. Among his major projects was the port of Ostia, built to ease the traffic congestion on the river Tiber. Claudius also took his function as a judge very seriously, not missing a day, to preside over the imperial court. He instituted judicial reforms, creating legal safeguards for the weak and defenseless.

One of Claudius’s landmark reforms was a law that made free folk of conquered lands Roman citizens, if they had lived inside the empire for more than 25 years. He correctly believed that this would build up the groundswell of grassroots support for him, in much the same way as the Democrats in the US would like more immigrants coming in.

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But alas, Claudius had the same failing most of us men have – he never understood women. He divorced his first wife because she was turned out to be a lesbian. He divorced his second wife too, just because she was an unattractive plain jane. His third wife, Valeria Messalina, was an absolute horror. While he was away fighting campaigns in Britain, she took on a secret lover and tried to install their infant son, Britannicus, as emperor (Chastity belts came a thousand years later). She and lover-boy hoped to rule Rome as regents, on behalf of the baby. The attempt however was foiled and when the Praetorian Guards found out about the plot, she was forced to swallow a potion made from hellebore.

Claudius’s fourth wife, Agrippina the Younger, was a gorgeous broad. She was also Caligula’s sister and that would make her Claudius’s niece as well. Don’t bat your eyelid. In those days, incest was common. Marcus Aurelius’s son, Commodus, regularly slept with his own elder sister, Lucilla. Ridley Scott told me this.

Like her bro, Caligula, Agrippina was wierd, evil and treacherous and it was she who murdered Claudius in the end. In her blind ambition to see her son, Nero, crowned emperor, she fed Claudius poisoned mushrooms one stormy night in AD54.

If you can trust the historian Plutarch’s words, Claudius was horny that night and wanted to get it on but Agrippina said ‘have these sexy mushrooms, Claudi-pie, while I change into something more comfortable’. Claudi-pie hadn’t noticed the skull and cross bones on the label and Chomp.. chomp.. glurggg… ugghh and one of Rome’s most enlightened emperors passed into history.

If it’s any consolation, Agrippina didn’t last long either. Historians claim she was an overbearing pain-in-the-ass alpha-mom who was constantly goading her son, Nero, into doing stuff and then deriding him about it. Things came to a head when he heard she was plotting to have him murdered and install Claudius’s biological son, Britannicus, as emperor and that’s when he decided to have her whacked.

Nero had his ship designers build a ship whose bottom could be opened up by a concealed lever while at sea and scuttled, hoping she would fall in and drown. He then invited mommy dear to take a cruise which she did, but when the ship sank, she swam ashore. Eventually Nero had to resort to much more direct methods. He had her stabbed to death by the Praetorian Guard. Shiff! Ugh! Plop!

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Ps: I said two guys. I’ll tell you about the other guy in Part-2.

 

 

 

 

 

Battlefield Etiquette

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In the midst of the battle of Kurukhshetra, Karna has a flat tyre and guess what he does. He tells the enemy (Arjun and his charioteer – the Hindu God, Krishna, the guy with the halo on the right side of his head), “Gimme a hand, Bud”.

Guess what happened then? Well, you gotta read this piece ta find out…

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When Saddam Hussein was finally caught cowering inside an underground bunker in 2003 and later sentenced to die, many nations in the EU opposed the decision to execute him. India too suggested that there were other non-violent ways to mete out justice and that violent vengeance was immoral, specially since the invasion of Iraq had itself been  based upon a lie.

But India’s stance was ironic, since it has an opposing ethical precedent…..

In the great epic, Mahabharata, when a defenceless Karna’s chariot wheel get’s mired in the mud in the middle of the battle of Kurukhshetra, he tried desperately to extricate it, but failed. Noting that the Pandava hero, Arjuna, was gaining on him and getting ready to slay him, Karna asked him to hold his fire and give him a hand.

Coming to an adversary’s assistance in those days was a component of what was known as battlefield etiquette, which required that when a fighter had been placed unwittingly in a position of disadvantage, his antagonist had to hold further fire until he had recovered and the playing field had been leveled. Something similar plays out in boxing today, I understand – punching a fallen opponent is against the rules.

Back in 5561BC (the date that vedic scholars think the Battle of Kurukshetra happened), battlefield etiquette was a very important component of the chivalry that the Indian ethos believed in.

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In fact it was common all over the ancient world. In Homer’s epic, The Iliad, the Athenian fighter, Ajax the Greater, chucked a huge stone at the Trojan hero, Hector, with such force that it dislodged Hector’s helmet and crushed his horse. Since he was still mounted on his own steed and had his helmet on, Ajax deemed it unfair to continue. He dismounted and paused to let Hector gather himself together, a decision that would prove fatal. Hector recovered his balance and strength in the brief interlude and they fought fiercely hand to hand, until Ajax was killed by a glancing blow from the haft of Hector’s sword.

In today’s world, Ajax would derided as a stupid sucker. But not in 850BC Troy, Ajax was elevated posthumously to the pinnacle of chivalry and spoken of with adulation and awe by both, the Spartans and the Trojans.

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But I digress… Getting back to the Mahabharata, on hearing Karna’s plea for help, Arjuna immediately paused and got off his chariot to go give Karna a hand – when all of a sudden Arjun’s charioteer – the blue guy, revered Lord Krishna, who was at once Arjun’s master and servant, stopped him.

Instead of commending Arjun’s sense of chivalry, Lord Krishna reminded him that Karna was on the side of the bad guys and that it is not against battlefield etiquette to kill a man who has supported evil all his life. Arjuna lamely turned back, took aim and killed Karna.

What do y’know. Under his beatific smile, Krishna was a calculating, Machiavellian God.

And no thanks to Krishna, battlefield etiquette still makes its presence felt – albeit sporadically – in the unlikeliest of places…….

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Spring, 2009

A hamlet, 20 miles south of Spin Boldak

Afghanistan

The night had been so brilliantly moonlit, it was almost like day. The hamlet they had surrounded was bathed in a diffused glow. They would have waited for the next new moon but there was no time.

Abu Salam was leading a TTP (Tehrik-e-Taliban) squad that had bivouacked for the night in the bushes surrounding the cluster of adobe huts, just north of the border with Pakistan. The hamlet was nestled inside a cleared circle on a vast terrain covered by a dense thicket of waist-high shrubs that seemed ideal for concealment from a ground-based adversary, but completely exposed to an aerial attack by fixed-wing ground attack aircraft like the AC-130 gunships and A-10 Warthogs or even choppers like the Apache or Black Hawk.

There was big game tonight and the Emir, Baitullah Mehsud himself, was by his side, toting a Stinger missile launcher to deter aerial support interference. The Stinger’s dull black mat finish hadn’t been scratched yet. Although it was an older version that Raytheon had stopped making a long time back, it was still brand new. It had been stowed away unused, in an Islamabad warehouse operated by the Satan’s own rep on earth, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI.

The Stinger was a remnant of American largesse of the 80s and today it would be used to kill Americans. Salam smiled grimly at the irony. Raytheon didn’t know. Raytheon didn’t care.

Inside the hamlet were two dwellings – one a large adobe home with a courtyard in the middle and the other a small outhouse which had three Delta Force operatives from the US Special Operations Command and an Afghan interpreter in it.

The group lay there, forming a neat circle round the hamlet, a battle-hardened TTP fighter every five yards or so. The fight with the Russians and the training from the ISI had taught them discipline. The Americans inside that outhouse might have drawn some consolation from the fact that they were about to be annihilated by a fighting force that paralleled their own professionalism. What this bunch didn’t have, in terms of equipment and technology, they made up for – in commitment to a cause.

The owner of the compound, a grizzled Pashtun warlord who had fought the Soviets with Salam, had been a notoriously fickle-minded guy who had first decided to side with the Americans on receipt of a bagful of $100 bills and then, after taking the money, he had changed his mind. The Delta Force team had been dispatched along with an interpreter with orders to either get him back on their side or finish him off.

As Abu Salam felt the discomfort of the ground – still hard and cold from the winter, two of the Americans came out of the outhouse and started walking toward the bushes, possibly to take a leak. That’s when all hell broke loose. The landscape around the unsuspecting Americans got peppered by 7.62mm rounds from the fanatics’ AK47s. The two Americans crumpled to the ground.

What followed was the moment that Abu Salam recognized why the Emir deserved to be called – the Emir.

The two fallen Americans had momentarily stopped moving and a lull set in, followed by a sudden deafening silence and as Salam stared at the scene below, suddenly another American emerged from the outhouse. He walked resolutely toward his fallen comrades, his steps unhurried – as if he was on an evening stroll. He reached one of the prone Americans, the one closest to him. He calmly slung him over his shoulders, hefted him with a huge shrug and started back toward the lee side of the outhouse. He was a target that begged to be taken down.

For a moment, Abu Salam’s Talib colleagues, including the Emir, were dumbfounded by the bravado. By the time they could gather their wits, the American had disappeared behind the adobe wall of the outhouse.

The Talib weren’t even done releasing the breaths they had been holding, when the shape appeared once again.

This time, the American walked in an even more measured pace, covering ground the way only someone who believed completely in himself would. As he advanced toward his fallen comrade, the Talib gaped, their faces aghast and their mouths hanging open in astonishment.

One fighter – no one knows for sure who – let out a burst. The American stumbled and fell. He still had a few yards to cover, but that was when the Emir let out one single shout – wadrega! (stop!)

As the firing fell silent, the Talib gunmen watched astounded as the American, mortally wounded, started crawling toward his buddy. Their eyes unbelieving, they watched him reach his pal and come to rest right next, his one good arm now engulfing his friend in a hug.

Abu Salam raised his AK to finish the infidel off, but suddenly he felt the muzzle shoved aside. It was the Emir.

‘Enough,’ said Baitullah Mehsud, ‘Don’t ever forget. We are all fighters and this is a brave one. Let him choose his time to die.’

When the American hadn’t moved for a while, the Talib cautiously climbed down from their perch and approached the two fallen Delta Force men, lying there in that macabre embrace. The Emir reached down and held his finger under the American’s nose and felt his breath, coming out in short ragged bursts. Given the extent of his wounds, he estimated the soldier had only seconds.

“Leave them alone,” Mehsud called, “Give the infidels the chance to take him away. He has earned the right. We shall return, for another fight, another day…”

Then, as he turned to rise, the Emir’s eyes fell on the dog tag. He stared it a while and then stooped and removed it from the American’s neck. It said –

Giovanni F. Ricci

697-012-8326

RH Negative

Catholic

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Today that dog tag rests inside a beautifully hand crafted teak and glass jewelry box on top of a TV cabinet in a small town called Lawrence, mid-way between Topeka and Kansas City in the United States, the home of an elderly couple. Somehow it had found its way from a dusty Afghan hamlet, via an Islamabad army installation and then finally to America on a C130 Hercules transport aircraft that had taken off from Shamsi Air Force Base , in Baluchistan, 12 time zones to the east.

My Soyúz Sovétskikh shelf

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“Whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart. Whoever wants it back has no brain.”

– Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, in the first flush of his Presidency, early 2000

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sovets

I have arranged my library in genres. Rack-A has shelves on Crime, Classics and Indian authors. Rack-B : Islam, Israel, American current affairs, War(other than World War II) and Humor. Quite a motley mix, my Rack-B. Rack-C is history and predominantly Nazi Germany and WW2. Rack-D is a melange of bestsellers and Space.

Rack-E is going ta make me a millionaire. It has some painstakingly collected First Editions and antique books. I just found an O’Henry printed in 1905 in an ornate hard cover, it’s paper so fine that it crinkles when you touch it. I got that for 50¢. I’ll read it and when the time comes, I’ll sell it for five grand.

Of course, I have arranged security against any pilferage from Rack-E : my Peacemaker Colt, which can drill a hole into any thief and his twin brother. That is, if he indeed had a twin brother and they were standing in line, one after the other. I got the twin brother thing from the starting page of Alistair Maclean’s “When eight bells toll”. (I am anything but original).

Did I mention I have a porn collection too? I have an illustrated Kama Sutra, Nancy Friday, E.L.James, Legs McNeil and a hardcover Marquis de Sade. (You won’t believe what this de Sade guy was up to). That will be Rack-B, bottom shelf, safely obscured by my rocking armchair.

Then there is a smaller rack that has encyclopedias, Nat Geo issues and compilations. One shelf on that rack is reserved for my reading knick knacks – pencil, sharpees, stickies and page markers, highlighters, Iphone/Ipad charging outlets and of course, the case for the Peacemaker Colt.

And a bowl of peanuts, just in case I am having a beer or a glass of wine and it needs cumpunee. And a tiny pocket flashlight, in case a peanut falls on the carpet and rolls in underneath a rack.

I am an organized son of a bitch.

Oh, I forgot the one pictured above – my Soyúz Sovétskikh shelf, Rack-C. It has books on the Soviet Union. You have of course known the authors well – Le Carre : the genius of ‘understated, laid back’ spy fiction. Tom Clancy : the Republican wet dream gung-ho guy. Len Deighton, Brain Garfield and Fredrick Forsyth : ruthless evil. Solzenitsyn : fatigued suffering pooches. And Ian Fleming : the tongue-in-cheek – varying depictions of Сою́з Сове́тских Социалисти́ческих Респу́блик – Russian for USSR, a land that could have have attained genuine utopia, if basic human nature had not got in the way.

There are a couple of non-fiction reads too. “KGB Today”, an in-your-face piece of American Cold War propaganda by John Barron, who used to be a regular contributor to The Readers’ Digest, which was widely believed to be a propaganda publication of the US Government. If RT.com had been a print publication, it would be the Russian Federation’s Readers’ Digest. And there is “Autopsy of an Empire”, a blow-by-blow account of the fall of the Soviet Empire, by a former US ambassador to the Soviet Union.

Lumbering up menacingly over the ensemble, you discern an Illushyn IL-76 military transport aircraft. It looks as if it will be able to clear Deighton and Clancy by a hair’s breadth. Actually I’m not sure if that is an IL-76.

But then, DILLIGAS? (Do I Look Like I Give A Shit). I prefer DILLIGAF, though.

I have Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” but since it was pre-revolution, it is in the Classics shelf on Rack-A. Didn’t I mention I was organized? And I have watched Dr Zhivago too many times to want to read the book, so Boris, I can’t waste shelf space here for ya. Go ебать yourself, dasvidaniya.

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I am one of the lucky ones. I grew up in the early 1960s at a time when the Soviet Union was at it’s zenith. We lived in a tiny industrial town in India where the government was building an engineering behemoth that would manufacture heavy machinery for mining coal. It was a joint Indo-Soviet venture – the Soviets had thrown in financing and technical know-how and Indians had contributed the labor and the corrupt bureaucrats.

The place was crawling with Soviet experts in those days and they lived together in this massive compound of apartment blocks, known as the “Soviet Experts’ Hostels”. The compound had volleyball courts and a swimming pool that my brothers and I frequented. Often some matronly Russian woman sitting on a deck chair by the pool would beckon to us, give us a hug and hand us Russian-made cookies, with a grin through teeth that could never pass even the most primitive metal detector.

Through the prism of my 11-year old eyes, the Soviets seemed very friendly, often urging us to sit and watch their newsreels and TV with them. I watched Alexei Leonov live, painstakingly clamber out of the Voskhod-2 and float around and wave at the camera, his visor reflecting the blue-white wisps of the earth’s upper atmosphere.

The Russians would welcome us into the movie theatre they had in the campus that was constantly running shoddily made Russian films made by SovExport, a propaganda arm of the Soviet Union. If you were a kid on his summer break and had run out of games to play, you went to a Soviet movie at the Experts’ Hostel.

A SovExport film was invariably excruciatingly boring, besides being very amateurish. One that I remember watching had an old man pushing a wooden sled with a sick old woman in it, from the left side of the screen to the right, with the accompaniment of a 200-piece orchestra and a baritone chorus. He started on the left when the movie credits came on and we were hoping something would happen – like maybe a German Stuka would suddenly dive in and bomb the shit outa them or something. (That was the only time I remember hoping for the arrival of the Nazis).

But the man on the screen just kept plodding on, until he disappeared with the sled, beyond the right-hand edge of the screen, just prior to the intermission. There were actual Soviet off-duty personnel and family watching, their eyes glued to the screen. When I quizzed my Dad about it, he said watching those films was mandatory for the Soviet personnel (unless they wished to have cabbage soup, morning noon and night, in a Siberian fookin gulag).

I watched a movie that had been based upon Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’. In the middle of a battle scene, all of a sudden a Lada drove by near the bottom right corner of the screen, right next to a van that was unloading klieg lights for the shooting. Not a single Russian eyelid batted at that. There were no groans, catcalls, derisive whistles, nothing. This was at a moment in our lives when we regularly went to watch finely crafted American blockbusters such as Sound of music, Battle of the Bulge and Von Ryan’s Express. Even my child’s brain could not help but laugh afterward at the Soviet movie making skills.

But heck, it was fun. It was a time when hegemony and building spheres of influence were paramount. The Soviet team of engineers and their families might have been ordered to ‘mingle with the natives’, but I did not see anything but spontaneity in their warmth. It was the Soviet Union’s “hearts and minds” exercise and as far as I was concerned, they were roaringly successful at it. While the Americans were busy mocking our politicians and laughing at our accent derisively, the Soviets were building bridges that are still standing today.

I don’t have any Soviet porn. I could spare some space for it in my porn shelf on Rack-B, in case you can lend me some. Maybe they did have a Thongus Kutyokokoff. I have to look into that.

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