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.”

Adultery – Screw it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus’s response was a startling admission. That there may be in the crowd those that lived within the constant presence of sin in their daily lives. Sin = Evil. That was exactly what the Dalai Llama must have meant. Once again, I completely agree.

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

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

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

Be that as it may, no one came forward to cast that first stone and so the adulterous young lady was set free. The Bible doesn’t dwell upon what happened next. Did the woman say “Phew, that was close” and then return home and beg her husband for forgiveness? Or did she run back to her adulterous fuck friend with a new-found confidence from the fact that nobody could touch her now?

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

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

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A homage to imbeciles

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“Simba, being brave doesn’t mean you go looking for trouble…” – Mufassa (The Lion King)

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Swiss female adventure tourist in her 30s, gang raped in Chambal, India 2013, being escorted by Indian female police officers for a medical check-up. (Photo courtesy : AP)
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You must have seen it in the news. For a week in March 2013, it merited page-1 on most digital news sites….“Swiss female tourist, 39, gang-raped by six men in dense Indian forest while her husband was beaten and made to watch…”

Here’s how it went down. The woman and her husband were on a “cycling tour” of India somewhere in the vast province of Madhya Pradesh. Let’s take a deep breath here and pinch ourselves to ensure we are actually reading about someone, a foreigner and a woman, biking through India for fun. There, I just pinched myself and felt it. So, unless I am in a Matrix-like state, this must be happening.

So there they were, the Swiss woman and her husband, all charged up, adrenalin pumping when they decided, why not just turn north and keep cycling for another 250kms and go see the Taj Mahal? Hey, these are just pitiful little illiterate coloured people, what harm can they possibly do to us?

And besides, why the fuck not? Miss Swiss and her hubby liked to be known as adventure tourists, brave folk who liked living on the edge, whose idea of a fun vacation was attempting something potentially life-threatening, in only those places on earth from which they might not make it out alive, places they have never been to before. As it turned out, it was a decision that they would live to regret.

At the end of the first day, they decided to stop and spend the night near a village that was surrounded by dense forest. Around 9:30 pm a group of men popped out of nowhere and broke into their tent. First, they beat up the husband real good and tied him to a tree. Then the men made him watch while they gang raped the woman repeatedly through the night. When they had had enough, they robbed the couple of everything they had and melted into the night. The couple were lucky to be alive and except for bruises, physically undamaged.

The route the Swiss couple had chosen took them through a region that is acknowledged as one of the ten most lawless places on earth – Chambal, in Central India, an arid and underdeveloped stretch of land as large as Quebec, that is riddled with poverty, corruption and patronage. It has a regional legislature where the line between the law-makers and the law-breakers is so blurred that you’ll think you have cataract when you look at them. The rich landowners rig elections and rule like feudal lords. Geographically, Chambal is as remote as Timbuktoo, in 1700AD.

The lawlessness has bred a certain demographic that is found in abundance at Chambal – dacoits. Bollywood has made movies on them. “Mujhe jeene do(1963), Mera gaon mera desh(1971), Pathar aur payal(1974), Dacait(1987), Bandit Queen(1994), Paan Singh Tomar(2012), Sonchoriya(2019)…. need I list some more? Should I be biking along tra la la la, in joints bandit movies are made about????

Trust me, if Donald Trump wanted to find a true example of a “shit-hole” region, Chambal would be numero uno, no question about it. If you are a tourist, you would have to be an imbecile with an IQ less than 2 to attempt a bike trip without checking out Chambal as a route to cycle through, even if you happen to be male. There are folk over there who would bugger you just as soon. Just to confirm, I cursorily googled Chambal lawlessness before I began writing this post. The first article that popped up was “The curse of Chambal” – The Telegraph, April 07, 2013. There was enough material there to make the hair at the nape of my neck stand up in horror.

If I listed all 195 countries of the world according to “bike-for-fun” safety and security in descending order, India would be very near the bottom of it, rubbing shoulders perhaps with Mali or Chad. The hazards that I am likely to face biking in India are very real. No one has ever heard of separate bike paths. If I am female, specifically female and white, there will be creepy local males stripping me naked with their stares. The exhaust pollution from decades old ramshackle lorries overtaking me will be choking. The potholes are so deep that if my bike and I hit the bottom, a Mexican farmer on the other side might hear the thud and cry out “Hola!!” And there’s of course the free-for-all traffic ethos among both, the educated and the illiterate.

Mathematical genius and philosopher, René Descartes (1596-1650) wrote in his “Discourse on Method of Rightly Conducting Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences” began by saying…..

“The power of judgement, which is called ‘reason’ or ‘good sense’, is of all things among men, the most equally distributed, for everyone thinks he is so abundantly provided with it, that those who are the most difficult to satisfy in everything else, do not usually desire a larger measure of this quality than they already have. The diversity is in the way we utilize the reason we possess.”

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I always thought that the Swiss were really smart folks, not only possessing in abundance René Descartes’s ‘good sense’ and ‘reason’ but utilizing them to their maximum. Stealing millions in cash, gold and art that had been originally confiscated from Jews by the Nazis and left in Swiss bank vaults at the end of the Second World War, that took real smarts. Pioneering the concept of a repository for no-questions-asked ill-gotten gains from around the world, stashed away in numbered accounts, that was brilliant. Switzerland is not a rogue criminal state. It is just a bunch of poor white guys being resourceful.

What takes the Swiss into the realm of pure genius beyond anything that even Descartes could have imagined is the way they project themselves as a pink-cheeked, cute and cuddly nation with it’s picture-perfect hills, it’s Bollywood film song and dance locales, it’s chalets, it’s cheeses, it’s pastries, it’s chocolates and all those other innocent things that we associate with only the Swiss. Man, that requires brains, oh yeah, real brains.

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I am wondering what Miss Swiss’s next adventure ‘project’ is going to be. Maybe she’ll want to cycle from Pakistan, across the Hindu Kush into Taliban-controlled Kunar in Afghanistan where she’ll strip down, discard her bike and streak across downtown Kunar in the nude. My eyelids promise to remain unbattable in her honour.

Am I being insensitive? Yes I am, but not to the general plight of women who are victimized in spite of trying their best to be safe. I am being heartless toward the stupidity of some thrill-seeking alpha folks.

The gang rape was unfortunate and nothing can justify it, not even stupidity. But it was entirely avoidable and in that, she does not deserve my heart-bleed. After all, wasn’t it the thrill of a lifetime that she had been after? Yes it was. The sensation of getting out there into the great wide unknown was an acid trip that she had chosen to have and she got what was coming to her, period.

There are many others like the Swiss woman and her husband – like those inexperienced, untrained accountants, gym instructors, librarians and ex-policemen, all of them trying desperately to prove they are worth something when they doubt it, those who liken themselves to real alpinists and throng the slopes of the Everest in May each year, only to die of either pulmonary edema or from being squashed under crashing seracs or simply disappearing into a crevasse, never to be found again, left behind as permanent frozen monuments to stupidity.

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Do you post or text nude photos of yourself? Apparently, celebrities like to do just that, oblivious to the existence of a demographic called “Hackers”. Superstar Jennifer Lawrence (top, centre) leads the pack. She is smart enough to earn $20 million a film and stupid enough to have her nude photos plastered all over. I am betting she has Swiss ancestry.

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Okay, that’s enough about dumb Swiss tourists. Let’s go to dumb Hollywood stars.

In 2014, hackers, aware of an iCloud security issue found in the Find My iPhone app used it to access the phones of hundreds of celebrities. A Python script, posted on the net, allowed bad guys to target any iCloud account with a brute force attack – a hacker jargon for a rapid barrage of attempts at endless combinations to guess the password of an iTunes account until the right one is found.

Apple has apparently patched this security issue since then. Now the brute force attack will stop after the fifth unsuccessful login attempt, leaving the owner of the iTunes account unharmed as long as the password isn’t discovered in the first five tries.

As to those celebs, here’s how they reacted when images of their private parts that they had willingly posted and texted were plastered all over the internet  –

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“It is a sexual violation. It’s disgusting. The law needs to be changed, and we need to change. That’s why these Web sites are responsible. Just the fact that somebody can be sexually exploited and violated, and the first thought that crosses somebody’s mind is to make a profit from it.

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“It’s so beyond me. I just can’t imagine being that detached from humanity. I can’t imagine being that thoughtless and careless and so empty inside.”

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“To those of you looking at photos I took with my husband years ago in the privacy of our home, hope you feel great about yourselves.”

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This is obviously an outrageous violation of our client’s privacy. We intend to pursue anyone disseminating or duplicating these illegally obtained images to the fullest extent possible.”

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“It has come to our attention that our private moments, that were shared and deleted solely between my husband and myself, have been leaked by some vultures. I can’t help but be reminded that since the dawn of time women and children, specifically women of color, have been victimized…..”

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Sure, my heart bleeds for them. What kind of imbecile would text her nude photos through an internet that is known to leak like a sieve? We now know the kind.

Or are they really being dumb? Maybe they want to be discovered. Celebs thrive on discovery and sensation, no matter how shrill their complaints may be about their privacy being intruded upon. Narcissistic and insecure, they enjoy taking sexy pictures and showing themselves off.

In the entertainment industry, any publicity is good publicity. Celebs repeatedly barter their nudity on hundreds of movie screens in front of total strangers and that does not bother them even a bit since it is art and their looks and their other physical assets are commodities in a lascivious marketplace.

Before all this broke I knew not a single one of these stars, except maybe Jennifer Lawrence who is a middling star at best. Now I’ll remember most of them. They are now guaranteed at least face recognition, if not by name. If I see a movie poster that has one of them, I am not likely to turn away. I am likely to buy the ticket and walk in. They have achieved what they all aspire for. We are the dumb-asses feeling sorry for them.

Non-celebs do the same thing but here lies the difference – they are mostly teenagers who haven’t gotten to know any better. Peer pressure, combined with some kind of brazen and rebellious innocence drives them to show themselves nude online. And if they are not teenagers but older, invariably they bare themselves with a clear intention to titillate. Here are some of their reactions……

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“I like the feeling of knowing I’m desired, by strangers even. It’s empowering. When I post naked pictures of myself, I rather enjoy the thought of my boyfriend or fuck-friend jerking off looking at my photos. Ha! The best is when they admit to it”.

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“Wanna know why I do it? Because it gives me confidence in myself and it makes me feel good and it does not always lead to a difficult situation.”

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“I don’t know what religion you are, but if you’re Christian you should be willing to share. Asked over and over again, Jesus said that our primary objective was to “love one another”.”

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Yeah right. A celeb veers off toward racism and victimization and a non-celeb sees Jesus in all this. If I try hard enough maybe I can connect all this to Higgs Bosons.

Sometimes I am tempted to let it all hang out myself. You know, post nude pics of me on the internet. If I wasn’t 65, with a weatherbeaten richard, I probably would have. No, I’m kidding actually. I’m a bit too straight-laced for that sort of thing.

“Meanwhile, Jennifer, I loved your photos though I don’t go for your kind of baobabs. They resemble pyrus communi (European pears). Melopepo are my favorite fruit. Oops that was Latin again, for melons. I break into Latin when I am turned on. Your nudity hasn’t changed the way I see you and your other celeb pals – as nothing but a bunch of stultus mulieribus

The Savage

Austrian alpinist, Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, scaling the Bottleneck at 8200 metres, well inside the Death Zone, the most dangerous stretch of the climb to the summit of K2. (Photo courtesy National Geographic Magazine, April 2012)

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In the far north of Pakistan, deep inside the Karakoram Range which forms a sort of natural barrier between Pakistan and China, is a small hill that has a monument on it, an earthen mound with a cross and a thin tin plate nailed to it, with a name embossed by hand on it, possibly with the point of an ice pick – “Art Gilkey(USA), RIP, Aug 10, 1953, Avalanche”

In the seven decades since, that hill has become home to hundreds of such monuments and the reason for that is the mountain standing next to it, another mountain, a behemoth that seems to pierce through the clouds and reach high, right into the heavens.

The makeshift monuments are a grim reminder of what it is like, to challenge the behemoth, the mountaineers’ mountain, the killer mountain, the mountain with no name…..K2.

The only way to reach K2 from the west is to catch a flight to Pakistan’s capital city, Islamabad and hire a Jeep and drive to a tiny picturesque town called Askoli. There is an alternative that could take a lot less time – a 1 hour flight to a town called Skardu and from there, a drive to Askoli, but flight schedules get cancelled at short notice pretty regularly due to weather.

So let’s assume you chose the drive. You will have to be careful not to blunder into Indian territory since it’s close. You’ll actually be driving in an arc, skirting the Line of Control with India in order to get to Askoli. At some point you’ll get onto the Karakoram Highway, the only paved road that leads through the Karakoram Range into China. A technological marvel, the 1500km long highway is the highest paved highway in the world , with spectacular bridges spanning deep gorges and long tunnels. Some call the Karakoram Highway the 8th wonder of the world.

After a while you’ll get off the highway, take a right and head for Askoli, where you‘ll stay the night at a lodge and then, at first light, you’ll begin your trek to Base Camp. The drive took you three days in total and now the trek will take you 10 more days and it will be a trek of a lifetime.

Around the 7th day of your trek, you are on the Baltoro Glacier. The mule trains and porters ahead of you are picking their way through this treacherous ice field of cracks and crevasses and creating a trail for you to follow. Over here a shattered kneecap or ankle, from tripping over all those loose boulders and you’ll forget the jaw-dropping scenic beauty, while the helicopter airlift and hospitalization sets you back $30000.

As you inch forward, large walls of ice that weigh tousands of tons, called seracs, loom above you. Seracs are what cause avalanches, when they gain more weight through snowfall than they can bear, ultimately breaking loose, to tumble down the mountainsides like a thousand freight trains all at once, obliterating everything in their path.

As you pick your way through the rocky floor of the Baltoro, around you are mountains, not just any mountains, but tall peaks rising thousands of metres, mountains that are tall enough to have their own names – Paiyu Peak, Great Trango Tower, Cathedral Towers, Muztagh Tower, Mitre Peak, Sia Kangri. Among them, towering even higher are some 8000Plus metre peaks – Broad Peak, Gasherbrum-II and Gasherbrum-IV, the 12th, 13th and 17th highest mountains in the world. And if you look beyond, across the glacier to the left, you’ll see K2 in the distance, towering over everything else – the 2nd highest peak in the world.

As the shadows lengthen at the end of the 7th day, you are at Concordia, a chaotic, boulder strewn field that is at the confluence of three glaciers that flow around the base of K2 – the Baltoro Glacier, the Abruzzi and the Godwin-Austen(a.k.a Qogir). It is a breathtaking 360° panorama not witnessed anywhere else in the world. The locals call it “The Throne Room of the Gods”.

Concordia, the Throne of the Gods, with K2 straight up ahead

You spend the night at the “Throne” and begin your scramble forward on the 8th day. Another stopover further ahead and on the 10th evening, you are at the Base Camp. You are breathing a little harder. It is 16400ft above sea level here. But you made it. It has been a half of a mini Himalayan expedition.

The Base Camp is nothing more than a bunch of tents belonging to the various expeditions, a few toilet tents and a couple of medical tents, with a doctor specializing in high altitude medicine. The Base Camp doctor is usually a member of an ongoing expedition, present there on a strictly voluntary basis, his expenses paid for by his service

The most popular tour package among macho thrill seekers round the world is the 4-week K2 Base Camp package. For $30000, they’ll take you up to the Base Camp, acclimatize you on the way, with many overnight acclimatization stopovers and then let you spend a few nights at Base Camp. You’ll hobnob with experienced alpinists getting ready to make their fifth or sixth summit attempts, take autographs and then the guides will bring you down.

If you are lucky you won’t get HAPE during the time you are at the Base Camp – High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, an often fatal affliction that fills the lungs with fluid and asphyxiates to death, unless given immediate medical care in the form of a pressurized, hermetically sealed oxygen tent. (HAPE can happen at altitudes above 8000ft, which is well below the Base Camp height).

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No one knows why the world’s second tallest mountain didn’t get a decent name. It was designated Karakoram-2(K2) by one T.G.Montgomery of the Geological Survey of India around 1856, when he was logging peaks in the Karakorum Range as ‘K1, K2, K3…’ and so on. The second mountain in his list happened to be K2 and Monty simply left it at that.

K2 has other names that accord it a certain degree of respectability. The Chinese call it Qogir Feng , meaning ”magestic mountain”. Likewise the Tajiks, the Tibetans and the Pakistanis have their own names, all expressing awe – Dapsang, Chogori, Lamba Pahar and so forth. But to the world at large, it remains simply K2. A much lesser peak – situated 32kms from the K2 – the Masherbrum, which is a puny 7821 metres by comparison, has been logged as the K1, as if to deny the Qogir it’s rightful place at the top of the Karakoram peaks.

But it is easy to understand why the K2 is so despised by alpinists who make the trip from distant lands to attempt to conquer it. They almost never making it on the first attempt. In fact they consider themselves lucky if they are alive after even a failed attempt. Straddling the border between Pakistan and China, the 8611-metre behemoth is well known as the mountain where one in every four climbers has died, attempting either to scale the near vertical faces or descending from them. Only those who are trained rock and ice climbers rolled in one, can successfully scale it. If you are trying to break trail at 20000 ft on the K2, if you happen to be the one fixing the ropes, the terrain over which you are moving is hard rock and ice, steep – with a 60° slant that is so smooth, that a sudden gust may simply flick you off the face in an instant.

To experienced Alpiners, K2 is known by just one word, The Savage. You don’t conquer the Savage. She simply decides to tolerate you and if you don’t promise to make your stay a short one, she makes you a permanent house guest. The Savage is a testament – to bravery and futility, ambition and failure, to the fatal attraction for a beast like none other.

At 28250ft, the K2 is just 750 ft lower than the world’s tallest peak, the distant Chomolungma, better known as Mount Everest. Although it is second highest, K2 is actually a longer climb than Everest, if measured base-to-peak, not sea level to peak. It has a far larger base-to-peak height, which means that you have to climb more. The Everest may be taller, but it’s base – the base camp from which attempts to the summit begin, is already at 17600ft. In comparison, the K2’s base camp height is only 16400ft. The K2 climb is therefore 1200ft longer. That 1200 ft means two hours more at the Death Zone, a term that alpinists use for heights above 8000 metres.

Easy to sketch for even a six year old, because of it’s near perfect Euclidian isoceles shape, K2 is a quintessential mountain. K2 also belongs to an exclusive club known as the ’14 sisters’, the 14 tallest mountains in the world, all situated on the Himalayan Ranges and all above 8000 meters (26000ft).

If given a choice of mountains to die on, Alpine high altitude mountaineers prefer K2 over the others and there’s a reason for that choice. On the other peaks, an accidental fall can be short – maybe you’ll come to rest on a crag or a ridge a few hundred meters below, crushed but still breathing. Death will be slow. That won’t happen on the K2, where your ultimate ride is going to be a long and painless drop – all the way down to the Qogir Glacier. You’ll of course be dead long before you hit a serac on the inching glacier, having been choked to death by icy wind rushing past at terminal velocity.

K2, a near perfect isosceles triangle, with the Qogir glacier in the foreground.

Picture this……….

You have crossed over, up into the Death Zone. At that altitude, rescue has never been successfully attempted. You know you have to either make it out of there on your own steam or perish and remain, perfectly mummified in the cold for the next five thousand years.

But you are Gerlind Kaltenbrunner, an accomplished alpinist, in fact one of the best in the game. A few years back you conquered that peak over there to the south, Broad Peak, one of the ’14 sisters’. Cruel, but not as deadly as K2. Nothing, not even Everest, is as deadly as K2.

You have done it all and come out unscathed. This is your seventh attempt at K2 and by God you’ll get her if that’s the last thing you ever do.

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It’s your turn and you are breaking trail. You are around 15 metres above and to the left of the others in your team of three. You started at 2:30am local time And it’s now nine in the morning and you are in the Death Zone. The sun is up, its a clear day, the horizon a turquoise blue and the wind – the deadly wind – is almost non-existent. The wind seems to have lost interest in you and you are thankful for that.

But you know that the weather on the Savage can turn swiftly on a dime. It’s the reason why this is your seventh summit attempt. High up on K2, there are no long stretches of good weather. Your visibility can get to zero very quickly and in the white out, you won’t see rocks falling from above, large boulders that can crack your skull or dislocate your shoulder or simply flick you off your perch like a backhanded swipe from an angry giant. Being injured anywhere on a Himalayan peak can be a death sentence but you are climbing K2, where any small injury that hampers movement is certain death.

The snow under your boots is frozen so solid that driving your front pointed crampons in requires real effort and you can slip from the recoil. A -60° windchill and even a 40kmph wind can easily pick you off the slope if you’re not tethered adequately, but this morning the windchill is only -30° and the wind just a breeze. The incline is approximately 60° and it is a straight, uninterrupted 20000 ft drop from the narrow ice ledge over which you are inching forward.

To lessen the weight, your team is climbing without oxygen and tents. You have packed bivouacs which are special lightweight sleeping bags that you can breath through without accumulating moisture. Trust me, at that altitude you wouldn’t want moisture.

You stop to drive a piton and an ice screw into the ice a few inches above your head, feeling your left crampon slowly sink into the hard snow under foot. The snow closes around the sharp spikes of your crampon tightly. Meanwhile, you snake your rope in through the eye of the piton you just drove in and snag it to your waist. You tug the rope to let the others know you’re secure. The Pakistani guide, Mohammed Arif Khan, tugs back in acknowledgement.

You begin to lift your left boot to inch forward. It won’t budge. The crampon is set solid in the ice. You wriggle your foot a bit and give it a second tug and there’s a clear ‘snap!’ as the crampon comes loose and remains in the snow when your boot lifts up.

All your weight is on your right foot now. You take a deep breath, steady yourself and move your chin down to take a look. The crampon is set into the ice and there’s no way you can bend down to prise it loose. Even if you did, it’d be impossible to slip it on again. You turn your torso slightly to look down at the others.

The Pakistani has noted your situation and probably understood what has happened. With four previous summit attempts on the K2 and six of the fourteen sisters under his belt, he knows you are doomed. He gestures to the third member of the team, Jaegar, to halt.

That’s when you feel the snow beneath your right boot begin to give. You desperately try to grapple around in that narrow space trying to locate even a tiny hand-hold, but the ice face is too slippery and smooth. The ledge beneath suddenly disappears and you plunge. You fall 20ft before the slack is taken and the rope is taught, straining at the piton you just installed. The wind is now picking up and blowing snow off the rock face and right into your eyes as you swing free, 20620ft above the Quogir glacier.

You’re no sissy. You survey the ice face as you continue swinging, trying not to dwell on the possibility that that piton you drove in may not take your weight for too long. A little over six metres to the left and above, you see a niche around four feet wide and as deep. It’s on the far side of the others but you have no other option. You start widening the swing of the rope, feeling it abrade against the rough surface and soon you are swinging in 60 degree arcs. Your next swing brings you close enough for you to grip the ledge of the cornice and you pull yourself up into the niche. You push yourself as far back into the little dugout space as possible and are relieved not to feel the pinpricks of the blowing snow anymore.

Sometime during the afternoon, you peek over the edge of the niche. Far below, the base is obscured by a thick layer of clouds, like cushions strewn haphazardly around. You peer to the right. The Pakistani and Jaegar are out of your field of vision. They did right. They moved on, since there was absolutely no possibility of success of any rescue attempt. A helicopter extraction from a near vertical ice face in the Death Zone is unheard of and has never been attempted. The niche is virtually inaccessible to climbing, the faces on either side nearly vertical and solid ice.

You know your time is up. Your eyes stray to the luminous dial of your watch. It’s getting to 2pm. By the time the dial reaches that position in twelve hours, you will be dead.

During the afternoon another expedition passes within 50 meters of your shelter, so close you can see their faces. You watch and weakly wave as the trail breaking lead trains his glasses at you and waves back. He has obviously been notified about you over the satellite radio. The expedition moves on and disappears from your line of vision after a while. You don’t hold it against them. There is simply no way that they could come to your aid, so inaccessible is your perch.

Above the Death Zone, there are certain codes of conduct that trained alpinists strictly adhere to. First – immobility means death and you have to keep going. It is the second code which applies to your situation – if a fellow climber contracts HAPE or is injured and dying or is otherwise incapable of moving ahead, you don’t try to save him. You leave him and you try to survive yourself. These codes of conduct are strictly not the ones that civilized folks follow but the Death Zone decides what civilized behaviour is and what isn’t.

Besides, you remind yourself, this is the life you chose. It was you who decided that a life on the edge was what you wanted. You are at that edge and the game is finally up. It has been a wild ride while it lasted and your lips form a smile at that thought.

Before the sun has dipped over the the 24100 ft Skil Brum to the west, two more expeditions pass you by. They too spend a brief while peering at you. You smile back a drunken lightheaded smile. You have become something of a spectacle. You try to wave back at them but your hands can’t seem to be able to move up from where they are, on your lap. Strangely, you don’t feel the cold anymore.

When exhausted and oxygen-deprived alpinists realize they are at a point of no return, they get into a dreamlike state of complete apathy. The urge to stay put becomes overpowering, even though it is fatal to remain still. Even time seems to stand still.

You are now approaching that dreamlike, light-headed stupor. The sky is now a clearer, a deeper, darker blue. The wind has stalled. To your left, on the ice face, the trail along which you had seen the three expeditions pass you by, is no longer visible, having been overtaken by the lengthening shadows from adjoining peaks. Idly, you wonder how many made it to the top.

You stare out into the void. The view makes you catch your breath. Over to your right, around 10kms as the crow flies, seeming so near that you could reach out and touch it, is another one of the fourteen sisters, the 26100 ft Broad Peak. You note a wisp of what looks like smoke from a chimney but is in fact snow being blown off the peak by 100 kmph winds.

You remember losing Kurt on Broad Peak last August. Over the years you have lost many partners on the thirteen sisters that you have summited. This was to be your fourteenth and last. You think of the Vienna University position you wanted to take after this. And the Vienna University history scholar you’d spent last winter with. Ralf was right now waiting anxiously at the lodge at Askoli for word from your team leader. Maybe he already knows by now, thanks again to satellite phones.

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It is dark now, still clear, the wind velocity almost zero, the entire vista bathed in diffused moonlight reflecting off the snows. You are a headstrong woman and you will choose even the way you die. You stretch and start moving on your belly toward the edge, the lip of the niche. Your head clears the edge and you stare into the void below. The view is obscured by the cloud tops at 15000 feet. You swing your legs over the edge of the niche and pause for a moment as you hang.

At that moment everything suddenly clears. Like as if a veil has lifted from your mind and your heart and you clearly hear the voice. You are fourteen and it’s your father, Hans Gunther and he’s looking down at you, his face calm and composed, while you hang precariously from the lip of that recess a thousand metres from the base of the Eiger.

“It’s OK, Gerlinde, I have you. You can let go now….. Geree, let go.. Now”

You crane your neck one last time to look down at the cloud tops far below. In real life, Hans had been above you but now he is a tiny dot down there but you can make out his broad smile. You let go.

You don’t come to rest a 100 metres below in a crag, a gulley or an out crop and writhe in pain for hours before you die. There are no crags or outcrops on this baby. You sail through the rarefied air, swiftly attaining terminal velocity. You keep descending at a steady 200kmph, until you hit a ridge at 7000ft, bounce off it and come to rest on the Qogir Glacier, a full 20000ft below where you lost your crampon.

In all, the fall has taken approximately two minutes, give or take, not enough time to see your past flash by, the -30° windchill ensuring that you’re dead long before you hit the glacier and disappear into one of it’s many crevasses.

High above the inching Qogir, sudden streaks of lightning blaze through the dusk and it starts snowing, the wind picking up speed until the snow is gusting horizontally. In minutes, the world turns into a wall of thick white, as if a funeral shroud has come down and wrapped everything under it, including you.

The Savage is celebrating. The Savage doesn’t like you. And by the time the night is done, the Savage won’t be leaving any traces.

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ps:

The above is fiction. Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner summited K2 in 2011, just as she had done with the other 13 sisters. But For K2, it took seven attempts before she finally made it.

Together with Spanish alpinist, Edurne Pasaban, Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner is one of only two women who have climbed all fourteen eight-thousanders. However, unlike Pasaban, Kaltenbrunner climbed without supplemental oxygen, which makes her the first woman to officially summit all fourteen eight-thousanders without the use of supplemental oxygen.

Robber Barons and Oligarchs

This is an early Time cover photo of the world’s richest man, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Those cyborg-like eyes, the flat, unblinking, emotionless stare – they are enough to give one the heebies

It is December 25, 1991 Moscow. The stocky chubby-cheeked man walks across the hall from his Kremlin office and pauses in front of a door, his fingers absently patting the dark purple port-wine stain that has run across the right side of his forehead ever since he was born, in a hick town called Privolnoye, in western Russia. He takes a deep breath and enters a room, it’s walls panelled with pecan-coloured woodwork, with two large windows that are covered with heavy drapes. Usually this room is reserved for receiving visitors but tonight a television crew is waiting.

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev seats himself behind a heavy mahogany table and when Kremlin chimes have completed seven peals, he begins his final address as President of the USSR. In the past, most of his addresses were taped in advance but tonight he is going on air, live.

“I am ceasing my activities as President of the USSR”, Gorbachev announces, his words implying that while his presidency is finished, the USSR is still alive. Nothing could be further from the reality. In fact, by the time he has walked back to his office, the Soviet flag outside has already been lowered from the Kremlin flag pole. The Russian tricolor of red, white and blue, now secured to the end of the rope, goes up in convulsive jerks until it reaches the top of the mast and begins billowing in the sudden gust.

Back in his office, Gorbachev waits for the arrival of Boris Yeltsin, for the handing over of the devices and codes for the Soviet nuclear arsenal, but Yeltsin does not show up. Instead it is the Minister of Defence, Air Marshal Yevgeni Shaposhnikov, who explains that Yeltsin has been offended by some portions of Gorbachev’s farewell address and has refused to meet him. Gorbachev decides that there is no point in prolonging the agony and hands over the briefcase with the nuclear button to Shaposhnikov.

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics has finally passed into history – quietly, but hastily, carelessly, precipitously, without any preparation or planning.

Just a few kilometres from the Kremlin, on Mokhovaya St, nothing has changed – Moscow in deep freeze, with drab, shabbily dressed workers shuffling along in the snow, reeking of cheap vodka. They hurriedly step aside as a black six-door Zil sweeps by. Seated inside, gruff men in astrakhans stare stonily out the darkened windows.

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Moscow, December 2000. The picture hasn’t changed – the same bone chilling cold, the same shabbily dressed factory workers shuffling in the snow. Only this time it is not a clunky Zil that passes them. It is a gold Lamborghini and it eases to a stop under the porte-cochère of the Ritz-Carlton, the hotel where 13 years in the future, a certain Donald Trump will be video-taped by the FSB having high priced Russian prostitutes urinate on him.

Meanwhile, beyond the canopy of the porte-cochère a crowd gathers, eager to see who steps out of the car. The Lamborghini’s gull-wing doors open like a giant albatross stretching it’s wings up into the heavens. A chubby guy in sunglasses and enough gold on his fingers and neck to bouy up an African country’s GDP steps out and waddles in through large armored glass doors, followed by four heavily armed aides.

The man the crowd is gaping at used to be a minor bureaucrat in the USSR’s Ministry of the Petroleum Industry. Now, thanks to an old boy network that has existed ever since the time he was a paper pusher, he is worth $31 billion. He is the face of the nouveau russe – the typical garden variety Russian oligarch.

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An oligarchy is a social system that is under the complete political control of a small elite. According to the theory of Robert Michels, a German academic famed for his study of sociology in politics, social systems become oligarchical because ordinary folk find governance too complicated and generally prefer to let others make decisions for them. Those who achieve authority are then unwilling to give up the resulting privileges and prestige and thus try to consolidate and extend their power in order to keep those privileges. The first oligarchy was probably the 1st Century BC Roman triumvirate of Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus.

Oligarchies in varying forms have been in existence in almost every continent. Humans realized millennia back that it was easier to carve up and jointly lord over a territory in a small group, than to be alone at the top and have to fight off challenges all the time. My own country of birth, India, was hijacked a long time ago, by the Ambanis, Tatas, Birlas, Goenkas, Ruias, Piramals and Srinivasans of the 20th century.

The US too has had its oligarchies, though in a slightly different sense. There was no sudden switch there. From the time of it’s birth, America has been governed by oligarchs, beginning with it’s ‘robber barons’ – immensely wealthy industrialists and businessmen who reigned between the mid-18th and early 20th centuries. They made and bent laws to reflect their will and made Presidents beholden to them. They lorded over vast tracts of land and owned virtually every business within five hundred miles. Andrew Mellon, J.P.Morgan, Marcus Goldman, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Patrick Joseph Kennedy were all robber barons.

America’s underbelly too has had it’s oligarchs, starting in the early 20th Century with the organized crime families, the Gambinos, Bonnanos, Colombos, Genoveses and the Luccheses.

And lording over them all is the oligarchy that runs the United States of America – the farcical two-party Republican/Democrat political system and it’s wealthy donors and lobbyists, all together forming this rotating oligarchy, having no distinct platform or separate identity or ideology that separates them. An unarmed black man in America will be shot and killed by a police officer, regardless of who, a Republican or a Democrat, is President.

By far the most interesting of all oligarchies is the Russian kind. Oligarchy has always been a way of governance in Russia, right from the time of the Slavs, the Dregovichs and the Slovens of the 7th century, through the 75-year Soviet rule. The Soviet Politburo became a tight cabal of privileged men who governed as they saw fit through a slightly larger group called the Nomenklatura, members of which were hand-picked by the Politburo.

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Let’s go further back in time. Following the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, all land and income-producing properties, that had been confiscated and placed theoretically in trust for the nation, were placed in the hands of bureaucrats to administer. In practice, the bureaucrats began acting like the new owners and that’s how it stayed. Until Boris Yeltsin took over in 1991.

Under Yeltsin, the first item in the new Russian Government’s agenda became economic reform. But what could it do? How would it begin? It couldn’t return all the businesses and properties that it had confiscated from their owners 75 years back. They were no longer there, having perished long ago in it’s gulags. There were no claimants alive, other than the Russian nation itself as a whole.

The first decision the Russian Government took was very nobly worded in it’s press releases. “The state bureaucracy has grown inefficient and corrupt”, it announced. Henceforth, it would “empower” it’s citizens to own and administer it’s assets directly and thus bring Russia speedily into the free market economy. It would divest it’s exclusive holdings in virtually all that it owned – it’s oil industry, it’s natural gas pipelines, its heavy engineering industries, it’s merchant fleets, it’s aluminium smelters and steel plants and open up it’s financial sector to private banks.

We know what happened next. That divestment went ahead – a bit too smoothly. Boris Yeltsin delivered vast government assets directly into the hands of a chosen few. Russia was now an open oligarchy, it’s assets directly owned and administered by a few well-connected cronies of Yeltsin. The metamorphosis from communism was so badly managed that it left many ordinary Russians feeling nostalgic about communism and wondering what the struggle to be free had been for.

The emerging Russian oligarchy was replete with unbelievable rags-to-riches lives. The Yeltsin set consisted of a taxi driver, a rubber duck salesman, a komsomol functionary and a hair dresser. From living in huge rundown apartment blocks, they were now jetting around the world, having high-priced call-girls flown in to satisfy their kinky desires.

Before I introduce you to the Yeltsin oligarchs, here’s a look at Vladimir Putin’s current St Petersburg set. Arkady Rotenberg, Putin’s former judo coach, net worth $11bn, makes oil pipes for Gazprom, owns real estate, malls, ports, distilleries and mines. Yuri Kovalchuk, former Putin sidekick and neighbor, $15bn, holds a 30% stake in Bank Rossiya. Gennady Timchenko, former sales rep, Putin buddy, $20bn, 5% of Russia’s total economic output in the form of oil and commodities, flows through companies he owns. Oleg Deripaska, construction worker, now a commodities and metals trader and manufacturer worth $35bn.

The Putin set of Oligarchs

Most of these fat cats live in the wealthy ghetto of Rublyovskoye Shosse, near Putin’s dacha on the edge of Moscow, where Lamborghini showrooms jostle for space with Gucci boutiques, plastic surgeons and glitzy restaurants that charge $7500 just to reserve a table and stock $150000 bottles of vintage wines in their cellars.

The ghetto keeps things private, away from the ordinary Russians who shiver in the cold as they shuffle to and from work where they barely manage to make $150 a month. In just 20 years, Moscow has grown to have the world’s second largest number of billionaires, fully 64 of them, as per a database published by The Guardian.

Moscow is the only city in the world which hosts an annual Millionaire Fair – For a week, you can walk in and pick up a diamond encrusted cellphone for $15000, a $25000 negligée, $50000 S&M bondage set with leather and gold whip and a pearl-studded dildo or an obscenely priced mink coat. If you are musically inclined, there might be a grand piano on promotion for $350000.

The Millionaire Fair has a wine counter, selling wines so exclusive that for the price you pay, the vintner will fly down personally to uncork the bottle for you and show you how to drink the stuff. Jacuzzi-fitted executive jet sales counters and are strewn everywhere you turn. Watch where you’re going or else, you might inadvertently bump into one of the skimpily dressed blonde waitresses carrying complimentary bowls of Beluga caviar, plates of Chatka crabs, Limfjorden oysters and pickled quail eggs.

Moscow millionaire fair, where naked ostentation abounds

On paper, Putin is a modest man. The NY Times says that official documents show he has an income of about $153,000 and owns a small plot of land, a small flat and two cars, one of which is a Soviet era Lada. There are however, persistent rumors of a $1billion dacha being built for him on the shores of the Black Sea not far from Sochi, by his grateful nouveau riche friends.

Now lets get back to the original set, the Yeltsin oligarchs. They were the pioneers of the post-Soviet smash and grab. They behaved like little kids who had suddenly been given their own playrooms full of toys. They paraded their naked wealth obscenely. Villas, yachts, cars, private jets, beautiful women, you name it and it was there to be shown to the world, while ordinary Russians queued up for basic necessities, as before.

The newly installed Putin decided to first get rid of the Yeltsin set of oligarchs, before he brought in his own St Petersburg set.

Quite ironically, it was the Yeltsin set which – increasingly concerned about Yeltsin’s alcoholism, had ganged up and gotten Putin elected, thinking they could control him. But they vastly underestimating his cunning. Unlike the vodka-soaked Yeltsin, Putin – a teetotaler, was a cold, calculating hombre with a set of reptilian emotion-free eyes. The Yeltsin oligarchs would soon realize that they had outsmarted themselves.

There was Boris Berezovsky, a former functionary at the Soviet Academy of Sciences, worth $7bn, living in exile in a vast estate in England when he was assassinated on the orders of Putin. Roman Abramovich, formerly a mechanic and a rubber duck salesman, now worth 20bn, spared when he quickly maneuvered himself onto Putin’s right side. Badri Patarkatsishvili, a minor Georgian Soviet Komsomol functionary, made $12bn before he was assassinated on Putin’s orders, simply because he had been a close associate of Berezovsky. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a low-level communist party functionary before he became the 16th richest billionaire in the world and Russia’s richest. He fell foul of Putin and was packed off to a Siberian gulag where he spent 8 years before he was finally persuaded to hand over his billions to Putin’s control and set free, now worth a measly $500 million but lucky to be alive. Vladimir Gusinsky, Moscow taxi driver-turned media mogul, amassed over $500mill, imprisoned immediately after Putin came to power. Mikhail Fridman, movie theater ticket black marketer-turned business magnate and co-founder of Alpha Bank, now rolling in $15bn, like Abramovich he too managed to wiggle onto Putin’s right side. Vladimir Vinogradov, former construction engineer turned owner of Inkombank, worth $6bn, declared bankruptcy a month after Putin was inaugurated, died impoverished of a heart attack in 2008.

The Yeltsin set of Oligarchs.

Unlike Yeltsin, Putin didn’t have a vodka haze to muddle his thought processes. Things had been crystal clear to him from the start. Two things actually. One, with all their riches, Yeltsin’s oligarchs were potentially more powerful than him and therefore a threat that needed to be neutralized. Two, ordinary Russians hated them, not only because they did what they did- rob the state of its resources, but also because they were mostly Jewish. Russians have always been rabidly anti-Semitic.

Putin proceeded to take the Yeltsin oligarchs down one by one, a move that saw his approval rating among the masses, shoot up to 80%. Most of the Yeltsin groupies escaped into exile by the skins of their teeth, to England.

The British are very hospitable toward people who have a billion in their pockets. While the French and the Spanish welcome African and Latin American despots, the British love Russian oligarchs. Who do you think occupy those palatial homes in Belgravia and Kensington Palace Gardens in London? Englishmen? Nah, those neighborhoods are strictly for the ‘Bratva’. London now has the world’s third largest number of billionaires, 54 of them, as per The Guardian. I’ll bet most of them are expatriate and probably from the erstwhile Soviet Republics.

Putin’s finesse is evident from the smooth switch from the Yeltsin oligarchs to his St Petersburg cabal. There’s a difference between the two sets. Putin has His oligarchs in a tight leash. He has ordered them under pain of death to be more discreet with their cash, which may be why nobody noticed when, during the 2008 global financial meltdown, some of them saw their wealth fall to their last $100 million and there was not even a whimper in the press. (A drop in assets to $100 million is like the über-rich equivalent of hitting skid row).

The 2008 downturn however didn’t stop Russia’s oligarchs from splurging behind closed doors. When a Times correspondent asked Kamaliya Zahoor, wife of Mohammed Zahoor, an oligarch from the erstwhile Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic settled in London, about the kind of champagne she prefers, the gorgeous singer replied that she liked ‘slipping into some Krug Clos d’Ambonnay’ to perk her up after a day of shopping. The reporter assumed that the young lady meant to say ‘sipping’ and not ‘slipping’.

“No, no, I need it to bathe in,” she replied. “I fill the tub with it and just slip in. It cleanses all the toxins from my body. You should try it some time.” She actually meant it.

The Krug retails for $750 a bottle and Kamaliya’s spacious bath tub needs just 165 bottles to fill up to the overflow drain.

Kamaliya Zahoor, aiming a solid 22-carat gold shot gun while husband, Ukrainian billionaire Mohammed Zahoor, watches indulgently.

Oligarchy? By Gollygarchy!!

Perform a Miracle, get a HoolaHoop

That’s me, practicing to be a saint. First, you got ta organize a halo like mine. Doesn’t matter if it is thin and stringy. A halo is a halo. It remains in place right above and adjusts itself like a gyroscope when you move your head.
Just don’t move your head too suddenly. Bumping into your own halo is a sin. But if you’re careful and gently sway your head around, you can play with it like a ‘head hoolahoop’.

It is Labour Day, 2016. I am driving to the Hudson ferry when it comes over the car radio – Mother Teresa has been canonized a saint, after a second miracle has been authenticated – that of a Brazilian man who has been completely cured, after he was diagnosed with malignant brain tumors and given little chance by his doctors, of making it.

I am wondering how Mama T could figure in this ‘miraculous intervention’ given that she died in 1997 but I am afraid to ask. Maybe she bumped into him and blessed him when visiting Rio while she was alive and it took 20 years for the man to recover completely. Or maybe she enrolled in Johns Hopkins University after her Brazil visit, got herself an advanced doctorate in neuro-oncology, completed a gruelling internship, did her Masters and wrote a PhD thesis and rushed back to save the guy. As a ghost. She was dead by then, remember?

In case you are confused, Canonization is the process that ends in bestowing sainthood on a mortal, a recognition by the Catholic Church that is the spiritual equivalent of receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor or the Param Vir Chakra or the Victoria Cross.

There’s another recognition that the Catholic Church likes to dole out – beatification. It’s like Canonization-lite. It is the recognition by the church that a guy has entered heaven. Until the mid-1600s, just about anyone, even local bishops, had the power to beatify but in time the Catholic Church realized that complete jerks were being beatified, so much so that soon there were more assholes in heaven than in hell.

Not that one cannot be a saint and an asshole at the same time. In September 2015, Pope Francis canonized Junipero Serra, a Spanish missionary who first brought Catholicism to the natives of California in the early 18th century. “Brought” would be a very charitable use of the word actually. ”Rammed in“ would be more appropriate. Junipero Serra achieved the catholicization by brutally suppressing the native American culture and banning native rituals under pain of torture and even death.

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Here’s a few things you need to know in case you fancy the idea of being canonized a saint. The number one requirement is that you need to be dead before the procedure can even begin. Of course there is an oxymoron here – if you are dead, would you give a fuck if you became a saint or you didn’t? It is like winning a posthumous medal. Would it have mattered to Capt. Vikram Batra that he won a Param Vir Chakra at Kargil? Or Navy Seal Michael A Monsoor for his Medal of Honor at Ramadi? Of course it wouldn’t.

The other thing is that you will be among the 900+ canonized guys and gals and you’ll be in haloed company.

The first three Abrahamic saints were male – the archangels Raphael, Michael and Gabriel. While Raphael and Michael were low-key (except when they were required to slaughter sundry non-believers and assorted barbarians), the rock star was definitely Gabriel. He was the one who came down to earth and conveyed God’s messages to Mohammad on a mountaintop cave near Mecca, where he went, evenings, to reflect in peace and quiet. When I did Trichy grass in college and listened to Emerson, Lake and Palmer, I too heard apparitions with wings lecturing me. If only I had been crazy enough to compile those monologues into a best-selling book, I too would be a messiah by now.

Raphy, Mike and Gaby were the only ones who didn’t have to earn their sainthood. They were born with it (somewhat like the Dalai Llama or Nepal’s Living Goddesses). They were God’s way of advertising limited editions, I guess. They were God’s Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and Don Rumsfeld.

Last but not the least, in order to be a saint, you have got to perform at least two verifiable miracles. The most popular way to get to sainthood has been through curing someone of a terminal illness. If you think you’ll be made a saint just because you won a Presidential election, forget it. This is not the Nobel Peace Prize. That’s not the way it works.

Here lies another oxymoron – if one of the basic tenets of Christianity is the principle of ‘as you sow, so you reap’, ie: if Christianity says that we ultimately get what we deserve, then why should someone be miraculously saved without having to complete his suffering? Maybe sainthoods are God’s way of correcting errors he made?… ‘Oops, wrong guy. Mama Terry, go fix the Brazilian guy’s tumor problem, will ya?

Doesn’t a miracle set a wrong example, send the wrong message? You got tumors protruding out everywhere, tough shit, man, you musta done something wrong and so you had it coming. Isn’t that what Christianity preaches – that we must suffer for our sins, even when we do not always know what they are? There must be millions on earth, suffering the way that the Brazilian was. Why should a few chosen ones be miraculously benefited?

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Don’t get me wrong. I hold nothing against Mother Teresa being canonized. It wasn’t her idea, I am certain of that. Left to her I am sure she wouldn’t wouldn’t give a flying fuck if she was made a saint or she wasn’t. She was a great human being and the world already knows it. Does her sainthood change anything, make us revere her more, turn us into better human beings? No, it doesn’t, not one bit.

Or is it just one of those last-ditch efforts by a failing faith that is in it’s death throes, trying to prop itself up by petty self-aggrandizement? One of the things that Hitler started doing at the fag end of the Second World War was to award every (Tom)as, von (Dick)en and (Harry)hausen the Knight’s Cross with the Oak Leaves, to raise flagging morale. If I look hard enough, I am sure I’ll find that Nixon did pretty much the same thing, throwing around Medals of Honor like confetti, after sensing the failing gasps of the American military during the closing days of the Vietnam War.

I believe that if one has done something exceptional, it shall be automatically registered and recognized up above, if at all there exists an all-knowing supreme being. Attaining true spirituality means that one doesn’t care about earthly recognition, like canonization.

True spirituality does not require me to sit up and say, “Wow! Look what a great faith Christianity is! It has so many saints”! Instead, true spirituality shows me the distinction between loving choir boys and the love for fellow human beings. It frowns upon ideas like starting a GoFundMe page “Cardinal George Pell for Sainthood”.

Today, we have a world virtually on fire, consumed on all sides by racism, bigotry and hate and here we have a church that is totally out of sync with reality, busy making someone who died two decades back, a saint.

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At this point I am on the beautiful strip of asphalt that winds along the southern shore of the Lac Deux Montagne. It’s 11am and time for “Wait wait, don’t tell me”. I punch the preset on the FM button to 107.9 NPR.

The absurd madness, a.k.a canonization, is behind me.