Slightly built, she sat at the edge of the bed, her hands clasped on her lap, like they had nowhere to go. She slipped her ghunghat (veil) off, reached up and carefully undid the pins holding up her slightly messed up hair. It cascaded down in curls, over her shoulders.
Her gaze went back toward the floor, unsure of what she must do next. The bed covers were strewn with rose petals but she seemed oblivious to them.
For the moment, she was trying not to pass out, under all that bridal finery and the oppressive heat. Slim jhumkas (traditional Hindu ear rings) peeked out from under the curls. She had on, the bridal ‘mangal sutra’ that I’d tied round her neck an hour or so back, at the ceremony – a yellow braided string, coated with turmeric, with a tiny gold pendant, flanked on either side by black beads.
I recalled the wedding. The mangal sutra had been handed to me open ended, with knots on both ends, so the beads wouldn’t escape. As I had slipped my fingers behind her neck to tie the two ends together, she repeated after the priest, in a soft but distinct whisper, “You are the reason of my existence. With this thread around my neck, I shall pray that may you live long.”
As her lips formed the words, for a brief moment, she lifted her eyes to search into mine, “Who are you, Robindranath Dey?” they seemed to enquire.
The 3-day ceremony was now over and here I was, my butt on the opposite edge of the bed, still in my sherwani, kurta and churidar, the air conditioning hardly able to drive away my discomfort at the May humidity. Goddamn, why the heck does May have to be the auspicious month for marriages. Wish I had my bermuda shorts on.
Bermuda shorts reminded me of the last time I wore them, the Saturday before I left for India. It was at the ball game, NY State vs Ohio. Vicky Tannenbaum had come along and as she sat next, her left arm loosely draped over my bare thigh, her hand had snuck further in, unnoticed. While 10000 guys cheered the NYS team on, she’d suddenly dug her nails in playfully.
“Ouch, watch it, will you? I only have two of those” I’d shouted out, with pain mixed with sudden pleasure. She’d giggled, nuzzling her red head against my chest.
“Take me to your dorm, Robby” she’d whispered into my ear. Back in my room, we’d torn at each other for the rest of the day. That night had been our last together and Vicky knew it. It didn’t bother her even a bit. She was attractive, on her way through med school with a straight-A average. Her parents had an already well established medical practice which she would simply walk into, after she got her MD. And she was cute as a button. There were lots of other fish in her pond.
When we were finally done, she lay across my chest, her red curls tickling my nose and me on my back. And as she slowly wrapped her legs round my thigh and lazily rocked herself back and forth, her wetness rubbing up against me, she mused, “You’re off to be married, to a Bengali country girl in a saree and my Dad will probably like to see me wed one of those orthodox toads in a Yarmulke, with those payots hanging from either side of his head. Well, I’ll teach Mr. Yarmulke a thing or two about putting those two side locks where they tickle,” she’d giggled.
And now once again back in the present, the thought of Vicky started up a stirring within, as I found myself facing that almirah with mirrored doors, by the wall. From where I sat, perched on the opposite edge of the bed, I could see my bride in the mirror clearly, facing away, at an angle.
Her anchal (the end of the saree that’s slung over the left shoulder) had fallen and lay like a wreath round her, on the bed. She had a ‘nath’ (nose ring) on one nostril and a bala (wrist band) on each soft hand. They looked like they’d been handed down, from her mother . Her hair was still flecked with all that sprinkly, shiny stuff they chuck at you in a wedding. Her feet were beautiful. Pink, bordered by ‘alta’, a vermillion dye that Hindu women have on, after marriage. Pretty toes, some with rings on them, peeped through her slippers. Payals, probably of imitation silver, transformed her ankles into the loveliest I’d seen. Yellowish-brown mehndi lines adorned both feet as well as her hands.
Don’t know how long we just sat there, facing away from each other, on either side of the bed but it was she who broke the ice first. She brought her gaze up to me, “Shunoon, ei biye ki aapnar moter birudhdhey hoyeche?” (Did this marriage happen without your acquiescence?)
I straightened and walked to the barred window that looked out on Hazra Rd. An ice-cream wallah was pushing his cart down the sun baked lane, his head covered by a wet gamcha (wash cloth made from a thin cotton fabric), knarled feet in torn flip-flops. “Kwaliteee!” he cried plaintively.
I turned back toward her and lifted my eyes to hers’, in a slow and excruciatingly painful effort. “No,” I replied and I quickly turned back to stare out the window. The ice-cream wallah was gone, but I could still hear his cries faintly in the distance, “Kwaliteee!” By now a bunch of stray mongrel dogs had decided to give him harmony. Every time he cried out, they barked and bayed at him, shuffling a few paces behind.
Just a minute had passed, when I felt her soft hands on my shoulders. She’d risen and come round the bed, to stand by my side, a little behind, away from the window. I shivered at her touch. I didn’t turn but continued to stare blindly at the scorching pavement below.
“Then why don’t you speak with me?” she reached up and held my cheeks in her palms and turned it so I was looking down at her beautiful face, “I left my home, my parents, my sisters and my little brother. And I have made this my home…..” her voice caught and I noticed that those long eyelashes were brimming with tears.
I gently grasped her two wrists and lowered her palms from my cheeks, till her hands were by her side. And I moved away just a bit. Don’t know why, but her touch was electric. I felt safer a couple of inches away. I was more comfortable with English. But she didn’t know a word of it. So Bengali it had to be, “And you? Was this with your approval?”
She nodded, dabbing her eyes with her anchal. “My father’s decision is my decision,” she said simply, “And now, your wish is mine. Forever”. QED- Theorem and corollary, I thought. With that simple statement, she leaned against me, and broke down into silent sobs.
I reached out and pulled her to me, gently holding her fragile body in my arms. After a while her sobbing subsided and I could feel her even breath on my chest, when all of a sudden, she wriggled out of my grasp, saying, “Wait, I’ll show you something.” She went up to the whatnot in the far corner and took out an ornate box made of brass. It was a ‘paaner dibey’, a small container normally used for betel leaves, nuts and zarda (chewing tobacco).
She ran her fingers lightly over the box. “My grandma used it when she was alive. Now, it’s mine.” She opened it carefully. Inside was just one photo. It was me, striking a pose in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The one I’d sent through Baren when he came to India on his match-making expedition. “I spoke with you every day, ever since Barenda left it with us. I said to God, “Dear God, keep him safe”.
She left the box standing on the whatnot and turned, her young breasts squeezed up against my chest. An incredible warmth spread through us like wild fire, as I gently tilted her face up by her chin and said in mock severity, “My wish is yours. hmmmm. Do you have any idea what my first wish is?”
She smiled at that, feeling me harden against the pit of her stomach. Then, with mock helplessness, she said in a whisper, “No, why don’t you show me?”
It is 48 years now, since that first magical night. Madhu still has that box. She likes to call it her ‘treasure chest’. It has a few additions in it. Pictures of a young man, his American wife, Betty and daughter, Sona. And a young woman, with her banker husband, Tod and journalist son Michael. And one more picture. A very young guy, much slimmer then but still recognizable now, posing in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
If lobsters and turtles could talk they would give fascinating history lessons. Imagine that you are a doddering old turtle off Caen, in Northern France, scoping the shallows for algae, sponges or whatever the fuck turtles eat.
The chances are good that in 1588, as a kid swimming alongside your mommy, you saw Sir Francis Drake on his man-o-war, The Revenge, racing with the wind, engaging the Spanish Armada. You got singed when the San Lorenzo caught fire from a broadside from the Revenge and a stray log from it’s bulkhead flew through the air and hit you, but you healed. You are one hardy mother fucker, aintcha now.
And then you clearly remember 1944. You were 165 and just breaking into your teens. You were courting Shiela-Sue Shell, your girlfriend for more than a century. You were trying ta grab her from behind so you could get on top of her and she wouldn’t letcha. This had been going on for six months and you were getting tired of it.
“Come on, Shiela-Sue, its fucking six months, I can’t take it anymore. How ‘bout it?” You said to her. You were just this one big blub of testosterone, you were. It’s no wonder biologists two centuries on would classify you as a testudine.
Back to 1944 and you and Shiela-Sue frolicking on the beach close to the cute little French village of Saint-Aubain, named Juno Beach by invasion planners. Suddenly Shiela-Sue gestured with her flappers along the coastline to the east. You forgot about shtupping her and waddled onto a rock and you gaped. As far as your beady eyes could see, huge landing crafts were disgorging men with funny sticks in their hands, charging up the surf while the other side threw magic pellets which punctured the surf at 2800 feet per second. Shiela-Sue took a stray round on her shell, didn’t do nothin’ to her.
Mating season was delayed a bit that year but Shiela-Sue and you made up for it in the fall.
Turtles habitually live a healthy 400-plus years. Lobsters live even longer, almost forever. So, imagine you’re a lobster instead and it is 43AD. Instead of the Allied Forces’ Second Front, you might actually have seen traffic in the opposite direction – Roman Emperor Claudius’s fleet spread out horizon to horizon, two-tiered arrays of oars rising and falling, chopping up the waters as the galleys crossed over to vanquish the barbarian war-lord Caractacus and annex Britain.
There are some among us who dream of longevity. There are a host of others who are conducting advanced research on immortality. The question on their minds – Why can’t we be like lobsters or turtles or those giant sequoias and live hundreds of years without growing old and infirm???
Longevity used to be a fantasy until 1961, when a young researcher at the UCSF School of Medicine, Leonard Hayflick, found out the exact reason why we don’t live longer.
For his research, Hayflick contracted with nearby abortion clinics to deliver dead fetuses to him, from which he extracted cells. He chose fetuses because their cells were pristine and the least likely to have viruses in them which might blur the study results.
Hayflick found that the cells from his fetal tissue samples multiplied only a finite number of times, before they stopped dividing altogether. Now a well-established fact, the number of cell divisions in the case of humans is 50, while for lobsters and turtles it is far higher. He propounded that, if the gene that limits the number of cell divisions can be isolated and modified, then that 50-division limit can be extended, enabling humans to live longer.
Hayflick made another even more remarkable discovery – that if a human cell is frozen below -250˚C after it has already gone through a number of divisions (say, 25), the divisions slow down and as soon as the temperature is raised once again, the multiplication begins where it left off.
In fact, if you increase or decrease the cell temperature with a regulator, you can speed up or slow down the division. Surviving inter-planetary travel through deep freezes is no longer merely science fiction, but a reality waiting to happen.
Science textbooks now refer to that limiting number of cell divisions as the Hayflick limit.
Who or What was responsible for fixing the Hayflick Limit at 50 for humans, God? But if that were so, if God really did decide that human cells should stop after 50 divisions, surely He must have wanted the number to remain sacrosanct. Why then did He give us the ability to figure out how to extend it beyond 50? (But then who can understand God? He’s the same guy who gave us a dick and a hard-on and then turned around and told us not to fuck out of wedlock).
The one thing that definitely is not fixed is our ideas and questions. They seem to grow with every new scientific revelation, drawing us further and further away from the fantasy concept of God. We are already at a stage where Adam and Eve and the serpent and the apple and the jet setting Angel Gabriel have begun to seem absurd. We are now living through an era when we won’t even get a ticket for breaking nine out of the Ten Commandments. Go ahead and check the penal codes of most modern nations if you don’t believe me.
Immortality has it’s pros and cons. Among the pros is the exhilarating feeling that you are never going to die. In 3 billion years you’ll watch the Sun bloat so large and red that you could actually reach out and touch it. You would of course be burnt to a crisp but let’s hope immortality brings with it the guarantee of a life free of pain. A trillion years and you’d be part of a dimensionless dot, the universe having collapsed back into a singularity.
Immortality will give you a cast iron immune system but it won’t save you from accidental harm, like if you step off the sidewalk and get run over by a drunk driver or get crushed under an industrial press like the Terminator. So, whether you are immortal or not, you still have to try not to be a schmuck.
I’ll be 66 in five months. According to the Canadian Census Bureau, I am expected to live another 20.6 years. With my Spartan lifestyle and frequent sex, it could even be 25 years. That is enough time for the Human Genome Project, stem cell research and nanotechnology to detect my Alzheimer’s or blocked heart valve early and prevent it. So I am going to keep on drinking wine excessively.
And I don’t give a fuck about immortality or the Hayflick Limit. I just need my “Haytumble Limit” extended…
There’s a sex store in Saint Constant on the 132 that I drive by every day on my way home from work. Saint Constant is a hick town, a Canadian version of Jhumritalayia.
Dildos, BDSM stuff, porn mags like Oui and Hustler, thin little 5×7 paperbacks, leather paraphernalia, heels, lingerie, condoms with ribs that resemble the backs of triceratops. And lubricants, all kindsa lubricants – lubricants ta ream the asshole, peppermint-coated lubricants ta make a blow job nice and tasty, lubricants ta… you get the hang.
You name it and La Sexie Folie has it. La Sexie Folie is French for ‘sex madness’. There it is. You can see it in the pic up there.The store used to have DVDs but who watches DVDs anymore, when Pornhub is around.
Sex stores are legal in Canada. Situated in perfectly respectable neighborhoods, they are looked at the same way you’d see a liquor store or a tobacconist. You walk in, browse the shelves, purchase a dildo for your lady that you can stick up her ass while your fingers are playing Dr. Livingstone with her pu…that cat word. I can’t say it, I am too straight-laced. Pick up a 12-pack of those triceratops condoms and you walk out. Its just like you went in and bought cigarettes. No furtive embarrassed glances to see if anyone recognizes you. No darting behind the back shelves when someone you recognize walks in.
In fact, the whole subject of sex is so matter of fact in the west. At the same time, sex is a very important portion of daily life. Relationships break up because “the sex wasn’t fun”. Friendships are made purely to engage in sex. The word “fuck friend” is common. It denotes a relationship that, by mutual consent, will never progress beyond sex. Over here, great sex does not require an emotional attachment. And vice versa.
It is so easy to find a sexual partner here. As long as you dress decently and don’t behave creepily, you can literally walk up to a woman and tell her you are interested in her and “is she free this evening? Trust me, she won’t consider the approach inappropriate at all. If she is in the mood she’ll go right along with you and leave the next morning and you’ll never hear from her again. Period.
At work, it is normal to hear a female colleague say things like, “ugh, he is such a fucking pussy. I bet he has a peanut for a dick”. Or if its a Friday afternoon, “God, am I waiting ta get laid tonight …”. No one will bat an eyelid to that. When Kayla, over in HR, threw an engagement party, she made us all pause because she wanted to say a few words and she said, “I love Gaetan and I am excited about getting married to him, but…. his is the last penis I’ll ever touch again and that’s scary…” and everyone burst out laughing.
Here’s the thing. Even though developed western nations are open and unhindered by tradition or taboo, not a single one of them figures in the top ten list of countries that view pornographic content on the net. A 2015 PEW study had Qatar, Kuwait, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, China and India in the top ten.
Here’s the other thing. Believe it or not, the nations that view adult sites the most also happen to be the most culturally and sexually repressed, with the highest instances of sexual assault per capita. In countries like Bangladesh, India and Pakistan that treat porn as taboo, a little girl has nearly a 50% chance of being molested before she reaches her teens, as per PEW. Which means that one in two girls there has a story to tell – of an uncle, a grandfather or even a father who reached under her dress and played with her or put her hand on his genitals. At the same time, these gents would consider establishments such as La Sexie Folie to be decadent, sinful and immoral.
My first time in a sex shop was right there at La Sexie Folie. Freshly arrived from conservative hyper-hypocritical India, I was so embarrassed to be seen inside, I felt as if all eyes were on me and I wanted to just melt into the floor. As I slunk around the aisles, I noticed that it had just about everything that had anything to do with sex, in it. The range of dildos amazed me. There was a long double-ended dildo that could…. ah forget it. Just know that there are double ended dildos on this planet and leave it at that.
I gradually loosened up when I noticed folk walking in and out as though it was just another store. The store was manned by just one person at the counter – a fetching young brunette. She was dressed in a revealing but not overtly vulgar dress. It was the sort of attire that might help create the atmosphere and make customers want to buy sex stuff.
At the check-out I got to know the girl a bit. Lisa works here part-time. Curiosity got the better of me and I struck up a conversation with her after I overheard her advising a male shopper on the right kind of vibrator to pick for his wife as a birthday gift.
“Is she tight?” Lisa was asking the guy, a 60-ish man in a baseball cap and jeans.
“Nah, my Stephanie is big as a barn. By that I don’t mean she ever let a horse in there,” the man said and they both, Lisa and the man, dissolved into peals of laughter.
The brief exchange made me feel sort of exhilarated. This was not some shady joint, tucked away in Kolkata’s Free School Street, a back street maze of shops that survive by paying off the neighborhood constable and specialize in raunchy stuff that are considered taboo. This was a regular commercial establishment, freely engaged unhindered, in the sales of pornographic merchandise, protected by the law. As in any store, like a clothing store, the manager was simply serving a customer. It blew my mind. It was the moment in time that I first realized I would love living in my adopted country, unburdened by bullshit hypocrisy and faux correctness.
Lisa is pursuing her Masters in Criminal Psychology at McGill and intends to join law enforcement, probably the RCMP’s Behavioral Sciences unit, the one responsible for investigating serial killings and violent, random crimes.
She told me she has never ever experienced being bothered by any customer. Just some giggly pre-teen boys and girls during the summer break. They left after she firmly asked them to. Entrance is restricted to 18plus, by law.
Here, as elsewhere in the west, sex is something that is normal, matter-of-fact and considered an inherent and necessary part of daily life, certainly nothing to be hidden away. It is normal to find couples browsing through the DVD shelves together or picking up and feeling the skin of a dildo or trying on lingerie. There is no bouncer keeping an eye on customers or looking out for the counter girl. The atmosphere is genial and open and the thought of misbehaving just doesn’t cross anyone’s mind.
We had been chatting for a while when I realized it was almost 5, closing time. I picked up my purchase, an orgy DVD, from the counter and made to leave. The DVD was titled ‘Man maid’ and the cover had a beautiful woman dressed in a maid’s uniform that was unable to hide a richard peeking from under her skimpy skirt, that looked like a giant anaconda. (I chose it because have this recurring fantasy about having sex with gorgeous girls with massive richards).
As I was leaving, I saw a tall young man in a suit and crew cut, rapping against the plate glass show window, from the outside. He had a toddler by the hand and the kid had his arm wrapped round the man’s thigh.
“Someone is trying to draw your attention,” I said to the girl, gesturing toward the window.
“Oh, that’s Kyle, my boyfriend and our little Jeremy. We’re taking him to Kung-Fu Panda-4.” She smiled as she blew a kiss in the general direction of the window. Matter of fact, mundane, another day in the life of a law-abiding female blue-collar worker who is simply looking out for her family.
Can La Sexie Folie open up a branch in Jhumritalaiya anytime soon? I doubt that.
There is no question left in my mind that we need a new God. The old one isn’t working anymore. We have developed a God-resistance, like you get antibiotic-resistant.
Quite early in my life, I took pains to see that I had very little to do with any holy scriptures. Most holy books fall over each other trying to tell us what evil really is. I was born a Hindu and as I grew, the concept of goddesses with ten arms and gods with elephants’ torsos began to seem laughable to me. I grew to know yet other gods whom our epics themselves depict as fallible and petty, with just as many human frailties as us humans.
Over the years, Hinduism has begun to seem more like an Asian version of a JRR Tolkien series, than a religion. While a billion of my compatriots in India have chosen to go nuts over it, I have decided not to. When they sat mesmerized in front of their TV sets for two hours every Sunday morning in the 80s, tears streaming down their faces watching the great epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, the roads would be devoid of traffic and the city took on the look of a ghost town. While they sat glued to their TV sets, I biked to the park, rolled a joint and listened to ‘shine on, you crazy diamond’ on my Walkman.
At one point, my late mother – a pious Hindu – told me that I had to make the effort to become a believer and I asked her why. Then, when I met my wife, who is a Shia Muslim, I was curious. To please her, I tried to adopt her faith but I realized that it went one step further. It combined Hinduism’s ludicrousness with it’s own single-minded murderous zeal. My wife felt my disenchantment and never mentioned it further. Amen.
There is a belief that the world really began to grow less and less violent after the 6th century BC and that it was due to the advent of organized religion and philosophical study.
To the east, Gautama Buddha first set the ball rolling, around the 500 BC. Buddha held that true moral purity arises from freeing oneself from material desires and petty squabbles through meditation and living an ethical life without being hurtful and resisting the temptation of coveting what does not belong.
Around the same time, 2300 miles to the north-east, the Chinese teacher, politician and philosopher, Confucius emphasized personal and governmental morality, humility in social relationships, justice and sincerity.
Buddha and Confucius were followed a few centuries later, by Jesus Christ. While the two Asians were low-key and stayed under the radar most of the time, Jesus arrived with a bang. (Oops, actually without a bang. His mommy, Mary, was a virgin). Be that as it may, Jesus came with bells and whistles, shooting stars, frankincense and myrrh. And a luminescent disc behind his head that he couldn’t ever shake off. When he turned his head it bobbed, momentarily caught off guard, but settled back behind his head once he stopped moving it.
When Jesus moved from Galilee to Judea, it was not the most oppressed region in the world at the time, by any means. Rome had been brutally crushing revolt and enslaving thousands in North Africa around then. At that very moment in time, 7000kms to the east, ethnic cleansings, torture, enslavement, rape and murder of commoners by officials of Qin and Han Dynasty China were the norm. 4000kms to the north-west, conquering Norse hordes were making landfall on the Suffolk coast, raping and looting, grabbing women and children for slave labor.
And yet, we didn’t see a Swahili-speaking mahdi in Luxor or a Mandarin-speaking wise one at Tianjin, or a blonde Gaelic prophet preaching to the masses in Northumbria. God chose a small postage-stamp sized region with a combined population of just 15000, to send in his messiah. Why?
The conquering Romans were willing to let the residents of Judea live their lives the way they wanted, as long as they submitted to the authority of Rome. They did not burn their temples and neither did they murder their rabbis. In fact, during Emperor Tiberius’s occupation of Judea, trade and commerce improved vastly, spurred by the stability brought on by the security that the mighty Roman military provided. In an otherwise arid land organized agriculture flourished, thanks to the Romans’ ingenuity with irrigation aqueducts.
The Roman empire lasted 700 years because they built secure societies in captured territories and instilled law and order for the first time. We like to curse the Americans for encircling the world in a choke hold of 800 military bases, but we do not realize how much stability that has brought and how big a boost global commerce has received from it. Imagine land grabs like the annexation of Crimea happening every other month and you would imagine a world without the American omnipresence.
Now, I am not suggesting that there was no persecution under the Romans or under the rich Meccan Merchant kings. Of course there was persecution and there was slavery. Heck, slavery at the time was the norm, like owning a Toyota Corolla. Everybody had one. Kids got slaves for their birthdays. Toys-R-Us must have been called Nubians-R-Us. Even those nice, curly-haired beacons of western civilization, the Greeks, had slaves. Even slaves knew they had to be slaves. I swear even slaves had their own slaves, somewhat like Tier-2 suppliers.
But given the violent times in which much of the world lived those days, the people of Judea were probably better off under the Romans than they would have been under the Mithradatans, the Scythians, the Bythnians, the Greeks and the omnipresent and vicious nomadic tribes that roamed the grasslands, burning and pillaging everything in their way.
Judea was by no stretch the hot spot, as regards persecution and yet the Lord chose it for the prophet Jesus Christ to deliver the wretched masses. In any case, Jesus began to spread this altogether new concept called ‘love thy enemies’. Initially everyone thought he was nuts. The ‘civilized’ world till then, had known only wars, subjugation and misery. Boy, he must have sounded exotic, like Steve Jobs and his first Ipod.
Be that as it may, I doubt that the world is now less violent because of organized religions. Rather, I think it is less violent in spite of organized religion.
I think the reason why we have more order and less violence today, in terms of percentage violent deaths, is the awareness that has emerged out of scientific progress. I don’t have the data but Harvard Psychology Professor, Steven Pinker, does and he has quite eloquently expressed his arguments in his The Better Angels of our Nature.
We have all had the experience of reading about a bloody conflict, a suicide bombing or a shocking crime and saying, “What is the world coming to?” But Steven Pinker asks, “Wasn’t the world far worse in the past?”
Here’s my understanding of what Pinker’s book says…
Pinker’s research shows that neolithic humans killed each other with much greater frequency than today. At least 25% of all deaths those days were through violent conflict. Tribal warfare around the third millennium BC was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. In Medieval times, the murder rate in Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadism in incarceration and frivolous executions were mundane daily phenomena of life for millennia. Fucking hell, those days you were born with PTSD.
Developed nations no longer wage wars between themselves, the last time that happened being 70 years back. And in the developing world, wars kill just a fraction of the people they did a few decades ago. Statistically genocide, rape, hate crimes, deadly riots and child abuse are all substantially down.
Today, deaths caused by violence amount to just .03% of all deaths worldwide (As per Pinker. I haven’t checked the stats).
What led people to stop sacrificing children, stabbing each other at the dinner table, burning cats, drawing and quartering criminals alive as forms of mass entertainment and even eating each other? The key to explaining the decline of violence is understanding the inner demons that incline us toward violence and the better angels within us that steer us away.
Those better angels led us toward the spread of government, literacy, trade, cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism. Increasingly, we have grown to control our impulses, empathize with others, bargain rather than plunder, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence.
Pinker, in short, says that we always had it in us to be good. We just didn’t know it.
Things have however taken a turn for the worse. Physical violence might have lessened but there are other forms of violence in the world today, pernicious forms of evil such as ‘economic violence’, the evil that is perpetrated by the rich over the poor, by organized crime through untaxed wealth, through corruption and embezzlement. Involuntary negligent violence like politicizing a pandemic.
Oh yeah, the world is not only in need of a new God but it is in the need of a new messiah as well. Let him be a wise, good-looking Bengali messiah. There is only one and I happen to know him intimately…….. me. I can already feel the glow of the shiny disc behind my head. Wish I could somehow unstick it so I could use it as a car seat warmer in winter.
From where I live, the US border at Plattsburgh, NY, is a mere 40-minute drive. Our neighbor, Vince and his wife, Tricia, shop down there frequently. Oh yeah, everybody over here goes down south of the border to shop. Even for groceries. The last time, Vince and Trish came back with all sorts of stuff. I saw even a stalk of broccoli leaning wearily against the rear window of their SUV, looking fatigued like kinda,’ are we home yet?’
South of the border, stuff are dirt cheap as compared to Canada. Right now a CAD is 0.76USD because oil has tanked, but the prices down there have always been way below ours, even after currency conversion.
There is a law that has been ready to be tabled at the US Congress since the late 19th century awaiting debate, named the “Canada Annexation Bill of 1866”. It proposes to annex Canada by force as the 51st American state. If the law is taken up and passed, prices in Canada will crash and I will get Kleenex at $1.29, oh yeah. Those depending upon social services would suffer, though. Canada, a welfare state, splurges on the unemployed and the have-nots.
US border towns like Plattsburgh have the look of boom towns. They exist for one purpose only – catering to Canadian shoppers. At Plattsburgh malls, Canadians are treated much the same way a Las Vegas casino welcomes high-rollers. The same thing plays out at the other border crossings at Burlington, Stanstead and elsewhere. (Remind me to tell you about Stanstead. There’s a library there that sits on the border, one half -some shelves, tables and chairs – inside Canada and the other half inside the US. The border, a black band, runs across the middle of the floor).
So, I was telling you about how Canadian shoppers are treated like royalty in the US border towns. Of course there is a limit to how much each person is allowed to get through Canadian customs without having to pay duty, but there are ingenious ways by which one can show the customs agents their middle finger.
Suppose you have set your eyes on buying new tyres. At Plattsburgh a set of new 16” Toyos is less than half the price in Canada. Now you don’t drive all the way just to get tyres. You buy other stuff as well and before you know it, you’ve crossed your limit. If you are an idiot, that is. Otherwise, when you leave home, you take the ready-to-scrap tires that your neighbor was anyway throwing away and he helps you put them on.
You go buy the new tires at Plattsburgh and switch them right there with the active connivance of the dealers. They can’t say nothin’ to you at the border. Want an expensive jacket? Just wear it back. As long as you don’t have a beard and aren’t muttering “allah-o-akbar”, you’re cool. The border agents aren’t stupid of course. Once I remember an agent mentioning to me in a heavily accented southern twang, “How come you ain’t got no noo tyres?”
After I had my new tyres installed, I had nothing else ta do. I ambled around the sprawling Champlain Centre Mall and strolled through the Walmart, Target and Best Buy stores. These are gigantic outfits, each store spread over acres and acres.
The Champlain Centre Mall is so huge that you can barely see the roof of the Target store from the Walmart, due to the curvature of the earth. Kidding. I get carried away and lie all the time when I’m writing my blog. Don’t ever take my words to the bank. But its my blog, so I’ll lie whenever I want ta.
Anyway, there I was, minding my business in the land of the free and the prosperous, the kick-ass surgical strike capital of the world and I was enjoying it. I went into a bar and ordered a beer and a turkey-bacon club with a side order of fries. It was delicious. Costed me peanuts.
I was doing a little more ambling when I passed a Gander Mountain outlet. Leaning against a wooden stand at the display window was a belt-fed Browning machine gun, pretty much like the one you saw Arnold Schwarzneggar pack, in Commando.
Canada too has gun stores. There are in fact three within a block of where I live. But you won’t find stuff that resembles artillery in Canada. Canada is much stricter and doesn’t allow either “conceal carry” or “reveal carry”. I own a Lapua Magnum with scope but as per Canadian law the gun, along with it’s .338 ammunition, has to be inside a locked case in my home. I am allowed to transport it but only inside that locked case and only to and from the shooting range or the designated hunt zone for which I have been issued a tag and permit. And I can do the hunt only for the designated game during a season designated for that species. Caribou season is now on, until End-September. I did it once and if you behave I’ll tell you all about it in my blog at some later date, when I feel like it.
So, like I was sayin’ , Canada strictly regulates the use of firearms. I have a firearm license and a hunting license but that does not cover hand guns. For that I need a special waiver. No such rules exist in the US. You can just walk into a Walmart or an outfitter (hunting goods retailer) and walk out with any gun you please. In America, you can buy your son a 9mm Micro Uzi for his 13th birthday and he can fire it as long as he is in the company of an adult above 18.
So, here I was passing the Gander Mountain outlet. Just like every other store there, this one too was massive and at the very end, behind all the outdoor gear, was a narrow section with a long counter on which there were at least 30 handguns of varying caliber and make, lying on their side in a long line. At the far end of the counter there were 10 Uzis and Armalites, also on their sides. I gaped, my mandible dropping to the floor with a crump.
I’m sure these guys can smell a Canadian a mile away. “Lookin’ foah sumpn?” boomed the rotund man behind the counter, looking me straight in the eye and sizing me up in a glance. If you are a gun retailer in the US, you have got to be a good sizer upper of body language, if you don’t want to suddenly gain weight. Lead weight.
“No..I..umm..er..I was just kinda lookin’ around..” I stammered.
“Look all you want, they ain’t goan nowhere.” You have to love the way Americans speak English, kinda rolling the words around before saying them. He was staring down at some receipts, probably doing his taxes or something. Then he straightened and moved down the counter to a shelf from which he picked up a handgun, placed it on the counter and gave it a shove. The gun came slipping and sliding across the full length of the counter top and came to rest, bumping against the back of my right hand. I immediately recoiled at the touch of the cold steel.
“Go ahead, pick it up. It ain’t loaded,” said Humpty-Dumpty. I reached out and picked the gun up gingerly. It felt surprisingly light and on close inspection, it didn’t appear metallic at all. I curled my fingers round the grip and snaked my index finger through the trigger guard.
“Glock33. Takes three fifty seven SIG. 9 shots. Tritium illuminated night sight. Semi-automatic.” (Americans don’t say ‘automatic’. It’s ‘awrmaric’).
“Its so light!” I exclaimed in amazement.
“It’s not steel. It’s a special polymer patented by Glock,” he replied. He was leaning against the counter and regarding me with amusement.
“How much is it?”
“Five hundred but I’ll letcha have it faw foah cash, plus a coupla boxes of ammo, seein’ you’re a reg’lar gent and all.”
“Do I need to show you any papers? I’m Canadian.”
“Far as ahm concerned, you could be hooky doo, I doan care. Just a piece of ID shoan you’re over ayeteen, that’s it. No forms, nuthin’. You walk out with this baby, no sweat. ‘Course I can’t say about those dumb asses at the border though.”
“But if I remain here in the US, is it legal for me, a Canadian, to have a Glock?” I was beginning to fill with amazement.
“Shore it is. The law is simple – everybaady, and the guvmint means eeeeverybaaaaady, has the right to bear arms.”
“Thanks, I guess I have seen enough guns for a while. Have a great day.” I straightened up to leave.
“No problem, bud. Just drop in anytime. In fact if you weren’t in a rush, I’d show you this little mother that came off the cumpunee depot just yesterday.” He reached inside a drawer and his right hand came out with a nasty piece of work about a foot long. Shining silver, it had a long long barrel and a rotating breech like those colts you saw in westerns.
“Taurus 357 Magnum, 9-shot semi-awrmaric. You could kill a moose with one shot,” he called after me as I walked out. I kept walking. Ah the poor American moose, they don’t stand a chance.
I was back at the mall parking lot when a Camaro convertible sighed to stop just next. A blonde got out. Wrapped around the girl’s waist was a holster with a large gun, probably a Smith and Wesson .44 like the one Dirty Harry had. She walked with a thumak-thumak like swagger and disappeared into the Gander Mountain. I wondered whether I should wait to see if she walked out with the Taurus. I felt my richard stir inside my pants as I watched her. A gun-toting woman can be a huge turn-on.
The girl had a halter top on, one that must have weighed ten milligrams, give or take a milligram. It had straps that spiraled up over her shoulders, like DNA, only the straps had less molecules in them, I swear. Would I lie to you?
Now that’s more palatable for peaceniks like me – the right to bare….
If you are going caribou hunting in the Canadian Tundra, read this before you leave. It might save your life.
Foremost, you never call it a hunt over here. It is a ‘harvest’. You are going to harvest a deer, not kill it against it’s will. This is a wildlife conservation country. You conserve by killing, oh yeah.
In the west, you learn to couch your words. Forcibly kidnapping and transporting for the purposes of torture is rendition. Cancelling a supplier’s contract without reason, just because you can, is making a usage decision. The list of humans that are chosen by the CIA for targeted assassination by drone strikes is the disposition matrix.
But I like calling a spade a spade. It is a hunt you have chosen to go on. You will be killing in cold blood a living being who never did you any harm.
Let me digress a bit here. This is called an ‘aside’ when a genius blogger veers slightly off topic, with a view to enlighten…
Australian moral philosopher, Peter Singer, speaks of ‘bio-ethics’ in his book, “Animal Liberation”. He asks us to imagine a really intelligent orangutan like say, Clyde, in the 1978 Clint Eastwood movie “Every which way but loose”. Clyde, a highly trained orangutan, acts like he is human. Even untrained Orangutans are known to be very intelligent and to display human-like emotions.
Now, compare Clyde with a child with Down Syndrome or a cognitively impaired woman stricken by Alzheimer’s. It is quite possible that Clyde might trump the above two humans in all those qualities that we take pride in as setting us apart from animals. And yet we would treat that child with Down Syndrome and that woman with Alzheimer’s with far more deference than we would treat Clyde.
So here’s the question – is it okay to stalk and kill an animal to eat it’s meat or simply for the sport, because we can? One argument is yes, it is okay to kill animals. Our digestive systems and taste buds are attuned to eating meat. We have evolved to be more intelligent and be smart enough to snare and consume. It’s the ‘cycle of life.’
The opposing argument asks us to imagine this .. ‘We men are physically stronger that women and if one assumes level of intellect between genders to be equal, men should be considered superior, so why should women have equal rights? Take slavery. Surely, there is no question white colonists were smarter than the black African natives – just as we humans are smarter than other living beings. If it is okay to hunt, why should slavery be condemned? Why shouldn’t the ‘cycle of life’ argument also apply to slavery?
My aside is over and if you still want to go harvest some caribou, read on..
It is September – caribou season, a one-month window when the Quebec Ministière de Forêts, Faune et Parcs permits you to hunt caribou. The period, coming just before the mating season begins, is well chosen. It is the time when the prey, getting horny and wanting to fuck, practices the least caution and emerges out in the open. It is the period when an animal is most vulnerable, easiest to kill.
Yeah, there is a designated season for everything. The MFFP designates the season for the type of device you can hunt with, the species, the number and even the gender of prey. The hours when you can hunt are restricted – usually a half hour before sunrise to a half hour after sunset. The zones where you can hunt, the kind of vehicle you can use to travel inside the hunt zone, when and where you can use hunting dogs or falcons, every tiny aspect is regulated. Break those regulations and you are looking at hefty fines upwards of $5000, confiscation of your firearm, license and even your truck and gear and worst, a ban if you display dangerous negligence.
Then there are the ‘random draws’. If you are a resident local, you can enter the random draw and win a tag to hunt one adult female deer or moose, over and above your regular quota of tags. Otherwise, hunting females is banned. You could also win a tag to go hunt inside protected wildlife reserves that teem with prey. That is permitted when the conservation folks at the MFFP deem it necessary to cull.
Notice that I keep referring to the word ‘tag’. A tag is a permit additional to your regular hunting license. You need to have the hunting tag on you when you are on a hunt. Non-compliance can land you in serious trouble if a ranger catches you without a tag. One tag gives you the right to harvest one animal. It is a piece of paper that specifies all the stuff that you can do, such as the type of game (deer, moose/elk, bear, boar or antelope). It is a form that has boxes on it that you’ll need to check if you kill an animal, the date and time of the harvest, the location and the sex and other descriptive features of the prey (eg: the number of points on the antler, etc).
The widely accepted way to mark a tag is to punch out (make a hole with your knife) the sections corresponding to the correct information pertaining to your hunt. So when someone says he “punched a tag” or “filled a tag”, it means he had a successful harvest. If a hunter says he had to “eat his tag” it means that he was unsuccessful, ie: instead of eating fresh wild game he is stuck dining on his permit. “Mmm, yummy tag sandwich…”
So, let’s say you punched your tag. Now you need to present the animal along with the duly punched tag at the nearest designated ranger station and the ranger will staple the tag to the animal’s ear. Up until then you are not permitted to decapitate the animal.
Wait, you’re not done yet. Load the animal back on your pick-up truck and drive to the boucherie. The boucher (butcher) will wait for the rigor mortis to pass which takes around 24 hours. He will then ‘dress’ the animal, which means skinning and removing the innards. Afterward, he will hang the animal up by it’s two hind hooves, inside a refrigerated room where the temp is maintained at around 0°C. He will leave it hanging there for around 5-7 days, to break down the collagen and allow the meat to age and gain tenderness and flavor. 2-3 decades prior, they left carcasses hanging outside in an unheated barn or shed but Septembers are a lot warmer now, so the fridge room.
After the visit to the boucher, you are done. Get back home and celebrate with a bottle of wine the fact that you murdered a living being who, given the option, would probably have liked to live on.
Let’s check out your weapon. You have brought along your TenPoint Viper. You have chosen well. A cross-bow is noiseless, except for the click of the latch and the twang of the string, hardly audible and easily drowned out by the howling wind. At 60 yards, the crossbow’s range might seem little but that won’t be a problem since the caribou don’t seem to mind it if you get real close.
So you get close, rest the barrel on something hard, aim and let loose. The Viper won’t start a stampede. A gun might.
I remember the last time I used my Viper. It was on a moose hunt in 2016. The doe didn’t know what hit her, dead before she hit the ground. The bolt had pierced the left shoulder and exited through the right, not forgetting to bore a neat hole through her heart. After it exited, the arrow went on flying through the air with barely diminished momentum, disappearing in the brush beyond. I located and retrieved it, buried upto the fletching in the ground twenty feet beyond, it’s jagged saw tooth titanium point flecked with bone and sinew.
Now lets backtrack to the caribou. A close cousin of the more popularly known reindeer, the caribou has the same magnificent antlers but is larger and heavier, adults sometimes weighing in at around 350-400lbs. Dressed and cleaned, a caribou will provide you upwards of 100lbs of fresh succulent meat. You won’t need to go to Costco for 6 months.
The other basic distinction is that while the reindeer can be domesticated, the caribou cannot. You won’t see any pet caribou but go up north and nearly everybody has a pet reindeer or two. The caribou is also the only deer species to have antlers on both, the male and female. In other types of deer, females do not have antlers.
Unlike the moose or the whitetail, caribou roam in large, tight herds of hundreds, sometimes thousands. And like any beasts that live in a herd, they are way dumber – misled by the faux security in numbers. It makes them easier to kill. From the hunter’s perspective, there’s no thrill in the chase. A caribou herd is too closely packed. There are just too many of ‘em. All you need to do is aim in the general direction and you’ll have your allotted five kills.
But nature has given the caribou an even chance at survival, a compelling one that keeps them from being hunted with the same gusto as the whitetail and the moose – it is their habitat, a barren forbidding sub-zero expanse where the sun never sets in summer and never rises in winter, where if your frozen fingers fumble to cock your rifle or latch your crossbow bolt and aim within a few seconds at an approaching bear or wolf pack, it may turn out to be you that is the prey.
We have gotten too used to our creature comforts. Today’s hunter doesn’t want to fuck around in the -20° cold and face the very real possibility of losing the tips of his fingers and nose to frostbite, when he can just drive an hour east of Montreal and get a nice juicy whitetail, tag and register the kill, drop the animal off at the neighborhood boucherie and be back home by sundown. After 10 days, you drop by the boucherie and collect your 80lbs of succulent venison, in the form of neatly chopped and shrink-wrapped portions, take them home and stick them in your basement freezer. The whole hunt will cost you less than $200 including gas.
In comparison, a caribou hunt is a $15000 grand adventure, a northern safari, thousand miles from home, on barren land hundreds of miles north of the tree line.
The first goal on a caribou hunt is not to punch your tag. It is to make sure you have the tools you need to survive the elements and get back home alive. Besides your Viper, bolts and paraphernalia, you packed your Bushnell Trophy binoculars, Galvatron flashlight, Nikon Weatherproof, battery packs and truck charger. And sunscreen and chapsticks. Dry skin and sunburn are omnipresent above the 60th parallel. Then there is your ‘peepee and kaka stuff’ – toilet paper and baby wipes.
You could pack a handgun, like a lightweight Glock, for emergencies(like frisky bears and wolf packs), but be aware that handguns are banned during season. But if you weigh the risk of being mauled against a fine, you would choose being fined wouldn’t you? A Glock however is not an absolute guarantee. It is just a fighting chance – if you broke your ankle and you’re lying in the snow, your back resting against a granite outcrop and you are trying to figure out how long it will take to drag yourself to the truck which is idling just beyond that ridge over there and at the same time, you are watching a large brown bear (otherwise known as ‘Grizzly’) approach, the chances he will get to you first and hurt you real bad are very high. It will have to be a head shot, right between the eyes, if you want to come out alive. Personally, I practiced at the range at Dorion for that eventuality, before I went on my one and only caribou hunt.
And medication. Pack a suitcase-sized first-aid kit that has, besides wound dressing paraphernalia, pill bottles of Tylenol(pain), Imodium(diarrhea) and Dramamine(motion sickness). Dramamine, because the rides (including the hair-raising ten-seater flight to the destination) are bumpy.
And chocolates – lots of Mars, Coffee Crisp and O’Henry bars. Nothing like chocolates to quell hunger and keep you warm.
This is the Canadian Central Barren Ground, otherwise known as the Tundra. The caribou here are the almost white “barren ground caribou”. If you choose to hunt a little ways down south, but still above the tree line, you’ll come across the slightly dirtier-grey “woodland caribou”. Both species do not believe in migration. Dumb as doornails that they are, they just stay put and wait for you to come get ‘em. Here September is late fall.
Your Casio Rangeman says its 2pm and the temp is -20°C with wind chill. By late November it will have crossed -40°C. You have been outside the shack two hours and already the tips of my fingers and toes are numb and you are beginning to lose feeling in your feet, even with your fancy thermal socks on. That is a sign that you don’t have much time left before you have to get back inside the truck.
You are 20 miles south of Whapmagoostui, a Cree native American village (population : 20) at the edge of James Bay, the little spit of water which makes the 500,000 sq.mile Hudson Bay look like it is sticking its tongue out at the rest of Canada.
Tundra Adventures, the outfitters, had provided the charter flight to haul you over to the nearest airstrip at Kujjuarapik from Gaspé, where you had left your F150 at the parking lot of the Auberge sous les Arbres hotel. For 15,000 smackeroos you got a fully stocked shack at the site, a skiddoo (snow mobile), a Toyota Tundra with 100 free gallons of gas (ten bucks a gallon thereafter), a satellite phone and an insurance policy (subject to having a valid driving permit and hunting license). The policy included a free airlift to the nearest emergency ward, wherever that might be. Of course, you would have to be able to get your frozen fingers to dial the emergency number on the phone. Frostbite and hypothermia are unforgiving to fingers.
The Pilatus PC-12 with it’s single Pratt and Whitney PT-6 turbo-prop had been a scary flight. The forbidding sight of the terrain 12000 feet below was scary – sapphire blue lakes and snowy white pines, little patches amid a horizon to horizon expanse of white nothingness. If the Pilatus went down in there and you somehow survived the crash, you were a dead man for sure. Even a satellite phone wouldn’t save your ass in time for the medevac to arrive.
There had been six others in the charter flight, four hunters just as insane as you and two local Cree businessmen. The four were hardened arctic hunters – thrill seekers who had done this multiple times and got a kick out of, much like the American alpinist, Dave Hahn, who kept going back to the Everest, fifteen times between 1999 and 2013.
You learned that the four had always hunted in a group, but you are alone. Lone Daniel Boones are rare and they command a certain respect in the tribe. The four admired your spirit for that reason.
You are of course stupid to be alone. The Tundra is singularly unforgiving toward folks who venture out into the wilderness alone. The chances of your making it back in one piece, not frost-bitten and not bear-mauled, are less than four in ten when you’re alone. You won’t hear a bear coming until it is lightening your weight, removing pieces of skin and flesh off your back. If its any consolation, he won’t eat you. Bears don’t enjoy human flesh. He will just want to maul you to death, that’s all.
Or say your Toyota Tundra broke down on the hard-packed ice thirty miles from Whapmagoostui. Or maybe you just switched off the ignition, inadvertently. In the Tundra you don’t switch off the ignition. From the time the outfitters handed you the keys to the truck, right up until you hand them back three days later, the engine will be running, non-stop. You just have to keep gassing it up, time to time.
But it can happen – the Toyota is a machine after all – and when it does pack up, that is another way to die in the Tundra. For that reason, Caribou hunting is always done in groups of at least four, in two trucks.
Another reason for the multiple hunting buddies is you are permitted by law, four caribou per person and you’ll get your four kills within the first couple of days, easy. But if you are alone, what are you going to do, carry their 300-lb bulk all on your back all the way to the truck? And if you have shot two at the same time – when you’re back for the second carcass, there’ll be just blotches of blood left on the snow and a pack of twenty timber wolves, a welcoming committee waiting to tear you to pieces.
But then you are just that – a loner – and you are prepared to face the challenges that come with being one. The 18-round Glock in your jacket won’t save you from a wolf pack. They will keep coming at you. But it will scare away a bear for sure.
I just happened to be on a bench a coupla feet from the boat that was bobbing on the gentle swells. Maybe you can’t read it but it said “Ladyshores G-43” on the hull. The boat was all mahogany and chrome, 1950s vintage – round and about the time I graced God’s earth with my birth.
A Canadian flag fluttered in the cool 24° breeze. The owner was probably having a late brunch with his lady love in one of the string of bistros and pubs behind me.
As I sat there I kept refreshing my broker’s page. All the stocks that I din own were skyrocketing. Apple had just overtaken fookin Saudi Aramco as the most valuable fookin company in the whole fookin world. If stocks continued ta plummet, I might have ta grow a beard, change my name and go live in Timbuktu.I was overextended, if you know what I mean.
As I sat wondering why the fuck I didn’t own a boat like that, a young couple in their 20s stopped in front and began admiring the boat, taking pictures, stooping to touch the chrome like they were dreaming.
I was right next, so the man turned and jerked his thumb at the boat and said,”Yours?”
I was high. Had a few pints of Stella Artois in me. When you’re old, doesn’t take much ta get you high.
Feigning extreme bored annoyance, I nodded and said,” Won it in a crap game in Marrakech.”
“Oh yeah?” Intrigue, distrust, awe, skepticism.. his expression, as in any youngster, had it all.
I intensified my bored, exasperated look and making my voice sound as gravelly Humphrey Bogartish as I could, I said, “I had a Ch’kamba and the other guy had a Sotta and he was broke. He noted the Glock34 in my waistband and handed over the keys to his boat, without ado.”
They looked at each other. You could see them labouring through the analysis of my statement. The girl hesitated, before saying,” Where’s Marakesh?”
I gave her a withering ‘where u bin?’ look and said, “ Morocco”.
“How did you ship it here?” The guy had his mouth….agape, like.
“Din ship it nowhere. I sailed back here in the fookin thing…”
When an elderly man ambled over and boarded the boat, the couple stared, their heads swiveling between the boat and me. The man gunned the engine and it went, “Badda bidda badda bidda”. The geezer pushed against the jetty with a pole and the craft turned and sped off in the mist.
I grinned a disarming grin at the couple and man scowled, pissed. The girl grinned back. Was there an invitation there? Maybe. Hugh Hefner had affairs with 20-year olds. And I’m better looking.
Wimin are turned on by humour. Wimin can definitely take a joke.
“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”
The words of the 8pm CBS Evening news anchor, Scott Pelley’s words seemed to fade out, while and another voice dovetailed in, his voice. His. Arjun Das’s. It said…“……I have this insane urge to hold you in my arms…”
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 baffled 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?”
Sukumar looked up..“If Mladic is actually pronounced Mladich, why can’t they just step up and add the ‘h’ to their names, for Christ’s sakes?” 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 it. 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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.