Nikhilesh Panigrahi, Nick to you and me, is a one huge pain in the ass and the world knows it. Maybe even those aliens on Europa that look like rectangular blocks know it. Arthur C.Clarke says they know everything.
The only reason why I tolerate Nick is because he’s funny. That his pappy is Admiral K.K.Panigrahi, head of the Western Naval Command at Mumbai, is also a factor. Having a pal whose Dad is a head honcho in the military means unlimited tax-free booze plus the exciting prospect of occasional guided tours aboard those frigates and guided missile cruisers, all the while being courted around like royalty. These fauji (military) types sure can live in style, believe you me. Batmen at your beck and call. You have an itch on your butt and need to have it scratched, a batman will do it for ya, no sweat. And he’ll act like he loves doing it too.
But this is not about Nick’s Dad or how the Indian Navy arranges to have your butt scratched. Don’t waylay my sharp intellect, ok? Let me move on with the story. The INS Chakra, a nuclear powered Charlie Class guided missile submarine, had just docked at Mazgaon and Nick’s Dad was scheduled to go on board for a visit. We had been invited.
So there we were, wedged between the A.H.Wheelers new stand and an ice cream vendor, on an overcrowded Platform-1 of the Pune Railway Station. Nick had his wife Sumona and 6yr old daughter, Rumi. Sumona was excitedly getting acquainted with my markedly better half, Rekha. Rumi was eying our 7yr old Akshay from behind her mother’s pallu.
Akshay took a chocolate eclair out of his pocket and held it out to her. A chocolate eclair is a kid’s version of a one-liner. Flustered at the come-on, the little girl shrank back further inside the folds of her mother’s saree. Akshay took a step forward and she escaped to her father. Akshay gave chase and soon the two kids were running around each other, giggling. “Pat gayee!” I thought to myself.
The Panigrahis had separate seats, two cars ahead and were about to part temporarily when Rekha had this brainwave that made the four hour journey to Mumbai one of the most memorable I’ve had. She suggested that she, Sumona and the kids could travel in one car while Nick and I sat in the other. Nick and I readily agreed to being unshackled and we settled the ladies and the kids in and raced back to our car, just when the DQ started moving.
For non-Puneites, ‘DQ’ stands for Deccan Queen Express, an early morning commuter train that zips between Pune and Mumbai, a 200 mile trip with a stop at Lonawala atop the Indian Rockies, the Western Ghats mountain range, affectionately called ‘ghats’ by locals like yours truly. Being short-haul, the DQ has only seating-only ‘chair cars’, the seats arranged in clusters of four, two by two, facing each other.
When two men, two happily married men, two happily married men in their thirties, two happily married horny men in their thirties, two happily married horny men in their thirties unfettered by spousal monitoring, take out newspapers and Wodehouses with a flourish in a train, the first few moments are spent not on devouring the headlines or the exploits of Psmith, but in checking out the surrounding seats from the lee of the magazine/newspaper.
As the DQ gathered speed and swept past all those tiny suburban stops, Nick unfurled a TOI that he’d picked up at the A.H.Wheelers while I whipped out the Wodehouse I’d packed. Don’t know what TOI is? You really are a piece of work, y’know. TOI stands for The Times of India, a daily which Rupert Murdoch has been meaning to buy up. I’m lying of course. He isn’t. Rupert is too right wing to have anything to do with the TOI.
The TOI was a strategic buy. It was going to be a prop for two lecherous men who hadn’t grown out of their college days. When you’re gazing out beyond an edge of your newspaper, the object of your gaze can’t tell if you’re staring at her or reading. In this manner, one can give anything inside a tight churidar-kurta or butt-hugging jeans a closer than usual scrutiny. If something interesting is spotted, elbows will nudge ribs, whispers shall get exchanged, poetry murmured under the breath, like , “aye hamein zindagi, kuch to de mashwara, ek taraf uski seat, is taraf main chala”.
Sitting facing Nick, her knees bumping frequently into his with the sway of the train – knees that were untouched by fabric of any sort, was a girl. Smoke started curling up the starboard edges of Nick’s TOI.
Groan! I’m lying again. The girl actually had trousers on, stylish, slightly baggy, dark greyish black trousers and polished black chisel-toed shoes. You couldn’t make out what she had on top as she was swathed in a large matching grey black jacket and a shawl covering everything. Opaque black tear drop Ray Bans concealed her eyes. Fashionable, very fashionable indeed. Seated next to the girl, directly in front of me, was an elderly gentleman. Within minutes of settling in his seat, the man dozed off. They had come in separately and hadn’t communicated with each other all this while. She must therefore be traveling alone, unaccompanied, seul, lonesome, little red riding hood. QED. Mama Mia. Oomalapoo. Sheekalafoo. Rekha, Sumona who?
“Excuse me, can I borrow the cartoon page? I just love cartoons, you know,” the girl had removed her shades and leaned forward and lightly tapped Nick on his knee. Even pearly white teeth showed through a slight smile, a kind of smile you’d term in Bengali a ‘mridu hanshi’, a smile made of kryptonite. Mridu kryptonite hanshi.
If you thought Nick would be bowled over, you don’t know Nick. Nick is a cool dude. His blood carries oxygen in liquified form, he’s that cool. “Of course,” he said,” I bet you like Garfield the best.”
“Oh!! How could you know?” her eyes were wide open, long lashes fluttering, making it a bit windy in there, “I just love my daily dose of Garfield”.
“Let me see…here you are…” Nick held the cartoon page out for her and I affected a look like I was closely sizing her up, ” You’re an MBA student, probably in HR. And single.”
She laughed,”Single is right and I intend to stay that way. I’m done with men. I just want to feel the freedom for a while..” she smiled again, as if to exclude us from her sweeping assertion about being done with men. “And I’m an air hostess by the way, so you’re wrong about the MBA bit,” she took the cartoon page, smiled a murmured thanks and buried her locks in it. Nick and I went back to our reading.
It was while we were having those steaming hot batata vadas at Lonawala that the girl turned to me, “And you? What do you do for a living?”
That was when Nick cut in,” Oh, Akash and I work for the government…..” Good Lord, there he goes again…”I’m sorry but we can’t talk about it.”
Her face changed. There was excitement in it. She shivered. “Really? Are you, like, spies or something? Undercover agents of some sort? Wow!” She shivered some more.
“Ok, we’ll tell you but this is only for your ears,” I leaned forward, “I’m with RAW and Nick here is on deputation to the NSG”.
“What’s NSG?” Her eyes were like saucers as she turned to Nick.
“National Security Guards. Like the Navy Seals. Only, we’re much tougher.”
“Are you both on a joint mission?” her voice was hushed and she couldn’t help looking over her shoulders frequently.
Nick nodded. “Remember, if you breathe a word about us to anyone, our lives are in danger,” he hissed.
“Are you..I mean like, are you guys single too?”
“Of course, in our line of work, we have to be completely unattached,” I took out the Saridon capsule I was carrying with me in case I had a headache on the train, held it up and said, “We have to have these ready, in case we have no choice but to take our own lives.”
By now we had her terrified. I began feeling sorry for her and tried to lighten the air a bit.
“What’s it like? Being an air hostess? Do you have to contend with misbehaving male passengers and flight commanders? Is that why you’re sick of men?”
She laughed,”I am used to the boors we often have, among passengers and pilots. Otherwise, its fun. A couple of hours of work and a whole lot of sight seeing on the house later on.”
As the DQ cleared Thane, some folk started getting up and stretching, in preparation to disembarking at Dadar. We were going up to VT. And so was the fly girl, but the moment we left Dadar, she got up hurriedly,”I have to go now, bye…” and she was off down the aisle.
We saw her one last time. It was on the VT Terminus platform. I had Akshay on my shoulders and Rekha holding on to my right arm. Nick, Sumona and Rumi were walking hand in hand. We were headed toward the exit. The girl was just a few yards in front of us, her gait lithe, panther-like.
It was then that we saw two burly uniformed men approach and give the girl a smart salute. The men had jet black uniforms with shoulder flashes with the acronym NSG on them. Their chests bristled with ribbons. The girl stopped and returned the salute. One of the men hurried to take charge of her luggage. I noticed that she’d taken off the shawl and jacket. Underneath, she had a tunic similar to the ones the men wore, except for the shoulder epaulets, which had an Ashoka Pillar just above a triangle with three stars in it.
Much later, a quick look-up on Wikipedia told me that those shoulder flashes I’d seen were the rank insignia of a Deputy Director of the National Security Guards, also known as the Black Cats, India’s premier Special Forces Command.
At that very moment, since she hadn’t moved, we came up next to her and she turned and saw us, Nick, me, Sumona, Rekha and the kids. Her shades were back on but we felt the same ‘mridu’ smile play for an instant as she surveyed all of us. She gave us a barely perceptible nod, turned and walked briskly out to a black Ambassador MarkIV that had been parked at the VIP spot, its engine running, the rotating roof lights flashing. The moment she stepped inside, the car swept out of the lot, speeded up and disappeared round the curve of the reservations office building.
“Once in a while, a man arises boasting; he shows his power and crows,
“I am the one!!!”
For a fleeting moment, his puny matters flourish
Then Death appears and cries out,
“I am the one!!!!!”
⁃ Omar Khayam (Rubáyát of Omar Khayam)
Moscow/24 June 2022
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin did not get his last wish – that he would die a world changer with all the prodigal sons – the breakaway republics – back in the fold and the Russian Empire at the head of half the civilized world. The end, when it came, was sudden and spectacular.
It had been past midnight when the Russian President’s converted Il-96 had landed at Vnukovo Airport, after the 3-day BRICS Summit at Beijing. Putin had spent the night at Novo-Ogaryovo, his official dacha on the Rublyovo-Uspenskoye Highway, west of Moscow. Now the sun was barely peeking out over the furs in the distance and he was already at his desk in the den, leafing through the press briefing that he was scheduled to deliver that afternoon about what had been achieved in Beijing. The briefing was, as the title suggested, brief. The President hated flowery prose.
There was a discrete knock and his major-domo, Volodya, a Spetsnaz veteran and also his judo partner, entered quietly, closing the tall oak doors behind him, as he balanced a tray in his right hand. Volodya was a lefty, a fact that the President sometimes forgot on the mat. Volodya had broken his ribs twice while practicing the ‘harai goshi’, a judo sweep throw, but he would follow his master blindly and unquestioningly. Likewise, Vladimir Vladimirovich trusted Volodya with his life and made sure that he and his family wanted for nothing.
Little was known about Volodya outside of the President’s closest circle of aides, but of one single thing there was no doubt in anybody’s mind – that Volodya was to Putin what Martin Bormann had been, to Hitler or R.K.Dhawan to Indira Gandhi. Only, in his case he had the same name as his boss – Volodya is short for Volodymyr which is the Ukrainian way of saying Vladimir.
Even less known, at least to Putin or anyone in Russia’s FSB, was the fact that Volodya was not the St.Petersburg born white Russian orthodox Christian son of an ex-GRU officer who had served with Putin in East Berlin. Volodya had actually been born Magomet Khuchbarov, the only son of ultra-conservative Salafist Sunni Muslim peasants, in the Ingush village of Khutor Tarski.
Magomet’s father, Ruslan Khuchbarov, had drilled into him as a toddler that they were direct descendants of the Turko-Mongol conqueror, Tamerlane, though that would seem doubtful to anybody who saw him. Magomet did not have the slanted Mongol eyes or any other Mongol trait. With his close-cropped blonde hair and stark blue eyes, he appeared more Russian than most other Russians.
Ruslan Khuchbarov had taught his son one other thing, though ‘taught’ would be too mild a word. He had beaten one thing into young Magomet – to hate, to treat all non-Muslims as apostates and infidels, who were fit only to die and never to shed any tears over them. Magomet had learnt quickly, the persecution by the Russian military in the Republics of Chechnya and his own homeland, Ingushetia, through the 1990s acting as a catalyst.
Somewhere between the start of the First and the Second Chechen Wars where Ingush units fought alongside Chechen insurgents, Magomet Khuchbarov suddenly ceased to exist. Militants were disappearing all the time, tortured and burnt to cinder. Besides, the young Magomet was at the time still an unknown among the FSB’s files and therefore his sudden disappearance went unnoticed.
The Caliphate had chosen him well. He had no friends or close relatives and no one seemed to care if he existed or not. By the time he vanished into thin air, both his parents had been killed by Russian mortar fire and his village had been completely destroyed, razed to the ground.
How Magomet Khuchbarov managed to come to life as Volodymyr Antonenko and through the 1990s, inveigle himself into the very heart of the Russian high command, ultimately stationing himself as his namesake boss, Vladimir Putin’s butler-cum-bodyguard-cum judo partner, is a complete mystery to the world.
Magomet was something unheard of in a terror group – a trained sleeper. In espionage terms, a sleeper is a very highly disciplined covert operative who becomes a part of the society he has been sent to subvert. Armed with a false identity and background, he settles down and blends in, even getting married to a local and raising a family if he can. Once he is in, he waits for the order to go active.
The sleeper’s cover is so deep that he makes no contact with anyone who is even remotely connected to his employers. He is essentially on his own with no diplomatic protection. Only his control knows who and where he is. If his control defects or otherwise gives him away, tough shit. In Magomet Khuchbarov’s case, given that he betrayed Russians or worse, the chances that he would survive the interrogations were next to nil.
Oh yeah, the Russians had redefined the term ‘retribution’ since the Bolsheviks came to power. The Beirut apartment block bombing comes readily to mind…….
In the late 1970s, a Hezbollah team killed a Soviet diplomat in Beirut, mistaking him for a Mossad agent. The Soviets were friends and sponsors of the Syrian army and through them, the Shiite Hezbollah.
Both, the Syrian government and the Hezbollah, apologized profusely for the mix-up but that did not help. One October night in 1979, a Spetsnaz team entered the apartment building where the Hezbollah assassination team leader lived. They did not just put a bullet in his head and be done with it. They chained him, his wife and his brother who was visiting them and had nothing to do with Hezbollah, to the iron grill on his bedroom window, rigged the building with explosives and took it down in a controlled demolition. A day later, the Soviet ambassador to Damascus told a puzzled Hafez Assad,’ We punish accidents just as severely’.
A sleeper is a single-shot weapon. The moment he emerges from deep cover, he completes his mission swiftly and gets extracted, never to return to the country where he operated. If he has a family by then, he just leaves them behind. He is programmed to show affection but at the same time, to steel himself to remain aloof. Volodya’s wife, Tania and son Yuri, had no idea they were not going to see him again after today.
The deep penetration of Volodymyr Antonenko had been a spectacular coup and it’s fruits, incalculable. The Caliphate now knew in real time, every move that the Russian military made, even before it’s own brigade commanders did. The Emir decreed that henceforth, Magomet Khuchbarov, alias VolodymyrAntonenko, be addressed only by the code-name ‘Luchnik’. In Russian, it meant – the archer.
The Emir would have let Luchnik remain in place had the July 2014 attempt on Putin not been botched. The Malaysian MH-17 jet and Vladimir Putin’s presidential plane had the same red, blue and white color spreads. Plain luck and a delayed take-off from Sao Paolo where he had gone to attend an earlier BRICs summit saved the Russian President’s life. Putin’s plane was 45 minutes behind the Malaysian 777.
Around the MH-17 crash, there have been many theories. The Russian media have suggested that Ukrainian authorities orchestrated the downing of the airliner to make it appear like a rebel attack, in the hope that it would lure NATO into intervening militarily. On the other side, the Ukrainians held that it was a rebel group that had commandeered one of those sophisticated BUK launchers and let loose, mistaking the plane for a Ukranian military jet – a theory that was later proven to be true.
While chaos reigned there was not even a whiff of the Caliphate’s involvement. In a tearing hurry, the world absolved Muslim fanatics of any role in it. As to the Caliphate, quite unlike any other terror group, it remained silent. Having an archer at the very heart of Kremlin, it decided to save him for more spectacular later use.
History has repeatedly shown us that, given the will, anything is possible. And will is something that Ingushetia-born Ali Abu Mukhammad, Emir of the Caucasus Caliphate and Magomet Khuchbarov’s leader, has in plenty. Will, that brought all the various insurgent movements of the Caucasus under one umbrella – The Yarmuk Jamaat of Kabardino-Balkaria, the Dagestani Shari’ah Jamaat, the Riyad us-Saliheyn Martyrs’ Brigade of Chechnya and his own Ingush Jama’at Shariat.
In Africa, three others had tried to create Islamic caliphates – Mohammed Yusuf of the Boko Haram, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud of Al Qaida’s North African arm, the AQIM and Ahmed Godane of the Al Shabaab.
All the three above mentioned gents are now dead, blown apart by Hellfire missiles from MQ9 Reapers launched out of a CIA-controlled airfield in Djibouti. There is a fourth Caliph-wannabe though, the original Al Qaida’s Ayman Al-Zawahari – hiding in Waziristan like a haunted animal, a desperate fugitive who sleeps in a different bed every night and clutches at straws to remain relevant.
There is another distinction between the Emir and the rest of them. Unlike most of the others, the Arabs, the Africans and the Pakistanis, who had fallen into terrorism by choice, instead of taking the harder path of honest labor to achieve prosperity and security, the Caucasian Caliphate had a solid reason to be pissed off with the Russian government.
First came the discriminations in the 18th century from the Tsarists, for their ‘Asian’ looks from the Tsarists in the 18th century and the wholesale pillage and rapes that the Tsar’s armies perpetrated. Then in the 1930s came the anti-Muslim purge in the Caucasus and the mass deportations to Siberia and Kazakhstan by Stalin, so that he would not have to contend with a ‘Muslim flank’ bordering Muslim Turkey. And now, the refusal by the Russian government to let the Caucasian republics form their own independent states, just as Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia and Belarus had done.
The Archer softly shut the door to Putin’s den and padded across the thickly carpeted hardwood floor, balancing the tray of milk and roast beef sandwich on his right hand while he eased the Chinese-made M77 from its holster with his left. The President looked up and smiled. Catching up on his paperwork had made him ravenously hungry. He pushed his papers back, making room for the tray that was about to be set down.
The smile quickly turned into horror when the cobalt blue of M77’s silencer came up. Putin’s lips tried to form the words ‘Why?’ but didn’t finish as the parabellum round tore into his forehead. Its barrel still smoking, the Archer put two bullets into himself, one in his left thigh and the other on the right side of his chest, taking care to aim well clear of anything important.
For the deception to succeed, the Caliphate had found a patsy, the assassin – 32-year old Khamzat Aldiyev, an electrician from Grozny, newly married and bereaved, who had been made to watch as burly members of the Russian Morskaya Pekhota had gang-raped his young wife on their kitchen floor.
As the Archer hobbled toward the large balcony, Aldiyev rose from behind the bushes, a 9mm Makarov in his right hand. The Archer whispered ‘Allah-o-Akbar’ and shot him between the eyes. He switched guns, after wiping them clean and then hobbled back into the study and raised the alarm. Of course, the Archer knew all these side shows may not stop his summary execution, if not for treason then at least for incompetence. As Lebanon had shown, the FSB didn’t take kindly to honest mistakes.
From where he lay bleeding on the floor, the Archer looked out the kevlar windows. Outside, the traffic on the Rublyovo-Uspenskoye Highway had picked up as another summer’s day dawned. Soon he heard what sounded like a stampede of approaching footsteps on the thickly carpeted corridor outside. The Archer closed his eyes and let himself pass out.
Three things happened in quick succession, as Putin’s assassination was being announced to the international media…..
The first was the mild-mannered moderate ex-Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev’s ascendancy to President of Russia, a job that he had held till 2008. The second – the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from all occupied oblasts in Ukraine, including Crimea and third, the summary seizure of all the known assets of 14 of Putin’s closest associates – an act that would net around $500 billion, sufficient to cover the cost of rebuilding Ukraine.
But there was another event that will remain unknown, except to a handful of men sitting nine time zones to the west, inside a building that has five equal sides, the air space over which is restricted over an area of a thousand acres all around. The FAPSI, Russia’s counterpart of the NSA, would have logged the event, had the technician at the Swetskaya node not been goofing off on his shift.
It was a single five second cell phone call that had not originated near Moscow but from Komgaron in the Ingush Caucasus, from a man who was fluent in English and spoke it with an accent typical of the American Mid-West, where he was in fact born, thirty eight years ago.
The man was fluent in one other language – Ingush, his parents having taken the care to teach him their native tongue. It was also the language he had gotten used to, ever since the insurgency began. He had to. His followers, who would give up their lives unflinchingly for him, knew only Ingush.
The words which bounced off the geostationary Globalstar stationed 36000 miles up and came through the headphones in the hushed room, were loud and clear – ‘glaz byka’. In Ingush that meant – bull’s eye.
The Emir is a man of few words.
“Wherever ye shall be, death will overtake thee, even though ye be in lofty towers.” – Holy Quran, Sura An-Nisa_78
“And now for news breaking at this very moment at The Hague……. Nearly twenty years after the opening shots of the Bosnian War rang out, former Bosnian Serb military commander, Ratko Mladić, known among the families of his many victims as “The butcher of Srebrenica”, is finally being tried by the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague, on 11 charges of genocide and crimes against humanity…..”
Rose was standing by the dinner table and as she listened, CBS Evening news anchor, Scott Pelley’s words seemed to fade out, while his voice seamlessly dovetailed in. His – Carl’s….. “I have this insane urge to hold you in my arms and comfort you…”. The soup spoon slipped from her hand and fell into Rufus’s plate.
“Mom! There’s soup all over my pasta!” Rufus said. Damn! The tremor in her hands passed. She took a deep breath, steadied herself and started preparing a fresh helping.
Just a few meters away, in the hall, her husband sat sprawled in front of the TV as a 1995 video of Mladić flashed on, showing him inspecting a crack unit of the Serbian Army Special Forces, ‘the Scorpions’, on a rain-swept hillside just outside the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica, on the eve of the massacre.
Stanley had his laptop open as usual, his fingers paused, to take in the news video. He turned and looked at Rose as she rescued the soup spoon from Rufus’s pasta.
In spite of the clatter of the spoon, she raced back into the crevice again, to the first time Carl had unfriended her – their first interaction, two months prior. He’d unfriended her just an hour after she’d accepted his invite. Puzzled, she had messaged him, “Hi, it’s your business of course but it’ll be nice to know why you unfriended me…”
“Hello”, came the reply, almost instantly in measured tones,”I unfriended you because there’s just nothing on your page. No info, no wall, no photos, no friends list. You have friended me but denied me access to virtually everything. It’s demeaning and frankly, I don’t have time for this. This won’t work, thank you and good bye”.
Rose realized that her fb settings needed to be reconfigured. She decided to reach out once again, a trait he later came to adore in her. She hurriedly replied, “So sorry about that. I didn’t know my settings were that way. Have fixed it now.” She sent him back an invitation without ado. He accepted.
In the beginning she’d been reserved, hesitant about talking of herself. Most women create a sort of inadvertent levee when they begin any social media relationship. He was an unknown strange man who wrote outrageously funny notes that made her burst into laughter. As the days went by, though, that levee seemed to look like it was made with cotton candy. She began to be excited every time she saw his message waiting when she logged on. Oh, he had this wonderful old-world graciousness and oodles of charm and he made her feel so so good.
“Mom!…do you mind not staring into space with a spoonful of pasta, that’s also in space? How about dropping it back to earth and my plate?”
“If Mladić is actually pronounced Mladich, why can’t they just step up and add the ‘h’ to their names, for Christ’s sakes?”
That was Stanley. A top-knotch cyber security brain, Stanley had started off as a contributing member of the ‘hacktivist’ group, Anonymous, while still at MIT. He couldn’t stand anything with hidden tones. Everything had to be either black or white for Stanley Tuppins. Zeros and ones. “Life, simplified,” would be the title of his book if he ever chose to write one. Painfully shy, perpetually immersed in solving knotty spyware issues, Rose felt lucky if he said more than two words at the dinner table.
“What did he do?” Rose was referring to Mladić in a desperate bid to stop her mind from sliding further back into that crevice which had suffocated her a minute ago and caused the soup spoon to slip from her fingers. Please, Stanley, keep talking. Don’t stop. I don’t want to be alone with him anymore.
“What did he do? He slaughtered eight thousand men, women and children in one night in a small picturesque mountain town in Bosnia. Right after he’d given the UN peacekeepers his word the day before that he wouldn’t go in. Mladić is the father of the term, ‘ethnic cleansing’.”
“1995…hmmm…let’s see now, where was I then…” Rufus began, tapping his fingers on his lips, trying to establish his whereabouts at the time, almost 18 years ago, while shovelling pasta into his mouth. He was going to be 8 next March.
“You were a doddering old Mongolian sheperd with two billy goats and a horse, who’d just been to see his married daughter in Ulan Bator, darling,” Rose said, as she rose and engulfed him in one of those comprehensive all-season squeezes that only mothers can impart. “Ugh,” she made a mock grimace as she held him tight,”Correction, you can’t be the sheperd, you must be one of the goats. You smell like them. To the showers right after supper, billy goat, and I won’t take no for an answer.”
Later, as she rinsed the dishes, Rufus and his Ipod having retired for the night, Rose heard the TV being turned off and felt the armchair in the hall creak. Slippered footsteps flopped up to her and stopped right next.
“Here, let me dry them”. Sukumar took a clean towel and reached for a plate.
Rose turned. The man standing next to her was tall, crew-cut, clean. A mild shadow of a beard covered his lower jaw. He looked solid, simple, honest, wholesome. Just as he’d been, since the first time they’d met. She reached up and laid her head on his chest, the sobs breaking out, shaking her whole being. He dropped the cloth on the counter and just as her body went limp, he drew her up to him fiercely, till she was on the tips of her toes, her breath gasping upon his cheeks. She tried to open her mouth to speak through her tears. To tell him. Everything. But he laid a finger gently on her lips with a ‘ssshhh’. Holding her close, by her shoulders, he placed one arm just below the round of her buttocks, lifting her off the floor effortlessly and turned purposefully toward the stairs.
“Welcome back, darling,” he whispered.
This post celebrates Women’s Day. Women are complex. Don’t try to understand them……. Anonymous
By the time one reaches his 70s, the way one would like to die sometimes comes to mind. I’m 67. I have friends and relatives who have spoken about how they have had enough and that they are getting themselves and their affairs ready to face death.
Oddly, I don’t feel that way at all. I am still working at a regular job, still making plans to move up in terms of responsibility. The guys I work with are on an average at least two to three decades younger. Some have parents younger than me. It must be attitude, I am not sure, but they readily include me in sharing their ‘locker-room’ jokes and make me feel way younger than I am.
I have worked out how I’ll go when the time comes, assuming that I have the time, the lucidity and the choice, when I come to the point where I look around and ask myself, “Is this all there is to it?” I have gotten myself a Glock. Quick and painless. I keep it cleaned and oiled at all times. Tucked away in a recess in the wall behind the dryer, it is loaded and the safety is off. It’s a semi-automatic, so it’ll fire one round that’ll end it all. Simple.
One way I won’t want to go is by running myself through, a slow and most painful way to die. The blade would slice effortlessly into my small intestines and if I twisted it this way and that, it would tear apart my spleen, liver and kidneys, causing massive internal hemorrhaging. It’d still take me a long long time to die. Only schmucks want to go that way.
It was different in Ancient Rome, however. If you were a military commander looking defeat in the eye, you’d probably be doing it to yourself. In Brutus’ case, this was 43BC Rome and he believed it was the only honorable thing left to do.
Running through, impaling oneself by a sword or spear, conveyed a sense of chivalry and was regarded as the signature swan song of a true hero in a world that hated pussies. Not killing oneself, trying to make a run for it, would make the vanquished seem cowardly. He would be derided and shunned and never be able to hold public office and that was just about the worst thing that could happen to anybody. Either you won or died in battle. There was no third ground.
Thank God, we’re in the 21st century where there is no place for chivalry? Donald Trump, the puke-worthy American ex-President, looked incredulous when asked by one of his cronies why he feigned bone spurs, why he didn’t go fight in the Vietnam War. He spat out in disdain, “You think I’m crazy?”
I don’t fault Donald Trump for being a self-preservationist. That America deliberately provoked the Vietnam War is now a matter of record. Remember the faked ‘Gulf of Tonkin incident’ and the subsequent leak of the “Pentagon Papers”? Google or Wiki them if you haven’t heard of them.
Fighting and dying for an unjust, losing cause is stupidity, not chivalry. For Americans who didn’t have the wealth and influence to dodge the draft, it was a question of being born in the wrong country at the wrong time. A vast majority of American servicemen who died in Vietnam were poor uneducated folk who were duped into thinking that killing citizens of a sovereign nation 8000 miles away, who had done them personally no harm, was the right thing to do. That nation, Vietnam, is now a prosperous country that has put the past behind and moved on. I salute Vietnam.
I won’t let this blog get bogged down in American perfidy, so lets move on….
Imagine you were Brutus in 43BC. You lost the battle and now your ass was grass. Either you ran or you faced Roman justice for capital murder – execution. Executions in ancient Rome were exotic. They could chop you up alive, a little at a time. They could make you sit on the tip of a spear and let gravity do the rest while they eagerly waited to see it appear out of your mouth. They could make you swallow molten lead. They could crucify you. Or they could simply tie your extremities to two horses and whip ‘em till you were literally torn apart at the weakest spot – your waist. Running through was a dream compared to the above.
Of the victors, Octavian was a pompous over ambitious asshole and Mark Anthony was a vain but courageous emperor wannabe and they didn’t give a damn about your victim, Julius Caesar. But they had plans, ambitions plans, to rule Rome and with Rome, the entire world. (That is, before their individual ambitions tore them apart).
Brutus’s mom, Servilia – half sister of Cato the Younger and a full blooded member of Roman nobility, also happened to be one of Julius Caesar’s many mistresses for a while. Despite the fact that Caesar was only 15 when Brutus was born, some historians believe that Caesar was his biological father.
Punishments had to be excruciating. Unlike today, there were no local chapters of Amnesty International petitioning for the use of more humane execution methods…..
Crucified? Awesome! Took you a week to die, give or take. Crucifixions were slow – Five to seven days of unbelievable agony. Do you think Jesus or Spartacus would be the heroes that they are today, if they had simply been poisoned? Naaah.
Burnt at a stake? Hot, but cooool! What’s the only thing we remember about St. Joan d’Arc? That she broiled on a stake.
Drawn and quartered? Wowy! In medieval England only men went through this excruciatingly slow, barbaric execution. Women got away with being burnt at a stake or buried up to the neck in the ground and stoned to death.
Here’s how a drawing and quartering worked. You got dragged behind a horse round town, ending at the town square, your skin lacerated by the pebbles. That was the ‘drawing’ part. Then, while the townsfolk – men, women and children thronged the square, you were disemboweled alive and your entrails burnt. At this point you were still alive and the executioner was just getting started.
After that you didn’t really care what they did to you. Now for the ‘quartering’ part – they tied your legs and hands to four horses and spurred them to different directions at right angles to each other, literally tearing you apart into four quarters. The only reason why we all remember Guy Fawkes is because he was drawn and quartered.
After the dust settled, you were beheaded and your head burnt so the remains would be unrecognizable.
Impaled on a spear? Grooovy!! Left to gradually slide down the sharpened wooden stake that entered through your rectum and gradually shoved aside tissue and bone and blood vessels and finally poked out through your adam’s apple? The Romanian ruler, Vlad III (Dracula) loved to sentence traitors to this form of punishment and even had medics at hand to keep the man alive as long as possible, so the pain could be maximized.
Which brings us back to Shakespeare and Brutus’s suicide, sure enough for his slow and painful demise, Brutus was lionized even by his vanquishers. After Strato broke the news of Brutus’ suicide, Mark Anthony was all teared up and had this to say –
“…His life was gentle, and the elements So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up And say to all the world,”This was a man.”
Octavian – later to be Rome’s first emperor, Augustus/Octavius – didn’t want to be outdone by Mark Anthony’s eloquence, so he held forth….
“…With all respects and rights of burial. Within my tent his bones tonight shall lie. Most like a soldier, order’d honorably…”
If instead, Brutus had swigged down some hemlock and croaked, the very same Octavian might have said derisively, “Chuck the SOB into the Tiber and lets get the hell outa here. I don’t want to be late for tonight’s orgy. Those broads I got from my Macedonian campaign can really give head.”
What’s with this hullabaloo about the most honorable way to die? If you’re dead, you’re dead, that’s it. Why you would give a fuck about how the rest of the world felt about you based upon the way you died, that beats the heck outa me. Personally I’d put a 9mm round through my skull with my trusty Glock34. Instantaneous nirvana, I won’t even feel it. One minute I am there and the next, I’m gone.
Getting back to Shakespeare’s penchant for gore, his work is replete with mayhem and that’s because Elizabethan audiences reveled in gore. While a good comedy once in a while didn’t do any harm, the common folk of 16th century England overwhelmingly went for treachery, debauchery, deceit and gore. Violence was the primary reason why Billy became so famous.
Elizabethan audiences loved the shocking drama. The blood and gore had to be realistic and so the theatre management at “The Globe” had a small barn at the back where they kept sheep, lotsa sheep. Every two consecutive renderings, one was slaughtered and its blood, heart, lungs, liver, etc were used as props for the mayhem in the plot. When the props began to stink, they just went ahead and killed another sheep.
Realism drove the theatre producers to even use actual human beings sometimes, I’m not kidding. In Thomas Kyd’s ‘The Spanish Tragedy’ (a sorta Andrew Lloyd Webber of gore), which had several violent revenge killings on opening night, they needed an actual human being to be strung up from a tree branch and hanged, so they simply got a condemned prisoner from the Tower to do the act.
The play became a overnight rage. Soon they were running outa fresh bodies, so the Queen’s dragoons began picking up random folks right off the streets who looked even remotely suspicious of any wrongdoing. Trials were fast-tracked and the death sentences confirmed, so they could act in Thomas Kyd’s play that very evening, even though it was going to be a one night stand. Since at least some of the sods really were criminals, the law and order situation in and around London improved drastically.
Some of Shakespeare’s most violent plays were by far the most popular. Titus Andronicus – Billy’s first and most violent tragedy – was a huge success at The Globe. Touring troupes fell over each other, wanting to play Titus Andronicus. In the play, two of the characters were baked in a pie……. literally……
Titus had the Roman emperor-to-be, Saturninus and his wife, Tamora, over for dinner and after the ‘horses of the ovaries’ had been cleared away, Titus revealed that the meat pie the couple had just devoured was actually what remained of their two sons, Demetrius and Chiron. While they were in a state of shock, Titus butchered Tamora with a carving knife and in return, was killed by Saturninus right after.
Titus had to be stupid. If I was going to tell you I just baked your kids into a pie, I’d make sure I had back-up. Titus had justification for the pie though. The duo had raped and mutilated his only daughter, Lavinia and he had had to honor-kill her after he found out, ‘to spare her the shame’. Boohoo. And then, Titus’s son, Lucius, nabbed Tamora’s Moor lover boy, Aaron and had him buried in the desert sand upto his chin and left ta starve to death.
And you thought ‘Friday the 13th’ was horrifying.
Billy Shakes was particularly gruesome in Hamlet – when King Hamlet (Hamlet’s dad) was napping in his orchard, his treacherous bro Claudius, poured a ‘leperous distillment’ into his ear. The poison curdled his blood and caused his skin to develop horrible sores. The King died in his garden, hideously disfigured, a victim of his brother’s treachery.
I am imagining The Globe issuing a casting notice, a job ad, announcing…. ‘Actor wanted, to play King Hamlet. Must bring his own vial of henbane and dropper and don’t forget the down-payment on casket…’
And then there was that shmuck, Polonius, newly crowned King Claudius’s trusted aide. Acting on the orders of Claudius, Polonius hid behind the drapes in Queen Gertrude’s chambers, to eavesdrop on her conversation with Hamlet, whom Claudius suspected of plotting to overthrow him. Polonius however had this fatal habit of almost all of Willy Shakes’ characters – he constantly talked to himself.
Thus, while Hamlet spoke with his mom, Polonius had this running commentary going with himself, in a sort of a low mumble. Alas, the mumble wasn’t low enough – Hamlet overheard him and drove his sword through the tapestry, killing the shmuck.
If you wanted to play Polonius and at the same time had a desire to come out of the show alive, you had ta have fast reflexes because you had only a microsecond from the time the sword emerged through the drapes and entered your gut.
Ophelia, driven insane by Hamlet’s murder of her beloved father, Polonius, plunged from a tree branch into the current below. Actually she slipped and didn’t know how to swim. But Elizabethan England would have labelled her a nitwit, so Billy Shakes wrote it in as a suicide.
That’s nothing. In Macbeth, Lady McDuff was chased across the stage at the Globe and slaughtered when she jumped off and fell into the arms of the ladies in the front row, splattering them with gore. It was so real that….it was real. Even for a million quid nobody wanted to play Lady McDuff in those days.
Willy Shakes really knew how to keep audiences titillated, with ingenious new ways in which to die. He was the 16th Century version of Quentin Tarantino.
If you were to believe everything Willy wrote, you would be a regular at the friendly neighborhood pharmacist in those days, shopping for a pitcher of concentrated hemlock, oh yeah. And its antidote of course. You would be a shmuck not to order the antidote and keep a vial chained safely to your waist, just in case somebody in your household poisoned you.
Antidotes those days were even more valuable than gold and silver. Look at today’s cyber-security stocks, Christ’s sakes. I have been saving up for a year to buy Crowdstrike, Palo Alto and Zscaler.
According to Willy, Mark Anthony and Cassius too ran themselves through. For different reasons of course. Cassius, for being Brutus’ co-conspirator and Mark Anthony, for wanting to overthrow Octavian.
Cassius handed his loyal Parthian slave, Pindarus, the very sword with which he had stabbed Caesar. He then commanded, John Gielgud-style, “Now with this good sword, that ran through Caesar’s bowels, search this bosom…. And when my face is covered, as ‘tis now, guide thou the sword.” Pindarus later made his escape to some place Willy Shakes doesn’t mention in his play. Slaves didn’t count for much of a mention in 16th Century England. In forcing a slave to murder him, Cassius selfishly put Pindarus’ life in danger. If captured I shudder to think what would have been done to him. But then most Roman noblemen, like Cassius, were self-absorbed pricks.
Mark Anthony ran himself through alone, believing at the point that Cleopatra had already taken her life. His corpse was brought into Empress’s inner sanctum and laid to rest in her arms, under the orders of Octavian. At this point, the despondent Cleopatra shoved her hand inside a basket of dates that had an asp placed inside on her orders. Mark Anthony had been popular with Cleopatra’s generals and might easily have been able to escape to Ethiopia, but he chose to run himself through.
Shakespearean plots were always very complex, with rivalries and deceit, temporary alliances and treachery, cowardice and chivalry – all woven inside a huge cauldron of blood and gore. One moment you see two characters thick as thieves and after a coupla acts they are at each other’s throats.
Other than his Titus Andronicus, which was fiction, all of Shakespeare’s tragedies were based on history. If Billy Shakes had been alive in the present day, he would surely have found in Afghanistan the perfect fodder for a tragedy. The buddy movie of the American and the Taliban raising toasts in sunny Doha and then the treachery of the Americans, leaving their faithful Afghan fixers at the mercy of the Taliban.
Oh yeah, there’s a Shakespearean zigadoo in everything today. Take a look at who was fighting whom in Syria just a while back….
Bashar Assad was trying to put down an armed insurrection, with the help of his Shiite friends, Iran and and the Lebanese Hezbollah and his long-term ally and benefactor – Russia. The Americans were arming the rebels and drawing “red lines” against Assad, while they were also paying Assad to let them rent off-site real estate for torture and rendition in the so-called ‘war on terror’. The Israelis were, time to time, bombing Assad’s ammo dumps and all the while, making nice with Putin. And all this time Bashar was keeping alive a hope he would one day be back in America’s good books and be able to get his hands on all the frozen assets. All this, when at home Assad was playing a devoted husband with a British born prim and propah Syrian wife who liked to show off her Oxford accent and her pearls.
And all of them, the Syrians, the Americans, the Russians, the Israelis, the Iranians, the ships, the shoes, the sealing wax, the cabbages and the kings – they were all fighting the ISIS.
Truly Shakespearean, ain’t it??
There’s nary a chance Assad will ever fall on his sword. Or Putin. Or Orban, or Bolsonaro, or Lukashenko. Or Trump. Or this latest Kazakhstan wassissname dictator.
The Santuaro di Santa Maria di Polsi is a Catholic sanctuary in the heart of the Aspromonte mountain range that runs north to south along the middle of the toe of Italy, near San Luca in Calabria. Founded by Roger II, King of Sicily in 1144, the church and monastery are situated in a spectacular setting at the bottom of a gorge that is surrounded by high mountains on the east side of the 6000ft Mont Alto, the highest peak of the Aspromonte.
Like other pilgrimage destinations, such as the Haj for Muslims or Amarnath and Sabrimalai for Hindus in India, the inflicting of fatigue and pain upon the pilgrim is considered essential, in order to give him a sense of having ‘earned’ the right to spirituality. Somehow, kneeling in the corner of your prayer room at home isn’t the same thing. This is in spite of the widespread belief that God is omnipresent and is not necessarily found only in Jerusalem or Mecca or Sabrimalai.
Like the abovementioned pilgrimage destinations, the Polsi sanctuary too is difficult to access and cannot be reached by mechanised transport. The pilgrims, like any others around the world, feel that they have to trudge up to have a glimpse of the Santa Maria and bask in the momentary reflected piety. I have never understood this, but then I am not a religious man.
In September every year, around 200 leading members of arguably the most powerful organized crime group in the world, join the pilgrims in the long hike up the Aspromonte mountains, ostensibly to visit the sanctuary and express their devotion to the Virgin Mary.
I say ‘ostensibly’ because the real reason for their pilgrimage is not devotion, but to have a tête-a-tête. Since the 1950s, the chiefs of the locali have been meeting there during the September Feast. These annual get-togethers, known as the crimine, have traditionally served as a forum to discuss future strategies and settle disputes, under the auspices of the Catholic church.
In those days, the Catholic Church was as involved in hosting and laundering money for the Mafioso as fucking little boys and girls.
A 100 miles to the north, is a sleepy town called Cosenza that is bathed year round in bright sunlight. In January, with clear, azure-blue skies and a balmy 15°, Cosenza could well have been a tourists’ paradise.
One such day in January 2014, brought to the world an unspeakable horror that the locals are still trying put behind them and move on……
For 3-year-old Nicola “Coco” Campolongo, it had promised to be an exciting day. Coco had just been strapped into the car-seat in the back of the 8-year old Fiat Punto by his grandfather, Guiseppe Iannicelli, who drove while his Moroccan companion, 27-year-old Ibtissa Taoussa, sat in the front passenger seat. Taoussa was ‘Aunt Betty’ for Coco.
As the tiny car negotiated the busy thoroughfare, Coco’s head constantly swivelled round and round, as every child’s does, when he’s being taken on an outing. When he noticed a motorcycle keeping pace just inches away to his right, he gazed out at it in awe. The bike was one of those heavy Yamaha racing motorcycles.
Sitting astride were two men, dressed in leather from head to toe, with black helmets, their visors pulled down. When the man riding pillion turned his head to look at him, Coco waved wildly at the man and he even waved back. The motorcycle then speeded up, overtaking the Fiat and positioning itself in front. It remained there till the next intersection, where the bike came to a sudden halt, even though the light had turned green.
The old man was slow in reacting. He slammed on the brakes and fought to bring the skidding Fiat to a halt, barely managing to stop inches away from the tail lights of the Yamaha.
As the pillion rider twisted his torso, this time completely around facing the Fiat, the old man growled something in Calabrese that, roughly translated, meant, “Get the f—k out of my face, ars—le.” Grandpa Joe was a man with a mercurial temper.
The two seconds that the pillion rider took to unzip his jacket front and draw out a Beretta 7.62mm automatic would have been enough for a younger man to immediately put the car in gear and ram the motorbike, possibly run the two riders over and make his escape. Even if it had taken three seconds instead of two, he would probably have still made it, since the pillion rider would be too startled to aim accurately.
But Coco’s nonnino was old, no longer that murderous young button man with a leopard’s instinct for survival as he had once been. He just stared dumbly ahead till a third eye appeared in the center of his forehead. Immediately, the aged drug trafficker slumped forward on the wheel, pressing the horn down, setting it off.
The traffic around the two parked vehicles began to scatter and passersby did what this town had trained them since childhood for – they dived for cover. Just as well, because the pillion rider got off the bike and ambled over to the passenger side and peered in for just a second, before he brought the gun up once more and shot the terrified moll too, right between her eyes, at point blank range, the gun’s muzzle hitting the woman’s forehead before the round exited in a fiery flash.
Coco was beside himself by now, hopping up and down, restrained by his car seat, unable to comprehend what was unfolding in front of his eyes. He kept repeating, “Nonnino! Nonnino!” over and over.
The pillion rider didn’t get back on the bike. Instead, he strolled round to the rear of the hatchback and stood there for a while, not moving, his head swiveling around till he was satisfied there was no emerging threat. There couldn’t be. The outfit that he worked for owned this town.
Stretching out his right arm, he brought the Beretta up one last time, it’s muzzle bumping against the rear window of the car, six inches from the back of little Coco’s head. His expression impassive, the hit-man fired two shots in quick succession and Coco’s head exploded like a melon. The toddler slumped forward, his upper torso hanging in front, restrained by the car seat’s harness.
In the deathly silence that followed, the pillion rider casually walked over to the driver side, opened the door, dragged Iannicelli’s corpse out onto the pavement and out back, opened the trunk and stuffed it in. The bike revved up, the Fiat’s engine fired and the two-vehicle convoy began moving forward unhurriedly. At the next corner they took a sharp left and disappeared from view.
Iannicelli was a convict on nocturnal payrole and when he didn’t call in for a couple of days, the cops went looking for him. Then, a few days later, a hunter spotted the burnt-out skeleton of a small hatchback inside the compound of a derelict building at the edge of town and alerted the police who discovered the macabre scene inside.
There was a body in the trunk, charred beyond recognition and another in the front passenger seat, similarly cooked. In the back seat, the investigators found the charred remains of a tiny body, still strapped to a blackened car-seat, unrecognizable as the remains of a human being.
A shiny 50-eurocent coin was found on the roof of the burnt-out car, a known custom of the criminal group that owned the town, a message that meant that it was a vendetta for an unpaid drug debt.
Welcome to the world of the ‘Ndrangheta, the deadliest organized crime group in the world, with annual revenues from drug trafficking and murder of over $80 billion, a tidy sum which also happens to equal 3.5% of Italy’s GDP and double that of the auto behemoth, Fiat.
Guiseppe Iannicelli had been a card carrying member of the ‘Ndrangheta. Till he ran afoul, trying to make a drug sale on his own, without sharing the proceeds with his bosses, a capital offense to the ‘Ndrangheta. He too made those knee breaking pilgrimages to the Santuaro di Santa Maria di Polsi Catholic sanctuary in the hope that his Catholic God would choose to be on his side. Obviously he had been misled.
In the last decade alone, over 80 children and some 800 innocent bystanders have fallen for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
In a way, Coco Campolongo never had a chance; at least not at leading a normal life. Born into a family of drug pushers in ground zero of ‘Ndrangheta territory in southern Italy, the only occasion when the toddler had seen his parents was when someone found the time to take him to visit them in prison.
Naturally there were cries of horrified indignation at the January 2014 killing of Coco. Even for a country that has numbed itself to willful blindness at organized crime hits, the deliberate murder of a 3-year old looked like it was going to be a tipping point. From his pulpit, Pope Francis cried, “How could anyone kill an innocent little boy of just three years in this way?”
Then, as if to square things up, to show the world that evil always loses in the end and to thereby reaffirm the ‘law of conservation of spiritual entropy’, Pope Francis confirmed gravely that the child would surely go to heaven. He must know. After all, he is believed by Catholic suckers all over the world to be God’s own rep on earth.
The Pope went even further. “You, the mafia, are hereby excommunicated from the Catholic Church”, he announced, even though excommunication from the Catholic Church is a lengthy bureaucratic process and cannot be carried out by just an announcement. Still, the Pope put every bishop in Italy on notice. Henceforth, no mafia money should be accepted as donations and no mafia sponsors shall be sought for spring festivals like the Pasqua Processiones (Easter processions) that are organized every year by the church and sponsored by mafia money.
Two decades back, when the old Mustache Petes ruled the Italian organized crime syndicates, the Pope’s excommunication of organized crime members would have been a body blow to the mobsters. That’s because these guys, besides being very devout Catholics themselves, believed that they depended upon the goodwill of the hoi-polloi in order to thrive. You couldn’t run an illegal loan sharking operation or a protection racket if the folk who needed those services didn’t trust you.
The Catholic Church had it’s fingers on the goodwill switch and the power to negate that trust. It provided the Italian organized crime syndicates with an umbrella of legitimacy that made these monsters look warm and fuzzy in the eyes of the common folk. Bishops and cardinals were in the payroll of at least one of the four main crime groups. As a religious institution, the Catholic Church was dirty to the core.
Except for John Paul-1, the Pontiffs who came before Francis either never did consider breaking with the Mafia a priority or were themselves in league with organized crime. Indeed, some Popes, like the 15th Century Borgias, were heads of their own crime syndicates, no kidding.
There was another thing that the Catholic Church customized for the conscience of the mobster – the confessional. It was and still is a most ridiculous farce, a very convenient way to shrug off the burden of one’s sins. The confessional is where the Catholic priest takes the confessor’s sins upon himself, like Jesus Christ once did, though the justice behind it escapes me to this day.
And it is safe too. Like with a doctor, a statement made in a confessional to a priest is protected under most privacy laws and inadmissible in any court of law. You murder someone and then go to your priest and confess and you walk away, feeling cleansed. In exchange for a sham mea culpa, the priest helps you cut a deal, with the Catholic God. Where is the penance, the repentance?
The priest doesn’t really give a damn. Years of listening to all sorts of sin every day have made him immune to sin tales. He himself has either done those things that he hears through the partition or at least fantasized doing them. A priest is human too, He forgets about your confession the moment your ass is out the door, gets himself a beer with the fiver you left in the donation box and goes back to the choirboy in his bedroom. You got a clean slate, the priest got his beer money and boy and the god of the Catholics is appeased. Who gives a shit what you did to a guy who deserved to get whacked anyway?
The times however have changed, even for the ‘Ndrangheta. An Ndranghetisti today doesn’t give a flying fuck about image or trust or how the common Calabrian Joe feels about the brutal way it conducts it’s business. While earlier, the killing of family members of a marked man or innocent bystanders was a strict no-no, little Coco is a stark reminder that the rules have changed, that there are no longer any rules. The stakes are just too high now. Nine out of ten sachets of Columbian cocaine that change hands in Europe, a market work $80 billion, come from the ‘Ndrangheta.
It is debatable if there is anyone that ‘Ndrangheta would hesitate to harm. Probably there is only one man – the Pope, but that is no longer a sure thing. The same goes for the other three crime syndicates that together virtually own Italy – the Sicilian Costa Nostra, the Sacra Corona Unita of Apulia and the Camorra from Naples.
It is not as if the Pope has always been above the organized crime’s reach…….
Shortly after 5am on September 28, 1978, just 33 days after his election as Pope, John Paul-1 was found dead by a nun who had brought him his morning coffee. Simple at heart and charged with a burning desire to rid the Vatican of it’s links to organized crime and usher the Catholic Church out of it’s criminal ways into a path of true spirituality, he was known to the world as the ‘Smiling Pope’.
It is widely believed that the coffee he was handed was laced with strychnine, that he was assassinated by one of his own senior staff, for trying to reform the mafia-ridden Vatican Bank which had turned itself into a money laundering enterprise for the Italian organized crime syndicates. It is not known as to which one of the four syndicates was responsible for the killing.
The safety net of religion and it’s nexus with organized crime is not restricted to just the Italian organized crime.
When he was declared a global terrorist by the US, his hosts (Pakistan) used the opportunity to tighten the screws on Indian-born Dawood Ibraham. Still alive and ever prospering, he is no.3 in the Forbes list of the world’s ten most dangerous criminals, Ibrahim has a personal net worth of $50 billion.
After he was found to be directly responsible for the series of powerful bomb blasts that killed 350 and injured over 1200, in Mumbai in 1993, the US moved to tag him as a wanted terrorist and the pressure on Pakistan to cough him up grew. Ibrahim, by then ensconced in the tony Karachi colony, realized it was now a matter of time before he became, to the Pakistani establishment, expendable.
But this is where his astuteness came into play. He knew before anyone else that Pakistan was soon going to be overrun by religiosity of the most virulent kind – Islamic fundamentalism.
In his early avatar in India, Dawood Ibrahim was known to be a secular mob boss, with a right-hand man who was a Hindu named Chota Rajan, but he decided to get a make-over and take refuge in religion. He began distributing largesse in the form of millions, to rogue Pakistani terrorist outfits like the Markaz-ud Dawa, the front organisation of Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, fuelling their gargantuan growth, laundering their funds from his bases in Europe and Southeast Asia, gaining their support and through them, the assurance of sanctuary by the equally rogue Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI.
Dawood Ibrahim’s generosity toward the terrorists changed the dynamics of Pakistan’s politics and ensured that he would never be touched. He continues to lead a brazen existence amid opulence, in an elite neighborhood of the Pakistani city of Karachi, where he is known simply as ‘Sultan Shah’. He lives inside a heavily guarded compound that goes by the name of ‘White House’ and has five sprawling single-storied bungalows in it.
Inside the sprawling White House complex, Dawood is reported to have built his very own mosque, where he takes time every afternoon, to read from the Quran, his visage suitably grave and penitent. He too has found sanctuary in religion. Ibrahim even conducts conferences inside that mosque, planning hits and drug shipments, the holy environs of the mosque imparting some kind of legitimacy to his nefarious mindset. Just like the church does, for the ‘Ndranghetisti.
When he was controlling all the madka (numbers) rackets in the 70s, the Mumbai underworld don, Varadaraja Mudaliar (1926-1988), known to everyone as Vardhabhai, once caught one of his numbers runners cheating on a customer who had put the equivalent of 10¢ on a winning combination. It would have paid the guy off – $ 250.
Before he had the runner tossed out of the 20th floor of the Oberoi Trident Hotel in Nariman Point, Vardhabhai is reported to have told the man, “ On your way down, I want you to keep repeating ‘trust’, ‘trust’, ‘trust’.”
The don didn’t give a flying fuck about the customer who had lost his winnings, though he did make sure that the man was reimbursed in full. He just wanted to send out a message to all those poor sods, those daily-wage laborers who paid into the system, in nickels and dimes, hoping for a windfall. A message that the madka racket was a fair one and there was always a chance they would hit the jackpot if they kept playing and if a runner should cheat them, they’d be reimbursed their winnings, come what may.
Mudaliar, was an extremely pious man. He was never seen without those thick vibhuti lines on his forehead, made from sacred ash from holy wood burnt according to vedic rituals. Like Dawood and his backyard mosque, Vardhabhai too had a massive temple inside his compound.
Mudaliar liked to hedge his bets as regards his relationship with the Almighty. He made it a point to visit the dargah of Bismillah Shah Baba in Mumbai often, to offer food to the poor, an essentially Muslim ritual. Being on the right side of the every God mattered to Vardhabhai. Likewise, Haji Mastan Mirza, another legendary don and a contemporary of Mudaliar, derived his name ‘Haji’ from the frequent Haj pilgrimages that he undertook, to cleanse himself of his sins.
For the criminal mind, immersion into religion is like a catharsis that he has to go through, in order to be able to live the life that he lives. It is much like biting into a twist of a lime after a shot of tequila, to take away the taste.
Monasteries and churches like the one in Polsi, dot the hills and dales of Calabria. Understandable. Like the deadly lupara, the Calabrian version of a sawed-off shotgun, religion too is an essential accessory. The Catholic Church secures his soul. Albeit, for a generous donation. Monks got ta eat, right?
In Mario Puzo’s book, The Godfather, terrified that he might go to hell for all his black deeds, Don Vito Corleone’s lifelong friend and consigliere, Genco Abandando, cries out from his death bed to the Don, “ Stay with me, Godfather. Help me meet death. If he sees you, he will be frightened and leave me in peace. You can say a word, pull a few strings, eh? We’ll outwit that bastard as we outwitted all those others.” Deep inside, he must have realized that all the thousands that he gave away as donations to churches and charities were probably not going to help now.
Whom did Genco Abandando refer to as “the bastard”, I wonder. Was it God or the Satan?
“Most people believe that good governance leads to harmony. It may, but only temporarily. In the end, good governance always lays itself bare to conflict.” – Noccolò Machiavelli
When it came into existence – circa 800BC – it was just a small town that was little more than a village, population 150, by the banks of a river that was little more than a stream that one could easily wade across.
The village didn’t begin with any grand plans of being an empire, but in the course of a thousand years, it would stretch through three continents and secure within its borders the lives of roughly 100 million free citizens and 30 million slaves.
And the stream never imagined that resourcefulness and engineering would divert nearby streams to join it’s flow, turning it into what is today the turbulent Tiber.
By the time it grew to it’s mightiest in 200AD, the Roman Empire would be constantly fighting wars of conquest and quelling rebellion in it’s distant outposts, expending in today’s dollars trillions, in order to maintain it’s hegemony.
And all the while that the Roman legions were fighting in distant lands, back home tax collectors, judges, senators, policemen, firefighters, medicine men, carpenters, builders, farmers, accountants, poets and historians – they would be going about their orderly lives, free Roman citizens, blissfully comfortable. Surely, those wars could never touch them. Welcome to the Roman Empire.
In the 21st Century, I can think of one nation whose citizens are similarly cocooned inside a comfortable existence, free of invasions, one whose rulers have lead the citizens to believe that they are the lords of the earth – America.
Back in Rome, it wasn’t really a picture of harmony though, by today’s standards at least. Ancient Rome was in a state of ‘controlled barbarism’. Rich businessmen sponsored ‘Munera’, reality shows held live in vast amphitheaters where on weekends, citizens brought their wives (and some even their children) to watch hand-picked slaves slash, bludgeon and stomp each other to death.
Compared to present day standards, a vastly different level of morality reigned in 1st Century AD Rome. If you were a Roman housewife, you could have your domestic Nubian slave beaten to death for the slightest of infractions. If you didn’t like the looks of your new born female child, you could say it had a curse that had to be exterminated. And then, you proceeded to smash her head against the stable door and threw her into the rubbish heap.
If you were a plebeian (commoner) and to your dismay your friendly neighborhood quaestor (Senator) took a fancy to your nubile teenage daughter, you had a choice – to either let him take her away in exchange for a tip off ten talents and a job in his stables or to face the prospect of hard labor in the arsenic-laced gold mines outside town. Your daughter got raped either way.
That was civilization 1.0, oh yeah.
While the citizens within the walls of Rome lived their lives in that quasi-barbaric state of peace, it was quite another world outside. Around the fringes of the Empire was a very violent environment of treacherous mini-empires and rogue city states that were perpetually squabbling and then forming alliances with the intention of marching on Rome and burning it down to the ground.
Invasions and conquests in those days were quite ‘comprehensive’, designed to ensure that the invader wouldn’t get any more trouble from the invaded guy. If you were a Roman legionnaire, you didn’t just put an arrow through the invaded guy and loot his livestock. You wiped him off the face of the earth. You burned his cities and temples down. You raped his women and then killed them. You threw his children into large burning pits. You took the able-bodied as slaves and worked them to their deaths building your monuments and aqueducts. You reserved the worst treatment for the leaders of the conquered lands who refused to fall in line – you had hot molten lead poured down their throats while they were still alive.
It was a brutal world. The bloodshed, if it were to happen today, would leave every man, woman and child in the conquered territories with Stage-5 PTSD, turning most of them into paranoid schizophrenics. And in turn, those invading troops would be suicidal wrecks suffering from acute moral injury. But guess what? The capacity of the human psyche, to endure and move on, ensured that that didn’t happen.
Rome still exists, at the heart of a marginally prosperous European nation, in the midst of a continent of stable, prosperous democracies, none of whom suffer from any consequences of two thousand years of invasions.
Amazing how things haven’t gone south long term, isn’t it?
The analogies between ancient Rome and present day America are startling. Just for fun, let’s compare the two at the height of their hegemony –
Rome in 200AD : An empire that stretched from The Azores(east Atlantic) in the west to the mouth of the Tigris(Iraq) in the east and Scotland in the north to Nubia(Sudan) in the south, with 20% of the world’s population as its subjects.
And America in the present day : 800+ military bases around the world, virtually unchallenged. Sure, technically the folks in those lands are not subjects. Only technically though. You fuck with America and you won’t get into an airplane again, you won’t be able to trade, you won’t even be able to access the internet. And there’s always the very real chance of getting blown away. Attacks by American killer drones anywhere in the world take just 8 minutes to plan and execute. Yes, America is Rome in 200AD.
Rome owned the pre-Christian world just as America owns the world today. A botched drone strike that kills 10 innocent civilians including 5 kids ….. oh well what the hell, boys will be boys.
The similarities between the two are striking. Rome started in the 9th Century BC as a lawless haven for the indigents and the unwanted from nearby Carthago, Neapolis and Syracusa. Likewise, America began with the puritans and exiles who came over because they were universally considered assholes and unwanted in Britain. Both started with the disenfranchised jetsam and flotsam.
Even the mysteries behind the rise Rome and America mirror each other. How did a small village in central Italy manage to grow into a 4-million square mile empire, bigger in area than Europe? Likewise, how did a little village named Jamestown on the banks of the Powhatan, Virginia ultimately grow into the world’s most powerful nation? Exactly what is it that set the two apart from the rest?
Romans and Americans have always had an overblown, almost cringeworthy, sense of nationalism. Like the Americans today, Romans thought that the sun rose and set with them and that they had a God-given right to dominate and rule over the rest of the world.
Philosopher-Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, once exhorted his citizens thus……, “When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive as a Roman – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love and to conquer, as a Roman.” You’ll hear similar bullshit from every American President – “Shining city on a hill”, “Greatest nation on earth”, etc.
Will America too fade away like Rome and barely exist, a shadow of it’s former self, another mediocre developed nation like Italy, struggling to stay economically afloat?
The suddenness of a seaside sunset is always amazing. That last moment when the orange-red disc plops out of sight, beneath the waves, day ceding to night. A eon is a long long time but even a leaf-eating diplodocus must have paused it’s chomping and turned its head to stare at the setting sun in absolute wonder. Wondering at nature doesn’t need intelligence.
For me, post-retirement, sunsets have been a daily routine. Tonight was no different. I sat there, my legs dangling over the parapet, the waves sneaking in little by little, each intruding further than the last one, until they were jostling each other at the foot of the sea wall, lapping playfully at those star shaped concrete wave breaker blocks just below my feet. For the next six hours and twelve and a half minutes they would lap, until they began to ebb again. That’s nature’s rhythm.
This stretch of beach was always teeming with boisterous crowds during the day, but now the vendors and their pushcarts, the pony rides and the balloons, the wooden miniature ferris wheels, they had melted away into the fetid belly of the city.
Now it was dark, leaving only the twinkling phosphorescence on the waters. My daily fix, watching the sunset, was over. Shanta and I had basked in this serenity for years. Until it was only me at the seawall.
A light caught my eye. It had blinked on briefly some way beyond the surf, making me bring up the Oberwerk and train it in the general direction of the flash. Immediately the two speeding zodiacs filled my eyepiece. There were five of them in each – huddled forms, outlined in the eerie red glow of the Oberwerk’s night-vision. Each man appeared to be toting a bulky backpack.
The two inflatables pitched and bounced on the waves, releasing bursts of spray as they hit the troughs, racing toward the little strip of sand that bordered the jumble of the star-shaped blocks by the seawall. On their heading they’d be beaching right about a hundred meters from where I was perched.
My conversation with Jimmy at the Navy Club the previous evening flashed back instantly. Commodore Jimmy Taraporewala, NDA roommate, ex-brother in arms. Instead of the mandatory dress code (suit, black tie), he was in the usual overalls that the members of his corps wore, with those shoulder patches depicting a crocodile in graphic red and black, lashing out with its tail. Dreaded by the Lashkar, it was an insignia that I was intimately familiar with, having worn it myself for six eventful years.
We were both nursing sodas, except that mine had a couple of fingers of McDovell Premium in it. Not needing much coaxing, Jimmy whispered, “We have a red alert, Krish. Something is about to happen.”
I had looked up sharply, “Another landing?”
Jimmy nodded and then grimaced. “Those assholes at the IB have no clue. No news from our assets at the ISI. JCB and DNI are working on it non-stop. All Coast Guard vessels, as well as the Sindhukirti and Sindhuratna, have slipped their moorings. The Talwar and Trishul are on their way from the Maldives. We ourselves are at 5 minute readiness”.
I leaned forward, “Where did the tip-off originate?”
Jimmy stared at me. “Efraim.”
Efraim Levy – recently retired director of Mossad, now head liaison for MARCOS. At the Mossad you don’t retire. Yeah, those days we were beginning to get in bed with the Israelis. About time too. What closer allies couldn’t reveal to us, the Mossad did, with pinpoint accuracy.
“What about those Neptunes you just acquired? We have two now, don’t we? Put them on a permanent orbit over the west coast till this thing is over.” I was referring to the new Boeing P-8I Neptune reconnaissance aircraft that have just been inducted into the Navy.
“Boeing technicians are still sorting out some glitches with the Magnetic Anomaly Detectors in them,” Jimmy made a exasperated face and the conversation veered away to his son, Ronnie, who was passing out of the NDA in a week.
Back in the present……..premonition. It made the hair at the nape of my neck stand rigid. The navy had let me keep the Oberwerk and now it was going to save my life. I peered through it at the huddled shapes on the zodiacs. Fishermen aren’t out so late and besides, neither do they gallivant around the Arabian Sea in zodiacs, I said to myself.
They might have seen me, silhouetted against the street lights behind. I swung my legs over the parapet, stowed the Oberwerk into my windcheater and quickly dropped down to the ground on all fours and began picking my way through the rubble on the side of the road in a crouching gait, to remain below the level of the parapet.
10 yards of knee-lacerating crawl brought me to a crack in the seawall where the cement had crumbled, forming a gap large enough to let a man through. It had probably been deliberately created just to have a short-cut to the asphalt, by those street urchins who beg around the beach during the day. I slid through the gap and started slithering down toward the sand, stepping carefully over the star-shaped blocks, knowing they would be coated with moss and slippery as hell.
As I placed my foot in the squishy sand, I saw the silhouettes. The men had by now run the boats onto the sand and begun getting out of their polyurethane suits. There was no attempt at camouflaging the zodiacs, so the extraction would have to be by a different route. They spoke and gestured at each other but the roar of the tide drowned all sounds.
The one who was already out of his wetsuit and still bare-chested, was the first to sense my presence. In a single fluid motion, his right hand came up holding a handgun while he dropped to a crouch. I had expected that.
I raised my hand, palm outward and whispered,” Salaam, Bhaijan.” (Greetings to you, brother). He peeled off from the rest and came forward. In the dark, the gun in his hand looked like a silenced 9mm Luger and he brought it down, holding it loosely in his right hand, as he came to a halt a few feet from me. He was clean-shaven, diminutive and wiry, with piercing bright eyes that had no fear in them. Trust me, I know fear when I see it and this guy was devoid of it, a pro.
“Salaam,” said the man,” Do you have our stuff, janab?”
I nodded,” Its all in there.” I gestured toward the star-shaped blocks by the seawall.
“Aapki tareef?” (Who are you?), he looked up at me.
“Aftab”, I said, to which he nodded.
“Aur aap hain, janab…?” (And you?)
He turned his piercing gaze at me and said, “Babar”.
“Leh, usko samhal, Ajmal, “ the man named Babar barked and a wild-eyed guy who looked young enough to be a teenager, dropped what he was doing and made his way toward the blocks. I braced myself.
The star shaped blocks were about 100 meters from where we stood. The boy named Ajmal would be gone maybe a minute, max. They had a minute to realize I was lying, that there was nothing there.
We waited, my hands on my waist, my right palm just inches away from the Glock34 that I always carried with me these days. Ex-special forces members are licensed to carry a hidden automatic weapon. The Glock had become a part of me, nestled in the small of my back, now hidden by the windcheater.
As the seconds ticked away, the man called Babar said,” Rana ne wapsi ki koi zikar ki? (Did Rana mention the extraction plans?)”
“Rana?” I stared at the man, “Nahin, hamein Rana ne nahin bheja.” (Rana? I have no idea. Rana didn’t send me)
“To phir?” I could see the first flush of puzzlement in the man’s eyes, as the man called Babar straightened up and stared, his grip instinctively tightening on the Luger, “Kisney bheja?” (Then who sent you?)
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
“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
The Dalai Llama’s words in the blurb above the image seem to imply that the forces of evil are just as powerful as those of good. I happen to agree. History supports that view too. But coming from the Dalai Llama – the very custodian of his faith, it is an admission that God is not the only Sheriff in town.
James Irwin, the Lunar Module Pilot for the 1971 Apollo-15 mission to the moon, reported that while he was on his 18-hour sojourn on the surface of the moon, he felt the “presence” of God around him, coaxing, encouraging, guiding, reassuring him. I won’t make a snide remark about the presence. Irwin held a Master’s Degree in Aerospace Engineering. If he says he felt something, then he felt something.
On touching down at the bottom of the 36000-ft Challenger Deep in the Pacific, the deepest spot on Earth, the Oscar-winning movie director, James Cameron, felt surreal as he looked out on the desolate landscape of the ocean bottom. Although he was completely isolated from human civilization, he says he felt a spiritual presence. I won’t sneer. Cameron is my favourite movie director. If he felt creepy, he felt creepy.
Maybe God does appear in extreme places. Only, I don’t want to be in scary places only to feel his presence. If he wants me to believe he definitely exists, he has to appear while I’m having a beer or taking a shower or something. Otherwise, I am an atheist and an agnostic rolled in one. As an agnostic I don’t know for sure if God exists and at the same time as an atheist, I don’t believe he does.
I am starting on Aldous Huxley’s Point counter point and I found this terrific quote on one of the first few pages, a statement that protagonist’s brother-in-law makes while arguing that one cannot believe in things that one cannot rationalize as true within oneself – “If you have never had a spiritual experience, it is folly to believe in God. You might as well believe in the excellence of oysters, when you can’t eat them without being sick…” Well, I have never tasted oysters, so there.
But I do agree with the idea of good and evil and I do think they exist together at the same time. Like in Superman comics, there is a “Bizarre God” at the other end of town where everything is the opposite of everything on this side. Good is evil and evil is good. Each and every one of us is born with a season pass for both sides and we use it to bounce back and forth every day, every moment.
Even Jesus seemed to agree. According to the Book of John (8:3-7) in the New Testament, the scribes and the pharisees – those early Jewish zealots – they hated Jesus. He was usurping their power over the Jewish people with his straight talk. So, even though he made sense when he spoke, the establishment had had it with him and wanted him gone. They would be given their wish with his crucifixion in the end, but in the initial days they tried to trip him up with their semantics.
One day, these men gathered a crowd and dragged a woman accused of adultery up to Jesus. They threw her to the ground in front of him and asked what should be done with her, while reminding Jesus that in the Torah, God, through his spokesman – Moses, had ordered that women who committed adultery be stoned to death. The zealots had no idea who they were dealing with. Jesus stared at them, haughty yet serene, and said in response, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone on her…”
Jesus’s response was a startling admission. That there could be in the crowd those that lived within the constant presence of sin in their daily lives. Sin = Evil.
That was exactly what the Dalai Llama must have meant. Once again, I completely agree.
The proposed punishment for adultery that the woman faced was an unimaginably brutal one. As per practice, she was to be buried vertically in the ground with only her head sticking out. Her punishment was meant to be by public participation, so from then until she had breathed her last, it was going to be a barbaric free for all. Anyone in the crowd could pick up a stone or a brick and hit her with it. From all sides her head would be battered by rocks at 70-80 miles per hour, slamming into her face, her ears, her lips, splitting, crushing, cracking, giving her no chance to defend herself. After a while she would be knocked unconscious and finally, after a half hour of agony, she would die. All because she, a married woman, had let a married man fuck her.
Man, that is a truly horrific way to die. Interestingly, Jesus didn’t protest the modus operandi of the sentence – stoning. Neither was he in the least perturbed that no one had thought of punishing the man who had been the other half of the adulterous union. We know full well that usually it is the man who makes the first move in an adulterous relationship. Yet, the Bible doesn’t even mention the son of a bitch. Jesus was not concerned about the man. Being fair in meting out justice didn’t seem to occur to him at all. The Bible doesn’t even bother to name the woman. Some holy book.
Here is something else about Jesus’s response…. it implied that, had there been a man among the gathered crowd who (deceitfully or otherwise) simply stated that he was free from sin then he, Jesus, was okay with that person stoning the woman to death. Jeeze, some messiah!
Let’s take this a bit further with a closer look at the Bible…..
The Book of Job is a chapter in the Old Testament that is probably the most profound of all books in the Bible. It is the story of Job, a prosperous landowner and farmer in the ‘land of Uz’ which I am guessing must have been somewhere in the Fertile Crescent.
Job was something of a model citizen, a pious keeper of the faith. There must have been many who were equally virtuous, but God had for some unknown reason zeroed in on Job and showered him with all the riches – fertile lands to grow corn and barley, a thousand head of prime cattle, a hundred sheep and a family of seven strong sons and three beautiful daughters. Consequently, Job was wealthier than most.
Mind you, the Bible takes great pains to mention that God had given Job all his wealth and not that he had toiled for it. Why this favoritism then, you might ask if you are a schmuck. But if you are a true Christian, you’ll know that dictum of the devout – “God has his ways”. You won’t question God’s actions.
Anyway, the story goes that one day, the Satan appeared before God and said, “Have you seen what’s going on down on earth, the sinful things that people are engaging in?”
God replied, “You’re always bitching about the bad stuff. See how Job lives his life, as a pure moral human being”.
Being well aware of Job’s special status, the Satan replied, “Of course Job will be pious and obedient. You made it worth his while. Take away all you have given him and then see how long he remains your obedient servant”.
So, God took the challenge and within the wink of an eye Job had lost everything. The next day, while Job’s sons and daughters were feasting at home, God sent a wind that rushed in and destroyed the house, killing all of them. Then, a bolt of lightning streaked down and torched all his lands and livestock.
And then God did a curious thing. He let the Satan take charge. Instantly Job was inflicted by a dreadful disease and large puss-filled boils appeared all over his body and he lay dying unable to move, writhing in pain.
Job wanted to scream, “Why, God, why?” But he knew a good thing when he saw one. He decided to keep his mouth shut and ride it out and in recognition of his loyalty, God restored all his possessions to him, this time with fourteen thousand sheep, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys”. He also gave Job a new set of sons stronger than the ones that He had had murdered and daughters more beautiful than all the women in the world.
What kind of God would bring such havoc to a moral and devout man, just so He could win a bet with the Satan? Why did the first set of sons and daughters, the first set of livestock have to die? How could God be a just God if so many evil men went unpunished?
I’ll say it again – Jeeze, some God.
To blind believers, the moral of the Book of Job is – whatever happens to you, keep your mouth shut and bear it. But in his book “When bad things happen to good people”, Harold Kushner urges the reader to consider three possibilities…(1) God is all powerful and nothing happens without his will, (2) God is just and the evil are punished while the good prosper and (3) Job is a good person.
As long as Job is healthy and wealthy, we can believe all three premises to be true. But if Job suffers, one or more of the three propositions don’t make sense. If God is both, just and all-powerful, then Job is a sinner, which is not true because he isn’t. If Job is a good person and still gets punished, then God is not just. If it was not God who made Job suffer, then God is not all-powerful.
Therefore, says Kushner, the Book of Job is an argument over which of the three propositions we are prepared to sacrifice, in order to keep on believing the other two.
I’m done with Job and now let’s get back to the Book of John in the New Testament and the part about the adulterous woman. No one came forward to cast that first stone and so she was set free.
Now here’s the thing – the Bible doesn’t dwell upon what happened next. Did the woman say “Phew, that was close” and then return home and beg her husband for forgiveness? Or did she run back to her adulterous fuck friend with a new-found confidence from the fact that nobody could touch her now?
Anyway, whatever happened to that woman afterward has never been recorded and now, more than two thousand years later, we still have no idea. But we sure can tell what will happen to a young adulteress like her, today…….
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.
– Mother Teresa (Oslo, 1979 – Nobel acceptance speech)
Noah’s Ark was patched together by volunteers. The Titanic was built by professionals (Anonymous)
It’s been a busy life. You’re a first generation immigrant. Canada has taken a while longer getting to know you, than you had expected. But you have made your bones, started from scratch, working hard at building your career, balancing your family obligations, trying to stay in shape and finding time to pursue the stuff you really love doing – reading and writing.
After ten years in your new home, your life has finally attained a little stability. Financial freedom, cars, kid through private school, his university nest egg building up, vacations, a manageable mortgage, beer and neighbors who no longer look quizzically at the way you are dressed on weekends, in your kurta-pyjamas. And beer.
Did I say beer twice? Must have been an echo.
Yet, there is this emptiness. The years are rolling by and soon you’ll be 65, an age when interesting things stop happening to you when you would like them to go on happening to you. The feeling, that you have amounted to very little and that you have made no impact whatsoever on the community at large, that feeling has acquired a studio apartment at the back of your mind.
One day you open the letter box and there is nothing in there except for this little bland pamphlet, from an organization called Volunteer West Island. Emblazoned over it are the words, ‘The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself, in the service of others’ – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
Usually you gather up all the pamphlets with an annoyed sweep and grumble,’I wish those m—er f—ers would stop dumpin’ this shit in my letterbox’ and you proceed to chuck them in the blue recycle bin in your driveway. North America is pamphlet country.
Not this time. This time you pause and you take the pamphlet home, flipping it over and over between your fingers. You fling it on your desk in the den downstairs and there it stays for a month give or take, during which time it gets pushed around the desk by the mouse and the keyboard.
Soon the pamphlet begins to age, acquiring a coffee stain here and a beer stain there (lots of beer stains actually), a few quick scribbles, a couple of phone numbers and some hasty interest calculations. North America isn’t just pamphlet country. It is also credit line, credit card debt, balance transfer and overdue interest country.
You peer at Gandhi’s words from time to time. You are an agnostic, steadily tilting toward atheism. One day, your elder bro sends you a short piece that the Indian journalist, Mukul Sharma, had posted in his column, The Spiritual Atheist, in the Economic Times. The title of the post is ‘A caring universe’. Here is an excerpt from it…..
“Does the universe care about what we do or what happens to us or whether we live or die?
If we were to believe hard-core amoral nihilists who say that the universe is just a physical phenomenon with no spiritual component, that events are random and have no deeper meaning or purpose and that there are no consequences to our actions, then the answer is obviously no.
Yet, even if that were true, it certainly doesn’t mean that we can’t care about the universe because, unlike it, we have evolved into sapient creatures that are capable of wonder and love. Meaning, we can infuse it with the same whether it cares or not. In fact, with that kind of involvement on our part, who cares whether it cares or not?
If we were to do that, we could begin living in a basically spiritual universe, ordered by feelings of good and bad; a cosmic order that would in turn, underpin and motivate all our actions. It would be like a moral force where our actions have definite effects that we carry with us. In this respect, its meaning would then be close to the Hindu concept of Karma.
The notion of a moral universe would also buttress spirituality and form the basis for kindness, compassion, altruism and caring for others. This is because it places a value on human life and living things that goes beyond what seems suitable if we regard people and living things merely as a collection of atoms, and essentially no different from any other unfeeling, non-sentient structures such as rocks soil, mountains or planets”.
Like Mukul Sharma, you have chosen to believe in a moral, caring universe, though somehow you do not believe that there is a connection between religion and morality. One can be good and caring without having to lean on the crutch of religious fervor. Why, it is now well on its way to be scientifically proven that goodness and caring are actually the work of certain identified neurons in the brain and can actually be tweaked and fiddled with, through a fast emerging science known as neuroscience. It is a matter of time before a sociopath can actually be converted into a deeply caring individual (and vice versa of course), through treatment.
Back to you now and one day, pre-Christmas, on your way to work, there is this radio program calling for volunteers at St Anne’s, the Military Veterans’ hospital, a long-term end-of-life care facility, to help the 90+ year old war veterans through the especially crushing loneliness of the Christmas holidays. Numerous activities are planned for the seniors in order to keep them occupied and not dwell upon why even their own don’t find the time to visit them.
‘I have nothing special planned this Christmas’, you say to yourself. You get to your den and look around for that pamphlet. It has gotten so badly crumpled that you can barely read it. You call the number and a Ms Grenville, head of Volunteer Services at St. Anne’s, answers.
The 50% discount at the cafeteria makes up your mind.
You fill out a form and the RCMP checks you out. It takes another week for you to become a volunteer, with your own volunteer’s badge and ID. You are now one of the 12.5 million registered Canadians (that is 1 in 3 Canadians), the second largest volunteer population density after the Dutch.
The words of a 69 year old Albanian nun, standing in front of the world and accepting it’s highest honor, the Nobel Peace Price, Oslo 1979, are at the back of your mind – ‘everyday, each of us goes for a walk on the Jericho road.’
You are a registered traveler on the Jericho road now and you are scheduled to travel that road for two hours every Wednesday.
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your redemption is tied up with mine, then let us work together.”
— Lill Watson, American aboriginal activist – to all wannabe volunteers
Six months have slipped by at St. Anne’s and that anguish that you constantly felt before, at a meaningless wasted life, has vanished. In these six months, you have been around a good deal of illness and even death. Witnessing the challenges residents face on a daily basis has helped you appreciate your own life all the more. You have spent time with terminally ill and senile war veterans for whom a long life is now no longer a blessing but a curse. You have been amazed at how gratefully a hug can been returned.
Besides that, volunteering in a hospital has connected you with many like-minded people, volunteers like you, men and women trying to find fulfillment. You have formed personal bonds with nurses, doctors and of course, the residents and it has been gratifying. You have been treated with a different kind of respect that is reserved for those who offer a helping hand.
Here’s what you do at St.Anne’s. You come in straight from work around 6pm. It is a sprawling complex which is easy to get lost in. You did get lost trying to find the employees’ entrance the first time, but only that one time.
You swipe your card through and get straight to Volunteer Services, which is this tiny room with a closet where volunteers hang their coats and store their backpacks and stuff. You stoop and fill in your attendance in the file that is always lying open on this table.
After you sign in you straighten and on the wall right in front are these two white boards, both having names scribbled on them. One is always full of names with numbers written next to them. Like ‘Bernard Bonneville (805) – Bingo’ or ‘Martin Beauregard (904) – Cribbage’ and so on.
If the name is crossed out it means another volunteer has come in ahead of you and taken charge of that resident. The number beside the name is the room number, 805 – Room 5 in the 8th floor. If it is Mr. Bonneville, it is his Bingo evening and you have to proceed to his room, take charge of him, wheel him down on his wheelchair, to the Bingo hall and take him back to his room, after. That’s the way it works.
Your conduct with the resident in your charge is governed by a few very strict ground rules and taboos that Ms Grenville warned you about, right at the start. Here are some of them…..
‘Almost all the residents are veterans of WW2 or the Korean War. Never talk about the war unless the resident opens the subject. ‘Latent’ PTSD is a real issue and many of these 90+ year olds are actually afflicted with it and have never known it. So, please, don’t be a shmuck and rekindle painful memories. If you plan to blog on war stories, it shall have to wait till the resident opens up on his own.’
– ‘Do not ask about a resident’s personal life unless he starts talking about it first. Most times he has no family. I mean family that cares. Wife long gone, siblings probably long dead too, children grown, with no time to visit, the desire to catch just a glimpse of them and the grand kids, all that yearning and the abandonment – it can be crippling.’
– ‘Smile and be positive, sunny and cheerful when talking to them. They crave that. Most have been enlisted men and then, after the war, blue collar workers. They love to listen to raunchy humor, no matter how old they get. Bring along a stock of dirty jokes if you want to brighten up their evenings.’
– ‘Do not get emotionally attached to a resident. Most likely he will not live long and the separation can be very painful. Do not take a resident home or out on a drive with you, even if he begs you to. If anything happens, you will be held responsible. The hospital does not cover the costs and neither does your own auto insurance.’
– ‘Some of the residents, especially the lonelier ones, will try to show their gratitude because you chose to spend time with them. It’s understandable. Aren’t we all overwhelmed when perfect strangers step forward to help us? But in your case, they might offer money as a tip or reward. Do not accept it. Remember that you are a volunteer and you are here because you want to find meaning in your own life.’
– ‘If you promised a resident you would visit him on a particular day, make damned sure that you keep that date. You have no idea how much they look forward to your visit and how despondent a resident can get if you don’t turn up. Besides it may be the last you see of him or her.’
– ‘Do not try to contact the resident’s family under any circumstances, even if the resident implores you to. His family may not welcome the contact. Call the nurse in charge of the floor and let her deal with it.’
“When we feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean and won’t make any difference at all, we must remember that the ocean would be less if that drop was missing.”
– Mother Theresa
I told you about 2 white boards and I explained about one, if you have been paying attention.
Now let’s get to the other white board.
The other board has a shorter list, with two, maybe three names on it. It has reddish orange poppies and lilies all around it. Sometimes there are real flowers, roses and cards stuck behind it. On top is written “Décédé la semaine dernière”.
Once in a while, you recognize a name. Like, today. Today there is one name on the second board that you immediately recognize and stare at in disbelief – Ron Nimitz, Corporal, RCN (Retd).
Once in a while, the no-emotional-attachment rule is fated to be broken, as in the case of Ron, a 96-year old ex-sapper. He was a dear dear little man whom you loved spending time with. You looked forward to seeing him more than he did, seeing you. Full of mischief, Ron raised hell at Bingo. “Sonuva bitch! I’ll never get the numbers! What the f—k am I doon here?” “Hey, get lost, chump, that’s my seat.” “Oh baby, come n light mah fayah.” The last one to Rosy, a 91-year old WW2 radio operator who screams back,” You shut your foul mouth, you dirty old man! Sally (**Rosy’s volunteer minder**), come here! Move me to another table, will you?”
You haven’t finished reading Ron’s name on the second board and you are racing through the corridor toward the elevator banks. You dive into an elevator that is about to go up. You get off at the 6th floor and hurry down the short distance past the nurses’ station, to Ron Nimitz’s door.
It is open. The room is empty, completely sanitized, ready to take in the next vet. The wall above his bed is bare. His beloved war photos, of his regiment and his buddies, grinning, legs dangling over the mud skirt of an M4 Sherman tank and all those family photo collages – they are all gone.
It is almost as if Ron Nimitz had been just a figment of your imagination.
There had been a short memorial service the previous evening, the nurse on the floor tells you. There had been no visitors, except for a younger sister who had flown in from Halifax. Your eyes are brimming with tears and the nurse, a plump matronly woman, holds you in her arms till you whisper, “Its okay I’m fine”.
You stumble down to Volunteer Services. You are empty. Devoid. You just want to skip and just go home.
You pick up your stuff from your locker and on the way out the door, your glance falls on the first white board. No one has picked up David Boucherville yet and you know how much he loves his Bingo. Your eyes light up and you chuckle. Dave Boucherville and his Alzheimers makes friends with you all over again, every time. Every ten minutes or so, Dave asks the same question as he sizes you up suspiciously,” You’re not Cheryl? Where’s Cheryl? Has she come home yet?” You have been taught by the nurses to answer with a cheerful tone, as if you heard him ask that question for the very first time,” Oh she’ll be here in a half hour’.
You stash your stuff back into your locker and you head for the elevators to fetch Dave.
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.