“At first I was amazed, but when you’re fighting for a just cause, helpful people seem to pop up, like right out of the pavement. Even when it is dangerous.
Doesn’t your New Testament say that when your enemy strikes you in the right cheek, offer him your left? People think that the phrase was used metaphorically, but I’m not so sure.
I have thought about it a great deal. I think Christ meant that you must show courage that you must be ready to take a blow, several blows and not bow. When you do that, it does something to the human nature of the oppressor, something that makes his hatred for you decrease and his respect, increase. I think Christ grasped that and I believe I have seen it work…..”
– Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, to Rev. Charles F. Andrews, South Africa, 1897
New Delhi, India
There was a chill in the air that evening. Delhi in January is always near freezing.
The man was clean shaven, neatly dressed in a pair of khaki trousers, as was the norm those days. He had on a half-sleeved shirt, khaki too. The cold didn’t seem to bother him.
As he entered through the gate into the lovely garden, a crowd was gathering. Some had come, to sit in on the evening prayers and to catch a glimpse of the father, the great man. And there were others, like this man and his saffron-draped handler in the rickshaw outside, who were there to put to test which was stronger – love, or hate.
The man walked with the flow of the crowd around him. Like a leaf caught in the Yamuna current, he let himself be gently pushed and shoved toward the steps. It was when he was still about a hundred yards away that he saw the great man slowly making his way down, his two young nieces by his side for support. He was still a bit weak from all the fasting.
As for the young man in khaki, there was a much larger conspiracy here, with more insidious forces in play, but he had chosen to be the pawn. He knew that his life wouldn’t be worth two paises after that day, but so be it. Those days there were no suicide vests as otherwise, he would surely have worn one. What kept him going was the sense deep inside of him that some day, decades hence, he would be hailed a hero.
On seeing the Mahatma emerge on the steps, the man didn’t break stride. His face set, his eyes on target, he approached the great man, his steps resolute. And soon there he was, right in front of the Mahatma, kneeling down and touching his feet, ostensibly to seek his blessings.
That is the moment, when Nathuram Vinayak Godse made history. He suddenly straightened and rose with a jerk that made the Mahatma stagger back a bit. From his khaki trousers, the militant Hindu nationalist brought out a Beretta M1934 semiautomatic. The pistol, manufactured in 1934, was carried by an Italian officer during the invasion of Abyssinia and subsequently taken by a British officer as a war trophy. It is not known how the gun came to India, but it finally found itself thrust into Godse’s hands by his right-wing Hindu handlers.
Godse straightened his arm until the barrel was just a foot away from the Mahatma. For a moment it seemed as if the world came to a halt. Godse pulled the trigger three times, all three rounds slamming into the Mahatma’s chest, their force throwing him back, sending him sprawling on the lawn, his last words – ‘Hey Ram’ (Oh Lord).
Thus Mahatma Gandhi, the only man who could have transformed the world so it wouldn’t find itself in the abyss it is in today, passed into history.
Of the massive spectacle that was his funeral, Albert Einstein wrote……
“The object of this massive tribute died as he had always lived, without wealth, without property, without official title or office. Mahatma Gandhi was not the commander of armies, nor a ruler of vast lands. He could not boast of any scientific achievement or artistic gift.
Yet Kings and Presidents from all over the world have joined hands to pay homage to this little brown man in the loin cloth who led his country to freedom.
Generations to come will scarcely believe that such a man as this, ever in flesh and blood, walked upon this earth.”
As regards Gandhiji’s words to Rev. Andrews in the beginning of this post, he was being naïve. Gandhiji was the kind of guy who would “look into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and see his soul”. Like George W Bush did. Extreme, unadulterated naïveté.
History has shown us that peaceful resistance does not work. What Gandhi referred to as “the human nature of the oppressor” is a myth. Oppressors do not have human natures. The man who holds Gandhiji’s baton today, India’s ultra right-wing Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has working for him murderous “go-rakshaks” who do not have a human nature. They are bent upon making sure that India has no option but to be where it is today, a seething cesspool of of anti-minority resentment.
That lowlife Nathuram Godse felt, inside his dumbed down psyche, that he had no choice, pushed into a corner by what he was made to see as the ‘aggression of the infidel’.
There are many more dumb fucks like Nathuram Godse in the country of my birth today than there were in 1948, losers who are desperate to blames others for their pathetic lives. Collectively they are hell bent upon leading India, to it’s event horizon, the point of no return.
In May of 2009, one man certainly did breach his event horizon…….
His reconnaissance of Copenhagen over and the framework of a plot against the Jyllands Posten worked out with his Al Qaeda handlers, David Coleman Headley headed back to Chicago where he lived in the west side with his wife and four children.
The minute he landed, he was placed under round-the-clock surveillance by the FBI. The concern was whether there was a homeland plot brewing there. Anybody who came in contact with Headley became a target of surveillance. He couldn’t fart without the Americans not only hearing but even smelling it.
The FBI soon learnt that Headley was about to go over to Pakistan and from there on to Denmark once again, this time to carry through with his plan to take down Jyllands Posten building with everybody in it.
At O’Hare, the Feds let him check in through security in order to prove in court that he was actually headed to Pakistan. Then they arrested him. In custody, Headley was a canary, giving up the complete details of his Denmark terror plot. His FBI interrogators found his tone eager and chatty, as if he was at a street-side cafe with them on a balmy afternoon, cool and composed. It was like,” Look, I know I can’t beat this rap, so I’m going to help you guys. I’ll give you all the information you need and some.”
David Coleman Headley was touted by the American security establishment as a success story on the war on terror. The US National Security Agency immediately took the credit for the eavesdropping that eventually helped nab him.
But there was more. This canary was unstoppable. To the consternation of the FBI, Headley of his own confessed to another terrorist attack, one that had already been carried out, taking 166 innocent lives and searing indelibly into India’s psyche as it’s own 9/11. He told his interrogators that he had had an active role in every stage of the planning for the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist strike.
The confession that emerged was fascinating. It began to be clear to the Americans that without Headley’s involvement, the Mumbai attacks might never have got the go-ahead from the Pakistanis.
Six months earlier, Mumbai had been the scene of a horrific siege. For 60 hours, the world had watched as first an Indian icon, the five-star Taj Mahal Hotel, was set ablaze by ten Pakistani militants belonging to the terrorist outfit, Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT). The gunmen sought out those guests who held British or American passports and methodically gunned them down.
All the targets hit by the terrorists in Mumbai were chosen by David Coleman Headley, with his handy cam and winning smile..
Now in FBI custody and facing a possible death sentence, Headley bargained. Confessing that he worked for the Pakistani Intelligence agency, the nefarious ISI as well as the LeT, he agreed to be a witness for the prosecution.
Alas, America likes to show misplaced appreciation wherever it can. For his ready cooperation with his interrogators, Headley was given an appallingly lenient sentence of only 35 years. To me, as well as to most ordinary Indians, that seems like a horrendous travesty of justice. The son of a bitch should have been shot by a firing squad. To the FBI, what does the life of a waiter inside a restaurant at the Taj matter?
Headley disappeared into the American maximum-security prison system, known as the Supermax Prisons. If he was smart, kept his trap shut and followed orders, he could walk in 20 years, maybe even less.
David Coleman Headley could be a free man by the time he was 60. It isn’t for nothing that they call America the land of the free.
As to the deluded dumb fuck Nathuram Vinayak Godse, turns out he wasn’t a dumb fuck after all. He got his wish. He is a hero in today’s India.
It is not known exactly who first brought the tulip to Northwestern Europe, but the most widely accepted story is that it was a 16th Century Flemish diplomat, Oghier Ghislain de Busbecq, an ambassador for the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I, to the court of the great Ottoman Emperor, Suleyman the Magnificent.
Enchanted by the flowers and on hearing that the Ottoman Emperor in turn had received them from an envoy to Libya, Busbecq had brought some over and planted them in his city of birth, Amsterdam. And there they flourished.
Since then, it didn’t take Europe too long to turn tulip-crazy. Today the Netherlands and Denmark turn golden, crimson, orange, pink and purple, in the early summer, with tulips bursting forth in every garden and every street corner. Millions of tulip tourists travel to Denmark and Holland from all over the world just to take in the sights of undulating rainbow-colored tulip fields.
The May of 2009 was no different, a time of the year when Copenhagen had as usual turned into a tourists’ Mecca. It was teeming with strange new faces, mainly young European and American students taking a sabbatical from their studies for a bit of fun and frolic.
In the hubbub, the city of just 600,000 didn’t take particular notice of the man from America who had come here ostensibly on business, but wanted to enjoy some tulip-gazing first.
Even though he was 39 at the time, the American – robust and boyish – seemed like not a day more than 25 and just as any young tourist would do, he rented a bicycle. He began pedaling around the busy streets of Copenhagen, balanced precariously on his bike, with one hand on the handle-bar and the other recording the sights and sounds with his Sony Handycam.
And as any young visitor was apt to do, the American freely mingled with the local Danes, especially the girls, who fell for his eyes. He had very distinctive irises in his eyes – one was hazel blue and the other deep brown, a rare condition that is known as heterochromia iridium. This made him instantly recognizable to those who had seen him before.
The American might have been playing the part of an ordinary visitor but his true intent was to study the layout of the city and to this end, he wandered around, recording not only the sights but also his own voice as he narrated into the camera the places that he filmed, including whether some of those places could be considered as his Plan-B strategic targets.
One building in particular caught the American’s fancy, even though it appeared unremarkable. It was a nondescript office building that had the offices of Thai Airways, the Dexia Bank and other commercial firms. He biked by the building multiple times, studying not only the structure but the traffic patterns around it, throughout the day. He also noted the presence of one vehicle that seemed to be a permanent fixture in the scenery – a police van, parked across the road from the building.
Of course, the American knew why there were cops permanently stationed on the scene – because, besides the airline and the bank, that building also housed the offices of Morgenavisen Jyllands Posten (The morning Jutland Post), an independent center-right newspaper which supported the Danish Conservative Peoples Party. Four years prior, the Posten had published twelve cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad that had outraged the Muslim world.
Now he, the American, was going to take it down, with every living soul working within it’s walls.
The American went about posing as a businessman who needed media coverage for the launch of his products, through advertising and publicity. This cover allowed him to simply walk into the offices of the Posten one day and zero in on a comely female staffer. He charmed her pants off and soon she invited him in, showed him around the layout of the office and even introduced him to her colleagues. She hoped that this was the start of something more than just a business relationship. You’ll be amazed at how ‘open’ girls in the west can be.
To the American, being recognized as a familiar sight by those who worked in the Jyllands Posten was critical to the success of his plan. More importantly, since the building was under constant police surveillance after the publication of those cartoons, letting the police officers see him come and go and thus establishing an ostensibly harmless pattern, was critical.
The American tourist’s Copenhagen trip was actually a reconnaissance mission that had been sponsored by a very scary man named Ilyas Kashmiri, who was at the time a member of Osama Bin Laden’s inner circle and leader of the Pakistan-based terror group, Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami. Prior to that, Kashmiri had been a decorated officer of the Special Services Group (SSG), the special operations black ops wing of the Pakistani Military. Some in the western intelligence circles believe that he had never really left the SSG but had been officially seconded by the ISI as an advisor to Bin Laden.
Kashmiri was quite a piece of work. He gained notoriety in the Jihadist community when he wrote an ‘instruction manual’ in the art beheading. He spent time in Pakistan’s terrorist training camps, showing rookie militants how to carry out a beheading without much fuss and blood.
But here’s the good news – we needn’t worry about this piece of lowlife anymore. Two years after he was done being the American’s handler, an unexpected guest suddenly dropped in at his hideout in Pakistan’s South Waziristan mountains, right when he was sitting down cross-legged on a mat, waiting to be served supper. It was an American MQ9-launched Hellfire missile. The titanium-sheathed warhead tore him apart, just as it was designed to do. He was identified by the pieces of tissue found at the scene. It’s a pity, because I would have wanted his demise to be way slower, but one can’t have everything one wishes for, can one?
While he biked his way round Amsterdam, the American was getting detailed briefings from Illyas Kashmiri on how the plot would go down. Three, maybe four heavily armed militants would gain entry into the premises of the Jyllands Posten, taking advantage of the American’s familiarity there.
Once inside the premises, they would lock down and massacre everybody inside. To this however, they would add a twist of ‘lime and soda’ – they would behead the victims and throw their heads out the front window onto the street below. They would then simply hunker down and fight off the security personnel to the bitter end, giving away their lives in the process. It was a simple plan. To any individual who is ready to die, unburdened by the stress of having to keep an escape route in focus, no plan is too complicated.
In one of the briefings, Kashmiri was heard telling the American,”Make sure the hostages are dead before you behead them. Beheading alive is messy. They are not like chicken, you know.” Kashmiri then made the kokro-ko sound of a chicken and the phone line dissolved into raucous laughter.
Unbeknownst to the American however, every move he made, every step and every bike ride he took, was being monitored and recorded by a branch of the US security services. Why wouldn’t they? He had been working for them. He had become an informant for the US Drug Enforcement Agency, after he was nabbed with a kilo of pure heroin that he had tried to smuggle in, from the Waziristan region of Pakistan.
The American was a wily survivor. He promptly gave up all his associates and while they got lengthy sentences, he copped a plea deal and became an informant. Later on, as his work with the DEA chugged along, he would slip off, out of sight, for brief periods but to the DEA he was a young rich kid and hey, boys will be boys, right? To the DEA, he was one of the good guys. Why his many phone conversations with Illyas Kashmiri didn’t raise alarms remains a mystery.
Also inexplicable is the fact that the US security services didn’t realize he was, in espionage terms, the equivalent of a double agent. They stood by and watched as he made frequent trips to Pakistan and disappeared in Waziristan’s poppy fields for weeks at a time. They were hopeful he would be able to map the drug trafficking in the Pakistan/Afghanistan region. Instead, having been gradually radicalized, the American was visiting terrorist training camps. With Caucasian looks, an American accent and a tall and swarthy build, he had become international terrorism’s perfect weapon.
And why not? David Coleman Headley had in fact been born Daood Sayed Gilani, son of prominent Washington-based Pakistani diplomat and radio host, Sayed Salim Gilani, and Irish-American socialite, Alice Serill Headley. Fortunately for him, he got most of his mother’s genes and looking at him, it was impossible to tell that he was anything but white.
“The first thing that hits you is the nothingness, no anger, impatience, irritation or contempt, no sorrow or regret, no humor or joy. It is a look that says, ‘Beware, I’m capable of anything’. It is scary.” – Richard Stengel – Managing Editor (Time Magazine), speaking about his first meeting with Vladimir Putin.
The world’s richest oligarch. Conservative estimates put the value of assets under Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s direct control at close to $1.2 Trillion.
The cover photo above was taken when he beat out author J.K.Rowling, Chinese President Hu Jintao, ex-US VP Al Gore and the US commander in Iraq, David Petraeus, to be chosen as Time Magazine’s much hyped Person of the Year 2007. Other Russians who had won that dubious distinction before him were Josef Stalin(twice) and Nikita Khruschev, Yuri Andropov and Mikhail Gorbachev (once each).
Aware that the choice for the award came at a significant cost to the principles that free nations prize, the cover story took great pains to insist that Time Magazine’s Person of the Year award was not an endorsement but merely the acknowledgement of Putin’s success in ‘bringing stability’ to Russia.
The award ceremony was at the Kremlin and right afterward, Putin hosted a dinner for the entire Time team. Throughout, he was studiously polite but he made it clear by his aloof and somewhat contemptuous demeanor, that being chosen Person of the Year by an American news magazine meant absolutely nothing to him and that the dinner itself was a waste of time and he would rather be elsewhere.
And then he drove home his point. As the waiters were bringing in the dessert, Putin made a show of looking at his watch, set down his napkin and rose, saying something like, “I have to be elsewhere, please continue…”
Then, while his guests gaped in astonishment, he turned and left the room. They had just been dismissed.
Right since the time of the Slavs, the Dregovichs and the Slovens of the 7th century, through to the 75-year Soviet rule until Putin, oligarchy has always been the way of governance in Russia. The Soviet Politburo was no more than a tight cabal of privileged men living in opulent luxury, who governed as they saw fit and they did it through a slightly larger group called the Nomenklatura, members of which they themselves hand-picked.
Let’s stick with Russia and go further back in time. Following the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, all land and income-producing properties, that had been confiscated and placed theoretically in trust with the nation, were handed over to bureaucrats to administer. In practice, the bureaucrats began acting like the new owners and that’s how it remained.
Until Boris Yeltsin took over as President in 1991.
Under Yeltsin, the first item in the new Russian Government’s agenda became economic reform. But what could it do? How would it begin? It couldn’t return all the businesses and properties that it had confiscated from their owners 75 years back. Heck, the original owners were no longer there, having perished long ago in the USSR’s torture chambers and gulags. There were no claimants alive, only skeletons, buried in pits somewhere in the permafrost.
The first decision the Russian Government took was very nobly worded in it’s press release. “The state bureaucracy has grown inefficient and corrupt”, it announced. Henceforth, it would “empower” it’s citizens to own and administer it’s assets directly and thus bring Russia speedily into the free market economy. The Russian government would divest it’s exclusive holdings in virtually all that it owned – it’s oil industry, it’s natural gas pipelines, its heavy engineering industries, it’s merchant fleets and it’s aluminium smelters and steel plants. Russia would open up it’s financial sector to private banks.
What the Russian government did finds a parallel in the Canadian author and activist, Naomi Klein’s definition of the term “shock doctrine”. Massive change, initiated by taking a sudden shock in the system as a pretext. It originally proposed by Milton Friedman, a University of Chicago-based asshole who called himself an economist who proposed sudden privatization as the only way to effect sweeping reforms. Prosperity would inevitably trickle down to the masses, he said. He first suggested his voodoo to the Chilean dictator, Augusta Pinochet in 1972 and won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1976.
Friedman’s Shock Doctrine worked with disaster management as well. It was a two-step process, the essence of which was simple – (1) wait for a disaster (a war, a terrorist attack, a natural catastrophe, economic collapse and/or widespread destitution) and (2) while the citizens are paralyzed with shock, act like you are being strong and taking charge.
Etched in our consciousness are these words spoken by George W Bush the day after 9/11….“Leave it to us to fix and I assure you we’ll fix it. We’ll get those who are responsible for this horrific attack on America. You go on and enjoy yourselves like this never happened”.
Those words were just what ordinary Americans wanted to hear. Here’s a President who is going to fix this, they sighed in relief. 99 out of 100 members of the Senate – Democrats and Republicans – voted to invade Iraq. The one who cast the ‘no’ vote, a little old black woman, was hounded, villified and ostracized and ended up losing her seat in the Senate. The Iraq war began and it would be a year before people slowly began to catch on and started questioning the invasion.
Examples of the opportunistic aftermaths of shock are many – the handing over of Iraq’s oil to BP and Shell, the subcontracting of the ‘war on terror’ to Black Water and Halliburton, the mass surveillance of Americans after 9/11, the permanent closure of public housing, hospitals and schools in the US after Katrina 2005 and turning them over to for-profit private businesses, the auctioning of pristine South Asian beaches after the 2004 Tsunami. All of these were dastardly acts that were sprung upon a grieving citizenry.
In contrast, Russia’s version of shock capitalism was a happy one, cheered on by a deliriously thrilled public, tired of harsh austerity, hopeful of western-style freedoms. Boris Yeltsin’s divestment plan went ahead and almost overnight, he freed massive government assets.
Unfortunately Russians didn’t believe in vetting or due process, so the assets went directly into the hands of a motley group of individuals – low level komsomol functionaries, failed academics, hair dressers, gardeners, taxi drivers, rubber duck salesmen, airline stewards, chefs, petty criminals and black marketeers, many of whom had been Yeltsin’s partying daughter, Tatyana’s friends.
Russia was now the land of unbelievable rags-to-riches stories. From living inside rundown tenement blocks, the recipients of Yeltsin’s largesse were now jetting around the world, having high-priced call-girls flown in to satisfy their kinky desires.
The metamorphosis from communism never reached the ordinary Russian. It was so badly managed that it left many Russians feeling nostalgic about communism and wondering what the struggle to be free had been for.
Before I introduce you to the Yeltsin oligarchs, here’s a look at Vladimir Putin’s current St Petersburg set. (I have only chosen the more colorful ones) …….
Arkady Rotenberg, 70, Jewish, Putin’s childhood friend and judo coach – net worth $11bn – He produces oil pipes for Gazprom, owns real estate, malls, builds ports, distilleries and mines. Prominently mentioned in both, the 2016 Panama Papers leak and the 2021 Pandora Papers leak. Rotenberg has extensive ties with Israeli causes and is a personal friend of the ex-Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Sanctioned up to his balls by the US. Washes his money at laundromats in Switzerland and Cyprus.
Viktor Vekselberg, 64, Jewish, engineer – net worth $10bn – has interests in Aluminum, oil, telecom. Tasked by Putin to develop close ties with the US Republican Party and Trump’s 2016 campaign. Has close ties with Israel. Washes his money through investments in art, American and British real estate, and Swiss, Israeli and Cypriot laundromats.
Yuri Valentinovich Kovalchuk, 71, Jewish, dual Russian and Cypriot citizenship – net worth $15bn – He just happened to be Putin’s former St. Petersburg neighbor, maybe they grew close while mowing their lawns together or something. Holds a majority stake in Bank Rossiya, along with Russia’s richest man, Alexey Mordashov. Together, they are Putin’s “personal bankers”. For his ill-fated Moscow Trump Tower project, Trump had been told to allot the two 15000 sqft penthouse apartments to these two oligarchs, though in fact they were actually meant for the Putin family.
Alisher Usmanov, 68, Uzbek-born Muslim with a Jewish wife who is a close confidante of Putin’s girlfriend, Alina Kabaeva. Before he knew his wife, this dude was a minor functionary and shake-down artist who was in prison in Uzbekistan, for corruption. After Putin came to power, Usmanov was miraculously exonerated of all charges and released. He is worth $20bn and holds a majority stake in the British football club, Arsenal. At one point, he owned 10% of Facebook.
Yes, Russia’s oligarchs love Cyprus with its lax tax laws and loose banks. And while the average Russian is largely anti-Semitic, Russian government big-shots close to Putin are strangely drawn to Jews. If you are a Russian oligarch, chances are that you are either Jewish or there is a Jewish connection with ties to Israel and/or that you have bought yourself a Cypriot citizenship to launder your money through Cyprus’s corrupt banking system.
(Net worths are pre-Ukraine invasion)
Most of these fat cats live in the wealthy ghetto of Rublyovskoye Shosse, near Putin’s dacha on the edge of Moscow. Here, Lamborghini showrooms jostle for space with Gucci boutiques, plastic surgeons and glitzy restaurants that charge $7500 just to reserve a table and stock $150000 bottles of vintage wines in their cellars.
The ghetto keeps things private, away from the ordinary Russians who shiver in the cold as they shuffle to and from work where they barely manage to make $150 a month. In just 30 years, Moscow has grown to have the world’s second largest number of billionaires, fully 118 of them, as per a database published by The Guardian.
Moscow is the only city in the world which hosts an annual invitation–only Millionaire Fair – For a week, you can walk in and pick up a diamond encrusted cellphone for $15000, a $25000 negligée, $50000 S&M bondage set with leather and gold whip and a pearl-studded dildo or an obscenely priced mink coat. If you are musically inclined, there might be a grand piano on promotion for $350000.
The Millionaire Fair has a wine counter, selling wines so exclusive that for the price you pay, the vintner will fly down personally to uncork the bottle for you and show you how to drink the stuff. Jacuzzi-fitted executive jet sales counters are strewn everywhere you turn. Watch where you’re going or else, you might inadvertently bump into one of the skimpily dressed blonde waitresses carrying complimentary bowls of Beluga caviar, plates of Chatka crabs, Limfjorden oysters and pickled quail eggs.
Putin makes it a point not to show up at the Moscow Millionaire Fair. He wants to be above the ostentation. On paper, he is a modest man. The NY Times says that official documents show he has a salary of about $153,000 and owns a small plot of land, a small flat and two cars, one of which is a Soviet era Lada. It is however, virtually certain that a $1billion dacha built on the shores of the Black Sea not far from Sochi, belongs to Putin, as does the Scheherazade, a $700million super yacht, all paid for by his grateful nouveau riche oligarch pals.
Now lets get back to the original set – the Yeltsin oligarchs, the ones lording over Russia when Putin became President. They were the pioneers of the post-Soviet smash and grab, who behaved like little kids who had suddenly been given their own playrooms full of toys.
Yeltsin’s oligarchs paraded their naked wealth obscenely. Villas, yachts, cars, private jets, beautiful women, everything. You name it and it was there to be shown to the world…. while ordinary Russians queued up for basic necessities, as before.
There was Boris Berezovsky, a former functionary at the Soviet Academy of Sciences, worth $7bn, living in exile in a vast estate in England when he was assassinated on the orders of Putin.
Roman Abramovich, formerly a nobody – a mechanic and a rubber duck salesman, who suddenly found himself partnering with the above mentioned Berezovsky to grab and run the then Russia’s largest state-owned oil company. When Putin came to power, the two had to make a decision. Berezovsky chose to go up against Putin and he was found hanging over his bathtub. Abramovich was spared Berezovsky’s fate because he quickly maneuvered himself onto Putin’s right side. He is now worth $20bn.
Badri Patarkatsishvili(late), Jewish-Georgian ex-Soviet Komsomol functionary and close Berezovsky associate, worth $12bn. Berezovsky’s hanging should have told him something but I guess he wasn’t bright enough. Aged 52, he died of cardiac arrest in his Surrey mansion one night after dinner, an autopsy revealing poisoning with sodium flouroacetate, a well known KGB assassination technique that induces cardiac arrest and leaves no trace. Patarkatsishvili had no personal animosity toward Putin but his close links with Berezovsky and the absence of an explicit and public declaration of allegiance to Putin were sufficient for the Russian leader to order his killing.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a low-level communist party functionary before he became the 16th richest billionaire in the world and Russia’s richest. A very vocal critic, he fell foul of Putin and was packed off to a Siberian gulag where he spent 8 years. Then the strangest un-Putinlike thing happened – he was set free and allowed to settle in Britain (after he handed over most of his billions to Putin’s control of course). He is now worth a measly $500 million but lucky to be alive. Why did Putin spare Khodorkovsky’s life? Guess we’ll never know.
Mikhail Fridman, 58, Jewish-Ukrainian with dual Israeli citizenship, president of the Russian Jewish Congress, ex-thug and movie theater ticket black marketeer-turned co-founder of Alpha Bank. Like Abramovich, Fridman too managed to wiggle his way onto Putin’s right side and is now worth $15bn.
Unlike Yeltsin, Putin didn’t have a vodka haze to muddle his thought processes. Things had been crystal clear to him from the start. Two things actually. One, with all their riches, Yeltsin’s oligarchs were potentially more powerful than him and therefore a threat that needed to be neutralized. Two, ordinary Russians hated them because they did what they did – rob the state of its resources.
As to the Yeltsin oligarchs, they had plucked Putin from obscurity and made him President and now they could control him.
Or so they thought……
The first week after he was ‘installed’, Putin called a meeting with all the fat cats. He deliberately held it in Stalin’s old house, the one with bullet holes on walls where Stalin had old cronies lined up and shot. He stood up and told them in no uncertain terms, “You all made a lot of money and you can keep all of it, but know this – you owe me everything. From here on, I tell you to jump, you jump.”
Before they knew what had hit them, Putin proceeded to take the Yeltsin oligarchs down one by one, a move that saw his approval rating among the masses, shoot up to 80%. By the end of his first month in office, most of the Yeltsin groupies had escaped into exile in Britain, lucky to be alive.
And why England? Because, like the Swiss, the British are disgustingly unscrupulous and very hospitable toward rich folk who want to come over and settle. While the French and the Spanish prefer African and Latin American despots, the British are more finicky about race. They love Russian oligarchs. Who do you think occupy those palatial homes in Belgravia and Kensington Palace Gardens in London? Englishmen? Nah, those neighborhoods are strictly for the ‘Bratva’. The city of London now has the world’s third largest number of billionaires, 54 of them, mostly Russian, as per The Guardian. (Britain’s Russia connection goes real deep. The current Queen Elizabeth’s great grandmother was a fucking Russian queen).
Putin’s finesse is evident from the smooth switch from the Yeltsin oligarchs to his St Petersburg cabal. There’s a difference between the two sets. Unlike Yeltsin who lost control, Putin has his oligarchs in a tight leash. He has ordered them under pain of death to be more discreet with their cash, which may be why nobody noticed when, during the 2008 global financial meltdown, some of them saw their wealth fall to their last $100 million and there was not even a whimper in the press. A drop in assets to $100 million is like the über-rich equivalent of hitting skid row.
The 2008 downturn however didn’t stop Russia’s oligarchs from splurging behind closed doors. When a Times correspondent asked Kamaliya Zahoor, wife of Pakistani-Ukrainian Mohammed Zahoor, from the erstwhile Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic now settled in London, about the kind of champagne she prefers, the gorgeous singer replied that she liked ‘slipping into some Krug Clos d’Ambonnay’ to perk her up after a day of shopping.
The reporter assumed that Kamaliya Zahoor meant to say ‘sipping’ and not slipping. “No, no, I need it to bathe in,” the young lady responded and she meant it when she said, “I fill the tub with it and just slip in. It cleanses all the toxins from my body. You should try it some time.”
(Btw, the Krug retails for $750 a bottle and Kamaliya’s spacious bath tub needs just 265 bottles to fill up to the overflow drain.)
Oligarchy? By Golly_garchy!!
If you like watching the news, then you’ll know that a lot has changed of late for Russia’s oligarchs. Two weeks back, the US announced ‘full blocking’ sanctions on an expanded list of Putin and Yeltsin oligarchs. Now, the billionaires’ assets will not simply be frozen, they will be confiscated. Also, the US will now go after family members and close friends too.
The EU is planning similar measures. Even Switzerland has smelled blood, I understand. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the governments of a lot wealthy western nations. Now they can legitimately steal, in broad daylight and make it seem like they are administering justice. Yachts, private jets, limos, real estate, private islands – everything that they themselves once sold to the oligarchs. Now everything is fair game. The hyenas are closing in. In the US, the responsibility for finding and appropriating those assets is with a section within the US Justice Department, aptly named KleptoCapture. Only, who are being the kleptos here?
The oligarchs have been planning for this eventuality of course, by setting up shell companies in tax havens, so watch out for an Aliens vs Predators fight of the millennium.
Interesting info sources:-
“Russia’s Crony Capitalism” – Anders Aslund
“Once Upon a Time in Russia” – Ben Mezrich
“Putin’s People : How the KGB took back Russia and then took on the West” – Catherine Belton
The stocky chubby-cheeked man walked across the hall from his Kremlin office and paused in front of a door, his fingers absently patting the dark purple port-wine stain that had run across the right side of his forehead ever since he was born, in a hick town called Privolnoye, in western Russia.
The man took a deep breath and entered the room, it’s walls panelled with pecan-coloured woodwork. Two large windows at the far end were covered with heavy drapes. Usually this room was reserved for receiving visitors but that evening a television crew was waiting.
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, President of the USSR, Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, seated himself behind a heavy mahogany table and when Kremlin chimes had completed seven peals, he began his final address as President of the USSR. In the past, most of his addresses were taped in advance but that night he was going on live.
In his customary matter-of-fact monotone, Gorbachev began his address to the nation, which lasted 30 minutes, ending with, “….therefore, I am ceasing my activities as President of the USSR”, his words implying that while his presidency was finished, the USSR was still alive and would go on.
Nothing could be further from the reality. In fact, by the time Gorbachev had walked back to his office, the Soviet flag outside had already been lowered from the Kremlin flag pole. The Russian tricolor of red, white and blue, now billowed in the winter gust.
Back in his office, Gorbachev waited for the arrival of Boris Yeltsin, for the handing over of the devices and codes for the Soviet nuclear arsenal, but Yeltsin did not show up. Instead it was the Minister of Defence, Air Marshal Yevgeni Shaposhnikov, who explained that Yeltsin had been offended by some portions of Gorbachev’s farewell address and had refused to meet him. Gorbachev decided that there was no point in prolonging the agony and handed over the briefcase with the nuclear button to Shaposhnikov.
Just a few kilometres from the Kremlin on Mokhovaya Street however, nothing had changed . It was the same Moscow, in deep freeze with drab, shabbily dressed workers shuffling along in the snow, reeking of cheap vodka, hurriedly stepping aside as a massive black six-door Zil swept by. Seated in the back were two gruff men with heavy Slavic features, astrakhans on their heads, staring stonily out the darkened windows.
In precipitous haste, without any preparation or planning, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics finally passed into history. If ordinary Russians believed that they would now enjoy western lifestyles and freedoms, they were mistaken. They didn’t figure anywhere in the new Russia where another age had begun – the age of the oligarchs.
December 2003, Moscow
There was the same bone chilling cold, the same shabbily dressed factory workers shuffling in the snow. Only this time it wasn’t a clunky Zil that passed them by. It was a gold Lamborghini which eased to a stop under the porte-cochère of the Ritz-Carlton, the hotel where 13 years into the future, a low-life called Donald Trump would be video-taped by the FSB having high priced Georgian prostitutes urinate on each other, for his pleasure.
In front of the Ritz, a crowd had gathered, eager to see who stepped out of the Lamborghini. The gull-wing doors swept upward and a swarthy man in sunglasses stepped out. He had on a quilted Farah Grey jacket which he had picked up on a whim in Beverly Hills a month back. The jacket glittered in the street lights with 390 carats of flawless diamonds that had been sewn into it. His fingers had enough gold on them to buy up an African country. As the man walked through the large armored glass doors of the hotel, he was surrounded closely by four large men, probably ex-Spetsnaz. Personal security had become a necessity.
Back in the mid-1990s, the man that the bystanders were gaping at used to be a trusted aide to the Deputy Mayor of St.Petersburg, Vladimir Putin. That unswerving loyalty had paid off, as he now sat at the head of the $230 billion oil and gas giant Rosneft. He was the face of the Nouveau Russe, close confidant and the foremost of Putin’s oligarchs – Igor Sechin.
Like Sechin, today there are 118 other Russians, looting and murdering their way with complete impunity to the top of the heap.
The term “Oligarch” is derived from the 17th Century Greek term “oligarkhēs”, which in turn is a combination of two words – oligoi (few) and arkhein(to rule). The ancient Greek elite realized that it was easier to carve up and lord over territory in a group than to be alone at the top and have to fight off challenges all the time. The Oxford dictionary definition of oligarchy says it is… “a social system that is under the complete political control of a small elite.” No longer.
The early 20th Century Italian-German sociologist, Robert Michels, believed oligarchy was inevitable. After years of studying different political and social systems that existed in the world during his time, Michels developed what he called the iron law of oligarchy which made the following blunt observations…
– All complex organizations, regardless of how democratic they are, will eventually develop into oligarchies.
– Direct or proxy rule by an elite group is inevitable and a tactical and technical necessity, for any democratic organization to function successfully.
– No society can function successfully for long as a pure democracy. Power within will always eventually gravitate to a few individuals.
– Social systems become oligarchical because ordinary folk find governance too complicated and generally prefer to let others make decisions for them.
– Those who achieve authority are then unwilling to give up the resulting privileges and prestige and thus try to consolidate and extend their power in order to keep those privileges.
– No matter how successful an oligarchy is, there will always be one individual among the elite who will begin to think of himself as supreme leader, capo-di-tutti-capi, boss of bosses. This will inevitably lead to battles for succession, the very eventuality that oligarchies wish to avoid.
In short, as per Michels, we are doomed to fail as a species.
History is replete with oligarchies. The world’s first recorded oligarchy was the 1st Century BC Roman triumvirate of Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus. Caesar later vanquished the other two and was set to become supreme leader when he was assassinated.
My own country of birth, India, has been in a vicious stranglehold by a cabal made up of the Ambanis, Birlas, Goenkas, Hindujas, Ruias, Mittals and Adanis, each having carved out a niche segment of the nation’s economy, each busy jerking off politicians and screwing the public.
The US too has been an oligarchy, though in a slightly different sense. Unlike Russia, America didn’t suddenly switch to oligarchy. From the time of it’s birth, America has been governed by oligarchs, beginning with it’s robber barons – immensely wealthy industrialists and businessmen who reigned between the mid-18th and early 20th centuries. They made and bent laws to reflect their will and made Presidents beholden to them. They lorded over vast tracts of land and owned virtually every large business within hundreds of miles. Andrew Mellon, J.P.Morgan, Marcus Goldman, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Patrick Joseph Kennedy were all robber barons. When the late Russian oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, was asked if he had really ordered the killings of many on his way to riches and why he couldn’t be like American billionaires such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet who got rich through legitimate means, he said with a deadpan, “Don’t compare me with 1990s American billionaires. Compare me with 1890s American billionaires.”
America’s criminal underbelly too has had it’s oligarchs, starting in the early 1920s with the organized crime families founded by hoods like Joseph Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano and then hardening into an oligarchy of crime families – the Gambinos, Bonnanos, Colombos, Genoveses, Luccheses, Trafficantes, Dragnas and the Magaddinos. You can’t pick a pocket without being shaken down by these men.
And lording over all in America is the oligarchy that runs the United States of America – the laughably farcical two-party Republican/Democrat political system and it’s wealthy donors and lobbyists, all together forming this rotating oligarchy. In public they hold bitter debates over widely different ideologies but in private they are partners, their only aims – to jerk off ordinary Americans and ensure the status quo of white Anglo-Saxon primacy. An unarmed black man in America will be murdered by a police officer, regardless of who (Republican or Democrat) is in power.
By and large, Robert Michel’s iron law of oligarchy rings true, except that he didn’t foresee the emergence of another kind of oligarchy, one where an elite group of individuals own immense wealth – vast bank accounts, palatial real estate and billion dollar businesses – with the implicit understanding that while they can enjoy their wealth, it is not really their’s. They are simply ‘place holders’ for the real owner – one man, who sits atop everything. All their wealth can be swiftly taken away by him if they don’t do his bidding.
In return for their unquestioning loyalty, their supreme leader gives them “крыша” – pronounced “Krisha”, a word which in Russian means ‘roof’ – shelter from competition, protection from prosecution, freedom from the bureaucrats who implement the rules.
All of those elites who have remained loyal have thrived. Those who thought they didn’t need the ‘крыша’ are either in exile frightened of their own shadows or have died horrible deaths. One fell to his death through an elevator shaft from the 20th floor of a high rise. One was found hanging in his bathroom. One jumped off his yacht and went for swim from which he never returned. One fell from his helicopter 500 feet into scrap metal that was being readied to be compacted in an automobile scrapyard.
“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.