Ikeya Seki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The year was 1965.

And the boy….me.

Turning the Corner

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hood of my parka encased an angel.

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

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


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

“Can I use the loo?”

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

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

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

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

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

I hoped I would turn mine. Some day soon.

Is that you, darling, are you home?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that you, darling, are you home?”



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

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

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

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

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

I went back to my paperback.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I rose, to follow the nurse in.

The Day I met the Mahatma


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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



She was cute, I’ll hand you that.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Hayflick Limit

If lobsters and turtles could talk they would give fascinating history lessons. Imagine that you are a doddering old turtle off Caen, in Northern France, scoping the shallows for algae, sponges or whatever the fuck turtles eat.

The chances are good that in 1588, as a kid swimming alongside your mommy, you saw Sir Francis Drake on his man-o-war, The Revenge, racing with the wind, engaging the Spanish Armada. You got singed when the San Lorenzo caught fire from a broadside from the Revenge and a stray log from it’s bulkhead flew through the air and hit you, but you healed. You are one hardy mother fucker, aintcha now.

And then you clearly remember 1944. You were 165 and just breaking into your teens. You were courting Shiela-Sue Shell, your girlfriend for more than a century. You were trying ta grab her from behind so you could get on top of her and she wouldn’t letcha. This had been going on for six months and you were getting tired of it.

“Come on, Shiela-Sue, its fucking six months, I can’t take it anymore. How ‘bout it?” You said to her. You were just this one big blub of testosterone, you were. It’s no wonder biologists two centuries on would classify you as a testudine.

Back to 1944 and you and Shiela-Sue frolicking on the beach close to the cute little French village of Saint-Aubain, named Juno Beach by invasion planners. Suddenly Shiela-Sue gestured with her flappers along the coastline to the east. You forgot about shtupping her and waddled onto a rock and you gaped. As far as your beady eyes could see, huge landing crafts were disgorging men with funny sticks in their hands, charging up the surf while the other side threw magic pellets which punctured the surf at 2800 feet per second. Shiela-Sue took a stray round on her shell, didn’t do nothin’ to her.

Mating season was delayed a bit that year but Shiela-Sue and you made up for it in the fall.

Turtles habitually live a healthy 400-plus years. Lobsters live even longer, almost forever. So, imagine you’re a lobster instead and it is 43AD. Instead of the Allied Forces’ Second Front, you might actually have seen traffic in the opposite direction – Roman Emperor Claudius’s fleet spread out horizon to horizon, two-tiered arrays of oars rising and falling, chopping up the waters as the galleys crossed over to vanquish the barbarian war-lord Caractacus and annex Britain.


There are some among us who dream of longevity. There are a host of others who are conducting advanced research on immortality. The question on their minds – Why can’t we be like lobsters or turtles or those giant sequoias and live hundreds of years without growing old and infirm???

Longevity used to be a fantasy until 1961, when a young researcher at the UCSF School of Medicine, Leonard Hayflick, found out the exact reason why we don’t live longer.

For his research, Hayflick contracted with nearby abortion clinics to deliver dead fetuses to him, from which he extracted cells. He chose fetuses because their cells were pristine and the least likely to have viruses in them which might blur the study results.

Hayflick found that the cells from his fetal tissue samples multiplied only a finite number of times, before they stopped dividing altogether. Now a well-established fact, the number of cell divisions in the case of humans is 50, while for lobsters and turtles it is far higher. He propounded that, if the gene that limits the number of cell divisions can be isolated and modified, then that 50-division limit can be extended, enabling humans to live longer.

Leonard Hayflick, getting off on cells, 1982 (Photo courtesy: nature.com)

Hayflick made another even more remarkable discovery – that if a human cell is frozen below -250˚C after it has already gone through a number of divisions (say, 25), the divisions slow down and as soon as the temperature is raised once again, the multiplication begins where it left off.

In fact, if you increase or decrease the cell temperature with a regulator, you can speed up or slow down the division. Surviving inter-planetary travel through deep freezes is no longer merely science fiction, but a reality waiting to happen.

The Nostromo crew in ‘Alien’ awakening from deep-frozen hibernation, as they near their destination, a planet that is 11 months of spaceflight away. Saves on food, water and sanitation. And canoodles. What would you do if you were stuck on a spaceship for 11 months with Sigorney Weaver walking around in panties? (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)

Science textbooks now refer to that limiting number of cell divisions as the Hayflick limit.

Who or What was responsible for fixing the Hayflick Limit at 50 for humans, God? But if that were so, if God really did decide that human cells should stop after 50 divisions, surely He must have wanted the number to remain sacrosanct. Why then did He give us the ability to figure out how to extend it beyond 50? (But then who can understand God? He’s the same guy who gave us a dick and a hard-on and then turned around and told us not to fuck out of wedlock).

The one thing that definitely is not fixed is our ideas and questions. They seem to grow with every new scientific revelation, drawing us further and further away from the fantasy concept of God. We are already at a stage where Adam and Eve and the serpent and the apple and the jet setting Angel Gabriel have begun to seem absurd. We are now living through an era when we won’t even get a ticket for breaking nine out of the Ten Commandments. Go ahead and check the penal codes of most modern nations if you don’t believe me.

Immortality has it’s pros and cons. Among the pros is the exhilarating feeling that you are never going to die. In 3 billion years you’ll watch the Sun bloat so large and red that you could actually reach out and touch it. You would of course be burnt to a crisp but let’s hope immortality brings with it the guarantee of a life free of pain. A trillion years and you’d be part of a dimensionless dot, the universe having collapsed back into a singularity.

Immortality will give you a cast iron immune system but it won’t save you from accidental harm, like if you step off the sidewalk and get run over by a drunk driver or get crushed under an industrial press like the Terminator. So, whether you are immortal or not, you still have to try not to be a schmuck.

I’ll be 66 in five months. According to the Canadian Census Bureau, I am expected to live another 20.6 years. With my Spartan lifestyle and frequent sex, it could even be 25 years. That is enough time for the Human Genome Project, stem cell research and nanotechnology to detect my Alzheimer’s or blocked heart valve early and prevent it. So I am going to keep on drinking wine excessively.

And I don’t give a fuck about immortality or the Hayflick Limit. I just need my “Haytumble Limit” extended…

La Sexie Folie

There’s a sex store in Saint Constant on the 132 that I drive by every day on my way home from work. Saint Constant is a hick town, a Canadian version of Jhumritalayia.

Dildos, BDSM stuff, porn mags like Oui and Hustler, thin little 5×7 paperbacks, leather paraphernalia, heels, lingerie, condoms with ribs that resemble the backs of triceratops. And lubricants, all kindsa lubricants – lubricants ta ream the asshole, peppermint-coated lubricants ta make a blow job nice and tasty, lubricants ta… you get the hang.

You name it and La Sexie Folie has it. La Sexie Folie is French for ‘sex madness’. There it is. You can see it in the pic up there. The store used to have DVDs but who watches DVDs anymore, when Pornhub is around.

Sex stores are legal in Canada. Situated in perfectly respectable neighborhoods, they are looked at the same way you’d see a liquor store or a tobacconist. You walk in, browse the shelves, purchase a dildo for your lady that you can stick up her ass while your fingers are playing Dr. Livingstone with her pu…that cat word. I can’t say it, I am too straight-laced. Pick up a 12-pack of those triceratops condoms and you walk out. Its just like you went in and bought cigarettes. No furtive embarrassed glances to see if anyone recognizes you. No darting behind the back shelves when someone you recognize walks in.

In fact, the whole subject of sex is so matter of fact in the west. At the same time, sex is a very important portion of daily life. Relationships break up because “the sex wasn’t fun”. Friendships are made purely to engage in sex. The word “fuck friend” is common. It denotes a relationship that, by mutual consent, will never progress beyond sex. Over here, great sex does not require an emotional attachment. And vice versa.

It is so easy to find a sexual partner here. As long as you dress decently and don’t behave creepily, you can literally walk up to a woman and tell her you are interested in her and “is she free this evening? Trust me, she won’t consider the approach inappropriate at all. If she is in the mood she’ll go right along with you and leave the next morning and you’ll never hear from her again. Period.

At work, it is normal to hear a female colleague say things like, “ugh, he is such a fucking pussy. I bet he has a peanut for a dick”. Or if its a Friday afternoon, “God, am I waiting ta get laid tonight …”. No one will bat an eyelid to that. When Kayla, over in HR, threw an engagement party, she made us all pause because she wanted to say a few words and she said, “I love Gaetan and I am excited about getting married to him, but…. his is the last penis I’ll ever touch again and that’s scary…” and everyone burst out laughing.

Here’s the thing. Even though developed western nations are open and unhindered by tradition or taboo, not a single one of them figures in the top ten list of countries that view pornographic content on the net. A 2015 PEW study had Qatar, Kuwait, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, China and India in the top ten.

Here’s the other thing. Believe it or not, the nations that view adult sites the most also happen to be the most culturally and sexually repressed, with the highest instances of sexual assault per capita. In countries like Bangladesh, India and Pakistan that treat porn as taboo, a little girl has nearly a 50% chance of being molested before she reaches her teens, as per PEW. Which means that one in two girls there has a story to tell – of an uncle, a grandfather or even a father who reached under her dress and played with her or put her hand on his genitals. At the same time, these gents would consider establishments such as La Sexie Folie to be decadent, sinful and immoral.


My first time in a sex shop was right there at La Sexie Folie. Freshly arrived from conservative hyper-hypocritical India, I was so embarrassed to be seen inside, I felt as if all eyes were on me and I wanted to just melt into the floor. As I slunk around the aisles, I noticed that it had just about everything that had anything to do with sex, in it. The range of dildos amazed me. There was a long double-ended dildo that could…. ah forget it. Just know that there are double ended dildos on this planet and leave it at that.

I gradually loosened up when I noticed folk walking in and out as though it was just another store. The store was manned by just one person at the counter – a fetching young brunette. She was dressed in a revealing but not overtly vulgar dress. It was the sort of attire that might help create the atmosphere and make customers want to buy sex stuff.

At the check-out I got to know the girl a bit. Lisa works here part-time. Curiosity got the better of me and I struck up a conversation with her after I overheard her advising a male shopper on the right kind of vibrator to pick for his wife as a birthday gift.

“Is she tight?” Lisa was asking the guy, a 60-ish man in a baseball cap and jeans.

“Nah, my Stephanie is big as a barn. By that I don’t mean she ever let a horse in there,” the man said and they both, Lisa and the man, dissolved into peals of laughter.

The brief exchange made me feel sort of exhilarated. This was not some shady joint, tucked away in Kolkata’s Free School Street, a back street maze of shops that survive by paying off the neighborhood constable and specialize in raunchy stuff that are considered taboo. This was a regular commercial establishment, freely engaged unhindered, in the sales of pornographic merchandise, protected by the law. As in any store, like a clothing store, the manager was simply serving a customer. It blew my mind. It was the moment in time that I first realized I would love living in my adopted country, unburdened by bullshit hypocrisy and faux correctness.

Lisa is pursuing her Masters in Criminal Psychology at McGill and intends to join law enforcement, probably the RCMP’s Behavioral Sciences unit, the one responsible for investigating serial killings and violent, random crimes.

She told me she has never ever experienced being bothered by any customer. Just some giggly pre-teen boys and girls during the summer break. They left after she firmly asked them to. Entrance is restricted to 18plus, by law.

Here, as elsewhere in the west, sex is something that is normal, matter-of-fact and considered an inherent and necessary part of daily life, certainly nothing to be hidden away. It is normal to find couples browsing through the DVD shelves together or picking up and feeling the skin of a dildo or trying on lingerie. There is no bouncer keeping an eye on customers or looking out for the counter girl. The atmosphere is genial and open and the thought of misbehaving just doesn’t cross anyone’s mind.


We had been chatting for a while when I realized it was almost 5, closing time. I picked up my purchase, an orgy DVD, from the counter and made to leave. The DVD was titled ‘Man maid’ and the cover had a beautiful woman dressed in a maid’s uniform that was unable to hide a richard peeking from under her skimpy skirt, that looked like a giant anaconda. (I chose it because have this recurring fantasy about having sex with gorgeous girls with massive richards).

As I was leaving, I saw a tall young man in a suit and crew cut, rapping against the plate glass show window, from the outside. He had a toddler by the hand and the kid had his arm wrapped round the man’s thigh.

“Someone is trying to draw your attention,” I said to the girl, gesturing toward the window.

“Oh, that’s Kyle, my boyfriend and our little Jeremy. We’re taking him to Kung-Fu Panda-4.” She smiled as she blew a kiss in the general direction of the window. Matter of fact, mundane, another day in the life of a law-abiding female blue-collar worker who is simply looking out for her family.

Can La Sexie Folie open up a branch in Jhumritalaiya anytime soon? I doubt that.

We need a new God


Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee

And I’ll forgive Thy great big one on me.”

Robert Frost


Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’, fresco on Sistine Chapel ceiling, Vatican, one of the most admired paintings of all time. (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia). Michelangelo got the inspiration for the fresco from a cloud formation he noticed one late night, when he was stoned. This has nothing ta do with the subject of this piece, though. I have always wondered why famous renaissance artists and sculptors liked to draw such tiny richards. Noticed his sculpture, ‘David’, in Florence? David’s twidledeedum is even tinier than Adam’s. Maybe Mikey had a midget richard himself and tried to feel good by sculpting even tinier richards.


There is no question left in my mind that we need a new God. The old one isn’t working anymore. We have developed a God-resistance, like you get antibiotic-resistant.

Quite early in my life, I took pains to see that I had very little to do with any holy scriptures. Most holy books fall over each other trying to tell us what evil really is. I was born a Hindu and as I grew, the concept of goddesses with ten arms and gods with elephants’ torsos began to seem laughable to me. I grew to know yet other gods whom our epics themselves depict as fallible and petty, with just as many human frailties as us humans.

Over the years, Hinduism has begun to seem more like an Asian version of a JRR Tolkien series, than a religion. While a billion of my compatriots in India have chosen to go nuts over it, I have decided not to. When they sat mesmerized in front of their TV sets for two hours every Sunday morning in the 80s, tears streaming down their faces watching the great epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, the roads would be devoid of traffic and the city took on the look of a ghost town. While they sat glued to their TV sets, I biked to the park, rolled a joint and listened to ‘shine on, you crazy diamond’ on my Walkman.

At one point, my late mother – a pious Hindu – told me that I had to make the effort to become a believer and I asked her why. Then, when I met my wife, who is a Shia Muslim, I was curious. To please her, I tried to adopt her faith but I realized that it went one step further. It combined Hinduism’s ludicrousness with it’s own single-minded murderous zeal. My wife felt my disenchantment and never mentioned it further. Amen.


There is a belief that the world really began to grow less and less violent after the 6th century BC and that it was due to the advent of organized religion and philosophical study.

To the east, Gautama Buddha first set the ball rolling, around the 500 BC. Buddha held that true moral purity arises from freeing oneself from material desires and petty squabbles through meditation and living an ethical life without being hurtful and resisting the temptation of coveting what does not belong.

Around the same time, 2300 miles to the north-east, the Chinese teacher, politician and philosopher, Confucius emphasized personal and governmental morality, humility in social relationships, justice and sincerity.

Buddha and Confucius were followed a few centuries later, by Jesus Christ. While the two Asians were low-key and stayed under the radar most of the time, Jesus arrived with a bang. (Oops, actually without a bang. His mommy, Mary, was a virgin). Be that as it may, Jesus came with bells and whistles, shooting stars, frankincense and myrrh. And a luminescent disc behind his head that he couldn’t ever shake off. When he turned his head it bobbed, momentarily caught off guard, but settled back behind his head once he stopped moving it.

When Jesus moved from Galilee to Judea, it was not the most oppressed region in the world at the time, by any means. Rome had been brutally crushing revolt and enslaving thousands in North Africa around then. At that very moment in time, 7000kms to the east, ethnic cleansings, torture, enslavement, rape and murder of commoners by officials of Qin and Han Dynasty China were the norm. 4000kms to the north-west, conquering Norse hordes were making landfall on the Suffolk coast, raping and looting, grabbing women and children for slave labor.

And yet, we didn’t see a Swahili-speaking mahdi in Luxor or a Mandarin-speaking wise one at Tianjin, or a blonde Gaelic prophet preaching to the masses in Northumbria. God chose a small postage-stamp sized region with a combined population of just 15000, to send in his messiah. Why?

The conquering Romans were willing to let the residents of Judea live their lives the way they wanted, as long as they submitted to the authority of Rome. They did not burn their temples and neither did they murder their rabbis. In fact, during Emperor Tiberius’s occupation of Judea, trade and commerce improved vastly, spurred by the stability brought on by the security that the mighty Roman military provided. In an otherwise arid land organized agriculture flourished, thanks to the Romans’ ingenuity with irrigation aqueducts.

The Roman empire lasted 700 years because they built secure societies in captured territories and instilled law and order for the first time. We like to curse the Americans for encircling the world in a choke hold of 800 military bases, but we do not realize how much stability that has brought and how big a boost global commerce has received from it. Imagine land grabs like the annexation of Crimea happening every other month and you would imagine a world without the American omnipresence.


Now, I am not suggesting that there was no persecution under the Romans or under the rich Meccan Merchant kings. Of course there was persecution and there was slavery. Heck, slavery at the time was the norm, like owning a Toyota Corolla. Everybody had one. Kids got slaves for their birthdays. Toys-R-Us must have been called Nubians-R-Us. Even those nice, curly-haired beacons of western civilization, the Greeks, had slaves. Even slaves knew they had to be slaves. I swear even slaves had their own slaves, somewhat like Tier-2 suppliers.

But given the violent times in which much of the world lived those days, the people of Judea were probably better off under the Romans than they would have been under the Mithradatans, the Scythians, the Bythnians, the Greeks and the omnipresent and vicious nomadic tribes that roamed the grasslands, burning and pillaging everything in their way.

Judea was by no stretch the hot spot, as regards persecution and yet the Lord chose it for the prophet Jesus Christ to deliver the wretched masses. In any case, Jesus began to spread this altogether new concept called ‘love thy enemies’. Initially everyone thought he was nuts. The ‘civilized’ world till then, had known only wars, subjugation and misery. Boy, he must have sounded exotic, like Steve Jobs and his first Ipod.

Be that as it may, I doubt that the world is now less violent because of organized religions. Rather, I think it is less violent in spite of organized religion.

I think the reason why we have more order and less violence today, in terms of percentage violent deaths, is the awareness that has emerged out of scientific progress. I don’t have the data but Harvard Psychology Professor, Steven Pinker, does and he has quite eloquently expressed his arguments in his The Better Angels of our Nature.

We have all had the experience of reading about a bloody conflict, a suicide bombing or a shocking crime and saying, “What is the world coming to?” But Steven Pinker asks, “Wasn’t the world far worse in the past?”

Here’s my understanding of what Pinker’s book says…

Pinker’s research shows that neolithic humans killed each other with much greater frequency than today. At least 25% of all deaths those days were through violent conflict. Tribal warfare around the third millennium BC was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. In Medieval times, the murder rate in Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadism in incarceration and frivolous executions were mundane daily phenomena of life for millennia. Fucking hell, those days you were born with PTSD.

Developed nations no longer wage wars between themselves, the last time that happened being 70 years back. And in the developing world, wars kill just a fraction of the people they did a few decades ago. Statistically genocide, rape, hate crimes, deadly riots and child abuse are all substantially down.

Today, deaths caused by violence amount to just .03% of all deaths worldwide (As per Pinker. I haven’t checked the stats).

What led people to stop sacrificing children, stabbing each other at the dinner table, burning cats, drawing and quartering criminals alive as forms of mass entertainment and even eating each other? The key to explaining the decline of violence is understanding the inner demons that incline us toward violence and the better angels within us that steer us away.

Those better angels led us toward the spread of government, literacy, trade, cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism. Increasingly, we have grown to control our impulses, empathize with others, bargain rather than plunder, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence.

Pinker, in short, says that we always had it in us to be good. We just didn’t know it.


Things have however taken a turn for the worse. Physical violence might have lessened but there are other forms of violence in the world today, pernicious forms of evil such as ‘economic violence’, the evil that is perpetrated by the rich over the poor, by organized crime through untaxed wealth, through corruption and embezzlement. Involuntary negligent violence like politicizing a pandemic.

Oh yeah, the world is not only in need of a new God but it is in the need of a new messiah as well. Let him be a wise, good-looking Bengali messiah. There is only one and I happen to know him intimately…….. me. I can already feel the glow of the shiny disc behind my head. Wish I could somehow unstick it so I could use it as a car seat warmer in winter.

The right to bare

From where I live, the US border at Plattsburgh, NY, is a mere 40-minute drive. Our neighbor, Vince and his wife, Tricia, shop down there frequently. Oh yeah, everybody over here goes down south of the border to shop. Even for groceries. The last time, Vince and Trish came back with all sorts of stuff. I saw even a stalk of broccoli leaning wearily against the rear window of their SUV, looking fatigued like kinda,’ are we home yet?’

South of the border, stuff are dirt cheap as compared to Canada. Right now a CAD is 0.76USD because oil has tanked, but the prices down there have always been way below ours, even after currency conversion.

There is a law that has been ready to be tabled at the US Congress since the late 19th century awaiting debate, named the “Canada Annexation Bill of 1866”. It proposes to annex Canada by force as the 51st American state. If the law is taken up and passed, prices in Canada will crash and I will get Kleenex at $1.29, oh yeah. Those depending upon social services would suffer, though. Canada, a welfare state, splurges on the unemployed and the have-nots.


US border towns like Plattsburgh have the look of boom towns. They exist for one purpose only – catering to Canadian shoppers. At Plattsburgh malls, Canadians are treated much the same way a Las Vegas casino welcomes high-rollers. The same thing plays out at the other border crossings at Burlington, Stanstead and elsewhere. (Remind me to tell you about Stanstead. There’s a library there that sits on the border, one half -some shelves, tables and chairs – inside Canada and the other half inside the US. The border, a black band, runs across the middle of the floor).

So, I was telling you about how Canadian shoppers are treated like royalty in the US border towns. Of course there is a limit to how much each person is allowed to get through Canadian customs without having to pay duty, but there are ingenious ways by which one can show the customs agents their middle finger.

Suppose you have set your eyes on buying new tyres. At Plattsburgh a set of new 16” Toyos is less than half the price in Canada. Now you don’t drive all the way just to get tyres. You buy other stuff as well and before you know it, you’ve crossed your limit. If you are an idiot, that is. Otherwise, when you leave home, you take the ready-to-scrap tires that your neighbor was anyway throwing away and he helps you put them on.

You go buy the new tires at Plattsburgh and switch them right there with the active connivance of the dealers. They can’t say nothin’ to you at the border. Want an expensive jacket? Just wear it back. As long as you don’t have a beard and aren’t muttering “allah-o-akbar”, you’re cool. The border agents aren’t stupid of course. Once I remember an agent mentioning to me in a heavily accented southern twang, “How come you ain’t got no noo tyres?”

After I had my new tyres installed, I had nothing else ta do. I ambled around the sprawling Champlain Centre Mall and strolled through the Walmart, Target and Best Buy stores. These are gigantic outfits, each store spread over acres and acres.

The Champlain Centre Mall is so huge that you can barely see the roof of the Target store from the Walmart, due to the curvature of the earth. Kidding. I get carried away and lie all the time when I’m writing my blog. Don’t ever take my words to the bank. But its my blog, so I’ll lie whenever I want ta.

Anyway, there I was, minding my business in the land of the free and the prosperous, the kick-ass surgical strike capital of the world and I was enjoying it. I went into a bar and ordered a beer and a turkey-bacon club with a side order of fries. It was delicious. Costed me peanuts.

I was doing a little more ambling when I passed a Gander Mountain outlet. Leaning against a wooden stand at the display window was a belt-fed Browning machine gun, pretty much like the one you saw Arnold Schwarzneggar pack, in Commando.

Canada too has gun stores. There are in fact three within a block of where I live. But you won’t find stuff that resembles artillery in Canada. Canada is much stricter and doesn’t allow either “conceal carry” or “reveal carry”. I own a Lapua Magnum with scope but as per Canadian law the gun, along with it’s .338 ammunition, has to be inside a locked case in my home. I am allowed to transport it but only inside that locked case and only to and from the shooting range or the designated hunt zone for which I have been issued a tag and permit. And I can do the hunt only for the designated game during a season designated for that species. Caribou season is now on, until End-September. I did it once and if you behave I’ll tell you all about it in my blog at some later date, when I feel like it.

So, like I was sayin’ , Canada strictly regulates the use of firearms. I have a firearm license and a hunting license but that does not cover hand guns. For that I need a special waiver. No such rules exist in the US. You can just walk into a Walmart or an outfitter (hunting goods retailer) and walk out with any gun you please. In America, you can buy your son a 9mm Micro Uzi for his 13th birthday and he can fire it as long as he is in the company of an adult above 18.


So, here I was passing the Gander Mountain outlet. Just like every other store there, this one too was massive and at the very end, behind all the outdoor gear, was a narrow section with a long counter on which there were at least 30 handguns of varying caliber and make, lying on their side in a long line. At the far end of the counter there were 10 Uzis and Armalites, also on their sides. I gaped, my mandible dropping to the floor with a crump.

I’m sure these guys can smell a Canadian a mile away. “Lookin’ foah sumpn?” boomed the rotund man behind the counter, looking me straight in the eye and sizing me up in a glance. If you are a gun retailer in the US, you have got to be a good sizer upper of body language, if you don’t want to suddenly gain weight. Lead weight.

“No..I..umm..er..I was just kinda lookin’ around..” I stammered.

“Look all you want, they ain’t goan nowhere.” You have to love the way Americans speak English, kinda rolling the words around before saying them. He was staring down at some receipts, probably doing his taxes or something. Then he straightened and moved down the counter to a shelf from which he picked up a handgun, placed it on the counter and gave it a shove. The gun came slipping and sliding across the full length of the counter top and came to rest, bumping against the back of my right hand. I immediately recoiled at the touch of the cold steel.

“Go ahead, pick it up. It ain’t loaded,” said Humpty-Dumpty. I reached out and picked the gun up gingerly. It felt surprisingly light and on close inspection, it didn’t appear metallic at all. I curled my fingers round the grip and snaked my index finger through the trigger guard.

“Glock33. Takes three fifty seven SIG. 9 shots. Tritium illuminated night sight. Semi-automatic.” (Americans don’t say ‘automatic’. It’s ‘awrmaric’).

“Its so light!” I exclaimed in amazement.

“It’s not steel. It’s a special polymer patented by Glock,” he replied. He was leaning against the counter and regarding me with amusement.

“How much is it?”

“Five hundred but I’ll letcha have it faw foah cash, plus a coupla boxes of ammo, seein’ you’re a reg’lar gent and all.”

“Do I need to show you any papers? I’m Canadian.”

“Far as ahm concerned, you could be hooky doo, I doan care. Just a piece of ID shoan you’re over ayeteen, that’s it. No forms, nuthin’. You walk out with this baby, no sweat. ‘Course I can’t say about those dumb asses at the border though.”

“But if I remain here in the US, is it legal for me, a Canadian, to have a Glock?” I was beginning to fill with amazement.

“Shore it is. The law is simple – everybaady, and the guvmint means eeeeverybaaaaady, has the right to bear arms.”

“Thanks, I guess I have seen enough guns for a while. Have a great day.” I straightened up to leave.

“No problem, bud. Just drop in anytime. In fact if you weren’t in a rush, I’d show you this little mother that came off the cumpunee depot just yesterday.” He reached inside a drawer and his right hand came out with a nasty piece of work about a foot long. Shining silver, it had a long long barrel and a rotating breech like those colts you saw in westerns.

“Taurus 357 Magnum, 9-shot semi-awrmaric. You could kill a moose with one shot,” he called after me as I walked out. I kept walking. Ah the poor American moose, they don’t stand a chance.

I was back at the mall parking lot when a Camaro convertible sighed to stop just next. A blonde got out. Wrapped around the girl’s waist was a holster with a large gun, probably a Smith and Wesson .44 like the one Dirty Harry had. She walked with a thumak-thumak like swagger and disappeared into the Gander Mountain. I wondered whether I should wait to see if she walked out with the Taurus. I felt my richard stir inside my pants as I watched her. A gun-toting woman can be a huge turn-on.

The girl had a halter top on, one that must have weighed ten milligrams, give or take a milligram. It had straps that spiraled up over her shoulders, like DNA, only the straps had less molecules in them, I swear. Would I lie to you?

Now that’s more palatable for peaceniks like me – the right to bare….