Waiting for the revolution…

 

 

It was the year 1989, a month after the Tianamen Square protests rocked the world.

Moyna’s uncle was angry.

“Does your father know that you are going to a mafia infested area to do your report?” Boro Pishe asked.

“It is a newspaper report,” Moyna explained for the umpteenth time. “My father knows I am doing the report. The Socialist will pay for the car I hire to go to the coal workers’ settlement and all other costs. You don’t need to worry!”

The Socialist was a major national newspaper. Moyna worked in the Delhi office as a reporter. She was taking a break to visit her aunt and uncle in Dhanbad. When Shyam Nagra, the assistant editor, heard she was going to Dhanbad, he asked her to do a follow-up story on a documentary that had focused on how a Harijan coal slurry worker had overcome the corrupt security forces to help improve the remuneration given to them.

Moyna was excited about it. But her uncle was not.

Boro Pishe said, “Nothing doing young lady. I will go with you to meet B. L. Sen. I am responsible for your safety while you are in Dhanbad. There is a whole mafia around this area that can finish you up. I will come with you this evening.”

Moyna and Boro Pishe went to BL Sen’s office. BL Sen was the local Marxist MP. The office was crowded but BL Sen made room for them.

“You see, the film was made a few years ago. The situation has reverted,” BLSen said. “The workers have again been subdued by the security forces. Not just that the mafia has become stronger and now takes a larger part of their income. The security also takes a share. So, the miners are left with less than one third of their daily wages.”

Moyna asked, “Is it possible for me to visit the settlement?”

“We will take you to where the workers live and the trade Union office. But be warned young lady, you can visit them only once for an hour or two and never return there again. You must collect all the information you need within that time. You can never go back because once the mafia knows; they will finish you, your camera and tape recorder. Also you must dress simply to blend in,” concluded BL Sen. He arranged to have Moyna escorted by one of his men two days later. They arranged a lunch for her with the trade union leaders.

Boro Pishe was dissatisfied with the development. He said, “You will not hire a car. I will use a rickshaw that day to go to work and my driver will take you and BL Sen’s men to the site.”

Moyna had no choice. She went with Mukund, the driver, and BL Sen’s escort, Babulal.

Moyna got off at the settlement from the car. Both Mukund and Babulal came with her. Boro Pishe had instructed Mukund not to leave her side for a minute.

Moyna  stared spellbound at the diorama that unfolded before her eyes.

Everything was black with coal dust, even the puddles and ponds of water around. Mal-nourished children with potbellies and scanty, torn clothing seemed to solidify out of the coal dust. They stared at her as she approached the settlement. Moyna was wearing a simple cotton saree and rubber slippers. But she felt overdressed. People here were in tatters and rags of the indistinct color of poverty. There were no voices or sounds in the settlement, only the eerie silence of spineless, abject sub-human existence. People lived only to breath, and eat if fortunate…

Babulal allowed her to pause and take pictures of a man taking out coal slurry from a black pond. She looked at her surroundings. She had never in her life seen anything like this.

Everything was black and shades of black, coloured by the fine grains of coal from deep within the bowels of Earth. People had no houses. They lived in shelters made with tarpaulin stretched on sticks. There were not even thatched huts. Children stared at her, as did men and women.

“Is this how the workers live?”

“Yes. They come from a number of villages to work here.” responded Babulal.

“Do they have electricity and water?”

Babulal looked at her amused.

“No. They do not have water and electricity where they stay. They lead a hand to mouth existence.”

“Then what do they drink?”

“There is a tube well a little further on.”

“Do they not fall sick?”

“Yes, they do and they die also but they have no alternative.”

“What is their average life expectancy?”

“We have never done a survey… but most of them die before they turn thirty because of the coal dust they inhale. Come let us move forward to the trade union office.”

The three intruders moved ahead.

Moyna wanted to help but had no idea how and dared not ask. “My god, how lucky am I,” she thought. “And how sad that people had to live like this in the twentieth century! How can people tolerate others living like this?”

The trade union office was a shabby brick building. They sat on the floor and ate half cooked lamb with Moyna. She was the VIP visitor and they showered their warmth on her. Moyna was touched.

She interviewed the people identified by BLSen’s workers and recorded their statements. She had to leave within an hour and a half as Babulal pointed out that the mafia or security forces would soon be coming around.

As Moyna lay down in the air-conditioned comfort of her uncle’s guest room that night, she was thinking that today she had seen another world, a world perhaps that she would never had known existed…Her Boro Pishe had been very solicitous towards her welfare, she knew. But the reality remained that the India of the coal slurry workers was different from any other India she knew…

Their protest had been subdued. They had been quenched to become subservient commodities for their masters, thought Moyna ruefully. Their life expectancy continued at less than thirty years as opposed to India’s 57.47 years in 1989. And people just accepted it! Most of the workers were illiterate. Educated Indians spoke of the need for freedom of speech in her world and protested everything possible but in the settlement, where a revolution might have helped them survive decently, the workers’ voices had been silenced, their spines broken. Some of them did not even want to speak.

Perhaps, it was the year of quenched protests… Tianamen and then these coal workers,  Moyna cogitated as she turned off her bedside lamp. She wondered how many of these workers understood independence and freedom and had benefitted by it…yet they voted? Could they even think about freedom as they were driven to battle for survival on a daily basis? Was living like these workers better than dying? Why did the workers not protest? Why did people tolerate the mafia? Why did the government give in? Moyna slowly drifted off to sleep thinking on these issues.

It was 2017, the year when China had surged ahead. The Tianamen incident had been forgotten and forgiven. It had drifted to an insignificant corner of the past…

Moyna woke from her afternoon siesta and her housekeeper asked, “Tea, madam?”

Moyna nodded in affirmation.

Moyna lived in Singapore now. She was over fifty and had two children. Her sons had seen more of the rest of the world and less of India…

Her younger son came and said, “ Mamma do you have a spare earphone? I ripped mine again today.”

Moyna went inside to rummage her desk for an earphone. Her old portfolio got dislodged and fell out. The article on the coal mine workers fell to the floor. Moyna picked it up and looked at it. She showed it to her son. She told him how this article had won her kudos and a scholarship to a postgraduate course in a European university. The university had kept the article as part of their resource material in their library.

“Mamma why did the university keep it as their resource material?” asked her thirteen-year-old son.

Moyna said, “I don’t know… I wonder too.” She replaced the article in her portfolio. Her son wanted to read her old articles. She gave him her portfolio and walked to her balcony and sat down as her housekeeper brought in her tea. Moyna took a sip and started thinking of what had been.

She recalled how she had found it difficult to stomach the attitude of the professor at the European university. He insisted that their way was the best for third world countries to step out of poverty. Moyna had not agreed. Firstly, she hated the term third world. They were developing countries…there were so many differences she had… Moyna felt the best way to move forward was defined by the indigenous people themselves and their needs and not by the needs defined by other people. The need to move forward had to come from within. That could only come when the basic needs hunger, shelter and education were resolved…

Moyna had returned after she completed her course on Economic Development Studies and continued working for the newspaper till she fell in love, tied the knot with her husband and moved out of India.

Today as she stood watching the waves ripple across the water body in front of her home, she wondered, had she done the right thing submitting that report for her scholarship? Why did the university need a resource material like that…? She had never understood the reason…

She wondered did the settlement still exist? What were the worker’s living conditions? She googled the name of the settlement on  her mobile but drew a blank…

The needs of those workers were so different from hers. She remembered that

Moyna could not bear to look at beggars and poverty but what was she doing about it?

Moyna fell into a reverie.

Could she ever do anything for the poor? Could anyone do anything for them? Why did most people in India accept the state of things, including poverty and lack of education, as they were? Why is it all people did not still have access to housing, food, clean water, electricity and good roads?

What was this apathy?

Why were the basic needs so hard to meet for some countries and so easy for others?

Her husband’s voice jerked her back to the present reality. “A penny for your thoughts. What are you thinking?”

“I was thinking of the past… wondering what good did I do by going to the coal mines and writing about it…?” Moyna replied.

“The exposure taught you many things and you have brought up compassionate children… is that a small thing?”

“But I could do nothing to help improve their lot….”

“How do you know your article did not help the people who were trying to bring a positive change in the condition of the workers? At least it raised awareness about the plight of the workers among the readers…”

Moyna smiled. “You are trying to placate me. Come let us eat dinner.”

 

 

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Lost!

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Ashima was inside a machine that hurtled through the space-time fabric, slicing it with the silence of vacuum that filled the empty spaces in the Milky Way. Around her at a distance were nebulae with their vividly colored stars. She could see sparkling stars dot the space outside and blue, red and yellow clouds creating swirls that breathed warmth into the cold, unsympathetic blackness.

Ashima looked out of her speeding vehicle. She was sitting curled, as if in a womb and she had no control over her own situation. Fifty and with knees that hurt, this was an uncalled for adventure… she would love to be out of it. Ashima had a bad left knee. Her kneecap had got displaced for some reason, which she herself had not been able to figure out. After two years of physiotherapy, she was able to walk. But, she could not run, jump, dance or crawl…

As Ashima tried to move her mind away from the pain in her knees, a blinding light seemed to tear the space-time continuum and she landed with a thud on a solid surface. The capsule in which she had been hurtling opened and the seat almost ejected her out. She was back where she had been last week…in the grasslands of South Africa.

“Is it in Maropeng again?”Ashima wondered.

Around her was a clear blue sky, the kinds of which can only be seen in South Africa. She had been a bit intimidated by her adventure into the cave of Mrs Ples, the Taung child and the Little Foot, the home to two to three million-year-old fossils that had been discovered from the 1940s to the 2013 if she recalled right.

The cave had been dark. She had gone with her family and a guide. They were in a group, which was being given a conducted tour of the cave. The cave had been fascinating though intimidating too. The guide had shown them minerals on the walls of the cave and fifteen meter long stalactites… evidently lot of South Africa had subterranean caves… they were even explored in King Solomon’s Mines. And the lake in this cave had reminded her of the lake seen by Allan Quatermain and his cronies. She had just re-read the book before coming to South Africa. The huge lake with it’s blind worms squiggling in the corners brought to her mind the blind fishes in another cave of subterranean Africa on the edges of Kalahari. The blind fishes had been colorful, almost like bits of flame. They were part of a TV documentary by Richard Attenborough. They had watched it just before they caught their flight to South Africa from Singapore… only here the worms were tiny and colorless, almost white.

The guide had clearly stated that the group was not allowed to wander as the cave systems were enormous and if one wandered away, one could be completely lost and eventually die of starvation… It had been difficult for Ashima to keep pace but she had come all the way to see this… see it she must… so she had trudged along till she almost collapsed from exhaustion. They had to crawl or slide along parts of the cave. As Ashima could not put her weight on her knees or crawl on the hard surface for fear of injuring her kneecap again, she had to bend double and walk. It was really tough, even though the stretch was short. She felt breathless and on the brink of collapse! Finally, when her heart beat till she felt exhausted with it’s pace, she told her family she could not survive the ordeal! Her twenty-year-old son had called the guide, who had been very kind to her. She helped Ashima take off her woolens which she had needed in the cold wind outside but was not needed inside the cave with its constant perennial temperature of 18 degrees Celsius. The group stopped as she rested and she went slowly the rest of the way. In any case they had been close to the exit. Despite the terror of the situation, Ashima had a tremendous sense of achievement and she had decided that she would make herself physically fit to see more of the subterranean world! But, definitely not this soon… and also she needed the time to improve her fitness level…maybe in a few years…not just yet…

The guide had also said that no one knew exactly how far these caves could stretch… Such caves were made of limestone and they formed a receptacle for varieties of fossils over the last three million years. They believed that the hominids fell into sudden sinkholes that appeared in these sites… what if she too fell into something similar, thought Ashima… Just as she feared, like Alice in Wonderland, Ashima was plunged into a hole that seemed to stretch out endlessly… she was falling, falling into a sinkhole… all alone like the millions of years old Little Foot they found… Ashima passed out.

When she came to, Ashima found herself surrounded by strange monkey like creatures almost as tall as her. They were looking at her and making funny noises. They looked like the pictures of hominids she had seen. Ashima was terrified! She was lying on some kind of soft fern. It was a pale colored world… the vegetation around was more brown and white, actually sepia toned, and there was a strange kind of light that emanated from the walls that surrounded the group. Was it some kind of phosphorescence?

Where was she? As she regained her consciousness, she could hear the trickle of water… her throat felt incredibly parched… These creatures were touching her with their furry hands… she fainted again…this time from fear.

Ashima came to her senses again as some kind of a soft receptacle was being pushed into her mouth and she felt a trickle of water flow down her throat…she was too scared to open her eyes. Reluctantly, she looked up and she found a pair of kind eyes looking down at her. The face was that of a hominid. As soon as she opened her eyes, more of these creatures came running to see her…

“Where am I?” wondered Ashima, “In some subterranean world? Who are these creatures and what has happened?”

From a distance, she heard a voice say, “I was lost too and I landed in their world… I have seen eyeless monstrosities. I have battled sightless dinosaurs. These creatures are very kind compared to those…”

Ashima turned to the source of the voice. A man dressed in ragged khaki and with a long beard stood at a little distance. His beard was of an indeterminate brown…Ashima’s whole body felt cold and hurt… she felt all her bones were broken.

“ There was no speech a few million years ago… we have both travelled back in time to a time lock,” the reedy voice drifted to her as the man came forward to her line of vision.

He had a frayed unkempt wispy beard and an uncouth look about him. His clothes were in tatters. His feet had the remnants of boots on them. She looked at him from the side of her eyes in surprise. He saw her look and started speaking again.

“I am Professor Nowiki from Poland… I made a time machine, which I hoped would help me travel back in time to meet Prof Lidenbrock, the one who went into the Icelandic Snaefellsjokull volcano and came out of Strombolii… I wanted to join his expedition. I was living in the early twentieth century… The first trial took me to a world, which was filled with sightless monstrosities. When I managed to escape back to my machine, the time knob malfunctioned and brought me here. As I stepped out of the machine, it collapsed into a sinkhole and disappeared… I cannot access it any more… I have been in this time lock for almost a century now… I think…”

As his voice faded, Ashima felt terrified. She was surrounded by curious furry hominids. They occasionally touched her. Some of them touched the professor and then her, perhaps to sense the difference. She wanted to get up and run away. She wanted to be securely back with her family… Her whole adventure had landed her in a nightmarish situation. Would she ever see her family again… her two sons and husband…She was desperate to see them, to find them…As tears trickled down her terrified eyes, she heard her husband’s voice calling out to her, “Ashima, Ashima…. what happened? Why are you shivering and weeping?”

And Ashima opened her eyes. Thank God she was on her own bed, by her husband, Sharad. What she had witnessed was, in reality, a nightmare… it was still night…

She sat up and told Sharad the story… “Well it is a good story… you could write it down at some point… maybe an impact of visiting the cave and watching too many adventure movies, Star Trek…”

Ashima took a sip of water from the bottle by her bedside and laughed and said, “You are right you know… except, maybe, the bearded guy was perhaps a figment contributed by my love for Journey to the Centre of the Earth… And I really want to see more wonderful things like that cave, maybe go down the Snaefellsjokull volcano…”

“ It is 3 am! Night still. Go to sleep now… crazy woman,” said Sharad half asleep. Ashima lay down, cuddled close to Sharad and closed her eyes again.

 

Book Review

Title: Me and I

(ISBN 978-93-5195-188-9)

Author: Nabendu Ghosh (written in Bengali in 2003)

Translator: Devottam Sengupta ( translated in 2017)

 

Me and I is a science fiction set in Calcutta, exploring the concept of Earth’s twin in the universe. It was written by Nabendu Ghosh for his two grandsons in Bengali, and then translated by one of them as part of his centenary celebrations. The translator, Devottam Ghosh, is a lawyer by profession.

I enjoyed the book. It is an ideal read from eight to eighty, a story well told. The protagonist Mukul has a twin in the planet that is Earth’s mirror image. His parallel is known as Lukum and Earth is spelt as Threa.

The explanation is given by an eccentric gentleman, Professor Noni Gopal Sinha,who is Mukul’s friend and mentor on Earth.

“They’re both, opposite yet identical. Mirror images, really. Just as there are a couple of hundred twins among a million people, similarly I’m sure you can find a twin — identical yet opposite — planets among the billions that exist out there.”

So, it is an inverse parallel universe which is dwelt on briefly as the story unfolds.

The story has multiple layers. On the surface, it is a story for children… a nineteen-year-old boy’s adventure with an alien in outer space. It has been woven very well into the fabric of Indian life. Perspectives on religion, science, society, countries and cultures are layered into the folds of the story. It explores the environment that leads to creativity and the environment that does not. An ideal needs to be somewhere in the middle… perhaps… a point for the reader to ponder…

The book has well-researched scientific facts… on different theories of the universe. Though the author, Nabendu Ghosh, says that he would like “to classify this flight of imagination as a ‘modern(or contemporary) fairy tale’”, it touches upon Einstien’s ideas on gravitational waves and theory of relativity. It dwells upon travel at the speed of light and it’s impact on humans.

A surprising novel from a writer of stories linked to social reforms…but then, one wonders at the end that has the author not made you think again of larger issues that are relevant even in the twenty first century…

Perhaps, because Nabendu Ghosh was into writing for films, this book is very visual and would make for an excellent movie. I can visualise the whole scenario as I read the book…

May we then expect a Tollywood(Bengali movie) version of Me and I in the near future?

Travel

Camels in Cambodia

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Believe me, I did not see any camels in Cambodia and I did not go to look for camels. After we returned from our trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia, somebody told us we should have bought black peppers from there as the country is famous for this spice. We did not buy black peppers either.

Then people will wonder, what did we do in Cambodia? We sunned our bodies in ancient buildings that housed history more than a thousand years ago. We went to see Angkor Wat and saw a whole bunch of very unique things and had unique experiences, including very severe traveller’s diarrhea.

We were received at the airport by a driver who made a deal that he would take us around during our stay in Cambodia. He had been sent by the hotel.

The first day we wanted to see a unique site at Phnom Kulen , a little mountain just outside Siem Reap. They had underwater carvings of deities and the Shiva linga dating back to about 802 CE, when Jayavarman II founded the kingdom of Kambuja. First, we had to buy tickets priced at US$20 each at a ticketing office in town.

Here I must make a minor diversion to clarify that in Siem Reap, in the true spirit of internationalism, local people prefer using US dollars to the Cambodian riel. When I asked our driver why people prefer the USD, he explained that as 1 USD was equal to 4000 riels, it was more practical to do transactions in USD. The interesting thing was the transactions were always in terms of dollars and never in terms of cents. For example, the driver charged us US$100 for a trip to Phnom Kulen. Lunch cost us another US$48… never a transaction in cents or riel. This was really an interesting phenomenon in context of the current revival of nationalistic fervour among the voters for Brexit and the trumpeting of Trumpian followers.

To get back on track to Phnom Kulen, we traversed dusty uphill roads. The dust was orangish-red in colour. The driver told us he needed to turn off the air conditioning to make it up the path. The ride was like a roller coaster ride through hills and dales of untouched roads where modern machinery had not dared to trample. I felt like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft out on a new adventure!

IMG_0092We parked on a riverbed and walked to the Siem Reap river where we saw ancient carvings. Some of it was very clear and some, we could not figure out…

A few urchins followed us from the parking area. They were evidently trying to earn a few US dollars for their families. They were too poor to attend free schools provided by the government and had to try to supplement the family income otherwise they would starve, the driver told us. They need to work so that the families can eat! We gave them a dollar for photographing our whole family. They did a great job and were very enthused. They followed us uphill to the Buddha temple that had been built by later Buddhist kings. They looked after our shoes when we went to the temple and earned a few more US dollars.

It was interesting to see the way Buddhism had mingled with Hinduism here and had paved the way for a strange new set of myths. I read that the Hinduism that they followed in ancient Cambodia was tinged further by their local religious beliefs! Below the Buddhist temple on the hill was a statue of an apsara ( a heavenly maiden) drying the ocean with her hair to save drowned sailors . A Shiva linga stood next to it. And upstairs was a huge reclining Buddha. You could see a man taking care of the linga and a Buddhist monk praying and blessing people beside him. It was truly wonderful to see this harmonious existence of different religions.

After the temple, we went to the waterfalls. The water was cool, fresh and untamed. You could see nature at it’s best. Many local families could be seen picnicking there. We returned by a road built by Koreans for the locals. It was a great, smooth ride.

That evening, we went for the Apsara dance show at the Kulen 2 restaurant in Siem Reap. We had to give the hotel US$18 per head to get us tickets the day before. One thing I did IMG_0089learn in Cambodia was you could never make unplanned trips. Everything that savoured of local flavour was done against booking and tickets. The music and dance performances were interesting and the buffet the most sumptuous I saw in Cambodia.

The next day, we were to go our dream destination…the legendary Angkor Wat. Our driver picked us up by 9 am and we went to another ticket office. This time, the driver told all of us to disembark, as other than paying US$20 per ticket, we needed to have individual photographs on them! The tickets had our photos printed on them. I have never had a ticket with my photograph on it! The driver informed us that they did this so that we would not share the ticket with a friend…. not that we had one there… only the person with a picture on the ticket could explore the temples! And mind you there were security guards all along who checked and rechecked our tickets against our faces!

We could use this one ticket to visit all the temples in the Angkor region. We were told there were more than a thousand temples in Siem Reap alone. We made it to just three.

IMG_0133Angkor Wat looked fabulous from a distance but the carvings and the staircases were really worn out. It was made with rocks from Phnom Kulen. Because the rocks were porous, the carvings had partially eroded. I had seen the carvings in Ajanta and Ellora in India, temples and caves carved out of rock faces of mountains, and the carvings had stayed with me. Those were sixth century CE and older. The carvings at Angkor Wat were relatively new but were more worn out.

The temple also housed the mausoleum of Suryavarman II, the king who had the temple built in dedication to Vishnu.  The grave was covered with rocks placed over it like a pyramid. There were no inscriptions in English or any other language explaining the history of the temple. So, one really had to depend on a guide. We had a guide who left much to be desired. He was found by our driver and gave us an amazing interpretation of Hindu lore, told us how violent Buddhist rulers defaced the Hindu statues of Vishnu and Lakshmi, which in itself was an oxymoron as Buddhism is a religion of peace, love and kindness. He told us that the building was being restored by Germans and had been found by French. This sounded closer to what guide books said. Angkor Wat had been found by the botanist, Henri Mouhot, in the nineteenth century, though recently his role has come under flak. And a German team had been working on some of the bas relief structures. One of the libraries had been restored by Japan in 2005.

IMG_0062The next temple we visited was Ta Prohm. This was a welcome surprise! It had trees growing out of the building. The temple popularly is called the Tree temple and is dedicated to the tree spirits, the driver told us. However, when I googled, I found the temple was built by Jayavarman VII in 1186 AD and called Rajavihara. It was a Buddhist monastery. The restoration of this temple is being carried out by the Indian government. Ta Prohm, literally means ‘ancestor Brahma’.

This was an amazing temple with trees and a wild magnificence! It was so spectacular that it had been used to film Lara Croft and the Tomb Raiders. So, in a way I was reliving Lara Croft adventures as I had felt in Pnomh Kulen.

A group of musicians playing local instruments performed in the open, near the gate of Ta Prohm. They had a notice that said that these were all land mine victims trying to earn a living without begging. We had earlier seen land mine victims on the stairs of Phnom Kulen Temple. It was sad to see able-bodied men unable to eke out a decent living because soldiers dropped land mines all over half a century ago. I wonder why the men who made and sold the mines could not find a way of de mining the rice fields of Cambodia and Vietnam and making it safe for farmers. Maybe, because there are no camels and too many monkeys in Cambodia.

We saw a monkey snatch a packet of bananas from a tourist’s hand in the grounds of Angkor Wat . The couple were trying to get it back from the monkey in vain. Our macho temple guide, we discovered, was good at dealing with monkeys even if not too sound on historical matters. He jumped to the rescue! He chased away the monkey and restored the bananas to the young blonde couple, who started to munch on it.

IMG_0135The last temple we visited was in Angkor Thom. It had huge elephant carvings, which were again very worn out. The city of Angkor Thom was a huge complex built by Jayavarman VII. Unfortunately, the whole city was in ruins, except for the fabulous Bayon temple with it’s giant faces of the Bodhisattva towering over the horizon. The Bayon temple with it’s unique and striking architecture is being restored by Japan.

One of the things we found in common is very few sculptures were whole within the temples and the city ramparts. They were mostly missing heads. We did locate the missing heads in the Angkor museum the next day. Again we needed tickets but this time without photographs…the ones with pictures were only for temple visits!

The Angkor museum with it’s audio-visual displays did a great job in explaining what history of the region has been unearthed. A lot still needs to be done.

We had an amazing four-day experience.

Siem Reap was unique in many ways. They used dollars instead of local currency. We could never just drop into any historic place…tickets and official guides needed to be pre-booked. Local people were very laid back and accepted whatever came their way. They had hammocks outside homes, restaurants and shops so that they could take an afternoon siesta…we discovered our driver in one of these one day. I could be paying more than the price even if I bargained. I had a unique experience while buying a temple guide book from a local vendor. Our temple guide, the one who chased away monkeys for tourists, looked on as the whole transaction was carried out. The vendor started by telling me to to pay US$ 28 for the book.  To get rid of him, I said US$10. He agreed, but because I did not buy the book, still kept chasing us. Finally, my husband bought the book at US$10. Then we saw the same book being sold for US$5 at the back gate of Angkor Wat and for US$1 at Ta Prohm!

When it came to shopping, we were taken to very high-end emporiums. A packet of candles that cost S$2.50 in Singapore were being sold at US$ 25 there. The only justification was that the candles were made by handicapped people. Finally, we did our shopping in the Night Market, where bargaining is the only law. Buying souvenirs in Siem Reap was an exhausting experience…both for our pockets and our stamina!

As long as we explored the ancient temples, we did not feel the need for camels in Cambodia. But when it came to shopping, or listening to our guides, or avoiding stomach issues, a long camel ride out of adventure land avoiding all monkey antics would have been what perhaps Lara Croft would have done. And then, of course, she would take a warp speed plane back to the Brexit land of Britain.

 

How the lotus came into being

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Once there was a girl who fell in love. She fell in love with the green undulating, grass swaying on the riverbank. She fell in love with the ripples that lapped the wet shore, with the lovely golden oriole, with the open blue skies and the soft clouds floating by. She fell in love with the tall Jacaranda tree and the lonely koel that sang its song every morning and evening.

And then came a breeze laden with the moisture of verses that garlanded her very soul. Her being danced to the rhythm of the trees that swayed, to the waves that swished, to the bees that buzzed and to the colourful wings of the butterfly that flit silently past her. She had the magic to weave silence into her words…an amazing gift as words normally destroy quietness.

She spun a world of magic around herself with her simplicity and imagination. She lived dreaming of rainbows and unicorns till a strange steed flew to her from the skies and turned into a young traveller from a distant land where wild blew the golden sands. He had travelled through desserts and snows in search of his soul mate and at long last the lilting songs of the girl had touched his soul and he became again a man from a stallion. He had a story to tell too….

As he travelled through the Arabian sands, he was followed by a beautiful creature, winsome, doe-eyed with pale skin and jet-black hair. She had a perfect figure and a sinuous walk. She followed the young traveller from one caravanserai to another till he, who was still untouched by the wiles of the young damsel, noticed her. When she threw herself on him and declared her undying love, he turned his face away from her. For, in his soul, he did not love her. There was something in her kohl-blackened eyes that seemed to rankle in his pure heart. And he was right, for the beautiful, sensuous creature was a wicked Jinn who had escaped the confines of her bottle when a drunk looking for free wine in a caravanserai uncorked the ancient jar that had been her home for a thousand years. She had been tricked into the bottle by a clever magician when mankind believed in magic and magicians roamed the world. The first man the wily Jinn saw was our young traveller. He was so young, pure and handsome that she fell in love with him and started following him.

She was infuriated with the young traveller for turning her down. She turned him into a winged stallion who was forced to fly till the strains of his soul mate’s melody bought him back to his original form and life…

He had flown for a decade in the clouds, living on dewdrops and rainbows, till he suddenly heard the melody riding on the waves and touching his heart and soul. A strong draft of breeze came and carried him down to the young, innocent girl in love. Her song and innocence reached out to the purer and rare air where magic had led the winged stallion. This time the magic that had been woven by her song was stronger than the magic that imprisoned the traveller in the body of a stallion. As his hooves touched the ground, the winged stallion transformed back to his original self.

The maiden saw the young man and fell in love with him too. The two of them twirled and danced amidst the trees, sipping nectar of flowers, eating fruit and drinking from young springs.

Then came the mists of the night. They whispered through the forest as the young couple slept on the soft grass. The mists of the night were minions of the doe-eyed Jinn. She had cast a spell on them. They spied the young couple and saw that the stallion had turned back to the young man. They whispered the story to the Jinn when they visited the desert sands. The Jinn was furious. She turned herself into a crane and flew to the tropical paradise where dwelt her heart throb. She did not want anyone to have what she aspired and could not get.

She descended to a branch of an Angsana tree.

“Look, a crane!”cried the young girl in surprise. “How beautiful it is! Pure and black. I have never seen anything like it!”

The young traveller started. He had seen the worst of black magic in his travels and he wondered if it could be…the Jinn. As he thought, she transformed herself back into a beautiful woman with cloudy, wavy jet-black hair, red lips, a pale skin. The boy recognized the Jinn as she shouted, “What I cannot possess, neither can she. I will destroy her and you if you do not come away with me.”

The young man, with a downcast face walked over to the Jinn, to save his loved one. The loved one looked on startled and said, “Where do you go?” As she spoke, the Jinn cursed her to turn to ashes and dust and dissolve  into the marshes near the river. The spell flew out of her mouth and where the young girl fell sprouted a beautiful flower, so clean and pure that none of the mud or slush from the marsh could stick to it. The boy, astounded and stunned, fell to his death as he ran to catch his beloved. He fell right where the flower was sprouting and he turned into it’s leaves, which remained as unsullied in the marshes as the flower. As for the Jinn, she was so angry that she dissolved into ashes and mud and the marsh swallowed her up.

The daytime breeze that watched the whole drama carried the story to the village of the fisher folk. The fisher folk came to see the new flower and named it after the girl who fell in love, Lotus.

People from far and wide came to see the flower and said, “How beautiful is the Lotus with her unsullied purity and lush, clean leaves!”

 

 

 

 

Book of the week

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Title : Pebble in the Sky
Author: Isaac Asimov

Published in 1950, Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov makes for racy reading! It has an optimistic projection of the future.

Most of the story is set in a galactic empire, where Earth is but a pebble in the sky. Mankind has spread through the galaxy as Earth has become radioactive. A small population lives in the unaffected part of the contaminated Earth, which has become a part of a large galactic federation ruled by a representative of the galactic government, the procurator.

Joseph Schwartz, a sixty-two year old tailor from 1949 Chicago, is transported in time through eleven millenia into the radioactive Earth by some mysterious force.The people from the future initially regarded Schwartz as an imbecile as he did not comprehend or speak the common language. They used him as a guinea pig in an experiment to enhance brain powers. After the experiment, he not only picked up their language, but could read others thoughts and even kill without touching a person. His intellect was enhanced to a point that he uncovers and prevents a plot to destroy all the planets except Earth. The brotherhood that rules the earth, the Ancients, had developed a biological weapon to destroy mankind that living in the extra terrestrial world.

The Ancients were power brokers who sought to be exclusive.They had even installed euthanasia as a practice for majority of people over sixty, arguing that as most resources on Earth were contaminated and radioactive, they could at any point support only twenty million people. To make space for the younger population, at sixty, people were sent to die. However, some people, like the rulers themselves, were exempt of euthanasia.

Schwartz, with his enhanced intellect that he christens  Mind Touch , towers above the normal Earthmen and brings peace and sanity back to Earth. At the end, the new forces that govern the Earth set to rebuild the planet by replacing it’s radioactive top layer with healthy soil so that it could support more people and become self-sufficient.

The book starts and ends with a refrain from Robert Browning’s Rabbi Ben Ezra(1864). Shwartz is reciting these lines as he walks, ruminating on the hope for a happy retired life with his wife at the start of the book before he travels into the future.  At the end of the book, as he walks the new Earth that is being rebuild he again recalls,

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made…

The Ancients had taken away this privilege of growing old from Earthmen. In a way, Schwatrz, an old man from the past, returns it to them and the future that the best is yet to be. There is hope again for a wonderful future.

Interestingly, a year before Asimov published this book, Goerge Orwell published 1984. In 1984, Earth post world war is painted as bleak and hopeless. To love or live outside the box created by the Big Brother is hopeless and leads to death and desolation. There is no hope for the future. It is frightening in it’s depiction. In Pebble in the Sky, Asimov has started with a depiction of a bleak Earth but has ended his book giving hope for a fantastic future among the stars where mankind can flourish with his dreams and visions and look forward to an infinite of space and time… suggesting the best is yet to be.

The Creators

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The river steamed, frothed and bubbled. The water was hot, above 90 degrees Celsius. The vegetation around it was strange, like something out of a primeval forest, tall, lush trees of unusual colors…. Some had turquoise leaves and some had multi-colored barks. Some of the creepers were colored orange. The grass below was lush and maroon and green in patches. Jasmine, Jacaranda and Gorge had never seen anything quite like it! The flying horses, which had carried them hither, grazed on the strange grass at a distance. Gorge and Jacaranda were given the task of keeping an eye on them.

Jasmine moved forward with Janice, Halon and Anouk. 

Janice said, “In our dimension, we use telekinetic energy from our minds to help, heal and create. We used this energy to create this dimension, the nature around us, animals and, sometimes even dreams, and suggestions to imprint onto minds in the womb or minds already developed. Our queen has the most powerful and creative mind. We are all basically healers and nurturers in our group. For big things, we meet in an enormous group and we all put our energies together to create or project what we need exactly.”

Jasmine asked, “ Why did they call us creations of Janice? Who are your creations? Me, Jacaranda or Gorge?”

“Gorge is your friend. You and Jacaranda were both induced with our thought process in your mother’s womb. I was the initiator of your thoughts, though we all worked in a team. There are the others in various dimensions who have heightened telepathic and mind control skills and can think positively. These were seeds we sowed because we could sense that at some point the creators in their dimension, being largely human, would give in to greed and the need to be exclusive… You will know more when you meet our queen tonight.”

They had stopped by the river as Janice went on with the explanation.

“I think we need to proceed with the task at hand now,” said Halon. “We have come here to heal a creature in the woods by the river. It is in pain.”

“I am sorry I asked now,” said Jasmine.

“As long as we can talk as we walk,” said Halon. “ So, you are free to ask and we to answer as long as we move on.”

“ Are all your rivers made of hot water?” asked Jasmine.

“No. Of course not,” said Anouk. “This one is an experiment to help diffuse the geothermal energy of the earth. It get’s heated by the geothermal energy in the fissures of the earth. We have no volcanoes as they bring destruction in their wake. We created a few of these rivers to let the heat escape without destruction. These rivers can be used for cooking or making Ambrosia. They have their own unique forms of life. Most of the creatures here are eyeless and have very thick hides which do not get affected by the boiling temperatures.”

They walked amid the vegetation, which grew lusher. Finally they came to a patch of grassy clearing. A strange creature was lying in the grass and groaning. It looked like a rainbow-striped unicorn. Its legs were bent as if broken.

Janice walked over. She was chanting strange words. She put her hand on the injured foot. Anouk waved his hand over the animal’s eyes and hummed a strange tune. The animal seemed to doze off. Halon straightened the foot. Then the three of them hummed and held their hands over the injured area and the leg slowly healed and straightened. The creature opened its eyes and stood up slowly. It tried its leg and moved forward. It gave a toss of pleasure and in a deep voice said something strange. The three healers nodded and smiled. Janice patted it on its back and Anouk held out a blue leaf from a tree. It munched the leaf and moved on. 

“Can this animal drink from the hot water river?” Asked Jasmine.

“No, it can’t. But there are cool pools in the woods from which it can drink. It knows the hot water river is dangerous, as do most creatures here. We have conveyed that to them. So, we rarely have accidents,” explained Halon.

As they came out of the woods, they discovered Jasmine staring into the river. She had come forward because she heard some strange gurgling sounds. It was coming from a huge toad like creature purple and silver in color. It seemed to be frolicking in the pool.

“Can it see us?” asked Jacaranda as the group walked up to her.

“ No,” said Halon. “ But it can use its other senses to sense us. We can send it mind waves.”

“ Wow!” said Jacaranda.

“Let us proceed to the hills to meet the queen” said Anouk. 

“We will stop at my home so that you can be in appropriate wear to meet the queen,” said Janice.

They moved towards the horses and Gorge.

“It is really beautiful and nice here,” said Gorge. “I have spotted so many unusual birds and dragonflies!”

“You will see more,” said Janice with a smile.

The three of them took on the three visitors on their rides and the horses took off, flying high over strangely colored meadows and plants. They crossed a stream and soared over mountains. At a distance, they could now see a peak covered in snow. 

They stopped in front of what looked like a cave at the foothill of a mountain. They went in. Inside, the temperature was perfect. The floor shone like glass as did the walls. There were comfortable looking couches where Jasmine, Gorge and Jacaranda were happy to rest. 

“Not for too long. Give them a drink of Ambrosia and let them change. Then we can head for the Crystal Mountain, where the queen stays,” said Halon.

“Yes. We should not be late,” said Anouk.

Janice, who had disappeared into the kitchen, came back with tall glasses for all six of them. They slowly drank the amber liquid and felt rejuvenated. Janice showed them to three rooms where the three of them found white robes with silver girdles, the standard dress of all lemurians. They donned the robes and came out into the hall.

” Good. Let us all start now,” said Halon.

They went back to the flying horses and soared up again. They were now headed for the snow covered Crystal Mountain, the abode of the queen of Lemuria.