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.

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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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The Religiosity of Organized Crime, a.k.a the Criminality of Organized Religion

Organized crime map of Italy

The Santuaro di Santa Maria di Polsi is a Catholic sanctuary in the heart of the Aspromonte mountain range that runs north to south along the middle of the toe of Italy, near San Luca in Calabria. Founded by Roger II, King of Sicily in 1144, the church and monastery are situated in a spectacular setting at the bottom of a gorge that is surrounded by high mountains on the east side of the 6000ft Mont Alto, the highest peak of the Aspromonte.

Like other pilgrimage destinations, such as the Haj for Muslims or Amarnath and Sabrimalai for Hindus in India, the inflicting of fatigue and pain upon the pilgrim is considered essential, in order to give him a sense of having ‘earned’ the right to spirituality. Somehow, kneeling in the corner of your prayer room at home isn’t the same thing. This is in spite of the widespread belief that God is omnipresent and is not necessarily found only in Jerusalem or Mecca or Sabrimalai.

Like the abovementioned pilgrimage destinations, the Polsi sanctuary too is difficult to access and cannot be reached by mechanised transport. The pilgrims, like any others around the world, feel that they have to trudge up to have a glimpse of the Santa Maria and bask in the momentary reflected piety. I have never understood this, but then I am not a religious man.

In September every year, around 200 leading members of arguably the most powerful organized crime group in the world, join the pilgrims in the long hike up the Aspromonte mountains, ostensibly to visit the sanctuary and express their devotion to the Virgin Mary.

I say ‘ostensibly’ because the real reason for their pilgrimage is not devotion, but to have a tête-a-tête. Since the 1950s, the chiefs of the locali have been meeting there during the September Feast. These annual get-togethers, known as the crimine, have traditionally served as a forum to discuss future strategies and settle disputes, under the auspices of the Catholic church.

In those days, the Catholic Church was as involved in hosting and laundering money for the Mafioso as fucking little boys and girls.

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A 100 miles to the north, is a sleepy town called Cosenza that is bathed year round in bright sunlight. In January, with clear, azure-blue skies and a balmy 15°, Cosenza could well have been a tourists’ paradise.

One such day in January 2014, brought to the world an unspeakable horror that the locals are still trying put behind them and move on……

For 3-year-old Nicola “Coco” Campolongo, it had promised to be an exciting day. Coco had just been strapped into the car-seat in the back of the 8-year old Fiat Punto by his grandfather, Guiseppe Iannicelli, who drove while his Moroccan companion, 27-year-old Ibtissa Taoussa, sat in the front passenger seat. Taoussa was ‘Aunt Betty’ for Coco.

As the tiny car negotiated the busy thoroughfare, Coco’s head constantly swivelled round and round, as every child’s does, when he’s being taken on an outing. When he noticed a motorcycle keeping pace just inches away to his right, he gazed out at it in awe. The bike was one of those heavy Yamaha racing motorcycles.

Sitting astride were two men, dressed in leather from head to toe, with black helmets, their visors pulled down. When the man riding pillion turned his head to look at him, Coco waved wildly at the man and he even waved back. The motorcycle then speeded up, overtaking the Fiat and positioning itself in front. It remained there till the next intersection, where the bike came to a sudden halt, even though the light had turned green.

The old man was slow in reacting. He slammed on the brakes and fought to bring the skidding Fiat to a halt, barely managing to stop inches away from the tail lights of the Yamaha.

As the pillion rider twisted his torso, this time completely around facing the Fiat, the old man growled something in Calabrese that, roughly translated, meant, “Get the f—k out of my face, ars—le.” Grandpa Joe was a man with a mercurial temper.

The two seconds that the pillion rider took to unzip his jacket front and draw out a Beretta 7.62mm automatic would have been enough for a younger man to immediately put the car in gear and ram the motorbike, possibly run the two riders over and make his escape. Even if it had taken three seconds instead of two, he would probably have still made it, since the pillion rider would be too startled to aim accurately.

But Coco’s nonnino was old, no longer that murderous young button man with a leopard’s instinct for survival as he had once been. He just stared dumbly ahead till a third eye appeared in the center of his forehead. Immediately, the aged drug trafficker slumped forward on the wheel, pressing the horn down, setting it off.

The traffic around the two parked vehicles began to scatter and passersby did what this town had trained them since childhood for – they dived for cover. Just as well, because the pillion rider got off the bike and ambled over to the passenger side and peered in for just a second, before he brought the gun up once more and shot the terrified moll too, right between her eyes, at point blank range, the gun’s muzzle hitting the woman’s forehead before the round exited in a fiery flash.

Coco was beside himself by now, hopping up and down, restrained by his car seat, unable to comprehend what was unfolding in front of his eyes. He kept repeating, “Nonnino! Nonnino!” over and over.

The pillion rider didn’t get back on the bike. Instead, he strolled round to the rear of the hatchback and stood there for a while, not moving, his head swiveling around till he was satisfied there was no emerging threat. There couldn’t be. The outfit that he worked for owned this town.

Stretching out his right arm, he brought the Beretta up one last time, it’s muzzle bumping against the rear window of the car, six inches from the back of little Coco’s head. His expression impassive, the hit-man fired two shots in quick succession and Coco’s head exploded like a melon. The toddler slumped forward, his upper torso hanging in front, restrained by the car seat’s harness.

In the deathly silence that followed, the pillion rider casually walked over to the driver side, opened the door, dragged Iannicelli’s corpse out onto the pavement and out back, opened the trunk and stuffed it in. The bike revved up, the Fiat’s engine fired and the two-vehicle convoy began moving forward unhurriedly. At the next corner they took a sharp left and disappeared from view.

Iannicelli was a convict on nocturnal payrole and when he didn’t call in for a couple of days, the cops went looking for him. Then, a few days later, a hunter spotted the burnt-out skeleton of a small hatchback inside the compound of a derelict building at the edge of town and alerted the police who discovered the macabre scene inside.

There was a body in the trunk, charred beyond recognition and another in the front passenger seat, similarly cooked. In the back seat, the investigators found the charred remains of a tiny body, still strapped to a blackened car-seat, unrecognizable as the remains of a human being.

A shiny 50-eurocent coin was found on the roof of the burnt-out car, a known custom of the criminal group that owned the town, a message that meant that it was a vendetta for an unpaid drug debt.

Welcome to the world of the ‘Ndrangheta, the deadliest organized crime group in the world, with annual revenues from drug trafficking and murder of over $80 billion, a tidy sum which also happens to equal 3.5% of Italy’s GDP and double that of the auto behemoth, Fiat.

Guiseppe Iannicelli had been a card carrying member of the ‘Ndrangheta. Till he ran afoul, trying to make a drug sale on his own, without sharing the proceeds with his bosses, a capital offense to the ‘Ndrangheta. He too made those knee breaking pilgrimages to the Santuaro di Santa Maria di Polsi Catholic sanctuary in the hope that his Catholic God would choose to be on his side. Obviously he had been misled.

‘Ndrangheta tattoos. You gotta have ‘em if you’re going to one of them. Like the Japanese Yakuza.
Maybe it is the apostrophe in front of the name, but it sends a chill down my spine.
Coco was not the only child collateral damage.
Clockwise from Coco, blue-eyed three-year-old Domenico Petruzelli didn’t know his mum’s boyfriend was a ‘Ndrangheta goon. One day in March 2014, hitmen forced the family car off the road and opened fire with machine guns. Domenico died instantly, in a hail of bullets. Valentina Terracciano, just two, was killed in 2000, in a machinegun crossfire which raked a flower shop in Pollena Trocchia, near Naples. The store belonged to her uncle, a Camorra member and the real target. Claudio Domino, 11, was shot in the forehead because he was witness to a murder, in Palermo, Sicily. Annalisa Durante, 14, was a bystander used as a human shield in a clash between two rival Naples clans in 2004. She was fatally shot in the back of the head.

In the last decade alone, over 80 children and some 800 innocent bystanders have fallen for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

In a way, Coco Campolongo never had a chance; at least not at leading a normal life. Born into a family of drug pushers in ground zero of ‘Ndrangheta territory in southern Italy, the only occasion when the toddler had seen his parents was when someone found the time to take him to visit them in prison.

Naturally there were cries of horrified indignation at the January 2014 killing of Coco. Even for a country that has numbed itself to willful blindness at organized crime hits, the deliberate murder of a 3-year old looked like it was going to be a tipping point. From his pulpit, Pope Francis cried, “How could anyone kill an innocent little boy of just three years in this way?”

Then, as if to square things up, to show the world that evil always loses in the end and to thereby reaffirm the ‘law of conservation of spiritual entropy’, Pope Francis confirmed gravely that the child would surely go to heaven. He must know. After all, he is believed by Catholic suckers all over the world to be God’s own rep on earth.

The Pope went even further. “You, the mafia, are hereby excommunicated from the Catholic Church”, he announced, even though excommunication from the Catholic Church is a lengthy bureaucratic process and cannot be carried out by just an announcement. Still, the Pope put every bishop in Italy on notice. Henceforth, no mafia money should be accepted as donations and no mafia sponsors shall be sought for spring festivals like the Pasqua Processiones (Easter processions) that are organized every year by the church and sponsored by mafia money.

Two decades back, when the old Mustache Petes ruled the Italian organized crime syndicates, the Pope’s excommunication of organized crime members would have been a body blow to the mobsters. That’s because these guys, besides being very devout Catholics themselves, believed that they depended upon the goodwill of the hoi-polloi in order to thrive. You couldn’t run an illegal loan sharking operation or a protection racket if the folk who needed those services didn’t trust you.

The Catholic Church had it’s fingers on the goodwill switch and the power to negate that trust. It provided the Italian organized crime syndicates with an umbrella of legitimacy that made these monsters look warm and fuzzy in the eyes of the common folk. Bishops and cardinals were in the payroll of at least one of the four main crime groups. As a religious institution, the Catholic Church was dirty to the core.

Except for John Paul-1, the Pontiffs who came before Francis either never did consider breaking with the Mafia a priority or were themselves in league with organized crime. Indeed, some Popes, like the 15th Century Borgias, were heads of their own crime syndicates, no kidding.

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There was another thing that the Catholic Church customized for the conscience of the mobster – the confessional. It was and still is a most ridiculous farce, a very convenient way to shrug off the burden of one’s sins. The confessional is where the Catholic priest takes the confessor’s sins upon himself, like Jesus Christ once did, though the justice behind it escapes me to this day.

And it is safe too. Like with a doctor, a statement made in a confessional to a priest is protected under most privacy laws and inadmissible in any court of law. You murder someone and then go to your priest and confess and you walk away, feeling cleansed. In exchange for a sham mea culpa, the priest helps you cut a deal, with the Catholic God. Where is the penance, the repentance?

The priest doesn’t really give a damn. Years of listening to all sorts of sin every day have made him immune to sin tales. He himself has either done those things that he hears through the partition or at least fantasized doing them. A priest is human too, He forgets about your confession the moment your ass is out the door, gets himself a beer with the fiver you left in the donation box and goes back to the choirboy in his bedroom. You got a clean slate, the priest got his beer money and boy and the god of the Catholics is appeased. Who gives a shit what you did to a guy who deserved to get whacked anyway?

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The times however have changed, even for the ‘Ndrangheta. An Ndranghetisti today doesn’t give a flying fuck about image or trust or how the common Calabrian Joe feels about the brutal way it conducts it’s business. While earlier, the killing of family members of a marked man or innocent bystanders was a strict no-no, little Coco is a stark reminder that the rules have changed, that there are no longer any rules. The stakes are just too high now. Nine out of ten sachets of Columbian cocaine that change hands in Europe, a market work $80 billion, come from the ‘Ndrangheta.

It is debatable if there is anyone that ‘Ndrangheta would hesitate to harm. Probably there is only one man – the Pope, but that is no longer a sure thing. The same goes for the other three crime syndicates that together virtually own Italy – the Sicilian Costa Nostra, the Sacra Corona Unita of Apulia and the Camorra from Naples.

It is not as if the Pope has always been above the organized crime’s reach…….

Shortly after 5am on September 28, 1978, just 33 days after his election as Pope, John Paul-1 was found dead by a nun who had brought him his morning coffee. Simple at heart and charged with a burning desire to rid the Vatican of it’s links to organized crime and usher the Catholic Church out of it’s criminal ways into a path of true spirituality, he was known to the world as the ‘Smiling Pope’.

It is widely believed that the coffee he was handed was laced with strychnine, that he was assassinated by one of his own senior staff, for trying to reform the mafia-ridden Vatican Bank which had turned itself into a money laundering enterprise for the Italian organized crime syndicates. It is not known as to which one of the four syndicates was responsible for the killing.

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The safety net of religion and it’s nexus with organized crime is not restricted to just the Italian organized crime.

When he was declared a global terrorist by the US, his hosts (Pakistan) used the opportunity to tighten the screws on Indian-born Dawood Ibraham. Still alive and ever prospering, he is no.3 in the Forbes list of the world’s ten most dangerous criminals, Ibrahim has a personal net worth of $50 billion.

After he was found to be directly responsible for the series of powerful bomb blasts that killed 350 and injured over 1200, in Mumbai in 1993, the US moved to tag him as a wanted terrorist and the pressure on Pakistan to cough him up grew. Ibrahim, by then ensconced in the tony Karachi colony, realized it was now a matter of time before he became, to the Pakistani establishment, expendable.

But this is where his astuteness came into play. He knew before anyone else that Pakistan was soon going to be overrun by religiosity of the most virulent kind – Islamic fundamentalism.

In his early avatar in India, Dawood Ibrahim was known to be a secular mob boss, with a right-hand man who was a Hindu named Chota Rajan, but he decided to get a make-over and take refuge in religion. He began distributing largesse in the form of millions, to rogue Pakistani terrorist outfits like the Markaz-ud Dawa, the front organisation of Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, fuelling their gargantuan growth, laundering their funds from his bases in Europe and Southeast Asia, gaining their support and through them, the assurance of sanctuary by the equally rogue Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI.

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Dawood Ibrahim’s generosity toward the terrorists changed the dynamics of Pakistan’s politics and ensured that he would never be touched. He continues to lead a brazen existence amid opulence, in an elite neighborhood of the Pakistani city of Karachi, where he is known simply as ‘Sultan Shah’. He lives inside a heavily guarded compound that goes by the name of ‘White House’ and has five sprawling single-storied bungalows in it.

Inside the sprawling White House complex, Dawood is reported to have built his very own mosque, where he takes time every afternoon, to read from the Quran, his visage suitably grave and penitent. He too has found sanctuary in religion. Ibrahim even conducts conferences inside that mosque, planning hits and drug shipments, the holy environs of the mosque imparting some kind of legitimacy to his nefarious mindset. Just like the church does, for the ‘Ndranghetisti.

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When he was controlling all the madka (numbers) rackets in the 70s, the Mumbai underworld don, Varadaraja Mudaliar (1926-1988), known to everyone as Vardhabhai, once caught one of his numbers runners cheating on a customer who had put the equivalent of 10¢ on a winning combination. It would have paid the guy off – $ 250.

Before he had the runner tossed out of the 20th floor of the Oberoi Trident Hotel in Nariman Point, Vardhabhai is reported to have told the man, “ On your way down, I want you to keep repeating ‘trust’, ‘trust’, ‘trust’.”

The don didn’t give a flying fuck about the customer who had lost his winnings, though he did make sure that the man was reimbursed in full. He just wanted to send out a message to all those poor sods, those daily-wage laborers who paid into the system, in nickels and dimes, hoping for a windfall. A message that the madka racket was a fair one and there was always a chance they would hit the jackpot if they kept playing and if a runner should cheat them, they’d be reimbursed their winnings, come what may.

Mudaliar, was an extremely pious man. He was never seen without those thick vibhuti lines on his forehead, made from sacred ash from holy wood burnt according to vedic rituals. Like Dawood and his backyard mosque, Vardhabhai too had a massive temple inside his compound.

Mudaliar liked to hedge his bets as regards his relationship with the Almighty. He made it a point to visit the dargah of Bismillah Shah Baba in Mumbai often, to offer food to the poor, an essentially Muslim ritual. Being on the right side of the every God mattered to Vardhabhai. Likewise, Haji Mastan Mirza, another legendary don and a contemporary of Mudaliar, derived his name ‘Haji’ from the frequent Haj pilgrimages that he undertook, to cleanse himself of his sins.

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For the criminal mind, immersion into religion is like a catharsis that he has to go through, in order to be able to live the life that he lives. It is much like biting into a twist of a lime after a shot of tequila, to take away the taste.

Monasteries and churches like the one in Polsi, dot the hills and dales of Calabria. Understandable. Like the deadly lupara, the Calabrian version of a sawed-off shotgun, religion too is an essential accessory. The Catholic Church secures his soul. Albeit, for a generous donation. Monks got ta eat, right?

In Mario Puzo’s book, The Godfather, terrified that he might go to hell for all his black deeds, Don Vito Corleone’s lifelong friend and consigliere, Genco Abandando, cries out from his death bed to the Don, “ Stay with me, Godfather. Help me meet death. If he sees you, he will be frightened and leave me in peace. You can say a word, pull a few strings, eh? We’ll outwit that bastard as we outwitted all those others.” Deep inside, he must have realized that all the thousands that he gave away as donations to churches and charities were probably not going to help now.

Whom did Genco Abandando refer to as “the bastard”, I wonder. Was it God or the Satan?

E Pluribus Multis

Most people believe that good governance leads to harmony. It may, but only temporarily. In the end, good governance always lays itself bare to conflict.” – Noccolò Machiavelli

SPQR – Senatus Populus Que Romanus (The Senate and the People of Rome). If you were living in ancient Rome, you would find this acronym everywhere – on triumphal arches, battle standards, coins, ceremonial banners, you name it and they had it there. It was their version of a Coat of Arms. As to the words, for the Romans it was natural to use Latin.

E PLURIBUS UNUM (Out of many, one). Likewise for the Americans, this gobbledygook is found everywhere. What the fuck is wrong with saying it in plain English?? But no, it has to be in Latin, a faux effort to sound profound. In today’s context, when billionaires control 70% of America’s wealth, it sounds phony as hell too. Anyway, both above standards are very similar in messaging and import.

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When it came into existence – circa 800BC – it was just a small town that was little more than a village, population 150, by the banks of a river that was little more than a stream that one could easily wade across.

The village didn’t begin with any grand plans of being an empire, but in the course of a thousand years, it would stretch through three continents and secure within its borders the lives of roughly 100 million free citizens and 30 million slaves.

And the stream never imagined that resourcefulness and engineering would divert nearby streams to join it’s flow, turning it into what is today the turbulent Tiber.

By the time it grew to it’s mightiest in 200AD, the Roman Empire would be constantly fighting wars of conquest and quelling rebellion in it’s distant outposts, expending in today’s dollars trillions, in order to maintain it’s hegemony.

And all the while that the Roman legions were fighting in distant lands, back home tax collectors, judges, senators, policemen, firefighters, medicine men, carpenters, builders, farmers, accountants, poets and historians – they would be going about their orderly lives, free Roman citizens, blissfully comfortable. Surely, those wars could never touch them. Welcome to the Roman Empire.

In the 21st Century, I can think of one nation whose citizens are similarly cocooned inside a comfortable existence, free of invasions, one whose rulers have lead the citizens to believe that they are the lords of the earth – America.

Back in Rome, it wasn’t really a picture of harmony though, by today’s standards at least. Ancient Rome was in a state of ‘controlled barbarism’. Rich businessmen sponsored ‘Munera’, reality shows held live in vast amphitheaters where on weekends, citizens brought their wives (and some even their children) to watch hand-picked slaves slash, bludgeon and stomp each other to death.

Compared to present day standards, a vastly different level of morality reigned in 1st Century AD Rome. If you were a Roman housewife, you could have your domestic Nubian slave beaten to death for the slightest of infractions. If you didn’t like the looks of your new born female child, you could say it had a curse that had to be exterminated. And then, you proceeded to smash her head against the stable door and threw her into the rubbish heap.

If you were a plebeian (commoner) and to your dismay your friendly neighborhood quaestor (Senator) took a fancy to your nubile teenage daughter, you had a choice – to either let him take her away in exchange for a tip off ten talents and a job in his stables or to face the prospect of hard labor in the arsenic-laced gold mines outside town. Your daughter got raped either way.

That was civilization 1.0, oh yeah.

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While the citizens within the walls of Rome lived their lives in that quasi-barbaric state of peace, it was quite another world outside. Around the fringes of the Empire was a very violent environment of treacherous mini-empires and rogue city states that were perpetually squabbling and then forming alliances with the intention of marching on Rome and burning it down to the ground.

Invasions and conquests in those days were quite ‘comprehensive’, designed to ensure that the invader wouldn’t get any more trouble from the invaded guy. If you were a Roman legionnaire, you didn’t just put an arrow through the invaded guy and loot his livestock. You wiped him off the face of the earth. You burned his cities and temples down. You raped his women and then killed them. You threw his children into large burning pits. You took the able-bodied as slaves and worked them to their deaths building your monuments and aqueducts. You reserved the worst treatment for the leaders of the conquered lands who refused to fall in line – you had hot molten lead poured down their throats while they were still alive.

It was a brutal world. The bloodshed, if it were to happen today, would leave every man, woman and child in the conquered territories with Stage-5 PTSD, turning most of them into paranoid schizophrenics. And in turn, those invading troops would be suicidal wrecks suffering from acute moral injury. But guess what? The capacity of the human psyche, to endure and move on, ensured that that didn’t happen.

Rome still exists, at the heart of a marginally prosperous European nation, in the midst of a continent of stable, prosperous democracies, none of whom suffer from any consequences of two thousand years of invasions.

Amazing how things haven’t gone south long term, isn’t it?

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The analogies between ancient Rome and present day America are startling. Just for fun, let’s compare the two at the height of their hegemony –

Rome in 200AD : An empire that stretched from The Azores(east Atlantic) in the west to the mouth of the Tigris(Iraq) in the east and Scotland in the north to Nubia(Sudan) in the south, with 20% of the world’s population as its subjects.

And America in the present day : 800+ military bases around the world, virtually unchallenged. Sure, technically the folks in those lands are not subjects. Only technically though. You fuck with America and you won’t get into an airplane again, you won’t be able to trade, you won’t even be able to access the internet. And there’s always the very real chance of getting blown away. Attacks by American killer drones anywhere in the world take just 8 minutes to plan and execute. Yes, America is Rome in 200AD.

Rome owned the pre-Christian world just as America owns the world today. A botched drone strike that kills 10 innocent civilians including 5 kids ….. oh well what the hell, boys will be boys.

The similarities between the two are striking. Rome started in the 9th Century BC as a lawless haven for the indigents and the unwanted from nearby Carthago, Neapolis and Syracusa. Likewise, America began with the puritans and exiles who came over because they were universally considered assholes and unwanted in Britain. Both started with the disenfranchised jetsam and flotsam.

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Even the mysteries behind the rise Rome and America mirror each other. How did a small village in central Italy manage to grow into a 4-million square mile empire, bigger in area than Europe? Likewise, how did a little village named Jamestown on the banks of the Powhatan, Virginia ultimately grow into the world’s most powerful nation? Exactly what is it that set the two apart from the rest?

Romans and Americans have always had an overblown, almost cringeworthy, sense of nationalism. Like the Americans today, Romans thought that the sun rose and set with them and that they had a God-given right to dominate and rule over the rest of the world.

Philosopher-Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, once exhorted his citizens thus……, “When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive as a Roman – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love and to conquer, as a Roman.” You’ll hear similar bullshit from every American President – “Shining city on a hill”, “Greatest nation on earth”, etc.

Will America too fade away like Rome and barely exist, a shadow of it’s former self, another mediocre developed nation like Italy, struggling to stay economically afloat?

The overwhelming sense that I have is – yes.

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Gaddar

Navy Nagar Parade Ground Sea Wall,

Colaba, Mumbai, India

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Wednesday 26th November, 2008 (20.37hrs)

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The suddenness of a seaside sunset is always amazing. That last moment when the orange-red disc plops out of sight, beneath the waves, day ceding to night. A eon is a long long time but even a leaf-eating diplodocus must have paused it’s chomping and turned its head to stare at the setting sun in absolute wonder. Wondering at nature doesn’t need intelligence.

For me, post-retirement, sunsets have been a daily routine. Tonight was no different. I sat there, my legs dangling over the parapet, the waves sneaking in little by little, each intruding further than the last one, until they were jostling each other at the foot of the sea wall, lapping playfully at those star shaped concrete wave breaker blocks just below my feet. For the next six hours and twelve and a half minutes they would lap, until they began to ebb again. That’s nature’s rhythm.

This stretch of beach was always teeming with boisterous crowds during the day, but now the vendors and their pushcarts, the pony rides and the balloons, the wooden miniature ferris wheels, they had melted away into the fetid belly of the city.

Now it was dark, leaving only the twinkling phosphorescence on the waters. My daily fix, watching the sunset, was over. Shanta and I had basked in this serenity for years. Until it was only me at the seawall.

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A light caught my eye. It had blinked on briefly some way beyond the surf, making me bring up the Oberwerk and train it in the general direction of the flash. Immediately the two speeding zodiacs filled my eyepiece. There were five of them in each – huddled forms, outlined in the eerie red glow of the Oberwerk’s night-vision. Each man appeared to be toting a bulky backpack.

The two inflatables pitched and bounced on the waves, releasing bursts of spray as they hit the troughs, racing toward the little strip of sand that bordered the jumble of the star-shaped blocks by the seawall. On their heading they’d be beaching right about a hundred meters from where I was perched.

My conversation with Jimmy at the Navy Club the previous evening flashed back instantly. Commodore Jimmy Taraporewala, NDA roommate, ex-brother in arms. Instead of the mandatory dress code (suit, black tie), he was in the usual overalls that the members of his corps wore, with those shoulder patches depicting a crocodile in graphic red and black, lashing out with its tail. Dreaded by the Lashkar, it was an insignia that I was intimately familiar with, having worn it myself for six eventful years.

We were both nursing sodas, except that mine had a couple of fingers of McDovell Premium in it. Not needing much coaxing, Jimmy whispered, “We have a red alert, Krish. Something is about to happen.”

I had looked up sharply, “Another landing?”

Jimmy nodded and then grimaced. “Those assholes at the IB have no clue. No news from our assets at the ISI. JCB and DNI are working on it non-stop. All Coast Guard vessels, as well as the Sindhukirti and Sindhuratna, have slipped their moorings. The Talwar and Trishul are on their way from the Maldives. We ourselves are at 5 minute readiness”.

I leaned forward, “Where did the tip-off originate?”

Jimmy stared at me. “Efraim.”

Efraim Levy – recently retired director of Mossad, now head liaison for MARCOS. At the Mossad you don’t retire. Yeah, those days we were beginning to get in bed with the Israelis. About time too. What closer allies couldn’t reveal to us, the Mossad did, with pinpoint accuracy.

“What about those Neptunes you just acquired? We have two now, don’t we? Put them on a permanent orbit over the west coast till this thing is over.” I was referring to the new Boeing P-8I Neptune reconnaissance aircraft that have just been inducted into the Navy.

“Boeing technicians are still sorting out some glitches with the Magnetic Anomaly Detectors in them,” Jimmy made a exasperated face and the conversation veered away to his son, Ronnie, who was passing out of the NDA in a week.

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Back in the present……..premonition. It made the hair at the nape of my neck stand rigid. The navy had let me keep the Oberwerk and now it was going to save my life. I peered through it at the huddled shapes on the zodiacs. Fishermen aren’t out so late and besides, neither do they gallivant around the Arabian Sea in zodiacs, I said to myself.

They might have seen me, silhouetted against the street lights behind. I swung my legs over the parapet, stowed the Oberwerk into my windcheater and quickly dropped down to the ground on all fours and began picking my way through the rubble on the side of the road in a crouching gait, to remain below the level of the parapet.

10 yards of knee-lacerating crawl brought me to a crack in the seawall where the cement had crumbled, forming a gap large enough to let a man through. It had probably been deliberately created just to have a short-cut to the asphalt, by those street urchins who beg around the beach during the day. I slid through the gap and started slithering down toward the sand, stepping carefully over the star-shaped blocks, knowing they would be coated with moss and slippery as hell.

As I placed my foot in the squishy sand, I saw the silhouettes. The men had by now run the boats onto the sand and begun getting out of their polyurethane suits. There was no attempt at camouflaging the zodiacs, so the extraction would have to be by a different route. They spoke and gestured at each other but the roar of the tide drowned all sounds.

The one who was already out of his wetsuit and still bare-chested, was the first to sense my presence. In a single fluid motion, his right hand came up holding a handgun while he dropped to a crouch. I had expected that.

I raised my hand, palm outward and whispered,” Salaam, Bhaijan.” (Greetings to you, brother). He peeled off from the rest and came forward. In the dark, the gun in his hand looked like a silenced 9mm Luger and he brought it down, holding it loosely in his right hand, as he came to a halt a few feet from me. He was clean-shaven, diminutive and wiry, with piercing bright eyes that had no fear in them. Trust me, I know fear when I see it and this guy was devoid of it, a pro.

“Salaam,” said the man,” Do you have our stuff, janab?”

I nodded,” Its all in there.” I gestured toward the star-shaped blocks by the seawall.

“Aapki tareef?” (Who are you?), he looked up at me.

“Aftab”, I said, to which he nodded.

“Aur aap hain, janab…?” (And you?)

He turned his piercing gaze at me and said, “Babar”.

“Leh, usko samhal, Ajmal, “ the man named Babar barked and a wild-eyed guy who looked young enough to be a teenager, dropped what he was doing and made his way toward the blocks. I braced myself.

The star shaped blocks were about 100 meters from where we stood. The boy named Ajmal would be gone maybe a minute, max. They had a minute to realize I was lying, that there was nothing there.

We waited, my hands on my waist, my right palm just inches away from the Glock34 that I always carried with me these days. Ex-special forces members are licensed to carry a hidden automatic weapon. The Glock had become a part of me, nestled in the small of my back, now hidden by the windcheater.

As the seconds ticked away, the man called Babar said,” Rana ne wapsi ki koi zikar ki? (Did Rana mention the extraction plans?)”

“Rana?” I stared at the man, “Nahin, hamein Rana ne nahin bheja.” (Rana? I have no idea. Rana didn’t send me)

“To phir?” I could see the first flush of puzzlement in the man’s eyes, as the man called Babar straightened up and stared, his grip instinctively tightening on the Luger, “Kisney bheja?” (Then who sent you?)

“MARCOS.”

I had whispered it so softly that only the man called Babar heard me. Pronounced clearly, it hung in the air for a split second.

Maybe it was fatigue brought on by the 50km ride on the zodiacs or the stress that any clandestine operation can bring on, I don’t know. But a split second can be a very long time in our business. Long enough to die.

The man called Babar hadn’t thought ahead. I had. He was bringing his firing arm up when the Glock appeared almost by magic in my right hand. It took another half millisecond for Babar to grow a third nipple, right between the other two. He collapsed in a heap and rolled over, staring up, squinting, his lips trying to form words, eyes trying to focus.

From his vantage point, the sky was clear, teeming with a million stars. Perhaps he had noticed a new star on the belt of Orion. A trickle of blood began seeping out of the corner of his lips and his nostrils, pulsating in step with the frantic thrashing of his dying heart.

In a swift sweep my left hand snatched up the Luger, while the Glock began talking simultaneously and the confined space on the beach clattered with the klicks and coughs of silenced automatic weapons erupting lethal fire. One of my rounds opened up the kid, Ajmal’s head like a melon. He kept walking a while, his body still believing it had a head, before it realized it didn’t and collapsed.

I dispatched the rest quite easily. These were dumb kids, just a bunch of miserable suckers, out for twisted glory. The last two dropped their weapons and tried to run into the waters. Maybe they wanted to swim all the way back to Karachi.

They never had a chance. When you are up against the MARCOS, you never have a chance. We are trained to shoot by sense alone, in the dark. I picked the two off pretty easily and speed-dialed Jimmy.

As I proceeded to pick my way back up those rocks, I heard a groan. I turned to see the man named Babar and I walked over to him. The spit of sand around me had turned into a slaughterhouse. Babar’s chest heaved as he made an effort to speak and I brought my face closer. If he had any last words, I was curious to find out what they were.

Alas, the man named Babar disappointed me. He just uttered one word,” Gaddar” (traitor). His eyes gradually began taking on the glazed sightlessness of the dead and I decided to hurry him along. I brought my Glock up and pressed it against his forehead.

Before pressing up on the trigger I grinned. I wanted him to see me grin. And then I spoke clearly so the words would register in his dimming brain,” Here’s one for your janab Hafeez Sayeed, chutiya.” The Glock spoke, eloquently.

I had climbed back up onto the asphalt and was leaning against the parapet of the seawall when I heard the first wails of the sirens and the lights speeding up Pilot Bundar Road

Is God a just God?

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“Every day, as we walk through our lives, we notice evil and good living side by side. That’s the nature of life” – The Dalai Llama

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“He that is without sin, let him cast the first stone” – Jesus.H.Christ with the scribes and pharisees, in the Gospel according to Jack.
– painting by Philippe de Champaigne (~1670)
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The Dalai Llama’s words in the blurb above the image seem to imply that the forces of evil are just as powerful as those of good. I happen to agree. History supports that view too. But coming from the Dalai Llama – the very custodian of his faith, it is an admission that God is not the only Sheriff in town.

James Irwin, the Lunar Module Pilot for the 1971 Apollo-15 mission to the moon, reported that while he was on his 18-hour sojourn on the surface of the moon, he felt the “presence” of God around him, coaxing, encouraging, guiding, reassuring him. I won’t make a snide remark about the presence. Irwin held a Master’s Degree in Aerospace Engineering. If he says he felt something, then he felt something.

On touching down at the bottom of the 36000-ft Challenger Deep in the Pacific, the deepest spot on Earth, the Oscar-winning movie director, James Cameron, felt surreal as he looked out on the desolate landscape of the ocean bottom. Although he was completely isolated from human civilization, he says he felt a spiritual presence. I won’t sneer. Cameron is my favourite movie director. If he felt creepy, he felt creepy.

Maybe God does appear in extreme places. Only, I don’t want to be in scary places only to feel his presence. If he wants me to believe he definitely exists, he has to appear while I’m having a beer or taking a shower or something. Otherwise, I am an atheist and an agnostic rolled in one. As an agnostic I don’t know for sure if God exists and at the same time as an atheist, I don’t believe he does.

I am starting on Aldous Huxley’s Point counter point and I found this terrific quote on one of the first few pages, a statement that protagonist’s brother-in-law makes while arguing that one cannot believe in things that one cannot rationalize as true within oneself – “If you have never had a spiritual experience, it is folly to believe in God. You might as well believe in the excellence of oysters, when you can’t eat them without being sick…” Well, I have never tasted oysters, so there.

But I do agree with the idea of good and evil and I do think they exist together at the same time. Like in Superman comics, there is a “Bizarre God” at the other end of town where everything is the opposite of everything on this side. Good is evil and evil is good. Each and every one of us is born with a season pass for both sides and we use it to bounce back and forth every day, every moment.

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Even Jesus seemed to agree. According to the Book of John (8:3-7) in the New Testament, the scribes and the pharisees – those early Jewish zealots – they hated Jesus. He was usurping their power over the Jewish people with his straight talk. So, even though he made sense when he spoke, the establishment had had it with him and wanted him gone. They would be given their wish with his crucifixion in the end, but in the initial days they tried to trip him up with their semantics.

One day, these men gathered a crowd and dragged a woman accused of adultery up to Jesus. They threw her to the ground in front of him and asked what should be done with her, while reminding Jesus that in the Torah, God, through his spokesman – Moses, had ordered that women who committed adultery be stoned to death. The zealots had no idea who they were dealing with. Jesus stared at them, haughty yet serene, and said in response, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone on her…”

Jesus’s response was a startling admission. That there could be in the crowd those that lived within the constant presence of sin in their daily lives. Sin = Evil.

That was exactly what the Dalai Llama must have meant. Once again, I completely agree.

The proposed punishment for adultery that the woman faced was an unimaginably brutal one. As per practice, she was to be buried vertically in the ground with only her head sticking out. Her punishment was meant to be by public participation, so from then until she had breathed her last, it was going to be a barbaric free for all. Anyone in the crowd could pick up a stone or a brick and hit her with it. From all sides her head would be battered by rocks at 70-80 miles per hour, slamming into her face, her ears, her lips, splitting, crushing, cracking, giving her no chance to defend herself. After a while she would be knocked unconscious and finally, after a half hour of agony, she would die. All because she, a married woman, had let a married man fuck her.

Man, that is a truly horrific way to die. Interestingly, Jesus didn’t protest the modus operandi of the sentence – stoning. Neither was he in the least perturbed that no one had thought of punishing the man who had been the other half of the adulterous union. We know full well that usually it is the man who makes the first move in an adulterous relationship. Yet, the Bible doesn’t even mention the son of a bitch. Jesus was not concerned about the man. Being fair in meting out justice didn’t seem to occur to him at all. The Bible doesn’t even bother to name the woman. Some messiah. Some holy book.

Here is something else about Jesus’s response…. it implied that, had there been a man among the gathered crowd who (deceitfully or otherwise) simply stated that he was free from sin then he, Jesus, was okay with that person stoning the woman to death. Jeeze, some messiah!

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Let’s take this a bit further with a closer look at the Bible…..

The Book of Job is a chapter in the Old Testament that is probably the most profound of all books in the Bible. It is the story of Job, a prosperous landowner and farmer in the ‘land of Uz’ which I am guessing must have been somewhere in the Fertile Crescent.

Job was something of a model citizen, a pious keeper of the faith. There must have been many who were equally virtuous, but God had for some unknown reason zeroed in on Job and showered him with all the riches – fertile lands to grow corn and barley, a thousand head of prime cattle, a hundred sheep and a family of seven strong sons and three beautiful daughters. Consequently, Job was wealthier than most.

Mind you, the Bible takes great pains to mention that God had given Job all his wealth and not that he had toiled for it. Why this favoritism then, you might ask if you are a schmuck. But if you are a true Christian, you’ll know that dictum of the devout – “God has his ways”. You won’t question God’s actions.

Anyway, the story goes that one day, the Satan appeared before God and said, “Have you seen what’s going on down on earth, the sinful things that people are engaging in?”

God replied, “You’re always bitching about the bad stuff. See how Job lives his life, as a pure moral human being”.

Being well aware of Job’s special status, the Satan replied, “Of course Job will be pious and obedient. You made it worth his while. Take away all you have given him and then see how long he remains your obedient servant”.

So, God took the challenge and within the wink of an eye Job had lost everything. The next day, while Job’s sons and daughters were feasting at home, God sent a wind that rushed in and destroyed the house, killing all of them. Then, a bolt of lightning streaked down and torched all his lands and livestock.

And then God did a curious thing. He let the Satan take charge. Instantly Job was inflicted by a dreadful disease and large puss-filled boils appeared all over his body and he lay dying unable to move, writhing in pain.

Job wanted to scream, “Why, God, why?” But he knew a good thing when he saw one. He decided to keep his mouth shut and ride it out and in recognition of his loyalty, God restored all his possessions to him, this time with fourteen thousand sheep, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys”. He also gave Job a new set of sons stronger than the ones that He had had murdered and daughters more beautiful than all the women in the world.

What kind of God would bring such havoc to a moral and devout man, just so He could win a bet with the Satan? Why did the first set of sons and daughters, the first set of livestock have to die? How could God be a just God if so many evil men went unpunished?

I’ll say it again – Jeeze, some God.

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To blind believers, the moral of the Book of Job is – whatever happens to you, keep your mouth shut and bear it. But in his book “When bad things happen to good people”, Harold Kushner urges the reader to consider three possibilities…(1) God is all powerful and nothing happens without his will, (2) God is just and the evil are punished while the good prosper and (3) Job is a good person.

As long as Job is healthy and wealthy, we can believe all three premises to be true. But if Job suffers, one or more of the three propositions don’t make sense. If God is both, just and all-powerful, then Job is a sinner, which is not true because he isn’t. If Job is a good person and still gets punished, then God is not just. If it was not God who made Job suffer, then God is not all-powerful.

Therefore, says Kushner, the Book of Job is an argument over which of the three propositions we are prepared to sacrifice, in order to keep on believing the other two.

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I’m done with Job and now let’s get back to the Book of John in the New Testament and the part about the adulterous woman. No one came forward to cast that first stone and so she was set free.

Now here’s the thing – the Bible doesn’t dwell upon what happened next. Did the woman say “Phew, that was close” and then return home and beg her husband for forgiveness? Or did she run back to her adulterous fuck friend with a new-found confidence from the fact that nobody could touch her now?

Anyway, whatever happened to that woman afterward has never been recorded and now, more than two thousand years later, we still have no idea. But we sure can tell what will happen to a young adulteress like her, today. Nothing. They won’t even bother to arrest her. Today the same lady can sit on her haunches ‘in the middle of 5th Avenue’ and blow someone and all she’ll get is a ticket for blocking traffic. Courts in most progressive democracies no longer recognize adultery as a criminal offence, citing personal liberty which is enshrined in their constitutions.

We have come a long way, baby. Today the prevailing ethos on adultery is – if two people want to fuck, it may not look nice but it is their choice. I believe that is how adultery should be viewed – disgusting, distasteful, debauched, but not illegal.

Lets not depend upon only one kind of justice – the divine kind.

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On the Road to Jericho

‘Every day, each one of us

goes out on the Jericho road…’

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


jericho

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


It’s been a busy life. You’re a first generation 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”.

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.

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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. You have spent time with terminally ill and senile war veterans for whom a long life is now no longer a blessing but a curse. You have been amazed at how gratefully a hug can been returned.

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.

There had been a short memorial service the previous evening, the nurse on the floor tells you. There had been no visitors, except for a younger sister who had flown in from Halifax. Your eyes are brimming with tears and the nurse, a plump matronly woman, holds you in her arms till you whisper, “Its okay I’m fine”.

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.

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Ps:This piece was written in 2019

The Red Lotus with the Blue Leaves

Ma

It’s 5.08 on the dashboard clock. Bunty is purring along quite contentedly. She has just had a drink at the Shell resto-bar at the corner of Perrot and Grand. 87 octane, Bunty isn’t finicky. She appreciates the fact that I froze my butt off filling her up.

Bunty is my Corolla. Cars are female. Trucks are male. Yeah.

I didn’t have to pick up Pierre, my carpool partner. He is vacationing in Punta Cana, the sumbitch, while my tootsies are below zero.

I’m a little ahead of time and therefore I probably won’t be seeing Tommy this morning. When I’m on regular schedule, Tommy usually appears out of the gloom, running so close that it feels as if I could touch him if I reached out. Of course it only seems that way.

After keeping pace for a while, Tommy speeds up and heaves himself onto the Mercier rail-road bridge with his kids, the cylindrical tanker railcars, ‘PROCOR’ emblazoned on them between the image of two tilted barrels of oil. They sway and nod at me as they follow Dad onto the upper tier of the bridge.

Up ahead, the sun is just beginning to play hide and seek through the lattice work of the bridge girders as it starts peeping over snow-bound pine forests of the Kanawake Indian Reserve on the south shore of the St. Lawrence.

It is white everywhere, as far as the eyes can see and the temperature on the dashboard says -22°C and that’s without windchill. The blazing tunnel of Bunty’s headlights is losing its stark contrast as the gold of the early sun bounces off six undulating lanes that reach into eternity.

At this point, others would start thinking of stuff that they have planned for the day – the meetings that are scheduled, assholes to sweet talk to, bosses to badger, what’s in the menu for lunch at the cafeteria, how low Pierrette, it’s big chested counter-girl, will be slung, etc.

Me, I’m not made that way. I slip into a reverie, this time my mind traveling back to engineering school, studying for my Bachelors, 1976…….

“Take the No.170 bus from the Shyambazar crossing. If you tell the conductor ‘matri asram’, he’ll drop you off right there at our doorstep. They know. Keep an eye on your bag. Hold it on your lap. Don’t get off to stretch your legs when the bus stops on the way, ok?”

It was Ma, her tone conversational, her directions written on the postcard I received that Friday morning, the week before my engineering school closed for summer. I remember the postcard clearly. The lotus that she always drew on the back of her postcards, on the side that had the space for the address. Postcards are defunct now. No one writes postcards anymore.

The leaves on the lotus on Ma’s postcards were always blue ‘sulekha’ ink and the lotus itself, red. She didn’t have green ink and she liked blue, she once said. Below the lotus, in her dear flowing handwriting, calm and assured, as if the wisdom of centuries was bestowed on her, were the words,” Amar Jobbu shona ke” (to my darling Jobbu).

I remember that summer in 1976. I was going to stay back in my engineering school dorm. Like all the other summers. Going home, if I could define what really was home, was just too much of a hassle. There was my father with his family. And there was Ma, by then a sanyasini (Hindu nun), in her asram. Dada (eldest bro) was struggling to settle down in his first job and Chorda (bro number 2) was tucked away in a dinghy hostel in central Kolkata, because his father couldn’t stand the sight of him.

It was one late evening a month earlier, very late, maybe around 2am. We had Turbomachines finals the next morning and all the guys in the dorm had their doors shut, desperately trying to cram up as much as they could. I was trying to focus on a grainy black and white photo in my text book, of the vortex at the exit of a turbine and my eyes fell on the family photo on the shelf right next. I remember suddenly feeling the urge to go see Ma that summer, instead of just sitting on my ass in my dorm room. I had never been to her asram.

A month of correspondence followed and here I was, holding her postcard with the detailed directions and the lotus.

Earlier, Subbu from Metallurgy had lost the toss and made the trip to the Madras Central Station to get the reservations (he had to be persuaded with a Len Deighton from Higginbothams’, I think it was ‘Bomber’. Subbu loved Deighton. I couldn’t stand Deighton.

I won’t bore you with the trials and tribulations of travel in the searing heat of 1970s India. Ma’s directions however had been platinum plated. The Uttamananda Matri Asram (Uttamananda Convent for women) was set in a leafy patch at a spot where the GT Road runs parallel and just yards away from the banks of the Hooghly, the asram itself nestled in between. As the bus no.170 slowed to a stop, I made out the solitary figure leaning over and peering to read the number board of the bus. She was swathed in a ‘thane’ (no-frills saree), dyed saffron, and a coarse cotton blouse, also dyed saffron. She looked frail.

As we walked into the waiting hall of the asram, I noticed the slight limp. Turns out, she’d just returned from ‘mushthi bhikhkha’. She and a few other inmates were helping run a girls’ orphanage where she managed the administration and taught English, Maths and History. To raise funds, she would cover the surrounding towns and villages, collecting alms for the orphanage. Non-perishable stuff like grain and clothes.

The Marwari grocers were the most generous, she said. “Aao Maji, Aao, baitho tho thori der. Itna garmi. Chai piyogi, thanda? Arey o Kanhaiya, zara ek glass pani la idhar, Maji ayen hain.” They’d hand her a small basta(bag) of rice or atta(flour). She’d sit a while catching her breath and be on her way, the bag slung over her frail shoulders. The travel was almost entirely on foot, on Hawaii slippers (flip-flops). She’d twisted her ankle on her last jaunt. It was now better, she said, dismissively.

I strain to remember that day. Time flew. Ma had prepared alu posto, kacha lonka diye, korayer dal and fulko rooti, on the small kerosene stove she had in her tiny ground floor room. I’d love to translate the menu for you into English, but right now the words are coming out in a gush and somehow I don’t think it matters.

Afterwards, we sat at the riverside on some stone steps that led into the river and watched as a small freighter made its way up the river. We were quiet. We both sensed that the time had come for me to leave. Ma reached across and hugged me and it felt the same as it did when I was little and came back home from the soccer field in Allahabad after school.

Then, very quickly she released me. The first step in being a Sanyasini is shedding all attachments, even personal ones. It had been, what, 10 years? She was still trying , I guess. It is hard not to hold and hug your own son, especially when you meet him approximately once in a year.

Ma stared across the dark waves at the freighter just when it sounded its Klaxon. “Gaye ki lekha bol tho, Jobbu?” (Can you read the name of the ship, Jobbu?).

I turned and took her frail body in my arms and hugged her. She tried to resist but gave up and sank into my arms. And there we sat, mother and son, and let our sobs mingle with each other. Mine demanded ‘why? why couldn’t I have had a childhood like everyone else?’ but of course, I left them unspoken. Over the years I have come to terms with it. I have realized I have it better than most. But at that moment it was all that came to my mind.

And Ma, what was she thinking as she hugged me? I have no idea what her sobs actually meant. Guilt? At having left us? I had always resented her leaving us. I had chosen not to see what my father had done to her over the twenty five years that they had been together.

Was it despair that I saw in her eyes as she wrapped her frail arms round me? Despair, that perhaps she wasn’t going to achieve what she had set out to achieve? Those questions popped in my mind then but over the years, as I have matured I have that realized Ma had achieved more than I shall ever achieve. She had led her life by the book. The way the Amish live theirs’. True to her faith. True to the innermost voices of her conscience.

The bus back was not due for another hour. At the point of parting, the conversation always turns inane. The closer you are, to the one you are leaving behind, the more meaningless the words get. I have had meaningless words spoken to me ever since I went into boarding school at 12.

The freighter suddenly blew its Klaxon twice, don’t know why, there was no traffic on the river. Maybe it just wanted to say,”Phew! Home at last”.

“I’m not sure…… I can’t read so clear”, I said in reply Ma’s question about the name on the ship’s hull. Reading anything through tears can be dicy.

We sat there till the sun dipped over the sal forests on the opposite bank.

Ikeya Seki

The boy had been sitting on the man’s lap in the front porch, his eyes listless, unseeing. The man he called Naw-Mesho was trying hard, to cheer him up.

The man pointed up at the sky. “Look, there, can you see it now? No? OK, try this. Pucker your eyes till they’re slits and now look. Do you see? Well?” Naw-Mesho gently lifted the boy’s chin up to the heavens.

The boy hesitated and then shook his head. Naw-Mesho took the little boy’s tiny hand in his, stretched the index finger out and pointed it up at the heavens. Around them, the clear night sparkled with fireflies while a constant background drone of crickets kept on their clamor. Everywhere, all was still.

Naw-Mesho scared the boy, he was so huge. In reality, he was a real cool guy. ‘Mesho’ in Bengali is your mother’s sister’s husband. The ‘Naw-‘ ahead of Mesho is a curious thing. Its like the ‘Additional’ in ‘Additional Secretary’. 

Let me explain how it works in Bengal. Suppose your mother has two elder sisters. To her, the eldest is ‘Bordi’ or simply ‘Didi’ and the one in between your mum and Didi is ‘Chordi’. Now if your mother has three elder sisters instead of two (like if your Gramps was catholic about birth control), then the sister between Didi and Chordi is your mother’s Naw-di and to you, she’d be Naw-Mashi and her husband, Naw-Mesho.

Even though he was a sweetheart, Naw-Mesho scared the boy all the same. The boy couldn’t see the bright object his uncle was pointing at. He shook his head and stammered,” I..I can’t..”

Naw-Mesho was an infinitely patient man. “Okay, here’s what you do. Don’t look directly at it. Look slightly to the left or right….”

The boy looked slightly to the left at a pitch dark region devoid of stars and there it was! It looked like a broom of the kind that was used in Indian households, a bunch of thin long sal bristles held together by a hemp band. Only, this one was shining white, coated with glittering diamonds. The open end of the bristles seemed slightly curved and pointed at an angle up beyond the horizon.

The boy began nodding his head in excitement,” I see it! I see it!” He started bobbing up and down on his uncle’s lap in the joy of discovery. He looked up at the large man’s face and saw him break into a broad grin.

Suddenly the boy stopped short and as Naw-Mesho’s hands gently gripped his shoulders, the boy’s eyes filled and he had a hard time controlling the tears.

The boy had been crying the past three days. Off and on, more on than off. Dada and Chorda (his elder brothers) seemed to be doing much better. They were quieter and more withdrawn. A doctor had dropped by to check on them, taking them aside one by one and speaking to them in low tones.

The boy dared not ask either brother what the doc had wanted. These were not normal older brothers. They were homicidal bullies. If you messed with Dada and Chorda, you stood a good chance of getting a thappor (open-palmed slap on the cheek) or a gatta (bare-knuckled klunk on your shiner). Theirs was one team sport you just couldn’t fix in your favor.

The past two days however, the boy could hardly recognize his two elder brothers. They held him in turns and comforted him every chance they got. The frowns of irritation, the murderous looks, the punches, they seemed as if they had never existed. Now they smiled gentle reassuring smiles through reddened eyes, smiles that the boy had always craved to see but had never known they existed.

“She’ll be back, you’ll see,” Naw-Mesho was saying,” Your Ma has just gone away for a while. Don’t you sometimes wish you ran away and became a fighter pilot? It’s something like that”. (The Indo-Pak War was on and those days every kid the boy knew wanted to be Flt. Lt. Trevor Keelor). Naw-Mesho reached in his pocket and began to dab at the boy’s eyes softly with a kerchief.

The object in the sky was the comet, Ikeya-Seki. At the moment when the boy caught sight of it, it was still a million miles from the surface of the sun. In the next two months it would gradually grow in luminescence until it would come to be known as the “Great Comet”, the brightest in a thousand years to ever have lit up the sky.

The year was 1965.

And the boy….me.

Slipstream

———————

“It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man

You take away all he’s got

And all he’ll ever have”

⁃ Clint Eastwood (as William Munny), in “Unforgiven”

—————————-

If you have traveled in Eastern India, you might have had the chance to drive through a sal forest. The sal is a green leafy tree found in great abundance in the Bengal, Bihar, Orissa region of India. It’s the Indian version of Canada’s maple tree, England’s oak. And boy, does it grow fast. If you cut a path through a sal forest, come back after two weeks and you’ll have difficulty finding that path.

Back in those days if you were taking the train, the Jamshedpur-Rourkela four hour run would take you through some of the densest sal woods of the Chattisgarh countryside. So dense were the forests that the train would swat aside overhanging sal branches at breakneck speed. If you had a window open and an elbow out, it could get a painful thwak. If that branch was a thick one, you might even have had to plan on a life without a lower arm. Then whom would you sue? The Indian Railways? Hah!

My seat was in a tiny two-berth compartment that was generally known as a ‘phast class coupay’ and I was the lone occupant. Till now at least. Maybe someone would get on at Seraikela or Chakradharpur or any of the other wayside stops. I was on my way to Rourkela. I had work at the huge steel mill there.

I sighed. There was zero chance of a single young lady travelling alone, getting on. Women didn’t travel alone on overnight Indian trains. You’ll have to excuse me for imagining a broad as the other passenger. I was 27. At a conservative estimate, 85% of me was just one single hormone – testosterone. Like dark matter, it was everywhere within me. But this is not about my sex life so don’t get me started on it.

Stowing my overnighter on the rack above, I settled down by the window. The express heaved, there was a hiss of air rushing through the master cylinders. The cast iron brake pads disengaged and the wheels started rolling, letting out a cacophony of squeals as the train clattered its way through multiple track changes and began picking up speed, first stop – Seraikela.

The sun was dipping over the sal forests when the train pulled out of Seraikela and plunged into a sal forest and suddenly day turned to night. I switched on the reading lights above my head. This time I hadn’t hurriedly purchased a Perry Mason or Hadley Chase from the A.H.Wheeler on the platform. I had brought Cosmos by Carl Sagan, to keep me company.

It was 1982. Cosmos had just been published. A veritable page turner, Cosmos is a vivid account of what a voyage to the stars could look like. I was at the page where the two suitcase-sized Voyager spacecrafts, launched within a month of each other in 1977, were now on opposite sides of the orbital plane of the solar system, speeding outward on vastly different trajectories. They would skim away from the Kuiper belt, a flat circumstellar belt of asteroids 20Au wide that lay just beyond the orbit of Neptune. In case you aren’t as enlightened as I obviously am, 1Au(Astronomical Unit) is the average distance of the Earth from the Sun. There, doesn’t reading my blog enrich you?

At Seraikela, Voyager-1 had swung by Jupitar. It wouldn’t be paying a visit to the other planets. It would instead dart out of the Solar System without further ado. Voyager-2 on the other hand had just begun the Jupiter swing-by and would be saying hello to Saturn and Neptune before bidding us all goodbye forever.

————————————-

That’s when there was a discreet knock on the door. It was the TT (Travelling Ticket Checker). I smiled when I saw it was Hanuman Singh. Yeah, I knew all the TTs by name. Hanuman was an amiable, thoroughly corrupt hulk with seven mouths to feed back home, whom he met once a month. He had this ingratiating smile TTs have. If you have an ingratiating smile and aren’t a TT, chances are that someone among your ancestors was, no question about it.

Half of a TT’s monthly earnings came from tips from passengers like me who didn’t have reservation. I was a short-notice, frequent traveler and TTs on this line had me down as a better than average tipper. It was a huge deal and win-win situation. The TT, I enriched at double the going rate and in return, I never had to reserve my seat in advance.

I would simply get my ass to the station before the train arrived. As the train approached and the first class compartment sighed to a crawl and the TT appeared in the doorway, there would usually be a huge gaggle of passengers clamoring for his attention. I’d position myself a few yards back, away from the bunch, so that the TT could catch sight of me clearly, from his elevated standpoint on the gradually slowing coach. Having sighted me, he’d give me an imperceptible nod of recognition.

While the others stood on the platform and clamored for the TT’s attention, I’d get in through another door and make my way to him from the inside. I’d barely pause when he hissed through the corner of his mouth,” Phour Dee may jake baitho, Sahab. Mai ata, in chutiyo ko sambhal ke….” (Go sit in 4D, Sir, I’ll come as soon as I’m done with these assholes).

Getting yourself a seat was that simple those days. I might write a book on how to always travel first class on an Indian train, without prior reservation or even a ticket, but I won’t get into the details here. You might be on the vigilance squad.

Oh, I forgot to tell you about the get-on-without-even-a-ticket bit. There were some sales and service regulars like me who had it down pat. It was so simple and the MO was as follows…..

Those days it was perfectly legal to board a train with just a fifty-paisa platform ticket as long as you went up to the TT and got him to issue you a regular ticket within a reasonably short period of time from the moment you boarded. Assuming you had developed a ‘rapport’ with the TT, you gave him the full first class fare in hard cash and he kept the cash in his breast pocket. If the vigilance squad guys made a sudden visit, you could show them the platform ticket and say you had just boarded and the TT would produce the cash from his breast pocket to corroborate your story that he was about to issue the ticket. He would even have the ticket slip ready, your name and the date scrawled so illegibly that you could have been anybody.

When you were about to get off at the destination, the TT magically reappeared and handed you your cash back, keeping a twenty for himself. That still left you with the challenge of getting through the ticket checker at the exit gate of the disembarking station. Simple, you slipped him a fiver, the going rate being just a tooney.

So, for Rs300 ticket, you paid just Rs25.50, less than a tenth. Brilliant, wasn’t it? I hasten to add that I never attempted to travel without a ticket myself. I restricted my corrupting to generous tips.

———————————–

The Bombay Express was a low-priority express train with a lone A/C First Class coach at the back. Tonight it was empty, it’s attendant the only passenger. Not unusual. On this route passengers shunned the first class and the A/C coaches on overnight trains. This was dangerous dacoit country and dacoit gangs on horseback targeted the upper class coaches first. If the train had a steam engine and there was sage brush tumbling along the side of the tracks, you might as well have been on the 3-10 to Yuma. Believe me, those Sholay scenes were real.

A couple of hours went by, the train hurtling through pitch darkness now. Carl Sagan had taken a break from the Voyagers and was in the midst of telling me all about Tycho Brahe, the 16th century Danish astronomer, cartographer for the heavens. The last of the naked-eye astronomers, Brahe had painstakingly charted thousands of stars in his time. I felt just great, the way I felt when I was reading something very interesting but I retained that feeling only till we pulled into Chakradharpur, a small wayside stop approximately half-way to my destination. A group of four youths, who looked like hooligans, got on and immediately filled the compartment I was in.

It is difficult to read anything when drunk low-lifes are sitting around you and raucously laughing and swearing, mouthing slanted oblique comments on you and generally trying to be intimidating. It was a matter of time before one of them brought out a half bottle that had a cloudy colorless liquid sloshing inside. He raised it to his lips and took a long swig and then held it out to me,” Lo sahab zara hamara arak bhi to pee ke dekho, maja aa jayega.” (Here, have some arak, you’ll feel real good”. I shook my head and mumbled “no thanks” in Hindi and it just got worse from there. Ugh! There I was an hour back dreaming of having a single lovely lady in the coach with me.

A seasoned traveler like me quickly recognized the ploy – get the fellow passenger drunk, rob him off his valuables, slip the TT a few bucks and split. I had to do something about it right away. As the train bumped and ground, I staggered to my feet and went off to find Hanuman Singh. He was dozing by an open window but came with me immediately. The youths had legitimate tickets and therefore the right to be on the train, but they were ordinary class tickets.

Hanuman was a hulking guy who bore a striking resemblance to Luca Brassi. He had the look of someone you didn’t want to fuck with. He herded the hoodlums out at the next stop. I assume they got into an ordinary class compartment a few cars down. The last I saw of them, they were on the platform howling their protest at being thrown out. One of them was trying to shove a few bills into Hanuman’s shirt pocket but he swatted the hand away, placed his huge fingers on the guy’s chest and gave him a shove, sending him reeling back. Wow! The big one, the guy with the vermillion on his forehead and the huge ear ring, the one who had offered me the hooch, he scowled at me.

Hanuman was back in a jiffy. “Salon ko gand pe lath mar ke nikal diya, Sahab. Ab aap aram karein.” (Threw the mother fuckers out, Sir, now you can relax). I made a mental note to double my usual tip when I was leaving.

I settled down once again with Carl Sagan. Voyager-2 was now going to use the gravitational field of Neptune as a sling-shot to propel itself, which in space travel parlance, is known as ‘gravity assist’. It would fling the tiny spacecraft out of the solar system and into inter-stellar space.

Space travel bores you? Hope not. I am busting my ass telling you a story and therefore you have no right to be bored.

—————————-

Outside my window, darkness blanketed the countryside. There was that constant grating and thumping sound of branches hitting the car on both sides when the train lurched and swayed too far, so thick was the forest we were cutting through. The incessant clickety clack of the wheels had long receded from the active sounds, as they normally do after you’ve been on a running train for a while.

I decided it was time to take a break from Carl Sagan and stretch my legs a bit. I walked out into the vestibule and then on to the toilet where I threw some water on my face. Freshened up, I came out and stood by the open doorway and leaned out a bit, letting the slipstream hit me. The air had cooled by then and when it hit my wet face it felt exhilarating. I stood this way, gazing out at the darkness rushing by, my hands gripping the vertical handrails on both sides of the doorway.

Yeah, that’s one of the things you can do in India – simply turn a latch and open the door of a speeding train and lean out, even jump off if you so desire. Trust me, you won’t even make page-10 of the local daily.

Intuition? Not sure, but I thought I sensed movement just behind.

At that very moment, two things happened. The first one was by reflex. My right hand left the right handrail and I turned and pressed flat against the wall, just in time to catch the flash of something moving at me in a rush. Even though I caught only a glimpse of him in that second, I recognized the huge right ear ring, the tight stained undershirt and the vermillion on his forehead. He had been the loudest and the most obnoxious of the youths, the one who had held out the bottle of arak. I remembered that terrifying look in his eyes when he stood on the platform and stared back at me with raw hatred. And now he was charging me, arms outstretched.

That’s when the second thing happened. The train had entered a curve, centrifugal force making it suddenly lurch and sway outward violently. The fellow hadn’t counted on my turning so suddenly, nor was he ready for the violence of the lurch. He charged right past me and as he hurtled by, unable to check his momentum, he tried desperately to grab onto anything he could – my throat, my arm, my hair – everything except the handrail. As I brought my right hand up to join my left hand on the other hand rail and hung on for dear life, he sailed past me, arms flailing, out into the black void, his startled scream instantaneously cut off by the brutal slipstream.

The whole thing must have happened in a split second, but to me it unfolded in a Matrix-like slow motion. Me, sensing movement behind – letting go of one handrail – turning – a flash of dirty ruffled black hair and dark T-shirt – the train lurching – the guy’s hands, first outstretched and then flailing, trying to get a hold – my instantaneous spark of recognition as he hurtled by and then, nothing. Just the rush of the wind.

I noted that by now the curve in the tracks had straightened out. The sway had been replaced by the usual bump and grind. I let go of the handrail, stepped back and heaved the door shut. My eardrums gradually began discerning other sounds – passengers milling around the corridor, lighting cigarettes, speaking in low tones, a stray peal of laughter here, a child’s squeal there. That deafening khatak-khatak-khatak-khatak of the wheels hitting the track joints was now muffled. I retreated inside the vestibule and nearly bumped into a caterer from the earlier stop who was knocking on doors and bringing in thalis heaped with supper, his face dead pan. He hadn’t noticed. Nobody had noticed.

————————

Maybe he survived the fall. I remember reading about an airline stewardess falling out of a plane at 15000 ft onto a deep snow bank and surviving. In comparison the fall back there must have been just 15 feet. But this was a head first tumble at 120kmph onto hard uneven ground. The man’s head must have smashed into the prismoids of sharp pebbles that are laid to bolster the tracks. Add to that the shock of the slipstream and that fall could hardly have been survivable. A horrible despair spread over me. For all I knew, he might lie there on the side of the tracks until the vultures picked his bones clean. No one deserved to die that way, unnoticed, unsung. Not even an asshole.

In a daze, I staggered back to my compartment and collapsed on my seat. My chest still heaving, I groped around inside my overnighter for the bottle of Blue Riband I was saving for the trip. Barely able to keep my hands still, I poured myself a stiff one and swigged it with one gulp.

Then again, I could have had it all wrong. He may not have been the guy I thought he was. After all I saw only a brief flash of him. He might have been just another passenger who wanted to go over to the doorway and maybe spit out his betel juice or tobacco wad, a practice quiet common in that region. Perhaps the lurching of the train merely made him stretch out his arms for balance. Vermillion on the forehead, ear ring, dirty undershirt – all those were du jour in this region.

Either way, I should have raised an alarm, summoned Hanuman Singh and reported it. I did none of those. The guy hadn’t looked the type who might have matured into a rocket scientist in later life, but he had been a person, a human being who must have had folks who cared about him. I hadn’t given those folks any closure. That guilt has stayed with me.

What had made me turn? I’ll never know the answer to that one. I am certain I wouldn’t be around today if I hadn’t turned. Even if the guy had been just another paan chewing passenger, he would have taken me with him when he lost his balance, no question about it.

Was it “sixth sense”? The great hunter-naturalist, Jim Corbett, recounted an incident in his “Man-eaters of Kumaon” where he sought refuge behind a large boulder and waited with his .275 Rigby bolt-action rifle for the man eating Champawat tigress to appear.

Corbett was sitting still under that rock, expecting the beast to appear out of the underbrush in front of him, when he sensed a presence and raised his eyes. The tiger was right there, crouched on top of the rock inches above his head, poised to jump. Corbett swiveled and shot the predator but it had already jumped. It landed it’s 300lb weight on him, fortunately already dead from the heavy slug. Do read “Maneaters of Kumaon” if you get the chance.

I picked up Carl Sagan but my heart wasn’t in it. I looked out the window and far in the distance, the string of klieg lights around the huge blast furnace stacks of the Rourkela Steel Plant were now visible in the haze. In another five minutes, I would be in Rourkela and in a further twenty, nursing a whisky and soda at the Delhi Bar, waiting for my naan and boneless butter chicken. I tucked Cosmos back in the side pocket of the overnighter.

I couldn’t remember if Voyager-2 got to take some nice pics of methane-blue Neptune before it stepped out into the void.

Turning the Corner

The wind picked up, making the sidewalk litter tumble along. The digital clock on the cash counter of the cafe said 4:00 AM, 02 Fevrier 2003.

This part of downtown Montreal is called “The Main” – Blvd St. Laurent, the heart of the heart of downtown – littered and filthy, but exhilarating and lively. No one sleeps on The Main.

I remember every millisecond of the night of the 2nd February, like it happened yesterday……….

Slung high up on the rear wall of the cafe was a large flat screen TV that was on 24/7. It had a weather bubble in a corner that said “-27°C / -42°C”. Which meant that although it actually was -27, it ‘felt’ more like -42, a concept called “windchill”. (The windier it is, the lower is the windchill factor). If you were to be outside the plate glass right now, your body would experience all the effects of a -42° ambient, like frostbite, hypothermia, etc. You’d have 30 minutes with adequate clothing and 30 seconds without.

—————————

After a while, the litter settled back and there was a brief lull before the wind picked up again and the sidewalk outside turned white with those tiny balls of ice. Beyond the glass, it was now just a white swirl. The pole with the placard right outside the front entrance, that read Autobus-51(Des Pins-Atwater), was now barely visible.

“Wish I could split”, I said out loud, to the TV on the wall. Of course, I couldn’t. I worked here and tonight my nightshift partner, a 19-year old Salvadoran student named Hector, hadn’t turned up. I was by myself, manning the joint alone. Earlier Ben, the owner, had made noises about coming over and giving me a hand but it was the middle of the week and there was no rush.

No, I couldn’t split. I needed this job and the graveyard shift, 10 to 6, was the only one possible, what with the Immigration Quebec’s French course running till 9.15.

My eyes fell on those yummy falafels under the counter. I took two out, heated them in the microwave, slapped a dollop of humus on the side and sat down in a corner with a plastic fork.

It was now 4.30am. The drunks had staggered in after the bars had closed, gorged and long gone. The drug-addled fences trying to hawk GPSs and cameras to those drunks were gone too. This was the downest part of downtown. Any downer and you might poke through into China. You could get anything you wanted here at a price.

The slick, sharp suited gents were always the last to arrive, sometimes with flashily dressed women. They would sit in the shadows in the corner and speak in whispers, at times bursting out in laughter. A couple of them invariably pealed off and took another table, closer to the door. Ben had pointed them out earlier, whispering, “Rizzutos…” and told me to make sure they had whatever they wanted, it was all on the house. It didn’t bother me none. They treated me with a kind of old fashioned respect and thanked me whenever I set the tables for ‘em.

What I loved the most about those thugs was their seeming readiness to pay. At the end of the meal they always asked politely for the bill and when I shook my head and said,”It is a pleasure”, they would thank me. They knew I was just a waiter, I was nothing but a piece of say, lint, or a doorknob or some other inane, valueless object to them but they never took anyone for granted. It was this gesture, this little pantomime that I appreciated.

One time some drunks were crowding me at the till, getting belligerent, making me real jittery, when one of the two goons by the door came over and led the bunch out the door, wordlessly and sat back on his seat, giving me a nod.

Maybe Ben passed them weekly packets of cash, I don’t know. If these were indeed members of the Rizzuto Organization, then I can confirm I have actually met the Bonnano Crime Family of New York. Wow.

————————

An elderly woman in a smart dress came in with a scrawny homeless guy in tow. She held out a twennie and said,” Please, can you prepare a full plate for this man here? I found him sitting outside the metro. I have to rush, thanks. And do let him stay in here until that blows over.” She pointed toward the now full blown blizzard outside, flashed a smile and made an immediate exit.

Soon as the lady left, the guy stepped forward and said, “I don’t want no chow, man, just gimme the dough she gave you, okay?”

“No skin off my back,” I said to the guy and I passed the twennie back to him and he shuffled out. I rose and locked the front entrance doors after him and made myself a coffee.

We always locked up after 4.30am for security reasons. The restaurant would still be open for business, but you would have to pass my scrutiny, to be able to enter. This was an all-night joint in a scary part of town, closing only from 6am to 7am for a thorough clean-up, which meant doing the dishes, cleaning, sweeping, mopping and cleaning out the toilets (you should have seen the state that the drunks left the toilets in). With Hector absent, all this would be accomplished by yours truly in the morning before I closed up and left.

I was sitting well back in the shadows of a recess next to the cash register and as I sipped from my mug a wave of melancholy swept over me. Last week, the money we had brought along with us had run out and there was still no decent job in sight. We had been forced to down-size to a tiny one-room cubbyhole. When you folded down the bed, your nose bumped against the kitchen counter. On Fridays, our neighbors, a Pakistani family, cooked biryani. Fridays smelt good. Better than the tinned stuff we opened day after day.

Everything pointed to only one thing – this mad adventure known as migration had probably failed. Land of opportunity my ass. Was this it? Was this going to be the way the rest of my life would slip by? Was that cubbyhole going to be home from now?

—————————

I must have dozed off, I don’t know for how long. But as I sat in the shadows, my eyes began to notice this hooded form of a person. He was leaning against the locked glass doors, while around him the blizzard had turned into raw mayhem.

The figure outside the glass was rocking back and forth. I couldn’t trust my eyes but he appeared to be in just a T-shirt. Hands outstretched, he was trying to tap on the glass and steady himself at the same time, against the howling wind. The moment I started toward the door, a voice inside me began telling me I was being a schmuck. This could be a hold-up and I shouldn’t be opening the door to this creep. I should be calling 911 instead. There must have been more than two grand in the till. On The Main, restaurant servers got shot for much less.

As I approached the door, a sudden gust sent the man sprawling on the sidewalk. His cap went flying and his hood came off and a mass of auburn hair cascaded out. It was not a he, it was a she and as she lurched back up to the glass, I noted that she had only socks on.

Scrambling desperately I unlocked the doors and they swung open with such force that I was knocked clean off my feet. I got up, ran across and helped her in from the blizzard. And then, pushing my whole weight against the doors, I slammed them shut.

She was cold, real cold and as I held her, she shivered uncontrollably. I sat her down and brought in the spare hooded parka from the employees’ closet and draped it round her. She smelt awful but I somehow managed to hold her tight allowing her body to get warm. Gradually the shivering passed.

I moved her to a corner table and reached for the phone, “I’ll call 911, hang on” and the next thing I knew, she had her hand clamped tightly over my wrist. “No, please,” she whispered. That was when I noticed the multiple puncture marks running down the sides of both her arms.

“OK, relax, take it easy, are you hungry?” She nodded and after a while, I had a nice heaped plate of shish tauk, humus, fries and salad laid out in front of her. And a steaming glass of coffee. As she wolfed the food down, I couldn’t help noticing how pretty she was. She couldn’t have been more than 14, maybe 15. The eyes guileless, the bluest I’d seen. The hair, all messed up. Auburn- brown.

The hood of my parka encased an angel.

When she was done eating, she looked much better. “I don’t have any….cash”, she said, “but if you want…we can…I can…you know…I’m good, really good.”

I tried not to show the consternation I felt, at what I’d just heard. I simply shook my head. “It’s on the house, relax. Try to get some sleep” is all that I could manage. She laid her head on the table surface and was out like a light in no time. I balled up a couple of clean aprons, lifted her sleeping head gently and slipped the makeshift pillow under.

——————-

It was just past six and I was cleaning the serving counters and getting ready to close up and go home, when the girl stirred. She padded up to me in her socks and kissed me on my grey bearded cheek. Even though she smelt yucky as hell, it was hard for me not to smile.

“Can I use the loo?”

“Sure, it’s that way, to your right”, I nodded toward the back. I hoped she would be done and ready to move out soon. Ben, the owner, would be in any minute, to start the daily ritual of getting the restaurant ready for the first customers. I didn’t want to have a lot of explaining to do.

She didn’t take long and I couldn’t help stealing a glance when she emerged from the washroom. The grubby face was creamy and radiant now, the curls luxurious and the eyes the most beautiful I had seen in a while. If I had the means I would adopt you, I thought.

She didn’t mind waiting as I closed up and soon we were both on the sidewalk. The wind had subsided, but it was still bitterly cold. She looked comical, a pixie, in the large shaggy parka and those huge old snow boots an ex-employee had left behind a long time back and never returned to collect. In one hand, she held a brown paper bag filled with shish tauk and fries that I had prepared for her to take along. In the other, she clutched a 5 dollar bill I’d given her.

We stood there, at the bus stop, not saying a word. After a while, the 51 came up Des Pins, grunted to a stop and the doors sighed open. She was about to get in, when she hesitated, as if she wanted to say something. Then she turned and with a brief wave, disappeared into the bus.

I stepped off the curb to cross over to the metro entrance and as I did, I caught one last glimpse of the bus as it turned the corner. And I wondered, if she would turn hers.

I hoped I would turn mine. Some day soon.

Is that you, darling, are you home?

It’s five and already there’s a chill in the air. The ANRAD building is still humming with activity, but for you there is not going to be any more late evening meetings. No one is going to be calling you up.

You rise and drape the Kanuk overcoat over your shoulders and step outside, closing the door of your tiny office behind you. The corridor is swarming with eager young faces rushing about, files and folders in hand, balancing cell phones with their chins. You make your way to the bank of elevators and wait. Unlike the executive elevator which you once rode non-stop down to the reserved parking every day, this one stops at each floor before it opens up finally in the lobby, 60 floors down. That’s okay by you.

You step inside the elevator and as you shrink back into a corner your thoughts go to your house. It seems a bit too large now. Something smaller in Pointe Claire by the river should do just fine. A cottage with a couple of extra rooms for Arnav and Tina and the kids, when they visit. “I’ll call the Remax lady first thing tomorrow,” you resolve in your mind as you stare at the floor numbers tumble.

As the elevator stops at each floor and the crowd ebbs and flows, your gaze falls on the logo over the door. It says ‘ANRAD – Always building strength- in your defense’. The words are spread over a jagged imprint of a single lightning bolt. You’re transported back to the first time you saw the logo. Your first day at work and how it had all begun, a long time ago.

———————

First there was the adrenalin rush of the final interview and then the euphoria of the call from someone called Kristie ‘suggesting’ that the CEO would like you to join the team. That you’ve been shortlisted to spearhead a new initiative. To develop a game-changing new recoilless pulse rifle from green field to commercial production.

And finally, the lunch with the CEO in one of those exclusive golf clubs. Rear Admiral Patrick H. Hansen(Retd.), is a great one at massaging egos. He makes you feel like only you could have filled that job opening. Like as if they’d been searching all over for someone just like you and then you appeared and accepted the job through some divine intervention.

“You can call me Pat,” says Hansen, arms widespread and a broad smile, as he guides you to a sofa and leans back into the cushions right opposite. He makes it sound like it’s a done deal. You feel like the keys to the kingdom have just been bestowed upon you. Hansen is a real smooth talker. Relocation expenses, no problem, the sky is too limiting.

“Kristie has briefed you on the joining bonus, yes? Let me know if it meets your expectations. We can always work around it if necessary,” he’s patting down the icing now, “A suite is reserved for you and your family at the Queen Elizabeth. Till you find a home. I’d suggest Westmount. Bill and Doug have their cottages there. Peaceful and quiet but still a stone’s throw from downtown. The Sacred Heart Convent is practically next door. Our Annie went there. I’ll get Kristie to have a word with the principal, Gwen Arnold, no problem.”

He is referring to the exclusive $39000 tuition per year girls’ school for your daughter, Tina. North American senior executives get personal real fast. If they sound like that law firm in the John Grisham thriller The Firm, believe me, they actually are that intrusive at the higher levels. They’ll open up their homes to you, have their kids play with yours, insist on driving you to Sunday golf. Insist that you address them by their first names. At the weekend charity gala, his wife will ensure your wife and she have matching outfits. You’ll be ‘family’.

Pat Hansen knows all about you, every wart, make no mistake of it. And so do you, about him. You’ve taken the time to do some research of your own on your future boss. American, heavily built, ex-Navy aviator, he drove F4s for six years in the 60s. Approximately 240 sorties from the 93000ton Kitty Hawk, Carrier Task Force-3, 7th fleet, Gulf of Tonkin 1963-68. Legion of Merit and DFC awardee, twice recommended for the Medal of Honor.

The Medal of Honor recommendations were for conspicuous display of extraordinary bravery. That those recommendations didn’t actually result in an award had nothing to do with his sense of valor, sacrifice or patriotism and everything to do with politics at the Pentagon. His abrasive demeanor did him in. Once, in a meeting presided by the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Hansen, then just a Lt. Commander, told a four-star general to go f–k his mother no less than five times. That he was never courtmartialed speaks for the respect he commanded over the rank and file.

One of the two MOH recommendations came from an incident where Hansen risked his life to save an A-10 pilot on the Kitty Hawk. The crippled Warthog was making an attempt to touch down on the heaving carrier deck in pitch darkness and very choppy seas. The pilot tried his best but made a mess of it. The jet weaved in drunkenly at 150knots, hit something on the deck, turned turtle, hurtling and skidding to a halt, precariously close to the edge, 200ft above the churning waters.

As the massive carrier pitched and yawed in the swells, the Warthog slowly slipped and slid toward the tipping point. Meanwhile, jet fuel gushed from the ruptured wing tanks and slowly spread over the carrier deck as flames began to sizzle up from somewhere behind the cockpit.

Lieut Commander Pat Hansen of the 25th Pathfinder Squadron, stepped out of the shelter of the rear 12inch gun turrets and walked briskly to the upturned jet, unmindful of his boots sloshing through the spreading jet fuel. He had a crowbar in his hand. He smashed a hole in the already cracked canopy and yanked the pilot, a Capt Joe Schwartz, from the cockpit. Capt Schwartz reported later that as he was being pulled out, Hansen looked at him and said in mock severity, “What the f—‘s takin’ you so long, Schwarz, there’s turkey for dinner, f’Christ’s sakes. Now go clean up and get yore ass to the mess hall on the double.”

The Warthog exploded as they reached the base of the flag bridge.

Retiring from the navy, now a Rear Admiral, Hansen joined the private sector and he’s been kicking asses since. A ruthless administrator, he doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. And right now, he isn’t done yet.

“We want you to be at home, feel comfortable, grow old with us. What’s your wife’s name again? Rani, what a charming name. And don’t forget to call Kristie, if you need anything at all”. The icing is a bit overdone but you’re not complaining. And he still isn’t done yet.

He leans back, his arms raised, elbows bent, hands joined, pudgy fingers locked behind, supporting the bullet head. “After you set this thing up and get it going, Arch (he’s already anglicized your name, from Arjun), I want you to go down and expand our Indian operations. India is where the future is. I believe it. The board believes it. We’ve got to get in there and now.” He settles back on the cushions. It looks like he’s finally done.

“Another brandy before we part? You must be tired”. You know a dismissal when you see one. You make polite noises and take your leave.

You catch a cab and come home in a daze. You’ve just signed up to join one of the world’s largest defense contractors. You look at the rusty 10yr old Mazda3 in your driveway. It has served you well but now it’ll have to go. ANRAD Vice Presidents are given fully loaded Cadillac Escalades by the company and you’ll have one too. Plus, a luxury sedan can be had for your wife, with a generous loan, advanced at zero percent payable over 15 years. You make a mental note to check out the Jaguar dealership sometime this week. It’s all unreal and suddenly happening very fast.

Soon as you are through the front door, Rani rushes up and springs into your arms. Like you, she’s beside herself. She keeps hugging and kissing you and cooing and gurgling, “I love you so, darling. Congratulations! I knew you’d make it!” she whispers.

You gaze at Rani. She’s beautiful. Has been, ever since you first spotted her at a ‘bhaiphota’ at your friend, Shibu’s house in Sewri. When you married her, it had to be a simple registered marriage as you couldn’t afford a fancy ceremony. And besides, her prosperous parents had refused to attend since you were a Kayastha and she a Brahmin.

The first home you two moved into, with your worldly possessions inside a weather-beaten suitcase, had been a tiny one-room apartment that Rani had tastefully furnished, with the little things that you could manage to buy. And when you used to come home from work, you’d find Rani on her haunches, leaning over the coal burning chullah, flipping phulko rotis (Bengali nan bread) for dinner, her soft hands singed repeatedly by the flying embers.

Hearing the front door open, she’d look up with unconcealed delight and call out, “Is that you, darling, are you home?” You’d step forward and try to take her hands in yours but she’d hide them behind her back. You’d reach around her, puzzled, find them and lift them up to kiss them. It’s then that you’d notice the tiny burn marks from the stove.

The years have flown fairly quickly after that. After moving to the west, Rani and you had one more child, a son, Arnav. He is going to Stanford since last August. Tina lives with her husband Dieter, in Schwedt. They have a cottage by the Elbe.

And Rani. It’s now a year since the very light of your life, your Rani, passed away, consumed by the cancer which had galloped unchecked through her thyroids.

———————-

And now back to you. The new product line was a huge success. It’s now one of the main revenue earners. The Indian stint saw ANRAD blossom into a major player in India, employing over 3000 engineers and staff. You’re still with ANRAD, though not in the ‘Penthouse’ any more. A few months after Rani was gone, it began to show.

They would never let you go. You had been a pillar, a star. You were ANRAD history. You were an ANRAD institution. Like in the case of Steve Wozniak, who keeps receiving a stipend from Apple, there is a tacit understanding that you will be there, drawing a salary, till the day you by yourself choose to leave.

You finally got gently eased out and moved into a tiny office four floors down. VP-Communications Strategy is what the plaque on your office reads. You have your own fresh-faced, temporary intern for an assistant. All your personal volumes and knick-knacks have had to be carted home as there’s no space inside your new office. You have only one photo standing on your desk. A tiny framed picture of Rani, a baby Arnav in her arms, with Tina standing by, clutching her sari and leaning against the Mazda3.

And Pat Hansen? The Rear Admiral had made landing on pitching carrier decks an art. But last summer, one balmy Sunday, his personal Embraer Phenom-100 cartwheeled and blew up in the middle of the Teterboro strip as he was coming in to land. He was killed instantly. The accident is still being investigated.

The elevator sighs to a final stop in the lobby. You jerk back from your little reverie, straighten and walk slowly out, buttoning your coat as you approach the plate glass doors leading to the sprawling basement parking lot. It seems an effort today, you don’t know why. Home and a shower is what I need, you say to yourself. A ‘geeta path’ (group reading of holy Hindu scriptures) is organized at Shankar Mullicks’, later in the evening. Today is Janmashtami, the day Lord Krishna was born. And Shankar’s wife, Sumona, won’t let you leave without eating, afterwards.

The walk to your tidy little BMW hatchback is an unusually long one today. You regret your habit of parking it way behind, in that dark secluded corner next to the emergency exit. As you walk, the rows and rows of cars seem endless. You never realized how huge this place really is.

You can see the car now. The silver grey seems to stand out, even in the gloom. You’re tired and you decide to rest for just a while on the bonnet of the Buick standing a few cars away. The Buick has been standing there for the past few days, it’s owner, Bill Mullholand, being gone on an overseas sales trip.

As you lean against the bonnet and try to turn your head, you keel over slowly and spill onto the garage floor, your head coming to rest next to the Buick’s front tyre. You gaze up through the mist and then you hear it clearly – a voice you’ve heard a million times before, a voice you’d come to love more than yourself…….

“Is that you, darling, are you home?”