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Words to Ponder

pederastrian zone -(pe.der.astri.an zone) child molesters on the internet

trumpet – (trum.pet) presidential proclamations of alternative facts

maybe – (may.be) current state of Brexit negotiations

pingterest – (ping.ter.est) Chinese views of disputed territories in South China Sea and Doklam

modify – (mod.if.y) religious fundamentalism in India

Al Jarreau – (al jar.oh) late jazz singer of Qatar?

merken – (merk.en) German (as in, remember me?)

macro – (mak.ro) big French cheese

killing fields – (kill.ing fields) Duterte’s Philippines

Gabon – (gab.on) ongoing discussion about who really won the last election

sod it – (sod.it) Saudi views on women’s rights

Zumba – (zum.ba) popular South African dance

 

 

 

 

 

A Retirement Present (or) How Corrupt is India?

This is a true story. Names have been suppressed in order to protect the identity of individuals involved, even though the events described here happened two decades ago.

Prologue: He had arrived with his wife in India from another country in order to adopt a child. For reasons that do not concern us here, the couple had decided to go it alone, rather than through one of the agencies that acted as intermediaries for the prospective adoptive parents in their home country. They had been through a series of interviews with psychologists, and their domestic situation had been thoroughly vetted by social workers in the home country before they were given an official seal of approval as suitable adoptive parents.

Inner courtyard, Chennai. Watercolor by Vikram Verghese.

Inner courtyard, Chennai. Watercolor by Vikram Varghese.

The Story: Armed with this preliminary paperwork, the prospective parents began to read up about adoption laws in India. Friends told them of informative TV documentaries that they should watch. One such documentary was particularly painful to watch, since it highlighted the worst malpractices that occurred in various parts of India. They accepted the contents as the unvarnished truth, since it was after all produced by a British documentary film maker of high repute. After the prospective parents had completed their due diligence, they decided to narrow their search to the four southern states of India. Kerala was eliminated as an option early on when they discovered that foreign adoptions were not permitted here. They travelled to cities in two of the other three states before they finally decided to further narrow their search to Madras (Chennai today) the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu, where they had contacted several organizations.

Going simply by gut feel, they eliminated the first two institutions they visited. The people in charge either seemed untrustworthy and shifty-eyed, or the institution seemed too affluent (were they selling children abroad for profit, and if so, how did the children come up for adoption?). There is no absolute certainty in life, but they wanted to be as sure as possible before they made their choice.

Old homes replaced by highrises. Watercolor by Vikram Verghese

Old homes become highrises. Watercolor by Vikram Varghese

Their third visit was to an organization that was run by a foundation of some sort. The Director of the place was soft-spoken, was dressed elegantly but not ostentatiously, was obviously well educated, and from her name they could infer that she was a Muslim. They were given a tour of the place and met the matron in charge of the crèche, who spoke reasonable English. The matron wore a white cotton sari with a blue border, a pendant in the shape of a cross, and a name tag with a Christian name. Half a dozen women in colorful saris tended to the twenty or thirty infants in the crèche. Some of them wore bindi on their foreheads. The people working in the orphanage seemed like a friendly microcosm of India, with people of at least three faiths working together in harmony, so they decided to apply to this institution.

Back in her office, the Director was firm and clear. As foreigners, they came into the third and lowest category of adoptive parents. First preference was given to Indian nationals living in India. Second came Indian nationals living abroad. Foreign nationals came third in priority and could only adopt children who were not chosen by the first two. This usually means, she concluded, that the child you might get for adoption will be a dark-skinned female. Indian parents usually prefer to adopt boys or light skinned girls.

The couple returned to their home country and three months later, had a phone call. As always happens, the long-awaited news came out of the blue. There was a child available for adoption. A female child, with a very dark complexion that was a year old and had not been adopted by Indian parents. Come to India, and be prepared to stay for 2 or 3 months till the paperwork gets done. They arrived in Chennai, were fortunate to stay in a private home instead of a hotel, so were allowed to bring their new daughter home from the orphanage with them till the adoption formalities were completed. They had six weeks to complete all the legal paperwork before the High Court closed for its 2-month summer recess. To paraphrase Longfellow, the mills of the legal system in India grind exceedingly small and they grind exceedingly slowly. With the result that, three days before the High Court closed for summer recess, they still had 28 stamps, seals and signatures to gather from various offices before the adoption was complete and legal. This number of attestations, they were told, normally takes about a month to procure. A huge setback! They had to get back to their jobs in ten days. They could not take the child with them, which meant she would have to go back to the orphanage for three months, an emotional catastrophe, considering how quickly she had bonded with the adoptive parents. To the child, going back to the orphanage would be like a second abandonment, a betrayal of trust that would undoubtedly deepen whatever emotional scars she already carried. In desperation the father cast about for someone, anyone, who could help speed up the process. An acquaintance told him of a Mr. Fixit, someone who might manage the impossible.

Mr. Fixit was slim, mustachioed, dressed in khaki trousers, white bush shirt and black leather shoes; the kind of non-uniform worn by off-duty policemen and government clerks. He heard the whole story from the distressed adoptive father.
“I’ll do it. Give me five thousand rupees, half in advance. And one thousand for expenses.” he said. There was no time for character evaluations or trustworthiness assessments. There seemed to be no choice. The father handed over 3500 rupees. “Wait in the court, in front of the judges’ chambers, for the next three days.” And with that, Mr. Fixit disappeared.

The father did as he was told. It was the end of April, approaching the hottest season of the year, the “Agni Natshatram – fire star” days of May, so he waited in the shade of a banyan tree that grew in the high court grounds. Merely breathing in the heat was exhausting, so he sat on a nearby bench whenever he could, rising hopefully whenever he saw a file carrying clerk emerge from the judges’ chambers. Courts closed at 5 pm, as the blazing heat of the day began to wane. Mr. Fixit appeared an hour after the court closed on the first evening, triumphantly waving a sheaf of papers. “I got the first six today!” Six down, twenty-two to go. In two days. It seemed impossible at this rate.
“Don’t worry. It’s difficult, but not impossible,” Mr. Fixit reassured.

Day two. Another long day’s fretful waiting, hopping impatiently from sun to shade to bench. Too anxious to eat lunch, impatiently gulping water at noon to quench a raging thirst, too nervous to move away even to a toilet. What if there were last minute questions and he was not there to answer them? At the end of day two, Mr. Fixit emerged again from the labyrinth. “I got the next seven today.” Was there a trace of despondent weariness in his face? Hard to tell. “Tell me you can do it,” the father rasped anxiously. “Yes, yes. Leave it to me.” Thirteen down, fifteen to go.
Would it help to offer more money? Mr. Fixit hesitated, thought for a minute. No, he said. This is more than enough.

Day three. The tension was unbearable. Fatigue settled in waves, batted away by bouts of anxiety. Another eight-hour day, mostly on his feet, moving from sun to shade to bench, with an occasional walk around the courtyard. He saw Mr. Fixit move between offices, sometimes empty handed, at others clutching an ever growing sheaf of papers. Finally, a few minutes past 5 pm. Closing time, and the beginning of the two month summer break. It would break his heart to have to drop the little girl back to the orphanage, unclasp those trusting fingers that twined around his thumb every time he entered the room. But there was no chance that the man could have done it. Not here; not with this kind of bureaucracy. Mr. Fixit approached him at ten minutes past five. He held the sheaf of papers, and there was exhaustion and a touch of despondency in his step.
“And?”
“Sir, I tried. I’m still trying.”
“What is there to try? I’ll give you the rest of the money I owe.”

“No, sir. You do not pay till I finish the job.” Then he explained. “I got up to stamp number 22 by 3 pm today. And then, the clerk who has to sign number 23 was not at his desk. He retires today, his last day of work after 30 years of service in the High Court and he’s been out at farewell parties all afternoon. No one could find him. So I contacted all the others, number 24 to 28 and told them about your case. They all said they will wait in their offices till I find the missing  clerk to put his seal. So now you come with me sir. We’ll go and wait for him.”

High Court building, Chennai, Indo-Saracenic architecture. Watercolor by Vikram Verghese

High Court building, Chennai, Indo-Saracenic architecture. Watercolor by Vikram Varghese

I walked into the rooms with Mr. Fixit, unbelieving. The High Court clerical offices were like government offices all over India, relics of the British raj, corridors lined with steel almirahs bulging with case notes, dockets, files tied with string, pages of brown and yellowing papers held together with office clips or rusting staples. From one empty desk to the next. A few clerks were packing up their desks, carting away most of their personal possessions before the long summer recess. One desk was still piled with papers, on top of which lay several gift-wrapped presents, a paper plate with a half-eaten bonda and chutney, a glass of cold tea.
“This man,” Mr. Fixit indicated the desk, “is still out celebrating. He should be back soon.” They pulled up chairs and waited for ten minutes in the now deserted hall. Finally a short smiling man appeared, with crumbs of cake or pakora on his three day growth of beard and looked inquiringly at the two men. “Yes?” Mr. Fixit rose to his feet and began to explain.
“Yes, yes, yes. I know about the case. Five people told me at the farewell party. This is the gentleman?” He looked long and hard at the stranger. The father leapt nervously to his feet, and instinctively reached for his wallet. The clerk looked at Mr. Fixit and beckoned with imperious crooked fingers.
“The papers.” He grabbed the papers, signed on the last page, took two separate seals from his draw, inked both on a worn pad and stamped the paper with loud bangs. “There!” After the days of waiting, the father was beside himself with gratitude, even though the man was merely doing his job. He took out his wallet. The clerk stopped him with a quick gesture.
“Sir. I want no money from you. After thirty years of service in this court, on my last working day, what a retirement present you have given me! It is a privilege to see what my stamp on a paper means to someone. Keep your money sir, and thank you for giving me the chance to do one good deed before retirement. I wish for your daughter a life full of God’s blessings.” The clerk was beaming now, a dark cherub with a three-day growth of beard and crumbs on his face. But there was only time for hurried thank you, thank you’s before Mr. Fixit dragged the father to other offices where clerks number twenty-four to twenty-eight impatiently waited, almost an hour after closing time, seals and signatures at the ready. At all of these desks, the by-now delirious father offered money but met with the same response. “No sir. You are doing a good deed. We wish for your daughter to have a good life.” The last four stamps, seals and signatures were obtained in ten minutes, probably an all-time record for any High Court in India. At precisely one minute to six, Mr. Fixit handed the papers to the father with a flourish.

Disappearing Dwellings, Chennai. Watercolor by Vikram Verghese

Disappearing Dwellings, Chennai. Watercolor by Vikram Varghese

Epilogue: A few days later the parents visited the orphanage with their newly adopted daughter to wish the staff good-bye. The child was kissed and hugged and caressed by all the staff and finally they sat down for a chat with the Director, the child seated in her lap playing with a pendant. The parents expressed their gratitude to the Director and to the foundation that ran the orphanage, remarking on how well it was run, contrary to their expectations, especially after having seen the TV documentary a few months ago.
“Wait a minute. A documentary? Was it by so-and-so?”
“Yes it was.”
“Interesting! He came here, you know, two years ago, while he was filming. He looked around the place. I told him, why don’t you show something of this place? Why not show a good institution? Not just the bad ones. But he wasn’t interested. They left without taking a single photo of this place.

Corruption: How corrupt is India? I honestly don’t know, having spent twenty-seven years in this country without paying a single bribe. I know someone, a fairly successful businessman, who claims never to have paid a bribe during his entire working career. I know many more, equally successful, who say it’s impossible to do business here without greasing palms all along the way.

Which is true? Both narratives are equally true. Transparency International ranks India 79th on its 2016 index of the most (or least) corrupt countries in the world. India’s close neighbors in this index are Brazil, China, and Albania. I have no idea how corrupt China is, but I do know that China’s infrastructure is far superior to India’s and things seem to work far better there than they do in India. However, in the worldwide rush to industrial prosperity, chasing the American dream (with, perhaps, the exception of Bhutan), I fear the world is losing its soul.

Is this single-minded rush to wealth (and exploitation of the earth) the reason why so many amoral leaders seem to come to power in America and other countries around the world? If so, I begin to think that this country (India) has something unique to offer the world. I think back to the incident at the High Court and dozens of other random acts of kindness and grace that I experienced and accepted unthinkingly, as a matter of course. Today I feel that there is some deep spring of spirituality among its people that has nothing to do with religion, but is a product of time and space, centuries of invasion, centuries of adaptation and forgiving. So perhaps, despite its low ranking on the Transparency International index, the soul of India can show the world the way ahead in the turbulent and troubling years to come.

All watercolors pictured above by Chennai-based artist Vikram Varghese.

The Dice that lost a Kingdom

The grand epic of the Mahabharata tells of the war between two clans, the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The many stories in the book of tales, which are told in some 100,000 stanzas of classical Sanskrit verse are together 12 times the length of the entire Bible. I have read several different English translations of this stupendous work. Despite the sometimes stilted language of the translations I read, the sublime poetry and wisdom of this work invariably shine through. I have searched for years for the perfect translation, and found it at last on the internet. The tale in its entirety is so complex, with a huge cast of characters and so many different sub-plots, that I thought it impossible to ever write a summary that does justice to the tale. Until this discovery on the internet of a synopsis written by someone (or a collective) calling themselves Wm. Blake Fabricators. A Google search led me to someone called Richard Blumberg who is apparently based in Cincinnati. Kudos to Richard Blumberg, then, for writing the most readable and comprehensive synopsis of this monumental work; a synopsis that effortlessly conveys the essence of the stories in fluid prose. I have reproduced the Introduction from the website below, and copied the links to synopses of the other six major episodes, with an Afterword and a Bibliography. I’m convinced that readers of this page, and followers of this blog, will not regret the 20 minutes they might spend following the links below to read the rest of this fascinating story.

As played in the Mahabharata, 4-sided dice with numbers 1,3,4 and 6

As played in the Mahabharata, 4-sided dice with numbers 1,3,4 and 6

It has been called the national epic of India, and it is that, in very much the same sense that the Iliad is the national epic of Classical Greece. The Mahabharata is the story of a great war that ended one age and began another. The story has been passed down to us in a classical canon of Sanskrit verses some 100,000 stanzas long; that’s about 12 times the length of the Western Bible. The best scholarly evidence indicates that the earliest layers of the epic were composed between 2500 and 3000 years ago. The text had reached pretty much its present form by about 300-400 C.E.

Mahabharata has also been called the Hindu bible. It is important at the outset to recognize that epic and bible are both Eurocentric terms. The former implies the kind of single-minded focus on the hero and his deeds that characterizes the stories that we Europeans learned as epics in our schooling. And the latter term implies a certain iconic status for the book in its society; our bible is not something we know so much as it is something we swear on. None of that is particularly true for the Mahabharata, although it is not completely false either. It just misses the point.

Epic and bible together imply an absolute division between the sacred and the profane – one pure fable and the other Holy Truth – that simply doesn’t exist in the Hindu vision. Our Eurocentric minds, trained in a Jahwist tradition of good and evil, true and false, demand that the story go into one slot or the other, and if it is too big, then we will reduce it to fit. The Hindu mind, I think, rather than force the story into any single category, conceives a story big enough to encompass all categories.

The Mahabharata itself says it quite positively.

What is found herein may also be found in other sources,
What is not found herein does not matter.

The Mahabharata contains virtually all the lore and legend of the Classical Hindu Tradition – which is also, in typical Hindu defiance of simple-minded historicity – very much a living tradition. Here are the great creation stories – Manu’s flood, the churning of the milk ocean, the descent of the Ganges. Here are the favorite myths and fairy tales. Here are the jokes. Here are the codes of law – moral, ethical, natural. One of the best things about the Mahabharata is its wonderful richness of episode and detail.

But Mahabharata is not a random collection of tales, like the Medieval gestes (to further prove the habit of thinking Eurocentrically). Every digressive bit of the Mahabharata is there to shed light on a central story. The core event of that story is the great battle that was fought on the field of Kurukshetra between the five sons of King Pandu and their allies on the one side and the hundred sons of King Dhritarashtra, with their allies, on the other side. The battle was the culmination of a long history of struggle and diplomatic maneuvering, and it involved virtually every tribal king and every powerful city-state in Central and Northern India at the time.

It was a tragic war, that pitted brothers against brothers, sons against fathers and uncles, brave noble men against brave noble men. And it was devastating. Nearly all of the best men died in the long battle. The Pandavas, the sons of King Pandu, survived, but there was no victory, for the war had destroyed the world that they knew, and the emptiness of what they had won colored the rest of their lives.

Now to say that the Mahabharata is the story of a great battle is to say that Hamlet is the story of an unsuccessful usurpation, or that Moby Dick is the story of a whale hunt. Hindu cosmology is sweeping, and the story of the Mahabharata war has cosmological significance, in that it marks the end of one yuga and the beginning of another. There are four yugas in every great cycle of existence, each one diminished from the one before. The yuga that ended with the Mahabharata war was the dvapara yuga – the age of heros, during which noble values still prevailed and men remained faithful to the principles and tasks of their castes. The age that follows the battle is the Kali yuga, the last age of the world; in it, all values are reduced, law becomes fragmented and powerless, and evil gains sway. We live in the Kali yuga.

The breadth of its vision is one of the things that makes the Mahabharata the best story I know. But there are other reasons. Mahabharata has a riveting plot and a compelling dramatic structure. Its characters are complex and real, with depth of personality that is unmatched in any other epical or biblical story I have heard. Finally, I have found the Mahabharata to be full of wisdom.

In the next few minutes, I am going to try to give you a sense of how the Mahabharata story goes.

Since the story has cosmic significance, its ultimate beginnings are lost in the mists of time and the minds of unknowable immensities; a wealth of family histories, myths, and fables lead up to the events that I will tell you about. I will jump into the story at a point where the succession to the kingship had come into question.

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The Flood – after the vote on Brexit

The story below was written in 2010, long before the idea of Britain or Greece opting out of the EU was anywhere on the political horizon. The European Union is an unprecedented, brave and bold experiment by thirty-odd countries venturing into uncharted territory. Many economists have predicted that the experiment is doomed, and there is no shortage of possible reasons for failure.

Critics fail to recognise that any bold experiment can fail. For example, the dollar was chosen to become the monetary unit of the United States in 1785, nine years after the declaration of independence. The coinage act helped put together an organised monetary system in 1792. The Federal Reserve Act was passed only in 1913, organising a national banking system and a central bank, nearly one hundred and thirty years after the dollar was chosen as its currency. And this delay occurred in a vast country only slightly smaller than the area of the European experiment. Friends of mine have fiercely criticised the above comparison between the EU and the US. Of course they’re right. Unlike the EU, the US was a single political entity with a common government, it had a common language and a single currency. Nevertheless, the analogy is valid, despite limitations. Some of the problems faced by the federal union of US states in the past two centuries is similar to the divisive forces that plague the EU today.

Small wonder that populations in EU countries have misgivings about the wisdom of their leaders’ attempts to stabilise the common currency and dispute the need to support the economically weakest members of the union. The Flood is a parable on the need for myths to weld communities together. In the case of Europe, the common roots doubtless lie in ancient Greece and Rome, ironically two of the most economically troubled states in the current union.

 

The Flood

Image: courtesy YouTube

Image: courtesy YouTube

“Every culture that we know of has one,” said the professor in conclusion, as the electrically operated curtains in the auditorium silently parted and the audience blinked at the flood of grey, fogbound afternoon light. Professor Paravant fumbled for a moment with the switches that remotely controlled the power point projector and then looked up in preparation for questions.  He stole a quick glance at his watch.  Two thirty-eight!  He’d been at it for fifty-seven minutes precisely, which was seven minutes longer than intended. Where had he lost those seven minutes?  Two certainly, while waiting for the technician to correct a problem with the projection. But he had continued his talk while waiting for the glitch to be fixed and then had briefly run over the same ground when the slides appeared.

And the other five?  He had digressed a bit over the possible alternative interpretations to the new archaeological finds in the Sahel.  Yes, yes.  He had certainly got into deep water over there. That was stupid, he said very severely to himself (not the least because it was an arid zone! he added to himself).  You should not inject conjecture into your talks, at least, not at this stage when it is not supported by a sizeable body of circumstantial evidence. As for certainty, forget it.  There is no certainty in our profession.  Some theories are in phase with popular belief and some are not.  Archaeological truth could perhaps be defined as current conjecture backed by circumstantial evidence and hallowed by the concurrence of many.  Professor Paravant himself was constantly and keenly aware of this limitation, therefore his talk was loaded with hedged statements.  But did this come across to his listeners?  Had they heard him out in rapt attention, or was it merely silent boredom?  He was never sure.

Professor Paravant shot his cuff and looked at his watch again, this time openly.  “Any questions?” he asked looking up. The nervous conference organiser interrupted with half-raised hand and an apologetic glance at the visiting professor.

“Dr. Paravant, please forgive.” He raised his quavery voice and climbed to the first step of the podium.  “Ladies and gentlemen, before the questions, please, I have an announcement to make. There’s been a small change in program.  We’ll have the coffee break before the next session.  Secondly, Professor Paravant has to catch the four o’clock flight to Brussels where he is to testify before the European Commission.  So please understand that he can answer only a few questions.  Shall we say, until two forty-five, Professor?”

“Until three, if you like,” said Paravant generously. “My luggage is already packed and waiting.  If you could be so kind as to ensure that a taxi is available…”

“But of course, Professor.  The faculty car will take you to the airport when you are ready to leave.”

“Very well, then.” He raised his head, stood with toes out, jacket pushed back and thumbs tucked into the waistband of his trousers.

“Questions?  Questions?” he asked the still-blinking audience.

There was silence as the group of forty-odd academics looked at each other, wondering who was going to be the first to ask.  This was a multi-disciplinary group, and although each of the attendees was a specialist in his (or her: there were six women present) own field, Paravant was the only archaeologist present.

“Professor Paravant,” this was one of the six women and she flushed as the entire auditorium turned to face the last row where she sat. “Professor Paravant, I have a question that’s unrelated to your talk today.  When are you going to tell us about your finds in Northern Thailand and Cambodia?”

“Dear lady, I will talk about them when I have something to say. Right now we have no idea what we’re turning up at the site.  We can only say that the artefacts are of enormous significance, all man-made, fashioned between five thousand five hundred and seven thousand years before our time.”

The organiser raised his hand for attention once again. “I must request you, ladies and gentlemen.  Professor Paravant’s time here is very short.  Please restrict your questions to today’s talk. Otherwise I know the professor will never catch the four o’clock plane, not even tomorrow’s four o’clock plane.” There was a murmur of polite laughter to greet this humorous sally, a murmur which almost drowned the protest: I only asked because no one else was saying anything, from the woman in the back row.

Paravant’s sharp ears picked up her protest, however, and he rapidly scanned the list of registered attendees that lay beside his notes on the lectern before him. “Dr. Clark,” he called to the woman in the back row. “You are Dr. Clark aren’t you?  From…  East African Uhuru University?  I have your email address here on my list and I’ve made a note to send you a summary of findings till date as soon as I return to Thailand.  Is that all right?”

“Oh, thank you.  Very kind of you, Professor,” Dr. Clark flushed and beamed from the back row, completely won over by this unexpected kindness.

“Professor, I’d like to question your concluding remark.  You said every culture that we know of has one.  Now, I’m an anthropologist and specialise in theories of life in different cultures, the interface between myth and reality in various societies, do you see?’

“Yes, indeed,” said Professor Paravant, who did not.

“Now what I want to ask you is: how can you say that every culture has one?  Did, for example, the tenth century kingdom of Mali have one?   Did the late eighteenth century empire of Shaka in present day South Africa have one?  Did the ancient Greeks have one?”

“Well,” said Paravant, rolling up his mental sleeves.  He liked questions like these, ones he could get his teeth into and deal with specifics. “First, let me address the three concrete examples you have chosen.  Briefly, the answers are: yes to the first and third, no to the second.  But these one word answers need qualifications which I will provide before going on to answer the first part of your question, namely, how I can say that every culture has one?

“First, the kingdom of Mali.  It was a flourishing empire from the early part of the ninth century onwards and lasted for more than two centuries until a combination of circumstances, chiefly world climatic and trade shifts, moved the focus of civilization on the continent southeastwards.  They had a rich oral tradition, most of which is naturally lost, but some writings on clay tablets persist, which are conjectured to be a thousandth or even a millionth part of the original rich whole.  Deducing from these, we find traces of the legend, minute indications of a great deluge, a cataclysmic event that occurred long before the kingdom of Mali was founded.  This is your first example.

“For our second example you again chose Africa, the empire of Shaka.  Now Shaka was a great general, one of the world’s great quintet, together with Alexander the Macedonian, Julius Caesar, Hannibal and Napoleon.  He created an empire that was a fusion of many tribes, many language groups, many cultures.  There was no cultural unity among the Zulu tribes for many decades after Shaka welded them together into a political whole.  The oral traditions of the various tribes were completely lost, therefore it is impossible to state that the flood myth existed among the Zulu.  But the converse is equally true.  It is, by the same measure, impossible to prove that it did not exist among them.  I personally believe it did, although I have no proof.

“Now your third example is straightforward.  The answer is a simple, unqualified yes.  We have hundreds of texts to fall back upon, a rich gleaning of writings from other sources as well, Persian, Latin and Arabic among others.  Let me give you a concrete illustration.  You all might know or have heard of Philemon and Baucis, Ovid’s charming story of an old couple who showed hospitality to the gods.  This story is a variation of the flood myth…” Professor Paravant was firmly settled upon his theme and would have missed his plane had not his host, the conference organizer, interrupted at three o’clock.

“Excuse me, Professor.  But I really think you must go.”

“Oh!”  Paravant looked around him, then at his watch and gasped.

“My goodness.  It’s nearly three.  I must run.  I will write to you,” he glanced up at the anthropologist. “You’re…?”

“I’m Thompson from Sussex.”

“Yes, Dr. Thompson.” Paravant made a mark on his conference list and fled from the room, leaving the participants sighing with relief and hurrying towards toilets and coffee.

More than two hours later, wedged between an overstuffed matron and a pimply youth on the plane to Brussels Professor Paravant found time to think about the conference he had just attended.  He reached for the briefcase at his feet and pulled out a copy of the paper he had presented.

The Flood Myth: an analysis of its existence in cultures around the world. A myth is a traditional story originating in a preliterate society, the paper began.  After defining myth and its principal characteristic (it continues to influence the thought and behaviour of people living in the present time), it went into scholarly detail about the finds of various expeditions and researchers through the centuries, principally in the nineteenth and the twentieth.  He skimmed over the listing of the flood myth in various continents, knowing them all by heart; the Sumerian, Babylonian, Chaldean, Biblical, Roman, Greek, Persian, Chinese, Finno-Ugric, American Indian and Tamil.

Professor Paravant’s meditation upon myths was interrupted by the arrival of two flight attendants, the first with refreshing hot towels (which he welcomed) and the second with drinks and plastic-wrapped sandwiches, the usual airline fare (which he hated because, although not hungry, he ate and drank it all).  However, he could meditate further while he chewed, and he did, until the plump woman on his right stood up to go to the toilet before the drinks had been cleared.  Paravant stood in the aisle gingerly balancing both paper cups of hot liquid in his hands while she squirmed in emulation of a camel’s progress through the needle’s eye between seats.  He was thus powerless to fend off the pimply youth’s attempts at conversation.  The flight attendants were still busy serving food and brushed by with indignant glances.  The indignant glances were slightly more welcome than the pimply youth’s topic of conversation.  He had been to a football match between two rival national teams and tried to convey the violent emotion of the encounter to his captive audience.  The Professor would have been much happier if he had kept his mouth shut and offered to hold the hot cup of tea.

The woman finally returned looking greatly relieved and plumped into her seat without so much as a word of thanks for the cup holding. Her ingratitude put Paravant in such a foul mood that he was unable to think constructively on the flood myth and this inability further worsened his mood. It was past ten by the time he collected his luggage, found a taxi and finally checked into his hotel, so he went straight to sleep without attempting to find a meal or prepare notes for the following day.

He was up late the next day and the shepherd from the European Commission arrived early, so after a very hurried breakfast Paravant was ensconced in the back seat of the chauffeur-driven limousine by eight.  The shepherd was middle-aged.  In place of a crook, he carried a bulging brief-case under his arm.  Paravant’s entire week had been very rushed, so he’d not yet had time to read the briefs that they had sent him.  However, he was also an eminent scholar quite accustomed to being asked profound questions on subjects he hadn’t prepared for, so he faced the forthcoming interview with equanimity.

Not so the shepherd who kept pulling official documents out of the brief case and hurriedly scanning them to refresh his memory.  At one point in their journey across the city, he caught Professor Paravant’s eye and smiled.

“What do you think, Professor?  What are you going to tell them?”

“About what?” The shepherd raised his eyebrows, marvelling at the professor’s acumen.

“Oh, nothing.  I shouldn’t have intruded on your thoughts.”

“Now, really, do tell me.  What am I going to tell who about what?”

“They told you, didn’t they?” asked the shepherd tentatively. Paravent generously gave him the right.

“Yes, they did.  What am I going to tell who about what?”

“The cultural commission.  What are you going to tell them about their question?”

”Which question?”

“Your prognosis on the cultural fallout to be expected after the European Union becomes a single political entity in 2020.  What kind of national traumas can be expected?  What are the possible consequences for the collective psyches of the various european nations?  Which national clichés are most likely to survive, and which national traits can one expect to be aggravated after the merger, and so on?”

“Ah, was that the question?” asked Paravant, with a sigh of relief.

He stole a quick glance at his watch.  With luck and a traffic jam, he might have thirty or forty-five minutes to prepare.

“That’s the only question I know of.  If there was anything classified I wouldn’t know,” said the shepherd humbly. “I’m not eligible to know anything classified.  Not yet, not for a year or two.”

“Of course not,” said Paravant, hoping to silence the shepherd by his lofty and detached manner.  The ploy worked and for the next half hour, Paravant’s mind ground busily while he thought of what he could say about the cultural future to be expected for Western Europe in the years after complete economic and political fusion took place in 2020.

The building he was driven to was not the headquarters building, but one of the many subsidiary offices of the various commissioners which are scattered throughout the city of Brussels.  The limousine pulled up at the nondescript entrance of a tall building and the shepherd alighted first.

“This way, if you please, Professor.”

The limousine slid away and Paravant followed his guide into the foyer of what looked like a large and busy hotel.  The shepherd walked confidently to the bank of elevators and pressed a button marked AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.  Once inside they rode to the thirtieth floor and walked along a windowless, indirectly lit, crimson carpeted corridor to a door labelled CONFERENCE ROOM.  He led the way into an outer office with three smartly dressed young women in almost identical white blouses and dark skirts, indicating the professor with a flourish.

“Professor Paravant,” he announced, “to testify before the joint cultural commission.”

“Ah yes,” said the petite brunette with the red-rimmed slash of a smile. “But you are early, Maurice.  The commission meets only at nine-thirty.”

Maurice reddened. “The commission meets at eight forty-five!”

“Ah, you have forgotten.  This week we have a new chairman.  He is British, and wishes to begin at nine-thirty after his cup of tea.” Maurice crumbled and began to stammer apologies.

“No problem at all, Maurice,” Paravant beamed jovially at the EU underling. “If you could only arrange for me to have a desk in a quiet corner with a cup of coffee, I can use the time to go over my notes.” Maurice marvelled at the Professor’s grace and charm as he hastened to comply.

The commission sat at ten.  They were a working group of cultural commissioners from twelve of the thirty one EU states (or was it thirty two this week?), and they treated Professor Paravant with great respect.  The British commissioner was an erudite giant named Bartlett, an Oxbridge intellectual, who swallowed sentence endings to the point of unintelligibility.

“Right then, let’s get started, shall we?” he slurred. “Perhaps we can begin straightaway with questions to Professor, er…” he looked down at his notes, “Professor Paravant.”

“I would like,” said the German slowly, “to first hear Professor Paravant’s own synopsis before we go on to questions.”

“What do you say Professor?” asked Bartlett.

“I have no objection,” said Paravant pleasantly. “Perhaps one of you would care to put the question again so that I know exactly what you wish to know.”

“Didn’t you read the briefs we sent you?” asked Bartlett bluntly.

“Of course,” said Paravant, who had left them in the hotel room in the morning’s rush. “But we are going to dwell in the realm of conjecture for the next few hours, drawing on my knowledge of the past to make prognoses about the future.  So it would help me to have a clear idea of your own perceptions of the dimensions of the problem.”

“Yes, yes. I see that,” said Bartlett. “And since I’m the chairman, I’m the one who should do it, I suppose… unless someone else here wants to.” There was deep silence.  Paravant broke it cheerfully.

“It needn’t be too long, Mr. Chairman.  Just a sentence or two will suffice.”

“The EU is going to eliminate all national barriers beginning in 2020, introducing a common passport, a single parliament, and so on. We already have the Euro which has, as of this week, been adopted by all thirty-one member countries.

“You know all this. The newspapers are full of it, with horror stories of the possible repercussions.  Well the problem is this in a nutshell.  How is some unemployed lad from Liverpool going to feel if the Merseyside is invaded by a bunch of Spanish speaking dandies in tight trousers?  Cultural shock with bells on! We need to know how this boy’s going to react.”

“This is only a hypothetical question, Professor, not a likely probability.  We’ll let it stand for the moment.”  This was Jose Carreras, the Spanish commissioner, a tall man with a suffering El Greco face.

“Sorry, Carreras,” grinned Bartlett, who obviously wasn’t. “Didn’t mean to cast ethnic slurs.  Let bygones be bygones.  This is 2015 after all, and it’s time we forgot about the defeat of your armada four centuries ago.”

“Our armada was defeated by the winds off Falmouth, not by the British,’ said Carreras stiffly. “Your own historians write that when the storm arose that blew us off the map, the great Sir Francis Drake had only one round of ammunition left.”

“Gentlemen, I think I am ready to begin my scenario synopsis of the expected situation,” Paravant interrupted, now quite certain of what he was going to say. “There is a lot to be said in favour of preserving national identities even after the merger. Indeed, we can and must do everything in our power to encourage this.  Going by past experience, once the process of integration is started, everything can be expected to proceed remarkably quickly.  Integration will take place without a hitch, provided we allow for a period of cultural overflow and overlap.  By this I mean a period of preparation to cope with different value systems and even workaday habits.” Through the corner of his eye he saw Bartlett and El Greco smile mockingly at one another.

“City dwellers in the EU countries are already truly cosmopolitan. The libraries of the great cities of Europe have for centuries garnered much of the wisdom of the world.  Her museums are filled with treasures of art and culture from every corner of our planet. This immense cultural wealth has been cemented by the incredible fusion of art, music, film, entertainment and intellectual advance fuelled by the internet.”

“What does this have to do with 2020?’ slurred Bartlett impatiently.

“Everything and nothing.  One the one hand, the exhibits from the museums are lifeless artefacts, showcases pure and simple.  On the other hand, many of the objects displayed are symbolic of the internationalisation of knowledge.  The scholar, for instance always knew that every single bit of technology available in eighteenth century Europe had already existed in eleventh century China, that the Greeks enhanced and transmitted the knowledge of ancient Egypt and that the Arabs translated, added to and handed down the wisdom of the Greeks to Europe in the Middle Ages.”

Constantin Anantapoulos, Costas, was of medium height with softly rounded features and reddish brown nut-thatch hair.

“Professor Paravant, forgive me for interrupting.  You’re being impractical.  These things happened hundreds or thousands of years ago and cannot have the immediate impact we need on the populations of our respective countries.”

“Yes,” agreed the Spaniard. “The Beatles, Elvis, Jay-Z, they all cross national and cultural boundaries today.  There are others…’ he groped for names and found none.

“The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Elton John…,’ Bartlett smiled expansively as he came to El Greco’s aid. “They all happen to be British.”

“Thank you for the examples,” said El Greco. “Costas is right, Mr. Paravant.  We need examples from today, from our recent past and not from bygone ages.”

“There is a real danger in that approach, which I will point out to you presently.  Apart from the fact that it is short-sighted and wrong.  But if you restrict unifying examples to recent decades in the present century, then you are denying yourselves the chance to use the integrative powers of sublime music, to give just one example.  Think of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Smetana…”

“Wrong side of the fence, Paravant,” interrupted Bartlett briskly, wagging a school-masterish forefinger. “Tchaikovsky is a no-no. Beyond EU borders.’

“There you make the same mistake,’ protested Paravant with some heat. “It is just as dangerous to draw a dividing line in space as it is in time.  The two questions I then put to you gentlemen are: how recent is recent, and where do we set the geographic boundaries?”

“Let’s say, within the physical confines of the European Union as we know it today and… the last two decades.” The Dutch commissioner Maartens spoke for the first time and looked around for approval.  He was greeted by nods of agreement.

“All right, let’s start with physical boundaries.” Paravant adopted his most persuasive voice. “Where do we draw the line?  If Tchaikovsky is out as an integrative factor because his birthplace is in Russia, then so are several Western cultural heroes. Pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, Nobel Prize winning poet Joseph Brodsky, Mohammed Ali, who was the most popular public figure on the planet during his lifetime.  The contemporary list is endless.  Need I elaborate?’

“But we have to draw a line somewhere,” insisted Bartlett, speaking clearly for the first time that day.  The sudden clarity startled the other eleven commissioners into agreement.

“Yes,” said Carreras. “We have to have these geographic boundaries. But what about time?’

“Equally impossible to find a sensible or logical cut-off point,” said Paravant stubbornly, although he knew the tide of opinion was turning against him. “If we can go back a half century to the Beatles, what is to stop us moving another quarter century back to Hitler’s time? Two decades before that lies the destruction of the first world war. And in the two centuries before that there were seven major wars between France and Britain alone.” There was silence round the table.

“The myths of bygone ages live on in us,” said Paravant softly, with a smile. “We need new myths for a brave new tomorrow, but myths are an oral tradition and take time to create. Yes, it takes time to create them even today, in the age of instant diffusion of knowledge through electronic means. For this reason, we will always need the old myths.  If we want a unifying factor, gentlemen, we will have to go back through the ages, all the way back through the common history of mankind to the flood.”

The above story was published as part of The Ironwood Poacher and Other Stories in 2013. This parable seems more relevant than ever today. I sincerely hope Britain votes today to remain in the EU.

For more by this author see his Amazon page here.

Books on Google Play

Available on Google Play

Available on Google Play

To all Android users: The above 4 books are now available on Google Play.  The first 20% of each book can be downloaded as a free sample. For the owner of a not-so-new smartphone (3 year-old Samsung) like myself, the text was surprisingly easy to read in both vertical and landscape modes. Downloads were almost instantaneous using a reasonably standard wi-fi connection. To access the books, select the “Entertainment” header on the Google Playstore app, and then open the category “books” to search under author or title. Hint: The entire title story of the Ironwood Poacher collection can be downloaded and read as a free sample.

Forthcoming: All 4 of the above titles coming soon to the iTunes store, plus Desert Dreams, an illustrated travel guide to the fascinating and history-laden state of Rajasthan that will be published only as an e-book on Google Play, iTunes and Kindle. Additionally, a brand new website (aviottjohn.com) designed by a young professional based in Munich, plus a subsequent post on some small steps to save the iconic Indian tiger. Follow this blog for automatic notifications of updates.

Sudarshan’s Gift: A short story about a novel

Way back in 1982, industrialist Clive Sinclair was at the height of his business career. The Sinclair ZX Spectrum was among the first and most successful mainstream home computers in the world, ultimately selling more than 5 million units world wide. Clive Sinclair is credited with launching the UK IT industry and products like the Spectrum and its successors earned him a knighthood. In that same year, he instituted a literary prize, the Sinclair Prize for Fiction, to be awarded to an unpublished manuscript of social or political significance. Two of the five judges (including the Chairman) thought that a novel called ‘Chasing Cursors’ by an unknown Indian author was the clear winner. The other three judges demurred, saying the novel was of no social or political significance. They took the problem to Clive Sinclair, who threw some additional money into the pot and said the novel in question should be given a special award. The Sinclair Prize ultimately was awarded to an author whose book about battling the apartheid regime in South Africa was clearly of great social and political significance.  ‘Chasing Cursors’ won special mention for merit and was awarded a small cash prize.

Since this is a short story, a long story is omitted here about two literary agencies (one in the UK and the other based in the US) seeking a publishing home for ‘Chasing Cursors’ in its new avatar of ‘Sudarshan’s Gift.’ According to the agencies, the manuscript was rejected by more than four hundred publishers on four continents over the next ten years. In 1999, a new e-publishing venture called Online Originals picked it up for their list of e-books to be sold online in pdf or PDA formats (Anyone remember the Palm Pilot, the Psion or Apple’s Newton?).Sudarshans_Gift_Cover_for_Kindlejpg

Publisher David Gettman, convinced of the book’s literary merit, nominated it for the Booker Prize in that year, perhaps the first ever submission of an e-only book for the prize. The Prize committee rejected the nomination, on the grounds that the author had changed nationality since the book was written, was no longer a Commonwealth citizen, and hence could not be considered for the prize. Fast forward to 2015 when publishing rights revert to the author and it now appears as a paperback and Kindle edition on Amazon. Here are headlines from the 8 reviews of the books so far.

Powerful, lasting story…..  Heartwarming….. a Lesson in Love and Tolerance…..  Intriguing…..  Such a gift is pure….. A Well-Written Tale…..  A journey through India and the human heart.…. Great Storytelling ….

The re-publication of Sudarshan’s Gift and its first appearance in paperback has meant that the appearance of “Grace in the South China Sea,” has been delayed by several weeks. More about Grace in the next blog.

Ironwood Poacher and Other Stories

Finished at last! A collection of ten short stories that will appear in print in early November, around 48,000 words. Anyone willing to proofread the final pdf of the MS in the next two weeks, please let me know. You will get a free dedicated copy of the book after final publication as a thank you. The Afterword from the volume that follows below says a little bit about each of the stories, but is meant more as a background narrative of the circumstances in which they were written, rather than as a synopsis of the stories themselves.

MesuaFerrea_IronWood

The Ironwood Poacher: In December 2012, a young woman and her male companion were attacked in a private bus on the outskirts of Delhi. The man was beaten with a metal bar and left incapacitated while the girl was brutally raped and then seriously injured in a frenzy of bloodlust as an aftermath of lust. The case attracted wide media attention and struck a chord in the hearts of millions of urban middle class who were shocked that such a thing could happen to one of their own kind. When the girl died of her injuries thirteen days later, there was an outpouring of grief and violence nation-wide. The mass protests and agitation in urban centers throughout the country were an expression of anger and disbelief that the nation that nurtured Gandhi and non-violence could harbor individuals like these.

Indeed, in 2005, one month prior to Hurricane Katrina, the city of Mumbai experienced unprecedented and disastrous flooding. In contrast to New Orleans, however, the Mumbai floods were not marked by social disorder and violence, but by widespread acts of generosity and altruism. Based on such experiences, the complacent Indian view was that the “Third World-ness” of megacities like Mumbai and Delhi was a positive thing; a virtue that excused the country’s sadly crumbling infrastructure and made it bearable, because it did not have the “culture of violence” found in American cities.

Of course, this complacence was totally delusional, since anyone who cared to look found inescapable signs of the most egregious exploitation everywhere. And behind the exploitation exists systematic violence and intimidation. The people who bear the brunt of this bad treatment are the poor and the disenfranchised, in urban centers of course, but more so in the countryside. Most of these people are voiceless in the media, so their stories are rarely told. The Ironwood Poacher is an attempt to tell such a story.

India is a very large, teeming country, so it may come as a surprise to many middle class Indians living unthinking, sheltered lives in a comfortable cocoon with servants at hand to cater to their needs, to know that violence is deeply ingrained in this society. This violence has many roots. Deeply held beliefs and gender bias, the caste system (especially in rural areas), and the tremendous disparities in income.

The Ironwood Poacher was written long before the Delhi outrage happened, and was prompted by observations of the everyday tyranny of low-level government officials abusing their power. There is plenty of opportunity for petty officials in every town and village, themselves poor and underpaid, to abuse their power, sometimes with the collusion of local landowners or upper caste supporters. So the tribulations of Neela, the poacher’s wife, are played out in thousands of variations across the country daily and weekly, these stories barely making the pages of the local or national news. What is remarkable amidst all this human misery is that retaliatory deeds like Murugan’s happen so rarely. That is one of the true miracles of India, and probably the most positive attribute of the deep spirituality widely evident wherever one travels in the country.

The Flood: The European Union is an unprecedented, brave and bold experiment by thirty-odd countries venturing into uncharted territory. Many economists have predicted that the experiment is doomed, and there is no shortage of possible reasons for failure.

Critics fail to recognize that any bold experiment can fail. For example, the dollar was chosen to become the monetary unit of the United States in 1785, nine years after the declaration of independence.  The coinage act helped put together an organized monetary system in 1792. The Federal Reserve Act was passed only in 1913, organizing a national banking system and a central bank, nearly one hundred and thirty years after the dollar was chosen as its currency. And this delay occurred in a vast country only slightly smaller than the area of the European experiment.

Small wonder that populations in EU countries have misgivings about the wisdom of their leaders’ attempts to stabilize the common currency and dispute the need to support the economically weakest members of the union. The Flood is a parable on the need for myths to weld communities together. In the case of Europe, the common roots doubtless lay in ancient Greece and Rome, ironically two of the most economically troubled states in the current union.

Cassie: In the 1990s I was fortunate to have an almost brand-new car to make a long journey across the United States. The car was a driveaway, a one year-old, two-door, cream-colored Cadillac Eldorado hardtop with very few miles on the clock. When I picked it up from an upmarket address in San Francisco for delivery in Miami two weeks later, the owner handed me the keys and papers and said, “I’ve had the car serviced. There’s a full tank of gas, so you shouldn’t have any problems. Here’s the address where the car has to be delivered in Miami.” I handed him the papers from the auto driveaway agency to sign and he did it without bothering to look through the document. Liking his casual, trusting manner, I decided to be up-front with him.

“Look,” I said. “I’m a tourist and I’d like to see as much of the US as I can. The agency said that normally coast-to-coast delivery times are ten days. I’d like to make some stops along the way. Do you mind if I take longer?”

“Sure,” he said at once. “Keep it for longer if you want. This is my mother’s car, and she’s moving to Florida to stay with friends after my father died. She won’t need it for the next four weeks.”

“Thanks very much. That’s very kind of you. One last thing. The agency said I was to inspect the car with you for dents or damage before you fill in and sign this piece of paper to confirm the car’s condition.”

“The car’s in good shape,” he said. “Here! I’ll sign the blank form now and you can fill it in if you find anything you want to note down.” Disarmed and made speechless by the man’s trust and generosity, I wordlessly took the keys and drove away without bothering to fill out the form.

Twenty-four days and four thousand miles later, I had a similar pleasant experience at the other end. I called the Miami number I had been given in San Francisco, and a friendly female voice asked if I’d had a comfortable journey and then gave me detailed directions for the drive to the house.  I parked in the shade of a tree-lined driveway and was welcomed into a comfortable living room by a gracious gray-haired woman in her sixties or seventies who patted my hand as I gave the keys and offered me a drink. I chatted with her over coffee and she was very interested in my impressions of the USA and the places I’d seen along the way.

I offered her the agency form to sign before I finally rose to leave. This was to confirm that the car had been delivered to the owner in good condition and ensure that I got my deposit back from the driveaway agency that had insured the risk and helped me find the car.

“Won’t you come out and take a look at the car before you sign?” I asked. She looked at me briefly.

“Did you have any problems on the way?”

“No. The car’s almost brand new and it ran beautifully.”

“Then I don’t need to look at it. I’ll sign that paper for you. Make sure you’ve taken all your things out of the car,” she added as she walked me to the door. I was doubly glad then, in the face of this gentle generosity that, a short while earlier, I had stopped at a service station to have the car shampooed and polished to a high gloss before I returned it with a full tank of gas.

As I rode in a cab later that day to Miami international airport and the flight home, I thought about the countless acts of everyday kindness and trust encountered along the way across America. In a sudden flash of insight, I realized I had stumbled on a principal source of America’s greatness. Something beyond the wealth of nature’s bounty that this nation enjoyed. Trust. Pure and simple. When there is mutual trust among large segments of a population, and rule of law, civil society will flourish. The increasing levels of mistrust and suspicion implied by the gun culture today, especially in the aftermath of nine eleven, does not bode well for America. It implies a gradual diminution of the national store of goodwill and a proportional crumbling of trust.

Contrary to popular myth, there was plenty of good food in small-town America, not just fast food but wholesome fare at reasonable prices in diners and family-run eating establishments throughout the length and breadth of the country.

Staying overnight in a run-down motel east of a north Dallas suburb called Plano, in a nameless little town beside a picturesque stream, I was woken at night by a fierce argument between the couple in the room next door. Objects large and small were thrown about, harsh words were spoken, and the next morning I glimpsed a weary couple check out just before I did, with two small boys in tow.

I went into a roadside diner for breakfast an hour later, and there was a foursome, the father from the motel with the two boys, but instead of the bleary eyed wife I had seen earlier was a pretty young woman who was obviously adored by the boys. Cassie’s tale was born on the drive from Plano to New Orleans. The ramshackle motel became Cassie’s little house and the picturesque stream beside it was where the boys caught their fish for her.

So absorbed was I in the birth of this story while driving that I did not remember to set the Cadillac’s cruise control to the speed limit, and the speedometer needle inched up from sixty-five miles an hour to seventy. I ignored it, thinking five mph over the speed limit was negligible. I was wrong. Not in Texas, as opposed to the adjacent state of Arizona where large trucks seemed to ignore speed limits with impunity. A few miles later, I noticed a car with a flashing blue light behind me. I waited for it to overtake, and when it didn’t, I ignored it for a while until a short wail of a siren told me I should stop.

The police car pulled over behind me and a policeman in uniform with a hand on his holster asked me to lower my window and remain seated. He came up, saluted, and asked for my papers.

“Sir. You have been driving for the past three miles at sixty-nine miles an hour. Why didn’t you stop when you saw the flashing light?”

“I’m sorry officer. I thought you’d overtake if you wanted me to stop.”

“Where are you from?” The tone is incredulous. I tell him.

“We don’t do that over here,” he explained. “My partner was shot last week as he approached a car to check a driver’s papers.”

“I’m sorry. I had no idea…” He looked mollified, and then asked what was in the trunk.

“I don’t know,” I said. “This is a driveaway, and the owner asked if I’d mind if the trunk was filled with his mother’s things. She’s moving to Florida,” I added, seeing the officer’s skeptical look.

“Please open up the trunk.” His hand was on his holster again. I depressed a dashboard button and the entire front seat began to incline backwards. The second button brought it back to rest. The trunk lid rose slowly and majestically in response to the third one I tried, the policeman sternly watching my antics all the while. I got out of the car and saw that the trunk was full, as the owner had told me in San Francisco. My small suitcase rode in luxury on the back seat of the car and I’d not bothered to check the trunk’s contents.

“What’s this?” He pointed to a large cardboard carton that looked like a typical box of detergent.

“Detergent, I hope,” I said, opening the carton. It was filled with a fine white powder. To put it mildly, my heart sank. He put a hand in to take a pinch between two fingers, smell it, and touch a fingertip to his tongue.

“Looks like detergent, smells like detergent, tastes like detergent,” he said, lightening up with a sudden grin.

“Phew.” I was truly relieved. “What would have happened if that powder hadn’t been detergent?” The policeman smiled a grim smile.

“You don’t even want to think about it,” he assured me. “I’m going to let you off without a fine today. But no more speeding in Texas.” With that he saluted and went on his way.

Maestro Ladrini’s Villa: Another day, on another continent, driving between the walled city of Lucca and Viareggio in Italy, there is a small turning to the right that leads up into the surprisingly steep hills and a dusty village called Chiatri. A little beyond Chiatri, at the end of a curving driveway, stood an imposing villa with wrought iron gates, and a private orchard. I drove up to the villa and the door was opened by a handsome woman in a maid’s uniform of knee-length black dress with a brief frilly white apron. She wore dark stockings and elegant black shoes. This was somehow not what I expected from a two-week holiday rental in Tuscany, but the address seemed correct.

“Si?” she said imperiously. I stood on the porch like Johann Strauss, the writer of westerns, and stuttered in broken Italian that I was looking for a rental villa where I was to stay with friends. She pointed imperiously to a round stone tower behind the villa.

“You have to take the road behind this house.”

Later, sitting with Italian friends over a meal of wild boar and polenta at a neighboring farm, I was told that this area was a favorite haunt of the great composer Puccini who liked to hunt and drive fast cars along these narrow roads, so we could imagine him sitting down to enjoy just such a meal as the one we were having.

The story of Maestro Ladrini was an amalgam of all the impressions gained from this holiday; the magical Tuscan countryside, the patrician villas, the dry heat, and the excellent food. I never saw the stately housekeeper at the villa again, but it was not far from Chiatri to Torre del Lago and the lake itself was often referred to as Lago de Puccini instead of by its proper name, Massaciuccoli. We learned later that the stone tower into which our two comfortable holiday apartments had been adapted was the former servants’ quarters of the adjacent villa. Perhaps the Maestro really did live in the villa once.

Heavy Duty: If the Ironwood Poacher gives readers a totally negative view of social conditions in India, Heavy Duty should go a little way to improving it. Rural life is not all abject poverty and social misery. People are people everywhere, and live and laugh and love just the same on all continents.

The Orbs of Celeris: Many arid parts of North Africa and the Middle East were poor for centuries, until oil was discovered and they became fabulously wealthy. Thoughtful people in these countries know that this new wealth cannot last forever. Sheikh Rasheed bin Saeed al Maktoum, who is responsible for the economic transformation of Dubai, has been famously quoted as saying: My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel. As some energy specialists point out, however, this insight applies not only to citizens of oil rich nations in the Middle East, but also to everyone else. Fossil fuels are finite, and they cause enormous environmental damage at the current scale of extraction and use.

If the initiators of Desertec and other like-minded projects have their way, oil-producing desert kingdoms will flourish again, this time fuelled by the sun. Vast swathes of desert covered with photovoltaic modules and mirror arrays, focusing light on a heat exchanger to produce concentrated solar power, will provide electricity for continental markets through a high voltage direct current grid. That is the plan. There is much that can go wrong before these great plans come to fruition; not least the current widespread social and political uncertainties in the region.

At another extreme, in the far north, similar potential exists to generate electricity that can power the world economy and save it from the environmental consequences of excessive dependence on carbon based forms of energy; coal, oil and natural gas. In these latitudes, the potential to generate electricity lies in the wind and the waves. There are northern isles where onshore and offshore wind farms could today generate sufficient electricity to power a continent, but here again, it is not likely to happen. Why? NIMBY (Not in my back yard), unwillingness to change, fear of visual pollution of landscapes, forgetting that the very landscapes they wish to preserve are themselves the product of centuries of transformation, that some of the landmarks so cherished are themselves the result of human action.

The Orbs of Celeris is the story of a dreamer, a Don Quixote who tilts, not at windmills, but at established mores. Ironically, the lance in this tale is a windmill. The story ends in tragedy, but in real life perhaps it will not. Only the future will tell.

Macawley: The old adage says: if you stand at New York’s Times Square long enough, the whole world will walk by. Macawley explores the truth of that saying. On a trip to New York years ago, I was asked to drop off a package at a Manhattan address for the friend of a friend. I accepted, with some hesitation. In retrospect I am glad I did. Otherwise, I would never have met the person who is called Mrs. Macawley in the story. It’s an author’s privilege to dissemble the truth that is stranger than fiction, and it is for the reader to decide what is truth and what is fiction in the story.

Conception: And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end. These words from the Nicene Creed are repeated countless times in Christian liturgy and represent the mainstream definition of Christianity for most Christians. One reads that in both Christianity and Islam the second coming of Christ, sometimes known as the parousia, is the anticipated return of Jesus to earth.

In the New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles, it says: Now when they had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw him go into heaven.”

It is also widely believed that history does not repeat itself. But what if it does? Conception is a playful investigation of what the second coming could look like in the twenty-first century.

Enigma: On September 12, 2013, BBC News reported, “Voyager I has become the first manmade object to leave the solar system.” Scientists calculate the moment of escape to have occurred on or about 25 August 2012. The two Voyager space probes were launched in 1977, and their primary mission, to study the planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, ended in 1989.

According to Mars One, an organization that has been calling for applicants to make a one-way trip to Mars, more than one hundred and fifty thousand people have expressed their willingness to make a one-way trip to the Red Planet. Organizations like Mars One and the Mars Society show that there is plenty of public enthusiasm for space exploration, and Enigma was a result of this realization.

A Night at the Taj Mahal: An estimated 1.7 million engineers graduated from India’s 3500 colleges in 2013 alone. Apart from the fifteen percent graduating from top tier colleges, most of these young men will struggle to find a job. In 1964, employment prospects were also bad, but the number of job seekers was nothing like it is today. The population was around 450 million, less than half of what it is now. Nevertheless, the economy was developing at a pedestrian pace in 1964, and as access to medical care and food distribution became more equitable after independence, birth rates also shot up. It is in this context that the sixteen year-old protagonist of A Night at the Taj Mahal tries to find a shortcut to a University education and the secure employment that is presumed to come with it.

Aviott John
Hong Kong
October 2013

https://www.amazon.com/author/aviott