Sunday, July 22, 2012

The More I Shop, the Happier I Get

Shopping usually makes me happy. There's something about just going out, and coming back with something, neatly wrapped in a bag. Of course, the worries don't disappear magically, but the world seems to be not such a bad place after all. And that is why I turn to retail therapy. Of course, it isn't like I jump into every shopping mall in the vicinity, every single time I feel upset, otherwise I would be broke by now. And I don't mean to say I shop only when I'm upset. I don't really need reasons to go shopping- as they say, 'A girl can never have enough shoes'. At the end of the day, it brings me happiness, and maybe takes away the worries, even if it is only for a few hours.

This morning, a friend and I decided to meet for lunch, following which we decided to go shopping in Chinatown. So there we were, walking in the hot afternoon sun, gossiping along the way, and hunting down bargains among the rows of shops that sold scarves, sarongs, beads, bags, necklaces and a million other trinkets. The original purpose of this shopping expedition was to help me get a gift for my dear granny. It's been nearly two years since I met her, and since I'm going home soon (YAYYY :D), I wanted to get her something from my internship allowance. So we hopped from shop to shop, in search of the perfect gift. Finally, after walking through the alleyways, we came across a shop that sold beautiful Pashmina shawls. They were just perfect- neither too thick for the humidity of the fierce tropical Kerala monsoons, nor too thin that they could pass off for scarves. I imagined Amooma, sitting at the dining table after dinner, quietly writing Sri Rama Jayam in her diary, the shawl gently draped across her sari. So, I went ahead and bought one. I do hope she'll like it! And this post would have had no meaning, if I hadn't shopped further. We decided to go to more shops, and there I was spoilt for choice. Pretty sarongs in every imaginable hue, bracelets of jade and emerald, silver bangles, batik bags... I decided that I just HAD to buy something. So being the impulsive shopper that I am, I went ahead and bought a sarong. Usually, that would have made me really happy- I would have come back, gingerly opened the bag, taken out the sarong, and admired it, before trying it on and prancing around in it. (Yes, I'm slightly crazy that way.) But today was different. There was something that was nagging me at the back of my mind. After the initial exhilaration from buying the skirt (I told you, shopping gives me a high!), we began discussing some serious issues, and I felt a slight dip in my energy levels. I felt my old worries creeping into me, and all of a sudden, the bag I held containing my newly acquired treasure, did not seem so precious any more.

As I returned home, I mulled over those issues. That led me to thinking about a number of other issues- how X was better than me in a number of ways, how I had not done well in something while Y was immensely successful, how I could have probably done better in something but didn't, what I didn't have which others had, and so on. It was a completely futile exercise, and it left me feeling sulky. A few minutes later, I overcame my grumpiness, and began to admire the skirt, and that made me happy again. Then I began to ponder over the nature of happiness. Was it the skirt that brought me happiness? Would I have continued to feel sad if there was no skirt to 'cheer' me up? What makes a person happy? What is happiness, anyway? Why do certain issues upset us, and what helps us overcome those? I recalled reading something on the wisdom of the ancient Hindu scriptures- Happiness is the very essence of man. Unfortunately, in the course of this journey called life, he forgets his true nature, and finds himself a victim of maya, worldly illusions. When man realizes this, he is said to have achieved that state of perfection, the ultimate goal of Sat-Chit-Ananda. Existence-Consciousness-Bliss. Hence according to the scriptures, happiness is within ourselves for it is the very nature of man. If happiness is indeed at the very core of our being, why equate happiness with something? For example, I will be happy only in the absence of sorrows, I will be happy only if I get a job at a prestigious firm, I will be happy only if I get that new dress... And therein lies the magic of maya. We forget our inherent nature- happiness. Ironically, we believe that material wealth will bring us happiness, which is why it is so difficult to be happy all the time.

Imagine slogging away in order to earn yourself an extremely precious item- for example, a diamond necklace. After months of hard work, you find yourself robbed, and thus deprived of the necklace. Can you comfort yourself and continue to remain happy, in the same way as you would have been if you got the necklace, because happiness is within yourself? You would eventually overcome it, of course, but at the very outset? Tall order, indeed. One would have accomplished the purpose of birth if one achieves this state of realization.

But since that is so difficult (and I don't know how many more janmas I have in store for me), I might as well stick to my old policy of getting happiness, albeit for a short time. 'Whoever said money can't buy happiness simply didn't know where to go shopping!' :D

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Odessa File- My Two Cents' Worth

I first came across The Odessa File quite a long time ago. Appa had rented a DVD of the movie, but it was beyond my comprehension and I soon lost interest in it. I must have been around ten or so at that time. A few years later, when I started high school, it was Appa (as usual) who introduced me to Frederick Forsyth's novels. I began with a book called The Veteran, a collection of five stories, the only one of which I remember is a vivid story revolving around Saint Catherine of Siena. I thoroughly enjoyed that particular story, and quickly moved on to The Day of the Jackal next. That was another gripping read, and I quite loved the plot. I soon ended up watching the movie based on the book. (Interesting trivia, pointed to me by Appa dearest- The Day of the Jackal, starring Edward Fox, produced by John Woolf!) At the end, while we were discussing the thrilling plot, it invariably ended up with The Odessa File, which was the book that followed The Day of the Jackal. Ever since, I've been wanting to read this book, but it evaded me till a week ago! I suddenly chanced upon it, and I can safely say that I've never been this engrossed by a book before. If The Day of the Jackal was good, I would have to say that this is infinitely better. (Some say it is the other way round, but maybe because I read The Odessa File only recently, the impact seems more powerful?)

It is the winter of 1963. On a cold November evening in Hamburg, Peter Miller is driving back home, when he hears about John F Kennedy's assassination in Dallas. As he listens to the news on the radio, he pulls his car to the side of the road. Suddenly he sees an ambulance drive past. As an investigative journalist, he instinctively senses that something is amiss and begins to follow the ambulance. He ends up in front of a house in the slums of Altona, and finds that a man has gassed himself. The next day, his friend in the police hands him a diary belonging to the deceased man, Salomon Tauber, who as a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, had escaped death at the concentration camps of Riga. Reading through the diary, Miller comes to know that certain members of Hitler's Schutz Staffel have taken on completely different identities, and have gone into hiding in order to escape being brought to trial for war crimes. In fact, they are more than alive- most of them, under new identities, have become part of West Germany's respectable society, hiding the ugly scars of the Holocaust, an uncomfortable past which everybody seemed eager to forget. Tauber's diary begins with these words- My name is Saloman Tauber, I am a Jew and about to die. The pages soon reveal the atrocities committed by Eduard Roschmann, an SS commander who soon came to be known as the Butcher of Riga. Tauber writes that he was forced by Roschmann to send his wife, Esther, to the concentration camps, and that was the day he lost his soul. Two decades later, Tauber, now living all alone in Altona, is astonished to see Roschmann, walking freely down the streets of Hamburg. The elderly Jewish man writes in his diary that his last wish to see the SS commander stand before a court and tried for his war crimes wouldn't be fulfilled. All his efforts to survive so that justice could be achieved had failed. It had all been a waste of time. The last page of the diary states that if someone ever comes to read it in the land of Israel, that person should please say khaddish for Tauber's soul.

Something mentioned in the diary prompts Miller to go on a hunt to track Roschmann down. Why should Miller, a pure Aryan, embark on this wild goose chase to bring a former Nazi officer to justice? It all happened a long time ago, and he soon finds that not many people want to help him out. As a young man, he seems to have everything- a lucrative career that earns him well; he drives a sleek Jaguar of which he is fiercely protective; he has a girlfriend who works in the nightclubs of the Reeperbahn district. Then was it just sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust that moved him to undertake this mission? Or was there something else?

Also weaved into the plot is a project undertaken by the Odessa (the organisation of former SS officials) to develop powerful rockets against Israel. These rockets are being developed by German scientists, working in the Egyptian city of Helwan, but the entire research project is controlled by a man working in West Germany, who is only revealed by his code-name, Vulkan, named after the smith who crafted the thunderbolts of the gods in Greek mythology. On the other side, the Israeli Mossad does its best to thwart these plans. The Odessa chief in Germany, only known as the Werwolf, is given the task of ensuring Vulkan's safety. When he comes to know of Miller's quest, he is required to take care of Roschmann's safety as well, because of the latter's role in an extremely important Odessa mission. Hence the Werwolf hires an assassin known as Mack the Knife to handle Miller. There is also an episode where Miller meets Simon Wiesenthal, a Jewish 'Nazi-hunter', from whom he derives much information about the Odessa. (Coincidentally, the first news that I came across my twitter feed this morning was this. So there really was a Simon Wiesenthal!)

Some parts of the book, especially, are written poignantly. For example, in Tauber's diary are these words- There is a French adage, 'To understand everything is to forgive everything'. When one can understand the people,their gullibility and their fear, their greed and their lust for power, their ignorance and their docility to the man who shouts the loudest, one can forgive...There are some men whose crimes surpass comprehension and therefore forgiveness, and here is the real failure. For they are still among us, walking through the cities, working in the offices...That they should live on, not as outcasts but as cherished citizens, to smear a whole nation in perpetuity with their individual evil, this is the true failure. And in this we have failed, you and I , we have all failed, and failed miserably. Was Tauber referring to the general apathy of the society? Was it written in anguish, pained by the indifference of the people in power to something that happened a long time ago? After all, despite the scars, West Germany had risen like a phoenix from the ashes, and to bring these former SS officers to justice would be akin to opening old wounds, 'an inconvenient truth' indeed.

Here's another passage from the book which made me pause and think. Forsyth writes about Klaus Winzer, an expert forger who worked for Hitler's army during the war, and later for the Odessa, by providing important members fake documents through which they sought refuge in Latin America. At the end of the war, Winzer forged sheets of American food rations which could last for months. He explains that they were not forged, 'just printed on a different machine'. He soon begins forging passports, driving licenses and other important documents. He explains it this way- A document is not either genuine or forged, it is either efficient or inefficient. If a pass is supposed to get you past a checkpoint, and it gets you past the checkpoint, it is a good document.When a person is blinded by a certain ideology and pursues the same with zeal, he will come up with any excuse to justify it! Zeal slowly gives way to madness and then he loses sight of the real issues, because he has fooled himself into believing that his ideology is true.

Was Miller able to track Roschmann down? Why did he want to bring the Butcher of Riga to justice? What happened to the rockets of Helwan? Who was the Vulcan? These are some of the questions answered in the climax. A thrilling plot, written so very convincingly, this is one book I'm unlikely to forget in a long long time!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Thousand Suns in the City of Joy

Two weeks ago, we celebrated Guru Purnima, the auspicious day held in remembrance of the sage Vyasa, who was believed to have been born on this day. Legend has it that Vyasa was responsible for 'dividing' the ancient sacred texts known as the Vedas into the four major components that we have come to know them as today- Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva. Hence, he is also known as Veda Vyasa, and in Hindu tradition, he is regarded as a guru of gurus, a teacher of teachers. Not unsurprisingly, Guru Purnima became an occasion to reflect upon the greatness of one's guru and pay respects to that teacher. The term guru, in this context, is used to refer to a spiritual teacher- the syllables gu and ru referring to darkness and removal respectively. A guru is one who can destroy the darkness of ignorance and bring you to the path of spiritual enlightenment. This year, however, I came across a different perspective- learn to view everything as part of the guru's divine form. Seek divinity in everything, for the entire universe is a manifestation of the divine. I thought about this for sometime.

It's very difficult to look at everything positively, especially if a particular incident is not up to our liking, let alone seek God in it. And then I came across something that exemplified the very essence of Guru Purnima. I just finished reading Dominique Lapierre's A Thousand Suns. The book is a collection of memoirs, various anecdotes from Lapierre's journalistic career. He writes about his meeting with Larry Collins, a meeting which led to this 'literary duo' giving us many a best-seller; From a chance interview with Henrique Galvao, a 'modern day Don Quixote' to his epic journey across Soviet roads behind the Iron Curtain to his own battle against prostate cancer, the common thread that binds all the chapters in the book is 'the will, buried in human hearts, to fight for what we believe in'. The stories in this book amazed me- to come across anecdotes as inspiring as this is indeed like a breath of fresh air. But none inspired me as much as the story of Gaston Grandjean and his journey to the City of Joy.

Following the success of his book Freedom at Midnight (co-written with Larry Collins), Lapierre and his wife travelled to Mother Teresa's home for leper children, in Calcutta. There he chanced to meet with Gaston Grandjean, a social worker from Switzerland, who had come all the way to India to do his bit and help those less fortunate than us. In that Calcutta slum, marred with leprosy, tuberculosis and other fatal illnesses, it was difficult to live. Food, water, shelter, everything that we take for granted were the least of the concerns of the slum residents, for everyday survival was their immediate priority. Yet, there was so much joy, so much vitality, so much life in that slum. Lapierre writes about a man who used to beg outside the Kali temple- he was almost blind, and yet, he took a little 3 year old orphan under his protection. These people, to whom living itself was a burden, were actually 'life- LIFE in capital letters, life pulsating and bustling and throbbing' away. Sample this anecdote from the book- Lapierre was sitting with Grandjean, in front of his room in the slum, when he saw a band comprising of people dressed in festive attire. The band followed a procession of musicians. When they enquired what it was all about, pat came the reply. 'We are celebrating the birth of spring!' Lapierre writes 'In this slum, where I had not seen one single tree, one single bird, one single butterfly...people had the guts to celebrate an event of which they would never see the manifestations!' If only all of us were able to look at things in the same way!

Grandjean indeed was able to see divinity in that slum. After meeting an old woman, whose flesh was ravaged by the savageness of leprosy, and seeing her attitude of hope and happiness, he wrote in his diary- ...My prayer for that poor woman can no longer be sorrowful. Her suffering is like that of Christ on the cross; it is positive, redemptive. It is hope. Every time I come out of my sister the blind leper woman's hovel, I do so revitalized. This slum should be called 'the City of Joy'. (And that was how Calcutta actually got its sobriquet!)

I do not know whether it was a coincidence that I came across this chapter in the book just a few days after Guru Purnima or not. Serendipity, I would like to believe. But it did drive home the point. There is divinity in every single incident, every single creature, every single place. Lapierre concludes his story with this lovely message- The proverb I had discovered in the torrential rains of the monsoon had once again proven to be right. There are always a thousand suns beyond the clouds.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

On Fortune Tellers, Fate and Faith

Last month, a friend helped me explore some parts of Singapore that I hadn't discovered yet. We met for lunch, where I had a chance to try the absolutely scrumdiddlyumptious vegetarian version of laksa. We promptly followed it with ice kachang, and then having decided that all that gobbling warranted some form of exercise, decided to walk a bit and explore the area.

It was a bright Saturday afternoon, and the street leading to the Goddess of Mercy temple in Bugis was bustling with people. A Hindu temple, built in the south Indian architectural style, dedicated to the Lord Krishna, is situated just a stone's throw away. What I found interesting was the fact that a big copper urn was placed at the front of the Hindu temple, and many passers by offered their prayers and planted joss sticks in the urn, exactly like it is done in the abode of the Goddess of Mercy. My friend and I prayed at both the temples, and as we stepped out of the temple, I realized that the busy street was also home to a number of fortune tellers. Palmists, sitting under the shade of umbrellas, charts showing the many paths of the palm, hanging by their side. Vendors selling colourful beads, bracelets, charms and amulets. Curious about your fate? Well, you could quench that thirst for just a few dollars. There were even fortune tellers with caged parrots that could pick tarot cards predicting the future. Just like kili jyotsyam, which is still quite popular back home. (Kili refers to parrot, while jyotsyam is astrology. Parrot astrologers are usually found sitting under the shade of a tree, or they go about from house to house. When a person approaches the astrologer, he coaxes his parrot to pick out a card, and voila- your future is no longer a mystery!)

I was reminded of a time when I was extremely curious to have my palm read. Could my future be really predicted? Whenever I would return home for the vacations, I had an insatiable urge to go to the fortune teller's shop, located just outside the housing colony. Away from the neon city lights representing the glitz and glamour of an urban city, this fortune teller decided to set base in one of the many quieter suburbs of Coimbatore. My aunt, who claims to have seen him, tells me that he is a quite a frightful sight. Tall, hefty, with a fierce moustache and a huge red pottu at the centre of his forehead, he could predict your future, explain your past, anything! When I was younger, each time I passed the place, I would see a serpentine queue, waiting for the consultation. Even the neighbouring general physician's clinic was not graced by such a large number of people. I used to beg Amma to take me there. "Why?", she would always ask. Nothing ma, I would mumble, I'm just curious. "Mannankatti. Nonsense. You don't need to know about the future. Just live in the present. And anyway, what are you going to do even if you know about the future?" That would be her standard reply every single time.

I was somehow baffled by this answer. If that was the case, why do we still follow the practice of asking an astrologer to write a horoscope (It's called a jaathakam) whenever a baby is born? Indeed, when I was born on a cold February morning in Delhi, my grandmother called an astrologer, giving him my exact time of birth. I was born under the Thiruvonam star, according to the Hindu astrological system, and based on that, my horoscope was written. A couple of years ago, I chanced upon it, when Amma and I were emptying old boxes, and when I asked to get it interpreted, she promptly refused! Then why have it created in the first place? I guess it is one of those traditions that we follow out of deference, not really bothering to understand why in the first place. Or is there really something behind all this, something that we have not dared question?

Anyway, suffice to say, I was quite curious to have my fortune told that day at Bugis. That's when my friend said, 'We're still young. If we come to know about our future, we will only keep worrying about it, and forget the present.' Something typical to what Amma would have said. It did make sense to me- what would I do, knowing about the future anyway? What could I do? Not much, except wait for the future! And in my worry, I would forget all about the present. So, we just walked along, towards the magnificent mosque at Arab Street, enjoying every minute of the present.

Later, I narrated the whole episode to Amma, who promptly quipped, 'At least you have sensible friends!'. Whatever that was supposed to mean! As I pondered over this issue more, I realized that this too boils down to faith in the end. When we go to sleep every night, we have faith that we will be able to get up the next morning. It does sound macabre, but isn't that true? We never will be able to know what happens the next day, or even the very next minute. But rather than engaging in the rather futile exercise of trying to decipher fate, isn't it better to cling onto faith and live in the present?

A small verse found in a cave temple comes to my mind. This cave temple, situated on the Marudamalai Hill buried in the Western Ghats, is dedicated to a mystic, a siddhar. It was said that he could transform himself into a snake whenever he wanted to avoid being seen by others, and hence he came to be known as the Paambaati Siddhar, 'paambu' meaning snake in Tamil. The mystic was supposed to have practised penance and attained moksha in this cave. Engraved in the shrine are these words-Naal yenna seiya, Kol yenna seiya, Namah Chivayam yennul irukayile! Roughly translated, this means- What can days, dates, planetary positions or movements of stars do to me, when I have God living in me?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The More I Shop, the Happier I Get

Shopping usually makes me happy. There's something about just going out, and coming back with something, neatly wrapped in a bag. Of course, the worries don't disappear magically, but the world seems to be not such a bad place after all. And that is why I turn to retail therapy. Of course, it isn't like I jump into every shopping mall in the vicinity, every single time I feel upset, otherwise I would be broke by now. And I don't mean to say I shop only when I'm upset. I don't really need reasons to go shopping- as they say, 'A girl can never have enough shoes'. At the end of the day, it brings me happiness, and maybe takes away the worries, even if it is only for a few hours.

This morning, a friend and I decided to meet for lunch, following which we decided to go shopping in Chinatown. So there we were, walking in the hot afternoon sun, gossiping along the way, and hunting down bargains among the rows of shops that sold scarves, sarongs, beads, bags, necklaces and a million other trinkets. The original purpose of this shopping expedition was to help me get a gift for my dear granny. It's been nearly two years since I met her, and since I'm going home soon (YAYYY :D), I wanted to get her something from my internship allowance. So we hopped from shop to shop, in search of the perfect gift. Finally, after walking through the alleyways, we came across a shop that sold beautiful Pashmina shawls. They were just perfect- neither too thick for the humidity of the fierce tropical Kerala monsoons, nor too thin that they could pass off for scarves. I imagined Amooma, sitting at the dining table after dinner, quietly writing Sri Rama Jayam in her diary, the shawl gently draped across her sari. So, I went ahead and bought one. I do hope she'll like it! And this post would have had no meaning, if I hadn't shopped further. We decided to go to more shops, and there I was spoilt for choice. Pretty sarongs in every imaginable hue, bracelets of jade and emerald, silver bangles, batik bags... I decided that I just HAD to buy something. So being the impulsive shopper that I am, I went ahead and bought a sarong. Usually, that would have made me really happy- I would have come back, gingerly opened the bag, taken out the sarong, and admired it, before trying it on and prancing around in it. (Yes, I'm slightly crazy that way.) But today was different. There was something that was nagging me at the back of my mind. After the initial exhilaration from buying the skirt (I told you, shopping gives me a high!), we began discussing some serious issues, and I felt a slight dip in my energy levels. I felt my old worries creeping into me, and all of a sudden, the bag I held containing my newly acquired treasure, did not seem so precious any more.

As I returned home, I mulled over those issues. That led me to thinking about a number of other issues- how X was better than me in a number of ways, how I had not done well in something while Y was immensely successful, how I could have probably done better in something but didn't, what I didn't have which others had, and so on. It was a completely futile exercise, and it left me feeling sulky. A few minutes later, I overcame my grumpiness, and began to admire the skirt, and that made me happy again. Then I began to ponder over the nature of happiness. Was it the skirt that brought me happiness? Would I have continued to feel sad if there was no skirt to 'cheer' me up? What makes a person happy? What is happiness, anyway? Why do certain issues upset us, and what helps us overcome those? I recalled reading something on the wisdom of the ancient Hindu scriptures- Happiness is the very essence of man. Unfortunately, in the course of this journey called life, he forgets his true nature, and finds himself a victim of maya, worldly illusions. When man realizes this, he is said to have achieved that state of perfection, the ultimate goal of Sat-Chit-Ananda. Existence-Consciousness-Bliss. Hence according to the scriptures, happiness is within ourselves for it is the very nature of man. If happiness is indeed at the very core of our being, why equate happiness with something? For example, I will be happy only in the absence of sorrows, I will be happy only if I get a job at a prestigious firm, I will be happy only if I get that new dress... And therein lies the magic of maya. We forget our inherent nature- happiness. Ironically, we believe that material wealth will bring us happiness, which is why it is so difficult to be happy all the time.

Imagine slogging away in order to earn yourself an extremely precious item- for example, a diamond necklace. After months of hard work, you find yourself robbed, and thus deprived of the necklace. Can you comfort yourself and continue to remain happy, in the same way as you would have been if you got the necklace, because happiness is within yourself? You would eventually overcome it, of course, but at the very outset? Tall order, indeed. One would have accomplished the purpose of birth if one achieves this state of realization.

But since that is so difficult (and I don't know how many more janmas I have in store for me), I might as well stick to my old policy of getting happiness, albeit for a short time. 'Whoever said money can't buy happiness simply didn't know where to go shopping!' :D

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Odessa File- My Two Cents' Worth

I first came across The Odessa File quite a long time ago. Appa had rented a DVD of the movie, but it was beyond my comprehension and I soon lost interest in it. I must have been around ten or so at that time. A few years later, when I started high school, it was Appa (as usual) who introduced me to Frederick Forsyth's novels. I began with a book called The Veteran, a collection of five stories, the only one of which I remember is a vivid story revolving around Saint Catherine of Siena. I thoroughly enjoyed that particular story, and quickly moved on to The Day of the Jackal next. That was another gripping read, and I quite loved the plot. I soon ended up watching the movie based on the book. (Interesting trivia, pointed to me by Appa dearest- The Day of the Jackal, starring Edward Fox, produced by John Woolf!) At the end, while we were discussing the thrilling plot, it invariably ended up with The Odessa File, which was the book that followed The Day of the Jackal. Ever since, I've been wanting to read this book, but it evaded me till a week ago! I suddenly chanced upon it, and I can safely say that I've never been this engrossed by a book before. If The Day of the Jackal was good, I would have to say that this is infinitely better. (Some say it is the other way round, but maybe because I read The Odessa File only recently, the impact seems more powerful?)

It is the winter of 1963. On a cold November evening in Hamburg, Peter Miller is driving back home, when he hears about John F Kennedy's assassination in Dallas. As he listens to the news on the radio, he pulls his car to the side of the road. Suddenly he sees an ambulance drive past. As an investigative journalist, he instinctively senses that something is amiss and begins to follow the ambulance. He ends up in front of a house in the slums of Altona, and finds that a man has gassed himself. The next day, his friend in the police hands him a diary belonging to the deceased man, Salomon Tauber, who as a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, had escaped death at the concentration camps of Riga. Reading through the diary, Miller comes to know that certain members of Hitler's Schutz Staffel have taken on completely different identities, and have gone into hiding in order to escape being brought to trial for war crimes. In fact, they are more than alive- most of them, under new identities, have become part of West Germany's respectable society, hiding the ugly scars of the Holocaust, an uncomfortable past which everybody seemed eager to forget. Tauber's diary begins with these words- My name is Saloman Tauber, I am a Jew and about to die. The pages soon reveal the atrocities committed by Eduard Roschmann, an SS commander who soon came to be known as the Butcher of Riga. Tauber writes that he was forced by Roschmann to send his wife, Esther, to the concentration camps, and that was the day he lost his soul. Two decades later, Tauber, now living all alone in Altona, is astonished to see Roschmann, walking freely down the streets of Hamburg. The elderly Jewish man writes in his diary that his last wish to see the SS commander stand before a court and tried for his war crimes wouldn't be fulfilled. All his efforts to survive so that justice could be achieved had failed. It had all been a waste of time. The last page of the diary states that if someone ever comes to read it in the land of Israel, that person should please say khaddish for Tauber's soul.

Something mentioned in the diary prompts Miller to go on a hunt to track Roschmann down. Why should Miller, a pure Aryan, embark on this wild goose chase to bring a former Nazi officer to justice? It all happened a long time ago, and he soon finds that not many people want to help him out. As a young man, he seems to have everything- a lucrative career that earns him well; he drives a sleek Jaguar of which he is fiercely protective; he has a girlfriend who works in the nightclubs of the Reeperbahn district. Then was it just sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust that moved him to undertake this mission? Or was there something else?

Also weaved into the plot is a project undertaken by the Odessa (the organisation of former SS officials) to develop powerful rockets against Israel. These rockets are being developed by German scientists, working in the Egyptian city of Helwan, but the entire research project is controlled by a man working in West Germany, who is only revealed by his code-name, Vulkan, named after the smith who crafted the thunderbolts of the gods in Greek mythology. On the other side, the Israeli Mossad does its best to thwart these plans. The Odessa chief in Germany, only known as the Werwolf, is given the task of ensuring Vulkan's safety. When he comes to know of Miller's quest, he is required to take care of Roschmann's safety as well, because of the latter's role in an extremely important Odessa mission. Hence the Werwolf hires an assassin known as Mack the Knife to handle Miller. There is also an episode where Miller meets Simon Wiesenthal, a Jewish 'Nazi-hunter', from whom he derives much information about the Odessa. (Coincidentally, the first news that I came across my twitter feed this morning was this. So there really was a Simon Wiesenthal!)

Some parts of the book, especially, are written poignantly. For example, in Tauber's diary are these words- There is a French adage, 'To understand everything is to forgive everything'. When one can understand the people,their gullibility and their fear, their greed and their lust for power, their ignorance and their docility to the man who shouts the loudest, one can forgive...There are some men whose crimes surpass comprehension and therefore forgiveness, and here is the real failure. For they are still among us, walking through the cities, working in the offices...That they should live on, not as outcasts but as cherished citizens, to smear a whole nation in perpetuity with their individual evil, this is the true failure. And in this we have failed, you and I , we have all failed, and failed miserably. Was Tauber referring to the general apathy of the society? Was it written in anguish, pained by the indifference of the people in power to something that happened a long time ago? After all, despite the scars, West Germany had risen like a phoenix from the ashes, and to bring these former SS officers to justice would be akin to opening old wounds, 'an inconvenient truth' indeed.

Here's another passage from the book which made me pause and think. Forsyth writes about Klaus Winzer, an expert forger who worked for Hitler's army during the war, and later for the Odessa, by providing important members fake documents through which they sought refuge in Latin America. At the end of the war, Winzer forged sheets of American food rations which could last for months. He explains that they were not forged, 'just printed on a different machine'. He soon begins forging passports, driving licenses and other important documents. He explains it this way- A document is not either genuine or forged, it is either efficient or inefficient. If a pass is supposed to get you past a checkpoint, and it gets you past the checkpoint, it is a good document.When a person is blinded by a certain ideology and pursues the same with zeal, he will come up with any excuse to justify it! Zeal slowly gives way to madness and then he loses sight of the real issues, because he has fooled himself into believing that his ideology is true.

Was Miller able to track Roschmann down? Why did he want to bring the Butcher of Riga to justice? What happened to the rockets of Helwan? Who was the Vulcan? These are some of the questions answered in the climax. A thrilling plot, written so very convincingly, this is one book I'm unlikely to forget in a long long time!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Thousand Suns in the City of Joy

Two weeks ago, we celebrated Guru Purnima, the auspicious day held in remembrance of the sage Vyasa, who was believed to have been born on this day. Legend has it that Vyasa was responsible for 'dividing' the ancient sacred texts known as the Vedas into the four major components that we have come to know them as today- Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva. Hence, he is also known as Veda Vyasa, and in Hindu tradition, he is regarded as a guru of gurus, a teacher of teachers. Not unsurprisingly, Guru Purnima became an occasion to reflect upon the greatness of one's guru and pay respects to that teacher. The term guru, in this context, is used to refer to a spiritual teacher- the syllables gu and ru referring to darkness and removal respectively. A guru is one who can destroy the darkness of ignorance and bring you to the path of spiritual enlightenment. This year, however, I came across a different perspective- learn to view everything as part of the guru's divine form. Seek divinity in everything, for the entire universe is a manifestation of the divine. I thought about this for sometime.

It's very difficult to look at everything positively, especially if a particular incident is not up to our liking, let alone seek God in it. And then I came across something that exemplified the very essence of Guru Purnima. I just finished reading Dominique Lapierre's A Thousand Suns. The book is a collection of memoirs, various anecdotes from Lapierre's journalistic career. He writes about his meeting with Larry Collins, a meeting which led to this 'literary duo' giving us many a best-seller; From a chance interview with Henrique Galvao, a 'modern day Don Quixote' to his epic journey across Soviet roads behind the Iron Curtain to his own battle against prostate cancer, the common thread that binds all the chapters in the book is 'the will, buried in human hearts, to fight for what we believe in'. The stories in this book amazed me- to come across anecdotes as inspiring as this is indeed like a breath of fresh air. But none inspired me as much as the story of Gaston Grandjean and his journey to the City of Joy.

Following the success of his book Freedom at Midnight (co-written with Larry Collins), Lapierre and his wife travelled to Mother Teresa's home for leper children, in Calcutta. There he chanced to meet with Gaston Grandjean, a social worker from Switzerland, who had come all the way to India to do his bit and help those less fortunate than us. In that Calcutta slum, marred with leprosy, tuberculosis and other fatal illnesses, it was difficult to live. Food, water, shelter, everything that we take for granted were the least of the concerns of the slum residents, for everyday survival was their immediate priority. Yet, there was so much joy, so much vitality, so much life in that slum. Lapierre writes about a man who used to beg outside the Kali temple- he was almost blind, and yet, he took a little 3 year old orphan under his protection. These people, to whom living itself was a burden, were actually 'life- LIFE in capital letters, life pulsating and bustling and throbbing' away. Sample this anecdote from the book- Lapierre was sitting with Grandjean, in front of his room in the slum, when he saw a band comprising of people dressed in festive attire. The band followed a procession of musicians. When they enquired what it was all about, pat came the reply. 'We are celebrating the birth of spring!' Lapierre writes 'In this slum, where I had not seen one single tree, one single bird, one single butterfly...people had the guts to celebrate an event of which they would never see the manifestations!' If only all of us were able to look at things in the same way!

Grandjean indeed was able to see divinity in that slum. After meeting an old woman, whose flesh was ravaged by the savageness of leprosy, and seeing her attitude of hope and happiness, he wrote in his diary- ...My prayer for that poor woman can no longer be sorrowful. Her suffering is like that of Christ on the cross; it is positive, redemptive. It is hope. Every time I come out of my sister the blind leper woman's hovel, I do so revitalized. This slum should be called 'the City of Joy'. (And that was how Calcutta actually got its sobriquet!)

I do not know whether it was a coincidence that I came across this chapter in the book just a few days after Guru Purnima or not. Serendipity, I would like to believe. But it did drive home the point. There is divinity in every single incident, every single creature, every single place. Lapierre concludes his story with this lovely message- The proverb I had discovered in the torrential rains of the monsoon had once again proven to be right. There are always a thousand suns beyond the clouds.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

On Fortune Tellers, Fate and Faith

Last month, a friend helped me explore some parts of Singapore that I hadn't discovered yet. We met for lunch, where I had a chance to try the absolutely scrumdiddlyumptious vegetarian version of laksa. We promptly followed it with ice kachang, and then having decided that all that gobbling warranted some form of exercise, decided to walk a bit and explore the area.

It was a bright Saturday afternoon, and the street leading to the Goddess of Mercy temple in Bugis was bustling with people. A Hindu temple, built in the south Indian architectural style, dedicated to the Lord Krishna, is situated just a stone's throw away. What I found interesting was the fact that a big copper urn was placed at the front of the Hindu temple, and many passers by offered their prayers and planted joss sticks in the urn, exactly like it is done in the abode of the Goddess of Mercy. My friend and I prayed at both the temples, and as we stepped out of the temple, I realized that the busy street was also home to a number of fortune tellers. Palmists, sitting under the shade of umbrellas, charts showing the many paths of the palm, hanging by their side. Vendors selling colourful beads, bracelets, charms and amulets. Curious about your fate? Well, you could quench that thirst for just a few dollars. There were even fortune tellers with caged parrots that could pick tarot cards predicting the future. Just like kili jyotsyam, which is still quite popular back home. (Kili refers to parrot, while jyotsyam is astrology. Parrot astrologers are usually found sitting under the shade of a tree, or they go about from house to house. When a person approaches the astrologer, he coaxes his parrot to pick out a card, and voila- your future is no longer a mystery!)

I was reminded of a time when I was extremely curious to have my palm read. Could my future be really predicted? Whenever I would return home for the vacations, I had an insatiable urge to go to the fortune teller's shop, located just outside the housing colony. Away from the neon city lights representing the glitz and glamour of an urban city, this fortune teller decided to set base in one of the many quieter suburbs of Coimbatore. My aunt, who claims to have seen him, tells me that he is a quite a frightful sight. Tall, hefty, with a fierce moustache and a huge red pottu at the centre of his forehead, he could predict your future, explain your past, anything! When I was younger, each time I passed the place, I would see a serpentine queue, waiting for the consultation. Even the neighbouring general physician's clinic was not graced by such a large number of people. I used to beg Amma to take me there. "Why?", she would always ask. Nothing ma, I would mumble, I'm just curious. "Mannankatti. Nonsense. You don't need to know about the future. Just live in the present. And anyway, what are you going to do even if you know about the future?" That would be her standard reply every single time.

I was somehow baffled by this answer. If that was the case, why do we still follow the practice of asking an astrologer to write a horoscope (It's called a jaathakam) whenever a baby is born? Indeed, when I was born on a cold February morning in Delhi, my grandmother called an astrologer, giving him my exact time of birth. I was born under the Thiruvonam star, according to the Hindu astrological system, and based on that, my horoscope was written. A couple of years ago, I chanced upon it, when Amma and I were emptying old boxes, and when I asked to get it interpreted, she promptly refused! Then why have it created in the first place? I guess it is one of those traditions that we follow out of deference, not really bothering to understand why in the first place. Or is there really something behind all this, something that we have not dared question?

Anyway, suffice to say, I was quite curious to have my fortune told that day at Bugis. That's when my friend said, 'We're still young. If we come to know about our future, we will only keep worrying about it, and forget the present.' Something typical to what Amma would have said. It did make sense to me- what would I do, knowing about the future anyway? What could I do? Not much, except wait for the future! And in my worry, I would forget all about the present. So, we just walked along, towards the magnificent mosque at Arab Street, enjoying every minute of the present.

Later, I narrated the whole episode to Amma, who promptly quipped, 'At least you have sensible friends!'. Whatever that was supposed to mean! As I pondered over this issue more, I realized that this too boils down to faith in the end. When we go to sleep every night, we have faith that we will be able to get up the next morning. It does sound macabre, but isn't that true? We never will be able to know what happens the next day, or even the very next minute. But rather than engaging in the rather futile exercise of trying to decipher fate, isn't it better to cling onto faith and live in the present?

A small verse found in a cave temple comes to my mind. This cave temple, situated on the Marudamalai Hill buried in the Western Ghats, is dedicated to a mystic, a siddhar. It was said that he could transform himself into a snake whenever he wanted to avoid being seen by others, and hence he came to be known as the Paambaati Siddhar, 'paambu' meaning snake in Tamil. The mystic was supposed to have practised penance and attained moksha in this cave. Engraved in the shrine are these words-Naal yenna seiya, Kol yenna seiya, Namah Chivayam yennul irukayile! Roughly translated, this means- What can days, dates, planetary positions or movements of stars do to me, when I have God living in me?