Helen of Sparta … of Troy …of Sparta

Characters

Helen of Sparta .. of Troy … of Sparta

Teucer – Greek hero and brother of Ajax the greater

Menelaus – Husband of Helen

Theoclymenus

Servant of Menelaus

 

Helen is sitting in front of the Tomb of Proteous muttering . It looks as though she is praying. We go closer until we can hear her

Helen : I wonder how I can fool the son of Proteous ,Theoclymenus. He wants to marry me , but I am bored of these sappy doting Egyptian eyes .Long ago I was tired of Menelaus too which is why I eloped with Paris in the first place. I wonder why all these men are so boring  (she pauses) But I do prefer Menelaus , he is a strong man and the father of my daughter, I also miss my daughter that I have not seen in so long. But I was not sure if he has forgiven me and would spare my life; after all he did try to kill me once before and only stopped after he gazed upon my face . Regardless of what men like to claim about wealth and principles , he is obviously hurt about the fact that I , his wife left him for another man and though he is still smitten with my beauty , it is obvious he is hurt.  A cuckolded man will always bear a grudge so I need to convince him that I stayed true to him.

(she pauses again , this time much longer and muses thoughtfully)

Helen : The ship wreck is a blessing in disguise . The idiot that he left to guard me was certainly a blessing , all I had to do was blow some of the magic powder and he fell fast asleep. Now  maybe I can convince Menelaus that the gods were indeed playing tricks on him .

Teucer rushes in and looks upon with shock at Helen .

Teucer : What is this? I thought you were with Menelaus

Helen : Who are you, my brother ? Who is Menelaus?

Teucer : You look so much like Helen of Troy that I mistook you. Forgive me but I am trying to find the prophetess who is going to show me the way to my new home .

Helen : Brother, you best get out of here as soon as you can , her brother is slaughtering all the greeks that he can get his hands on.

Teucer – Thank you , my lady . You look like Helen but dont act like her . May you prosper unlike her .

Teucer leaves

Helen (muses thoughtfully) : I could certainly pull this off

Menelaus comes in and stops and looks at Helen in shock .

Menelaus: How is this possible ? I left you with my servant , how could you possibly be here?

Helen : Alas , Menelaus my one true lord , is that really you or are the gods playing a trick on me ?

Menelaus : What is the meaning of this ? I left you up on the mountains a week ago and now you claim to not recognize me ?

Helen : Alas my lord, the gods are playing a trick upon your eyes . They kidnapped me all those years ago and left me here , chaste and true to you but they created a fake Helen that they sent to Troy with Paris . I dont know what terrible deeds I have done to cause so much hatred among the gods that they seem this as a fair punishment for me.

Menelaus : How is this even possible ? You are lying

Servant of Menelaus enters ; he has not seen Helen yet .

Servant : My lord Menelaus , your wife , the queen vanished in a puff of smoke before our very eyes

Helen (turns towards us and smirks) : Thank god for fools, they are sorely needed.

Menelaus dismisses him pensively ,

Chorus – Menelaus , surely you have to wonder if that is truly the case . Had this beautiful wife of yours always been true to you and the gods just playing a vicious game with you . Surely a woman this beautiful and delicate not capable of causing the mayhem that was attributed to her.

Menelaus looked at her , her beautiful eyes welling with tears .

Chorus – Women’s tears fuel men’s emotions . The more beautiful the woman, the greater the impact

Menelaus : I believe you , my beautiful wife . I never ever doubted you but when the gods are bent upon making a fool of you, the best of us don’t stand a chance .

Helen (turns to us and smirks again) : I cant believe it was so easy

Helen turns to Menelaus and weeps : Yes my lord , accursed am I , to lead you into such perils

Menelaus : surely all is well that ends well now . Shall we get out of here ?

Helen : No my lord , the ruler of Egypt is in love with me and he has sworn to kill all Greeks

Menelaus : Maybe I can challenge him to a duel and fight him in single combat

Helen: No my lord, this needs us to out think him not out fight him. He is not a civilized Greek to honor your challenge

Menelaus : Let us run away , surely if he does not know where we are going, he wont know where to search

Helen (turning towards us): This dreadful world, things that I could have done if I was a man. Now I have to rely on an idiot

Helen (to Menelaus) : My lord, we need to convince him to give us his fastest boat so that he wont be able to chase us.

Menelaus : How on earth do you propose to do that?

Helen : Leave it to me . (rings for the servant of Theoclymenus)

Helen: Please ask your master to come here . I have received some dreadful news from the Greeks , this man who is my husband’s servant just told me that my husband drowned at sea. (Menelaus’s eyes widen)

The servant leaves to fetch Theoclymenus

Helen: My lord , with your rags it is easy to believe that you are a servant . You need to tell Theoclymenus that you drowned at sea and it is the Greek custom to have the burial rites at sea for people who are lost at sea . You also have to agree with me that until the burial rites are complete , I am not free to marry another man

Theoclymenus: My love , have you decided to marry me ? Your beauty is stupefying , I fail to see why you keep refusing to marry me.

Helen : My lord , I am already married but I have good news for you. My lord , Menelaus has drowned , this is his servant who just bought me the terrible news .

Theoclymenus : So you can marry me now ?

Helen : My lord, I have to perform the last rites for my husband, only then will I be free.

Theoclymenus : Why does he not do it?

Helen : My lord , it has to be done by near and dear ones

Theoclymenus : Fine , let us do it and get married as soon as you are done

Helen : My lord , this has to be done out at sea. He was lost at sea so the burial rites must be done at sea. Otherwise the gods will not deem me a free woman

Theoclymenus : ok , what do you need ?

Helen : My lord , I know I have made you wait too long , now I want to make it up to you and want to marry you as soon as I can . Would you not lend me your fastest trireme so I can perform this dreadful ritual and come back to start our life of happiness

Menelaus looks at her agog

Theoclymenus (eyes brimming with tears of happiness) : My love , you shall have it . I will instruct my chief commander to give you his fastest trireme . (he hugs Menelaus) Thank you for bringing me this wonderful news

Menelaus stares at the back of the departing king in bewilderment and turns to Helen

Menelaus : But dont we need 60 men for a trireme ?

Helen : Where are the soldiers who came with you?

Menelaus : Oh they are around .

Helen : Well in that case , we are going to get aboard that, get your soldiers on board , as soon as we are out at sea . We slaughter everyone who is not Greek and head to Sparta .

Menelaus (stares in admiration at Helen ): My love , you are so wise

Helen (smiles) : Hurry my lord

Menelaus leaves

Helen turns to the audience

Helen : Sometimes life is indeed too much of a bore for a woman of intelligence.Add some tears and a beautiful face and men are like putty , willingly acquiesce to be abused and treated like sheep. And now my choice is between two fools , Menelaus and Theoclymenus but Menelaus is a known fool and he has already swallowed the story that the gods had put a different woman in Paris’s bed and so I have always been true to him. (she stops ) He was a good lover, pity he is dead.

Menelaus enters

Menelaus : My love , let us leave now

Helen and Menelaus board the trireme , followed by his soldiers . The trireme commandant having received orders to do everything as ordered by Helen, followed all the orders

We finally see Helen and Menelaus on board the deck of the Trireme . Menelaus looking at her adoringly ,Helen looking out at the sunset

 


This has been inspired by the play Helen by Euripides . While the play is actually a comedy , I found it dreadful . A satirization seemed so much more satisfying

 

Hecuba

Hecuba was a short quick gripping read .  Quick primarily because the timeline seems so dreadfully short .The time frame is after the fall of Troy and men have been murdered , most of the women raped and taken as concubines .The agony of Hecuba seems to be something so poignant that though  we have a hard time relating to her pain , our own desire for the macabre insists on continuing , that is the genius of Euripides ; he starts off with an ingenious device ; our fore-knowledge of her son Polydorus’s death. So while we ,the audience are aware of this dreadful knowledge ,Hecuba is not and that provides for some of the excitement that curiosity fuels to see how she would react.

The ghost of Polydorus  informs us that he has been murdered by his host , King Polymestor of Thrace who was a close friend of Priam, King of Troy and was responsible for safe guarding him and the treasure that Priam sends along. Polydorus informs us that as long as Troy was safe and Hector was alive ,he was safe but as soon as the slaughter commenced after the fall of Troy, his host . Polymestor murdered him and threw him into the sea and usurped the treasure.

So full of foreboding we meet Hecuba at  this point . The ghost of Achilles has come to the dreams of the Greeks and demanded the blood of Polyxena, one of her last surviving daughters . So Odysseus has marched in with a contingent of soldiers to take Polyxena away . This is quite a dramatic shift in the points of view for viewing Odysseus . At some point in the past, Hecuba has spared his life but he shows no intention of repaying her kindness . He is depicted as a cruel ingrate who is very conscious about his power and reputation in the Greek army . Polyxena is the innocent pure tragic heroine who prefers death to slavery and leaves willingly after telling her poor mother that she pities her mother because she will actually be going off to Hades , a far better place than the fate that the Greeks have in store for them . When the Neoptolemus , son of Achilles is about to murder her on the grave of Achilles , she willingly offers herself without a fight insisting that she will not die as a slave and will not be bound. After her heroic death , we come back to Hecuba who is recounted the brave last moments of her daughter’s life who will now be given an honorable burial by the Greeks who were touched by the girl’s bravery.

Hecuba is inconsolable and tells her slave girl to fetch water from the sea for the last rites of her daughter . her voyage as the bride of Hades . And it is here that the slave girl finds the body of Polydorus . There is some brief confusion when Hecuba thinks that the body of Polydorus is the body of Polyxena and she chides the slave girl for bringing it here. But once she finds out that it is her son and he was murdered by Polymestor, she conceives of a dreadful plan and it is at this point that we see Agamemnon , King of Mycenae and leader of the Trojan expedition . Again , the great hero is shown in a very different perspective , he knows that the murder of Polyxena was an unrequited tragedy forced upon a suffering old woman , he worries about his reputation and does not stop the murder because he is afraid of the gossip that will ensue . His soldiers will reason that due to his affair with Cassandra , another of Priam and Hecuba’s daughter  , Agamemnon is weak and unwilling to sacrifice Polyxena. But unlike Odysseus , his private moral sense of honor does compel him to go along with Hecuba’s plan for revenge after he is told of Polydorus’s untimely death at the hands of his host.

Hecuba invites Polymestor with his young sons with the pretext of telling him a precious secret which must be told to him alone . When Polymestor comes over , she tells him that she will reveal the cache of gold that Priam had hidden , this cache of gold belongs to Polydorus and Polymestor is the custodian until the Greeks leave . Greedy Polymestor agrees and asks his contingent of bodyguards to leave . We are spared the morbid details of the actual murders but instead given a beautiful couplet

Life is held on loan,

the price of life is death

Those who take a life 

repay it with their own

Justice and the gods 

exact the loan at last

Hands which never held a sword

shall wrench your twisted life away

Polymestor  is blinded and both his young children are murdered by the women of Troy.

Hearing the uproar , Agamemnon who pretends to be unaware of Hecuba’s plan for revenge listens to both sides . It is a trial of sorts where Polymestor claims that the murder of Polydorus was a political necessity else the Greeks would have invaded Thrace and if the boy grew up, there would be a resurgence of Troy and more trouble for Troy’s neighbors but Hecuba claims that Polymestor’s speech is pure sophistry because he is not related to the civilized Greeks nor had any prior relations with them and the murder was driven exclusively by his greed. If he was truly a friend then he would have not waited until the sack of Troy to offer his services to Agamemnon . She finishes with a flourish  forcing Agamemnon’s hand by claiming that if he passed the verdict on Polymestor’s behalf then he would go down in history as an unjust man .Agamemnon does come down on her side and prosecutes Polymestor for murder. The play ends with two dreadful prophecies by the blind Polymestor , one that Hecuba will die by drowning and that Agamemnon will be murdered by his own wife .

If ever there was a play that can show us what depths we can plunge to , driven by circumstances , Hecuba would certainly qualify .  Hecuba starts off as a grieving mother but ends up performing the most dastardly inhuman acts  ; the murder of innocent children. She is driven by her circumstances , driven by her captors to lose the last shreds of humanity, compassion and kindness .

Democracy or Free Press!!!

Growing up  I assumed that everybody knew the importance of a free press to a democracy . As I read about the horrors perpetrated by governments and those in power and the efforts by the free press to reel them in (Watergate , The Pentagon papers and the press in India during the Emergency readily come to mind ), I cannot help but believe that journalists are replaying the same role that Brutus played in ancient Rome when he assassinated Julius Caesar . Regardless of personal motivations , at the heart of the treachery was a love for Rome that overwhelmed his affection and loyalty to Caesar (the anti-Antigone behavior where the state comes before the self)  . To me this symbiosis of democracy and free press is as essential to democracy as oxygen to living creatures; even to a democracy as venerable as ours or especially to one as venerable as ours .

I love change.org and have support several of their initiatives including the brutal butchery of sharks for their fins , puppy mills , blood lions, human trafficking, dog fighting and even supported one initiative which recommended that we deport the lion killing dentist back to Zimbabwe to face trial (given the quick disappearance of that particular incident from the collective memory, I imagine life is back to normal for him). But the one that I remember the most is one that I did not vote for , it was so audacious that it has stuck with me. It was an initiative where they wanted  Facebook and Google to verify the authenticity of news that was being spread on their platforms . I love Facebook which I use to keep in touch with my family in India as well as friends in India and Ohio and it also serves as my online scrapbook for all the pictures that I take .But while Facebook is a luxury , Google is a necessity . I would starve to death without Google , every day I search for dozens and dozens of resolutions to issues that I cannot resolve and given the diversity of platforms , languages and libraries that software engineers have to deal with , Google is a life saver . So needless to say , I am grateful for both of them but I do not expect them to vet my news for me . Portals of free information on the internet cannot  be expected to be held to the same standards of reputable news papers.

Recently I listened in mute fascination to an associate who was reciting to me her total faith in the FDA.  Sometime back I was working for a giant pharmaceutical company in Philadelphia and I was part of the engineering team which comprised of mechanical , electronics , electrical , instrumentation and software engineers and on the pharmaceutical side was an army of PhDs . We had to document everything as was required by the FDA , my software was the glue that triggered the syringe to squirt the drug  , measure the volume of the drop , weigh the pill and send all this information to the central data repository that was a write once read many (WORM) database . Awesome stuff !! Great lengths to prevent tampering. Admirable except there was nobody who could audit what I had written , little to prevent a bug in my calculations (an implementation of Integration by parts; mention of calculus would have most software engineers in tears) , little to prevent an overestimation in the amount of drug in the drop and I certainly do not expect a FDA employee or even an army to go through the mechanical design, the electrical design , the software and the vagaries of organic chemistry to understand the drug . So we had to produce voluminous amount of documentation that they keep as part of their records .  What does this have to do with a free press ? a free press keeps everybody on their toes , some thing that is common to all Pharma companies is their fear of negative publicity , anybody remember Vioxx?  The FDA was bought into existence by Theodore Roosevelt who read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and was horrified to learn that it was not unusual for lard to have human remains .The vats were massive and it was extremely difficult and expensive to stop them . So if the odd Lithuanian immigrant happened to fall in , it was cheaper to pay money to his non English speaking family and if some nosy government agent started asking questions (as did happen after TR read “The Jungle” ), ship them back to Lithuania or Latvia . While the FDA is essential , it is the free press that keeps the Pharma companies in line . The particular process that I worked on was for a painkiller , the machine was first of its kind but once they found that the drug was causing cancer in rats , not only did they have to abandon the drug but also the machine , it was mandated as part of the FDA process which is overkill but it is due to the fact that they are seriously under equipped to deal with the technology and rapid innovation. At the other extreme are FDA agents who visit Joel Salatin’s grass farm in Virginia . They are hampered by his concepts like the open air abattoir which obviously do not require adherence to regulations that are in place to protect the McDonalds customer . If I buy a chicken from the Salatin farm , they slaughter the chicken in front of you if desired or the same day that you buy it alleviating the need to protect yourself from E-Coli or Salmonella. The McDonalds meat comes from some mystery farm in Kansas raised on a diet of who knows what . If interested ,read the Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan , a delightful book. In light of all this , it is easy to see that while we need the FDA , they are inundated and under equipped . Therefore our biggest defense is a free press that is not afraid to print and hold our businesses to high standards.

Cleveland ,OH is home to the Great lakes Brewery , the beer is delicious enough to almost claim it to be a micro brewery. I meet quite a few North East Ohio expats in the bay area and almost invariably the conversation becomes rueful once The Great Lakes brewery is mentioned because we don’t get it here. They have a delightful collection but the one that stands out for me is called Burning River. I wish it was just the amazing imagination of the brewer but unfortunately it is inspired by the Cuyahoga river which caught fire in June 1969 . I will let you digest that for a minute , the river caught fire!!! It was caused by the  chemicals that were being dumped by the companies who had nothing to stop them . President Nixon created the EPA to deal with issues like these . I have had zero dealings with the EPA but I imagine the same issues that plague the FDA plague the EPA as well and again it is only the free press which is our last defense against companies who would go to great lengths to avoid negative publicity and therefore try to hold themselves to higher standards.

I reserve my last argument for the financial regulations especially the Dodd-Frank Act. I have read almost all of Michael Lewis’s books where he details Wall Street’s antics  , the Wolf of Wall Street did little to assuage my growing anxiety and anger reserved at Wall Street. The Dodd-Frank act was created after the gigantic cluster f*#@ that was the 2008 financial crisis. The Big Short clearly details how many in Big Finance knew but did nothing to stop it quite the contrary.Around 2015 , one of my closest friends got a call from one of his drunk classmates who happens to work in Wall Street. This fellow had just received a huge bonus for creating a enticing financial product.  Being drunk , he could not help bragging about the fact that he had 7-8 $10000/hour hookers and proceeds to tell my friend that this product will be a poison pill in about 10 years but right now it is extremely profitable for his employer and hence the bonus. It was a scene right out of the Wolf of Wall Street. This is obviously after the Dodd-Frank act and under President Obama’s so called age of regulations . So the Wall Street analysts are still having a gala time . About 2 weeks ago another close friend and his wife go to their financial planner for advice , he was all agog with excitement because President Trump had promised to dismantle all of these regulations which was crippling the financial industry and he could offer them much better products . All I could think of was Bernie Madoff!!! The financial crisis caused trillions of dollars to vanish and yet nobody went to jail . Not too long after the rescue of Citibank in 2009, I remember reading an article in the Wall Street Journal about a Citi stock broker getting a bonus of $340 million. Here is another interesting article. All of this happened in spite of extensive news coverage so I am convinced that we need every weapon possible to protect us from them including government regulations and investigative reporters.

Growing up , I was of a libertarian bent of mind which believes in less government but the more I read of businesses that hire armies of lawyers and accountants to seek loopholes , engineer financial products that is engineered to swindle us out of our hard earned money, I am convinced that regulators are needed , they don’t exist to provide jobs to incompetent government bureaucrats but to protect us.I don’t know what is going to happen to these government regulatory bodies or regulations which are in place to protect us, the common man and woman . What I do know is that our only defense against big businesses or politicians running amuck at this point is a free press which is not afraid to print what they see . Regardless of  right or left leanings, Republican or Democrat or Libertarian beliefs, we need a free press to thrive in order to have a thriving democracy , to protect the land we love.

A free press cannot survive without its subscribers . I started my annual subscription to the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal . I urge every one of you to do the same , whether the subscription is to your local newspaper or a national one.

A Rev Evolutionary Edu Vacation

Shantiniketan is the home of a unique University Viswa-bharati , India (and Asia)’s first Nobel Laureate , Rabindranath Tagore used the money from the Nobel prize to further his father’s vision of a place of higher learning , one of the instances when the Nobel prize money was actually put to good use as was hoped for, by Alfred Nobel. Einstein actually used it to pay his alimony .

This is an open air school where each classroom has a tree and a podium for the teacher

Rabindranath Tagore as a child hated the traditional concept of a school and played truant on the banks of the river Kopai . I imagine the river looked more scenic in his day. Legend also has it that he wrote Gitanjali on the banks of this river

I found a vendor of date palm jaggery on the banks of the river

This is a date palm tree .

They use coconut shells to shape the jaggery.

The villagers use the dried leaves of the date palm tree as fuel. The sap is tapped and collected into buckets which is then heated on a fire . It reminded me of Maple syrup from Sugar Maple trees in Ohio and Canada. The process is very organic , natural , vastly different from the manufacture of any of our sweeteners . I don’t know but I am willing to bet that the Glycemic Index of this is substantially below industrially manufactured and bleached white sugar.

Viswa-Bharati has several different schools but the one that I could visit was called Kala Bhavan or the art school . Getting around in Shantiniketan is done via Tuk-tuks , an improvised contraption on wheels that runs on natural gas

Our guide told us that we could get to the school after classes were over at 1:30 PM so we ended up visiting a museum nearby which housed cultural artifacts and models of homes in several of the nearby states

The one that fascinated me most was the dwellings of the aborgine people of Andaman and Nicobar islands

These are supposed to be stilts and the house is built on a raised platform

The floor is made of bamboo and incredibly uncomfortable to walk on . I hear that they sleep on this . Mind boggling!!!

This was my first view of Shantiniketan

The grounds are immaculately maintained

These are works of the Sculptor Ramkinkar Baij

What is remarkable about these sculptures is that he created them by putting up a wireframe and then throwing gobs of concrete and plaster from a distance . I could not but draw parallels between this technique and Jackson Pollack

Walking in further lead to more amazing scenes like these murals

 

A painting in stone

Amazingly these murals were made with tiles

 

 

Watching this reminded me of Frank Wright LLoyds Fallingwater. A harmony of architecture with Nature !!!

Watching the Banyan vines made me nostalgic

 

This was an amazing artifact to me , the artist had created a bug with the gas tank of a Yamaha motorcycle , motorcycle mirror holders and other odd artifacts . In fact at the open air market outside the school were a variety of handicrafts , handloom textiles and curiosities as the above made beetle , all made from household materials . The artist had clearly seen regular every day items with a creative eye and produced something all of his own .

I loved the concept of this school , the idea of applying what you know while you are being taught . Unfortunately I could not quite see how the other schools in Viswa-Bharati were conducting their classes . It would be quite interesting to see the science schools

Education as a subject has always fascinated me . The current model of education all over the world which has pupils memorizing and regurgitate for the sake of the exam encourages a behavior where the student is rewarded for memorizing meaningless facts and promptly forgetting after the exam is over .

I have heard numerous arguments for allowing kids to drop subjects that they dislike . Math seems to be a popular choice for dropping . Plato had a quote outside his Academy that anybody ignorant of math should not enter  and if the ancient Greeks thought so highly of a well rounded education in those simpler times, this day and age simply demands it. I believe that not being exposed to the core ideas in all subjects is like going through life with your hands cuffed behind your back. I have learnt from personal experience as well as very interesting reading that exposure is what allows us to recognize patterns and exploit them .

Growing up in India and watching snow in movies made me believe that snow was white fluffy stuff that was good for skiing (which I thought was a risk less sport) and making snow balls and hitting your friends. I moved to Ohio in December and before the winter was out , I had recognized several kinds of snow , the fluffy ones , the heavy slushy ones . the ones that were overly slippery. I read that the Inuit living in the Arctic circle had 17 different words for snow . When your life depends on recognizing whether the snow / ice can handle your weight , I suppose it makes sense to be as specific as possible . It also makes sense to have specific words for it so you can hang your experiences on those words and thereby make it easy for recall.  Another  anecdote is about this tribe living deep in the Amazon rain forests who do not know the color blue . They know the color green and can discern minute difference in shades of green that most women would envy and yet when they were given a color wheel with shades of green and one blue and asked to point out to the color that stood out, none pointed at Blue. It is actually not too outlandish , first time I read Homer , I was baffled at his description of the wine dark sea . I could not imagine a sea that was the color of any wine that I had drunk . It made sense later on after I found out that the ancient Greeks had no word for blue . One could offer countless examples where one starts to recognize patterns only after one is taught to recognize the pattern or at least the principle behind the patterns .

The idea behind letting kids choose their future is an attractive one but to be able to do that , they need to be aware of all the choices and tools at their disposal. Paul Graham had an interesting essay , fair warning it is lengthy .

How to do what you love

In this playhouse of infinite forms I have had my play and here have I caught sight of him who is formless.
My whole body and my limbs have thrilled with his touch who is beyond touch; and if the end comes here, let it come—let this be my parting word.

This fragment from Gitanjali seems to refer to god but it could very well refer to that spark of creation that lies within each and every one of us , a spark that needs the tools that schools provide . This school is a testament to that spirit and to the vision of some great men who made it possible.

 

In praise of the City of Joy

The author  of Geography of Genius  makes a strong case for the fact that Genius tends to be clustered in space and time . Ancient Athens is the first known example when we had brilliant minds like Socrates , Aristotle , Plato , Herodotus , Aristophanes , Sophocles, Euripides,Euclid , Archimedes , Hippocrates  co exist within 200 years of each other . Moving forward , we can see the time of the Renaissance where we have Da Vinci , Michelangelo , Machiavelli live around the same time in Italy , fast forward a hundred years and we have the Enlightenment in Scotland that had Hume , Smith , Paris with Voltaire , Rousseau , Lavoisier, Montesquieu , Kant in Germany and our own Founding fathers in America , similarly between 1840 and 1920  Calcutta (Kolkata) experienced the Bengal Renaissance where we had Nobel laureates such as Rabindranath Tagore , Biologists / Physicists such as Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose . The book is very readable in spite of being only a subset of the different places and times (it skips Paris in 1920s).  So here I am in Kolkata , wondering if I can see what made the city so special in that time .

Kolkata had an interesting mix of populations during the British rule, while on the one hand , the most educated and Anglophilic existed here but co existing with them were the most fervent nationalists who were opposed to the British rule . The Indian national anthem comes from Rabindranath Tagore , there has been some rumblings that we should focus on”Vande Materam ” written by Bankim Chandra Bose (another Bengali) which is a fervently patriotic song that rouses one’s spirits even one such as myself who does not understand the language.

The people are reputed to be extremely friendly and helpful. I got my first taste of that when I was trying to get to the famous Kalighat temple. A rickshaw driver actually took a detour  to guide us through the narrow alleys to get us to Kalighat . I was touched. I had never ever experienced anything like it. Kalighat is an old Kali temple in Kolkata

Early morning street markets getting ready to open

The main temple dome

Inside the temple , I saw a streak of fresh blood across the floor and following the streak led me to the beheaded carcass of a baby goat. I suppose that was the sacrificial offering for the morning . I saw offerings of purple radishes  , I had never seen offerings of vegetables in temples before , asking the priest led to some incomprehensible mutterings in Bengali , after grilling him in Hindi , he responded curtly that I would not understand. I took the hint and moved on

A tram – relic of days bygone was certainly a sight to see . Though I see it routinely in San Francisco and find it mundane , somehow seeing it in Kolkata was different,  watching it amidst the crazy traffic is like watching a thriller .

This is a replica of the Big Ben in London.

These are the pictures of the famous Park street

I found some interesting fruits on Park street , I searched for them everywhere but could not find any

This fruit reminded me of starfruit, the texture is similar and just like starfruit , it is bland and juicy.

While this one was a total mystery

I learnt from Google that it was called a Rose Apple and apparently it is grown in Oregon and California but the ones in North America does not look anything like this. The texture is like a pear and it has a delightful rose fragrance. This particular variety grows in South East Asia

This is the iconic Howrah bridge on the Hoogly river

The Hoogly is a tributary of the Ganges , the holiest river for the Hindus . Hindu myths dictate that a dip in the Ganges washes away all of ones sins . Today the Ganges flows into Bangladesh where it meets the Indian ocean in the Bay of Bengal but every tributary is considered just as sacred so one finds a lot of Hindus bathing in the Hoogly

Kolkata is also the home of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa , an 18th century mystic highly revered in Bengal and also the home of Sri Vivekananda who travelled to America in 1890s and introduced a new spiritual movement in America . Sri Ramakrishna had his divine visions at the Dakshineshwar temple.

This is a view of the bridge from the temple

One has to take a ferry from the temple to get to Belur Math which is where the temples are dedicated to Ramakrishna, his wife  and his disciples and one gets to view where the old co-exists with the new

A fisherman in his canoe getting ready to launch his fishing tackle

As can be expected , the entrance from the water is quite scenic

The main temple

Feast for the eyes for Flora lovers

Dedicated to the wife of Sri Ramakrishna .

Just outside Belur Math was a street vendor selling something that looked like potatoes , and they call “Sweet Potato”, it turned out to be Jicama (Mexican Yam) my sister insisted on tasting it so we had the street vendor cut it up for us . He added some rock salt-spice mixture to the chopped pieces . The texture was more like  a pear and it did not taste at all like a raw potato or even the Jicama that I have eaten before. Just last month , I had encountered a book called the Botany of Desire which deals with 4 plants ; Apple , Potato , Cannabis and Tulip. The author reiterated was that these plants have been artificially moulded by our desires . Apples as sweet as a Red Delicious is an anomaly as is a Russet Burbank . We do not let these plants attain the vast potential that their genes are capable of . In the Andes is a purple potato that I have never heard about.  Kolkata showed me an apple that did not look or taste like any Apple that I had eaten before . A touching incident here was the interaction itself , my sister asked the vendor to add more of the salt spice mixture , he insisted that his concoction was the best but just to satisfy us , he gave us a packet of his precious spice mixture which he said we could add if we wanted but he assured us that we did not need to. I looked at him marveling at his torn clothes , extreme poverty had not affected his pride in his craft . His pride to me was touching and inspiring.

My tryst with history as I expected it did not materialize . There is a lot of history in this place including the Battle of Plassey which led to the first British stronghold on Indian soil in 1757 . Modern Kolkata owes a debt to Job Charnock who not only saved a young Indian woman from Sati , a dreadful practice of burning widows alive with their dead husbands but married her and sired 4 children and adopted Indian ways of smoking cheroots or Indian cigars and drinking arrack , a harsh palm brandy. I saw a hospital named after him and I presume that there are more memorials to the man .

RFD-Trunk-Road-Map3-tmagArticle

The Grand Trunk road connects Chittagong, Bangladesh to Kabul,Afghanistan via Kolkata , Delhi , Amritsar and Lahore. Reading about Sher Shah Suri who ruled India in 1540  , I had discovered the Grand Trunk road .However I was to learn later that Chandragupta Maurya  had built large sections of it.  This was my great opportunity to ride on the section of the Grand Trunk Road west of Kolkata and retracing the steps of those brave travelers so many centuries ago. While thrilling , most of it is slow progress . Like most highways in India , they tend to go through the hearts of small villages so one can expect a small crowd in the middle of the street drinking tea , a herd of buffaloes crossing the road and other interesting sights so dont speed , you never know what will show up in front of you on the road.

I found the culture to be charming and interesting , the city shuts down come 12:30 PM and does not re open until 3:30 – 4 PM . They take their time for lunch and a much needed siesta after the delicious meal . The sweets have been reputed to be the best in India as long as I can remember , I consumed them like a glutton who knows no tomorrow and I have to admit that just about everything that I tried there was delicious . The pale imitations that I had eaten earlier in other cities do not come close . They have an amazing variety of sweets that I did not know existed . On the flight there , several of my co passengers after learning that I had never been to Kolkata heartily recommended several sweetmeat shops and I fortunately took them up and indeed the sweets did not disappoint. The Bengalis love their meat and fish and indeed so much so that I was introduced to an amazing sight , one that I had never seen before . Vegetables , fruits , meat , fish , chicken all sold in the same market place with no separation .

Here one sees the goat carcasses alongside the fresh vegetables and moving further one sees a sea of fish . The Bengalis love their fish and call it the vegetable of the sea .

Bangur road is a tribute to their artistic capabilities

Here one sees a lawn sculpture of the famous Dandi march statue in Delhi

A horde of elephants

Bangur street is covered with street posts that have been created by artists , one finds a lifesize clown loitering around and a roadside snack vendor and only close inspection reveals that these are sculptures . The traffic is horrendous and parking is impossible so I could not get out of the car to take much needed pictures

Turned out that my trip to Kolkata was far shorter than what I should have planned for . Also turned out that there were far more sights to see including the Sunderbans which is the home of the Bengal tiger , Ganga Sagar which is where the Hoogly meets the Indian ocean .Time to plan a return trip!!

Ham Omelet

The title is not an indicator that I am hungry but just a funny misnomer for Hamlet that one of my online buddies Lily Von Valley had posted . Though it would be totally justified if I was hungry because sadly I am no connoisseur of gourmet airline food ( I was on a 15 hour non stop flight)  gourmet and airline !!! Is that not a contradiction in terms ? . So why am I reading Hamlet instead of sleeping ?? because the question of to be or not to be came to mind . What am I debating ? I was debating TO BE a capital A hole and tell the women that they need to get their babies to shut up !!! because I cannot sleep with at two (or was it twenty ) screaming babies . I planned for my jet lag by skipping sleep on my last night out but I forgot that every time I get on a long distance flight , it is infested with screaming babies . I am personally jinxed that way. Screaming babies (and people who fart a lot) are the kryptonite of my air travel but onto to more important things.

One finds oneself rooting for Hamlet as he grieves for his father , berates his mother for re marrying too soon ,sympathize with him as the son of an unjustly murdered king who is out to avenge his father ,  look on with complete apathy as Hamlet murders Polonius , chastises Ophelia and breaks her heart and almost look on in bemused amazement as Hamlet does not murder Claudius when he is praying , applaud Hamlet for his brilliant trick with the play where he depicts the murder of his father in front of the Claudius ,listen with his impassioned monologue with Yorick’s skull as he recounts the fragility of life and the shortness of mortal pursuits, weep as he is killed by Laertes’s poisoned sword. But that is looking at the proceedings exclusively through Hamlet’s view .

Hamlet’s soliloquy is a complete masterpiece , one has to read it several times because the layers that peel are rich in depth.

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub,

To be or not to be has been an universal dilemma pertaining to various aspects of life . However in Hamlet , he is dealing with the ultimate dilemma , to exist or not to exist. He is actually contemplating suicide because the torture of contemplating the various options that he perceives are so agonizing that he is actually questioning if it makes any sense for him to even live. In eastern traditions , suicide is not forbidden or even threatened with everlasting doom as much as the western Judeo Christian traditions ( I wonder how much of it is due to Dante) and in fact, in Japan we have the proud Samurai traditions of Seppuku. Without that particular filter in place,  it is harder for somebody from eastern traditions to grasp the mental anguish that he seems to be going through . I am not suggesting that humans are thrilled about the prospect of suicide regardless of culture but in western traditions , an onerous burden is added . About 10 years ago , a friend had committed suicide in Ohio and many people did not think twice before telling his friends and family that he was going to burn in everlasting hell.

The play gets richer as we move our roving eye and look through Polonius eye’s who is being extremely loyal to the king or through the eyes of Ophelia whose tragedy seems to surpass that of Hamlet . Hamlet’s tragedy is a result of his choices , Ophelia’s tragedy is a direct result of her love for her father and Hamlet, she is truly helpless. Laertes’s revenge could be considered the sub plot of revenge that mirrors Hamlet’s own demons . The grave diggers are relatively minor and yet there is a monumental gem that comes down to us from them . When Hamlet queries as to who is being buried , they remark that it is not a man or a woman that they are burying and only after further interrogation that Hamlet finds out that it WAS a woman. It is a reminder that all our differences exist only for the living . The dead have no sex , no color , no religion or beliefs. Gertrude has so few lines that one can mistake her for being inconsequential and yet she tries throughout to reconcile Hamlet with Claudius and eventually she makes the ultimate sacrifice for Hamlet . The only person that seems to show up throughout and yet , I am not sure what the reason or import is the character of Fortenbras .

It is clear that women are second class citizens in this world but why is this important for us? Because Gertrude getting married had little to do with Gertrude’s wishes and yet Hamlet berates her continuously , she is an important figure but she is a puppet for her brother in law who turns into her husband , her son and in one case even Polonius. Marrying a brother in law is hardly incest and yet , Hamlet considers it incestuous and accuses her of incest every opportunity he gets . Poor Ophelia gets the shrift as well , everybody including Hamlet runs her life for her ,while she is torn helplessly between her love for her father and Hamlet.

I have added myself to the long list of Shakespeare admirers who believe that Hamlet is his greatest work. There is a long list of quotes that have made it into the common lingo “Frailty, thy name is woman.” , “This above all: to thine own self be true”,”There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”,”Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”,”Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”,”There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”,”One may smile, and smile, and be a villain. “, “Sorrows come not as single spies but in battalions”.

I think it is finally time for me to go get a Ham Omelet !!!