The Erastes, the Eromenos and the Pathikos

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A civilized world is one where there are no taboos – Socrates

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‘Abduction of Ganymede’ (painting by Peter Paul Reubens, 1611)

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For any female, born in an urban slum or in rural India, there is an 80% likelihood of her being either raped or molested at least once in her lifetime. For a boy who was born in 500BC Greece, the odds of something similar happening to him were identical.

Ganymede was a Trojan boy barely out of his teens, whom the 8th Century BC poet, Homer, had described as the most beautiful of mortals. Even the Gods couldn’t take their eyes off him. So taken by his beauty was the lecherous old Zeus that he stole in one day, disguised as an eagle, lofted Ganymede into the heavens and whisked him away to his pad at the Mount Olympus.

Oh yeah, Zeus had this habit of appearing in disguise as a bird whenever he felt horny. He once appeared before Leda, the Spartan King Tyndareus’s wife, as a swan and ravished her. Legend has it that, out of the union was born Helen of Troy. Helen of Sparta actually. Helen of Troy is a misnomer.

As for Ganymede, in exchange for steamy anal sex, Zeus gave him eternal youth and immortality and a permanent position as the official cup bearer – like a bus boy – to the gods.

There is no record of what Zeus’s old lady, Hera, had to say about this new love-affair. Probably nothing. Given the times and the open practice of pederasty that was the custom among adult Greek noblemen and their Gods in those days, she may have just yawned and said,” Tennis anyone?”

The same milk of forgiveness ran through Roman wives as well. The emperor, Hadrian (76-138AD), took a male lover in the form of a Bythinian youth named Antinous. As a foreigner it was perfectly acceptable for Antinous to appear in public next to the emperor and his wife Sabina.

Hadrian and Antinous were lovers for five years until Antinous fell overboard from a galley into the Nile and drowned. Grapevine has it that Sabina had a centurian persuade the boy to jump one night when Hadrian wasn’t looking but I can’t submit any evidence of it. Heartbroken, Hadrian had Antinous declared a god, built temples to him all over the empire, named a star after him and built a city in Egypt, Antinopolis, in his honor.

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Up until the Roman Empire turned Christian under Constantine the Great and Christianity began being rammed down everyone’s throats under threat of death all across Europe and beyond, homosexuality in all it’s forms was a universally accepted practice in the so-called ‘civilized’ world. Sodomy was practiced mostly among the upper classes. (The hoi-polloi were too busy trying to survive invasions and deprivation).

In the pre-Christian world, men f–king other men was du jour.

Philosophers of the day, Aristotle and Socrates, waxed eloquent on how the human anatomy had placed the anus in just right level and orientation to be shtupped by the erect penis of another man, so convenient that even the anal passage had the same angle of inclination to the horizontal as a fully erect penis.  Therefore they surmised that, we were all meant to be fucked up our asses. I can see Euclid exclaiming, ‘QED!’

Around the 400BCs there were other ancient cultures that practiced homosexual sex. The Indian philosopher, Vatsayana, writing in his “Kama Sutra”, waxed eloquent on the number of ways adult males could pleasure each other orally.  But the deluge of direct evidence of homosexual liaisons in ancient Greece that archeologists have dug up is astonishing. Hundreds of vases have been unearthed along the Aegean Sea coast of Greece, that have erotic paintings on the sides, depicting males in sexually intimate positions, dating back to 1000BC.

The vase paintings have a common theme running through them – the sexual intimacy depicted is invariably shown happening between a bearded adult male and a pubescent or adolescent boy, usually the son of another free citizen with whom the adult has a business or family connection. One might wrinkle his nose in disgust today but that was the norm then. The boy knew that his coming-of-age required submitting to anal penetration by a grown adult male, who took him under his wing like a mentor and proceeded to take charge of his education. It started invariably with a period of elaborate courtship when the mentor showered the boy with presents until he eventually broke and submitted.

The Greeks had developed a strict code of conduct as regards homosexuality. An adult Greek male could not have sex with another adult Greek male. It would make the man being penetrated (the pathikos or passive partner), seem effeminate and submissive. That was something which the Greek society – essentially a martial culture – deemed a humiliation and therefore inappropriate. It would bring down the submissive male to the level of women, who at that point in history were considered lesser mortals in this highly patriarchal culture. He could be ridiculed and laughed out of town and even lose the right to hold public office.

The ban on adult to adult male sex did not extend to slaves however. It was open season on slaves. You could do absolutely anything you wanted with your slave, since you owned him. An adult Greek male could f—k an adult male slave till he was blue in the face. Slaves, usually the citizens of conquered lands, were acquisitions and had no rights whatsoever.

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In ancient times, you had to be prepared to be a slave if your city-state got invaded and sacked by an invasion force. A run-of-the-mill invasion usually netted around 15-20000 able-bodied slaves who could then be sold for hard cash. The slave trade was the by far the largest and most profitable business venture in ancient Greece.

During his 8-year long expedition of conquest through the Middle-East, Asia Minor, right up to the banks of the Jhelum River in present-day Pakistan, Alexander the Great is reported to have taken into captivity and sold more than 500,000 slaves from the lands he conquered.

Thanks to Alexander’s zeal, soon there was a glut in the market. Supply outstripped demand and the powerful slave cartels in Greece and Asia Minor, pretty much like the OPEC of today, hated him for flooding the market.

Besides the booties that Alexander looted from the vanquished Persian King Darius III’s coffers, the slave trade was a major source of revenue that helped pay his soldiers’ above-average salaries and frequent bonuses. It is said that on one occasion, after he had sacked the city of Tyre, he paid his troops the equivalent of 8 years’ pay as bonus. If it hadn’t been for his largesse, his men, tired of the fighting and homesick, would have turned and gone back much earlier.

Alexander was huge on the slave trade but he was also a fair man. If a state readily submitted to his invasion force and acknowledged him as their monarch without a challenge, he not only spared them a massacre but in fact enthusiastically waded into their culture, encouraging his commanders and troops to go forth and marry their women and intermingle. He allowed the citizens of the annexed lands to retain their culture and traditions and even offered sacrifices to their Gods at their temples. The slaves came from the states that tried in vain to repel his invasion and faced his wrath as a result.

Alexander was a horny bastard too, of that there is very little doubt. He didn’t believe in harems like his arch-rival, Darius III, who had 365 concubines, one for every night of the year (I suppose he rested on leap years). Alexander however had a string of affairs and wives and he also had at least two male lovers that I know of. He was very respectful of folk he had sex with and there was no rough stuff, unlike other conquerors of his time.

Alexander was a good looking guy, as per the 1st Century AD historian, Plutarch. Says he, “…Not very tall, perhaps a little over five podes and a half, Alexander was light brown skinned and had a tinge of red on his face and upon his breast. Aristoxenus, in his memoirs, spoke at length of Alexander’s sharp features and bright blue eyes. He had heard Aristotle speak in amazement of a most alluring scent that emanated from his skin. His breath and his body were so fragrant that they perfumed his undergarments……” Yuck! Ugh!

Powerful city-states like Athens and Sparta and empires too, like the Persian and Roman empires, had large populations of slaves who had been nabbed from conquered lands and put to work in mines or construction and even as domestic help. At the height of it’s golden age – around 450BC – one in three inhabitants of Greece was a slave.

The slave-to-citizen ratio was even higher with the Romans and that could be a reason why in the 1st Century BC, a Thracian slave named Kirk Douglas managed to band together a well-organized fighting force of 70000 slaves against the Roman legions and was able to get as far as he did, massacring thousands of well-trained and superbly equipped Roman legionaries, before he was finally apprehended and killed. Even though he did not succeed in the end, Douglas is still an interesting example of how far the will to be free can take you, but I shall have to leave that for another occasion.

What? Did I say Kirk Douglas? Oh, sorry, the slave was called Spartacus. Kirk Douglas only played the role of Spartacus and co-produced the 1960 Stanley Kubrick movie by the same name. At my age, it is easy to get mixed up a bit. Do watch it if you get the chance.

But during the heroic and classic ages of the Greek civilization, a few centuries before Spartacus, the thought of organizing their own ‘Greek Spring’ hadn’t yet occurred to the slaves.

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While the adult-to-adult male sex was a no-no in ancient Greece, the acceptable practice was what we term today as pederasty – sex between an adult male (the erastes) and a boy in the age bracket of around 10 to 17 (known as the eromenos). It was pedophilia with a slightly narrowed age range. Pederasty was a practice that was regulated by the State as an institution, no kidding. It was generally taken as a supplement to a heterosexual marriage, which the Greek deemed as essential for the purpose of procreation. Thus, the adult men who practiced pederasty were basically bisexuals.

Today, the age of consent varies from country to country but overall, pederasty is considered just as heinous a crime as pedophilia and most nations in the modern world have strict laws against it. The same Socrates, whom we like to lionize, would be cooling his heels inside a maximum security penitentiary, serving a lengthy sentence, had he been around today.

Back then, institutionalized as it was, pederasty was commonplace. There were even public places where noblemen met and swapped their boy lovers. The Grecian baths for example were places where nobles lazed around and exchanged boys. If they had internet they would probably call it swapboy.com or something.

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An Erastes with his Eromenos, on a Greek vase (Image coutesy: Wikimedia)

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The pederasty practiced in ancient Greece was in fact cyclic – as soon as the eromenos began to sport a beard, it was a sign that he was now an adult and therefore could not continue his sexual liaison with his erastes. He could in fact himself start leading life as an erastes now and have his own eromenos. Oh Goody!!

In ancient Greece, if you were a male from the upper classes, you were either an erastes or an eromenos. You didn’t fight it. You humped or you got humped. By another male. That was that. Grecian stores even stocked different varieties of depilatory products to help you keep your eromenos looking young and therefore ‘acceptable’.

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The Greek poet, Anacreon, and his little lover. Anacreon’s poetry was all about passion, love, infatuation, revelry and parties, like an ancient version of Jackie Collins, except in his case, the protagonists were invariably pederasts. 

Interestingly, most sculptures, bas-reliefs and paintings depicting ancient Greek pederasty, are found in the Vatican palaces and museums today. Should this be a surprise at all?

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The Greek city-state of Sparta mandated an austere existence, devoid of any kind of extravagance (and hence the word ‘spartan’). Military training was mandatory and stretched right through a boy’s formative years, starting at age six, right up until twenty-two. During this period, the little boys got paired off with the older boys or men in the military academy, who became their mentors. They spent long hours working out inside gyms and arenas, practicing the five exercises of the pentathlon – wrestling, races, long jumps, throwing the discus and hurling the javelin.

The youths in the gymnasia were always naked and sexual intimacy was inevitable and encouraged as an essential part of the kid’s education. The word ‘gymnasium’ is reported to have been derived from the Greek word ‘gymnos’, which means ‘naked’.

It got so bad with the 22-year old graduating cadets of the Spartan military academy that, on their wedding night, their brides had to resort to dressing like men in order to arouse their grooms and help them make the transition from homosexual to heterosexual sex.

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It’s an irony that we term the ancient Greeks as the very fountain of western civilization, when most of what they practiced – pederasty, slavery – would land them inside a supermax prison today.

Gaddar

Navy Nagar Parade Ground Sea Wall,

Colaba, Mumbai, India

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Wednesday 26th November, 2008 (20.37hrs)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had looked up sharply, “Another landing?”

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

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

Jimmy stared at me. “Efraim.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aftab”, I said, to which he nodded.

“Aur aap hain, janab…?” (And you?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“MARCOS.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is God a just God?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll say it again – Jeeze, some God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On the Road to Jericho

‘Every day, each one of us

goes out on the Jericho road…’

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


jericho

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Mother Theresa

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

Now let’s get to the other white board.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a spring in your step.

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Ps:This piece was written in 2019

The Red Lotus with the Blue Leaves

Ma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ikeya Seki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The year was 1965.

And the boy….me.

Slipstream

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

You take away all he’s got

And all he’ll ever have”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————————————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————————–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—————————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning the Corner

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

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

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

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

—————————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————————

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

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

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

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

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

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

—————————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hood of my parka encased an angel.

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

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

——————-

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

“Can I use the loo?”

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

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

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

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

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

I hoped I would turn mine. Some day soon.

Is that you, darling, are you home?

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

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

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

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

———————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that you, darling, are you home?”

Check-up

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.

The Day I met the Mahatma

———————————-

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, And then they fight you and that’s when you win….” – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

————————————

They gave me a white cotton shirt to wear over my t-shirt and told me not to tuck it into my jeans. That way the jeans wouldn’t be noticed. They said I could take the shirt home as a memento if I liked and I did. I’d have preferred to take Candice Bergen home with me instead. She had played the role of the beautiful blonde prize-winning photographer for Life Magazine, Margaret Bourke-White.

It was Pune, 1982 and I am referring to the filming of a scene from Sir Richard Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’ in which I had the privilege of working as an extra. The scene was the part of the story that depicted his time in South Africa.

The set was the N.M.Wadia amphitheater of the 100-year old Ferguson College in Pune – a massive wood paneled hall with tiered seats. I was 26 and my vivacious girlfriend, Meghna Kulkarni, was also an extra. A petite BA (performing arts) student, Meghna was a gifted actress herself and a member of Dr Mohan Agashe’s theater group. The producers had approached Dr Agashe for a bit part as well as help in organizing crowds of extras for the filming and he had in turn ‘sub-contracted’ the crowd gathering chore to Meghna and her friends.

So there was I. For two days, I was in the thick of it, watching the Mahatma (Ben Kingsley) deliver a rousing speech, exhorting Indians in South Africa to resist being treated as second class citizens. It was a master class in acting.

In the shot, Kingsley says, “Let us be clear about General Smuts’ new law : that all Indians must now be fingerprinted like criminals. That no marriage, other than a Christian marriage, is valid. That under this act, our wives and mothers are whores and every man here is a bastard. That policemen may enter our dwellings and demand our identity documents. Understand, they do not have to wait at the door. They may enter.”

At that point, an audience member in the front row, ‘Khan’ (Amrish Puri), springs to his feet in rage and swears he’ll kill the first cop who walks through his doorstep uninvited.

Puri’s timing was impeccable and so was Kingsley’s dialogue delivery. It was obvious that that Kingsley had practiced painstakingly. I got to know the extent of his prep for the role only later on, when filming broke for lunch.

Attenborough had this quaint way of wrapping up a shot. He never said, “Cut!!” He simply stood up, came around the camera and said in a quiet hoarse tone, “That’ll be enough of that.” Similarly, I never heard him say, “All ready..3..2..1..Action!!!” In that same hoarse tone, he would simply say,”Ready when you are…..”

Candice Bergen was not in the scene being shot but she was present on the set, watching the filming. Bergen wasn’t a very well-known actress, at least not in India, so no one took any notice of her, beyond the usual gawking at a pretty gora woman. In fact, most of the actors on the set were not well known, so there were no stampedes for autographs or hordes of awestruck fans. The only recognizable face was Amrish Puri’s and he sat through the whole thing with poise.

Every time Gandhi/Kingsley spoke, Meghna would be overcome with emotion and vigorously wipe her tearful face on my shirt. My repeatedly whispered ‘take it easy, this is just a movie, yaar’ did nothing to stop her. Other extras standing next to us began turning their heads to stare at Meghna and all this while the camera was rolling.

It got so bad that, at one point, while Kingsley was speaking the lines, “They can break my bones but they cannot break my will…..” Attenborough said, “A minute, Ben” and walked up the tiers of seats to where we were standing and confronted Meghna. Both of us thought this is it. We were going to be chucked out on our tushes.

Instead, the director’s face, ruddy from the heat and glistening with sweat, softened and he said words to the effect,” You know, I have been crying ever since I started reading up on the Mahatma. Cry all you want, just keep it down”. He gave Meghna a quick pat on the shoulder and his eyes twinkled mischievously as he added,” Or I’ll have to send you the bill for the delay”.

The unit had broken for lunch and everyone had dispersed. Meghna and I had nowhere to go so we hung around the set, tripping over wires and stuff, till we set ourselves down on the ground and leaned back against a large box filled with sound equipment. Silence had fallen over the set. Those days there were no hulking security guys with wires coming out of their ears to manhandle you, so no one asked us to leave.

As we sat by the box, I heard a shuffle and looked over my shoulder. Seated cross-legged alone, barely an arm’s length away, next to a bunch of dormant klieg lights, on the dirt floor was a barefoot Ben Kingsley. For the shot, he had been wearing a coat and pants but now he had on just a kurta. He sat there soaked in sweat. There was a thali (ordered from the nearby Roopali restaurant) perched on his lap and on the floor by him stood a glass of mango lassi.

As Meghna and I gawked, Kingsley noticed us staring. He smiled and cleared his throat. Almost instantaneously, a whispered hum rose from his lips, exquisite in its melody and so soft that we could just barely hear him….

“Raghupati raghava rajaram patita pavana seeta ram (Hail Rama, lord and master. Hail Seeta and Rama, who make even the fallen, pure)”

He paused and looked at us gaping at him dumbstruck. Meghna shivered and clung on to me. Kingsley’s diction and tone was pitch perfect. He dropped the chapati on the thali and raised his palms together in Hindu supplication, his eyes drawn shut and his head swaying from side to side. Very softly, as if setting free something very fragile, he let out the rest of the words…

“Ishwar e allah tero naam, Sab ko sanmati de Bhagwan” (You can be Ishwar or you can be Allah, but your benevolence is toward all)

What Kingsley hummed so beautifully was a Bhajan (Hindu devotional song) that used to be Mahatma Gandhi’s favorite. That bhajan appears multiple times in the movie.

Kinglsey paused and opened his eyes and gave us another terrific smile. The spell broke and he resumed devouring his chapatis and veg pulao. And he chewed and chatted. He told us that he had been walking around barefoot for the past year or so. At first he had blisters but now he didn’t feel anything. In his Blue Diamond Hotel suite, the A/C knob was left at zero and he had thrown the sliding widows open. Instead of ordering room service, he was subsisting on the fruit basket that room service had left on a side table.

Shortly after being told that he’d been picked to play the role of Gandhi, Kingsley turned a teetotaler and he intended staying that way for the rest of his life. At night in his hotel room, he read from a paperback concise translation of the Bhagwad Gita and after a while, he curled up on the floor and slept. “I’m trying to get them to remove the carpet…..one can make do with so little actually……,” he told us, breaking into that Gandhi smile every now and then.

There was no question about it – the actor had been touched by the greatness of the Mahatma.

———————-

Later that afternoon, they shot the pass-burning scene at the playground outside the amphitheater. It was getting late and Meghna had a mid-term exam the next morning, so we split. We stopped by the Vaishali snack restaurant where I had a dosa and she a plate of idlis and then I walked her home on Tilak Road, across the Mutha River.

As we walked hand-in-hand, not a word passed between us. I tried to make light of it by saying, hey, we forgot to take autographs, but I gave up and fell silent. Usually there was a fixed pattern by which our evenings together seemed always to end – with a long canoodle. That evening it was going to be a nocandoodle, looked like.

We had just witnessed something very special. For a brief moment, through a roundabout route, across a canyon of decades, our lives had been touched by the Mahatma.