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Friday, January 02, 2015

A few good men

My bet is that you will not read about this in the newspapers tomorrow because the pages will be filled with more important news about the cleavage of actresses and the lavish wedding of corrupt politicians’ spawns.

A friend from school is a Flight Lieutenant in Indian Air Force (IAF). He is based in Rajasthan currently, but his previous unit was in Kashmir. He volunteered for his previous unit for an Area Domination Patrol (ADP) at Mendhar, Kashmir, based on the input of IB, RAW and local intelligence.  They were a group of 7 on a joint counter-insurgency operation, with men from both the Indian Army and the IAF.  Terrorists (he estimates about 200 men) were trying to infiltrate from three sides at around 4 in the morning. The terrorists opened fire, and the unit changed positions for a counter-attack making them believe they were greater in number.  They killed five terrorists and lost one Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO), who was due for promotion. The terrorists raised a white flag, which our men respected and ceased fire. My friend was shot in the shoulder when he was trying to retrieve the dead body of the JCO.

The unit returned to base with their wounded and the fallen by walking back 8 km. A little dizzy from the loss of blood, my friend had a surgery around 5 pm that lasted for an hour. Media called during his surgery to ask about the nature of the ops and the infiltration. They asked how many terrorists were killed. Not a single question about how many were martyred.

The widow of the martyr talked to my friend and said, ‘Sab aap samhal lena’ (Please take care of us). My friends doesn’t believe that she will get a government job reserved for the family of  martyrs anytime soon because the officials in her resident state have already started demanding bribe in lakhs. Nevertheless, he promised that he will make sure she gets her dues.

I called up my friend when I received the news, concerned for his health. He was still cracking jokes, claiming it was normal in the line of duty and that duty came first.  And if anything happened ever to him, I should take care of his family.

What does our system give back to our heroes who risk their lives to protect us? They have to fight the enemy from outside as well from inside. The outside enemy is still better. At least they are known.  

Sunday, December 14, 2014

An afternoon at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum

The curse of the Pharaoh
As a kid, I read about the alleged curse of the Pharaoh that affected the members of the Howard Carter expedition, after the discovery of the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamun in 1925. Mysterious deaths caused by elements (or Tutankhamun's priests to guard the royal tomb) have spiked the interest of media for years.

Made of solid gold, precious colored glass and jewels, King Tut's innermost coffin is one of the most ornate and rare examples of burial regalia.  The museum houses a replica of the same.

A brief history of ancient Egypt:
The Old Kingdom (2663 BCE -2195 BCE), also known as the Pyramid Age, because virtually all of Egypt's population was mobilized to construct the pyramids. At this time, only the king was thought to deserve a proper burial. However, private tombs called mastabas were sometimes donated by the king to worthy individuals.

Families were expected to care for their dead ancestors by leaving them offerings. It was believed that ka, or the spirit of the deceased, would consume the spirit of the food.

The eastern side of a coffin, easy to identify because the eyes are meant to witness the rising sun each morning.

The First Intermediate Period (2195 BCE - 2066 BCE)
The glory of the Old Kingdom waned when Egypt was severely affected by a drought. The yearly flooding of the River Nile failed leading to famine and warfare, The pharaoh as the 'provider'  lost control of the situation, and the formerly dominant central government collapsed into warring provinces called nomes. The royal workshops could no longer exert control over local artisans and the they were free to express regional tastes at the behest  of their patrons.

The Middle Kingdom (2066 BCE-1650 BCE)
A warrior king named Mentuhotep II reunified Egypt. This period is best known for its literary classics like Story of Sinuhe and the Admonition of Ipuwer.

The New Kingdom(1550 BCE-1064 BCE)
The Middle Kingdom ended with the peaceful invasion by the Hyksos. A family of Theban warriors drove the Hyksos out of Egypt. The New Kingdom is famous for kings like Akhenaten, Tutankhamun, Rameses and queens like Hatshepsut, Tiyi, Nefertiti. During this time, the science of preservation reached its technological peak.

Women in Ancient Egypt could marry, divorce, and own property. They enjoyed equal rights and responsibilities as men. Many girls were trained as musicians and chantresses. Goddesses were not mere reflections of their male counterparts. They had their own aspects of nature and acted independently from their mates.

Statue of Queen Cleopatra VII,  the last pharaoh of Egypt, was born into the Macedonian family called the Ptolemies, who were infamous for their vicious infighting. Matricide, patricide, and fratricide were common in many generations.

The Romans coveted Egypt as a bountiful source of grain they could use to feed their army. They used the infighting in the Ptolemy family as an excuse to send an envoy to Egypt: Julius Caesar. But Caesar fell in love with Cleopatra, and brought her back to Rome. However, when Caesar was murdered on the Senate steps, she fled back to Egypt.

The next envoy to Egypt was Mark Antony, a friend of Caesar, who fell in love Cleopatra too and together they fought against Rome until they were defeated. She committed suicide from an asp bite so she could not be dragged through the Roman streets.

Model of the temple of Abu Simbel 
Built by Ramesses II
(Note the scale of grandeur with respect to the model people standing at the entrance)

The temples were not merely places of worship; they fueled the Egyptian economy. Donations arriving at the temple for the resident deity were recycled back into the economy. The kings granted land to the temples, as well as prisoners of war, thus providing a workforce of linen weaving women. Linen was a form of currency and considered a worthy gift at any temple. The king was also responsible in keeping the temples stocked with incense to pacify the gods.

A fragment from The book of the Dead, a guide to the afterlife

Animals in Ancient Egypt
Many Egyptian deities were associated with specific animals. Baboons were believed to personify the Egyptian deity Djehuti, god of record-keeping, writing, and wisdom. Crocodiles represented Sobek, the crocodile god of the Nile. Uraeus  was the image of the snake goddess, Wadjet, and were often worn on king's brow. She was believed to protect the pharaoh. Cats were sacred to Bastet, goddess of music and household . Ancient Egyptians who wanted to honor a deity would pay for an animal to be mummified and donate it to the god or goddess's temple.

Amun Ram associated with the sun god Amun

Amuletic jewelry
In ancient Egypt, people wore amulets emblematic of a particular deity to be protected or be endowed with certain special abilities. For example, the amulet of goddess Hathor (mistress of music and  beauty) was thought to make a man or woman more attractive or more skilled at making music.

If these notes interest you, please take some time to visit the museum.

Address:1660 Park Avenue, San Jose, CA 95191
General admission: $9
Recommended duration: 2-3 hours

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

A broken verse

Every day I read news about gender violence and sexual assault. It is easy to feel empathetic towards the victims and equally difficult. Sometimes, I wonder what it is like to be a survivor. 

Memories. Memories. Bad memories. Horrible memories. They leave me raw with pain. I wish I could show you how wounded I was, but I don't want you to go through what I have survived. I am not even sure if I was a victim.

I say to myself it doesn't matter now. Maybe it doesn't. The putrid stench of their lust can't touch me. The scars from their bites have faded. It was a long night. Of violation and humiliation. Of my naked body lying in the cold by the road before someone found me and covered what was left of me and my dignity. Like a diseased animal, I was left to die. 'Why didn't they kill me?', I kept asking.

I tried to, so they kept me on a suicide watch. 'She has lost her mind', they said. No, I was sane. I was just trying to make a rational choice to end the struggle. Then I thought to myself: I am stronger than this. An accident will not define me. I will not end my life with such a miserable turn. My body is battered, but it will heal. I will have to help my mind. A bunch of drunk savages won't decide my fate. This is my story. I will write it.

Monday, December 01, 2014

The art of receiving

We always hear how unconditionally we should give. But we seldom dwell on the art of receiving. Here is a story for you...

A long time ago, a very talented mathematician and navigator decided that he wanted to go on an expedition to discover new trade routes via the ocean. He picked the best men he knew, asked for the blessings of his King and started out with a fleet of four ships towards the southern seas. They braved storms and diseases to reach land.

Now, the king of new land was a greedy one. As soon as he heard about the arrival of a foreign fleet, he decided to welcome them with great fanfare in the hopes that they bore gold and precious stones as gifts.

The expedition had very little resources left.  But the captain offered the king four cloaks of the finest velvet, a barrel full of honey, and twelve branches of the most beautiful coral. The meagre offering displeased the king, and he asked the men to pay customs duties in gold and silver like other traders or to leave the land by dawn.

Disappointed, the ships returned to sea. They were too tired to travel all the way back home, so they stopped by a nearby port. Here, the people were gracious. They fed the sailors and offered them fresh water.

On the first night of their stay, the captain discovered that the land was fertile, and the people grew spices in their fields. They had a surplus of salt and labor. He recruited 12 men from the nearest village and started his voyage back home. Their king received the news with great delight and ordered new fleets to embark on the newly discovered trade route for spices,  which until then, was  the monopoly of the Republic of Venice.

Business in the guest town flourished as they exported their spices and learned new skills from their visitors. The explorer took out his charts to travel to new territories again.
  1. Not every gift needs to be gold and silver. It can be new ties, sharing of knowledge etc.
  2. We should always receive gracefully. The giver might have been through a lot to get it.
  3. Instead of immediate gains, we should open ourselves to the  bigger picture.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Bigg Boss 8

First, let us observe a minute of silence for our dearly departed discernment that has left us for good. Why else would we watch this sadism in the name of entertainment? Those who don't watch Bigg Boss, good for you. You save more than 100 hours of your life every season which you can use to complete a course, read good books, watch quality movies or do some community work.

The appeal in reality shows like BB is probably because humans are natural voyeurs. When they are bored, they will take a pair of binoculars and peek into the houses of neighbors like James Stewart of Rear Window. In the absence of that opportunity, we will gratify ourselves by watching strangers living in a house. A housemate brushing teeth on the live feed is entertainment after all.

I don't blame the contestants for the fights. The conditions are stressful. Very little comfort, restrictions on sleep after physical strain, limited rations and the simulated prison environment is enough to drive anyone crazy. It is a miracle that they don't turn cannibals to eliminate competition. Because the way they behave on the show makes you wonder why are they so desperate for footage. What good has Bigg Boss done to any of the previous winners, anyways? Shouldn't the platform be used to showcase your real talent and act like normal human beings? Oh wait, the channel can not profit from 'normal' people. So they incentivize arguments, no matter how unnecessary. How do you solve your problems in real life? By threatening people, fighting and pushing others away, of course! What else would civilized people do?

The past seasons had their share of negative characters, but this season has a particularly despicable lot. I don't understand why would someone waste their money on votes if they don't like anyone. The channel should focus on making the characters likable instead of goading them to dogfights. Then there is the cliche of contrived romance. We know Katniss and Peeta of Hunger Games, we know how it works. Even it is not scripted, it is a desperate attempt to survive in the show.

Now, there is a new wave in the house. ' Don't touch me' during tasks. How the hell are tasks supposed to happen?  Maybe they should have separate tasks for men and women. Real women don't use the woman card for unfair advantage.

So far, Preetam seems like the only sane person in the house, but he gives up on tasks too easily. And the ones who 'think' they are doing the task get unnecessarily aggressive so much so that you wish you could fast forward to where real conversations happen. Some humor, something creative, even tips on work out or fashion. Who am I kidding? I am not even the target audience of that show. However, the lower TRPs (compared to previous seasons) suggest that my response is representative of a larger pool of audience.

My appeal to the channel and contestants: Get creative, not aggressive. Make the luxury budget tasks more interesting. Make captaincy a challenge with a task between the nominees. Punish the rule breakers severely.  As a viewer, I demand more value for my time. 

Monday, November 03, 2014

How are you?

When I first came to US, and the employees at the local supermarket  (Shaw's) checkout asked me, 'Hey! How are you?', I thought they meant it. I was lonely during my first semester in Boston, didn't have many friends and even the practiced greetings at a business transaction made me feel grateful for the chance at human interaction. Hence, I always replied with a smile, said I am fine (no matter how dog-tired) and asked how the other person was.

Then I saw them do it to other customers and felt jealous. I wasn't a special case. They asked it out of habit. Some of the customers did not even respond. However, I had my favorites at the checkout, like Rosie, whose aisle would be the one I preferred to check out from even if it meant waiting in a longer queue. When I  didn't see her for some days, I got worried. After a few weeks, she was back and I enquired about her well being. She said that she had been ill. She looked tired and her usual cheerfulness was missing. On my next visit, I bought her some flowers, chocolates and a thank-you card. She was pleasantly surprised and thanked me profusely. The store manager saw what happened and told the others about it. The other employers smiled at me as I walked away. I wondered if she would miss me if one fine day I did not show up anymore. 

A few days later, I fell sick and I kept to my room. When I finally recovered, I went out to get some salmon at the same store. The guy at the seafood counter remembered me: 'Haven't seen you in a while, were you away?', he asked.

My takeaway:
1. Not everybody who asks you 'How are you' wants to know.
2. If you want to do something impulsive for someone, do it. Show your affection.
3. Someone will always miss you.