We’ll be boarding this ship and sailing out of the Persian Gulf tomorrow, bound for Korea. I’ve been in and out of this narrow channel so many times in my life that it brings back a flood of memories.
There are two that stand out.
It was Christmastime in 1990, and my husband was chief mate at the time. Our ship was anchored at Fiumicino in Italy. As we had a couple of days free Capt Milo gave us time off to visit Rome, 32 km away. We bought a map, chose the places we wanted to see, plotted a route and walked to most places, covering many miles, dossing down at a pensione at night.
When we returned to the ship after two days, completely tired out, we heard the shocking news that Operation Desert Stormwas likely to be launched by US-led coalition forces on 17th January in Iraq. Ship life those days was pretty isolated and we barely knew what was going on in the outside world. As our next port of call was going to be inside the Persian Gulf Capt Milo had decided that I should sign off the ship at Dubai, just a little way into the Gulf, but far enough from Iraq-Kuwait to be safe. That was going to be around the 10th of January.
When we reached the Gulf of Oman we had another shock. There were dozens of American naval ships massed around us. War was no longer something we only heard about on the radio (those days we got television only in port) but was right here, and these ships were a part of it.
I disembarked at Dubai — along with two other crew members whose tenures had ended — and flew home.
What happened to the ship after I left? She remained anchored in the Gulf of Oman for over a week awaiting voyage orders. On the 19th she sailed into the Persian Gulf to load cargo at Ras Tanura. My husband tells me that they passed an American aircraft carrier with her attendant fleet of frigates. He saw fighter jets take off from her deck. Jets from US army bases in Saudi also flew across the night sky frequently as the bombing usually happened at night.
Another vivid memory is of the time in 1993 when our ship sailed out of the Persian Gulf loaded with crude oil from Ras Tanura in Saudi, for discharge at New Orleans in the US. What happened as we sailed out of the Gulf is something that still gives me goosebumps and I’ve written about it an earlier post.
We eventually signed off that ship in Dubai. My husband and I were amused to hear our toddler son’s excited observations about land, after having been on a VLCC (Very Large Crude Carrier) for four months without ever going ashore.
“So many Christmas trees!” He had only seen the tiny tree set up in the saloon at Christmas!
“So many aunties!” There had been no other women on that ship!
When we returned to India we were baffled by his homesickness for the ship, when he would cry to be taken back ‘home’, and would only be placated by watching the videos we had taken during the voyage.
Yesterday I touched the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. I felt the water flow through the spaces between my fingers. It was like connecting with history. Our really ancient history, when we started living in civilized societies and growing our own food instead of hunting and gathering it.
We had gotten off the highway and driven directly on the sand to reach the tiny village of Bushehri by following wheel tracks made by vehicles that had used the same route. That was the only way we could reach the bank of the river we had seen in the distance from the highway.
The ‘river’ turned out to be the delta of the Shatt Al Arab, the waterway formed by the merging of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq as they flow south towards the Persian Gulf.
The Tigris and Euphrates have existed for thousands of years. They nurtured the ancient Mesopotamian civilization 5000 years ago. The fertile land between the two was part of the biblical Garden of Eden. It’s hard to believe that the bit of earth beneath the present layer of overburden* has been continuously occupied by people for so many millennia. People with families, homes and occupations. A civilization.
This land, the ‘cradle of civilization’, is now the chaos that is present-day Iraq.
On the day before yesterday I happened to watch an interview on CGTN (China Global Television Network) with John Nixon who was with the CIA until 2011. He is the author of Debriefing the President:The interrogation of Saddam Hussein. Nixon had interviewed Saddam extensively over weeks after his capture and has a good grasp of the other side of the story. He is firm in his belief that the war in 2003 should never have happened as there was enough Intel input for the US and UK governments to know that there were no WMDs in Iraq.
About Saddam, he says:
“Although he didn’t understand international politics he knew Iraq.”
“Saddam was able to govern Iraq effectively.”
“Saddam said ‘It’s not easy to govern Iraq – you’ll see.'”
Nixon says it was a family feud between Bush (whose father Saddam had tried to eliminate) and Saddam that actually led to the war! Can this possibly be true?!
Last morning’s visit to the river delta, juxtaposed with watching this interview with Mr. Nixon, has left me feeling incredibly sad. As a human being I feel strangely complicit in this, though I couldn’t possibly have done anything to prevent the war, nor could have my country’s government, nor could the UN. Other animals aren’t destroying our beautiful earth, only we are.
Iraq’s civilization goes back as many millennia as does ours, and seeing it in a shambles makes me feel hopeless for humanity’s survival. I feel it even more acutely now as I’m in Kuwait and have been so close to the Iraq border. Then I tell myself: London was bombed once. So was Dresden. So was Hiroshima. They recovered. I hope Iraq does too…
The fact that John Nixon’s book is freely available and has not been banned, nor has its writer received death threats to the best of my knowledge, speaks volumes for American democracy and freedom of speech. Thank god for people like John Nixon who are unafraid to tell the truth, and the American government for not gagging him.
*Overburden: ancient features buried under accumulated sediment and soil that archeologists have to remove to see what lies beneath.
Part of the lore passed down orally in my family was that Jesus lived in India for many years. That he was an avatar of God, like Rama, Krishna, Buddha and others before him. That he lived in the Himalayas in his youth and learnt about samadhi from Indian rishis. That he was therefore able to survive after he was lifted down from the cross and placed in a tomb. That he returned to India and lived to a ripe old age in the Himalayas. And that his tomb is in Kashmir.
It sounded too far-fetched to me. Surely a young boy wouldn’t leave his home and family in the middle-east to come and learn about spiritual practices here, so far away, through high mountain passes and biting cold? And if he came here as a youth how did he die here at eighty? When did he preach in his own country then? I simply pushed the story to the back of my mind with the rest of Indian folklore.
My actual introduction to Christianity was at the age of nine when I began attending a school run by Christians. A school day started with Chapel every morning, and I learnt a lot about the religion over the years.
Born Hindu, I never had to commit myself to any one image of god because we had a pantheon in our pooja ghar, or altar. And when we went to other parts of India we worshipped at temples of gods who weren’t even on our altar, because all gods of all religions are representations of the only god there is. My parents said that a holy place was a holy place regardless of religion, because people bring only pure, clean thoughts and prayers to their holy shrines, and all places of worship are therefore imbued with holiness.
Growing up, I did wonder about the multiplicity of gods in Hinduism, unlike in other religions. Hinduism is monotheistic, but people worship god in hundreds of different forms. They invoke god in the form that traditionally represents what they need fixed: like goddess Lakshmi for money worries, analogous to the Christian patron saint, St. Nicholas; or Saraswathi, the goddess of music and art, who is similar to St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music; or any of the gods – like Ganesha, Hanuman, Krishna, or Durga-mata in desperate situations, like St. Jude, or Jesus himself. Prayer is just a matter of reaching out to god in his most relatable form in the circumstances, either directly or through an intercessor.
The name by which I address god doesn’t matter, nor does it matter if I don’t engage with him at all. I can be an atheist, which will make me a nastik Hindu, or an out and out materialist, which will make me a charvaka Hindu, none of which are bad or wrong; they are just where I happen to be on my karmic path. I can even worship Jesus as my ishtha-devatha (god of choice) and follow the path of bhakti yoga (path of love) and still be Hindu. Looking back, this is what I probably did for a couple of years in my teens when I read the Bible, went to church and subscribed to an American Christian youth magazine called Young Ambassador. All this fits in with the claim that Hinduism is not a religion, just a way of life, which can leave a child quite confused.
As a young adult, the Hindu way of thinking gave me freedom to not commit myself irrevocably to a fixed set of beliefs. I was wary of being expected to handcuff myself mentally to things I had stopped believing in, something that happens when you permanently accept any dogma. Religious syncretism allowed me to change or modify my beliefs when I understood something better while dipping into the teachings of different religions and philosophies, and I made up my mind that this was how fluid it was always going to be.
Being a medical student, one side of me said it was just neurones and synapses that process information continuously and throw up new patterns of thought, perception and emotion, and nothing was real, especially not god and religion. Another side of me said it was more than that, beyond science. There was room for that internal debate too because I didn’t have all the answers then. Nor do I have them now.
What was my takeaway from learning the teachings of Jesus as a child? By clearly distinguishing between good and bad, they simplified the world for me at an age when I wasn’t yet able to grasp the complexities and nuances of Hinduism. Having been introduced to two religions simultaneously I saw the world of abstract ideas about life and god as more of a smorgasbord than a set menu. Theism, as I still see it, is only useful if it enables us to live in harmony on earth, and not quibble over the name of the Maker or form armies to kill each other in his name.
In 2002 I came across Jesus the man, a book by Australian historian and theologian, Barbara Thiering. One bit I remember from this book is that Jesus and the two men who were hanged along with him – Simon Magus and Judas Iscariot – were brought down from the crosses on Pilate’s orders. They were then imprisoned in a burial cave where Simon, who belonged to a community of healers called the Therapeutae, revived Jesus. He survived and was taken to safety, a few days after which he left the country.
Around the same time I read Jesus lived in India by Holger Kersten. This book is about Jesus’ coming to India after the crucifixion. Apparently he lived to be eighty and was buried in Rozabal in Srinagar, Kashmir, when his life ended. The ancient inscription on his tomb says Hazrat Issa Sahib meaning Tomb of Lord Jesus. And it still exists!
I didn’t think of any of this for a long, long time as I was busy with profession, children and home.
Then, a few days ago, I read The Lost Years of Jesus by Elizabeth Prophet. This concerns the time Jesus left Jerusalem with a caravan of merchants at the age of thirteen and lived in India till the age of twenty nine: the lost years that are not accounted for in the Bible.
To quickly summarise, Jesus apparently spent six years in Eastern India in Hindu centres of learning like Puri, Rajagriha and Kashi. He later moved to Hemis, a Buddhist monastery in Leh, Kashmir, where he lived till the age of twenty nine. The Buddhist lamas refer to him as a Buddha (= the enlightened one), the Buddha Issa.
Records of his teachings, as well as his biography, were maintained in the Hemis monastery in Leh in Kashmir. A Russian journalist, Nicolas Notovitch, heard about them by chance. He went in search of them in 1887and had them translated from Pali into Russian. His book, The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, was first published in 1894.
The existence of these documents was subsequently verified by reliable people, viz. Swamy Abhedananda (1922), Prof. Nicholas Roerich (1925) and Madame Caspari (1939), the details of which are in Elizabeth Prophet’s book.
The questions I had asked as a child were answered. But more than that, thanks to trying to make sense of all that I heard in school and at home regarding god, I had concluded that swearing allegiance to any religion was not necessary. Cherry-picking from all of them was fine.
There’s this quote from ancient Indian literature called the Puranas: “Like a honey bee gathering trickles of honey from different flowers, the wise man accepts the essence of different scriptures and sees only the good in all the religions.”
Despite the differences in what religious fundamentalists say, at the deepest level we all feel the same thing in terms of what god, or the idea of god, is supposed to do in our lives: be there for us when we need him. Sometimes it’s easier to anthropomorphise god, and that’s fine too. The problem arises when a group of people act as though their virtual image of god is a photograph that god physically posed for, while others’ images are morphed ones of an imposter!
‘In search of Home – the forgotten tragedy of Kashmiri Pandits’. This was the topic being debated on NDTV today on ‘We the People’ anchored by Barkha Dutt. There were seven or eight panelists whose opinions were so divided that there were temper losses and utter chaos among them.
But when it was the turn of the audience to ask questions or give opinions – wow! Every youngster spoke eloquently, rationally and passionately about moving forward in peace. They acknowledged that Kashmiri Pandits, among other groups, had been wronged. The eagerness young Muslims showed to have Kashmiri Pandits back in Kashmir was heartwarming. I don’t know how much of the government’s plan to facilitate their return to their home state can be implemented. As a young Delhi-based Kashmiri Pandit from the audience – he would have been a toddler when his parents left Kashmir – asked, “What will I do there?”
But, the point is, the youngsters don’t want strife. They have a smarter take on what is important, and it certainly isn’t Religion the way our politicians understand Religion. A Sikh Kashmiri friend had once told me that Kashmiriyat was more her religion than Sikhism in many ways. I got the sense that many Kashmiris present in that studio today would agree.
I switched to CNN right after ‘We the People’. There was an interview with a 19-year-old Israeli boy, Udi Segal, who was in jail for refusing to join the army. He says: “I cannot take part in an army that occupies another people and makes Israeli society more violent and apathetic to what is happening”.
When most of our generation depart this world the baton will hopefully pass on to better people like Udi Segal and the young people in the audience at the debate on Kashmiri Pandits. And not to the narrower-minded people who have been responsible for all the cruelty and destruction in recent times.
I took this picture last month at the World Trade Centre museum in New York.
I was flipping through an old favourite book, Che Guevara’s ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’. The description of Cuzco as el ombligo del mundo, or the navel of the world, sent my thoughts spinning in a different direction today. I grabbed a pen and scribbled down the chaotic associations that swam around in my head before they could evaporate, as they often do.
The Latin word umbilicus is ombligo in Spanish and bombli in Konkani, my mother tongue. The mbli is common to all three. The English navel is closer to the Sanskrit nabhila and German nabel.
The word for God is a variation of Dev in many Indian languages. In Hindi it is added to the name of a god as in Ramdev or Krishnadev. In Konkani it is Devu. In Kannada it is Devaru. It is Dios in Spanish, Deu in French, Dyw in Cornish and Dew in Breton (got this from the net).
The word alma, soul in Spanish, and atma, soul in Sanskrit – do they have a common origin?
Pathraday, a spicy roll made out of colocasia leaves, is believed to be a purely Mangalorean (Konkani) dish. But is it? Punjabis make pathrode out of cabbage leaves, something I recently came to know! Does that make the basic recipe for pathrode 2000 years old, when the forefathers of present-day Mangaloreans and Punjabis might have been neighbours along the banks of the Saraswati river?
Kukkad in Punjabi and kunkad in Konkani both mean rooster, or maybe fowl in general.
The Gujarati and the Konkani words for lunch, jaman and jevan respectively, are similar.
The English word name is naam in Hindi, naava in Konkani and Marathi, nombre in Spanish.
You is tu in Hindi, Konkani, Spanish and French…
And of course, the words for father, mother and some body parts like chest (chaati in Hindi), etc. are well known to be similar in many languages.
Some words for water: Czech, Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Croatian and Macedonian – voda, Latvian – ūdens, Albanian – uji, Basque – ura (from the net). In Sanskrit it is udaka and in Konkani it is udaka, or uda.
Ura > uda > voda > water; or water > voda > uda > ura. Is that fanciful, or did it happen like that?
There are five main Dravidian languages. The word for water is nearly the same in four of them – neeru in Kannada, neerlu in Telugu, thanneer in Tamil (abbreviated to neer or thanni) and neer in Tulu. But it’s vellam in Malayalam…
Where does meen, the word for fish in Kannada/Tamil/Malayalam/Tulu, come from? And why is it chaapalu in Telugu?
Mina is also the constellation of Pisces. Is that from Tamil (Dravidian) or Sanskrit (Aryan), both ancient languages? That is, who named the constellation ‘mina’?
The name meenakshi means ‘eyes shaped like fish’, derived from meena and akshu (‘eyes’ in Sanskrit, as I’ve understood until now). If meena is Tamil and akshu Sanskrit, and Meenakshi is a goddess worshipped by Tamilians, how did akshu come into it? Is akshu a Tamil word absorbed into Sanskrit by Aryans? And Meenakshi is a Dravidian (Tamilian) goddess married to Shiva, an Aryan God!
How exactly were the Aryans and Dravidians connected? Is it even true that Dravidians lived here, and then the Aryan conquerors came and pushed them southwards?
I came across this paper on how it is wrong to jump to conclusions based on phonetic resemblances, when I browsed the internet just now:
The writer, Mark Rosenfelder, goes on to explain why we are so easy to fool. These resemblances are fascinating nevertheless.
Mark is probably right, and I am one of those folks whose eyes glaze over when you talk about probabilities. I guess I romanticize Proto-World, because the present-day world really gets to me at times. Other times, when I’m comfortably ensconced in bed with a book and the air-conditioner is set at a temperature I like, I can clearly see why those may not have been very good times!
A Prisoner of War of the Japanese during World War II.
My husband’s grandfather was a doctor in the Army, held captive in the jungles of Malaya by the Japanese. At the end of the War, when Japan lost, he was freed along with the other POWs.
A letter arrived at his home in Dehra Dun saying he was coming home. It was astonishing – and hard to believe – after five years of not knowing whether he was even alive, almost given up for dead.
When he stepped off the train three weeks later to the cheers of a huge crowd in Morinda, Punjab, he was so weak and unsteady he could hardly stand. A little boy ran up to him and clung to his knees like a limpet. He had never seen the child before; it was his youngest son, Surinder, born 21 days after he left for the War. The other little children, a boy and two girls, were now 15, 13 and 10. They stood shyly to the side with their mother, away from the throng of men surrounding their father, and gazed at him in wonder. I see the same look in my mother-in-law’s eyes when she recounts this story about her father.
Knowing all this, and even about the torture inflicted on his father in Malaya, his son Surinder went on to join the Indian Army and retired as a Brigadier. He is now in his seventies and still looks every inch a soldier.
What is it about their homeland that makes people feel so strongly? Why do people want to serve in the Army and protect their countries? Why does pride stir in our hearts when we see our national flag flutter in the breeze at the top of a flagpole?
About a month ago we were at the Wagah border between India and Pakistan. It was 4 o’ clock, when Beating the Retreat happens, when the flags of both countries are ceremonially lowered.
There was a large crowd of Indians on our side and a sizeable crowd of Pakistanis on the other side of the gate. Everybody was cheering: ‘Hindustan zindabad!’ echoed by ‘Pakistan zindabad!’ from across the border. I couldn’t help wishing Partition had never happened. After all, we had been one people for eons – Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.
The countries of the subcontinent are like nuclear families that have split off from a large joint family under acrimonious circumstances. The families continue to meet on festival days to exchange prasad and sweets, just to see each others’ faces, and keep lines of communication open, hoping for better days when they can love and trust each other again. A little ruefulness is inevitable, especially when they think of their shared past, and the trust that meant you didn’t always have to be armed and vigilant, the way it is with India and Pakistan now.
We spent three days in Amritsar in Punjab last week.
The Golden Temple by night was a glorious sight. Volunteers took care of the temple and its ceremonies with much love and devotion. They made all visitors, Sikh or otherwise, feel welcome.
We visited it again the next morning. It shone in the pale winter sunlight, radiating peace and purity.
The massacre of Sikhs and Punjabis, the bravest of Indians, by the British is one of the many horrifying chapters in Indian history.
We visited the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial where the massacre took place on 13th April, 1919. On that fateful day in 1919, a group of people had gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh near the Golden Temple to protest the arrest of two leaders. There were also thousands of pilgrims who were there to celebrate the Baisakhi festival.
Reginald Dyer, a British general, ordered his soldiers to fire on the crowd. The bullets were fired towards the narrow passages through which people were trying to escape. More than 1000 innocent people died, about 120 of them jumping into a well in panic. The bullet marks are still visible on the walls of surrounding buildings.
The exhibits at the Jallianwala Bagh museum and the stories they tell about what Indians were subjected to by the British makes one wonder: ‘How did it come to this?’
The British entered India as traders in the 1700s. Soon they got involved in our politics and turned our country into a colony. The rest is history.
And what have we learnt from this? Not much, going by what’s in the newspapers. Some excerpts from a recent article:
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s invitation to China to set up special economic zones and industrial parks in India…
Haryana is going all out to woo Chinese companies to buy farmland…
Chinese investors have also visited Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu looking for probable sites.
Chinese investors are being offered land for ‘purchase’ and they will have the right to re-sell the land.
…policy of protecting national borders certainly needs a review considering that the Chinese are being allowed to purchase land within the country. But will Beijing ever allow Indian companies to buy such huge tracts of farmland in China?
My question is: Why do we have to sell the land to the Chinese? Shouldn’t it be leased for a limited number of years, if at all?
But then, there is this too, quoting from the same article.
Indian companies were buying land in Africa, Asia and South America. Of the 848 land grab deals concluded globally since 2008, 80 involve Indian companies that have invested in 65 deals to grow food grains, sugarcane, oilseeds, tea and flowers. And as a news report computed, India has already bought land abroad nine times the size of Delhi.
How are the countries in Africa, Asia and S. America okay with this?
The US National Academy of Science calls it ‘a new form of colonialism’, while mainline economists term it as a model of economic growth.