“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 Gospel according to John (8:3-7), the scribes and the pharisees – those early Jewish zealots – they hated Jesus. He was usurping their power over the Jewish people with his straight talk. So, even though he made sense when he spoke, the establishment had had it with him and wanted him gone. They would be given their wish with his crucifixion in the end, but in the initial days they tried to trip him up with their semantics.
One day, these men gathered a crowd and dragged a woman accused of adultery up to Jesus. They threw her to the ground in front of him and asked what should be done with her, while reminding Jesus that in the Torah, God, through his spokesman – Moses, had ordered that women who committed adultery be stoned to death. The zealots were a bunch of fucking dopes and had no idea who they were dealing with. Jesus stared at them, haughty yet serene, and said in response, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone on her…”
Jesus’s response was a startling admission. That there may be in the crowd those that lived within the constant presence of sin in their daily lives. Sin = Evil. That was exactly what the Dalai Llama must have meant. Once again, I completely agree.
The proposed punishment for adultery that the woman faced, was an unimaginably brutal one. As per practice, she was to be buried vertically in the ground with only her head sticking out. Her punishment was meant to be by public participation, so from then until she had breathed her last, it was going to be a barbaric free for all. Anyone in the crowd could pick up a stone or a brick and hit her with it. From all sides her head would be battered by rocks at 70-80 miles per hour, slamming into her face, her ears, her lips, splitting, crushing, cracking, giving her no chance to defend herself. After a while she would be knocked unconscious and finally, after a half hour of agony, she would die. All because she, a married woman, had let a married man fuck her.
Man, that is a truly horrific way to die. Interestingly, Jesus didn’t protest the modus operandi of the sentence – stoning. Neither was he in the least perturbed that no one had thought of punishing the man who had been the other half of the adulterous union. We know full well that usually it is the man who makes the first move in an adulterous relationship. Yet, the Bible doesn’t even mention the son of a bitch. Jesus was not concerned about the man. Being fair in meting out justice didn’t seem to occur to him at all. Some messiah. Some holy book.
Here is something else about Jesus’s response…. it implied that, had there been a man among the gathered crowd who (deceitfully or otherwise) simply stated that he was free from sin then he, Jesus, was okay with that person stoning the woman to death. I’ll say it again, “Jeeze, some messiah. Some God”.
Be that as it may, no one came forward to cast that first stone and so the adulterous young lady was set free. The Bible doesn’t dwell upon what happened next. Did the woman say “Phew, that was close” and then return home and beg her husband for forgiveness? Or did she run back to her adulterous fuck friend with a new-found confidence from the fact that nobody could touch her now?
Anyway, whatever happened to that woman afterward has never been recorded and now, more than two thousand years later, we still have no idea. But we sure can tell what will happen to a young adulteress like her, today. Nothing. They won’t even bother to arrest her. Today the same lady can sit on her haunches ‘in the middle of 5th Avenue’ and blow someone and all she’ll get is a ticket for blocking traffic. Courts in most progressive democracies no longer recognize adultery as a criminal offence, citing personal liberty which is enshrined in their constitutions.
We have come a long way, baby. Today the prevailing ethos on adultery is like, look if two people want to fuck, it is may not look nice but it is their choice. I believe that is how adultery should be viewed.
“Simba, being brave doesn’t mean you go looking for trouble…” – Mufassa (The Lion King)
You must have seen it in the news. For a week in March 2013, it merited page-1 on most digital news sites….“Swiss female tourist, 39, gang-raped by six men in dense Indian forest while her husband was beaten and made to watch…”
Here’s how it went down. The woman and her husband were on a “cycling tour” of India somewhere in the vast province of Madhya Pradesh. Let’s take a deep breath here and pinch ourselves to ensure we are actually reading about someone, a foreigner and a woman, biking through India for fun. There, I just pinched myself and felt it. So, unless I am in a Matrix-like state, this must be happening.
So there they were, the Swiss woman and her husband, all charged up, adrenalin pumping when they decided, why not just turn north and keep cycling for another 250kms and go see the Taj Mahal? Hey, these are just pitiful little illiterate coloured people, what harm can they possibly do to us?
And besides, why the fuck not? Miss Swiss and her hubby liked to be known as adventure tourists, brave folk who liked living on the edge, whose idea of a fun vacation was attempting something potentially life-threatening, in only those places on earth from which they might not make it out alive, places they have never been to before. As it turned out, it was a decision that they would live to regret.
At the end of the first day, they decided to stop and spend the night near a village that was surrounded by dense forest. Around 9:30 pm a group of men popped out of nowhere and broke into their tent. First, they beat up the husband real good and tied him to a tree. Then the men made him watch while they gang raped the woman repeatedly through the night. When they had had enough, they robbed the couple of everything they had and melted into the night. The couple were lucky to be alive and except for bruises, physically undamaged.
The route the Swiss couple had chosen took them through a region that is acknowledged as one of the ten most lawless places on earth – Chambal, in Central India, an arid and underdeveloped stretch of land as large as Quebec, that is riddled with poverty, corruption and patronage. It has a regional legislature where the line between the law-makers and the law-breakers is so blurred that you’ll think you have cataract when you look at them. The rich landowners rig elections and rule like feudal lords. Geographically, Chambal is as remote as Timbuktoo, in 1700AD.
The lawlessness has bred a certain demographic that is found in abundance at Chambal – dacoits. Bollywood has made movies on them. “Mujhe jeene do(1963), Mera gaon mera desh(1971), Pathar aur payal(1974), Dacait(1987), Bandit Queen(1994), Paan Singh Tomar(2012), Sonchoriya(2019)…. need I list some more? Should I be biking along tra la la la, in joints bandit movies are made about????
Trust me, if Donald Trump wanted to find a true example of a “shit-hole” region, Chambal would be numero uno, no question about it. If you are a tourist, you would have to be an imbecile with an IQ less than 2 to attempt a bike trip without checking out Chambal as a route to cycle through, even if you happen to be male. There are folk over there who would bugger you just as soon. Just to confirm, I cursorily googled Chambal lawlessness before I began writing this post. The first article that popped up was “The curse of Chambal” – The Telegraph, April 07, 2013. There was enough material there to make the hair at the nape of my neck stand up in horror.
If I listed all 195 countries of the world according to “bike-for-fun” safety and security in descending order, India would be very near the bottom of it, rubbing shoulders perhaps with Mali or Chad. The hazards that I am likely to face biking in India are very real. No one has ever heard of separate bike paths. If I am female, specifically female and white, there will be creepy local males stripping me naked with their stares. The exhaust pollution from decades old ramshackle lorries overtaking me will be choking. The potholes are so deep that if my bike and I hit the bottom, a Mexican farmer on the other side might hear the thud and cry out “Hola!!” And there’s of course the free-for-all traffic ethos among both, the educated and the illiterate.
Mathematical genius and philosopher, René Descartes (1596-1650) wrote in his “Discourse on Method of Rightly Conducting Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences” began by saying…..
“The power of judgement, which is called ‘reason’ or ‘good sense’, is of all things among men, the most equally distributed, for everyone thinks he is so abundantly provided with it, that those who are the most difficult to satisfy in everything else, do not usually desire a larger measure of this quality than they already have. The diversity is in the way we utilize the reason we possess.”
I always thought that the Swiss were really smart folks, not only possessing in abundance René Descartes’s ‘good sense’ and ‘reason’ but utilizing them to their maximum. Stealing millions in cash, gold and art that had been originally confiscated from Jews by the Nazis and left in Swiss bank vaults at the end of the Second World War, that took real smarts. Pioneering the concept of a repository for no-questions-asked ill-gotten gains from around the world, stashed away in numbered accounts, that was brilliant. Switzerland is not a rogue criminal state. It is just a bunch of poor white guys being resourceful.
What takes the Swiss into the realm of pure genius beyond anything that even Descartes could have imagined is the way they project themselves as a pink-cheeked, cute and cuddly nation with it’s picture-perfect hills, it’s Bollywood film song and dance locales, it’s chalets, it’s cheeses, it’s pastries, it’s chocolates and all those other innocent things that we associate with only the Swiss. Man, that requires brains, oh yeah, real brains.
I am wondering what Miss Swiss’s next adventure ‘project’ is going to be. Maybe she’ll want to cycle from Pakistan, across the Hindu Kush into Taliban-controlled Kunar in Afghanistan where she’ll strip down, discard her bike and streak across downtown Kunar in the nude. My eyelids promise to remain unbattable in her honour.
Am I being insensitive? Yes I am, but not to the general plight of women who are victimized in spite of trying their best to be safe. I am being heartless toward the stupidity of some thrill-seeking alpha folks.
The gang rape was unfortunate and nothing can justify it, not even stupidity. But it was entirely avoidable and in that, she does not deserve my heart-bleed. After all, wasn’t it the thrill of a lifetime that she had been after? Yes it was. The sensation of getting out there into the great wide unknown was an acid trip that she had chosen to have and she got what was coming to her, period.
There are many others like the Swiss woman and her husband – like those inexperienced, untrained accountants, gym instructors, librarians and ex-policemen, all of them trying desperately to prove they are worth something when they doubt it, those who liken themselves to real alpinists and throng the slopes of the Everest in May each year, only to die of either pulmonary edema or from being squashed under crashing seracs or simply disappearing into a crevasse, never to be found again, left behind as permanent frozen monuments to stupidity.
Okay, that’s enough about dumb Swiss tourists. Let’s go to dumb Hollywood stars.
In 2014, hackers, aware of an iCloud security issue found in the Find My iPhone app used it to access the phones of hundreds of celebrities. A Python script, posted on the net, allowed bad guys to target any iCloud account with a brute force attack – a hacker jargon for a rapid barrage of attempts at endless combinations to guess the password of an iTunes account until the right one is found.
Apple has apparently patched this security issue since then. Now the brute force attack will stop after the fifth unsuccessful login attempt, leaving the owner of the iTunes account unharmed as long as the password isn’t discovered in the first five tries.
As to those celebs, here’s how they reacted when images of their private parts that they had willingly posted and texted were plastered all over the internet –
“It is a sexual violation. It’s disgusting. The law needs to be changed, and we need to change. That’s why these Web sites are responsible. Just the fact that somebody can be sexually exploited and violated, and the first thought that crosses somebody’s mind is to make a profit from it.
“It’s so beyond me. I just can’t imagine being that detached from humanity. I can’t imagine being that thoughtless and careless and so empty inside.”
“To those of you looking at photos I took with my husband years ago in the privacy of our home, hope you feel great about yourselves.”
“This is obviously an outrageous violation of our client’s privacy. We intend to pursue anyone disseminating or duplicating these illegally obtained images to the fullest extent possible.”
“It has come to our attention that our private moments, that were shared and deleted solely between my husband and myself, have been leaked by some vultures. I can’t help but be reminded that since the dawn of time women and children, specifically women of color, have been victimized…..”
Sure, my heart bleeds for them. What kind of imbecile would text her nude photos through an internet that is known to leak like a sieve? We now know the kind.
Or are they really being dumb? Maybe they want to be discovered. Celebs thrive on discovery and sensation, no matter how shrill their complaints may be about their privacy being intruded upon. Narcissistic and insecure, they enjoy taking sexy pictures and showing themselves off.
In the entertainment industry, any publicity is good publicity. Celebs repeatedly barter their nudity on hundreds of movie screens in front of total strangers and that does not bother them even a bit since it is art and their looks and their other physical assets are commodities in a lascivious marketplace.
Before all this broke I knew not a single one of these stars, except maybe Jennifer Lawrence who is a middling star at best. Now I’ll remember most of them. They are now guaranteed at least face recognition, if not by name. If I see a movie poster that has one of them, I am not likely to turn away. I am likely to buy the ticket and walk in. They have achieved what they all aspire for. We are the dumb-asses feeling sorry for them.
Non-celebs do the same thing but here lies the difference – they are mostly teenagers who haven’t gotten to know any better. Peer pressure, combined with some kind of brazen and rebellious innocence drives them to show themselves nude online. And if they are not teenagers but older, invariably they bare themselves with a clear intention to titillate. Here are some of their reactions……
“I like the feeling of knowing I’m desired, by strangers even. It’s empowering. When I post naked pictures of myself, I rather enjoy the thought of my boyfriend or fuck-friend jerking off looking at my photos. Ha! The best is when they admit to it”.
“Wanna know why I do it? Because it gives me confidence in myself and it makes me feel good and it does not always lead to a difficult situation.”
“I don’t know what religion you are, but if you’re Christian you should be willing to share. Asked over and over again, Jesus said that our primary objective was to “love one another”.”
Yeah right. A celeb veers off toward racism and victimization and a non-celeb sees Jesus in all this. If I try hard enough maybe I can connect all this to Higgs Bosons.
Sometimes I am tempted to let it all hang out myself. You know, post nude pics of me on the internet. If I wasn’t 65, with a weatherbeaten richard, I probably would have. No, I’m kidding actually. I’m a bit too straight-laced for that sort of thing.
“Meanwhile, Jennifer, I loved your photos though I don’t go for your kind of baobabs. They resemble pyrus communi (European pears). Melopepo are my favorite fruit. Oops that was Latin again, for melons. I break into Latin when I am turned on. Your nudity hasn’t changed the way I see you and your other celeb pals – as nothing but a bunch of stultus mulieribus”
In the far north of Pakistan, deep inside the Karakoram Range which forms a sort of natural barrier between Pakistan and China, is a small hill that has a monument on it, an earthen mound with a cross and a thin tin plate nailed to it, with a name embossed by hand on it, possibly with the point of an ice pick – “Art Gilkey(USA), RIP, Aug 10, 1953, Avalanche”
In the seven decades since, that hill has become home to hundreds of such monuments and the reason for that is the mountain standing next to it, another mountain, a behemoth that seems to pierce through the clouds and reach high, right into the heavens.
The makeshift monuments are a grim reminder of what it is like, to challenge the behemoth, the mountaineers’ mountain, the killer mountain, the mountain with no name…..K2.
The only way to reach K2 from the west is to catch a flight to Pakistan’s capital city, Islamabad and hire a Jeep and drive to a tiny picturesque town called Askoli. There is an alternative that could take a lot less time – a 1 hour flight to a town called Skardu and from there, a drive to Askoli, but flight schedules get cancelled at short notice pretty regularly due to weather.
So let’s assume you chose the drive. You will have to be careful not to blunder into Indian territory since it’s close. You’ll actually be driving in an arc, skirting the Line of Control with India in order to get to Askoli. At some point you’ll get onto the Karakoram Highway, the only paved road that leads through the Karakoram Range into China. A technological marvel, the 1500km long highway is the highest paved highway in the world , with spectacular bridges spanning deep gorges and long tunnels. Some call the Karakoram Highway the 8th wonder of the world.
After a while you’ll get off the highway, take a right and head for Askoli, where you‘ll stay the night at a lodge and then, at first light, you’ll begin your trek to Base Camp. The drive took you three days in total and now the trek will take you 10 more days and it will be a trek of a lifetime.
Around the 7th day of your trek, you are on the Baltoro Glacier. The mule trains and porters ahead of you are picking their way through this treacherous ice field of cracks and crevasses and creating a trail for you to follow. Over here a shattered kneecap or ankle, from tripping over all those loose boulders and you’ll forget the jaw-dropping scenic beauty, while the helicopter airlift and hospitalization sets you back $30000.
As you inch forward, large walls of ice that weigh tousands of tons, called seracs, loom above you. Seracs are what cause avalanches, when they gain more weight through snowfall than they can bear, ultimately breaking loose, to tumble down the mountainsides like a thousand freight trains all at once, obliterating everything in their path.
As you pick your way through the rocky floor of the Baltoro, around you are mountains, not just any mountains, but tall peaks rising thousands of metres, mountains that are tall enough to have their own names – Paiyu Peak, Great Trango Tower, Cathedral Towers, Muztagh Tower, Mitre Peak, Sia Kangri. Among them, towering even higher are some 8000Plus metre peaks – Broad Peak, Gasherbrum-II and Gasherbrum-IV, the 12th, 13th and 17th highest mountains in the world. And if you look beyond, across the glacier to the left, you’ll see K2 in the distance, towering over everything else – the 2nd highest peak in the world.
As the shadows lengthen at the end of the 7th day, you are at Concordia, a chaotic, boulder strewn field that is at the confluence of three glaciers that flow around the base of K2 – the Baltoro Glacier, the Abruzzi and the Godwin-Austen(a.k.a Qogir). It is a breathtaking 360° panorama not witnessed anywhere else in the world. The locals call it “The Throne Room of the Gods”.
You spend the night at the “Throne” and begin your scramble forward on the 8th day. Another stopover further ahead and on the 10th evening, you are at the Base Camp. You are breathing a little harder. It is 16400ft above sea level here. But you made it. It has been a half of a mini Himalayan expedition.
The Base Camp is nothing more than a bunch of tents belonging to the various expeditions, a few toilet tents and a couple of medical tents, with a doctor specializing in high altitude medicine. The Base Camp doctor is usually a member of an ongoing expedition, present there on a strictly voluntary basis, his expenses paid for by his service
The most popular tour package among macho thrill seekers round the world is the 4-week K2 Base Camp package. For $30000, they’ll take you up to the Base Camp, acclimatize you on the way, with many overnight acclimatization stopovers and then let you spend a few nights at Base Camp. You’ll hobnob with experienced alpinists getting ready to make their fifth or sixth summit attempts, take autographs and then the guides will bring you down.
If you are lucky you won’t get HAPE during the time you are at the Base Camp – High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, an often fatal affliction that fills the lungs with fluid and asphyxiates to death, unless given immediate medical care in the form of a pressurized, hermetically sealed oxygen tent. (HAPE can happen at altitudes above 8000ft, which is well below the Base Camp height).
No one knows why the world’s second tallest mountain didn’t get a decent name. It was designated Karakoram-2(K2) by one T.G.Montgomery of the Geological Survey of India around 1856, when he was logging peaks in the Karakorum Range as ‘K1, K2, K3…’ and so on. The second mountain in his list happened to be K2 and Monty simply left it at that.
K2 has other names that accord it a certain degree of respectability. The Chinese call it Qogir Feng , meaning ”magestic mountain”. Likewise the Tajiks, the Tibetans and the Pakistanis have their own names, all expressing awe – Dapsang, Chogori, Lamba Pahar and so forth. But to the world at large, it remains simply K2. A much lesser peak – situated 32kms from the K2 – the Masherbrum, which is a puny 7821 metres by comparison, has been logged as the K1, as if to deny the Qogir it’s rightful place at the top of the Karakoram peaks.
But it is easy to understand why the K2 is so despised by alpinists who make the trip from distant lands to attempt to conquer it. They almost never making it on the first attempt. In fact they consider themselves lucky if they are alive after even a failed attempt. Straddling the border between Pakistan and China, the 8611-metre behemoth is well known as the mountain where one in every four climbers has died, attempting either to scale the near vertical faces or descending from them. Only those who are trained rock and ice climbers rolled in one, can successfully scale it. If you are trying to break trail at 20000 ft on the K2, if you happen to be the one fixing the ropes, the terrain over which you are moving is hard rock and ice, steep – with a 60° slant that is so smooth, that a sudden gust may simply flick you off the face in an instant.
To experienced Alpiners, K2 is known by just one word, TheSavage. You don’t conquer the Savage. She simply decides to tolerate you and if you don’t promise to make your stay a short one, she makes you a permanent house guest. The Savage is a testament – to bravery and futility, ambition and failure, to the fatal attraction for a beast like none other.
At 28250ft, the K2 is just 750 ft lower than the world’s tallest peak, the distant Chomolungma, better known as Mount Everest. Although it is second highest, K2 is actually a longer climb than Everest, if measured base-to-peak, not sea level to peak. It has a far larger base-to-peak height, which means that you have to climb more. The Everest may be taller, but it’s base – the base camp from which attempts to the summit begin, is already at 17600ft. In comparison, the K2’s base camp height is only 16400ft. The K2 climb is therefore 1200ft longer. That 1200 ft means two hours more at the Death Zone, a term that alpinists use for heights above 8000 metres.
Easy to sketch for even a six year old, because of it’s near perfect Euclidian isoceles shape, K2 is a quintessential mountain. K2 also belongs to an exclusive club known as the ’14 sisters’, the 14 tallest mountains in the world, all situated on the Himalayan Ranges and all above 8000 meters (26000ft).
If given a choice of mountains to die on, Alpine high altitude mountaineers prefer K2 over the others and there’s a reason for that choice. On the other peaks, an accidental fall can be short – maybe you’ll come to rest on a crag or a ridge a few hundred meters below, crushed but still breathing. Death will be slow. That won’t happen on the K2, where your ultimate ride is going to be a long and painless drop – all the way down to the Qogir Glacier. You’ll of course be dead long before you hit a serac on the inching glacier, having been choked to death by icy wind rushing past at terminal velocity.
You have crossed over, up into the Death Zone. At that altitude, rescue has never been successfully attempted. You know you have to either make it out of there on your own steam or perish and remain, perfectly mummified in the cold for the next five thousand years.
But you are Gerlind Kaltenbrunner, an accomplished alpinist, in fact one of the best in the game. A few years back you conquered that peak over there to the south, Broad Peak, one of the ’14 sisters’. Cruel, but not as deadly as K2. Nothing, not even Everest, is as deadly as K2.
You have done it all and come out unscathed. This is your seventh attempt at K2 and by God you’ll get her if that’s the last thing you ever do.
It’s your turn and you are breaking trail. You are around 15 metres above and to the left of the others in your team of three. You started at 2:30am local time And it’s now nine in the morning and you are in the Death Zone. The sun is up, its a clear day, the horizon a turquoise blue and the wind – the deadly wind – is almost non-existent. The wind seems to have lost interest in you and you are thankful for that.
But you know that the weather on the Savage can turn swiftly on a dime. It’s the reason why this is your seventh summit attempt. High up on K2, there are no long stretches of good weather. Your visibility can get to zero very quickly and in the white out, you won’t see rocks falling from above, large boulders that can crack your skull or dislocate your shoulder or simply flick you off your perch like a backhanded swipe from an angry giant. Being injured anywhere on a Himalayan peak can be a death sentence but you are climbing K2, where any small injury that hampers movement is certain death.
The snow under your boots is frozen so solid that driving your front pointed crampons in requires real effort and you can slip from the recoil. A -60° windchill and even a 40kmph wind can easily pick you off the slope if you’re not tethered adequately, but this morning the windchill is only -30° and the wind just a breeze. The incline is approximately 60° and it is a straight, uninterrupted 20000 ft drop from the narrow ice ledge over which you are inching forward.
To lessen the weight, your team is climbing without oxygen and tents. You have packed bivouacs which are special lightweight sleeping bags that you can breath through without accumulating moisture. Trust me, at that altitude you wouldn’t want moisture.
You stop to drive a piton and an ice screw into the ice a few inches above your head, feeling your left crampon slowly sink into the hard snow under foot. The snow closes around the sharp spikes of your crampon tightly. Meanwhile, you snake your rope in through the eye of the piton you just drove in and snag it to your waist. You tug the rope to let the others know you’re secure. The Pakistani guide, Mohammed Arif Khan, tugs back in acknowledgement.
You begin to lift your left boot to inch forward. It won’t budge. The crampon is set solid in the ice. You wriggle your foot a bit and give it a second tug and there’s a clear ‘snap!’ as the crampon comes loose and remains in the snow when your boot lifts up.
All your weight is on your right foot now. You take a deep breath, steady yourself and move your chin down to take a look. The crampon is set into the ice and there’s no way you can bend down to prise it loose. Even if you did, it’d be impossible to slip it on again. You turn your torso slightly to look down at the others.
The Pakistani has noted your situation and probably understood what has happened. With four previous summit attempts on the K2 and six of the fourteen sisters under his belt, he knows you are doomed. He gestures to the third member of the team, Jaegar, to halt.
That’s when you feel the snow beneath your right boot begin to give. You desperately try to grapple around in that narrow space trying to locate even a tiny hand-hold, but the ice face is too slippery and smooth. The ledge beneath suddenly disappears and you plunge. You fall 20ft before the slack is taken and the rope is taught, straining at the piton you just installed. The wind is now picking up and blowing snow off the rock face and right into your eyes as you swing free, 20620ft above the Quogir glacier.
You’re no sissy. You survey the ice face as you continue swinging, trying not to dwell on the possibility that that piton you drove in may not take your weight for too long. A little over six metres to the left and above, you see a niche around four feet wide and as deep. It’s on the far side of the others but you have no other option. You start widening the swing of the rope, feeling it abrade against the rough surface and soon you are swinging in 60 degree arcs. Your next swing brings you close enough for you to grip the ledge of the cornice and you pull yourself up into the niche. You push yourself as far back into the little dugout space as possible and are relieved not to feel the pinpricks of the blowing snow anymore.
Sometime during the afternoon, you peek over the edge of the niche. Far below, the base is obscured by a thick layer of clouds, like cushions strewn haphazardly around. You peer to the right. The Pakistani and Jaegar are out of your field of vision. They did right. They moved on, since there was absolutely no possibility of success of any rescue attempt. A helicopter extraction from a near vertical ice face in the Death Zone is unheard of and has never been attempted. The niche is virtually inaccessible to climbing, the faces on either side nearly vertical and solid ice.
You know your time is up. Your eyes stray to the luminous dial of your watch. It’s getting to 2pm. By the time the dial reaches that position in twelve hours, you will be dead.
During the afternoon another expedition passes within 50 meters of your shelter, so close you can see their faces. You watch and weakly wave as the trail breaking lead trains his glasses at you and waves back. He has obviously been notified about you over the satellite radio. The expedition moves on and disappears from your line of vision after a while. You don’t hold it against them. There is simply no way that they could come to your aid, so inaccessible is your perch.
Above the Death Zone, there are certain codes of conduct that trained alpinists strictly adhere to. First – immobility means death and you have to keep going. It is the second code which applies to your situation – if a fellow climber contracts HAPE or is injured and dying or is otherwise incapable of moving ahead, you don’t try to save him. You leave him and you try to survive yourself. These codes of conduct are strictly not the ones that civilized folks follow but the Death Zone decides what civilized behaviour is and what isn’t.
Besides, you remind yourself, this is the life you chose. It was you who decided that a life on the edge was what you wanted. You are at that edge and the game is finally up. It has been a wild ride while it lasted and your lips form a smile at that thought.
Before the sun has dipped over the the 24100 ft Skil Brum to the west, two more expeditions pass you by. They too spend a brief while peering at you. You smile back a drunken lightheaded smile. You have become something of a spectacle. You try to wave back at them but your hands can’t seem to be able to move up from where they are, on your lap. Strangely, you don’t feel the cold anymore.
When exhausted and oxygen-deprived alpinists realize they are at a point of no return, they get into a dreamlike state of complete apathy. The urge to stay put becomes overpowering, even though it is fatal to remain still. Even time seems to stand still.
You are now approaching that dreamlike, light-headed stupor. The sky is now a clearer, a deeper, darker blue. The wind has stalled. To your left, on the ice face, the trail along which you had seen the three expeditions pass you by, is no longer visible, having been overtaken by the lengthening shadows from adjoining peaks. Idly, you wonder how many made it to the top.
You stare out into the void. The view makes you catch your breath. Over to your right, around 10kms as the crow flies, seeming so near that you could reach out and touch it, is another one of the fourteen sisters, the 26100 ft Broad Peak. You note a wisp of what looks like smoke from a chimney but is in fact snow being blown off the peak by 100 kmph winds.
You remember losing Kurt on Broad Peak last August. Over the years you have lost many partners on the thirteen sisters that you have summited. This was to be your fourteenth and last. You think of the Vienna University position you wanted to take after this. And the Vienna University history scholar you’d spent last winter with. Ralf was right now waiting anxiously at the lodge at Askoli for word from your team leader. Maybe he already knows by now, thanks again to satellite phones.
It is dark now, still clear, the wind velocity almost zero, the entire vista bathed in diffused moonlight reflecting off the snows. You are a headstrong woman and you will choose even the way you die. You stretch and start moving on your belly toward the edge, the lip of the niche. Your head clears the edge and you stare into the void below. The view is obscured by the cloud tops at 15000 feet. You swing your legs over the edge of the niche and pause for a moment as you hang.
At that moment everything suddenly clears. Like as if a veil has lifted from your mind and your heart and you clearly hear the voice. You are fourteen and it’s your father, Hans Gunther and he’s looking down at you, his face calm and composed, while you hang precariously from the lip of that recess a thousand metres from the base of the Eiger.
“It’s OK, Gerlinde, I have you. You can let go now….. Geree, let go.. Now”
You crane your neck one last time to look down at the cloud tops far below. In real life, Hans had been above you but now he is a tiny dot down there but you can make out his broad smile. You let go.
You don’t come to rest a 100 metres below in a crag, a gulley or an out crop and writhe in pain for hours before you die. There are no crags or outcrops on this baby. You sail through the rarefied air, swiftly attaining terminal velocity. You keep descending at a steady 200kmph, until you hit a ridge at 7000ft, bounce off it and come to rest on the Qogir Glacier, a full 20000ft below where you lost your crampon.
In all, the fall has taken approximately two minutes, give or take, not enough time to see your past flash by, the -30° windchill ensuring that you’re dead long before you hit the glacier and disappear into one of it’s many crevasses.
High above the inching Qogir, sudden streaks of lightning blaze through the dusk and it starts snowing, the wind picking up speed until the snow is gusting horizontally. In minutes, the world turns into a wall of thick white, as if a funeral shroud has come down and wrapped everything under it, including you.
The Savage is celebrating. The Savage doesn’t like you. And by the time the night is done, the Savage won’t be leaving any traces.
The above is fiction. Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner summited K2 in 2011, just as she had done with the other 13 sisters. But For K2, it took seven attempts before she finally made it.
Together with Spanish alpinist, Edurne Pasaban, Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner is one of only two women who have climbed all fourteen eight-thousanders. However, unlike Pasaban, Kaltenbrunner climbed without supplemental oxygen, which makes her the first woman to officially summit all fourteen eight-thousanders without the use of supplemental oxygen.
It is December 25, 1991 Moscow. The stocky chubby-cheeked man walks across the hall from his Kremlin office and pauses in front of a door, his fingers absently patting the dark purple port-wine stain that has run across the right side of his forehead ever since he was born, in a hick town called Privolnoye, in western Russia. He takes a deep breath and enters a room, it’s walls panelled with pecan-coloured woodwork, with two large windows that are covered with heavy drapes. Usually this room is reserved for receiving visitors but tonight a television crew is waiting.
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev seats himself behind a heavy mahogany table and when Kremlin chimes have completed seven peals, he begins his final address as President of the USSR. In the past, most of his addresses were taped in advance but tonight he is going on air, live.
“I am ceasing my activities as President of the USSR”, Gorbachev announces, his words implying that while his presidency is finished, the USSR is still alive. Nothing could be further from the reality. In fact, by the time he has walked back to his office, the Soviet flag outside has already been lowered from the Kremlin flag pole. The Russian tricolor of red, white and blue, now secured to the end of the rope, goes up in convulsive jerks until it reaches the top of the mast and begins billowing in the sudden gust.
Back in his office, Gorbachev waits for the arrival of Boris Yeltsin, for the handing over of the devices and codes for the Soviet nuclear arsenal, but Yeltsin does not show up. Instead it is the Minister of Defence, Air Marshal Yevgeni Shaposhnikov, who explains that Yeltsin has been offended by some portions of Gorbachev’s farewell address and has refused to meet him. Gorbachev decides that there is no point in prolonging the agony and hands over the briefcase with the nuclear button to Shaposhnikov.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics has finally passed into history – quietly, but hastily, carelessly, precipitously, without any preparation or planning.
Just a few kilometres from the Kremlin, on Mokhovaya St, nothing has changed – Moscow in deep freeze, with drab, shabbily dressed workers shuffling along in the snow, reeking of cheap vodka. They hurriedly step aside as a black six-door Zil sweeps by. Seated inside, gruff men in astrakhans stare stonily out the darkened windows.
Moscow, December 2000. The picture hasn’t changed – the same bone chilling cold, the same shabbily dressed factory workers shuffling in the snow. Only this time it is not a clunky Zil that passes them. It is a gold Lamborghini and it eases to a stop under the porte-cochère of the Ritz-Carlton, the hotel where 13 years in the future, a certain Donald Trump will be video-taped by the FSB having high priced Russian prostitutes urinate on him.
Meanwhile, beyond the canopy of the porte-cochère a crowd gathers, eager to see who steps out of the car. The Lamborghini’s gull-wing doors open like a giant albatross stretching it’s wings up into the heavens. A chubby guy in sunglasses and enough gold on his fingers and neck to bouy up an African country’s GDP steps out and waddles in through large armored glass doors, followed by four heavily armed aides.
The man the crowd is gaping at used to be a minor bureaucrat in the USSR’s Ministry of the Petroleum Industry. Now, thanks to an old boy network that has existed ever since the time he was a paper pusher, he is worth $31 billion. He is the face of the nouveau russe – the typical garden variety Russian oligarch.
An oligarchy is a social system that is under the complete political control of a small elite. According to the theory of Robert Michels, a German academic famed for his study of sociology in politics, social systems become oligarchical because ordinary folk find governance too complicated and generally prefer to let others make decisions for them. Those who achieve authority are then unwilling to give up the resulting privileges and prestige and thus try to consolidate and extend their power in order to keep those privileges. The first oligarchy was probably the 1st Century BC Roman triumvirate of Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus.
Oligarchies in varying forms have been in existence in almost every continent. Humans realized millennia back that it was easier to carve up and jointly lord over a territory in a small group, than to be alone at the top and have to fight off challenges all the time. My own country of birth, India, was hijacked a long time ago, by the Ambanis, Tatas, Birlas, Goenkas, Ruias, Piramals and Srinivasans of the 20th century.
The US too has had its oligarchies, though in a slightly different sense. There was no sudden switch there. From the time of it’s birth, America has been governed by oligarchs, beginning with it’s ‘robber barons’ – immensely wealthy industrialists and businessmen who reigned between the mid-18th and early 20th centuries. They made and bent laws to reflect their will and made Presidents beholden to them. They lorded over vast tracts of land and owned virtually every business within five hundred miles. Andrew Mellon, J.P.Morgan, Marcus Goldman, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Patrick Joseph Kennedy were all robber barons.
America’s underbelly too has had it’s oligarchs, starting in the early 20th Century with the organized crime families, the Gambinos, Bonnanos, Colombos, Genoveses and the Luccheses.
And lording over them all is the oligarchy that runs the United States of America – the farcical two-party Republican/Democrat political system and it’s wealthy donors and lobbyists, all together forming this rotating oligarchy, having no distinct platform or separate identity or ideology that separates them. An unarmed black man in America will be shot and killed by a police officer, regardless of who, a Republican or a Democrat, is President.
By far the most interesting of all oligarchies is the Russian kind. Oligarchy has always been a way of governance in Russia, right from the time of the Slavs, the Dregovichs and the Slovens of the 7th century, through the 75-year Soviet rule. The Soviet Politburo became a tight cabal of privileged men who governed as they saw fit through a slightly larger group called the Nomenklatura, members of which were hand-picked by the Politburo.
Let’s go further back in time. Following the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, all land and income-producing properties, that had been confiscated and placed theoretically in trust for the nation, were placed in the hands of bureaucrats to administer. In practice, the bureaucrats began acting like the new owners and that’s how it stayed. Until Boris Yeltsin took over in 1991.
Under Yeltsin, the first item in the new Russian Government’s agenda became economic reform. But what could it do? How would it begin? It couldn’t return all the businesses and properties that it had confiscated from their owners 75 years back. They were no longer there, having perished long ago in it’s gulags. There were no claimants alive, other than the Russian nation itself as a whole.
The first decision the Russian Government took was very nobly worded in it’s press releases. “The state bureaucracy has grown inefficient and corrupt”, it announced. Henceforth, it would “empower” it’s citizens to own and administer it’s assets directly and thus bring Russia speedily into the free market economy. It would divest it’s exclusive holdings in virtually all that it owned – it’s oil industry, it’s natural gas pipelines, its heavy engineering industries, it’s merchant fleets, it’s aluminium smelters and steel plants and open up it’s financial sector to private banks.
We know what happened next. That divestment went ahead – a bit too smoothly. Boris Yeltsin delivered vast government assets directly into the hands of a chosen few. Russia was now an open oligarchy, it’s assets directly owned and administered by a few well-connected cronies of Yeltsin. The metamorphosis from communism was so badly managed that it left many ordinary Russians feeling nostalgic about communism and wondering what the struggle to be free had been for.
The emerging Russian oligarchy was replete with unbelievable rags-to-riches lives. The Yeltsin set consisted of a taxi driver, a rubber duck salesman, a komsomol functionary and a hair dresser. From living in huge rundown apartment blocks, they were now jetting around the world, having high-priced call-girls flown in to satisfy their kinky desires.
Before I introduce you to the Yeltsin oligarchs, here’s a look at Vladimir Putin’s current St Petersburg set. Arkady Rotenberg, Putin’s former judo coach, net worth $11bn, makes oil pipes for Gazprom, owns real estate, malls, ports, distilleries and mines. Yuri Kovalchuk, former Putin sidekick and neighbor, $15bn, holds a 30% stake in Bank Rossiya. Gennady Timchenko, former sales rep, Putin buddy, $20bn, 5% of Russia’s total economic output in the form of oil and commodities, flows through companies he owns. Oleg Deripaska, construction worker, now a commodities and metals trader and manufacturer worth $35bn.
Most of these fat cats live in the wealthy ghetto of Rublyovskoye Shosse, near Putin’s dacha on the edge of Moscow, where Lamborghini showrooms jostle for space with Gucci boutiques, plastic surgeons and glitzy restaurants that charge $7500 just to reserve a table and stock $150000 bottles of vintage wines in their cellars.
The ghetto keeps things private, away from the ordinary Russians who shiver in the cold as they shuffle to and from work where they barely manage to make $150 a month. In just 20 years, Moscow has grown to have the world’s second largest number of billionaires, fully 64 of them, as per a database published by The Guardian.
Moscow is the only city in the world which hosts an annual Millionaire Fair – For a week, you can walk in and pick up a diamond encrusted cellphone for $15000, a $25000 negligée, $50000 S&M bondage set with leather and gold whip and a pearl-studded dildo or an obscenely priced mink coat. If you are musically inclined, there might be a grand piano on promotion for $350000.
The Millionaire Fair has a wine counter, selling wines so exclusive that for the price you pay, the vintner will fly down personally to uncork the bottle for you and show you how to drink the stuff. Jacuzzi-fitted executive jet sales counters and are strewn everywhere you turn. Watch where you’re going or else, you might inadvertently bump into one of the skimpily dressed blonde waitresses carrying complimentary bowls of Beluga caviar, plates of Chatka crabs, Limfjorden oysters and pickled quail eggs.
On paper, Putin is a modest man. The NY Times says that official documents show he has an income of about $153,000 and owns a small plot of land, a small flat and two cars, one of which is a Soviet era Lada. There are however, persistent rumors of a $1billion dacha being built for him on the shores of the Black Sea not far from Sochi, by his grateful nouveau riche friends.
Now lets get back to the original set, the Yeltsin oligarchs. They were the pioneers of the post-Soviet smash and grab. They behaved like little kids who had suddenly been given their own playrooms full of toys. They paraded their naked wealth obscenely. Villas, yachts, cars, private jets, beautiful women, you name it and it was there to be shown to the world, while ordinary Russians queued up for basic necessities, as before.
The newly installed Putin decided to first get rid of the Yeltsin set of oligarchs, before he brought in his own St Petersburg set.
Quite ironically, it was the Yeltsin set which – increasingly concerned about Yeltsin’s alcoholism, had ganged up and gotten Putin elected, thinking they could control him. But they vastly underestimating his cunning. Unlike the vodka-soaked Yeltsin, Putin – a teetotaler, was a cold, calculating hombre with a set of reptilian emotion-free eyes. The Yeltsin oligarchs would soon realize that they had outsmarted themselves.
There was Boris Berezovsky, a former functionary at the Soviet Academy of Sciences, worth $7bn, living in exile in a vast estate in England when he was assassinated on the orders of Putin. Roman Abramovich, formerly a mechanic and a rubber duck salesman, now worth 20bn, spared when he quickly maneuvered himself onto Putin’s right side. Badri Patarkatsishvili, a minor Georgian Soviet Komsomol functionary, made $12bn before he was assassinated on Putin’s orders, simply because he had been a close associate of Berezovsky. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a low-level communist party functionary before he became the 16th richest billionaire in the world and Russia’s richest. He fell foul of Putin and was packed off to a Siberian gulag where he spent 8 years before he was finally persuaded to hand over his billions to Putin’s control and set free, now worth a measly $500 million but lucky to be alive. Vladimir Gusinsky, Moscow taxi driver-turned media mogul, amassed over $500mill, imprisoned immediately after Putin came to power. Mikhail Fridman, movie theater ticket black marketer-turned business magnate and co-founder of Alpha Bank, now rolling in $15bn, like Abramovich he too managed to wiggle onto Putin’s right side. Vladimir Vinogradov, former construction engineer turned owner of Inkombank, worth $6bn, declared bankruptcy a month after Putin was inaugurated, died impoverished of a heart attack in 2008.
Unlike Yeltsin, Putin didn’t have a vodka haze to muddle his thought processes. Things had been crystal clear to him from the start. Two things actually. One, with all their riches, Yeltsin’s oligarchs were potentially more powerful than him and therefore a threat that needed to be neutralized. Two, ordinary Russians hated them, not only because they did what they did- rob the state of its resources, but also because they were mostly Jewish. Russians have always been rabidly anti-Semitic.
Putin proceeded to take the Yeltsin oligarchs down one by one, a move that saw his approval rating among the masses, shoot up to 80%. Most of the Yeltsin groupies escaped into exile by the skins of their teeth, to England.
The British are very hospitable toward people who have a billion in their pockets. While the French and the Spanish welcome African and Latin American despots, the British love Russian oligarchs. Who do you think occupy those palatial homes in Belgravia and Kensington Palace Gardens in London? Englishmen? Nah, those neighborhoods are strictly for the ‘Bratva’. London now has the world’s third largest number of billionaires, 54 of them, as per The Guardian. I’ll bet most of them are expatriate and probably from the erstwhile Soviet Republics.
Putin’s finesse is evident from the smooth switch from the Yeltsin oligarchs to his St Petersburg cabal. There’s a difference between the two sets. Putin has His oligarchs in a tight leash. He has ordered them under pain of death to be more discreet with their cash, which may be why nobody noticed when, during the 2008 global financial meltdown, some of them saw their wealth fall to their last $100 million and there was not even a whimper in the press. (A drop in assets to $100 million is like the über-rich equivalent of hitting skid row).
The 2008 downturn however didn’t stop Russia’s oligarchs from splurging behind closed doors. When a Times correspondent asked Kamaliya Zahoor, wife of Mohammed Zahoor, an oligarch from the erstwhile Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic settled in London, about the kind of champagne she prefers, the gorgeous singer replied that she liked ‘slipping into some Krug Clos d’Ambonnay’ to perk her up after a day of shopping. The reporter assumed that the young lady meant to say ‘sipping’ and not ‘slipping’.
“No, no, I need it to bathe in,” she replied. “I fill the tub with it and just slip in. It cleanses all the toxins from my body. You should try it some time.” She actually meant it.
The Krug retails for $750 a bottle and Kamaliya’s spacious bath tub needs just 165 bottles to fill up to the overflow drain.
It is Labour Day, 2016. I am driving to the Hudson ferry when it comes over the car radio – Mother Teresa has been canonized a saint, after a second miracle has been authenticated – that of a Brazilian man who has been completely cured, after he was diagnosed with malignant brain tumors and given little chance by his doctors, of making it.
I am wondering how Mama T could figure in this ‘miraculous intervention’ given that she died in 1997 but I am afraid to ask. Maybe she bumped into him and blessed him when visiting Rio while she was alive and it took 20 years for the man to recover completely. Or maybe she enrolled in Johns Hopkins University after her Brazil visit, got herself an advanced doctorate in neuro-oncology, completed a gruelling internship, did her Masters and wrote a PhD thesis and rushed back to save the guy. As a ghost. She was dead by then, remember?
In case you are confused, Canonization is the process that ends in bestowing sainthood on a mortal, a recognition by the Catholic Church that is the spiritual equivalent of receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor or the Param Vir Chakra or the Victoria Cross.
There’s another recognition that the Catholic Church likes to dole out – beatification. It’s like Canonization-lite. It is the recognition by the church that a guy has entered heaven. Until the mid-1600s, just about anyone, even local bishops, had the power to beatify but in time the Catholic Church realized that complete jerks were being beatified, so much so that soon there were more assholes in heaven than in hell.
Not that one cannot be a saint and an asshole at the same time. In September 2015, Pope Francis canonized Junipero Serra, a Spanish missionary who first brought Catholicism to the natives of California in the early 18th century. “Brought” would be a very charitable use of the word actually. ”Rammed in“ would be more appropriate. Junipero Serra achieved the catholicization by brutally suppressing the native American culture and banning native rituals under pain of torture and even death.
Here’s a few things you need to know in case you fancy the idea of being canonized a saint. The number one requirement is that you need to be dead before the procedure can even begin. Of course there is an oxymoron here – if you are dead, would you give a fuck if you became a saint or you didn’t? It is like winning a posthumous medal. Would it have mattered to Capt. Vikram Batra that he won a Param Vir Chakra at Kargil? Or Navy Seal Michael A Monsoor for his Medal of Honor at Ramadi? Of course it wouldn’t.
The other thing is that you will be among the 900+ canonized guys and gals and you’ll be in haloed company.
The first three Abrahamic saints were male – the archangels Raphael, Michael and Gabriel. While Raphael and Michael were low-key (except when they were required to slaughter sundry non-believers and assorted barbarians), the rock star was definitely Gabriel. He was the one who came down to earth and conveyed God’s messages to Mohammad on a mountaintop cave near Mecca, where he went, evenings, to reflect in peace and quiet. When I did Trichy grass in college and listened to Emerson, Lake and Palmer, I too heard apparitions with wings lecturing me. If only I had been crazy enough to compile those monologues into a best-selling book, I too would be a messiah by now.
Raphy, Mike and Gaby were the only ones who didn’t have to earn their sainthood. They were born with it (somewhat like the Dalai Llama or Nepal’s Living Goddesses). They were God’s way of advertising limited editions, I guess. They were God’s Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and Don Rumsfeld.
Last but not the least, in order to be a saint, you have got to perform at least two verifiable miracles. The most popular way to get to sainthood has been through curing someone of a terminal illness. If you think you’ll be made a saint just because you won a Presidential election, forget it. This is not the Nobel Peace Prize. That’s not the way it works.
Here lies another oxymoron – if one of the basic tenets of Christianity is the principle of ‘as you sow, so you reap’, ie: if Christianity says that we ultimately get what we deserve, then why should someone be miraculously saved without having to complete his suffering? Maybe sainthoods are God’s way of correcting errors he made?… ‘Oops, wrong guy. Mama Terry, go fix the Brazilian guy’s tumor problem, will ya?’
Doesn’t a miracle set a wrong example, send the wrong message? You got tumors protruding out everywhere, tough shit, man, you musta done something wrong and so you had it coming. Isn’t that what Christianity preaches – that we must suffer for our sins, even when we do not always know what they are? There must be millions on earth, suffering the way that the Brazilian was. Why should a few chosen ones be miraculously benefited?
Don’t get me wrong. I hold nothing against Mother Teresa being canonized. It wasn’t her idea, I am certain of that. Left to her I am sure she wouldn’t wouldn’t give a flying fuck if she was made a saint or she wasn’t. She was a great human being and the world already knows it. Does her sainthood change anything, make us revere her more, turn us into better human beings? No, it doesn’t, not one bit.
Or is it just one of those last-ditch efforts by a failing faith that is in it’s death throes, trying to prop itself up by petty self-aggrandizement? One of the things that Hitler started doing at the fag end of the Second World War was to award every (Tom)as, von (Dick)en and (Harry)hausen the Knight’s Cross with the Oak Leaves, to raise flagging morale. If I look hard enough, I am sure I’ll find that Nixon did pretty much the same thing, throwing around Medals of Honor like confetti, after sensing the failing gasps of the American military during the closing days of the Vietnam War.
I believe that if one has done something exceptional, it shall be automatically registered and recognized up above, if at all there exists an all-knowing supreme being. Attaining true spirituality means that one doesn’t care about earthly recognition, like canonization.
True spirituality does not require me to sit up and say, “Wow! Look what a great faith Christianity is! It has so many saints”! Instead, true spirituality shows me the distinction between loving choir boys and the love for fellow human beings. It frowns upon ideas like starting a GoFundMe page “Cardinal George Pell for Sainthood”.
Today, we have a world virtually on fire, consumed on all sides by racism, bigotry and hate and here we have a church that is totally out of sync with reality, busy making someone who died two decades back, a saint.
At this point I am on the beautiful strip of asphalt that winds along the southern shore of the Lac Deux Montagne. It’s 11am and time for “Wait wait, don’t tell me”. I punch the preset on the FM button to 107.9 NPR.
The absurd madness, a.k.a canonization, is behind me.
Sometime in May 2018, the United States moved it’s Israel embassy to Jerusalem, sparking protests from thousands of Gazans, who gathered at the border fence, screaming and throwing stones at the Israeli security personnel. In response the Israeli border guards opened fire, killing 60 Palestinians and injuring more than 1300.
Meanwhile, 60 miles away in an affluent neighbourhood of Jerusalem, the US President’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, was celebrating the embassy opening with words of effusive praise for her father, while hundreds of Israeli and American VIPs cheered and clapped their hands.
When a day later the UNRWA, the agency that administers aid to the Palestinians condemned the killings, it was promptly labelled anti-semitic by Fox News. In solidarity with Israel, more than 20 Republican-controlled American states banned awarding public contracts to companies that boycotted Israel. Britain’s entire Labour Party was labelled anti-Semitic after it’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, criticized Israel for the killings. Human rights activists who stood up and raised alarms over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, were immediately condemned as being anti-Jew.
When the American Congresswoman, Ilhan Omar, tweeted “Its all about the Benjamins, babe” in response to a vicious twitter attack from a pro-Israel journalist over one of her well-argued critiques of Israel, the then GOP House Speaker, Kevin McCarthy, recommended that she be incarcerated.
Omar was forced to apologize by her own Democratic Party. Her point however was completely misunderstood. It was that most of the corruption in American politics stemmed from political donations from wealthy Israeli and American Jews. That must be true because Jewish sponsorship of American elections has been acknowledged by none other than Donald Trump himself. While Omar was apologizing, Trump was telling a room full of Jews from the Republican Jewish Coalition at a swanky Washington hotel in December 2015 “ You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money. I know you want to control your politicians….”
And while the Israelis were gunning down unarmed protesters at Gaza and Ivanka Trump was lecturing the world about peace in Palestine, the paper tigers of the Muslim world who habitually spoke from opposite ends of their mouths – the Saudis, the Qataris, the Omanis, the Bahrainis and the Pakistanis – stood by and clicked their tongues in faux outrage.
Standing by mutely is now a trademark of those so-called leaders of the Muslim world who, given half a chance, like to hold forth on protecting the heritage of their precious Islamic “Umma” and yet the cat gets their tongues as their dear Chinese friends incarcerate millions of Chinese Muslim Uyghur citizens in Xinjiang prison camps for committing the crime of just being Muslims.
But let’s get back to Israel.
First, let’s understand what Israel really is…..
Israel is a bunch of entitled folks who have come a long long way since a bearded Yoda-like wise guy holding a pole, named Moses, said God had ordered him to tell them they were special, in much the same way as a Grand Dragon of the KKK will tell his white supremacist flock they are a superior race. Moses led them out of Egypt into freedom, in a mythical episode that is described in the Bible as the Exodus. The land that Moses led the Israelis to was Canaan, a region encompassing present-day Western Syria, western Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Sinai, with it’s ground zero where present-day Israel is situated. Moses told them God wanted them to have this land as their own because they were his ”chosen people”.
God’s ‘gift’ is notwithstanding the fact that there actually were other folks already living in Canaan at the time he magnanimously handed it to the Israelis. For simplicity’s sakes, let’s call those locals The Screwed.
Long story short, the Israelis have been in Canaan ever since. And the original inhabitants – The Screwed – they are the Palestinians.
So to recap, a nation named Israel, whose citizens firmly believe they are God’s chosen ones, was born from an appalling and yet divine act of extreme partisanship. Such a nation could never find peace. And it hasn’t. For some strange reason wherever they go, the chosen ones attract intense dislike from all they come in contact with. There is a term for that dislike and it’s called anti-Semitism.
In most western nations, anti-Semitism – just the act of expressing dislike of Jews – is against the law. You are not allowed to dislike folks, who just happen to be very dislikable. You could go to jail for it. You are allowed to express dislike of say, Hindus, in an op-ed stating tangible arguments as to why Hindu practices and ideology are appalling, but you are not allowed to critrique Judaism even in the most constructive and dispassionate terms.
Israel is the only western nation that has been continuously carrying out a military occupation of another people for the last 8 decades. Those other people are descendants of The Screwed.
Israel’s territory is ground zero to three of the world’s most prominent And most deeply flawed religions, the Abrahamics– Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Christianity, which forcibly tortured and converted millions, Judaism, which thought it had a silver spoon stuck in it’s mouth and Islam…do I even need to explain Islam’s flaws?
Israel is the world’s single largest recipient of military aid, from one single sponsor – the United States of America. In return for the millions that wealthy Jews funnel into the pockets of American politicians, ordinary American taxpayers – quite unwittingly – fund Israel’s military battering ram which helps to build settlements on Palestinian land by force.
I am concerned about the here and now. I know it is possible to criticize Israel without veering into anti-semitism and in this post, I’ll do just that. The term “anti-Semitism” is being used fallaciously. It is no longer about religious antagonism. Any criticism of Israel has now been given that name. Religion has nothing to do with it. Heck, there are more differences in ideology between the two main branches of Islam, Shia and Sunni, than there are between the ideologies of Islam and Judaism.
So, if you take my writing to be anti-Semitic, I’ll have to tell you to go fornicate with yourself. If your penis is long enough and if it can be bent the other way when erect, that is.
First, an analogy. Everyone knows that the American investment bank, Goldman Sachs, is the finishing school for honchos who want to be US Treasury or Commerce Secretary or Head of the US Federal Reserve. This is notwithstanding the fact that over the past few decades, these Goldman alumni have successfully managed to bring the US economy to its knees. In fact Goldman Sachs is joking referred to as “Government Sachs”.
There is another Goldman Sachs-like outfit which is a graduate school of a different kind. Its members go on to become Israel’s Prime Ministers, Defense Ministers and Chiefs of Military and Intelligence agencies. It’s alumni have been just as notoriously successful in bringing mayhem to the middle east as Goldman Sachs’ ex-CEOs have been, in making sure ordinary Americans can never retire.
Welcome to Sayeret Matkal, a clandestine special forces unit of the Israeli Defense Forces.
Created along the same lines as Britain’s Special Air Services(SAS), Sayeret Matkal‘s members are seconded to the unit from the elite in the Israeli establishment after selection through known connections and family relations within the establishment, with other unit members or senior commanders and politicians vouching and standing as guarantors for them.
In fact, the recruitment process of a Sayeret fighter works along similar lines as that of an Al Qaida suicide bomber or a ‘made’ member of the American Mafia – with a blood oath. To get in, you don’t watch out for internal job postings on a bulletin board and then apply. There are never any job ads for this outfit.
The Sayeret has a history of spectacularly successful clandestine operations under its belt, some of which were such legendary feats of audacity and daring that Hollywood movies have been made, based on them. The 1973 raid on the Black September safe-house in Beirut, where more than half of the Arab militant group, Black September‘s leadership was wiped out, was a Sayeret mission, code named ‘Operation Spring of life’. The raid was immortalized in the Steven Spielberg movie, “Munich”. The Sarayet Matkal commando who went in dressed as a woman, pretending to stagger drunkenly, her arms around two other Sareyet commandos while they felt ‘her’ up as they approached a Black September check-post, was none other than Ehud Barak, who later went on to become Israel’s Army Chief, Defense Minister and then Prime Minister.
Sayeret Matkal is also a for-profit business enterprise that literally pays for itself. With the Mossad acting as it’s marketing division, it charges millions to train members of commando units of friendly nations, though the word ‘friendly’ needs qualification. On one occasion, they were training both, the LTTE and the Sri Lankan commandos, at the same time and sometimes these two groups would pass within yards of each other while on their morning workout jogs, separated by just a thin partition.
Later, in the privacy of their own barracks, the Sayeret instructors would have a good laugh over the two groups of ‘black monkeys’ they were training, to fight each other. I understand that even the elite Indian Marine Commando unit, MARCOS, has had training from the Sayeret, as have commando units from many other third world nations. If you had any illusions about Israel being a nation where the colour of one’s skin doesn’t matter, just take a look at how the Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia are treated. And this is a nation that was formed out of persecution and discrimination!!!
Let’s get back to the Sayeret, shall we. The top positions within the Israeli political and military establishment are occupied by ex-Sayeret Matkal operatives. Every top official in Israel is hero of some battle. Ex-PM, Ehud Barak, is known as the hero of the 1967 six-day war, while another ex-PM, the late Ariel Sharon was the hero of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The current Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, led the Sayeret Matkal as its commander and is a hero of a Sareyet mission that shall remain classified as long as he is alive.
Israel has an impressive resumé as a militarily strong nation, one not to be trifled with. But at the same time it is just 250×70 miles in land area. A handful of Russian KH-55 cruise missiles with 200-kt warheads launched from Tu-95s flying off the Mediterranean coast, could wipe it off the face of the earth.
Israel is always an inch from annihilation and the reason why it still exists is because of the support of the United States. And yet it has repeatedly shown a kind of brazen arrogance toward all those who speak up against it’s aggression, even when it is an American President who criticizes it for building unnecessary settlements on Palestinian land. It was unfortunate that that American President happened to be a toothless black President who had botched the mid-terms horribly and lost all his leverage in Congress, within two years of his first term.
And then there’s that old tried and tested tear-jerker, the formula that has left the whole world feeling a weird sort of ‘survivors’ guilt’……..
There is no dispute that the holocaust was apalling. I am in no way minimizing it. But there have been many genocides, before and since, some far worse than the holocaust, like Stalin’s purges, the Armenian genocide and some equally atrocious though lesser in numbers, like the American massacres in Vietnam and Serb slaughter in Srebrenica. The world has moved on, leaving those memories behind. Even the victims have done so. Unfortunately for us, Israel hasn’t Learnt how to let go. It is still trapped inside its pathetic 80-year old self-pity.
Israel has to prep for the day when the world no longer remembers and that day is bound to happen. Do we still mourn Spartacus or the time when one in three residents of Rome was a slave and treated like an object? Does the world still decry the crusades when millions of Muslims died solely because they were Muslims? Does even the ordinary Vietnamese remember Mai Lai?
No matter how many holocaust museums (and local chapters of the B’nai B’rith and the Anti-Defamation League) Israel finances around the boulevards of the western world’s capitals, it will ultimately lose the battle to keep the collective memory of the holocaust alive and consequently the hasbara, the PR battle. If mankind could forget far more horrifying genocides the world over, it will forget this one too. It is only a matter of time before the world begins suffering from holocaust sympathy fatigue. I already do.
In fact, the world could even be on the brink of a massive anti-Semitic backlash similar to the one that blanketed all of Europe and Russia in the late 19th century and early 20th century. This time it might just begin in the US and spread to Europe (Russia is already rabidly anti-Semitic).
A 2019 survey, conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), to gauge the levels of discrimination and hate crimes against Jewish people in Europe, suggests that Antisemitism is on the rise in Europe, with 5500 of the 6000 Jews polled reporting an increase in the last five years and growing fears over online abuse and hate speech. 89% no longer felt safe living in Europe and worried about being verbally assaulted or harassed in public because they were Jewish. The vandalizing of Jewish cemeteries has become routine in the western world.
The situation in America is no better, thanks to the far-right hate-monger at the Oval Office. President Trump tells the world he is pro-Israel but is he? He is the same guy who said ”there were honourable men on both sides” when neo-Nazis in Charlottesville chanted “Jews will not replace us”. Does he really care about what happens to Israel? Was moving the embassy To Jerusalem based on conviction or simply a political stunt? Given the groundswell of anti-semitism in America, how long before American politics swings that way too?
Antisemitism in the US is rooted less in the contempt for the Jewish faith and more in the anger over the hidden power of Jewish wealth and influence. Robert Wuthrow, an American sociologist who is widely known for his work in the sociology of religions says, “Three large clusters of traits are part of the Jewish stereotyping. First, American Jews are seen as being powerful and manipulative. Second, they are accused of dividing their loyalties between the United States and Israel. A third set of traits concerns Jewish materialistic values, aggressiveness, clannishness.”
The clannishness referred to is very real. An American Jew, born in America, considers Israel as his primary home country, not America. It is this unique sense of brotherhood that the Israeli external intelligence agency, Mossad, has exploited repeatedly in the past.
Meet the Sayanim, Jews in countries outside Israel, who offer to help the Mossad in it’s clandestine operations, by providing logistics, safe houses, cash, etc. Sayanim can be from any walk of life – judges, prosecutors, police officers, politicians, university professors, intelligence officers, military officers, wealthy businessmen – anybody who is in a position to help spread Israel’s influence over the world, one who can be a sleeper agent cum force multiplier in case of conflict. They are the Israeli version of a “home-grown militant”.
The more adventurous among the Sayanim even carry out some clandestine operations like surveillance, theft and sabotage, on behalf of the Mossad, sometimes participating in operations against their own host country.
Don’t bother to search online encyclopedias like Wikipedia for the word “Sayanim”. You won’t find it, so secretive is this clandestine international brotherhood. If you google it, you’ll come across the name “Victor John Ostrovsky” a Canadian-born Israeli Mossad agent who’s memoir “By way of deception” introduces us to the world of the Sayanim.
Over the years, Israel has grown cocky. It has taken the US‘s unquestioning support for granted, sometimes conducting covert intelligence operations on US soil, directly in conflict with American foreign policy goals. Like the case of American intelligence analyst and traitor, Jonathan Pollard, a sayanim who passed on highly classified information to Mossad through the 1980s for cash as well as ideological grounds. When questioned, he simply said, “They needed my help and I feel that I did what I was expected to do – what my moral obligation was, as a Jew..”.
Jonathan Pollard was locked up in a minimum-security prison that resembled Club Med where he remained until he was paroled in 2015. Pollard considered Israel to be his country, not America. In return, thumbing it’s nose at the US, Israel made him a citizen in 1995.
I cannot say if US law makers will at some point in the future start to question why it is right for Jewish-Americans to put Israel ahead of the US and why it is worthwhile for America to place it’s friendship with Israel above all else.
All I know is that at some point…. something’s gotta give.
“In all things that you see breathing the breath of life, either courage or craft or speed has from the beginning of it’s existence protected and preserved each particular race. But those to whom nature has granted none of these qualities, so that they could neither live by their own means nor perform for us any usefull service in return for which they could be safe under our protection, they lie exposed untill nature brings them to extinction”
– Lucretius(99-55BC), in De Rerum Natura (“On the nature of things”), 1900 years prior to Charles Darwin’s natural section
It is 1598 and a boat from a large sailing ship beaches itself on a deserted island in the Indian Ocean, that we know today as Mauritius. Sailors jump out, wade ashore and begin exploring the surroundings. As they cut through the undergrowth, they see something they haven’t seen before – a huge ugly blunt-beaked bird, standing a metre tall, with brown feathers. The bird seems docile, as if it is domesticated. Having never come face to face with a predator, it makes no attempt to flee, seeming completely unafraid of the visitors.
They name the bird the “Dodo”.
Mauritius is soon transformed by the men from the ship. Over the next two years, more ships arrive and soon there’s no place for the dodo to go. The men slaughter the dodos indiscriminately for their meat and the animals they had brought with them (the dogs and the rats that had stowed away in their crates), they eat the dodos’ eggs. In less than a century, the entire species disappears. The last dodo was sighted in 1688.
At the time no one believed that the dodo could be absolutely wiped out as a species. The word “extinction” hadn’t yet appeared in the world’s lexicons. Why would God create an animal, some thought, only to let it die out?
It took another 150 years for the dodo to be officially declared “extinct”.
Today we know a lot more about what drives animals to extinction. We have also become aware of the pressures that have started to bear down on our own species and it’s fragile longevity. Yet, we think of ourselves as invincible, too smart to go the way of the dodo.
It is the summer of 1918. Phillis Brown, the daughter of a British army officer, lives in an upscale neighbourhood in the heart of London. When the First World War broke out four years ago, she joined the Volunteer Aid Detachment, where she still works as a nurse, taking care of wounded soldiers returning from the Western Front in France.
In the autumn of 1918, the howitzers finally fall silent across Europe and Londoners begin to pick up the pieces and get on with their lives. Phillis hears pre-school children in her neighbourhood singing a strange new nursery rhyme. When I was a kid growing up in India, I was made to sing the same song, quite unaware of what the words really meant…
Ring-a ring o-Rosies, pocket full of posies
And we all fall down
I had a bird and it’s name was Enza
I opened the window
And in flew Enza!
As the war is drawing to an end, Phillis notices more and more of the returning soldiers having severe breathing problems. No one has a clue as to what the disease is but whatever it is, its deadly. Some of the soldiers have a dark purple flush spreading all over their bodies. Their lungs are filled with a kind of sticky pus and they gasp and wheeze as they try to breathe, their eyes filled with the kind of terror one feels when one is unable to understand what is happening to him.
The soldiers die in the hundreds, their screams caught inside their choked throats. After that those who come to visit them – their relatives and friends – they begin dying and their friends and relatives and theirs and theirs. Phillis realizes that this a mysterious infection of some kind, which starts with a head cold.
The winter of 1918 is now around the corner when one day Phillis catches a chill, followed by high fever and a dry cough. In order not to infect her family, she moves out and begins living in a nearby boarding house. Two days later aged just 20, one chill evening a week from Christmas, Phillis Brown breathes her last.
It is estimated that 50-100 million people died in the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic that is now known as the “Spanish flu”. More people died of this disease than all the fatalities from the two World Wars combined.
The COVID-19 infections crossed 1 million worldwide today. There is yet no cure, not even a vaccine for those who haven’t yet got it. How long, before it crosses over from 1 million infections to 1 million kills?
The COVID-19 pandemic – a common flu with a tweaked DNA that triggers acute respiratory distress syndrome or asphyxiation – makes one wonder about coming close to extinction. You are infected by just being in the same room as an infected person who is simply breathing normally. Contrary to what was known just a few weeks earlier, the COVID-19 does not need someone to cough or sneeze next to you.
The virus, a microscopic parasite that has the ability to survive outside a host body for 3-4 days, deposits itself in the cells that line your throat and lungs and turns them into mini corona virus factories that churn out even more viruses that infect more cells, all the while disguising itself as a normal microbe, one of the many harmless microbes that already live inside you.
Soon your body is hijacked and you don’t even know it. That’s just the incubation period, when there are no symptoms, not even a sore throat or a cough. All around you people are beginning to wear masks so they don’t carry or receive the infection.
If you are an American, of course you are imbued with a typically American sense of faux bravado, a carry-forward of the American exceptionalism that we see today. “Lets go about our lives normally, let’s not let the virus dictate how we live,” you’ll say. Visiting a nightclub is your birthright and no one can take that away from you, not even a virus. “Didn’t we go about leading normal lives the very day after 9/11? That way, the terrorists didn’t win and so will it be with this pesky virus. Isn’t our’s the greatest country in the world?” you’ll say and you will go out on a date.
But the virus is not a terrorist. It has no ideology, no emotion, no passion and no devotion to any belief. The virus does not have the ability to think. It has a single-minded goal – to find a host and replicate, to keep it’s host alive so it can live in it and multiply.
By the time you leave the establishment that evening, you will have infected 35 other people, including the girl you brought along.
5 days into the onset of the infection, your immune system has finally begun to fight the virus. You start getting the chills of fever, perhaps aching muscles, a sore throat and dry coughs too. You begin to lose your sense of taste and smell. Your immune system is now beginning to overreact. It is causing inflammation inside vital organs within your body, filling tiny sacs that hold oxygen in your lungs with water, in much the same manner as HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) afflicts alpine climbers. On X-rays, your lungs begin to exhibit dark patches – a sign that pneumonia is setting in. You try to take deep breaths in order to breathe in some air but you only wheeze. Your chest feels like it is in a vice grip.
At this point, if there is no emergency room doctor to insert a tube down your throat and connect you to a ventilator you will see a gaunt man in a cape holding a long scythe hovering near your hospital bed, waiting to snip the thread that connects your soul to your body. If he has his middle finger raised as in the image above, you are history.
When there are millions like you across the world, it is a pandemic and that’s what it is getting to right now.
The good news – so far, natural cataclysms have never wiped us out as a species, although a super-volcano in Indonesia 76000 years ago almost did. The eruption (known as the ”Toba Event”) and the ejection into the Earth’s upper atmosphere of volcanic ash created a 1000-year long cooling cycle that left only a few thousand human survivors in the whole world.
Pandemics too are natural disasters that have the ability to wipe us out as a species but somehow we have managed to survive those as well.
During the beginning of the Dark Ages, 540-542AD, the “Plague of Justinian” decimated the population of the region in and around the Byzantine Empire, around the same time that an Icelandic volcano erupted, blanketing the earth’s atmosphere with ash and bringing on a decades long winter. While the plague remained active for two centuries and took 100 million lives in Europe, the sudden cold caused by the volcanic eruption decimated crops the world over, triggering famines and taking another 100 million lives.
800 years on, around 1350AD, we had the bubonic plague known as the Black Death or Pestilence, in Eurasia,. Within just three years, a third of the world’s population (200 million) had perished.
But just because we’ve never been completely wiped out in the past, doesn’t mean we won’t be in the future. The threat of new potentially deadlier existential threats have appeared over the horizon. Climate change, drug-resistant viruses, nuclear war, large asteroid impact, out-of-control artificial intelligence, super volcanos, coronal mass ejections (solar flares) – these are very real threats of the modern age that could wipe us all out completely.
Historical record shows that once every thousand years, an event has occurred that has wiped out a sizeable percentage of the human population. Occasionally a mammoth cataclysm like the super-volcano in Toba has brought us a hair-breadth from extinction.
Dr Simon Beard, a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk in Cambridge, thinks of himself as an optimist, but in his work he spends most of his time trying to figure out how the world might end. He says that an existential threat does not necessarily mean every last human being will die out. It could instead be something that destroys civilization as we know it. Humanity may just make it but we could be reduced to a handful, surviving at the subsistence level of hunter-gatherers who roamed Africa 100,000 years ago.
The two above mentioned plague pandemics started at European ports, carried in by merchant ships that had stowaway rats which had plague-infected fleas. In the case of the COVID-19, Chinese scientists suspect the source to be pangolins, a species of ant-eater that is highly sought-after in China for it’s meat and scales.
If only the Chinese would stop eating crazy shit like cockroaches and snakes and dogs and pangolins, maybe the world would be a safer place. SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was caused by the Chinese eating civets that in turn had transported the virus from horseshoe bats to humans. Goddammit, who eats civets? We gift our women with jackets lined with civet fur but we have to wait till the Chinese have eaten them first.
If one were to follow the thousand-year thumb rule then it is now time for the next big one. Will it be the COVID-19? What’s the end game? The Spanish Flu lasted two years. How long will this one last? Will a survivor develop the 1-year immunity of the common flu or 4 years(SARS) or life-long, as in the case of measles? Or no immunity at all?
I already know the answers of course, but I am in self-isolation, twiddling my thumbs. I am 65, with lungs damaged by years of smoking. I am a stereotypical COVID-19 virus’s dream victim. I am morose. I am suicidal. I am homicidal. Leave me alone.
‘Po’ is a Tamil word that is generally used to express disgusted dismissal. Something like ‘go away, don’t bother me’. Back in university (1973), my girlfriend, a comely Tamil girl, would say it often when she was tired of my kisses and cuddles. Me being what I was back in those early days of long hair, bell-bottoms and awakening body parts, the only test I regularly used to pass with an A+ was the test of sterone.
What am I supposed to do? I am a touchy feely guy.
Po is also the chemical symbol for Polonium, an element discovered by French nuclear chemist, Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, in the dying days of the nineteenth century. Named in her honor after her native country, Poland, Polonium is a metal that is so heavy that you’d need both hands and hunch your shoulders, to hold just a fist sized lump. If you see a guy with a crick in his armpits, could be he had been carrying Polonium around. Though, that would make him a schmuck because Polonium is a highly radioactive alpha emitter and you don’t want to have it lying around near you.
Don’t worry about the ‘alpha emitter’ bit. I shall explain what an alpha emitter is, a little later on. Just get yourself a beer, set yoreself down and make sure you can read simple sentences in English.
Placed just ahead of Bismuth in the periodic table, Polonium is known to exist in many forms or isotopes, 33 different isotopes in fact. Don’t know what an isotope is? I’d guessed as much. You cannot possibly know everything I do.
Isotopes of an element are like siblings from the same parents. All have the same number of protons but behave very differently because they have a different number of neutrons in the nucleus of the atom. I’m showing off, you can skip the page if you like. But this is really my blog and if I want ta fill it with isotopes, I will.
Highly radioactive, Polonium continuously loses mass, in a spontaneous process called radioactive decay. Because the numbers of protons and neutrons don’t match in isotopes, they are unstable, or in other words, radioactive. From the moment they are formed, they try desperately to reach a more stable state, by letting go of the excess neutrons and protons so that the number of each in the nucleus match. In this process of trying to reach stability, they form entirely new elements. Polonium, for instance, decays into an isotope of Lead, Pb-206, which is stable, ie: it is not radioactive and therefore will not decay to some other element.
Do you know how I know all this? I am a nuclear scientist, yeah. In fact there’s a charged particle named after me – ”Spunkyon”. Actually that’s not true. I just googled “fun facts about Polonium“. I am the bloggers’ version of a hustler who copies stuff from the internet and puts it in his blog. Nothing, but nothing, in here is original and I take pride in that fact.
There’s more to radioactive decay – like alpha decay, beta decay and gamma decay, but I won’t get into that, knowing how short and severely impaired your attention span is. Besides, I have no idea what they are and you’ll have to wait till I look them up on Wikipedia, which you could do by yourselves of course, but I’d rather you waited till I told you about them, at some later occasion. Remember, the only reliable information is the one that is in Spunkypedia.
Radioactive decay is remorseless. It happens spontaneously and there’s absolutely nothing you can do to make it change it’s mind and stop. Like the famous 1960s nautch girl of Bollywood, Helen and her screen lover, that short, stout guy in skin-tight pants in those old R.D.Burman dance sequences. The moment Helen entered a scene, you knew she was going to take her clothes off and Shorty would soon be writhing around her dancing figure, panting on the shiny nightclub floor…ahha,,ha,,ahha..ha, ahha..ha. No way you could stop them from doing that.
The time it takes for a radioactive isotope to decay down to half it’s original mass is termed it’s half-life. Let’s take Polonium 210 which has a half-life of 138 days. A 10 gm sample will have 5 gms remaining after 138 days, while the rest is converted to Pb-206. After the next 138 days, there will be only 2.5 gms. And so on. Thus, the content of Po 210 will get smaller and smaller exponentially, halving in mass every 138 days.
Of the 33 known isotopes of Polonium, only three are the rock stars – Po-208, 209 and 210. They’re the three evil step sisters. The others’ half-lives are in microseconds. The three sisters stand out with appreciable half-lives and are therefore available for exploitation. Po-208 has a half-life of 2.9 years and Po-209, 103 years And Po-210, 138 days. All three are lethal and you wouldn’t want to be anywhere near them.
I’d love to tell you more about all three step sisters but Pierre, my carpool partner, will arrive any moment and I have to get to work, so I’ll focus on only the most scary, the zinger – Polonium 210. As a start, let’s assume Po-210 is female, being toxic and all. So let’s call her PollyTwoTen. I always give objects names. Who knows, maybe they’re alive and it’s us who are dead.
A dull, sinister-grey metal, PollyTwoTen keeps releasing massive amounts of energy spontaneously in the form of intense heat and alpha particles. A lump of Polonium-210 will cast an evil greenish glow and remain really hot, 500°C hot, as it decays to Lead-206. Aside from the sophisticated technology necessary to produce even 10 gms of it, handling and storage of this mother is a branch of nuclear science in itself.
Remember I said I’ll tell you what alpha decay is? Alpha decay is the spontaneous release by a radioactive isotope of high energy alpha particles and alpha particles are sub-atomic particles, each consisting of 2 protons and 2 neutrons joined together in matrimony. Alpha particles are deadly but more of that later.
PollyTwoTen exists in nature in such insignificant concentrations that the metal has to be extracted and that’s done by carefully controlled radioactive decay, either from Uranium-238 or Radium–226, inside a nuclear reactor. The extraction process is high-tech and classified, the technology strictly controlled and available with only a few governments round the world, those that have produced nuclear bombs – US, Russia, China, UK, France, India, Pakistan and Israel. Given the investment necessary and the strictures in place on import and export of Po-210, it is unlikely that any private commercial enterprise will be able to or even be allowed to produce the stuff. Only around 100gms of the metal are produced worldwide every year, mostly in Russia.
Since it has extra neutrons lying around, Polly is used as an initiater in a nuclear bomb, to bombard a lump of Uranium-235 with a blizzard of neutrons to hasten the chain reaction that causes a nuclear detonation. Besides use in a nuclear bomb, Polly210 also finds application in “static eliminators“ that neutralize static electricity build-up in manufacturing set-ups.
Back in the 1960s, PollyTwoTen’s natural ability to radiate heat made the metal invaluable as a heat and power source to keep the electronics inside spacecraft functioning normally in deep space where ambient temperatures hit 2-3º above absolute zero. However, due to it’s short half-life of only 138 days, it was replaced by another hot babe with a much longer half-life of 87.7 years – Plutonium-238. How do you think the Voyager-1, now in interstellar space, 13.5 billion miles from earth – 42 years after launch, is still going strong? It is expected to retain it’s hard-on through 2050.
In recent decades, Polonium-210 has found a sinister use – assassinations. State-sponsored assassinations. When inhaled or ingested through food or a cut or wound, the alpha particles from Polly will smash through bone and tissue at the atomic level, combining and changing the very molecular cell structure of the organ it strikes, mutating cells, fragmenting nuclei and damaging DNA irreversibly, in a sort of drunken binge. They will start a chain reaction that sees the body gradually turn upon itself when it realizes that it’s now made of something else other than healthy blood and tissue. The process is gradual and terminal and the poor sod who gets the dose is history within a matter of two to three very agonizing weeks.
Among radioactive elements, Polonium is considered the most lethal, but in general, all gamma and alpha emitters are considered lethal, as well as any element that has a short half-life which means that it will emit massive amounts of radiation in a short while. PollyTwoTen is 250000 times more toxic than the most toxic poison, potassium cyanide and a maybe million times more lethal than highly toxic mercury.
Some of us consume Polly willfully. Tobacco contains polonium and inhalation of cigarette smoke causes the polonium to be deposited on the mucous lining of the respiratory tract. It starts emitting alpha particles from there, damaging the linings of cells, leading to lung cancer.
There is a silver lining though – alpha particles released from decaying Po-210 don’t get too far – just a couple of centimetres actually. They can be easily stopped by an ordinary sheet of bond paper or even the epidermis (the outer crust of the human skin), provided it isn’t ruptured, as in a wound. The risk of contamination is minimal, unless it is inhaled or ingested through food or the blood.
The story of the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko is a well known one. In the 1990s Litvinenko, a lieutenant-colonel in Russia’s internal security agency, investigated corruption and organized crime in Russia that all too often led to the doors of senior bureaucrats. In 1998, he went on TV to denounce the order to assassinate the billionaire dissident, Boris Berezovsky in England. By going public, Litvinenko pissed off the establishment, big time.
Soon Litvinenko was telling anyone who’d listen that the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings were carried out not by Chechen terrorists but by FSB agents, on orders coming straight from the very top. The purpose – to justify the start of a brutal campaign of suppression in Chechnia. Exactly the same strategy the Nazis used to win support for Hitler’s extreme policies, when in 1933 they burned down their own parliament building, the Reichstag.
In 2000, fearing arrest, Litvinenko fled to the UK where he wrote two damning books further infuriating his erstwhile masters, ‘Blowing Up Russia: Terror from Within’ and ‘Lubyanka Criminal Group’. Litvinenko also accused Putin of ordering the now infamous killing of Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya.
By constantly levelling serious accusations, Litvinenko stepped over a “lakshman rekha” and signed his own death warrant.
On an overcast November 2006 evening in London, Alexander Litvinenko put on his favourite hunting jacket, kissed his wife, Marina, lightly on her cheek and walked over to Soho to meet longtime ex-FSB buddies, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun for drinks and dinner. Immediately after, Litvinenko started feeling stomach pains and had to be hospitalised, where he initially suffered from severe diarrhoea and vomiting.
The hospital, at first, diagnosed him with a stomach infection and began treatment for it. However, Litvinenko’s condition continued to worsen and doctors discovered that his white blood cell count had plummeted, impairing his immune system. After a while, his skin turned yellow, indicating possible liver dysfunction. Having no clue initially, doctors had him tested for the two most likely causes, hepatitis and AIDS, but both tested negative.
It was when Litvinenko’s hair began falling out in clumps that the attending surgeons realized he was suffering from radiation poisoning. Further tests identified Polonium-210 as the culprit.
14 days after he had taken the first sip from a tea cup at a cafe in Soho, Alexander Litvinenko’s body stopped fighting itself, on November 23, 2006.
Something similarly sinister is now believed to have befallen Yasser Arafat, the late enigmatic leader of the paramilitary group Al Fatah and Chairman of the PLO. One afternoon in October 2004, Arafat collapsed during a meeting, suffering from vomiting and diarrhoea. An hour earlier he had ingested medications that were routinely imported for him, into the Ramallah Compound on the Gaza Strip, in an ambulance that had to pass through several Israeli check points. Usually the ambulance driver was ordered to remain at the wheel while Israeli border guards opened the rear door of the van and pulled out the box and inspected the medications.
Within hours, Arafat began developing symptoms very similar to Litvinenko’s and as his condition deteriorated, he was airlifted to the Percy Military Hospital in West Paris. His illness galloping unchecked through his body, refusing to respond to treatment, Arafat passed away on November 11, 2004. The French doctors did not suspect radiation poisoning and therefore he was not tested for it. Strangely, these specialists were never questioned and are known to have gone to ground since.
Eight years after Arafat died, Al Jazeera’s investigative unit, with the consent of Arafat’s widow, Suha, launched an investigation to find out if Polonium-210 had been used to kill him. Arafat’s last-worn clothes, his iconic kaffiyeh, his toothbrush and other personal belongings were sent to the Institut de Radiophysique, in Lausanne, Switzerland, which detected unusually high levels of radiation.
In 2012 Suha Arafat had the Palestinian Authority exhume his body for more detailed tests. Samples were sent to three different labs, in Switzerland, Russia and France. The Swiss test results showed 18 times the normal level of Po-210 in Arafat’s body. Given that 8 years had passed since his death, the initial dose must have been massive. The Swiss report stated that the findings “support the proposition that the death was by poisoning with Polonium-210”.
The French investigations could not confirm the presence of Po-210 in the remains and failed to check for Lead-206, which Po-210 decays to and whose presence would indicate the presence of Po-210. The whole thing stank of political pressure from Israel, which by then had a burgeoning nuclear program and ample opportunity to stockpile Polonium. Incidentally, the Israeli reactor at Dimona was built by French engineers.
That wasn’t the first time that the French buckled under Israeli pressure. Mossad’s wanton assassinations of Iraqi nuclear scientists on French soil in the 1980s with the covert blessings of the french security service, the DGSI, are well documented.
As to the investigations by the Russian lab, the results from Russia were negative. Al Jazeera has quoted an unnamed Russian source alleging that the Russian forensic team had been instructed by the Russian foreign ministry to announce negative results. The source claimed that it was an effort by Putin to distance Russia from the murder. Strange behaviour, given Arafat’s historically warm relations with the Soviets and later on, Putin’s Russia. Political observers surmise that Putin considered Israel to be a bridge to Washington didn’t want to upset the Israelis by publishing findings that pointed to murder.
Israel has vehemently denied having anything to do with Arafat’s death and on seeing the responses from the French and Russian labs and feeling the undercurrents, the Swiss – forever the slithery double-dealing diplomats – receded into the background, making themselves unavailable for further comment.
Arafat had many enemies, both within and without. His longevity, his makeover from terrorist to good guy and his winning the Nobel for peace, his charisma and his secular credentials, all of these attributes were a thorn to the Israelis who were desperately looking for a raison de survivre – extremist groups like the Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad who helped Israel maintain the illusion of a threat of Arab invasion and thereby justify the huge amounts of military aid that they demanded from America. Arafat, with his iconic international stature and the extended olive branch, frustrated them. Israel, like Pakistan, is incapable of survival without external support.
Killing by Po-210 has a major disadvantage – traceability. Every batch has a chemical signature that can be traced to it’s source of manufacture. In the case of Litvinenko, the production source was found to be a Russian nuclear reactor.
In Arafat’s case, the source – suspected to be Israel’s Dimona reactor – was never revealed. Such is the power and political reach of a pipsqueak nation that measures just 250 by 70 miles, one that a modern airliner would take just 7 minutes to cross from east to west.
Next comes the question ‘why’. Why commit murder with a messy hazardous-to-handle substance that leaves traces all over? Why choose a method that takes two horrible pain-filled weeks to kill?
The answer lies in the question itself. Po-210 is meant by the killers to be discovered. The killer, invariably a sovereign state, is protected by the doctrine of “sovereign immunity” whereby a sovereign state is immune from prosecution at the International Criminal Court. Po-210 is a stark warning from a criminal state to those who rebel or dissent.
To the assassin, Po-210 is a darling because only an amount equivalent to a grain of salt (roughly 3milligrams) is needed to kill the average Joe. The assassin finds it easy to transport the stuff provided he does not himself accidentally ingest it. The victim’s symptoms come on gradually, giving the assassin sufficient time to make good his escape. In the case of Alexander Litvinenko, the assassins (Lugovoi and Kovtun) were safely inside Moscow before the British realized what had actually happened. Another important advantage to the assassin is that an alpha emitter like polonium does not set off radiation detectors in airports and therefore can be smuggled into a country easily.
Polonium-210 is also believed to have killed several other people, including Marie Curie’s daughter Irene, also a Nobel Prize winning nuclear physicist like her mother. In 1946, a glass vial containing Po-210 that she was holding slipped from her hand and hit the lab table inches from her, shattering explosively and coating her face with the deadly powder. Irene Curie contracted leukemia shortly thereafter and died at 58 a month later.
Marie Curie herself died from aplastic anemia, brought on by radiation poisoning from being in close proximity to another hottie, Radium, an element she discovered on her way to winning the first of her two Nobel Prizes.
In addition to alpha emission, radium also emits lethal gamma rays that are virtually unstoppable and can penetrate through three metres of concrete. Ironically, today gamma rays are used in radiation treatment to ’burn’ cancerous tumors.
Like polonium, radium too glows naturally. Marie Curie would casually stuff vials of the glowing stuff in her lab coat pocket and repeatedly let it come in contact with her freely. “Radium, my beautiful Radium,” she would be heard whispering to it, as she brought the vial up, to stare at the stuff inside.
Madame Curie had no idea how hazardous radium was. No one did at the time. Today, radiation sickness is an entire branch of medical science.
Did you read Part-1? If you didn’t – maybe outa sheer apathy or treachery – read it before you read Part-2, or else I’ll banish you to the 5th dimension where you’ll languish for eternity, with only Lex Luther and Mr.Mxyzptlk for company.
I apologize. Didn’t mean to offend your sensibilities. Just thought you needed a lighter moment in the middle of this horrendous Corona Virus outbreak. Honestly, those cute microscopic red and purple balls with green suckers that look like Shrek’s ears, are jerking us all off.
Don’t get me wrong, I love being jerked off, but by a fucking virus????
Mithridatus VI (Part-2)
“Everything has poison. It is the dosage that decides whether we live or we die…”
– Mithridates VI of Pontus (120-63BC)
Mithridates VI of Pontus (foreground center), in his ‘toxicology’ lab, about to administer an antidote to a condemned slave, minutes after he has forced the poor wretch to swallow belladona (c 70BC)
Just as present-day governments commission geological surveys for oil, back in 70 BC, Mithridates VI (a.k.a. ‘Mitsy’ in this blog) had his minions scour the countryside for poisonous plants and minerals, to develop poisons from.
Mitsy had a research facility going that had only one assistant – a herbalist by the name of Crataeus. So guarded was Mitsy about the stuff he was concocting that he had Crataeus’s family locked up under permanent house arrest 24/7, to be executed summarily in case Crataeus betrayed him. Albeit, Crataeus and his family were provided with a fortified palace to live in opulence, not wanting for any pleasure. If Crataeus’s wife wanted one of those well hung nubian slaves to orally stimulate her, she just had to say it.
Mitsy researched all sorts of poisonous herbs, like hemlock, aconite, deadly nightshade (belladonna), castor, hellebore, azalea, rhododendron, realgar (arsenic), mercury and sulphur, to name just a few. He had Crataeus blend and mix the powders and pastes and then fed the concoctions to captured prisoners and slaves. And while some of those unfortunate suckers were monitored for symptoms and duration of survival prior to death, others were put on an antidote regimen, to test the antidotes that he simultaneously engineered.
Countless prisoners and slaves died horrible deaths as a result of Mitsy’s experimentations. By today’s sensibilities, Mithridates would be recognized as a psychotic mass murderer, on par with the prominent Nazis like the infamous bio-weapons expert, Walter Schreiber and endurance medicine researcher, Josef Mengele, physicians who practiced a similar craft during the Second World War.
But those were the times that Mitsy grew up in. A man interprets morality as he sees it. Mitsy recognized his own mother’s treachery when she poisoned his father. Life inside any royal household in those times was an all-pervasive mantle of suspicion, conspiracy, treachery, intrigue and paranoia and Mitsy lived in the midst of that.
In that milieu, poisoning happened to be the preferred method of assassination. There was no such thing as forensic science and poisons left no trace. You could spike a guy’s wine with arsenic and pass the death off as cardiac arrest and no one would be the wiser.
Even when an assassination was carried out in broad daylight before hundreds of witnesses, the justice system in the ancient world perceived it as a crime if the folks that mattered saw it as such. Delivering his corny “Romans, countrymen and lovers, lend me your ears..” monologue in front of thousands of Romans, Brutus convinced them that killing Caesar was the right thing to do.
Wait right there, before you fact check me. The “lend me your ears” bit was from Mark Anthony’s rebuttal monologue, not Brutus’s.
Who gives a shit anyway?
Prior to 300BC, the civilized world (Southern Europe) had been an oasis of heightened consciousness – of discipline, obedience and the rule of law, the standards set by first the Greeks and then the Romans.
Then, as if someone had flipped a switch, things slid into an age of decadence and greed for the next 300 years, until the 1st century AD with the ascendence of the Julio-Claudian Emperor dynasty (Augustus – Tiberius – Caligula – Claudius – Nero) when everyone who was anyone was either poisoning or being poisoned, making this form of killing a sort of status symbol. You were a nobody if you simply died of old age.
During this period, women of the elite gained some notoriety as poisoners. Noblemen had multiple wives and concubines and these women were all conniving to ensure that the inheritance went to their biological son. Queens did likewise, to ensure that they could rule as regent until little Billy Bob came of age and was crowned the king.
Emperor Augustus’s wife, Livia Drusila was quite the Lalita Pawar of old Bollywood movies. She not only orchestrated the poisonings of a number of Augustus’s grandchildren, but she had Augustus himself poisoned, in her single-minded zeal to get her son, Tiberius from a previous marriage, to the throne. Likewise, all across Roman nobility, mothers were poisoning stepsons and encouraging their biological sons to poison their fathers if they lived too long.
Then there was the infamous trio, Canidia, Martina and Locusta, who poisoned their way through the entire Julio-Claudian dynasty and it’s court.
Not much is known about Canidia except that she was a vicious contract killer who poisoned hundreds of Roman noblemen for cash. Canidia is thought to have helped Livia murder Augustus. It was when she began thinking she was invincible and started taking money from both sides, that she met a gruesome end, eviscerated alive and strung up in public. No painless drifting off to death by poisoning for dear Canidia, no siree.
(The dreaded ‘chairman’ of Murder Incorporated, mafia don Albert Anastasia was killed for a very similar reason. If you are a contract killer you don’t profit from both sides, is the moral)
Martina poisoned Tiberius’s nephew and heir Germanicus. A highly competent general posted in Germania, Germanicus was winning battle after battle, expanding Rome’s influence over central and eastern Europe. To his troops and to the Roman populace, Germanicus was the Roman version of Alexander the Great. Unfortunately in ancient Rome it didn’t pay to be more popular than the emperor, unless you could back it up with the Praetorian Guards’ muscle.
Tiberius was getting antsy at all the adulation accorded to Germanicus. So he had Martina recruit a trusted henchman named Piso to poison Germanicus with a special “delayed-action” concoction over a period of 15 days, making it look like he simply took ill and gradually died. Those days contracting an unknown illness and dying from it was commonplace, so no one batted an eyelid.
And then there was Locusta. On the orders of Agrippina the Younger – empress to Claudius, Locusta poisoned his son from his marriage to Messalina, Britannicus, whom he had named after the island he had invaded and annexed – present day Britain. Agrippina wanted her own biological son, Nero, to be emperor. So, when it began to seem like Claudius would go on forever, she had Locusta poison him too. Nero was crowned and he later signed Locusta up on a lifetime contract as a sorta “court-appointed poisoner”.
If you were a Roman nobleman in the 1st Century AD, you knew better than to fuck with Locusta and the other two.
Alas, Locusta too met with a horrible death. Soon as Nero was dead (assisted suicide), his successor, Galba, had Locusta arrested and slaughtered in public.
The spread of Christianity did not seem to slow down greed even a bit. By 400AD, the Dark Ages – also known as the Middle Ages or Medieval Period – set in. It was a period of moral recession that wiped outevery bit of enlightenment that had been attained through the early Greco-Roman civilization.
Christianity could do nothing to arrest the onset of the Dark Ages. Religion in fact is credited by some, to have been the catalyst which fueled the Dark Ages, rather than being the provider of enlightenment. Christianity brought with it religious bigotry and officially sanctioned oppression and even wholesale genocide by it’s overseers – the Catholic Church, perpetrated in the name of God in much the same way Islamic extremism goes about it’s business today.
It was as if civilization had pressed a reset button and gone back to the wantonness of 5000BC. (The dark ages lasted right up until the Renaissance in the mid-17th century.)
Through all the chaos, poisons and poisoning played a central role in the mayhem of the dark ages. Indeed, a whole dynasty of Catholic Popes, the infamous Borgias of the 15th century, thrived on the art of poisoning. The murderous patriarch of the family, Rodrigo Borgia, battered and slammed his way to the Papacy, becoming Pope Alexander VI. In time, he made his equally murderous son, Cesare – who was running an organized crime family at the time – a Cardinal.
The Borgias entertained frequently. With word having already spread about their prowess with poisons, guests who were invited to dinner at the Borgia residence considered the invitation a death sentence. Refusal meant almost certain death and so did acceptance of their invitations.
If I had met Jesus Christ personally I would have told him, “Cut it out, Dude. If Pontius Pilate summons you, make that deal with him and shut the fuck up.” Wouldn’t a live Jesus Christ have been better for the future of the world than a dead one?
Enough about the Romans and Christianity for now. I know how short your attention span is, so let’s get back to Mitsy.
Mitsy was a paranoiac. Those days every monarch had to be one. Fearing being poisoned with some unknown new concoction after he had gained the throne, he set out to perfect a “universal” theriac or antidote. After many tests which wiped out an entire prison population, he finally settled on a universal antidote. He named it Mithridatiumand carried it with him in a tiny marble jar wherever he went.
However, the more he solidified his position on the throne, the more paranoid Mitsy got. The assuring presence of mithridatium didn’t help. Mitsy was smart enough to realize that new poisons were being created by others every frigging day and mithridatium needed constant upgrades if it had to remain effective. (Much like the cyber security industry today).
Not satisfied with having the all-in-one antidote, Mitsy began consuming sub-lethal doses of all kinds of poisons with the belief that this would build up his immunity against them. As to how far he was successful is debatable, though the concept of immunity through controlled ingestion is an infallible one.
Mitsy’s work in toxicology gave birth to a new kind of practice, called Mithridatism – protecting oneself against a poison by gradually self-administering non-lethal amounts.
Mithridatism had been in vogue in other parts of the world as well. In ancient India, legend has it that during the rule of the king Chandragupta Maurya (320–298 BCE), there was this practice of regularly administering poison in small amounts to specially hand-picked, extremely pretty pubescent young girls as they were growing up, gradually making them immune to poison.
The girls who got the doses were called vishakanyas (visha – poison, kanya – maiden). Vishakanyas found employment with the wealthy elite as assassins. The modus operandi was a simple one. A Vishakanya would be told to seduce a nobleman who had been shortlisted for murder. She would invite the sucker to share a pitcher of wine with her before engaging in sex. Witnessing her drinking from the same pitcher, the victim would surmise it was safe and he would drink too. While she survived, he would die. The moral : when a woman invites you over for a drink, be sure ta fuck her first.
Take it easy, this post is x-rated. Leave your prim and propahness at the door before you enter this blog. Here we talk dirty and have a belly laf over it. Sex is funny.
As a kid in India, I remember watching in awe while a snake charmer nonchalantly shoved his hand inside a sack filled with cobras, drawing one out and toying with it, pressing it’s jaws so they would reluctantly open and you’d see it’s fangs. Sometimes he’d deliver sharp whacks on it’s head with his open palm and you could see the cobra getting pissed it off, it’s head flattening into a broad hood, it’s upper lip quivering as it retracted, baring a purple-pink gum with two large fangs, it’s forked tongue flailing wildly, while it issued a hissing snarl. After a few whacks, unable to stand the humiliation any longer, the cobra would repeatedly lashed out with lightning speed and stick it’s fangs into him.
It was a fucking cobra and nothing ever happened to the guy! I used to wonder why.
I have covered Mitsy’s death in Part-1, so if you haven’t already read it, go read it before I send over a lactating vishakanya to get you.
The poison Mitsy took as Ptolemy’s forces closed in was not going to be sufficient to kill him, given his lifelong immunization through his own practice of mithridatism. He had to have his bodyguard stick a stiletto in him.
But Mitsy had to have known that the poison wouldn’t kill him. In fact, historians suggest he had secretly developed a deadly fast-acting ‘poison-x’ for which he had deliberately not created an antidote.
So, why didn’t he use that poison when the Romans were closing in?
Here’s what I think happened. Mitsy misplaced the containor and just when he needed it the most, he couldn’t find it. It must have been one of the first instances of shit happening.
Legend has it that two thousand years after Mitsy committed suicide – around the time Crimea became a part of the Soviet Union in 1921, Russian archeologists unearthed a small earthenware pot that was filled with some kind of a powder, at the site where Mitsy is believed to have taken his life.
When Soviet archeologist left the pot on top of a table and went out for lunch, his cat came in and sniffed around. On his return, Chuchukin found the cat dead under the table and the jar lying on it’s side open.
Minute amounts of the powder found inside the pot were tested and found to contain some of the deadliest herbs known to mankind – aconite, hellebore, belladonna, thorn apple and hemlock. However, 86% by weight was an unknown element that later on proved to be highly toxic thallium, a substance that is now known as the “poisoner’s poison”, since it is colorless, odorless and tasteless.
The pot was rushed to the Kamera (Russian for ‘chamber’), a highly secretive facility within the Active Measures section of the KGB’s First Chief Directorate where research was ongoing to find a poison that could kill quickly and leave no trace. Kamera had begun work in 1921, under Lenin’s Cheka, the Soviet secret police agency which would later transform into the KGB, now known as the FSB.
The lab report on the ingredients of the powder was being prepared when one of the technicians, the man who had gathered up the spilled powder from the table, collapsed from a heart attack. Later on, a pinch the size of a pin head, when administered to an otherwise healthy Sevostlag gulag inmate who was serving a life sentence without parole, killed him within two minutes. An invasive forensic autopsy showed no signs other than that of a heart attack.
That the contents of that little pot unearthed on the shore of the Black Sea were still potent after two milennia was testimony to Mithridates’ prowess as a toxicologist. Little could he have known though, that his ‘magic bullet’ would find use 2000 years later, at the Cheka-NKVD-KGB-FSB juggernaut, (who would then take it even further, to more exotic agents like Polonium-210).
As for Mithridates’ antidotes, Mithridatium is still available at apothecary outlets in present day Italy.
There’s something that’s common to best selling authors like Frederick Forsyth, Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre, Leon Uris, James Michener and Tom Clancy – they research their subject painstakingly, in order to render a degree of authenticity to their novels.
There was another ‘researcher-novelist’ who was the capo-di-tutti-capi Of them all – Arthur Hailey, who wrote a string of blockbuster novels in the 1960s and 70s that stand tall as classics of research-driven story telling. Wheels is the result of a comprehensive study of the inner workings of Ford, GM and Chrysler. Overload is on the American electricity company ConEd, Moneychangers is about a bank, Strong Medicine – a pharmaceutical company, The Final Diagnosis – a hospital and Hotel – a 5-star boutique hotel.
In Hailey’s novels, each chapter is a seemingly stand-alone mini narrative having its own protagonist but you know all along that in the end, these narratives will fit perfectly together in a shattering cliffhanger of a climax.
In one of Hailey’s best works, Airport, events are quickly escalating inside and around a fictional Lincoln International Airport (based upon his research of Chicago’s O’Hare).
In Airport too, the chapters are seemingly separate narratives that are running side by side.
A jobless suicidal loser has boarded a US to Rome flight. A highly experienced demolition expert, he is carrying a briefcase that is rigged with a bomb, the trigger a string attached to it’s handle. He plans to pull the string and end it all while the plane is over mid-Atlantic, so that his wife gets the insurance payout and he ‘redeems’ himself in her eyes.
Another airliner that just touched down, took a wrong turn taxiing in. It’s front wheels slid off the asphalt into the soft slushy snow and it is now stranded with its tail and nearly half it’s fuselage sticking into the runway, blocking incoming traffic.
A tiny municipality abutting a runway is threatening to sue the airport authorities because pilots are refusing to follow hazardous noise abatement procedures which require airliners to bank steeply away after take-off, increasing the chances of a stall.
The airport general manager and his wife are going through a heart wrenching separation. She is having an affair and he is getting cozy with the comely customer relations agent of a major airline.
A stewardess has informed the married airline pilot she is fucking that she is pregnant and wants to keep the baby.
An old woman is a habitual stowaway who often slinks into a plane while it is boarding and the crew are too busy to notice. She does this whenever she gets lonely and wants to visit a her daughter in Seattle. Early tonight she was caught trying the same thing but she managed to escape and gain entry into the first flight that was boarding, the one to Rome that has the suicidal guy. Her seat is next to his.
The worst snowstorm in history is threatening to shut down the airport. A blizzard is raging outside the large panoramic plate glass windows. Winds are in the excess of 60 knots. While a jet liner can take a lot of headwind, it cannot remain steady in crosswinds above 40 knots. Tonight that limit is breached and has rendered all but one runway functional (The one that is blocked by the airliner that plowed into the snow).
Surely, now you can see why Arthur Hailey’s stories turned into blockbusters.
It usually took Hailey three years to write a book. The first 12 months were spent on researching the subject, the next 6 months he reviewed his notes and the remaining 18 months he sat at his typewriter writing the novel. The result was a plot-driven, character-driven, research-driven masterpiece of fiction.
Arthur Hailey’s distinctive storytelling style first emerged in 1962, with In high places, novel that is a melange of three seemingly separate chains of events. One is the professional and personal lives of the Canadian Prime Minister and his right-hand man who is having an affair with the PM’s secretary. The second is an illegal immigrant who is a stowaway inside a ship docked at Vancouver whose lawyer is trying to gain him entry as a refugee into Canada.
The third storyline is what this post is about. It is the chilling depiction of the threat of a Soviet nuclear attack on the US. Seemingly these three narratives are unconnected but they are, indirectly.
There have been many novels on nuclear armaggedons but let me assure you, In high places is special. Let me start the chills for you –
North America is preparing to defend itself against an imminent nuclear first strike by the Soviet Union, an act of aggression brought on by a paranoid ultra left-wing nationalist Russia which is beginning to recognize that it‘s communist utopia is actually a sham. More nations are turning to the western style democracies than the Soviet system and the Russians have decided it is time to stop the trend.
All intelligence from assets deep within Moscow point toward an attack that will come over the North Pole. A barrage of 10 to 20 R-36 Vovoda ICBMs will launch from Kozel’sk, Pervomaysk, Kostroma and Tatischevo and the 5-minute boost from their first stages will send them soaring 250 kms into space in an elliptic path whose major axis is vertical.
The missiles will rapidly gain altitude to 1200 kms and then fly through space 5265 kms over the North Pole before their noses dip to reenter the earth’s atmosphere somewhere over Canada’s Baffin Island inside the Arctic Circle. They will cross Canadian airspace, still so high up in the upper atmosphere as to be indistinguishable to the naked eye.
Somewhere around Northern Alberta, the ICBMs will bear downward, rapidly losing altitude and diverging toward separate destinations deep within the heart of America.
Each reentry vehicle will have a single 25-Megaton thermonuclear warhead, 1700 times more powerful than the “Little Boy”.
Let me digress a bit here and enlighten your starved brain. The 1950s and 60s were the decades when the two superpowers carried out tit-for-tat nuclear tests of ever increasing yield. In the year before In high places hit the bookstores, the Soviets had detonated the most powerful thermonuclear device ever built – the 50 Megaton ‘Kuz’kina Mat’.
The story goes that when the Americans tested what was for them their most powerful thermonuclear device yet (an H-Bomb code-named Castle Bravo with an yield of 15 megatons), the Soviets gave it a name of their own – Kuzka (”pipsqueak” in Russian).
Khrushchev is reported to have sneered at the American test derisively at a Politburo meeting, “My obirayemsya pokazat’ im Kuz’kina mat!” (That’s it? 15 Megatons? Kuzka!! We are going to show them Kuzka’s mother).
And the 50-Megaton Kuz’kina Mat was born. Officially named “Tsar Bomba”, the 27-ton thermonuclear device was dropped from a Tu-95 strategic bomber from a height of 34000 ft over the archipelago of Novaya Zemlya in the Barents Sea, north of the Russian mainland. An 800-kg, 17000 sq.ft parachute retarded the bomb’s descent to give the bomber and it’s companion, a Tu-16 observer aircraft, time to get the fuck out of the area.
The blast was so powerful that it shattered windows as far west as Norway and produced an earthquake-like tremor that registered 5.2 in the Richter scale and a shock wave that went round the earth three times. The devastation was so widespread that the Soviets decided against pursuing the program any further. Another Tsar Bomba was never built. Phew!
Getting back to “In high places” Hailey correctly surmises that the Soviet attack won’t use Kuz’kina Mat-type “airdrop” bombs that have to be dropped from subsonic Tu-95 bombers – sitting ducks for the US Air Force’s new Lockheed F-104 Starfighters. His plot goes for ICBMs instead.
The Soviet missile barrage will be swift – 23 times the speed of sound kinda swift. However, it is still expected to give America around 10 minutes to respond – enough time to launch interceptor missiles from their silos in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. Since the Soviet warheads are of the contact-detonation type, America doesn’t need the interceptors to be very high yield. Fission-type MIRV warheads with 750 kiloton yields should be sufficient to blow the incoming Soviet ICBMs to smithereens.
The missiles will be transiting Canadian airspace, so the Americans have shared with Canada the results of numerous simulations (done on gigantic IBM mainframe computers of the day), which show that the intercepts will occur over some of the most industrialized and densely populated regions of Canada – Quebec and Ontario to the east, Alberta in the mid-west and British Columbia on the western seaboard.
The Soviets are expected to target food sources – American food sources. But given the intercepts, those food sources shall unfortunately be Canada’s vast mid-western farmlands that seem to stretch to eternity. A sure way to ensure the demise of a nation is to contaminate its farms.
If the intercepts go through as planned, the central Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba will be hit with fallout from the intercepts. And in order to ensure that every square mile is blanketed with heavy fallout of highly radioactive debris, the detonation of these warheads is going to be ‘airburst’, set off automatically at a height of 5000 feet.
It’s population decimated, industry shattered and farmlands rendered untouchable for at least a century, Canada as a nation will cease to exist.
The US will not go unscathed but the damage, in the form of contaminated landmass, is expected to be marginal. If at all, only the far corners in the North-West (around Washington state) and the North-East (around Vermont and Maine) will be marred by those deadly wind-blown white flakes that folks will mistake for snow. This is because the wind patterns over Canada are almost invariably lateral – in the east-west direction.
Most major industrial cities and coastal population centers in the US shall remain untouched. One analysis shows that below the 35th parallel, America won’t suffer any radioactive fallout at all.
The Canadian military has always been a toothless, token force and now, as the gloves begin to come off, it looks as if Canada might turn to look like a collateral damage statistic in the Phd thesis of some fresh faced political science graduate student.
There is of course NORAD – North American Aerospace Defense Command – the new US/Canadian joint defense initiative that is supposed to ward off an airborne assault. But this is 1962 and NORAD is still nascent, having been made operational only a year earlier. NORAD’s base of operations is under construction – a sprawling, heavily fortified underground bunker deep inside the Cheyenne Mountain, a 3000-metre triple peak outside Colorado Springs, in Colorado.
NORAD is not yet capable of staving off a thermonuclear first strike that will be so massive that it will be beyond the pale of human understanding.
Now the good news (if you can call it that). To prevent Canada’s demise, In high places delivers a chilling twist……
America has made Canada a Corleonesque offer, one that Canada cannot refuse – America will annex Canada as an integral part of the US (it’s 51st state), immediately becoming world’s largest country in terms of both, landmass as well as mineral wealth.
In return, those interceptor missile batteries will be moved north and stationed along the northern Canadian tundra. Now the intercepts shall happen over mostly uninhibited, ice-bound wasteland. Sure, the polar bear and caribou population will be decimated, but shit happens. And thanks again to the lateral wind patterns, hopefully most of Canada will be spared the fallout.
If you haven’t read the book, I won’t spoil your fun. As is typical of Arthur Hailey, In High Places has many parallel narratives running side by side, each fascinating in its own right, all of them inexorably advancing toward the central Cold War background story and the climax.
But what if we Canadians did face annihilation and the only choice left was annexation by a Trump-governed America? We would be in a nasty pickle and for that, Canada has itself to blame, for never attempting to go nuclear and never trying to build up its own independent military and firepower.
Maybe annexation will happen anyway, with or without any external threat. Even before Trump happened, the US annexation of Canada (by force, if required) had already been a reality waiting to happen. A bill is in the US Congress, called ‘Bill to Annex Canada’. It is technically still an active proposal, awaiting deliberation and has been waiting to go into law since it was first tabled – in 1866.