On the Road to Jericho

Featured

‘Every day, each one of us

goes out on the Jericho road…’

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


jericho

———————————————————————–

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


It’s been a busy life. You’re a first generation immigrant. Canada has taken a while longer getting to know you, than you had expected. But you have made your bones, started from scratch, working hard at building your career, balancing your family obligations, trying to stay in shape and finding time to pursue the stuff you really love doing – reading and writing.

After ten years in your new home, your life has finally attained a little stability. Financial freedom, cars, kid through private school, his university nest egg building up, vacations, a manageable mortgage, beer and neighbors who no longer look quizzically at the way you are dressed on weekends, in your kurta-pyjamas. And beer.

Did I say beer twice? Must have been an echo.

Yet, there is this emptiness. The years are rolling by and soon you’ll be 65, an age when interesting things stop happening to you when you would like them to go on happening to you. The feeling, that you have amounted to very little and that you have made no impact whatsoever on the community at large, that feeling has acquired a studio apartment at the back of your mind.

One day you open the letter box and there is nothing in there except for this little bland pamphlet, from an organization called Volunteer West Island. Emblazoned over it are the words, ‘The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself, in the service of others’ – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

Usually you gather up all the pamphlets with an annoyed sweep and grumble,’I wish those m—er f—ers would stop dumpin’ this shit in my letterbox’ and you proceed to chuck them in the blue recycle bin in your driveway. North America is pamphlet country.

Not this time. This time you pause and you take the pamphlet home, flipping it over and over between your fingers. You fling it on your desk in the den downstairs and there it stays for a month give or take, during which time it gets pushed around the desk by the mouse and the keyboard.

Soon the pamphlet begins to age, acquiring a coffee stain here and a beer stain there (lots of beer stains actually), a few quick scribbles, a couple of phone numbers and some hasty interest calculations. North America isn’t just pamphlet country. It is also credit line, credit card debt, balance transfer and overdue interest country.

You peer at Gandhi’s words from time to time. You are an agnostic, steadily tilting toward atheism. One day, your elder bro sends you a short piece that the Indian journalist, Mukul Sharma, had posted in his column, The Spiritual Atheist, in the Economic Times. The title of the post is ‘A caring universe’. Here is an excerpt from it…..

——————————————————————

“Does the universe care about what we do or what happens to us or whether we live or die?

If we were to believe hard-core amoral nihilists who say that the universe is just a physical phenomenon with no spiritual component, that events are random and have no deeper meaning or purpose and that there are no consequences to our actions, then the answer is obviously no.

Yet, even if that were true, it certainly doesn’t mean that we can’t care about the universe because, unlike it, we have evolved into sapient creatures that are capable of wonder and love. Meaning, we can infuse it with the same whether it cares or not. In fact, with that kind of involvement on our part, who cares whether it cares or not?

If we were to do that, we could begin living in a basically spiritual universe, ordered by feelings of good and bad; a cosmic order that would in turn, underpin and motivate all our actions. It would be like a moral force where our actions have definite effects that we carry with us. In this respect, its meaning would then be close to the Hindu concept of Karma.

The notion of a moral universe would also buttress spirituality and form the basis for kindness, compassion, altruism and caring for others. This is because it places a value on human life and living things that goes beyond what seems suitable if we regard people and living things merely as a collection of atoms, and essentially no different from any other unfeeling, non-sentient structures such as rocks soil, mountains or planets”.

Like Mukul Sharma, you have chosen to believe in a moral, caring universe, though somehow you do not believe that there is a connection between religion and morality. One can be good and caring without having to lean on the crutch of religious fervor. Why, it is now well on its way to be scientifically proven that goodness and caring are actually the work of certain identified neurons in the brain and can actually be tweaked and fiddled with, through a fast emerging science known as neuroscience. It is a matter of time before a sociopath can actually be converted into a deeply caring individual (and vice versa of course), through treatment.

————————————

Back to you now and one day, pre-Christmas, on your way to work, there is this radio program calling for volunteers at St Anne’s, the Military Veterans’ hospital, a long-term end-of-life care facility, to help the 90+ year old war veterans through the especially crushing loneliness of the Christmas holidays. Numerous activities are planned for the seniors in order to keep them occupied and not dwell upon why even their own don’t find the time to visit them.

‘I have nothing special planned this Christmas’, you say to yourself. You get to your den and look around for that pamphlet. It has gotten so badly crumpled that you can barely read it. You call the number and a Ms Grenville, head of Volunteer Services at St. Anne’s, answers.

The 50% discount at the cafeteria makes up your mind.

You fill out a form and the RCMP checks you out. It takes another week for you to become a volunteer, with your own volunteer’s badge and ID. You are now one of the 12.5 million registered Canadians (that is 1 in 3 Canadians), the second largest volunteer population density after the Dutch.

The words of a 69 year old Albanian nun, standing in front of the world and accepting it’s highest honor, the Nobel Peace Price, Oslo 1979, are at the back of your mind – ‘everyday, each of us goes for a  walk on the Jericho road.’

You are a registered traveler on the Jericho road now and you are scheduled to travel that road for two hours every Wednesday.

————————————————————

“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your redemption is tied up with mine, then let us work together.”

— Lill Watson, American aboriginal activist  – to all wannabe volunteers

——————————————————

Six months have slipped by at St. Anne’s and that anguish that you constantly felt before, at a meaningless wasted life, has vanished. In these six months, you have been around a good deal of illness and even death. Witnessing the challenges residents face on a daily basis has helped you appreciate your own life all the more. You have spent time with terminally ill and senile war veterans for whom a long life is now no longer a blessing but a curse. You have been amazed at how gratefully a hug can been returned.

Besides that, volunteering in a hospital has connected you with many like-minded people, volunteers like you, men and women trying to find fulfillment. You have formed personal bonds with nurses, doctors and of course, the residents and it has been gratifying. You have been treated with a different kind of respect that is reserved for those who offer a helping hand.

Here’s what you do at St.Anne’s. You come in straight from work around 6pm. It is a sprawling complex which is easy to get lost in. You did get lost trying to find the employees’ entrance the first time, but only that one time.

You swipe your card through and get straight to Volunteer Services, which is this tiny room with a closet where volunteers hang their coats and store their backpacks and stuff. You stoop and fill in your attendance in the file that is always lying open on this table.

After you sign in you straighten and on the wall right in front are these two white boards, both having names scribbled on them. One is always full of names with numbers written next to them. Like ‘Bernard Bonneville (805) – Bingo’ or ‘Martin Beauregard (904) – Cribbage’ and so on.

If the name is crossed out it means another volunteer has come in ahead of you and taken charge of that resident. The number beside the name is the room number, 805 – Room 5 in the 8th floor. If it is Mr. Bonneville, it is his Bingo evening and you have to proceed to his room, take charge of him, wheel him down on his wheelchair, to the Bingo hall and take him back to his room, after. That’s the way it works.

Your conduct with the resident in your charge is governed by a few very strict ground rules and taboos that Ms Grenville warned you about, right at the start. Here are some of them…..

‘Almost all the residents are veterans of WW2 or the Korean War. Never talk about the war unless the resident opens the subject. ‘Latent’ PTSD is a real issue and many of these 90+ year olds are actually afflicted with it and have never known it. So, please, don’t be a shmuck and rekindle painful memories. If you plan to blog on war stories, it shall have to wait till the resident opens up on his own.’

– ‘Do not ask about a resident’s personal life unless he starts talking about it first. Most times he has no family. I mean family that cares. Wife long gone, siblings probably long dead too, children grown, with no time to visit, the desire to catch just a glimpse of them and the grand kids, all that yearning and the abandonment – it can be crippling.’

– ‘Smile and be positive, sunny and cheerful when talking to them. They crave that. Most have been enlisted men and then, after the war, blue collar workers. They love to listen to raunchy humor, no matter how old they get. Bring along a stock of dirty jokes if you want to brighten up their evenings.’

– ‘Do not get emotionally attached to a resident. Most likely he will not live long and the separation can be very painful. Do not take a resident home or out on a drive with you, even if he begs you to. If anything happens, you will be held responsible. The hospital does not cover the costs and neither does your own auto insurance.’

– ‘Some of the residents, especially the lonelier ones, will try to show their gratitude because you chose to spend time with them. It’s understandable. Aren’t we all overwhelmed when perfect strangers step forward to help us? But in your case, they might offer money as a tip or reward. Do not accept it. Remember that you are a volunteer and you are here because you want to find meaning in your own life.’

– ‘If you promised a resident you would visit him on a particular day, make damned sure that you keep that date. You have no idea how much they look forward to your visit and how despondent a resident can get if you don’t turn up. Besides it may be the last you see of him or her.’

– ‘Do not try to contact the resident’s family under any circumstances, even if the resident implores you to. His family may not welcome the contact. Call the nurse in charge of the floor and let her deal with it.’

————————————————————

“When we feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean and won’t make any difference at all, we must remember that the ocean would be less if that drop was missing.”

– Mother Theresa

————————————————————

I told you about 2 white boards and I explained about one, if you have been paying attention.

Now let’s get to the other white board.

The other board has a shorter list, with two, maybe three names on it. It has reddish orange poppies and lilies all around it. Sometimes there are real flowers, roses and cards stuck behind it. On top is written “Décédé la semaine dernière”.

Once in a while, you recognize a name. Like, today. Today there is one name on the second board that you immediately recognize and stare at in disbelief – Ron Nimitz, Corporal, RCN (Retd).

Once in a while, the no-emotional-attachment rule is fated to be broken, as in the case of Ron, a 96-year old ex-sapper. He was a dear dear little man whom you loved spending time with. You looked forward to seeing him more than he did, seeing you. Full of mischief, Ron raised hell at Bingo. “Sonuva bitch! I’ll never get the numbers! What the f—k am I doon here?” “Hey, get lost, chump, that’s my seat.” “Oh baby, come n light mah fayah.” The last one to Rosy, a 91-year old WW2 radio operator who screams back,” You shut your foul mouth, you dirty old man! Sally (**Rosy’s volunteer minder**), come here! Move me to another table, will you?”

You haven’t finished reading Ron’s name on the second board and you are racing through the corridor toward the elevator banks. You dive into an elevator that is about to go up. You get off at the 6th floor and hurry down the short distance past the nurses’ station, to Ron Nimitz’s door.

It is open. The room is empty, completely sanitized, ready to take in the next vet. The wall above his bed is bare. His beloved war photos, of his regiment and his buddies, grinning, legs dangling over the mud skirt of an M4 Sherman tank and all those family photo collages – they are all gone.

It is almost as if Ron Nimitz had been just a figment of your imagination.

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

You stumble down to Volunteer Services. You are empty. Devoid. You just want to skip and just go home.

You pick up your stuff from your locker and on the way out the door, your glance falls on the first white board. No one has picked up David Boucherville yet and you know how much he loves his Bingo. Your eyes light up and you chuckle. Dave Boucherville and his Alzheimers makes friends with you all over again, every time. Every ten minutes or so, Dave asks the same question as he sizes you up suspiciously,” You’re not Cheryl? Where’s Cheryl? Has she come home yet?” You have been taught by the nurses to answer with a cheerful tone, as if you heard him ask that question for the very first time,” Oh she’ll be here in a half hour’.

You stash your stuff back into your locker and you head for the elevators to fetch Dave.

There is a spring in your step.

——————————————————————————————

Ps:This piece was written in 2019

Check-up

Featured

At 9.45am, the waiting hall at the Brunswick Family Clinic was filling up quick.

I was here for my annual check-up. The tests were done and I was waiting to see the doc. Everything seemed in prefect order. Various body parts humming along normally. Like the PW800 turbofan. If you’re getting a business jet, insist on Pratt and Whitney engines. The other guys distribute bibles free, with their engines.

There was an old couple sitting across, a low hum of conversation coming from their direction…”Did you hear from Caroline?”…..”No, she hasn’t written in years, ever since she moved to Burnaby. I wrote about my prostrate. She never replied.”….

A plump black woman brought in a stroller and, from it she picked up a frail child, a curly haired white girl. She deposited the kid gently right next to me and sat down next to her on the other side.

“Do you wanna peepee, Katie, it’ll take a while”, said the woman. The girl’s head constantly jerked about in a frenzied, panicky sort of manner. Her eyes blazing, she tried hard to hold their focus on the woman, as they rolled around. And all the while, her face twitched and her whole upper torso swayed back and forth.

I went back to my paperback.

Now, let me tell you something about reading in a doctor’s waiting room. I try to bring with me a page turner. But here’s the thing – never bring anything that’s too racy, or else you won’t hear your name being called and you’ll find yourself being escorted out, late in the evening by the janitor. This time I had with me a John Le Carre paperback, ‘The spy who came in from the cold’. The last time, I had with me a Jackie Collins and the doctor said I had BP. Nevil Shute and he told me I needed more nutrition.

I had just gotten into the main plot around page 50, when I felt a rhythmic nudge on my right arm. The girl, head lolling around, was now trying to concentrate on what I was reading, swaying back and forth. When she saw me take notice, her face broke into a smile. A smile which was on one hand the most beautiful and on another, the most pathetic. And on a purely superficial level, hideous.

As I went back to Le Carre, she broke into a burbling hum. The black woman looked up from her knitting, her deep eyes as loving as I had ever seen.

“She’s singin'”, the woman said, “She likes you.”

“Do you want me to read to you?” I asked the little girl and she immediately became a mass of wobbles, nods and shakes, her face pushing up against my arm as she shifted her frail weight closer. After a while, it seemed not to matter, that her saliva had soaked through my sleeve completely.

I started reading where I’d left off, this time the words loud enough for the little girl to hear, “A black cab goes past but it has its lights on. Not a spy cab then. A normal cab. Driven by a brutish man, with Slavic features. I say to myself, ‘What are you waiting for, Leamas, this is your last chance….’

I read on and on, my voice practiced and well-modulated. And as my words settled into a steady drone, I realized that her movements had gradually ceased and her little curly head was now resting on my arm, completely still. I turned carefully just a fraction, to look. She’d fallen asleep. The overworked muscles had fallen silent. The face was angelic, at peace.

The nurse called out my name and I gently lifted the kid’s head from my arm. The black woman put her knitting back in her bag and carefully rested the little head on her lap. Her huge ebony black fingers ran gently through the flaxen hair.

I rose, to follow the nurse in.

Acquiescence

Featured

She was cute, I’ll hand you that.

Slightly built, she sat at the edge of the bed, her hands clasped on her lap, like they had nowhere to go. She slipped her ghunghat (veil) off, reached up and carefully undid the pins holding up her slightly messed up hair. It cascaded down in curls, over her shoulders.

Her gaze went back toward the floor, unsure of what she must do next. The bed covers were strewn with rose petals but she seemed oblivious to them.

For the moment, she was trying not to pass out, under all that bridal finery and the oppressive heat. Slim jhumkas (traditional Hindu ear rings) peeked out from under the curls. She had on, the bridal ‘mangal sutra’ that I’d tied round her neck an hour or so back, at the ceremony – a yellow braided string, coated with turmeric, with a tiny gold pendant, flanked on either side by black beads.

I recalled the wedding. The mangal sutra had been handed to me open ended, with knots on both ends, so the beads wouldn’t escape. As I had slipped my fingers behind her neck to tie the two ends together, she repeated after the priest, in a soft but distinct whisper, “You are the reason of my existence. With this thread around my neck, I shall pray that may you live long.”

As her lips formed the words, for a brief moment, she lifted her eyes to search into mine, “Who are you, Robindranath Dey?” they seemed to enquire.

The 3-day ceremony was now over and here I was, my butt on the opposite edge of the bed, still in my sherwani, kurta and churidar, the air conditioning hardly able to drive away my discomfort at the May humidity. Goddamn, why the heck does May have to be the auspicious month for marriages. Wish I had my bermuda shorts on.

——————-

Bermuda shorts reminded me of the last time I wore them, the Saturday before I left for India. It was at the ball game, NY State vs Ohio. Vicky Tannenbaum had come along and as she sat next, her left arm loosely draped over my bare thigh, her hand had snuck further in, unnoticed. While 10000 guys cheered the NYS team on, she’d suddenly dug her nails in playfully.

“Ouch, watch it, will you? I only have two of those” I’d shouted out, with pain mixed with sudden pleasure. She’d giggled, nuzzling her red head against my chest.

“Take me to your dorm, Robby” she’d whispered into my ear. Back in my room, we’d torn at each other for the rest of the day. That night had been our last together and Vicky knew it. It didn’t bother her even a bit. She was attractive, on her way through med school with a straight-A average. Her parents had an already well established medical practice which she would simply walk into, after she got her MD. And she was cute as a button. There were lots of other fish in her pond.

When we were finally done, she lay across my chest, her red curls tickling my nose and me on my back. And as she slowly wrapped her legs round my thigh and lazily rocked herself back and forth, her wetness rubbing up against me, she mused, “You’re off to be married, to a Bengali country girl in a saree and my Dad will probably like to see me wed one of those orthodox toads in a Yarmulke, with those payots hanging from either side of his head. Well, I’ll teach Mr. Yarmulke a thing or two about putting those two side locks where they tickle,” she’d giggled.

——————-

And now once again back in the present, the thought of Vicky started up a stirring within, as I found myself facing that almirah with mirrored doors, by the wall. From where I sat, perched on the opposite edge of the bed, I could see my bride in the mirror clearly, facing away, at an angle.

Her anchal (the end of the saree that’s slung over the left shoulder) had fallen and lay like a wreath round her, on the bed. She had a ‘nath’ (nose ring) on one nostril and a bala (wrist band) on each soft hand. They looked like they’d been handed down, from her mother . Her hair was still flecked with all that sprinkly, shiny stuff they chuck at you in a wedding. Her feet were beautiful. Pink, bordered by ‘alta’, a vermillion dye that Hindu women have on, after marriage. Pretty toes, some with rings on them, peeped through her slippers. Payals, probably of imitation silver, transformed her ankles into the loveliest I’d seen. Yellowish-brown mehndi lines adorned both feet as well as her hands.

Don’t know how long we just sat there, facing away from each other, on either side of the bed but it was she who broke the ice first. She brought her gaze up to me, “Shunoon, ei biye ki aapnar moter birudhdhey hoyeche?” (Did this marriage happen without your acquiescence?)

I straightened and walked to the barred window that looked out on Hazra Rd. An ice-cream wallah was pushing his cart down the sun baked lane, his head covered by a wet gamcha (wash cloth made from a thin cotton fabric), knarled feet in torn flip-flops. “Kwaliteee!” he cried plaintively.

I turned back toward her and lifted my eyes to hers’, in a slow and excruciatingly painful effort. “No,” I replied and I quickly turned back to stare out the window. The ice-cream wallah was gone, but I could still hear his cries faintly in the distance, “Kwaliteee!” By now a bunch of stray mongrel dogs had decided to give him harmony. Every time he cried out, they barked and bayed at him, shuffling a few paces behind.

Just a minute had passed, when I felt her soft hands on my shoulders. She’d risen and come round the bed, to stand by my side, a little behind, away from the window. I shivered at her touch. I didn’t turn but continued to stare blindly at the scorching pavement below.

“Then why don’t you speak with me?” she reached up and held my cheeks in her palms and turned it so I was looking down at her beautiful face, “I left my home, my parents, my sisters and my little brother. And I have made this my home…..” her voice caught and I noticed that those long eyelashes were brimming with tears.

I gently grasped her two wrists and lowered her palms from my cheeks, till her hands were by her side. And I moved away just a bit. Don’t know why, but her touch was electric. I felt safer a couple of inches away. I was more comfortable with English. But she didn’t know a word of it. So Bengali it had to be, “And you? Was this with your approval?”

She nodded, dabbing her eyes with her anchal. “My father’s decision is my decision,” she said simply, “And now, your wish is mine. Forever”. QED- Theorem and corollary, I thought. With that simple statement, she leaned against me, and broke down into silent sobs.

I reached out and pulled her to me, gently holding her fragile body in my arms. After a while her sobbing subsided and I could feel her even breath on my chest, when all of a sudden, she wriggled out of my grasp, saying, “Wait, I’ll show you something.” She went up to the whatnot in the far corner and took out an ornate box made of brass. It was a ‘paaner dibey’, a small container normally used for betel leaves, nuts and zarda (chewing tobacco).

She ran her fingers lightly over the box. “My grandma used it when she was alive. Now, it’s mine.” She opened it carefully. Inside was just one photo. It was me, striking a pose in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The one I’d sent through Baren when he came to India on his match-making expedition. “I spoke with you every day, ever since Barenda left it with us. I said to God, “Dear God, keep him safe”.

She left the box standing on the whatnot and turned, her young breasts squeezed up against my chest. An incredible warmth spread through us like wild fire, as I gently tilted her face up by her chin and said in mock severity, “My wish is yours. hmmmm. Do you have any idea what my first wish is?”

She smiled at that, feeling me harden against the pit of her stomach. With mock helplessness, her breath on my nostrils, she whispered, “No, why don’t you show me?”

—————————————–

It is 48 years now, since that first magical night. Madhu still has that box. She likes to call it her ‘treasure chest’. It has a few additions in it. Pictures of a young man, his American wife, Betty and daughter, Sona. And a young woman, with her banker husband, Tod and journalist son Michael.

And one more picture, at the very bottom, a photo, frayed with age, of a young man, much slimmer then but still recognizable now, posing in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

Tether your Camel

Featured

—————————————

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

—————————

Ruins of a Medieval church in the aftermath of the devastation of the Plague of Justinian|541-542AD| (Image courtesy:Scott Masterton/Getty Images)
——————————————-

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.
—————————————

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.
——————————————-

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.
————————————

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.
—————————————————-

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.

———————————

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.”

Objectified attachments

Featured

—————————————-

Overheard…..

“Sometimes, when I grab a coffee cup from my cabinet, I will pick one that’s in the back and never gets used because I think the cup feels depressed that it isn’t fulfilling it’s mission of holding coffee.”

“I used to work at a toy store and if anyone ever bought a stuffed animal I would leave its head sticking out of the bag.. so it could breathe.”

———————————————–

object

A friend once told me, “I feel bad for inanimate objects, all the time.” I confessed to her that I did too. I have an old heavily scratched water bottle I am unable to discard. Even though I have replaced it with a newer one, it lies at the back of a kitchen cupboard.

Why is this? Why do some of us sometimes sense a pang of guilt while throwing a pair of worn-out shoes in the garbage bin or neglecting to wear an old shirt with a frayed collar that’s been with us a long time? We know these things do not feel joy or loneliness and yet, every now and then our emotions inform us otherwise. Perhaps this is the result of all those Disney films featuring a motherly teapot or brave little toaster.

History however suggests this behavior predates any cartoon depiction of household items with people-like personalities. From the worship of idols to an animistic worldview, various cultures from around the world have long believed that material objects either contain spirits or possess some kind of special connection to us.

Take Galileo for example. The spacecraft “Galileo”, that is……

Galileo had been aptly named. Carried into space by the shuttle Atlantis, in 1989, Galileo performed a finely choreographed series of loops – one around Venus and two around the earth – maneuvers that in Nasa parlance are known as ‘Gravity Assist’. Gravity Assist is like a slingshot, meant to increase velocity – necessary to enable the two and a half ton, schoolbus-sized spacecraft to reach its goal – Jupiter.

Six years later, Galileo arrived over Jupiter and fired it’s thrusters to slow it down and it parked itself into an orbit half a million miles above the stratospheric storm clouds of the gas giant. There had been life threatening glitches on the way but this artificially intelligent robot had listened to the commands from it’s rapidly receding masters and it had come through unscathed.

Like the astronomer whose illustrious name it bore, Galileo scored many firsts. The first flyby of the irregularly shaped asteroid named ‘243Ida’ and the discovery that it had it’s own moon. Gravity-Assist flybys of the Jovian moons Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. The discovery of liquid water bubbling and frothing under the icy crust of Europa and the realization that Europa might harbor life in some form. (Arthur C Clarke had seen water under Europa two decades prior in his “2001 – A space odyssey” but that’s another story.)

Galileo sent back grotesquely dramatic video of active volcanoes on another Jovian moon, Io, erupting and ejecting plumes of basalt and sulfur hundreds of miles into space, the pictures having much greater resolution than the ones that Voyagers I and II had sent back more than a decade earlier. Then came the unbelievable real time video of the comet Shoemaker-Levy, slamming into Jupiter’s 90% hydrogen atmosphere and breaking up into multiple fireballs, leaving huge vortex-like holes in Jupiter’s clouds.

And many more. Galileo was designed to last 8-10 years and the scientists at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory would have been satisfied if it had conked out by 1997, the year that the mission was officially scheduled to end.

But Galileo was just getting warmed up. July, 1995, right after it had injected itself into Jupiter orbit, Galileo released a probe, which plunged into Jupiter’s thick atmosphere and by the time it’s parachute had slowed it down, it had transmitted to Galileo 58 minutes of invaluable data on why Jupiter is what it is, for onward transmission to earth, before succumbing to the punishing heat and atmospheric pressure.

By early 2003, Galileo itself had completed all its mission goals (and some) and now it was time to put it down. On September 21, 2003, it was commanded to fire a ‘de-orbiting burn’ and once again it faithfully obeyed. The de-orbit burn caused it to slow down to the point where centripetal force overcame centrifugal force, drawing it inward, into Jupiter. It hit the upper atmosphere at 174000 mph and disappeared into the thick soup forever. 26 years after construction had first begun, the talkative robot finally fell silent. The Galileo-Jovian Project was over.

Immediately following Galileo’s demise, a funny thing happened. Let me back up a bit.

The engineers and scientists dedicated to the mission had been young, in their late twenties and thirties, when Galileo had been first conceived and started being built. Trials and tribulations, marriages, breakups, deaths, disease – they had gone through it all, buoyed by the intensity of their commitment to Galileo’s success. They had cheered at each milestone – delirious with awe at the Shoemaker-Levy spectacle, stunned at the evidence of liquid water sloshing around underneath Europa’s icy crust, laughing hysterically at the oddity of watching a piddly asteroid with it’s own moon and the many other firsts that Galileo had achieved.

Now here they were, three decades later, in their middle age, 365 million miles from their ‘baby’. And they were watching it die. Scientists and engineers – from a dozen nationalities and ethnic backgrounds, men and women – stood up from their consoles and hugged each other, sobbing openly, overcome by a sense of loss that comes with bidding farewell to a loved one, as Galileo – for one last time, faithfully on command – plunged into Jupiter.

—————————————–

Ever since we have existed, we humans have always attempted to form attachments toward everyday objects that have become a part of our lives, in part because we are loving creatures and affection is in our nature. Love is a fixed part of our species needs. When we are small, it is the teddy bear or the security blanket we couldn’t live without. Remember Linus, in ‘Peanuts’, clinging on to his blanket and sucking his thumb?

As we grow, we fall in love with all sorts of objects in our daily lives. In my case, it’s the old beige corduroy jacket that always seems to lift my spirits the moment I slip it on. Or my first car in Canada, a 1998 Corolla that had to be constantly coaxed into taking me where I wanted to go, but still came through when desperately needed – like in a snow storm on Highway 20 in the middle of a February night. The car was so dear to me that I had even given it a name – Bertha.

Or even the house I grew up in…..

I remember deciding to make a trip to Durgapur, while on a visit to India in 2010, just to see with my own eyes the two-storied bungalow that we had lived in, six decades back around 1964. It was here that my life had changed. It was in this house that, as a 10-year old, I had watched helplessly as my father picked up an old leather slipper that everyone used to go out into the slush during the rains and then proceeded to slap my mother’s face repeatedly with it. The repeated ‘thwap thwap’ has remained a never ending audio gif inside my head.

The bungalow had a run-down look. A middle-aged woman opened the door. She appeared to be alone, except for a maid who was sweeping the passage floor. When I told her I that as a child I had spent many years in this house, she let me in.

I wandered from room to room, touching the windows, the walls, while the memories flooded in. For a while, the woman followed me room to room but when she sensed me begin to cry, she paused and silently went back into the hall.

I found myself in the bedroom that my two brothers and I had slept in. I walked to the window and stared down at the grassy patch outside and I felt I could hear my Ma calling from the kitchen window…”Jobbu, that’s enough of playing, now come on inside and go over your school bag and see if you have everything. School starts tomorrow”.

The window sill over which I had flung Ma’s treasured Ganesha out in rage (because I was caught bullying the neighbor’s daughter and had been made to sit in the corner), that window sill appeared not to have changed one bit, though I could barely see over it then, even on my tippy toes. Later on, Ma told me she would never have guessed where the marble idol had landed (in the bushes outside), had it not been for the Krishna figurine teetering on the ledge. I had taken out my anger on multiple gods, but the fact that I have grown into a well-adjusted adult proves that Hindu gods don’t hold grudges.

———————————————

For the men and women who had nurtured Galileo, seeing it plummet into Jupiter must have felt like they were euthanizing a family member. For three decades, Galileo had been a part of their daily lives.

Without doubt, inanimate objects are just that – inanimate. Or are they? After all, we haven’t yet fully grasped what reality really is, have we?

 

That Christmas

Featured

That Christmas

The following was narrated to me over a period of a week the summer of 2012, by an Indian man from Kolkata who had settled in Montreal in the early 60s. For a brief while, we lived at the same apartment block. He spoke these words as we found ourselves on a bench in the Westmount Park. Its not verbatim and I did embellish it a bit, the way I rig almost all my posts. It is my blog and if I want to embellish, I will.

So here is Gaur Ghosh’s story…..

A month or so after Shanta passed on, in May of 1969, I began going out with the Culvers for breakfast every morning at the Tim Hortons, the one down by the ESSO pump, on Sherbrooke West and Grand.

I’m referring to Irv and Sally Culver, recent retirees like me, living on the same floor, down the corridor, by the fire escape.

At first they felt I was lonesome and needed company and that’s why they invited me to join them at Tim Horton’s for turkey bacon sandwiches one morning, early July 1969. They must have liked the experience because they insisted on having me around everyday thereafter. I felt comfortable with them and came to enjoy those outings.

There was a certain freshness to the early morning hubbub and the rustle of newspapers inside a Tim Hortons. Bright young counter girls, steaming hot coffee, the muffins and of course, those awesome toasted sandwiches. Breakfast in a cafe could be a bit expensive, if one wanted to do it every day. But at that point in time, I guess I needed to be out. Besides, once you’re over 65, your pension can allow daily cafe jaunts like this, no problem, if you stick to those 3-in-one combos.

And if you had planned your retirement in advance and put away some money when you were in the workforce, then maybe you could take a cruise. Or you could visit your native land once in three or four years, as I used to do, when Shanta was alive. Not anymore. The travel is quite tiring, 25-30 hours in a plane or at airports, with my knees acting up. Besides, there just isn’t anybody there I know, anymore.

Irv and Sally, they follow the Canada geese down to Florida in October, every two or three years.

————————————————–

I was telling you about our breakfast outings. I remember the morning of July 20th, 1969. Irv, Sally and I were talking animatedly about the moon landing the day before. In fact I am sure that everyone else in the cafe was wrapped up in it too.

“Did you watch Neil Armstrong’s little speech? One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind?” That was Irv.

“Of course. Apt, wasn’t it?” My interest perked up.

“Sally says Armstrong actually said ‘one small step for a man’ but I clearly remember him saying ‘one small step for man’.  Sally rolled her eyes at that and I couldn’t help thinking how lovely she still looked, even at 52.

“Interesting, how a common article can twist the whole meaning of a sentence. Did you know him, Irv? Neil Armstrong?” Almost all his working life, Irv had been at Lockheed’s Skunk Works, as a part of the team that developed what would come to be known as the SR-71 Blackbird. (In later years, the Skunk Works developed such legendary flying machines like the freakily angular F117 Nighthawk, the F22 Raptor and the F35 Lightning).

Irv perked up, “Not personally, but I’d seen Armstrong a few times over the years. The first time was when he was visiting the Skunk Works, this must have been around 1962, maybe ‘63.  He was a member of the ‘new nine’ group of astronauts, invited to take a look at the new YF-12A prototype, the fore-runner of the SR-71 Blackbird. We had tested out the TEB igniter on the JP-7 fuel inside the lab and were going to have a test flight that day.  Things were pretty antsy around the huge shed. JP-7 burns only at elevated temperatures and is therefore quite safe to have lying around, but TEB ignites on contact with air. And without TEB injected into it, JP-7 wasn’t going to light up.”

Sally and I exchanged glances and smiled. Irv was in his elements and unstoppable now, “While the others in the group spoke only with our Chief Engineer, Kelly Johnson, Armstrong made it a point to go around, stopping by every member of the Skunkworks team and even the Pratt and Whitney guys working on the J-58 power plant. He listened attentively to each one of us. My last glimpse was of him shaking hands with a contractor’s man who was holding a ladder while another changed a light bulb.”

I was primed by now and bristling with questions. “Wait, don’t move, I’m going to get us some more coffee and you’re going to tell me more.” I hurried back holding three mugs and I was firing away as I placed them on the table,” How did the Skunk Works get that name?”

“Well, when we started, back in ’43, it was in a converted circus tent as there was no other space within the Lockheed facility. And we happened to be right next to a plant producing manure, its odor permeating our tent. When my phone rang one day, I jokingly said,” Skunk Works inside man, Culver speaking.” The name caught on right away. Since then, the term “skunk works” has been widely used to describe a group, within an organization, given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, tasked with working on advanced or secret projects.”

Irv and Sally had an engagement that day and had to leave and so my curiosity had to wait till the next breakfast at Tim Hortons.

——————-

A year slipped by, 365 blissful days of walks, breakfasts and stimulating conversation with the Culvers. Shanta would have loved these two.

I reckon it was around that time that Irv began fading away. Gradually. Right before our eyes. It began with him not being able to locate the car keys. Another time, he got lost coming back from the pharmacy and someone saw him wandering listlessly around and called the cops and a cop arrived and drove him home.

Alzheimer’s crept up on Irvin Culver steadily for the next nine years. Until one particularly frigid December night in 1980, when he quietly died in his sleep at the Montreal General. Of course, one doesn’t die of Alzheimer’s. One just fades away. Irv actually succumbed to colon cancer. Sally had always pestered him to eat more greens but he never listened. Anyway, for Sally, Irv’s passing was more like the grand finale of a painful nine year long goodbye.

——————–

After Irv, Sally and I would see each other at least once a day. We’d accompany one another to our doctors’ appointments. I had a painful knee condition that got aggravated in the cold. Sally was trying to keep her cholesterol and BP down. I had no living relatives in Canada and Sally’s only daughter, Cora, lived somewhere on the west coast.  Therefore, for the most part, we had just each other. While we couldn’t bring ourselves to enter the Tim Hortons again, we had our daily walks down Sherbrooke.

Some days we took the pedestrian path up to the Westmount Library where we sat for an hour catching our breath and browsing through the journals. I loved the National Geographic and I loved watching Sally peer through her bifocals into the People Magazine or Vanity Fair.

Sometimes we ambled west, toward the Montreal West train station. We’d flop down on the benches by the tracks and watch the ebb and flow of the commuters. Once in a while, a long distance freight train thundered by. We’d sit a while and then make our way back, stopping at the Pharmaprix, right across from our apartment block, to pick up a prescription or maybe a toilet paper roll or something. We would then trudge back. To our separate little worlds. 

I don’t know when it first happened but it gradually seemed natural that we held hands as we walked.

I don’t remember too good these days but I think it was the Christmas Eve of 1985. For Sally and me, it was like any other day. Except for the daily Christmas carol bombardment on TV and radio. She didn’t want to go for the mass at the St Joseph’s this time. Said she was tired. So we went for a walk, a shorter one, up Cavendish and back. And as I said before, my knees didn’t like the Canadian winter. Sally too had grown gaunter, with all her food restrictions. And so, while the whole city seemed to explode in merriment, we were back, waiting, while the elevator took us up to the 14th floor.

The ritual thereafter began predictably. Like hundreds of other evenings. Me, giving Sally a quick peck on the cheek at her door and walking down the length of the hallway to my apartment. And her, waiting till I reached my doorstep and giving me a tiny wave.

Only this time, she wouldn’t let go of my hand. She slid her arms through mine and pressed up against me. “Don’t go…stay….please.” Her voice was a whisper.  Afterwards, we lay in the dark, our faces inches away, lazily giving each other tiny kisses all over. My head felt heavy, like all this was a dream.

The Christmas eve excitement was ramping up outside our tiny oasis as we lay back and listened to the sounds coming from the hallway. Squeals of delight, hurrying footsteps, the pitter patter of kids running ahead, to catch the elevator. Across from us, a mother was shutting her front door with,” Nicholas, did you remember to take your mittens?” A door opened somewhere, with sudden slurred shouts of welcome and then muted as it was shut.

When I turned to look at Sally, she was fast asleep, a smile still playing on her face, like some supernova remnant. “Goodnight, darling,” I whispered and held her close till I drifted off.

Sally surrendered her lease and moved in with me on Christmas day. It seemed only natural. We might follow the Canada geese next fall. If my knees can take it.

That Diwali

Featured

thatdiwali

Some things from that evening seem faded, so faded that they could very well have just been dreams. Dreams of how I’d have liked things to have turned out, rather than actual events. It takes a lot of effort now, remembering each detail.

After all it was more than half a century back – Diwali, 1965. But it’s a Diwali that still shimmers, in the haze, except that the haze – it grows denser as the years roll by and the lines, once sharply etched, now seem blurred.

Sukhoranjan, our Jeeves, lit the oil lamps and arranged them along the terrace parapet, the balcony balustrade and even on the window ledges – of employees’ quarters, Type-E, No.34, MAMC Colony, Town: Durgapur, Province: West Bengal, Eastern India.

The October breeze was mild, but the lamps flickered and inevitably some went off after a sudden gust, making Sukhoranjan scurry around, relighting them. “Oof! Aaj eto hawa hobar ki dorkar chilo ? **”of all the days, did it have to be so windy today?”***he fussed.

Meanwhile right after the first fire crackers went off in the neighborhood, our dog, Shepherd, took refuge under the bed – my bed, our bed, mine and my two elder bro’s. Shepherd made frightened, whiny noises as he slinked in, tail well between his legs. He didn’t emerge till it was dinnertime, the festivities were over and the neighborhood had fallen silent.

My father had his arm round my mother’s shoulders, with her head tilted and resting on his, while they stood back and watched their three kids waving crackling fuljhari sticks wildly around. My favorite was the thubri, a firecracker crammed inside an onion-shaped clay pot with a hole on top like the caldera of a volcano, through which it kept spewing stuff out high in the air like a fountain.

The thubri was a dazzling display of colors that lasted around 30 seconds and then the pot lay spent but smoldering, with a tiny flame still licking up from within. I loved giving it a hard kick then. Who lit the first thubri – Chorda? No, perhaps Dada. Heck, I just can’t seem to remember that clearly anymore.

What I do remember is that the war with Pakistan had just ended in a ceasefire and while the mood was upbeat on the one hand, there was also some grieving at the sudden death of the revered Indian Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri. The Gnat fighters from the nearby Panagarh airbase had finally stopped screeching past at treetop level, by the time Diwali came around.

The squeals of excitement of that Diwali, the laughter – it all comes back in snatches, like when you are turning the knob of an old radio and the music from a short wave station keeps swooshing in and out.

————————————–

Some other moments are still etched. Like the fact that the stash of firecrackers that our father could reasonably afford happened to be far smaller than those of all the other Joneses in the neighborhood. And we didn’t want to finish before the others. A dark and silent house in the midst of bursting crackers would be an embarrassment.

My father had an ingenious way to address that. He took us for a long walk round the neighborhood, ostensibly to admire the Diwali pradeep lighting on the houses and the crackers others were bursting. It killed time till it became unbearable and the three of us raced back to our individual fire cracker stashes, to begin.

Afterwards, there were heaped plates of mutton pulao for dinner. This was a big deal because we had meat on the table only once every fifteen days or so. We usually ate mutton – chicken being prohibitively expensive in those days. Though there had never been any discussion on it, beef was never an option, even though it was the least expensive. (I’m not sure if in fact were even any beef stalls where I grew up).

————————————

As always, my mother busied herself laying the table and waiting on her four men while they ate. By the time she took her seat, all the mutton was gone and only a bit of the pulao (the rice) was left, stuck to the walls of the pan like a thick plaster. When Dada protested that she didn’t have enough, she smiled and gave him a hug,” If you kids are full, I’m full.” I can still see her scraping the bottom of the pan with her thumb and licking it appreciatively,” You missed the tastiest part, you know.”

I remember Sukhoranjan well. How can you not remember someone you grew up with? Sukhoranjan was a 16 yr old guy from Orissa who had found work as a chaprasi (gopher) in my father’s office. In return for free lodging and board in the servants’ quarters attached to our house, he became our odd-job man, getting the groceries, fixing things around the house, mopping and sweeping, a job that he took as gospel..

Sukhoranjan had left his native Baleshwar with his uncle when he was 6, at the peak of the 1955 famine and the cholera out-break that had claimed both his parents and his younger sister.

After a brief stay with abusive relatives in Chakradharpur, Sukhoranjan ran away and boarded a train to Durgapur, alone, as a frightened 8 yr old. Years of toil in tea shops and grocery stores followed and it was when he was 14, working as a door-to-door fruit seller, that one day his shadow fell across our doorstep.

It had been a blisteringly hot day and Sukhoranjan struggled to lift the fruit basket back on his head, when my mother persuaded him to lay it back down on the ground and asked him to rest a while in the shade of our front porch. Soon a sumptuous lunch followed, which he wolfed down in seconds.

My mother took him in that day and he had been with us ever since. A bright and cheerfully illiterate country boy, a year older than Dada, Sukhoranjan still called him ‘Borda’ (big brother). And he was especially invaluable in my leisure-time pursuits, having taught me the intricacies of gulli-danda, marbles and how to make a gulti (sling) out of a forked wooden twig and rubber strips cut from bicycle tubes.

It was only when you tried to ask Sukhoranjan about his parents or sister that he clammed up. My mother had once seen a photo inside that tiny steel trunk of his that held all his worldly possessions. It was a picture of a couple in front of a hut. He had simply nodded and looked away when my mother had asked him if they were his parents.

—————————————-

And Shepherd. He was a good looking, unusually large, dirty white mongrel pup when he found us. India is teeming with dogs without a home, that loiter around every street, scrawny and emaciated, with open sores and wounds from fights over scraps, with other dogs.

But Shepherd was different. With a dark grey stripe through the middle of his forehead, from between his eyes to the tip of his nose, he was unnaturally fluffy and plump. As he grew, Shepherd got this bushy white tail and when he confronted another dog, it rolled up tight and went into a high frequency, low amplitude quiver, while his bright aggressive unwavering eyes stayed on the other guy and a low growl escaped from his slightly parted lips. Most dogs quickly figured out that the odds against having a ear torn or a shoulder gashed were very little and made a whining exit which sounded to me more like, “Fuck it, tennis anyone?”

I have a hunch that Shepherd’s father was one of those Siberian huskies that the Soviet experts brought over with them. This was 1965 – at the apex of Indo-Soviet cooperation. We were living inside a township that had technical experts from the Soviet Union helping us build coal mining machinery. The husky must have fallen for a local babe somewhere along and one thing had lead to another. We never got acquainted with his mother. Guess she’d passed on by the time Shepherd, the pup, found us.

Shepherd truly was a Soviet dog. The KGB couldn’t have done any better, penetrating a third world country. Shepherd eased himself into our house gradually in strategically planned moves. He was first spotted sunning himself occasionally on our garden wall parapet and then we noticed he had promoted himself to the top of one of the two concrete garden gate posts. It was not long before he drew my mother’s attention,”Dakh re, kukur ta ki mishti dekhte” (look guys, isn’t that a cute pup?).

Soon Ma was flinging leftovers to him after our meals. One day, when Sukhoranjan was about to garbage an old frying pan, Ma decided to keep it and use it as Shepherd’s dinner plate. She had Sukhoranjan remove the handle and clean it out and began having one of us kids go out and leave it filled with scraps, on his favorite gate post.

As Shepherd grew however, that gate post proved to be too small and he kept inadvertently knocking the pan off it in his eager enthusiasm. Soon we started leaving the pan on our doorstep instead.

———————————————-

The monsoon of 1965 was particularly severe and I remember this one late night. Ma and Baba were asleep, their bedroom door shut. I suddenly woke to see Dada and Chorda standing by our bedroom window, holding the grills and looking out, talking in a low tone. I jumped out of bed and went up behind them. My eyes were at the level of their waists and I had to push my little head through to see what was grabbing their attention. In the blinding sheets of rain, I saw Shepherd, bedraggled, on top of his gate post, trying to find a comfortable position to settle himself in.

Dada looked at Chorda, got a nod and turned to me,”Sshh. Mukh theke ekta shobdo jeno na shuni. Noito gatta khabi, bujhli?” (Ssh. One sound from you and you’ll get one of my bare knuckle raps on your head). He was obviously worried about my parents waking up.

Dada was tough and I never took his words lightly. If he said he was going to beat me up, he was going to beat me up. You couldn’t reason with him. You couldn’t placate him. You couldn’t seek refuge under the law. He was the law. He might easily have been born in the turn of the century in the town of Corleone or Palermo.

So, here we were, by the bedroom window,  me held by the ears, slowly being shaken but not stirred, by Dada. He continued, “Teen shotti bol, shatti, shatti, shatti” and I repeated after him in a hushed, awed voice, “Shatti, shatti, shatti”. Repeating ‘shatti’ thrice meant giving your word to the other guy that you wouldn’t rat out on him. This was the first time they were going to trust me not go blab to our parents the first chance I got. It was awesome. I was in! I’d suddenly grown up. I was now being taken as a man by my peers.  Laga Chaka Baga Chaka! (relax, that’s Bengali for Yippee!).

My euphoria was short-lived, for Dada hit me with a gatta anyway. I started, “What the…!!%^*” and he swiftly clamped his palm on my mouth, “That was just for taste. There’s more from where that came, remember that.” Jesus Christ, they should have named this guy Joey Gallo.

The gatta was painful and unprovoked and when it became evident that I was going to burst out crying, Kissinger (Chorda) stepped in,” Now relax, take it easy, ok? You are now one of us. We gotta stick together, right?” I nodded hurriedly, gulping back my tears.

Dada took charge immediately, “All right, here’s what we’ll do” he jabbed a finger painfully into my chest sending me reeling back,” you get that spare mat from the prayer room and meet us at the front door.” With that curt command, he and Chorda swung on their heels and slinked down the stairs, while I made my way in the dark, to the prayer room, to retrieve the spare mat, making sure I kept a safe distance from that pashbalish (round cushion) on the whatnot that scared the bejesus out of me every time I was made to enter the prayer room alone in the dark. I grabbed hold of the mat and raced downstairs to where my elder brothers were waiting.

They already had the front door open and Shepherd was standing there, dripping and forlorn, his wet fluff now sticking to his body making him look half his size. There was this cove under the stairs next to the front door which housed the family bicycle (my father went to work on it when he didn’t manage to get a lift).

Shepherd came in and proceeded to the cove where he shook himself dry vigorously, soaking us all in the process. I hugged him. He was cold. Chorda had brought a bowl of milk which he placed next to the mat. Shepherd curled himself up on the mat and lapped at the milk gratefully. He was done in a microsecond and lay stretched out, eyes half closed, bushy tail wagging lazily in appreciation. In another minute he breathed a deep sigh and was out like a light. The next morning we were taken aback to note that our parents didn’t mind Shepherd’s new lodgings at all.

The penetration of the household was now complete, the culmination of a totally successful ‘hearts and minds’ exercise – the only casualty being my forehead – from Dada’s gattas.

Sukhoranjan got a permanent unionised job at MAMC, married soon after and moved away in ’68.

Shepherd passed on in the summer of ’69 around the time of the first moon landing. He failed to recover from a tonsil operation. I had just turned 14.

 

The Untestable Surmise – Does God Exist?

—————————

The revered Kaurava fighter, Karna, gesturing to his bitter adversary, the great Pandava, Arjun, to give him a hand with his mired chariot wheel.

—————————

The Hindu epic, Mahabharata, is held in such awe among Hindus that for two years, beginning in 1988, the roads in India were deserted and shops shuttered for an hour starting 9am every Sunday, when a serialized version of the epic ran on the only channel available – Indian state TV, Doordarshan. Domestic servants would sit with their masters gathered around the TV set, class differences forgotten. You could rob a bank and nobody would be the wiser. Interestingly that was the hour when Indian cities would be absolutely crime-free.

Let me draw your attention to an excerpt from the epic, an incident that is believed to have transpired during the Hindu period – “Dvapara Yuga” (~c.3100BC).

When the Kaurava hero, Karna’s chariot got mired in mud it couldn’t have come at a worse time. He was in the thick of the great battle of Kurukshetra and he needed mobility badly. Now, with his crippled chariot, he was a virtual sitting duck for his adversary, the Pandava hero Arjun, who was gaining on him fast, his mighty bow at ready.

Its time I introduced you to a third protagonist – Arjun’s charioteer, Krishna. (Karna’s contract didn’t have a charioteer in it, so he didn’t have one. He drove a single seat budget chariot you might have found in a 3000BC Walmart).

Krishna is no ordinary grunt from rural India. Notice that I switched to the present tense and that’s because he happens to be a God and Gods are eternal, they say. And Krishna is not any ordinary run of the mill Hindu God, of whom there are plenty. Krishna is the very reincarnation of Vishnu, the Hindu version of Zeus, the all powerful.

Such reincarnations were common in those times, when Gods came down from the heavens as flesh and blood mortals, to, you know, fix things, settle scores with other Gods and such like. I am not sure what Krishna had come down to fix or settle. As a kid, he had been a delinquent who liked to steal butter at home and a voyeur who watched naked cowgirls bathe in the neighbourhood stream. Not the prefect choice for a God, frankly. But dear reader, I don’t care.

The colour of Krishna’s skin is very distinctive. It is a weird Avatar blue. But what makes him really annoying to guys like me is the fact that he always has this annoyingly beatific benevolent all-understanding smile that makes you want to scream, “what the fuck is he grinning at?”

Anyways, like I said, Karna had his chariot in a ditch and Arjun was gaining on him. It is at this point that a strange dynamic came into play – battlefield etiquette, an ethos that prevailed in most civilized parts of the ancient world, when chivalry was valued highly.

I’ll draw you a parallel. Battlefield etiquette is something like when boxing rules mandate that if one of the boxers falls, he is given a specific amount of time, a chance to gather himself and get on his feet, while the other boxer has got to wait. In Karna’s time, while there was no such rule, giving your enemy a chance to recover from an unfortunate situation was what separated a true hero from a Trumpian lowlife.

Karna raised his hand for Arjun to help him extricate his mired chariot wheel and level the playing field before they fought. A true hero, Arjun moved to get off his chariot to help.

Here’s where the next intriguing dynamic came into play. Normally the warrior is the boss and the charioteer is his servant. But Arjun’s Avatar- blue charioteer was a God and therefore Arjun’s servant and his boss at the same time. On seeing Arjun try to step off the chariot to give Karna a hand, Krishna – servant, charioteer, boss, God – insisted that Karna was on the side of evil and therefore does not deserve fairness and should be annihilated instead.

As ordered, Arjun shot one of his magic arrows and killed Karna instantly. What happened to the concept of a loving, all-forgiving, impartial God? How can this act of Krishna’s inspire devotion?

————————-

Let’s take a peek at the weirdest incident in the Bible’s ‘Book of Genesis’. When God ordered his most devout follower, Abraham to slaughter his innocent son, Isaac, Abraham was devastated. Isaac was his favorite son. What Abraham didn’t know was that God was just kidding, apparently. He had taken a wager… yes, he had made a bet, with the Satan, that his followers were incorruptible and would do exactly as he, God, directed.

When the Satan saw Abraham raise his sword over the hogtied Isaac, he conceded and at the very last minute, with the sword inches from Isaac’s neck, God told Abraham to stop.

God treated Abraham as a showpiece, a pawn. I am sure that even in those ancient times, humans felt traumatized the way we would today if we were told to behead our child, any child. But God had no consideration for the mental trauma that he had put Abraham through. Though he lived to be 500, I bet good old Abe had lifelong PTSD after that experience.

What if the Satan hadn’t conceded? We all believe him to be a no-good prick, don’t we? What if Abraham hadn’t been able to stop the swing of the blade and he actually sliced Isaac’s head off before he realized God was kidding? Hey, swords in those days weighed 35-40lbs, man. Try stopping a swing of one of those.

I don’t know about you but I would look at anyone who wagered my son’s life, with anything but devotion.

Such are the deities that we pray to even today, even after so much learning and enlightenment – flawed , attention seeking autocrats.

Isn’t it therefore pointless wondering whether God exists or not, a surmise that cannot be tested and proven either way? Why do we spend so much time agonizing over it then? Why, especially when major religious texts show their Gods up to be so glaringly flawed? Through the ages Gods keep sending down their messiahs to liberate and emancipate. Look where that has got us all. `

—————————-

The God I believe in is simple, helpful, considerate and kind. He admits he is not all powerful. He knows that there is another honcho. Iblis, devil, Satan – call him what you will. The God I believe in admits that the Satan is equally powerful and that he, God, has no sway over the guy.

The God I believe in frowns in irritation when all the religions of the world try to pump him up to make him look like an all powerful superstar. He looks at religions with disgust. He scorns religious texts, hymns, psalms, suras, slokas and other scriptures that are written in languages like Latin, Arameic and Sanskrit that have long since disappeared and hold no relevance today, written in alphabets that most of us do not even understand.

My God cringes with embarrassment every time there are unintelligible hymns recited at a Hindu Durga Puja. Or when folks mumble chants as they stumble along endlessly in the punishing heat, round and round a piece of stone in the middle of a desert in Saudi Arabia, after having spent their lives’ savings getting there. Or when thousands gather on Easter outside the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican to listen to the man whose religious juggernaut has been repeatedly proved to launder billions for organized crime, whose reps have repeatedly sodomized little boys for decades.

My God is the conscience within each of us. He is universal. Even animals are known to have him. Even psychopaths have him. No matter where in the world we live, no matter what we have been taught to believe, this God exhorts each of us to do the best we can. When we do follow his voice, it fills us with an unimaginable warmth of satisfaction. We do not need to know Latin or Sanskrit to understand his words. We do not even have to be literate. My God may not have the power to make me rich but he sure can make me happy.

Yes, I do certify the surmise as tested positive – my God exists.

The Air Hostess

Nikhilesh Panigrahi, Nick to you and me, is a one huge pain in the ass and the world knows it. Maybe even those aliens on Europa that look like rectangular blocks know it. Arthur C.Clarke says they know everything.

The only reason why I tolerate Nick is because he’s funny. That his pappy is Admiral K.K.Panigrahi, head of the Western Naval Command at Mumbai, is also a factor. Having a pal whose Dad is a head honcho in the military means unlimited tax-free booze plus the exciting prospect of occasional guided tours aboard those frigates and guided missile cruisers, all the while being courted around like royalty. These fauji (military) types sure can live in style, believe you me. Batmen at your beck and call. You have an itch on your butt and need to have it scratched, a batman will do it for ya, no sweat. And he’ll act like he loves doing it too.

But this is not about Nick’s Dad or how the Indian Navy arranges to have your butt scratched. Don’t waylay my sharp intellect, ok? Let me move on with the story. The INS Chakra, a nuclear powered Charlie Class guided missile submarine, had just docked at Mazgaon and Nick’s Dad was scheduled to go on board for a visit. We had been invited.

So there we were, wedged between the A.H.Wheelers new stand and an ice cream vendor, on an overcrowded Platform-1 of the Pune Railway Station. Nick had his wife Sumona and 6yr old daughter, Rumi. Sumona was excitedly getting acquainted with my markedly better half, Rekha. Rumi was eying our 7yr old Akshay from behind her mother’s pallu.

Akshay took a chocolate eclair out of his pocket and held it out to her. A chocolate eclair is a kid’s version of a one-liner. Flustered at the come-on, the little girl shrank back further inside the folds of her mother’s saree. Akshay took a step forward and she escaped to her father. Akshay gave chase and soon the two kids were running around each other, giggling. “Pat gayee!” I thought to myself.

The Panigrahis had separate seats, two cars ahead and were about to part temporarily when Rekha had this brainwave that made the four hour journey to Mumbai one of the most memorable I’ve had. She suggested that she, Sumona and the kids could travel in one car while Nick and I sat in the other. Nick and I readily agreed to being unshackled and we settled the ladies and the kids in and raced back to our car, just when the DQ started moving.

For non-Puneites, ‘DQ’ stands for Deccan Queen Express, an early morning commuter train that zips between Pune and Mumbai, a 200 mile trip with a stop at Lonawala atop the Indian Rockies, the Western Ghats mountain range, affectionately called ‘ghats’ by locals like yours truly. Being short-haul, the DQ has only seating-only ‘chair cars’, the seats arranged in clusters of four, two by two, facing each other.

When two men, two happily married men, two happily married men in their thirties, two happily married horny men in their thirties, two happily married horny men in their thirties unfettered by spousal monitoring, take out newspapers and Wodehouses with a flourish in a train, the first few moments are spent not on devouring the headlines or the exploits of Psmith, but in checking out the surrounding seats from the lee of the magazine/newspaper.

As the DQ gathered speed and swept past all those tiny suburban stops, Nick unfurled a TOI that he’d picked up at the A.H.Wheelers while I whipped out the Wodehouse I’d packed. Don’t know what TOI is? You really are a piece of work, y’know. TOI stands for The Times of India, a daily which Rupert Murdoch has been meaning to buy up. I’m lying of course. He isn’t. Rupert is too right wing to have anything to do with the TOI.

The TOI was a strategic buy. It was going to be a prop for two lecherous men who hadn’t grown out of their college days. When you’re gazing out beyond an edge of your newspaper, the object of your gaze can’t tell if you’re staring at her or reading. In this manner, one can give anything inside a tight churidar-kurta or butt-hugging jeans a closer than usual scrutiny. If something interesting is spotted, elbows will nudge ribs, whispers shall get exchanged, poetry murmured under the breath, like , “aye hamein zindagi, kuch to de mashwara, ek taraf uski seat, is taraf main chala”.

Sitting facing Nick, her knees bumping frequently into his with the sway of the train – knees that were untouched by fabric of any sort, was a girl. Smoke started curling up the starboard edges of Nick’s TOI.

Groan! I’m lying again. The girl actually had trousers on, stylish, slightly baggy, dark greyish black trousers and polished black chisel-toed shoes. You couldn’t make out what she had on top as she was swathed in a large matching grey black jacket and a shawl covering everything. Opaque black tear drop Ray Bans concealed her eyes. Fashionable, very fashionable indeed. Seated next to the girl, directly in front of me, was an elderly gentleman. Within minutes of settling in his seat, the man dozed off. They had come in separately and hadn’t communicated with each other all this while. She must therefore be traveling alone, unaccompanied, seul, lonesome, little red riding hood. QED. Mama Mia. Oomalapoo. Sheekalafoo. Rekha, Sumona who?

“Excuse me, can I borrow the cartoon page? I just love cartoons, you know,” the girl had removed her shades and leaned forward and lightly tapped Nick on his knee. Even pearly white teeth showed through a slight smile, a kind of smile you’d term in Bengali a ‘mridu hanshi’, a smile made of kryptonite. Mridu kryptonite hanshi.

———————————-

If you thought Nick would be bowled over, you don’t know Nick. Nick is a cool dude. His blood carries oxygen in liquified form, he’s that cool. “Of course,” he said,” I bet you like Garfield the best.”

“Oh!! How could you know?” her eyes were wide open, long lashes fluttering, making it a bit windy in there, “I just love my daily dose of Garfield”.

“Let me see…here you are…” Nick held the cartoon page out for her and I affected a look like I was closely sizing her up, ” You’re an MBA student, probably in HR. And single.”

She laughed,”Single is right and I intend to stay that way. I’m done with men. I just want to feel the freedom for a while..” she smiled again, as if to exclude us from her sweeping assertion about being done with men. “And I’m an air hostess by the way, so you’re wrong about the MBA bit,” she took the cartoon page, smiled a murmured thanks and buried her locks in it. Nick and I went back to our reading.

It was while we were having those steaming hot batata vadas at Lonawala that the girl turned to me, “And you? What do you do for a living?”

That was when Nick cut in,” Oh, Akash and I work for the government…..” Good Lord, there he goes again…”I’m sorry but we can’t talk about it.”

Her face changed. There was excitement in it. She shivered. “Really? Are you, like, spies or something? Undercover agents of some sort? Wow!” She shivered some more.

“Ok, we’ll tell you but this is only for your ears,” I leaned forward, “I’m with RAW and Nick here is on deputation to the NSG”.

“What’s NSG?” Her eyes were like saucers as she turned to Nick.

“National Security Guards. Like the Navy Seals. Only, we’re much tougher.”

“Are you both on a joint mission?” her voice was hushed and she couldn’t help looking over her shoulders frequently.

Nick nodded. “Remember, if you breathe a word about us to anyone, our lives are in danger,” he hissed.

“Are you..I mean like, are you guys single too?”

“Of course, in our line of work, we have to be completely unattached,” I took out the Saridon capsule I was carrying with me in case I had a headache on the train, held it up and said, “We have to have these ready, in case we have no choice but to take our own lives.”

By now we had her terrified. I began feeling sorry for her and tried to lighten the air a bit.

“What’s it like? Being an air hostess? Do you have to contend with misbehaving male passengers and flight commanders? Is that why you’re sick of men?”

She laughed,”I am used to the boors we often have, among passengers and pilots. Otherwise, its fun. A couple of hours of work and a whole lot of sight seeing on the house later on.”

As the DQ cleared Thane, some folk started getting up and stretching, in preparation to disembarking at Dadar. We were going up to VT. And so was the fly girl, but the moment we left Dadar, she got up hurriedly,”I have to go now, bye…” and she was off down the aisle.

We saw her one last time. It was on the VT Terminus platform. I had Akshay on my shoulders and Rekha holding on to my right arm. Nick, Sumona and Rumi were walking hand in hand. We were headed toward the exit. The girl was just a few yards in front of us, her gait lithe, panther-like.

It was then that we saw two burly uniformed men approach and give the girl a smart salute. The men had jet black uniforms with shoulder flashes with the acronym NSG on them. Their chests bristled with ribbons. The girl stopped and returned the salute. One of the men hurried to take charge of her luggage. I noticed that she’d taken off the shawl and jacket. Underneath, she had a tunic similar to the ones the men wore, except for the shoulder epaulets, which had an Ashoka Pillar just above a triangle with three stars in it.

Much later, a quick look-up on Wikipedia told me that those shoulder flashes I’d seen were the rank insignia of a Deputy Director of the National Security Guards, also known as the Black Cats, India’s premier Special Forces Command.

At that very moment, since she hadn’t moved, we came up next to her and she turned and saw us, Nick, me, Sumona, Rekha and the kids. Her shades were back on but we felt the same ‘mridu’ smile play for an instant as she surveyed all of us. She gave us a barely perceptible nod, turned and walked briskly out to a black Ambassador MarkIV that had been parked at the VIP spot, its engine running, the rotating roof lights flashing. The moment she stepped inside, the car swept out of the lot, speeded up and disappeared round the curve of the reservations office building.

Luchnik Khalifa

“Once in a while, a man arises boasting; he shows his power and crows,

“I am the one!!!”

For a fleeting moment, his puny matters flourish

Then Death appears and cries out,

“I am the one!!!!!”

⁃ Omar Khayam (Rubáyát of Omar Khayam)

Moscow/24 June 2022

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin did not get his last wish – that he would die a world changer with all the prodigal sons – the breakaway republics – back in the fold and the Russian Empire at the head of half the civilized world. The end, when it came, was sudden and spectacular.

It had been past midnight when the Russian President’s converted Il-96 had landed at Vnukovo Airport, after the 3-day BRICS Summit at Beijing. Putin had spent the night at Novo-Ogaryovo, his official dacha on the Rublyovo-Uspenskoye Highway, west of Moscow. Now the sun was barely peeking out over the furs in the distance and he was already at his desk in the den, leafing through the press briefing that he was scheduled to deliver that afternoon about what had been achieved in Beijing. The briefing was, as the title suggested, brief. The President hated flowery prose.

There was a discrete knock and his major-domo, Volodya, a Spetsnaz veteran and also his judo partner, entered quietly, closing the tall oak doors behind him, as he balanced a tray in his right hand. Volodya was a lefty, a fact that the President sometimes forgot on the mat. Volodya had broken his ribs twice while practicing the ‘harai goshi’, a judo sweep throw, but he would follow his master blindly and unquestioningly. Likewise, Vladimir Vladimirovich trusted Volodya with his life and made sure that he and his family wanted for nothing.

Little was known about Volodya outside of the President’s closest circle of aides, but of one single thing there was no doubt in anybody’s mind – that Volodya was to Putin what Martin Bormann had been, to Hitler or R.K.Dhawan to Indira Gandhi. Only, in his case he had the same name as his boss – Volodya is short for Volodymyr which is the Ukrainian way of saying Vladimir.

Even less known, at least to Putin or anyone in Russia’s FSB, was the fact that Volodya was not the St.Petersburg born white Russian orthodox Christian son of an ex-GRU officer who had served with Putin in East Berlin. Volodya had actually been born Magomet Khuchbarov, the only son of ultra-conservative Salafist Sunni Muslim peasants, in the Ingush village of Khutor Tarski.

Magomet’s father, Ruslan Khuchbarov, had drilled into him as a toddler that they were direct descendants of the Turko-Mongol conqueror, Tamerlane, though that would seem doubtful to anybody who saw him. Magomet did not have the slanted Mongol eyes or any other Mongol trait. With his close-cropped blonde hair and stark blue eyes, he appeared more Russian than most other Russians.

Ruslan Khuchbarov had taught his son one other thing, though ‘taught’ would be too mild a word. He had beaten one thing into young Magomet – to hate, to treat all non-Muslims as apostates and infidels, who were fit only to die and never to shed any tears over them. Magomet had learnt quickly, the persecution by the Russian military in the Republics of Chechnya and his own homeland, Ingushetia, through the 1990s acting as a catalyst.

Somewhere between the start of the First and the Second Chechen Wars where Ingush units fought alongside Chechen insurgents, Magomet Khuchbarov suddenly ceased to exist. Militants were disappearing all the time, tortured and burnt to cinder. Besides, the young Magomet was at the time still an unknown among the FSB’s files and therefore his sudden disappearance went unnoticed.

The Caliphate had chosen him well. He had no friends or close relatives and no one seemed to care if he existed or not. By the time he vanished into thin air, both his parents had been killed by Russian mortar fire and his village had been completely destroyed, razed to the ground.

How Magomet Khuchbarov managed to come to life as Volodymyr Antonenko and through the 1990s, inveigle himself into the very heart of the Russian high command, ultimately stationing himself as his namesake boss, Vladimir Putin’s butler-cum-bodyguard-cum judo partner, is a complete mystery to the world.

Magomet was something unheard of in a terror group – a trained sleeper. In espionage terms, a sleeper is a very highly disciplined covert operative who becomes a part of the society he has been sent to subvert. Armed with a false identity and background, he settles down and blends in, even getting married to a local and raising a family if he can. Once he is in, he waits for the order to go active.

The sleeper’s cover is so deep that he makes no contact with anyone who is even remotely connected to his employers. He is essentially on his own with no diplomatic protection. Only his control knows who and where he is. If his control defects or otherwise gives him away, tough shit. In Magomet Khuchbarov’s case, given that he betrayed Russians or worse, the chances that he would survive the interrogations were next to nil.

—————————-

Oh yeah, the Russians had redefined the term ‘retribution’ since the Bolsheviks came to power. The Beirut apartment block bombing comes readily to mind…….

In the late 1970s, a Hezbollah team killed a Soviet diplomat in Beirut, mistaking him for a Mossad agent. The Soviets were friends and sponsors of the Syrian army and through them, the Shiite Hezbollah.

Both, the Syrian government and the Hezbollah, apologized profusely for the mix-up but that did not help. One October night in 1979, a Spetsnaz team entered the apartment building where the Hezbollah assassination team leader lived. They did not just put a bullet in his head and be done with it. They chained him, his wife and his brother who was visiting them and had nothing to do with Hezbollah, to the iron grill on his bedroom window, rigged the building with explosives and took it down in a controlled demolition. A day later, the Soviet ambassador to Damascus told a puzzled Hafez Assad,’ We punish accidents just as severely’.

—————————

A sleeper is a single-shot weapon. The moment he emerges from deep cover, he completes his mission swiftly and gets extracted, never to return to the country where he operated. If he has a family by then, he just leaves them behind. He is programmed to show affection but at the same time, to steel himself to remain aloof. Volodya’s wife, Tania and son Yuri, had no idea they were not going to see him again after today.

The deep penetration of Volodymyr Antonenko had been a spectacular coup and it’s fruits, incalculable. The Caliphate now knew in real time, every move that the Russian military made, even before it’s own brigade commanders did. The Emir decreed that henceforth, Magomet Khuchbarov, alias VolodymyrAntonenko, be addressed only by the code-name ‘Luchnik’. In Russian, it meant – the archer.

The Emir would have let Luchnik remain in place had the July 2014 attempt on Putin not been botched. The Malaysian MH-17 jet and Vladimir Putin’s presidential plane had the same red, blue and white color spreads. Plain luck and a delayed take-off from Sao Paolo where he had gone to attend an earlier BRICs summit saved the Russian President’s life. Putin’s plane was 45 minutes behind the Malaysian 777.

Around the MH-17 crash, there have been many theories. The Russian media have suggested that Ukrainian authorities orchestrated the downing of the airliner to make it appear like a rebel attack, in the hope that it would lure NATO into intervening militarily. On the other side, the Ukrainians held that it was a rebel group that had commandeered one of those sophisticated BUK launchers and let loose, mistaking the plane for a Ukranian military jet – a theory that was later proven to be true.

While chaos reigned there was not even a whiff of the Caliphate’s involvement. In a tearing hurry, the world absolved Muslim fanatics of any role in it. As to the Caliphate, quite unlike any other terror group, it remained silent. Having an archer at the very heart of Kremlin, it decided to save him for more spectacular later use.

History has repeatedly shown us that, given the will, anything is possible. And will is something that Ingushetia-born Ali Abu Mukhammad, Emir of the Caucasus Caliphate and Magomet Khuchbarov’s leader, has in plenty. Will, that brought all the various insurgent movements of the Caucasus under one umbrella – The Yarmuk Jamaat of Kabardino-Balkaria, the Dagestani Shari’ah Jamaat, the Riyad us-Saliheyn Martyrs’ Brigade of Chechnya and his own Ingush Jama’at Shariat.

In Africa, three others had tried to create Islamic caliphates – Mohammed Yusuf of the Boko Haram, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud of Al Qaida’s North African arm, the AQIM and Ahmed Godane of the Al Shabaab.

All the three above mentioned gents are now dead, blown apart by Hellfire missiles from MQ9 Reapers launched out of a CIA-controlled airfield in Djibouti. There is a fourth Caliph-wannabe though, the original Al Qaida’s Ayman Al-Zawahari – hiding in Waziristan like a haunted animal, a desperate fugitive who sleeps in a different bed every night and clutches at straws to remain relevant.

There is another distinction between the Emir and the rest of them. Unlike most of the others, the Arabs, the Africans and the Pakistanis, who had fallen into terrorism by choice, instead of taking the harder path of honest labor to achieve prosperity and security, the Caucasian Caliphate had a solid reason to be pissed off with the Russian government.

First came the discriminations in the 18th century from the Tsarists, for their ‘Asian’ looks from the Tsarists in the 18th century and the wholesale pillage and rapes that the Tsar’s armies perpetrated. Then in the 1930s came the anti-Muslim purge in the Caucasus and the mass deportations to Siberia and Kazakhstan by Stalin, so that he would not have to contend with a ‘Muslim flank’ bordering Muslim Turkey. And now, the refusal by the Russian government to let the Caucasian republics form their own independent states, just as Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia and Belarus had done.

——————————

The Archer softly shut the door to Putin’s den and padded across the thickly carpeted hardwood floor, balancing the tray of milk and roast beef sandwich on his right hand while he eased the Chinese-made M77 from its holster with his left. The President looked up and smiled. Catching up on his paperwork had made him ravenously hungry. He pushed his papers back, making room for the tray that was about to be set down.

The smile quickly turned into horror when the cobalt blue of M77’s silencer came up. Putin’s lips tried to form the words ‘Why?’ but didn’t finish as the parabellum round tore into his forehead. Its barrel still smoking, the Archer put two bullets into himself, one in his left thigh and the other on the right side of his chest, taking care to aim well clear of anything important.

For the deception to succeed, the Caliphate had found a patsy, the assassin – 32-year old Khamzat Aldiyev, an electrician from Grozny, newly married and bereaved, who had been made to watch as burly members of the Russian Morskaya Pekhota had gang-raped his young wife on their kitchen floor.

As the Archer hobbled toward the large balcony, Aldiyev rose from behind the bushes, a 9mm Makarov in his right hand. The Archer whispered ‘Allah-o-Akbar’ and shot him between the eyes. He switched guns, after wiping them clean and then hobbled back into the study and raised the alarm. Of course, the Archer knew all these side shows may not stop his summary execution, if not for treason then at least for incompetence. As Lebanon had shown, the FSB didn’t take kindly to honest mistakes.

From where he lay bleeding on the floor, the Archer looked out the kevlar windows. Outside, the traffic on the Rublyovo-Uspenskoye Highway had picked up as another summer’s day dawned. Soon he heard what sounded like a stampede of approaching footsteps on the thickly carpeted corridor outside. The Archer closed his eyes and let himself pass out.

Three things happened in quick succession, as Putin’s assassination was being announced to the international media…..

The first was the mild-mannered moderate ex-Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev’s ascendancy to President of Russia, a job that he had held till 2008. The second – the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from all occupied oblasts in Ukraine, including Crimea and third, the summary seizure of all the known assets of 14 of Putin’s closest associates – an act that would net around $500 billion, sufficient to cover the cost of rebuilding Ukraine.

——————————

But there was another event that will remain unknown, except to a handful of men sitting nine time zones to the west, inside a building that has five equal sides, the air space over which is restricted over an area of a thousand acres all around. The FAPSI, Russia’s counterpart of the NSA, would have logged the event, had the technician at the Swetskaya node not been goofing off on his shift.

It was a single five second cell phone call that had not originated near Moscow but from Komgaron in the Ingush Caucasus, from a man who was fluent in English and spoke it with an accent typical of the American Mid-West, where he was in fact born, thirty eight years ago.

The man was fluent in one other language – Ingush, his parents having taken the care to teach him their native tongue. It was also the language he had gotten used to, ever since the insurgency began. He had to. His followers, who would give up their lives unflinchingly for him, knew only Ingush.

The words which bounced off the geostationary Globalstar stationed 36000 miles up and came through the headphones in the hushed room, were loud and clear – ‘glaz byka’. In Ingush that meant – bull’s eye.

The Emir is a man of few words.

——————————

“Wherever ye shall be, death will overtake thee, even though ye be in lofty towers.” – Holy Quran, Sura An-Nisa_78

Crossing the Line

June 2011……

“And now for news breaking at this very moment at The Hague……. Nearly twenty years after the opening shots of the Bosnian War rang out, former Bosnian Serb military commander, Ratko Mladić, known among the families of his many victims as “The butcher of Srebrenica”, is finally being tried by the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague, on 11 charges of genocide and crimes against humanity…..”

Rose was standing by the dinner table and as she listened, CBS Evening news anchor, Scott Pelley’s words seemed to fade out, while his voice seamlessly dovetailed in. His – Carl’s….. “I have this insane urge to hold you in my arms and comfort you…”. The soup spoon slipped from her hand and fell into Rufus’s plate.

“Mom! There’s soup all over my pasta!” Rufus said. Damn! The tremor in her hands passed. She took a deep breath, steadied herself and started preparing a fresh helping.

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

Stanley had his laptop open as usual, his fingers paused, to take in the news video. He turned and looked at Rose as she rescued the soup spoon from Rufus’s pasta.

In spite of the clatter of the spoon, she raced back into the crevice again, to the first time Carl had unfriended her – their first interaction, two months prior. He’d unfriended her just an hour after she’d accepted his invite. Puzzled, she had messaged him, “Hi, it’s your business of course but it’ll be nice to know why you unfriended me…”

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

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

In the beginning she’d been reserved, hesitant about talking of herself. Most women create a sort of inadvertent levee when they begin any social media relationship. He was an unknown strange man who wrote outrageously funny notes that made her burst into laughter. As the days went by, though, that levee seemed to look like it was made with cotton candy. She began to be excited every time she saw his message waiting when she logged on. Oh, he had this wonderful old-world graciousness and oodles of charm and he made her feel so so good.

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

“If Mladić is actually pronounced Mladich, why can’t they just step up and add the ‘h’ to their names, for Christ’s sakes?”

That was Stanley. A top-knotch cyber security brain, Stanley had started off as a contributing member of the ‘hacktivist’ group, Anonymous, while still at MIT. He couldn’t stand anything with hidden tones. Everything had to be either black or white for Stanley Tuppins. Zeros and ones. “Life, simplified,” would be the title of his book if he ever chose to write one. Painfully shy, perpetually immersed in solving knotty spyware issues, Rose felt lucky if he said more than two words at the dinner table.

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

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

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

“You were a doddering old Mongolian sheperd with two billy goats and a horse, who’d just been to see his married daughter in Ulan Bator, darling,” Rose said, as she rose and engulfed him in one of those comprehensive all-season squeezes that only mothers can impart. “Ugh,” she made a mock grimace as she held him tight,”Correction, you can’t be the sheperd, you must be one of the goats. You smell like them. To the showers right after supper, billy goat, and I won’t take no for an answer.”

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

“Here, let me dry them”. Sukumar took a clean towel and reached for a plate.

Rose turned. The man standing next to her was tall, crew-cut, clean. A mild shadow of a beard covered his lower jaw. He looked solid, simple, honest, wholesome. Just as he’d been, since the first time they’d met. She reached up and laid her head on his chest, the sobs breaking out, shaking her whole being. He dropped the cloth on the counter and just as her body went limp, he drew her up to him fiercely, till she was on the tips of her toes, her breath gasping upon his cheeks. She tried to open her mouth to speak through her tears. To tell him. Everything. But he laid a finger gently on her lips with a ‘ssshhh’. Holding her close, by her shoulders, he placed one arm just below the round of her buttocks, lifting her off the floor effortlessly and turned purposefully toward the stairs.

“Welcome back, darling,” he whispered.

———————————

This post celebrates Women’s Day. Women are complex. Don’t try to understand them……. Anonymous

———————————-

The Shakespearean World of Blood and Gore

“Hold thee my sword, while I do run upon it. Wilt thou, Strato?” – Brutus, defeated at Philippi by the forces of Octavian and Mark Anthony, to his loyal servant Strato (from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”)

By the time one reaches his 70s, the way one would like to die sometimes comes to mind. I’m 67. I have friends and relatives who have spoken about how they have had enough and that they are getting themselves and their affairs ready to face death.

Oddly, I don’t feel that way at all. I am still working at a regular job, still making plans to move up in terms of responsibility. The guys I work with are on an average at least two to three decades younger. Some have parents younger than me. It must be attitude, I am not sure, but they readily include me in sharing their ‘locker-room’ jokes and make me feel way younger than I am.

I have worked out how I’ll go when the time comes, assuming that I have the time, the lucidity and the choice, when I come to the point where I look around and ask myself, “Is this all there is to it?” I have gotten myself a Glock. Quick and painless. I keep it cleaned and oiled at all times. Tucked away in a recess in the wall behind the dryer, it is loaded and the safety is off. It’s a semi-automatic, so it’ll fire one round that’ll end it all. Simple.

One way I won’t want to go is by running myself through, a slow and most painful way to die. The blade would slice effortlessly into my small intestines and if I twisted it this way and that, it would tear apart my spleen, liver and kidneys, causing massive internal hemorrhaging. It’d still take me a long long time to die. Only schmucks want to go that way.

———————-

It was different in Ancient Rome, however. If you were a military commander looking defeat in the eye, you’d probably be doing it to yourself. In Brutus’ case, this was 43BC Rome and he believed it was the only honorable thing left to do.

Running through, impaling oneself by a sword or spear, conveyed a sense of chivalry and was regarded as the signature swan song of a true hero in a world that hated pussies. Not killing oneself, trying to make a run for it, would make the vanquished seem cowardly. He would be derided and shunned and never be able to hold public office and that was just about the worst thing that could happen to anybody. Either you won or died in battle. There was no third ground.

Thank God, we’re in the 21st century where there is no place for chivalry? Donald Trump, the puke-worthy American ex-President, looked incredulous when asked by one of his cronies why he feigned bone spurs, why he didn’t go fight in the Vietnam War. He spat out in disdain, “You think I’m crazy?”

I don’t fault Donald Trump for being a self-preservationist. That America deliberately provoked the Vietnam War is now a matter of record. Remember the faked ‘Gulf of Tonkin incident’ and the subsequent leak of the “Pentagon Papers”? Google or Wiki them if you haven’t heard of them.

Fighting and dying for an unjust, losing cause is stupidity, not chivalry. For Americans who didn’t have the wealth and influence to dodge the draft, it was a question of being born in the wrong country at the wrong time. A vast majority of American servicemen who died in Vietnam were poor uneducated folk who were duped into thinking that killing citizens of a sovereign nation 8000 miles away, who had done them personally no harm, was the right thing to do. That nation, Vietnam, is now a prosperous country that has put the past behind and moved on. I salute Vietnam.

I won’t let this blog get bogged down in American perfidy, so lets move on….

Imagine you were Brutus in 43BC. You lost the battle and now your ass was grass. Either you ran or you faced Roman justice for capital murder – execution. Executions in ancient Rome were exotic. They could chop you up alive, a little at a time. They could make you sit on the tip of a spear and let gravity do the rest while they eagerly waited to see it appear out of your mouth. They could make you swallow molten lead. They could crucify you. Or they could simply tie your extremities to two horses and whip ‘em till you were literally torn apart at the weakest spot – your waist. Running through was a dream compared to the above.

Of the victors, Octavian was a pompous over ambitious asshole and Mark Anthony was a vain but courageous emperor wannabe and they didn’t give a damn about your victim, Julius Caesar. But they had plans, ambitions plans, to rule Rome and with Rome, the entire world. (That is, before their individual ambitions tore them apart).

Brutus’s mom, Servilia – half sister of Cato the Younger and a full blooded member of Roman nobility, also happened to be one of Julius Caesar’s many mistresses for a while. Despite the fact that Caesar was only 15 when Brutus was born, some historians believe that Caesar was his biological father.

—————————

Punishments had to be excruciating. Unlike today, there were no local chapters of Amnesty International petitioning for the use of more humane execution methods…..

Crucified? Awesome! Took you a week to die, give or take. Crucifixions were slow – Five to seven days of unbelievable agony. Do you think Jesus or Spartacus would be the heroes that they are today, if they had simply been poisoned? Naaah.

Burnt at a stake? Hot, but cooool! What’s the only thing we remember about St. Joan d’Arc? That she broiled on a stake.

Drawn and quartered? Wowy! In medieval England only men went through this excruciatingly slow, barbaric execution. Women got away with being burnt at a stake or buried up to the neck in the ground and stoned to death.

Here’s how a drawing and quartering worked. You got dragged behind a horse round town, ending at the town square, your skin lacerated by the pebbles. That was the ‘drawing’ part. Then, while the townsfolk – men, women and children thronged the square, you were disemboweled alive and your entrails burnt. At this point you were still alive and the executioner was just getting started.

After that you didn’t really care what they did to you. Now for the ‘quartering’ part – they tied your legs and hands to four horses and spurred them to different directions at right angles to each other, literally tearing you apart into four quarters. The only reason why we all remember Guy Fawkes is because he was drawn and quartered.

After the dust settled, you were beheaded and your head burnt so the remains would be unrecognizable.

Impaled on a spear? Grooovy!! Left to gradually slide down the sharpened wooden stake that entered through your rectum and gradually shoved aside tissue and bone and blood vessels and finally poked out through your adam’s apple? The Romanian ruler, Vlad III (Dracula) loved to sentence traitors to this form of punishment and even had medics at hand to keep the man alive as long as possible, so the pain could be maximized.

—————————-

Which brings us back to Shakespeare and Brutus’s suicide, sure enough for his slow and painful demise, Brutus was lionized even by his vanquishers. After Strato broke the news of Brutus’ suicide, Mark Anthony was all teared up and had this to say –

“…His life was gentle, and the elements So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up And say to all the world,”This was a man.”

Octavian – later to be Rome’s first emperor, Augustus/Octavius – didn’t want to be outdone by Mark Anthony’s eloquence, so he held forth….

“…With all respects and rights of burial. Within my tent his bones tonight shall lie. Most like a soldier, order’d honorably…”

If instead, Brutus had swigged down some hemlock and croaked, the very same Octavian might have said derisively, “Chuck the SOB into the Tiber and lets get the hell outa here. I don’t want to be late for tonight’s orgy. Those broads I got from my Macedonian campaign can really give head.”

What’s with this hullabaloo about the most honorable way to die? If you’re dead, you’re dead, that’s it. Why you would give a fuck about how the rest of the world felt about you based upon the way you died, that beats the heck outa me. Personally I’d put a 9mm round through my skull with my trusty Glock34. Instantaneous nirvana, I won’t even feel it. One minute I am there and the next, I’m gone.

——————————-

Getting back to Shakespeare’s penchant for gore, his work is replete with mayhem and that’s because Elizabethan audiences reveled in gore. While a good comedy once in a while didn’t do any harm, the common folk of 16th century England overwhelmingly went for treachery, debauchery, deceit and gore. Violence was the primary reason why Billy became so famous.

Elizabethan audiences loved the shocking drama. The blood and gore had to be realistic and so the theatre management at “The Globe” had a small barn at the back where they kept sheep, lotsa sheep. Every two consecutive renderings, one was slaughtered and its blood, heart, lungs, liver, etc were used as props for the mayhem in the plot. When the props began to stink, they just went ahead and killed another sheep.

The present-day Globe Theatre, London. This is a replica, the original having burned down in 1613.

————————-

Realism drove the theatre producers to even use actual human beings sometimes, I’m not kidding. In Thomas Kyd’s ‘The Spanish Tragedy’ (a sorta Andrew Lloyd Webber of gore), which had several violent revenge killings on opening night, they needed an actual human being to be strung up from a tree branch and hanged, so they simply got a condemned prisoner from the Tower to do the act.

The play became a overnight rage. Soon they were running outa fresh bodies, so the Queen’s dragoons began picking up random folks right off the streets who looked even remotely suspicious of any wrongdoing. Trials were fast-tracked and the death sentences confirmed, so they could act in Thomas Kyd’s play that very evening, even though it was going to be a one night stand. Since at least some of the sods really were criminals, the law and order situation in and around London improved drastically.

————-

Some of Shakespeare’s most violent plays were by far the most popular. Titus Andronicus – Billy’s first and most violent tragedy – was a huge success at The Globe. Touring troupes fell over each other, wanting to play Titus Andronicus. In the play, two of the characters were baked in a pie……. literally……

Titus had the Roman emperor-to-be, Saturninus and his wife, Tamora, over for dinner and after the ‘horses of the ovaries’ had been cleared away, Titus revealed that the meat pie the couple had just devoured was actually what remained of their two sons, Demetrius and Chiron. While they were in a state of shock, Titus butchered Tamora with a carving knife and in return, was killed by Saturninus right after.

Titus had to be stupid. If I was going to tell you I just baked your kids into a pie, I’d make sure I had back-up. Titus had justification for the pie though. The duo had raped and mutilated his only daughter, Lavinia and he had had to honor-kill her after he found out, ‘to spare her the shame’. Boohoo. And then, Titus’s son, Lucius, nabbed Tamora’s Moor lover boy, Aaron and had him buried in the desert sand upto his chin and left ta starve to death.

And you thought ‘Friday the 13th’ was horrifying.

Billy Shakes was particularly gruesome in Hamlet – when King Hamlet (Hamlet’s dad) was napping in his orchard, his treacherous bro Claudius, poured a ‘leperous distillment’ into his ear. The poison curdled his blood and caused his skin to develop horrible sores. The King died in his garden, hideously disfigured, a victim of his brother’s treachery.

I am imagining The Globe issuing a casting notice, a job ad, announcing…. ‘Actor wanted, to play King Hamlet. Must bring his own vial of henbane and dropper and don’t forget the down-payment on casket…’

And then there was that shmuck, Polonius, newly crowned King Claudius’s trusted aide. Acting on the orders of Claudius, Polonius hid behind the drapes in Queen Gertrude’s chambers, to eavesdrop on her conversation with Hamlet, whom Claudius suspected of plotting to overthrow him. Polonius however had this fatal habit of almost all of Willy Shakes’ characters – he constantly talked to himself.

Thus, while Hamlet spoke with his mom, Polonius had this running commentary going with himself, in a sort of a low mumble. Alas, the mumble wasn’t low enough – Hamlet overheard him and drove his sword through the tapestry, killing the shmuck.

If you wanted to play Polonius and at the same time had a desire to come out of the show alive, you had ta have fast reflexes because you had only a microsecond from the time the sword emerged through the drapes and entered your gut.

Ophelia, driven insane by Hamlet’s murder of her beloved father, Polonius, plunged from a tree branch into the current below. Actually she slipped and didn’t know how to swim. But Elizabethan England would have labelled her a nitwit, so Billy Shakes wrote it in as a suicide.

That’s nothing. In Macbeth, Lady McDuff was chased across the stage at the Globe and slaughtered when she jumped off and fell into the arms of the ladies in the front row, splattering them with gore. It was so real that….it was real. Even for a million quid nobody wanted to play Lady McDuff in those days.

Willy Shakes really knew how to keep audiences titillated, with ingenious new ways in which to die. He was the 16th Century version of Quentin Tarantino.

If you were to believe everything Willy wrote, you would be a regular at the friendly neighborhood pharmacist in those days, shopping for a pitcher of concentrated hemlock, oh yeah. And its antidote of course. You would be a shmuck not to order the antidote and keep a vial chained safely to your waist, just in case somebody in your household poisoned you.

Antidotes those days were even more valuable than gold and silver. Look at today’s cyber-security stocks, Christ’s sakes. I have been saving up for a year to buy Crowdstrike, Palo Alto and Zscaler.

You think I am kidding about what went on in the Globe? Google it if you like. By the way, the Globe Theatre still exists. The original Globe Theatre, built in 1599, burned to the ground in 1613, was rebuilt and demolished in 1644. The modern Globe Theatre is said to a perfect replica of the original 1599 construction.

—————-

According to Willy, Mark Anthony and Cassius too ran themselves through. For different reasons of course. Cassius, for being Brutus’ co-conspirator and Mark Anthony, for wanting to overthrow Octavian.

Cassius handed his loyal Parthian slave, Pindarus, the very sword with which he had stabbed Caesar. He then commanded, John Gielgud-style, “Now with this good sword, that ran through Caesar’s bowels, search this bosom…. And when my face is covered, as ‘tis now, guide thou the sword.” Pindarus later made his escape to some place Willy Shakes doesn’t mention in his play. Slaves didn’t count for much of a mention in 16th Century England. In forcing a slave to murder him, Cassius selfishly put Pindarus’ life in danger. If captured I shudder to think what would have been done to him. But then most Roman noblemen, like Cassius, were self-absorbed pricks.

Mark Anthony ran himself through alone, believing at the point that Cleopatra had already taken her life. His corpse was brought into Empress’s inner sanctum and laid to rest in her arms, under the orders of Octavian. At this point, the despondent Cleopatra shoved her hand inside a basket of dates that had an asp placed inside on her orders. Mark Anthony had been popular with Cleopatra’s generals and might easily have been able to escape to Ethiopia, but he chose to run himself through.

———————

Shakespearean plots were always very complex, with rivalries and deceit, temporary alliances and treachery, cowardice and chivalry – all woven inside a huge cauldron of blood and gore. One moment you see two characters thick as thieves and after a coupla acts they are at each other’s throats.

Other than his Titus Andronicus, which was fiction, all of Shakespeare’s tragedies were based on history. If Billy Shakes had been alive in the present day, he would surely have found in Afghanistan the perfect fodder for a tragedy. The buddy movie of the American and the Taliban raising toasts in sunny Doha and then the treachery of the Americans, leaving their faithful Afghan fixers at the mercy of the Taliban.

Oh yeah, there’s a Shakespearean zigadoo in everything today. Take a look at who was fighting whom in Syria just a while back….

Bashar Assad was trying to put down an armed insurrection, with the help of his Shiite friends, Iran and and the Lebanese Hezbollah and his long-term ally and benefactor – Russia. The Americans were arming the rebels and drawing “red lines” against Assad, while they were also paying Assad to let them rent off-site real estate for torture and rendition in the so-called ‘war on terror’. The Israelis were, time to time, bombing Assad’s ammo dumps and all the while, making nice with Putin. And all this time Bashar was keeping alive a hope he would one day be back in America’s good books and be able to get his hands on all the frozen assets. All this, when at home Assad was playing a devoted husband with a British born prim and propah Syrian wife who liked to show off her Oxford accent and her pearls.

And all of them, the Syrians, the Americans, the Russians, the Israelis, the Iranians, the ships, the shoes, the sealing wax, the cabbages and the kings – they were all fighting the ISIS.

Truly Shakespearean, ain’t it??

There’s nary a chance Assad will ever fall on his sword. Or Putin. Or Orban, or Bolsonaro, or Lukashenko. Or Trump. Or this latest Kazakhstan wassissname dictator.

They all gotta be pushed.

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

Organized crime map of Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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

————————————————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—————————-

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

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

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

——————————

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

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

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

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

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

————————————————-

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

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

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

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

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

——————————————

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

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

——————————————————

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

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

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

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

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

——————————————————

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

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

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

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

E Pluribus Multis

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

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

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

——————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was civilization 1.0, oh yeah.

————————-

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

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

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

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

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

—————————-

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

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

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

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

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

————————-

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

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

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

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

The overwhelming sense that I have is – yes.

————————-

Gaddar

Navy Nagar Parade Ground Sea Wall,

Colaba, Mumbai, India

*******************************

Wednesday 26th November, 2008 (20.37hrs)

*******************************

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

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

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

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

—————————

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

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

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

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

I had looked up sharply, “Another landing?”

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

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

Jimmy stared at me. “Efraim.”

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aftab”, I said, to which he nodded.

“Aur aap hain, janab…?” (And you?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“MARCOS.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is God a just God?

———————————

“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

————————————

“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)
————————————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll say it again – Jeeze, some God.

————————————

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

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

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

—————————

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

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

Anyway, whatever happened to that woman afterward has never been recorded and now, more than two thousand years later, we still have no idea. But we sure can tell what will happen to a young adulteress like her, today…….

Nothing.

They won’t even bother to arrest her. Today the same lady can sit on her haunches ‘in the middle of 5th Avenue’ and blow someone and all she’ll get is a ticket for blocking traffic. Courts in most progressive democracies no longer recognize adultery as a criminal offence, citing personal liberty which is enshrined in their constitutions.

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

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

——————————————