Who’s independence, Mrs Tom Hanks?

Rita Wilson, wife of Tom Hanks, added me to her mailing list sometime in June. I don’t know how that happened but I really didn’t mind, since she is Mrs Tom Hanks and I hold her husband in high esteem.

Since then Rita Wilson’s WhatsApp account has been sending me greetings on national holidays and other American occasions. Again, I felt happy for them and went along.

I just received another greeting that says,” Happy belated Independence Day”, obviously referring to the American Independence Day on July 04.

The typical American arrogance is amazing. Rita Wilson’s WhatsApp account manager obviously can’t be bothered if I am an American or not. He or she believes that every human being in the world is duty bound to not only know the date but also to mark it in our calendars and celebrate it.

And even if we, hoi-polloi around the world, were knowledgeable about America’s Independence Day, exactly what is there to celebrate about?

Be that as it may, here’s how I responded to the text…..

“I am Canadian. If I was an American, June 19 would be the American Independence Day I would celebrate. That’s the day in 1865 when an American general rode south and announced to the black slaves that they were now free to go about their lives the way they wished.

4th July is nothing to celebrate about. It is just a date when one bunch of white guys took over the oppression of native Americans and black slaves from another bunch of white guys.

Please delete me from your mailing list. Thank you.”

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Americans celebrate their Independence Day very much like the British crow over their Magna Carta, a curious 13th Century AD charter of rights that the English monarch, King John, signed under duress. The British will have you know that they were the pioneers in the institution of equal rights because “the freemen” rose up against their monarch and made him sign the document. The only problem was that those who fell under the category of “the freemen” were actually a cabal of wealthy land owning Dukes who wanted a cut of the taxes the king was collecting from the ordinary folks. That charter didn’t include the serfs, the bricklayers, the cooks, scullery maids, the infantrymen or the blacksmiths. If you make the mistake of mentioning the words ”Magna Carta” to a British guy, his eyes will turn tearful and misty with pride on hearing them.

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PS: Since Rita Wilson is married to a man I admire, I stopped myself from beginning my response to the text message from her account with,” You ignorant American dodo….”

Crossing the Line

“Twenty years after the opening shots of the Bosnian War were fired, former Bosnian Serb military commander, Ratko Mladic, is finally being tried by a United Nations War Crimes tribunal in the Hague, on 11 charges of crimes against humanity”        

……I have this insane urge to hold you in my arms…” The 8pm CBS Evening news anchor, Scott Pelley’s words seemed to fade out, while his voice seamlessly dovetailed in. His. Arjun Das’s.

Just a few meters away, in the hall, Sukumar sat sprawled in front of the TV as a 1995 video of Mladic flashed on, showing him inspecting a crack unit of the Serbian Army Special Forces, ‘the Scorpions’, on a rain-swept hillside just outside the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica, on the eve of the massacre.

Sukumar had his laptop open as usual, his fingers paused, to take in the news video. He turned and looked at Nandini who’d just dropped the soup spoon in the plate of pasta she’d prepared for Dharam. Her son was already seated, waiting.

“Mom! There’s soup all over my pasta!”

Damn! The tremor in her hands passed. She took a deep breath, steadied herself and started preparing a fresh helping.

As she ladled the pasta, Nandini raced back again, to the first time Arjun had unfriended her. Their first interaction, two months prior. He’d unfriended her just an hour after she’d accepted his invite. She was stumped and messaged him,” Hi, it’s your business of course but it’ll be nice to know why you unfriended me…”

“Hello”, came the reply, in measured tones,”I unfriended you because there’s just nothing on your page. No info, no wall, no photos, no friends list. You have friended me but denied me access to virtually everything. It’s demeaning and frankly, I don’t have time for this. This won’t work, thank you and good bye”.

Nonetheless, Nandini realized that her fb settings needed to be reconfigured. She decided to reach out once again, a trait he later came to adore in her. She hurriedly replied,”So sorry about that. I didn’t know my settings were that way. Have fixed it now.” She sent him back an invitation without ado. He accepted.

In the beginning she’d been reserved, hesitant about talking of herself. He was just an unknown strange man who wrote outrageously funny notes that made her burst into laughter. As the days went by though, the levee she’d hurriedly constructed, seemed to look like it was made with cotton candy. It soon started to dissolve. She began to be excited every time she saw his message waiting when she logged in. Oh, he had this wonderful old-world graciousness and oodles of charm and he made her feel so so good.

“Mom!…do you mind not staring into space with a spoonful of pasta, also in space? How about dropping it back to earth and my plate?”

“If Mladic is actually pronounced Mladich, why can’t they just step up and add the ‘h’ to their names, for Christ’s sakes?” that was Sukumar. A top-knotch software brain, he couldn’t stand anything with hidden tones. Everything had to be either black or white for Sukumar Vittal Shyamrao. Zeros and ones. “Life, simplified,” would be the title of his book if he ever chose to write. Painfully shy, perpetually immersed in solving knotty software issues, Nandini felt lucky if he said more than two words at the dinner table. Sometimes, when he suddenly broke into Telugu, that was a sign he was moved by something and maybe wanted to talk.

“What did he do?” Nandini was referring to Mladic in a desperate bid to stop her mind from sliding back into that crevasse which had suffocated her a minute ago and caused the soup spoon to slip from her fingers. Please, Sukumar, keep talking. Don’t stop. I don’t want to be alone with him anymore.

“What did he do?” Sukumar again, “He slaughtered eight thousand men, women and children in one night in a small picturesque mountain town in Bosnia. Right after he’d given the UN peacekeepers his word the day before that he wouldn’t go in. Mladic is the father of the term, ‘ethnic cleansing’.”

“1995…hmmm…let’s see now, where was I then…” Dharam began, trying to establish his whereabouts at the time, almost 18 years ago, while shovelling pasta into his mouth. He was going to be 8 next March.

“You were a doddering old Mongolian sheperd with two billy goats and a horse, who’d just been to see his married daughter in Ulan Bator, darling,” Nandini wanted to play along. She smiled, rose, went over and engulfed him in one of those comprehensive all-season squeezes that only mothers can impart.

“Ugh,” Nandini made a mock grimace as she held her son tight,”Correction, you can’t be the sheperd, you must be one of the goats. You smell like them. To the showers right after supper, billy goat, and I won’t take no for an answer.”

Later, as she rinsed the dishes, Dharam and his Ipod having retired for the night, she heard the TV being turned off and felt the armchair in the hall creak. Slippered footsteps flopped up to her and stopped right next.

“Here, let me dry them”. Sukumar took a wash cloth and reached for a plate. Nandini turned. The man standing next to her was tall, crew-cut, clean. A mild shadow of a beard covered his lower jaw. He looked solid, simple, honest, wholesome. Just as he’d been, the first time they’d met. She reached up and laid her head on his chest, the sobs breaking out, shaking her whole being. He dropped the cloth on the counter and just as her body went limp, he drew her up to him fiercely, till she was on the tips of her toes, her breath gasping upon his cheeks.

She tried to open her mouth, to speak through her sobs. To tell him. Everything. But he laid a finger gently on her lips with a ‘ssshhh’. Holding her close, by her shoulders, he placed one arm just below the round of her buttocks, lifting her off the floor effortlessly, while at the same time he advanced purposefully toward the stairs.

“Welcome back, darling,” he whispered.

Zapped, Zonked, Zoned…. Baked, Blown, Blasted

You might remember Ken Kesey from of his 1963 novel ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ and it’s more famous film adaptation. By the time the movie was released in 1971, Kesey was already creating a stir within conservative America.

Kesey was quite a piece of work. He was the kind of guy to whom if something looked weird, he was probably going to try it. He volunteered for the testing of a psychotropic drug that was later to be known all over as LSD or simply acid. He ended up loving the stuff, happy that he was getting paid to do a fun thing like getting high on it.

For the tests, Kesey had to be kept under observation in a hospital ward. One night he crept out of his bed, broke the lock of the infirmary and stole as many vials of LSD as he could lay his hands on. Fortunately there was no inventory list and his nocturnal raid went unnoticed. For the rest of his hospital stay he was perpetually zonked out of his mind, even on days he was not administered the drug, leading the researchers to draw entirely erroneous conclusions. And Kesey? Yikes, he was hooked. Cuckoo’s Nest incorporates some of his own experiences inside that hospital.

Ken Kesey became one of the symbols of the counterculture hippie movement that began in the 1960s. By the time I became a part of the counterculture scene, it was no longer that counter. Heck, I had pot-smoking professors in engineering school. Everyone was stoned. While I drew the line at an occasional Saturday night pre-movie joint of Trichy weed or fresh moist ‘Tal hash, the other guys were doing pills like mandies (Mandrax), lippies (Lippitone) and dexies (Dexedrin).

In 1970s Chennai in southern India, where my engineering school was situated, you could get powerful ‘downers’ and ‘uppers’ over the counter fairly easily. All you had to do was find a bent pharmacist and mumble a phony doctor’s name to him which he made a note of and then charged you a rupee a pill. For a broke student in those days, a rupee was a fortune.

The go-to guy for pills was a pharmacist near Moor Market, a cavernous building right next to the rail station, which housed hundreds of tiny stores crammed together, selling stolen and second-hand stuff – books, household appliances, electronics. Even the pennies there were bent. (Don’t try looking for Moor Market now, it doesn’t exist anymore).

The pharmacist himself was a heavy user, stoned out of his mind on mandies most of the time. Mandies and Lippies were very strong sleeping pills and the kick came when you resisted the drowsiness. If you took two of them, they could put you in such a tailspin that when you finally stopped resisting the snooze and let go, you ended up sleeping the next 48 hours, dead to the world.

I tried a Mandy once but found that when I spoke, the words came out funny. For example, if I wanted to say, “lets go for a movie, dude”, it sounded more like, “leh wo foah yayy mooo, joo”. After that one time, I decided that those kicks were not for me. Talking like a retard was not my scene.

Dexies on the other hand, kept you awake. I tried dexies too but like mandies, it was just once. Boy, did they keep me awake. I was stark, raving awake. The downhill after the drug wore off, was really downhill. I slept for a whole day.

Pills were very much in the scene at college, oh yeah. Guys took dexies going into class and mandies and lippies coming out of class. At any given time of the day, around half the population in campus was staggering around.

I didn’t mind getting high on weed occasionally those days, but I got stoned only to listen to music with friends, within the confines of my dorm. I had to have control, even when I was zapped. If I went out in public, stoned, there was a possibility I might start behaving like a jerk and that I could not tolerate.

Bands like Jethro Tull, Jefferson Starship, Uriah Heep and Pink Floyd were great music to get stoned with. Here’s the thing about marijuana, for those who have never tried it – even the crappiest music sounds like the work of a genius. Every tinkle, every note and every beat is sort of embedded into the consciousness through some sort of osmosis. The most mindless lyrics sound intelligent and deep. If you are lying down, the bed will seem to float up after a while. Even movies….if you are watching something really crappy, like one of those old KL Saigal films, it will seem like an edge of the seat masterpiece.

But if you are tired, depressed or stressed out and if someone passes you a chillum, don’t go for it. Just as it enhances the good, weed will amplify the bad too and your trip is quite likely going to turn into a nightmare.

Here are the other things weed does to you…. it makes you really hungry as hell. You’ll want to eat just about anything you can lay your hands on. And then there’s sex. If you are with someone who is stoned too, sex after a joint is just beautiful. You will turn into the world’s greatest lover. And she, Raquel Welch. Yucky stuff, like going down on her that you wouldn’t dream of doing otherwise will seem natural for you to want to do. Cross-eyed, sniveling, skinny, flat-chested, bad breath, smelly armpits, they will seem overpoweringly sexy to you.

In the end, after the effect of the marijuana wears off, you will fall into a deep restful sleep and if you haven’t had one too many joints, you will wake up fresh, without any hangover or any other after effects at all.

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Wait, before you begin to think smoking pot is great, there are long-term side effects to regular marijuana use. Besides medical issues such as BP, lung cancer and pulmonary problems like bronchitis, prolonged use also affects you psychologically in tiny incremental stages. It makes you lethargic, impractical, unrealistic, aimless and generally unconcerned about your future. It makes you edgy, impulsive and easily excitable. Prolonged marijuana use is also known to play havoc with short-term memory and is believed to be responsible for a sizable number of incidences of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Nowadays I see how marijuana is becoming more and more socially acceptable and easily available and legislation is being tabled all over the world, to legalize it’s use. Frankly, I do not think that legalizing marijuana is a responsible thing for governments to do. Look at cigarettes. It might sound crazy now, but back in the 1930s, doctors actually recommended smoking ‘to remain fresh and alert’.

“Give your throat a vacation,” says this doctor in the 1931 Camels ad. Yeah, right.

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ThIs fun and frolic-themed Peter Stuyvesant ad was a fixture on the back cover of Time magazine right up until the early 1990s

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”You’ve come a long way, baby,” says this 1970s Virginia Slims ad, attempting to link feminism and emancipation to smoking

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Clean and healthy living never had a chance. Having an icon like James Dean model for Marlboro got millions of teenagers across America hooked.

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The pendulum has swung. Today, cigarette ads are banned outright, everywhere across the world. In Quebec, stores are banned from even displaying cigarette packets on shelves. They now have a kind of hinged flap behind the counter that, when down, hides the packs from the eyes of a customer standing at the counter. The aim is to keep minors from seeing the cigarette packs and wanting to smoke. Seems a bit stupid if you ask me but any effort to reduce smoking is welcome. Look what banning cigarette ads, prohibiting smoking at public places and constant anti-smoking campaigning has done – cigarette smoking in North America has fallen from 45% among adults in 1950 to 19% in 2010. I am one of the 19%. I left smoking a decade back. Yay.

Cigarette shelves with their flaps down, behind the counter in a Quebec convenience store

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Then there was hooch.

Back in the 1970s, the Indian state of Tamil Nadu where my engineering school was situated, was under prohibition. Regular liquor brands were available on the black market but penniless college kids like me couldn’t afford them. And as 1920s America showed us, the moment the prohibition began in 1972, our own Al Capones, Joseph Kennedys and Dutch Schulzes came out of the woodwork with their bootleg liquor – Arak, an often lethal concoction.

Just outside the Velacherry gates of our college campus was a sprawling slum that had a hooch den. It was a ten by ten wooden platform in the center of a clearing in the palm trees. In one corner of the platform sat a massive, menacing lady with huge jugs, a dirt-caked drum of hooch by her side. For the villagers she had a look that said ‘you get outa line by even a micro-inch and you’ll get your butt kicked outa here’. She plunged the glass inside the drum with her grubby hand and handed the customer the spilling and sploshing drink.

Everybody called the woman Amma (‘mother’, in Tamil). She operated the den under a single light bulb that was connected by a long wire which traveled overhead supported by branches and palm fronds to a nearby hut that had electricity. The lamp threw long eerie shadows.  Scrawny, inebriated day laborers staggered up to the woman with their hands clasped together in supplication, imploring her for one last slug for the road, signaling that they had run out of cash. For her financial well-being, Amma was mandated to keeping them hooked but she decided who could have one more and who could not.

A typical Indian hooch den. The Amma is off camera.

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Students like us were given the red carpet treatment by Amma. Somehow she felt legitimized and honored by our presence (the way Kim Jong Un must feel when he gets to meet world leaders). Rickety steel chairs were hastily arranged for us and we were served the Arak in glasses that had been equally hastily washed in a nearby stream which didn’t exactly originate from a Swiss mountain spring. Twenty pairs of drunken eyes then watched us spellbound as we downed the stuff. The taste was terrible and if one of us made a face like a grimace, there was raucous laughter all around.

The liquor was colorless and if you looked closely, you could find stuff floating in it, some of the stuff multi-legged, able to propel themselves on their own. If you were desperate to get high as we sometimes were, then you closed your eyes, took a deep breath and downed it in one shot. Quite honestly, I am lucky to be alive and disease-free.

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But in all this, there never was any of the really hard stuff like crack or heroin going around in our college dorms, at least not in my time there. Thank the Lord or I would have tried that too and who knows, I might have gotten hooked.

Eventually after five short years of merriment and bliss, I graduated with a bachelors in Mechanical Engineering with honors. I recognized that I had to earn a living and so I left all the stuff we got high on, behind. Thereafter I touched only beer occasionally. No, make that every weekend, until June 2013, at which point I stopped even the beer. I am now a teetoatlah. Yay.

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Sometimes I think back on my college days and wonder what made me pull back from the brink of addiction while so many of my classmates succumbed. I recall with sadness a dear hostel-mate, a promising undergrad, who plunged to his death when he climbed out onto a 3rd floor window ledge of our dorm completely stoned, lost his footing and fell out head-first.

But I Didn’t end up splattered on the concrete. I think my holding it together had much to do with the company I kept at college, the circle of friends who coalesced around me and matured with me through engineering school. Like me, they experimented and got high but knew when was enough.

I don’t know if the Virginia Slims girl managed to get there, but I’ve come a long way, baby.

Gaddar

Navy Nagar Parade Ground Sea Wall,

Colaba, Mumbai, India

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Wednesday 26th November, 2008

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The Japanese container ship I had been following was barely visible now against the afterglow of the sunset. Amaretsu Maru. It was large, around 100,000 tons, I figured. I had read the name off the hull with my Oberwerk Ultra. The Oberwerk was mid-range stuff, still way above anything one might find on a Walmart shelf. It was crystal clear at 5000 metres and the Back Bay Was only 3500 metres wide.

I couldn’t afford a Kowa. I used to pack one though, when I was Lt. Commander on the Sindhudhanush. The Kowa could grab star light and enhance the image resolution, making it seem like you were viewing something that was sitting right next to you in broad daylight. For my current hobby – ship gazing – the Oberwerk was going to be just fine.

Twenty minutes prior, the Amaretsu had passed within ten cables of the sea wall where I was perched. I discerned around five or six tiny figures, crew, leaning against the stern rail, dwarfed by the mountain of neatly stacked, multi-colored containers behind them. P&O NedLloyd, Hapag Lloyd, Maersk, COSCO; the containers were a jumble of brand names garishly painted over their rust-colored bases.

I wondered what the seamen were doing, standing there idly. In the Navy, where I had been 35 years, there was no such thing as an idle seaman. Perhaps they were just taking a breather, after the extreme exhaustion from the act of setting sail.

Perhaps they were simply savoring the last sight of land for the next several months, feeling the melancholy of an invisible umbilical cord being severed. In 20 minutes, the growing dusk would swallow them, before the earth’s curvature did.

Maybe the guys at the rail were just standing there and taking a long pee. I used to do that when I was a sub-lieutenant on the Nilgiri. Standing precariously over the raised parapet on which the stern rail was mounted, I would let loose and watch the stream disappear into the churning wake, turning the sea infinitesimally more acidic. I thought with a chuckle that that’s all Leonardo di Caprio would be left doing at the bow rail of the Titanic, had Kate Winslet jumped before he arrived.

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I was sitting facing the surf, my legs dangling a few feet above star-shaped concrete blocks that were haphazardly placed in the sand, to break up the waves. The Colaba seawall was where I always sat and caught my breath after the jog, dripping sweat all over the concrete.

Till six months back, I had company. Shanta. She came along most days, when she felt a bit better. I ran while Shanta walked. Reaching ahead of her, I would be sitting on the sea wall parapet long before she came trudging slowly up. We would sit on the concrete parapet and pass the Oberwerk back and forth between between us. When it was my turn, I watched the ships and when she had the binoculars, she followed the gulls and the fishing skiffs. When we got bored looking, Shanta would take out some chutney sandwiches and we munched quietly, our arms round each other.

Shaking out of my reverie, I swept the Oberwerk over the waves. The Amaretsu Maru was gone, blended in with the dusk, swallowed up over the edge of the horizon. Off to the south-east, across the Back Bay, the Nhava Sheva Terminal of the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust, was ablaze with lights now, looking like some alien space port from a Ridley Scott sci-fi picture.

As if on cue, the vada-pau vendors and their pushcarts, the pony rides, the mini Ferris wheel and the balloons, all melted away and the beach fell silent as it began ceding territory to the tide. Phosphorescent foam washed over the rocks, making them glitter.

I was stowing the Oberwerk in my back pack when a light blinked briefly, somewhere beyond the surf. Couldn’t be a fishing boat this late. Instinctively I brought up the Oberwerk and trained it in the general direction of the flash. Immediately the two speeding zodiacs filled my eyepiece. I hadn’t heard their approach, the breaking surf muffling their sound.

I counted five in each Zodiac, huddled forms outlined in an eerie red glow by the Oberwerk’s night vision. Each man seemed to be toting a bulky backpack. The two inflatables pitched and bounced on the waves, releasing bursts of spray as they hit the troughs and bounced off the crests, racing toward the little strip of sand that bordered the jumble of the concrete blocks by the seawall. On their heading they would be beaching right about a hundred meters from where I was perched.

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As I followed their progress, the conversation I had had with Commodore Jimmy Taraporewala at the Navy Club the previous evening leapt into my consciousness. Instead of evening wear, Jimmy was in overalls with those shoulder patches with the graphic red and black crocodile lashing out with its tail, an insignia I had myself worn for six eventful years. Jimmy had succeeded me as head of MARCOS.

We were 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 looked up sharply, “You mean a 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”. That explained Jimmy’s overalls.

I leaned forward, “Tip-off?”

“MI6,” Jimmy nodded, “ And Mossad. Of late, there have been more exchanges between us than you had in your time, Krish.”

“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 disgusted face and the conversation veered away to his son, Ronnie, who was passing out of the NDA in a week.

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Premonition. The hair at the nape of my neck stood rigid. Fishermen weren’t out so late and besides, they didn’t flaunt zodiacs. I swung my legs over the parapet, stowed the Oberwerk inside my wind-cheater 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, remainIng 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 begged around the beach during the day. I slid through the gap and started slithering down toward the sand, gingerly stepping over the star-shaped blocks, knowing they would be coated with moss and slippery as hell.

As I stepped on the squishy sand, I saw the silhouettes. The men had run the boats onto the sand and begun getting out of their polyurethane suits. I reached behind the small of my back and felt the irregular striations of the handle of the Glock. Ex-special forces members are licensed to carry a firearm of their choice and mine was a Glock34.

The man who was already out of his wetsuit and still bare-chested, was the first to sense my presence. In a single fluid motion, the man’s right hand came up holding a handgun while he went into a crouch.

I had expected that. I raised my hand, palm outward and whispered,” Salaam, Bhaijan.” (Greetings, brother). The man peeled off from the rest and came forward. The gun was a 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. In the twilight, he appeared clean-shaven and wiry and had piercing bright eyes that had no fear in them. A pro.

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

I stepped into the role quickly as my training kicked in. I gestured toward the star-shaped blocks by the sea wall and nodded,” Its all in there.”

“Aapki tareef?” (Who are you?), the man’s eyes kept probing the darkness all around.

“Aftab. Aur aap hain, janab…?” (And you?)

The man returned his piercing gaze on 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 were standing. The boy, Ajmal, would be gone maybe five minutes max. They had five minutes before they realized there was nothing there.

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

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

“To phir?” I could see the first flush in the man’s eyes. Was it simply puzzlement or was it alarm? I guess I would find out soon enough. Babar straightened and stared, “Kisney bheja?” (Then who sent you?)

“MARCOS,” I pronounced the acronym clearly and it hung in the air for a second. I had said it so softly that only Babar heard.

Maybe it was fatigue from the 50km zodiac ride, but a second is a long time in this business. Long enough to die.

The man called Babar was bringing his firing arm up when the Glock appeared almost by magic in my 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 eyes trying to focus on the star-studded night sky. Perhaps he had noticed a new star on the belt of Orion. A trickle of blood pulsated out of the corner of his lips and his nostrils, in step with the frantic thrashing of his dying heart.

Instantly the confined space on the beach erupted with the klicks and coughs of silenced automatic weapons. The dark gave me cover while the Glock did the talking. 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, convinced of the twisted glory that they fantasized awaited them.

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 were trained to shoot in pitch darkness, by sense alone. I picked them off pretty easily. Looking around at the carnage, I speed-dialed Jimmy.

I was turning to pick my way back to those blocks, when I heard a groan. It was the man named Babar and I walked over to him. The sand around him had turned a slaughterhouse crimson. His chest heaved as he made an effort to speak and I brought my face closer. If Babar had any last words, I wanted to find out what they were.

Alas, the man named Babar disappointed. 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 the Glock up and pressed it against his forehead.

At the moment of being shot, it is said that a man is overwhelmed by a sense of indignation – at the unfairness of it all – that he didn’t deserve to die. No one should die unfairly and all deaths are intrinsically unfair. That sentiment showed in the look in the eyes of the man named Babar.

I believed differently. I grinned. I wanted Babar to see me enjoy myself. I pulled the trigger.

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 charging up Pilot Bundar Road.

Everything east of the Cape…

“Business is by nature collusive and conspiratorial, readily congealing into monopolies and cabals and it is a good thing, a must for Britain’s prosperity. We must fix the highest gain that can be squeezed out of the natives.” – Robert Clive (1725-1774), British business executive, army Major General, opium trafficker, plunderer and mass murderer.

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Crest of the British East India Company, once the world’s largest business organisation and the world’s only commercial outfit that boasted a standing army of 250000 (Image source: Wikimedia)

On a bone chilling evening in January 1601, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth signed a royal charter, granting a joint stock company that had 220 merchants working for it, a trade monopoly in all the regions of the world that lay to the east of the Cape of Good Hope. Thus, the British East India Company (EIC) was born. In the 280 years that it existed, the EIC grew to be the world’s largest and single most unscrupulous business entity that man has ever known.

The Brits had it good, didn’t they? East of the Cape. With a flick of a ink-dipped quill, an ugly overweight woman with bejeweled fingers gifts half the world to just one company to do business with. Look at them now, making feeble attempts to look independent with their Brexits, Megxits and so on and no one takes them seriously anymore. The fall took another 350 years but good riddance anyway. Now I, an Indian, can tell a Brit to go fuck himself, better still, ”fuckxit”. No one will bat an eyelid.

The East India Company began with a simple mandate – commerce. It brought in silks, textiles, spices, coffee, indigo, tea and ivory from India and carpets and nuts from Persia and the rest of the middle-east, in exchange for gold and silver. The EIC leadership was made up primarily of British military officers and therefore it backed up it’s exclusive business with a standing army of 250000 soldiers, artillery and a fleet of ships.

And opium, the EIC dealt in lots and lots of opium. The quantities it trafficked would put the Colombian cartels and the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta to shame. The EIC made opium consumption fashionable. You weren’t a member of the 18th century London haute société if you didn’t regularly peruse opium. Where do you think Sherlock Holmes got his daily fixes from?

There was competition of course, though not from other British business entities. There were other jackals at the kill – the Dutch East India Company, the French East India Company and the Portuguese East India Company. And they had been there before the EIC. India had many suitors but the Brits won out, through sheer military muscle.

To make all that trade happen smoothly and profitably, the logistics had to be worked out. The EIC first set up an office at a coastal village with a natural harbor in south India, called Machlipatnam. From there, through the 17th century, it spread and established fortified trading posts at Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata.

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The logistics of the day weren’t like the way they are now. A business trip to and from India by a boss from the East India Company’s HQ in London was more like how we see inter-planetary space travel today – long and hazardous. Each trip to India was a two-year expedition, with four to six fully armed ships, mounted at considerable expense and fraught with immense risk. The waters were uncharted since the maps were rudimentary, the weather patterns were unfamiliar, tempests and 50 foot waves were frequent and as if that was not enough, pirates prowled the seas for easy pickings and they took no prisoners.

Given all the hazards, the chances that you would be back, sipping sherry with your mistress in a London salon at the end of it were 20-80.

If you wrote a letter to your branch rep in Kolkata, you would be lucky if his response came within the year. Under these circumstances, the EIC branch heads or ‘Governors’ were given an enormous amount of independence in how to conduct their business. And what happens when you have an employee at the other side of the world doing business any which way he likes? He throws the rules to the winds, kicks native butt and enriches himself of course.

Take it easy, don’t begin envying the Company men. Life was hard. Enriching oneself in the face of attacks from the French or the Portuguese, who were the other hyenas at the kill, or even the armies of the native rulers, or killer diseases like typhoid, flu, TB and malaria, the life of an EIC rep was not for the faint-hearted.

The EIC’s trading post chieftains were merchants and military commanders rolled in one. They had in their payroll, large armies that protected what they saw as their turf. If a regional raja or nawab didn’t negotiate business with them reasonably, he was looking at being invaded and ousted.

The Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, was one of those unfortunate nawabs who paid with his life for his obstinacy, in the Battle of Plassey (c.1757). Those days, the British were still just traders looking for a secure base from which to conduct their business with Indian merchants. When they began to look like they were digging in and building a small empire within his territory, the Nawab told them to desist and leave.

Imagine a empire-building testosterone pumped white guys being told by some two-bit brown nabob to get the fuck out. Robert Clive took it personally.

In those days if you spoke up, you had to back up your words with military force. The Nawab and his league of like-minded Bengali military commanders had on their side, 45000 infantry and 20000 cavalry. Artillery had been provided by the French who saw the British as a threat to their own French East India Company, a similar ‘carpet-bagging’ outfit under the then French King Louis XIV. The French held two bases in India, one in Chandannagar, 50kms from Kolkata and the other in Pondicherry, a coastal town south of Chennai.

The EIC’s commander, the robber-baron I mentioned earlier, Colonel Robert Clive, had just 3000 men. The Nawab’s firepower should have been sufficient to beat the crap out of the Brits. But Clive had guile and a cool head. Like any successful military man, he had human intel and he looked for the enemy’s weaknesses. He came to know through a Bengali birdie that the Nawab had a huge stockpile of gold and silver that he had grabbed from his subjects over the years as tax and had not thought to share with his equally rapacious commanders.

Clive sought out those commanders and got them to change sides, after promising them a share of the spoils (which by the way, they didn’t get when the dust settled). The Nawab ran for his life, was caught and executed. What can I say? A Nabob who didn’t share was a dead Nabob, I guess.

Siraj-ud-Daulah has been portrayed by Robert Clive’s biographer as an 18th century Cesare Borgia, a mercurial monster of vice and depravity, given to harsh cruelty toward his subjects. I read somewhere that when he sent for his senior commanders, they trembled, much like the way those New York Mafioso felt when they were summoned for a sit-down, not knowing if they would come out feet first. Even if Bobby Clive’s biographer had been biased, enough is on record to suggest that maybe the Nawab got what was coming to him.

After his victory, Clive installed Mir Jaffar, the commander who had switched sides, as the new Nawab of Bengal and did what his EIC masters in London had emphasized was his Key Perfomance Criterion – loot, a word that actually originated from the Bengali word ‘loot’, which means just that – loot. Clive’s men looted Bengal’s treasury, loaded the gold and silver worth over 5 million 1757 dollars (which is around $ 1 billion today), on to a fleet of more than a hundred barges and sent them downriver to his base at Kolkata.

“Where the f—k is my share?” Sucker of the day, Mir Jaffar, with Robert Clive after the Battle of Palashi. (Image source:Wikimedia)

Clive got to keep 10% – 500000 dollars (~ $100 million today) for himself – finder’s fees, I guess. Palashi was the first step in the creation of the British Empire in India. It is perhaps better understood as the company’s most successful business deal.

500K here, a bag of diamonds there and Robert Clive went on to become one of the world’s richest men. Unfortunately, he broke the golden rule for drug traffickers and it took his life – he got hooked on the very opium that he traded in, to dull the pain that one historian says was caused by gallstones. One night, unable to bear, the constant pain, Clive over-dosed in a drug-riddled moment of frenzy. Poetic justice, innit?

In India, right up until the 1970s, they still had roads named after those British colonials. Thyagraja Marg in the heart of the Indian capital, New Delhi, was till recently Robert Clive Road, while in England the statue that adorns the frontage of the British Foreign office is his. Clive’s partner in crime, Warren Hastings, the first Governor General of India, had till the late 1970s numerous streets, buildings and parks named after him all across India. Oh yeah, we Indians have been in boot-lick mode for decades after gaining independence.

There was another act that the East India Company excelled in, just like the Exxons of today who splurge millions on ‘green’ ads. It went to great pains explaining to the public at home how it was delivering the wretched Indian natives from deeply ingrained backwardness, how it was planning to remodel education, how the ‘ignorance and superstition that was inherent in Hinduism’ was being addressed by dedicated Christian missionaries in its payroll. (The world hadn’t yet woken to pedophilic Christian priests but let’s just say that the first missionaries must have had a ball in India and leave it at that).

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As the decades passed and the 19th century dawned and the Mogul Empire waned, the EIC’s mandate expanded, from just commerce to subjugation. The East India Company grabbed more and more territory as its own until all of India was theirs. The new nabobs were now the EIC chieftains like Robert Clive and Warren Hastings, wielding enormous power, not only in India, but in England as well, where they bribed, threatened and cajoled their way into both houses of Parliament.

The EIC now had, not only a trade monopoly, but also the right to tax the Indian citizens, mint its own coins with the company crest and maintain a 250000-strong army. For a while, before the bubble burst, EIC owned not only India but England as well. Profit became everything. It is universally believed that the great Bengal famine of 1770, which claimed the lives of 10 million of Bengal’s poor and the wretched, was brought on by rapacious greed and the lack of governance of the EIC.

A one rupee coin issued by the East India Company (Photo source: Wikimedia)

Seeing that the harvest was doomed, EIC’s traders started buying up all the grain that they could lay their hands on, driving up the price and making it impossible for the poor Bengali commoners to feed their families. As if that was not enough, the EIC decided to raise taxes so that revenue levels would remain stable.

Those who aspire to rule have a responsibility toward their subjects. EIC was not concerned about any such responsibility toward the native Indians. But what the EIC honchos hadn’t bargain for were the men with a conscience back home (ie: if one can imagine colonizers having consciences). There was Adam Smith (1723-90), Scottish moral philosopher and economist and Edmund Burke (1729-97), an Irish author, orator, philosopher.

And a prick named Lord Thomas Macaulay (1800-59), historian and Whig politician, who loved listening to his own voice. Macaulay had gained infamy for attempting to wipe out the native languages of the colonies and replacing them with English He once remarked that the world was divided into two categories of people – civilized and barbaric. Britain of course was, in his scheme of things, the torchbearers of the former category and the colonies, the latter.

But even an asshole like Macaulay was alarmed enough by the shenanigans at the EIC that he had this to say about it…..“The traders of the East India Company simply wrung out of the natives every drop of blood as speedily as possible, so that they might return home to marry a peer’s daughter, buy some rotten borough in Cornwall and throw balls in St. James’s Square.”

All these “venerables” denounced the East India Company as a bloodstained bunch of thugs, bent upon mercilessly raping a nation of its wealth. Some historians consider the aftermath of the 1770 Bengal famine as the beginning of the end of the East India Company’s presence in India.

Around the same time as the Bengal famine, other events were conspiring to pull the rug from under the EIC’s feet. Its stock price crashed on the London market, in lock-step with a Europe-wide financial meltdown. The EIC’s handling of the Bengal famine came to the notice of the British parliament and did little to bolster investor confidence.

By the turn of the 18th century, the British government had taken away EIC’s monopoly and finally in 1873, the East India Company ceased to exist. India now became a full-fledged colony of the British Empire.

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During its heyday, the East India Company not only established trade through Asia and the Middle East but also effectively became the ruler of territories. It created colonies like Singapore, an island that the EIC purchased from the ruler, the Sultan of Johor, and developed into one of the world’s richest and busiest mercantile hubs.

The East India Company has had quite a few parallels, in the modern age. The American conglomerate United Fruit Company owned every tiny Central American nation, to ensure unimpeded imports of fruits, especially bananas, into North American and European ports. The American mob co-owned Cuba, with the American telephone monopoly International Telephone and Telegraph. The solid gold telephone that the ITT rep presents Batista in Godfather II, really happened.

Some commentators opine that if Stalin’s Soviet Union hadn’t gone overboard with its purges and gulags, American style capitalism would have lost out to socialism and we would not have had to see the Reagans and Thatchers gloating obscenely, mistaking overkill for victory of the forces of good.

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The late comic genius, Robin Williams, put it quite simply in December 2008 when he was performing in front of Britain’s Prince Charles. Referring to the placard that the US President, Harry Truman, had hung up on the wall behind his desk, which read, ‘the buck stops here’, Williams gave it a twist – ‘Yeah right, the buck stops here…for just a wee moment….and then it sorta ambles on, to Boeing and GM.”

The Banana Wars (Part-2)

Let’s get back to the bananas, shall we?

You might have noticed that bananas on the supermarket shelf are either green or green, turning yellowish. This is because they have to be transported while they are still unripe or green, as otherwise by the time they are on the shelf, they will be overripe and worthless. Most of the wholesale business is therefore carried out with green bananas, otherwise known as greens.

The other two avatars that a banana goes through by the time you sink your teeth into it are first, as a turning (when it is yellowish ) and finally as a ripe. A ripe is what you have inside your fridge, ready to eat but you have to gobble it quickly or else it will turn into a pathetic gooey mass. Not a problem with me since I love bananas. A ripe doesn’t stand a chance in my fridge.

Bananas ripen for all sorts of reasons. Squeeze a green banana too hard and it will turn within days, instead of weeks. Ditto, if it is nicked or dented. And then ripening is contagious. A ripe banana will cause those around it to ripen and soon you have a whole shipload ruined while it is still on the high seas, chugging along west of the Azores, still weeks before it can dock at Marseilles.

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In the late 1800s, before refrigeration came along, as high as 15% of a shipment ended up as ripes by the time the ships were unloading at the wharf in the US. A ripe is perfectly okay if you intend to eat it within the next couple of days but the distribution system in place those days was a slow one. Freight trains traveled at a crawling pace and loading and unloading was labor intensive, nearly always done by hand, by work details of Chinese or Mexican migrants.

Big banana companies like United Fruit Co. did not like to waste their time with bananas that would be mush by the time they reached the supermarket shelves and so the ripes were discarded right there at the quay, before they were loaded into the railroad boxcars for destinations across the US. It didn’t bother Minor Keith and his gang. The banana business was booming. Americans had fallen in love with this cheap, delicious fruit-flower. He could afford to let go of 15% of his load.

Here is where a penniless but enterprising young man named Sam Zemurray stepped in, to build one of the US’s largest businesses brick by brick, starting by picking up those ripes that had been discarded at the quayside. He believed that, if he could somehow devise a transportation and distribution method that could deliver those ripes right up to the consumer within three to four days, he would have a business. And he set about doing exactly that.

Born Schmuel Zmurri in present-day Moldova, Zemurray initially worked at his uncle’s business at Selma, Alabama, before launching his banana ripes business. Gradually, in time, his customers – those small traders and grocery store owners to whom he sold his ripes, he would come to be known as ‘Sam, the banana man’.

The bananas that did not pass muster were dumped by Minor Keith’s men on the side of the rail yard, where they were further divided into turnings and ripes. At the end of the day, the turnings were sold at a discount to local store owners and peddlers.

The ripes, nobody touched and Sam recognized a product where others saw only trash. He was the son of a poor Russian farmer, for whom food had once been scarce enough to make even a freckled banana seem precious.

After the ship had been unloaded, the trains had carried off the green bananas and the merchants and peddlers had taken away the turnings, Sam bought all the ripes lying around, from the company agent, for $150. He knew that he would have to sell his boxcar load of ripes within three days, maybe five max, or else they would be worthless and he would be ruined. $150 in the early 1900s was a ton of money to lose.

But Zemurray believed he could make it. As far as he was concerned, ripes were considered trash only because Boston Fruit and similar firms thought they were trash. They were not quick enough with their distribution system. Sam’s calculation was based upon an arrogance – I can hustle where others are satisfied with the easy pickings of the trade.

Zemurray’s first cargo consisted of a few thousand bananas. He did not spend all his money but retained a small balance, which he used to rent a railroad boxcar. he had just enough time to get to the main market at Selma.

Those days usually a fruit merchant liked to buy himself a berth in the caboose (a car on a freight train, that has bunk beds for the the crew and one or two passengers, usually attached to the rear of the train). But since he had spent all his cash on the freight charge, Zemurray traveled in the boxcar with his bananas, the door open, his long lanky legs hanging out and the great American prairies rolling by.

As the train chugged west, maddeningly slow, Zemurray sat in the doorway and fretted about his consignment. In the country, the train had the speed of a mule that was on a lazy trot. As it approached the little towns along the way, it slowed to a walking pace and inside town, it stopped completely for hours, waiting for cargo. All the while, Zemurray paced the railroad bed, hands on his hips, muttering.

In a Mississippi railway siding, where the redbrick buildings, cattle feed stores and tin smiths crowded close to the tracks, a brakeman, taking pity on Sam suggested that if he could just get word ahead to the towns along the line, the grocery owners would meet him at the platforms and buy the bananas right off the boxcars.

During the next delay, Zemurray went into a Western Union office and spoke to a telegraph operator. Having no money, Sam offered a deal – if the man radioed every operator ahead, asking them to spread the word to local merchants – dirt cheap bananas coming through for merchants and peddlers – Sam would share a percentage of his sales.

When the Illinois Central arrived in the next town, the customers were waiting. Zemurray talked terms through the boxcar door, a tower of ripes at his back. Ten for eight. Thirteen for ten. He broke off a bunch, handed it over and put the money in his pocket. The whistle blew and the train rolled on. He sold his last bunch of bananas in Selma and went home with $190. In six days, Sam Zemurray had earned $40.

Zemurray had stumbled upon a niche – ripes, overlooked by the big boys in the trade. All the while that the big fruit companies were busy with their railroads and ships to distribute the greens, the world of ripes had been wide open. Zemurray set out again and again, on his boxcar retailing trips, coming back with his pockets full each time. He had $100000 in his bank account by the time he was 21 and his first million just a few years on.

Sam Zemurray went on to become one of America’s richest and most powerful men who, in the 1930s through 50s, owned and lorded over whole Central American and Caribbean nations as he sat at the helm of United Fruit Company, engineering coup-de-tats wherever the local governments failed to do his bidding. In 1953, when the democratically elected government in Guatemala wanted to expropriate and redistribute among the peasants the hundreds of thousands of acres of land that the United Fruit Company had gotten free, Zemurray orchestrated a PR campaign to besmirch the Guatemalan President, Jacobo Arbenz, while the CIA began training right-wing guerrillas to stage a military coup. Arbenz was ultimately replaced by a more pliable leader who reversed the expropriation.

The Sam Zemurray story is an interesting truth that repeats itself so often. It is the story of a destitute who got a bright idea, capitalized on it and got rich and powerful and ultimately, instead of using his financial might to help other destitutes, became a part of the same corrupt system.

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Life Magazine once did an in-depth of Zemurray, in which it wrote – ”Sam, the banana man, the tycoon who once used the railroads as pushcarts.”

The Banana Wars (Part-1)

It is the most abundant fruit in the world, available all year round at every grocery store regardless of ethnicity. Whether it is a mom and pop operation or it is a large chain store in Beverly Hills, you’ll find it occupying multiple shelves and if you look closely at the UI tags, you will never see a price more than 99¢/lb.

It is also perhaps the most consumer-friendly fruit known to mankind, with no worries about whether it has been washed before you sink your teeth in. Just peel and chomp. It leaves no aftertaste and I guarantee your breath won’t smell from it. You can walk while you chomp and when you are done, just flick the peel into a garbage bin without missing a step.

And don’t worry about sticky juices squirting from it and messing up your fingers or shirt front. It is firm but not hard, sweet but not chocolaty and as you chew, it melts inside your mouth with ease, without sticking to your gums or between your teeth.

It is packed with nourishment. Rich in manganese and potassium, vitamins B and C and dietary fibre, it is the perfect little snack to gobble if you are ravenously hungry but have to watch your weight at the same time. If you have ulcers and cannot remain on an empty stomach for too long, one is enough to keep the gastric juices at bay. And I have never heard of anyone who has an allergy to it.

You can gobble down as many in one sitting as you like. There’s no downside in eating too many of them. Just be sure to gargle afterward, as the little bit of sugar that is in them may cause tooth decay, long term.

Horny middle-aged women too have a unique use for it but I am too straight-laced to tell you about that.

Meet everyone’s favorite snack – the banana, the world’s fourth largest food item after rice, wheat and milk. If you live anywhere on earth, bananas are sure to be a permanent item in your grocery list. Transported raw, they get just ripe enough by the time they are displayed on the grocery shelves.

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There was a time when the banana was a virtually unknown fruit in the developed west. That is, until an American named Henry Meiggs (1811-77) inadvertently started the banana boom.

Meiggs was one of the early robber barons of American business, an enormously powerful and ruthless individual who stopped at nothing to build a vast empire and lord over it. He was the torch bearer for the Kennedys, the Du Ponts, the Rockefellers and the De Beers.

Born in Catskill, NY, Henry Meiggs made his mark building railroads for Chile and Peru. Endowed with great entrepreneurial talents and a complete lack of scruples, Meiggs battered and bludgeoned his way through entire Latin American governments to make his millions.

So powerful had he grown by the 1850s, that Henry Meiggs was considered Peru’s de-facto monarch. Here is a Peruvian bank note with his signature on it.
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In 1860, while Meiggs was in Peru, he was approached by President Tomás Guardia of Costa Rica, who wanted a railroad built to connect the Caribbean Sea port of Limón to the national capital, San José. Here is where the great banana story began.

At that time, Costa Rica’s economy was based mainly on coffee exports. Coffee was grown in the central plains around the capital city of San José and transported by mules to the nearest port at Puntarenas on the Pacific coast. Due to the ruggedness of the terrain to the east, the mules could not go the other way, to Limón on the Caribbean coast, from where the lucrative European market would have been easily accessible, across the Atlantic.

There was no Panama Canal in those days and so the coffee would travel by ship eastward from Puntarenas. Creating a railroad to carry the coffee east, direct to Limón on the Atlantic seaboard and thereby gaining easy access to Europe’s coffee drinkers became top priority.

Meiggs took the mega-contract but before he could begin building the railroad however, he died. Eventually, 14 years after his death, the construction was restarted by one of his nephews, Minor Cooper Keith, 14 years after his death.

Minor Keith eclipsed his illustrious uncle in ruthlessness and ambition. He saw opportunities that his uncle hadn’t. He and his partners got the Costa Rican government to donate free of cost 800,000 acres of prime land along the railroad he had built and he promptly turned the land into an enormous banana plantation. The new venture was called Tropical Trading and Transport Company.

While the passenger load density on the new railroad proved disappointingly low, Keith found that transporting the bananas he grew was enormously profitable. The railroad carried the bananas from his plantations to Limón and from there on to the US and Europe by ships that he and his partners owned and operated.

What is capitalism without mergers? And so it was with Minor Keith’s business. In time he merged his company with an equally gi-normous rival banana grower, Boston Fruit Company and the newly formed behemoth was named United Fruit Company (UFC).

It was a synergy made in heaven – Minor Keith’s railroads and ships and Boston Fruit’s pet Central American dictators and tax-free land that was ideal for banana plantations. At it’s height, 1930s to 50s, United Fruit Company directly controlled and distributed 90% of all bananas grown in Central America, the Caribbean and Northern South America.

In the movie Godfather-II, the rep of ‘General Fruit Company’ is shown at the conference table with the Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista, who was later overthrown by Fidel Castro. It is a thinly disguised reference to United Fruit Company which in it’s heyday, backed up by a garrison of US Marines, behaved like it owned Cuba.

The dictators, whom United Fruit (and the US government) went to bed with, were essentially nothing but powerful thugs inside a backward, desperately poor agrarian region, their main crop – bananas, a tasty novelty that America and Europe were just beginning to relish. These thugs maintained a highly unequal feudal structure that terrorized and subjugated the common folk.

The term Banana Republic was first coined by the writer, O’Henry, in his 1904 novel, “Cabbages and Kings”, to describe a fictitious Caribbean country called Anchuria, his narrative inspired by what he saw during a visit to Honduras. O’Henry meant Banana Republic to be a derisive term used for poor, backward nations that are riddled with corruption and whose despotic rulers were beholden to the United States for their personal survival. Nowadays the term is used more broadly, to refer to any autocratic regime ruled by a demagogue who thinks he is the law. Russia – and in some ways, even Trump’s America – can fall into the category of a banana republic today.

Interestingly, partnerships with the US were invariably unstable. Whenever the tin pots could not deliver the free and safe environment necessary for American companies to operate in, or if suddenly the ruler of the republic started feeling that the Americans weren’t paying him enough, disputes broke out and an invasion force of US Marines came in, to facilitate a coup and install a more pliable tin pot dictator.

Direct American military invasions into sovereign Caribbean and Central American countries were rampant in the first half of the 20th century. Between 1900 and 1945, the US invaded Honduras five times, the Dominican Republic three times, Haiti twice, Nicaragua thrice, Cuba thrice, Panama thrice, Guatemala twice and El Salvador once. This, in spite of the fact that none of these nations had ever meant the US or any of it’s citizens any harm.

Wherever the marines went, CIA black ops agents were not far behind. They followed the GIs, torturing and murdering opponents of the regime they wished to install, training counter-insurgent death squads for those puppet regimes and terrorizing the general population. They were like the scum known as SS Einsatzgruppen who followed the regular Wehrmacht troops into the Soviet Union as a part of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, in 1941.

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In order to justify America’s strong-arm tactics in Central America and the Caribbean in front of the world, the US began a PR blitz that made America the civil liberties champion of the world and the Soviet Union the fall guy, even though declassified CIA documents show that it was all spin and that there had never been any commie threat at that point in time (The Cuban Missile Crisis came decades later).

The man chosen to be America’s spin master for the PR barrage was a very able guy whom the Americans proudly tout today as the ‘father of public relations’, a man named Edward Bernays. He achieved unparalleled success in projecting America as a benevolent, pain-filled and saddened nation which had no choice but to invade and save democracy and the rule of law. His successes led PR to ultimately become a regular course taught in American universities. It remains the only stream of study in the world that adds no value to your skill set but only shows you how to get a PhD in creating “alternative facts”.

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By the late 1920s, United Fruit Company was huge, wielding power that would be comparable to the political clout that Google, GM, Microsoft or Goldman Sachs have today. UFC became the de-facto face of the US Government, bribing, threatening, cajoling, coercing and extorting it’s way into the governments of those tiny Central American nations.

Only one man was responsible for making United Fruit Company the largest business entity in America in the 1940s and everybody knew him as “Banana Sam”. I’ll tell you all about him after I have traveled to the fridge for amother beer.

Till then, toodle-oo.

Aliens, Unicorns and Souls

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Socrates with toy boy

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When Socrates(470-399BC) was standing trial for capital crimes, he spent time with his groupies musing about what death would be like. He hoped that one of three things would happen – he would be sent to spend eternity with Homer or Pythagoras or Diogenes or any of the other philosophers who had died before him and he would engage in lively gabfests with them (Socrates loved talking).

If he couldn’t get that, Socrates hoped he would fall into a deep, restful, dreamless sleep, the kind of sleep one drifts off to after smoking plantation-fresh, dew-moist Kodaikanal weed. Into a world devoid of anything except kaleidoscopic designs.

And if he were deprived of even sleep, Socrates wished he would be permitted to recline on a plush meadow looking up at the star-filled sky above while a beautiful boy with golden locks stimulated him for eternity. (Socrates was a flaming pederast and pedophile, but then so were most members of the ancient Greek elite).

I like that. Not the pederasty bit, but the fact that Socrates thought simple thoughts about simple pleasures just before he died. He wasn’t concerned about all the BS like heaven and hell and soul.

Not that Socrates didn’t believe in Heaven and Hell and Soul. He did. In fact the concept of an entity called soul which inhabits the human body and leaves it upon death and goes on living for eternity, has been recorded since at least 3200BC during the first Egyptian dynasty.

It’s just that at the point of death Socrates, like most of us, was ‘unencumbered’ by extraneous crappy issues like was he going to heaven or hell and where would his soul be going after he was dead?

Crap generation officially began with the advent of organized religion in the form of Christianity, Jesus and his Holy Ghost dad. It was Christianity which put an official stamp on the mind fuck called “soul”, the part of us that is supposed to live on after death. The mind fuck part being that you’ll not feel soul unless you are already dead.

Hinduism too has a parallel concept of soul – Atma and if you want to know more about the Atma, Hinduism advises you to “find it in yourself” or go ask a “wise master” (a.k.a guru). I am a Hindu and I dare say I have looked and haven’t been able to find Atma in myself so far in my 65 years. About going to a wise guru, I wouldn’t be caught dead in a ditch with one of those phoney monkeys. I have first-hand knowledge of gurus. It was a guru who brainwashed and drove my mother from our home into a convent, when I was 12. He is lucky he is dead because if he had been alive, I would have gone over to India and strangled the son of a bitch with my own bare hands.

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The 18th Century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, believed that humans are capable only of posteriori knowledge – ie : knowledge gained empirically, through experimentation and observation. Kant concluded that the soul is a noumenon, something that is beyond human sensory ability or perception, an entity that cannot be proven to exist through experimentation and therefore he believed that proving or denying the existence of soul is a futile exercise.

The soul is therefore like the shape shifting alien, married to a unicorn, which live down in my basement.

Research from interviews with hospice caregivers suggests that the most common last words spoken by dying patients are usually “Mom, are you there?”, “Fido, are you there?” , “Water, please” or simply “Sorry”. The words that are rarely spoken are “God”, “soul”, “pray”, “mercy”, “heaven” and “hell”.

So, why would I give a fuck about my soul if I was taking my last breath? Am I missing something here? Why can’t we keep it simple, like Socrates did?

I know what I am going to be saying just before I die. I have been memorizing it, like Neil Armstrong did for his “small step, giant leap” line. Since I believe soul exists just as much as I believe that the married shape-shifting alien in my basement just fathered a tiny fire-breathing dragon with the unicorn, my dying words are going to be short and simple…..

“Fuck everything.”

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Little words that Matter

John and Annie Glenn

When he died, in December 2016, Marine combat pilot, war hero, astronaut and US Senator, Col John Glenn had been married 68 years, to his childhood sweetheart, Annie, whom he credited for being the very reason for his success in life.

The story of John and Annie Glenn is the very well spring of inspiration.

John first met Annie when they were neighbors and their moms would put the two five-year olds together in a large basket swing in the backyard and they would spend the afternoons giggling and screaming.

As Annie grew, she was found to have a severe stutter in her speech, so bad that she couldn’t even utter certain words without going into a long stutter. That led her to be shunned and bullied in school – until John took charge of her ‘security’ and she was never bothered again. Glenn remained true to Annie through seven decades and sometime during this very long honeymoon, Annie was able to conquer her stutter through therapy and perseverance.

In 1982, a reporter for The globe asked Glen, who was then considering running for the 1984 US Presidential elections, whether marrying someone with such a severe stutter ever made him reconsider his presidential bid.

“That never really made any difference,” he replied,” we grew up together with her stutter and I knew the person she was and I loved the person she was and that was that.”

John Glenn passed on in December 2016. It is okay to have never ever met a man like John Glenn but still feel a sense of loss – at another little bit of good, chipped away and lost inside the maelstrom of survival. Annie is still alive, now 100. It must be hard living alone. I hope the world for you, Annie.

There must be so many ways to show your love for each other. Little simple ways, like this one I read about the Glenns somewhere…..

John and Annie liked to play a secret game between themselves. Whenever, as a combat pilot in the fifties, Glenn went on a mission, he would turn at the front door of their little cottage at the air base and give Annie a quick peck on the cheek and say with faux curtness,” I’m going down to the corner store for some gum. You want any? Yours is pineapple, isn’t it?”

“No, silly,” Annie would smile,”Jill Travers at middle school liked pineapple. Mine is orange. And don’t be too long. There’s shepherd’s pie for dinner….”

The same conversation played out on a clear blue morning on Feb 20, 1962, when Glenn stood at the door of the astronauts’ bus and she touched the visor of his helmet. Only this time she strained to hold back her tears as she watched him board the Mercury-Atlas rocket that stood steaming a mile away, ready to fly him into the unknown.

Update : Annie Glenn passed away on 19 May, 2020, her death caused by complications from the Covid-19 virus infection. She was 100.

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A Pakistani-Canadian colleague had just returned after a month in Karachi, settling his father’s affairs after his funeral. He was the only offspring and his mother had preceded her husband of 60 years the previous spring. We were at the lunch table at work, when I said to him, “Your father, what kind of a father was he?”

He thought for a moment and said,” I never got to know him actually. He was always busy running his restaurant chain, while my mother brought me up. One thing I do remember though and it was when I was in college. Late evenings, I would be upstairs in my room, books and notes spread around me, trying to cram as much as I could, for a test. When Abbu arrived home, it would be late and my mother would be asleep in bed in their ground-floor bedroom, the first door to the right from the front door.”

Here, my colleague’s eyes got misty as he carried on, “At the sound of the front door opening, I would go over to the landing, in time to see him stoop to remove his shoes and tip-toe over to the bedroom door which was always left ajar so there would be some circulation in the steamy heat. He would stand still and look in and stare at my mother’s still form for a long while and then he would turn to me and ask in a whisper, “Has she eaten?”

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It is hard to put in words the transcendental emotion, the sublime feel of couples who have been married 40,50,60 years. Almost all long-married folks agree that it is tough making marriages work, but that in the end they choose to stay together because of an almost indescribable connection that has been formed over the years by myriads of little things that they feel about each other. It is also the little words they say to each other that matter.

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Tether your Camel

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Trust Allah, but tie your camel.” – ancient Arab proverb

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Ruins of a Medieval church in the aftermath of the devastation of the Plague of Justinian|541-542AD| (Image courtesy:Scott Masterton/Getty Images)
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When a Bedouin, visiting Prophet Mohammad at Medina, left his camel untethered outside the mosque, the Prophet noticed and asked him why he didn’t tie the animal. The Bedouin replied that he had placed his trust on Allah and therefore it was not necessary to secure the animal.

Mohammad famously replied,” Trust Allah, but tie your camel.”

Interesting quote. It is not an either-or……it’s not either you trust Allah or you tie your camel, which implies that if you tie your camel, you don’t really trust Allah enough. It is more of a diplomatic do-it-anyway statement.

On the face of it, Mohammed’s advice is very empowering. It exhorts us to look at our situation dispassionately and take the necessary steps to address it. But don’t his words actually caution us against relying too heavily on faith? To me they seem like they do.

You and I have a certain level of intelligence, an ability to reason and make sense and we must utilize it. We are responsible for our own destiny. It is our ass on the line. Hard science tells us today in the face of the corona virus that we have to shut down sermons and communions at churches, anjali and bhog ceremonies at temples, namaz at mosques and even restrict the number of people that can gather at funerals.

But organized religion is the only thing that has not issued any upgrades. It still peddles the same old “as you sow, so you reap” crap, which it has been hustling for the last three millennia, during which time history has proved exactly the opposite – that you don’t reap as you sow and that many have reaped without bothering to sow at all.

Believers turn to their faiths in panic, during the 1350AD bubonic plague in Europe which lasted 5 years and wiped out 30 million. Given that the world population then was around 300 million only, the wipe-out was 10% of all humans alive.
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The world has seen plagues galore, since the beginning of recorded history. If there is one singular fact that we have learnt from them it is that religion has not, cannot and will not save us from them. But that goes against a fundamental tenet in all religions – that there is an all-powerful God (Or Gods) who can make anything happen and stop anything from happening.

Thankfully, the human race has never actually waited for any divine intervention. We have found out the hard way that we are on our own and thanks to our ingenuity, we have survived. The fundamentalist kooks and their dumb believers might say, “but it was God who gave us the ingenuity to develop ways out of every jam. He encouraged us to find our own solutions to our problems”.

Death, as a skeleton with wings, hovers over a new-born, as he is made to sign an agreement which acknowledges that human existence is nothing but a brief and miserable episode. Oil “Humana Fragilitas” by Salvatore Rosa, during the plague of 1656. The infant in the image is his son, Rosaldo, who died in the pandemic.
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So here we have a mind-fuck of a lifetime. Our God is all-powerful, can get anything done, prevent any catastrophe from befalling us………. but he won’t. He’ll let us solve our own problems while he sits up there and just watches. Innocents, believers and little babies who aren’t old enough to develop the means to live a virtuous life, they will all die horrible deaths, painful sores covering their bodies, high fever turning them delirious. But God will just stare back, he’ll do a Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse now”.

That Bedouin at Medina had the right to feel confident he could leave his camel untied. His own religion had taught him that if he had been virtuous, it was okay to leave everything up to God and everything meant literally everything, even a fucking camel on the loose. But then here was God’s sales rep – his prophet, telling the Bedouin, “ummm, nyet, buddy. That’s not a good idea. You had better be safe than sorry. Just tie the bleeping camel up.”

Within the mafia there is an unwritten contract between the Capo and his crew – that if they do strictly as they are told to do, the Capo will have their backs. It is a covenant that is set firmly in stone and the single most important reason why the organized crime gangs like the N’Drangheta remain a deadly force. It is why a made wise guy can put a bullet into anyone’s head in broad daylight and still get away with it. He is invincible as long as he has that covenant.

A man of faith must expect a similar covenant with God, no? Why is it unreasonable for him to believe that if he remains virtuous, God will protect him and his family from misery, prevent robbers from stealing his camel? Is it too much to ask of God to hold up his end of the bargain? Alas, history shows it is. History tells us that when needed most, God has been the “absentee landlord”.

It’s all very simple actually. There never has been any “my virtue for your protection” quid-pro-quo covenant with God. It was our desperation to cling to beliefs.

Titian(1488-1576), as himself in tatters, prostrating in front of the dying Jesus in the arms of Mary, begging for his and his son Orazio’s life during the Venetian pandemic. It didn’t work. Both succumbed in 1576.
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When the Roman Empire was at the height of it’s power (250AD), an ebola-like plague ravaged it, killing over 5000 a day, causing crippling manpower shortages, severely weakening Rome’s defenses, nearly bringing the empire to it’s knees. It is known as the “Plague of Cyprian”, after the guy who wrote a treatise on it. Over a period of 14 long years, the virus spread all across the Italian peninsula and into the adjacent regions of Gaul, Hispania and Sicilia, ending up killing 27 million. It took the life of even the Emperor at the time, Hostilian.

The Plague of Cyprian had a consequence – Romans believed the plague to be a “lack of performance“ by their existing pagan deities. Hadn’t they prayed to them constantly, offered sacrifices in their honour? And yet..??? It was not long before Romans began to see the hollowness of their pagan beliefs. Waiting in the wings for over two centuries was a new, yet untested alternative – one that preached a single, omnipotent God of all things, who had the power to heal the worst of plagues – Christianity.

The conversion to and rise of Christianity in Rome is commonly credited solely to Constantine the Great, whose reign began in 306AD. The actual fact is that by the time he came to power, fifty years had passed since the Plague of Cyprian. Fifty years of excruciatingly painful recovery from the plague. Fifty years of softening toward Christianity. Constantine merely made it official.

Unfortunately, the Christianity upgrade from paganism remains a “Beta” version till this day. There have been 20 major plagues since the one in Rome and they have killed a billion people so far. Religious adherence could not prevent them.

Christianity has managed to cling on, but there have been hiccups. When the 14th Century “Black Death” killed 100 million in Europe, Christians felt they weren’t getting the bang for their buck and Catholicism splintered, giving way to Protestant Reformism.

“The Virgin appears to plague victims” – Antonio Zanchi(1666), at the Scuola Grande di Rocco in Venice, the city which invented the practice of quarantine, a word which In Venetian literally means 40 days, the amount of time for which foreign ships were impounded during the period of the plague.
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Today Christianity stands further divided into scores of different denominations – Lutherans, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, Pentacostals, Baptists, Anglicans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Coptics and on and on and on. Oh and the largest, most evil, most corrupt denomination of them all – Catholicism. The christianity practiced today is unrecognizable from the one Jesus Christ envisaged. Just like the Islam of today – the prophet Mohammad would have great difficulty recognizing it.

There is no question that pandemics (and other natural disasters) shake people’s faith in religion. The fastest growing new religion today is actually – No Religion. As secularism grows, the influence of atheism and agnosticism is expanding. Driven by growing apathy and disenchantment, churches all over the western world are going bankrupt. Extreme fundamentalists like Mennonites and Amish and their faith are succumbing to the relentless onslaught of technology and vanishing. In North America, the religiously unaffiliated (atheists and agnostics) now form over 30% of the population, while across the Atlantic, one in two Europeans think religion is senseless and irrelevant. I look at pandemics not so much as the scourge of humanity but much more as nails in the coffin of organized religion.

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Okay, so pandemics affect religious belief, but does religion influence the way we look at pandemics? Are you kidding me? Of course it does.

The concept of a higher power that controls everything began to crystallize around 11000 BC in a little settlement called Jericho, in present day Israel. Since then as more settlements grew, humanity acquired a new travelling companion that has stayed with us ever since – pandemics. Viral infectious diseases have regularly wiped out two-thirds of a population.

With the growth of settlements came self-appointed holy men and belief systems, some of which advocated staying put and just sitting out the scourge, while others said run, head for the open spaces.

And then came Christianity and Jesus’s reputation as a healer. His followers listened rapt as Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Love your neighbour as yourself. Greater love has no man than this, that he should lay down his life for others.”

Jesus healed a number of ailments, such as blindness, leprosy, lameness and demonic possession. He didn’t (or maybe couldn’t) heal plagues or any sort of viral infection. It is a known fact that viruses do not survive extreme heat and the Levant being an exceedingly hot and dry region for most of the year, maybe the opportunity simply didn’t arise for Jesus to try his hand at curing viral infections.

Be that as it may, Christianity encouraged tending to the sick and risking death as that was a sure path to heaven. When the 1527 bubonic plague hit, Martin Luther – the father of Protestant Reformism – refused calls to flee the city and stayed back to minister to the sick. Martin Luther articulated the Christian response to pandemics clearly. He proclaimed that “the plague has turned the sick into crucifixes, on which we must be prepared to impale ourselves and die…” As a consequence, his daughter Elizabeth fell victim to the plague.

Christianity’s brother religions, Islam and Judaism however didn’t buy into all that altruism. They simply said,”Hey it’s all God’s will. We can do jack-shit about it. Only God can handle pandemics, so let God take care of the scourge. We should just sit tight, remain faithful and finger our prayer beads.” You don’t see many Jewish or Muslim missionaries running charitable hospitals, do you?

If that Bedouin in Medina had come to me instead of Mohammed, I would have told him, “Tether your camel, Allah is taking a long vacation.”