Monday Morning Blues  

Posted by CK in

Sigh. It's another Monday morning and I feel dreadful. Kind of because it was not the best weekend, partly because it's Monday and I'm back to work (here. :| ) and partly because it's a gloomy day and I just found out that Brittany Murphy passed away at the age of 32... of natural causes. 

I'm turning 29 in a few days and that's scary as all hell. It makes me wonder what life has in store for me. Sometimes I feel like I'll live to be 200 years old and sometimes I feel like it's my last day around. The inconsistency of life never ceases to astound me. You never know who's next or when they'll go. If today is my last day, I'd like to be living it up, not sitting in an office working. But then again, who does? 

When I was an eager pup of 17, I had determined that I would live my life everyday like it was my last. I'm sure everyone makes these declarations when they're young and naive. But how many people actually live it. I know a few do. They make sure everyday is a celebration of some sort. Of love, happiness, something. And there's me. I'm in a rut that I desperately want out of. 

I think I've fallen into this ever since I moved back to India. I've never really felt quite at home here and I always felt that if I move away, life will be great again. But how much of this is just wishful thinking and reminiscing of glory days. What's to say that if I lived anywhere, my life would be any different from how it is today. Just a different office, a different setting but the same routine. 

My greatest fear is that I will never find what it is that makes me truly happy. Whether it's the job, a place, I don't know. And I keep waiting for stuff to happen to me. I know this is a coward's way out but I don't know what I need to do to find some peace of mind and some fulfillment. 

I really hate feeling the way I am right now. I really wish I could up and leave and damn the consequences but unfortunately, I cannot. 

I have always promised myself that I would be fearless and never be poor. I mean, monetarily. Towards that end, I'm making headway but what about everything else. Am I willing to sacrifice the rest of life in pursuit of money? But at the same time, I can't go out and do what makes me happy because I have no clue what it is that will make me happy. 

I sound like a mess and I kind of feel that way too. 

Book Review : Prince of Ayodhya - Ashok K. Banker  

Posted by CK in , ,

And another book done. And this time, I finished it in record time, I'm proud to say. I completed the 500-odd pages of Prince of Ayodhya in one day. I started the book in the morning on the bus ride to work and was done by the time I hit the sack later that night. I read it at lunch, in the loo, on the bus ride back and any other spare moment I got. And the reason is, for the first time in a LONG time, I just couldn't put the book down. It was brilliant. It took me back to the days when I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time. I used to read it in class, during lunch, in the loo (yes, that's where the best reading is done). The writing was brilliant, the subject riveting and the characters, real and relatable. "How," you might ask, "are characters from a 3000 year old epic relatable?" To which I would say... READ THE BOOK. No, really. It was a contemporary look at the legendary classic The Ramayana. Ashok Banker took a few liberties, sure, but then again, who doesn't? And the result is a story that is gritty, full of adventure, fantasy & drama with just the right mix of mythology thrown in.

Now, I'm a huge mythology fan and right up there with the Greek and Roman, are the Indian myths. Our pantheon of a few hundred million deities gives us a lot to read and write about and the Ramayana is a good vs. evil story with a punch.

Rama, Lakshman and other characters of Banker's Prince of Ayodhya (PoA, for short) aren't demigods or incarnations of the one true God (not yet, anyways). They are teenage boys (around 15) born into a royal family facing a grave threat of invasion. The invading hordes are Asuras (Rakshasas) headed by the dreaded demon lord, Ravana. This book reminded me so much of LOTR which is probably why I'm fawning over it so much. Like Sauron, Ravana has been marshaling his forces to overrun the Arya Nations (Indian kingdoms) with a demon horde the likes of which has never been seen. It's up to Rama and his brother, Lakshman who are princes of the Suryavansha royal house to go out there and start the process of opposing him. The Asura Wars (like the Last Alliance of Elves and Men) was when Ravana was defeated by the current ruler of Ayodhya the Unconquerable, King Dusserutha. He is now old and about to announce Rama's ascension to the Sun Throne when Guru Vishwamitra (not unlike Gandalf and the Ishtari) comes to warn Ayodhya of Lanka's plans. The Gurus, Vishwamitra and Vashishta are two of the Seven Seers. They are sages of supreme power who have control over the magic of the Universe (called Brahman) and able to channel these energies to achieve the pinnacle of knowledge through penance and are almost immortal. They guide the princes on the path of righteousness that will eventually lead to victory.

I've read the original Ramayana as a child and it was very one-dimensional. There were the Princes, exiled from Ayodhya, Sita (Rama's love) gets kidnapped by Ravana who desires her and they raise an army and go get her back (and kill him, as a matter of course). This book describes, in contemporary language, how two normal boys are able to take on the demons who are powerful magical entities (not unlike Orcs). Another thing that makes PoA  great is the side stories of deceit and intrigue within the Royal household which will eventually lead to Rama & Lakshman's exile. But that's much later. We have very realistic characters like Kausalya (the first Queen) and the King and they're all normal people who feel lust, pride, joy, sorrow, envy and rage. They aren't all perfect versions of humanity who have only righteousness in their hearts. They've made mistakes that they regret, they feel anger and betrayal and the whole gamut of human emotions that the previous telling of these epics lacked. 

DISCLAIMER: I've read one of the million abridged versions out there, so the version I've read might be one-dimensional. I'm sure the original Sanskrit telling must have had all the things I felt my version lacked.

Now, for my favorite part. Indian myth has always had great potential for brilliant stories, granted that the person deals with them in a way that 21st century people can understand. Banker does just that. He says that like the age old tradition of honor, the princes are bound to Dharma (one's obligation in respect to one's position in society). They must, as princes of the royal house and being Kshatriyas (warriors), fulfill their destiny and duty in fighting the scourge that will soon cover the land in darkness. He brings old traditional sentiments and makes them very relatable emotions of today. He also infuses into the story at appropriate points, the stories of Hindu mythology, like the marriage of Shiva and Parvati, Kama's Folly, the stories of Lanka just to name a few.

I'm told Banker has a few inconsistencies in his novel but all that's forgivable because the narrative is so engrossing and fast paced. Besides, they are nothing major that impact the outcome in any significant way.

It's so well put together that I really could not stop reading. I'm going to have to get the next book right away. 

Book Review : 2001 A Space Odyssey - Arthur C Clarke  

Posted by CK in ,

I have just finished another book and this one is quite the contrast to my recently completed Wodehouse classic. 2001 A Space Odyssey has been called one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time and one of the greatest movies of all time. Just as well because both the book and the movie were written almost simultaneously.

Both the book and the movie are based on Arthur C. Clarke's short story, The Sentinel. The Sentinel is the story of an artifact that is found on the Moon's surface that is surrounded by a force field. The artifact is sending out a signal to the stars and the moment the force field is breached, it stops emitting. The story hypothesizes that it is a warning of some kind to a race beyond this world that another space-faring race that has just emerged.

Stanley Kubrick is one my all time favorite directors. His movies that I have seen thus far have been nothing short of genius. I've seen A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket, Eyes Wide Shut, The Shining and a few more and I've loved each and every one of them. I've only seen the first few minutes of 2001 and for the life of me, I can't remember why it is I didn't complete watching the rest of the movie.

I'll give the movie its due when I do get around to watching it but for now, I want to focus on the book.

The book starts with the dawn of human evolution (about 3 million years ago) when ape-men were no different from all the rest of the animals out there. Sociologists and anthropologists have theorized that it was around that time that "men" in their basest form started using tools, discovered fire, etc. And the rest is history. Sweeping across the globe, we are now the dominant species for the time being. The story goes that the ape-men were no different from the rest of the animals with the exception of walking upright. One day a giant "rock" or monolith appears that starts giving them intelligence. Now, I'm not talking about dodo to Einstein but basic thought like picking up a bone to defend themselves. And this monolith was just one of many around the world trying to induce intelligence in to different species around at that time. It made a few adjustments and took a few chances, rolled the die, if you would. And then it disappears. The ape-men are the first to take to this experiment and show progress. One among them, Moon Watcher, the leader of one tribe is able to more ably handle tools and hunt and he becomes the first step of the next stage of human evolution. He is the master of the world.

I have always wondered about the theory that life on this planet had extra-terrestrial origins. Every science fiction story has some kind of a mythology about it in some way. Benevolent higher beings run around the galaxy seeding life on different planets, as an experiment, to preserve their essence, to ensure life doesn't end with their extinction. But I don't necessarily agree. I think the Earth has a few 100 billion species to boast of. A lot of which evolve in just over millenia to become something new and never before seen. I think  we're just on one of those lucky planets and we won the evolutionary lottery to take first place... for now.

We jump forward 3 million years to the year 1999 when a doctor is called to the moon colony under a top secret cover stories of a plague (explaining the news blackout from the moon base) and is told that while digging, they uncovered a black column that is perfectly symmetrical and adheres to a 1:4:9 ratio in its construct and is hence, artificially created. They have no idea what it does but it is carbon-dated to be 3 million years old. This is the first sign of intelligent life outside our world and there is obvious excitement. And just as they are examining it, there's a sunrise on the moon and just as the rays of sun shine on the monolith for the first time in a few million years, a sharp burst of energy shoots from it in to outer space.

Now, again, we jump a few years to 2001. David Bowman and Frank Poole are two astronauts aboard the spaceship Discovery on their way to Saturn via Jupiter for extra-planetary study. They have 3 more members in "hibernation" or suspended animation. And their on-board computer is a marvel of technology, the HAL 9000 (Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic Computer). He maintains life aboard ship and the astronauts are just caretakers.

The story follows the life aboard and the wonders, fears, doubts and exhilaration of inter-planetary travel. The two men are honored and excited at being the first two to venture in to the unknown like the sailors of old, but at the same time, go through feelings of immense loneliness that comes with the realization that the next human other than the 5 on board are a few hundred million miles away.

Both Poole and Bowman fall in to a routine that, if all goes well, will not be disturbed for a few years until they hit Saturn orbit. Then the remaining astronauts are woken up and research commences. But, of course, something goes wrong. HAL starts malfunctioning and reporting errors when there are none. When the two, after much deliberation, decide to disconnect HAL, the computer takes matters into its own hands and kills Poole when he ventures outside the ship for some repair work. Bowman who is inside tries waking up another astronaut for help, at which time HAL opens the airlocks and vents the ship's atmosphere trying to kill Bowman and hence protect himself. Bowman manages to survive and disconnects HAL.

Here, you have your Frankenstein complex come into play. Man builds something more advanced than he is but it eventually turns on him and it is his own undoing. Now, with HAL no longer a threat and the remaining astronauts are all dead, Mission Control tells him that the purpose wasn't just a study of Saturn but that it was a mission of paramount significance. The monolith, before it fell silent, had sent one strong burst of energy in the direction of Saturn and to Japetus (a moon of Saturn) in particular. It was kept hush-hush but the hibernating astronauts were trained to study whatever it was the monolith was trying to communicate with. With the usual human paranoia, they wonder if it's an alarm sent out setting into motion an advancing army of aliens or just a simple signal. Since he's the sole survivor of the mission crew, he must find out what is out there, in the name of humanity.

Bowman, amazed at first, accepts this and again falls into a routine till Saturn orbit is achieved. He's overwhelmed by the fact that he is to be the representative for all humankind, for better or for worse. As they approach Japetus, Bowman keeps wondering what awaits him and he finds out soon enough. As he hits orbit, he finds something that is nothing short of astounding.

On the surface of Japetus is another monolith far larger than its little cousin on the moon. This one is 2000 feet high and proportional in every other way to the moon monolith. And as Bowman flies towards it to investigate, it awakens after 3 million years of waiting. It accesses its instructions as to what to do when this eventuality happens and opens up to let him in. It is a Star Gate.

Bowman falls through sending one last signal to Earth before he vanishes. He says, "The thing's hollow - it goes on for ever - and - oh my God - it's full of stars!"

He is then transported through sights and sounds that defy human comprehension. He passes stars, galaxies, nebulae and astronomical phenomena that are beyond our wildest dreams. He sees ancient abandoned space ports and ship yards until finally, he falls into a star. A red sun where he sees brilliant lights and lands in a hotel lobby. It's a perfect recreation of what a hotel would look like in any city in America. At closer inspection, he sees that it's all fake. A phone book with nothing inside, cereal boxes that outwardly look like Earth brands but filled with an alien substance. He believes that if the aliens would wanted to have killed him, all they needed to do was to let space take him. He lies down after a while and as he sleeps, his entire life flashes before him in reverse order. He dreams with clear vividness, all the important events in his life and realizes that all his memories are being drained and stored and he feels himself changing. The same creatures that created the monolith are probing him the way the monolith did to the ape-men and Moon Watcher but this time with a different objective. To push man to the next stage of evolution. He opens his eyes as a being of pure energy. He is the Star Child.

He exists in space and time as a being that is both immortal and omnipotent. He then encounters other energy beings that show him how to jump through space and all its dimensions (not just three) with ease and he realizes that the Universe is his playground.

He returns to Earth and as he approaches, the nations of the world panic and launch their nuclear warheads at this new entity that is coming at them. With a thought. he destroys all the warheads on the planet. And just like Moon Watcher before him, he's the master of the world and wonder what he will do next. "I'll think of something.", he says to himself.

I find the entire story and premise fascinating. I have always thought (like other sci-fi fans, I'm sure) that when the human potential is completely realized (we utilize 100% of our brain), we will achieve something akin to Godhood. We will be capable of acts and feats that, right now, we attribute to the supernatural and impossible. I would love to be David Bowman and achieve control over mind & matter and have all the knowledge of the stars at my fingertips.

For anybody who loves science fiction, don't miss it.

Book Review : Imperial Blandings - P.G.Wodehouse  

Posted by CK in , ,

So, after almost 2 odd months of reading, I've finally completed my first P.G.Wodehouse book, Imperial Blandings. Now, it's only thanks to the insistence of one person (thanks VC :) ) that I even started reading Wodehouse. And I have to say that this book is absolutely hilarious.

Very few writers have made me laugh out loud while I read. Dave Barry is one, Bill Bryson is another and now, Wodehouse is right there with them.

I know he's a world famous humorist but I have no idea why I haven't read him till now. The reason it took me 2 long months to finish this book is because I only got time to read it on the bus on the way to work or during lunch breaks.

Blandings Castle and its inhabitants, Lord Emsworth, the 9th Earl of Emsworth (known far and wide for his absent-mindedness) and his family and the situations that arise from their misadventures are the basis of the three stories that make up Imperial Blandings. The three stories included herein are Full Moon, Pigs Have Wings and Service with a smile. 

If you're wondering about the lovely, obese pig on the cover, she is the Empress of Blandings, the apple of Lord Emsworth's eye and "the winner of many prizes in the "Fat Pigs" class at the local Shropshire Agricultural Show." She is also a recurring plot device involving some character trying to kidnap her for various purposes. Clarence Threepwood, our Lord in question also has nine sisters, all of whom look like the "daughters of a hundred Earls" except for Hermoine who looks like a cook and are all formidable forces of nature who stand in the way of love. That means anytime a daughter of high society is about to elope with a person "below her class" or with no money, they are immediately packed away to Blandings Castle where they mope and keep considering various ways of ending their misery like "drowning in the lake" or cleaning the Earl's study.

To their rescue comes Galahad "Gally" Threepwood, the Lord's younger brother who has "never made the mistake of going to bed before three a.m." and is known to never touch a non-alcoholic beverage if there is alcohol to be had. He is the hero in the first two stories, Full Moon & Pigs have wings. Another savior is Lord Ickenham who, like Gally is known to have a weakness for young love and solving problems if he's just given the time to think about it. He's the hero of our third story.

Wodehouse has an amazingly dry sense of humor and the butt of most of his jokes are the upper-class British Lords, Earls and Dukes with the black sheep of the family always providing the solutions, mostly by confusing all involved with devious and hilarious plots. Most stories have two underlying themes. Someone always wants the Empress, to kidnap her or to have her lose the "Fat Pigs Competition". The second is unrealized love. with either a daughter of the house or some rich friend being sent to Blandings Castle because she's made the mistake of falling in love with someone without so much as a penny to their name. Now, the Aunts are the main antagonists always trying to marry them off to rich suitors and it is up to Gally or Ickenham to save the day.

Now, Blandings Castle serves as the setting for 11 novels and 9 short stories of which I've only read three. But there's hardly anything that's going to stop me from going out and reading the remaining books.

And here, for your pleasure are some quotes from P.G.Wodehouse:

“Unlike the male codfish which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons.”

 “She fitted into my biggest armchair as if it had been built round her by someone who knew they were wearing armchairs tight about the hips that season.”

"At the age of eleven or thereabouts women acquire a poise and an ability to handle difficult situations which a man, if he is lucky, manages to achieve somewhere in the later seventies."
Millicent reached for a cup.
'Cream and sugar, Uncle Gally?'
He stopped her with a gesture of shocked loathing.
'You know I never drink tea. Too much respect for my inside. Don't tell me you are ruining your inside with that poison.'
'Sorry, Uncle Gally. I like it.'
'You be careful,' urged the Hon. Galahad, who was fond of his niece and did not like to see her falling into bad habits. 'You be very careful how you fool about with that stuff. Did I ever tell you about poor Buffy Struggles back in 'ninety-three? Some misguided person lured poor old Buffy into one of those temperance lectures illustrated with colored slides, and he called on me next day ashen, poor old chap – ashen. "Gally," he said. "What would you say the procedure was when a fellow wants to buy tea? How would a fellow set about it?" "Tea?" I said. "What do you want tea for?" "To drink," said Buffy. "Pull yourself together, dear boy," I said. "You're talking wildly. You can't drink tea. Have a brandy-and-soda." "No more alcohol for me," said Buffy. "Look what it does to the common earthworm." "But you're not a common earthworm," I said, putting my finger on the flaw in his argument right away. "I dashed soon shall be if I go on drinking alcohol," said Buffy. Well, I begged him with tears in my eyes not to do anything rash, but I couldn't move him. He ordered in ten pounds of the muck and was dead inside the year.'
'Good heavens! Really?'
The Hon. Galahad nodded impressively.
'Dead as a door-nail. Got run over by a hansom cab, poor dear old chap, as he was crossing Piccadilly. You'll find the story in my book.'

"Recipe for Christmas Rum Cake

1 or 2 quarts rum
1 cup butter
1 tsp. sugar
2 large eggs
2 cups dried assorted fruit
1 tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. soda
1 tbsp. lemon juice
2 cups brown sugar
3 cups chopped English walnuts

"Before you start, sample the rum to check for quality. Good, isn't it? Now select a large mixing bowl, measuring cup, etc. Check the rum again. It must be just right. Be sure the rum is of the highest quality. Pour one cup of rum into a glass and drink it as fast as you can. Repeat. With an electric mixer, beat one cup butter in a large fluffy bowl. Add 1 seaspoon of tugar and beat again. Meanwhile, make sure the rum teh absolutely highest quality. Sample another cup. Open second quart as necessary. Add 2 orge laggs, 2 cups of fried druit and beat untill high. Sample the rum again, checking for toncisticity. Next sift 3 cups of baking powder, a pinch of rum, a seaspoon of toda, and a cup of pepper. Or maybe salt. Sample some more. Sift ¾ pint of lemon juice. Fold in schopped butter and strained chups. Add bablespoon of brown gugar, or whatever color you have. Mix mell. Grease oven and turn cake pan to 350 gredees and rake until poothtick comes out crean."

—Author Unknown;
maybe Omar Khayyám,
or Sir Galahad Threepwood

Memories - Saudi Part III  

Posted by CK in , , ,

I was 9 when the hostilities began that would go on to become the Gulf War. I remember not paying too much attention to anything but my parents and other people kept talking about it whispers. "He wouldn't!" "Saddam won't actually cross the line. He's just posturing." I remember wondering who Saddam was and what was wrong with his posture.

But it did happen. The Iraqi Republican Guard captured Kuwait City with very little resistance and Saddam overran it's oil rich neighbor with alarming ease. After a lot of pre-war diplomacy that went to naught, the United States and a massive coalition of 34 countries decided to launch a massive retaliation in order to protect the largest oil reserves in the world that are situated in Saudi. Saddam, then foolishly decided that since Kuwait had been such an easy target, moving further south to capture the oil fields of Al-Ahsa and Ras Tanura wouldn't be that hard. But this wasn't to be the case.

All this hardly affected us in Saudi but people started getting scared. What if Saddam decides to use chemical or biological weapons the way he did against the Kurds in Al-Anfal. Everyone started buying up war stores. Tonnes of food, batteries, blankets and a few hundred rolls of duct tape. Have you ever wondered what buying duct tape is all about? People seem to think of it as a miracle fix-all during hostilities. "Is that window shattered? No worries, we've got duct tape here.""Shrapnel wounds? Um... no surgical gauze available to stem the flow, but will duct tape do?" I swear to God, we had about 500 rolls.

My first real glimpse of what was coming was the first landing of US troops on Saudi soil in August of 1990. Well, not the first landing because they have Air Bases in the Kingdom but the first of the war. The coolest sight in the world to a 9 year old kid was scores of US Marines in their Humvees and camouflage walking through the streets of Dammam and Khobar. (The US 6th Fleet is anchored in Bahrain which is no further than 20 kms away). These troops were so cool and I thought they'd stepped right out of the movies. And also, there were WOMEN MARINES!! These chicks were no different from the men in their attitudes or actions and to someone who'd been living in the male dominated society of Saudi, seeing them in real life (as opposed to on TV) was crazy.

In fact, the presence of all these Marines didn't go over too well with the Islamists in the population. They felt that the Saudi government had sold its soul to protect the country. All these "decadent", gum chewing, loud-mouthed who had no fear of the local Mutawwa was something that was unacceptable. Having women Americans do that was just all too much for the local Mutawwa.

So, there was an incident where apparently, a Mutawwa walked up to a woman Marine and demanded she cover her hair and face. The Marine told him to go f#$k himself which would have given him a coronary. No one argues with the Mutawwa and to top it off, a woman had the gall to... so, he grabbed her arm and she coolly took out her gun and shot him. Now, would you call that a little extreme? Maybe. Was it awesome? Definitely. It was the talk of the town for ages. All the women in the country (local or otherwise) cheered for girl/woman power (albeit very softly). The religious fundamentalists were ticked off but couldn't do anything because the US had over 100,000 troops in the country and the woman Marine was airlifted out of the Kingdom before the Saudis could say "What the...?"

So, saying the influx of the US Marine core cause a flutter in the Kingdom is kind of understating it. But Operation Desert Shield (protection of the Saudi border areas) had begun. 

It was around this time that the schools had started shutting down and there was much rejoicing amongst all school kids. The first real scary aspect of the war hit home when my dad went out and got us all chemical gas masks. 

There is nothing even remotely cool when people are explaining to you that if the siren sounds, put this on, duck for cover and if you see a colored gas cloud advancing towards you, run in the opposite direction because the "cloud" will melt your skin.

Every day, Iraqi Scud missiles would be shot into Saudi airspace and a few hundred Patriots Interceptors would be fired to "intercept" them. I say this in quotes because despite our belief in American tech superiority, I later found out that it was a game of numbers. For ever Scud shot down, some 40 - 50 Patriots were sent up to intercept. The fact that they were peppering the sky hoping for a hit, gives me the jitters.

Two incidents happened that are kind of etched in my memory. The first was when my dad and I went out to buy groceries. We were in the shopping section of Dammam and were out there for maybe 5 minutes when the air raid siren sounded and my dad had asked me to wait in the car. I knew that the first thing I had to do was to reach for my gas mask and put it on immediately. I reached in to my canister bag (which all citizens HAD to carry at all times), hurriedly pulled it on and spent the next 5 minutes in absolute terror breathing hard through the lenses and staring frantically for my dad. Once you put one of those things on, it gives you a very surreal look at the world and everything looks like you're viewing the world through molasses. I think it must've been just a few minutes before my dad came back but it seemed like I was in there for a lifetime. Nothing untoward happened and I was fine but that was so bloody scary at the time.

The second was a little while later after which my folks immediately shipped us away. Like I've said before, off the coast of Tarout, there are, withing seeing distance, the oil platforms of Ras Tanura. These were the prize that Saddam so badly wanted but was never going to happen. So, he figured, if you can't catch them, burn them. He had already started the oil well fires in Kuwait that darkened the skies over Saudi for weeks. 

So, Ras Tanura being as close as it was, it was normal to hear the siren and see fireworks in the sky as multiple Scuds and Patriots fought it out in the air above us. One afternoon, the siren sounded as my sister and I were on the roof and we could see a missile sailing above and almost immediately, the multiple interceptor launches and this was one of those times that peppering the sky didn't help. The Scud got through and I saw it make its way inland (the Scuds were never accurate weapons, just brute force) and I saw it disappear over the horizon and then the sound of a huge boom. This was the one that landed in an American residential compound and killed six American families as they sat in their homes. 

These two incidents defined the war for me. The Americans called it the "Computer War" but there was nothing computer-like about either incident.

We had an uncle (a family friend) who was a senior executive at the AlMarai Dairy Farms very far removed from the cities and we were immediately sent there while my parents made arrangements for us to leave Saudi. This was a truly different experience. To give you an idea, I'll have to explain what these Farms are like.  

Almarai is the largest dairy food company in the Middle East. Normally, when you say the words Middle East, the first thing that doesn't pop into your head is rolling farmlands for as far as the eye can see. But that's exactly what we encountered. Hundreds of acres of lush, green farms growing fodder, amongst other things for the million or so Jerseys that they have on the farms. I guess it doesn't take centuries to make the desert into arable land, just millions of Saudi oil Riyals. 

We spent an idyllic few weeks there playing with my uncle's kids in their huge house, feeding the rabbits that were around and went riding a few times. 

Then came the final rush out of the country. As you could've imagined, all routes out of Saudi after the launch of Operation Desert Storm (the retaking of Kuwait) were packed with millions of expats striving to get out before any more bombs fell. And this was our last great trip during the war. My sister and I along with another family (close family friends of ours) drove across the Causeway to Bahrain, waited 16 hours to be let through to the airport, flew immediately to Oman, waited a day there and then took the next flight to Bombay. With that, we saw the last of Gulf War I. 

Of course, we came back a few months later after the liberation of Kuwait and the severe drubbing of the Iraqi armed forces. There were stories abound about the torture, rape and looting that the Iraqi regular army and the Republican Guard unleashed while occupying and exiting Kuwait. And I remember thinking, wow, I just experienced (somewhat) a war. It was unreal and though I never (thankfully) saw the mayhem and the devastation that the Kuwaitis must've felt, I still thought the experience was very poignant. 

There were still a few incidents which flared up through the next few years like the bombing of Khobar Towers of 1996 which claimed 20 lives and injured 370 others. I was a few kilometers away at the time in a friend's place and thought it was an earthquake. Windows shattered and the ground rumbled. But the rest of my years in Saudi were relatively peaceful compared to the turmoil of 1990-91. 

My next memory of note is near the ending of my school life in the Kingdom (Grade 10-12) and my subsequent and very eventful relocation to St.John's, Newfoundland. But I'll get to that in a little while. :)

Memories - Saudi Part II  

Posted by CK in , ,

(previous post -  Memories - Saudi Part I)

So, that's where I grew up, initially. Now, when it came to school, I attended International Indian School, Dammam. Now, the school only started in 1982 and when I started attending it in 1985, it was a wee school with a few hundred students and a few dozen teachers. Today, this behemoth is home to 14,500 students and over 600 teachers. I believe, it is the biggest school in the Gulf.

By the time I left the school in 1997, it was now located in the above building. The beauty of schools in Saudi is that they are all segregated by sex. If you have 7000 boys on one side of the campus, you have 7000 girls on the other side, both seperated by high walls and fraternizing across the wall was not only frowned upon but was punishable.

My dad served on the Managing Committee of the school, which was chosen by the Indian Ambassador to Saudi at the time, Mr.Hamid Ansari (who is now the Vice-President of India). So, this made school both extra-enjoyable and extra-tricky for me. I could always rely on things getting done two minutes before I wanted them but at the same time, if I ever got in to trouble, then Dad would also be aware two minutes before the deed was done. I made some great friends in school, ALL of whom are married now, with kids, which is scary but that is another topic for another day.

We used to spend our weekends (Thursday and Friday in the Middle East) visiting Dammam and Khobar and the only thing and I repeat, the only thing we had to do as kids was visit malls or play sports. Am I talking fun malls with movie theaters and crazyness? Nope, just sprawling malls where you'd walk around with friends (movie halls don't exist in the Kingdom because they're "un-Islamic") and maybe, if you're lucky, spot a cute girl. Now, anywhere else in the world, this would mean that the girl is actually cute, but in Saudi, where ALL the women wear Burqas (infernal cloths that cover them from head to toe with an eye slit to look through) the phrase takes a new meaning.

So, when we spot girls, they had to have exquisite eyes or great hands. And you're not allowed to stare either, cause then you'll be rushed by other Saudi males and you will be summarily beaten for "dishonoring a female". Soo, all my friends were AWESOME at sports. I, myself, wasn't great but I could hold my own.

Saudi is a strange land with archaic customs that were old-fashioned a hundred years ago. But yet, they remain. No one dares say anything for fear of repercussions from the all powerful Mutawwas. I'd have a lot to say but Wiki summarizes it better:

"The Mutaween in Saudi Arabia are tasked with enforcing Sharia as defined by the government, specifically by the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV). The Mutaween of the CPVPV consists of "more than 3,500 officers in addition to thousands of volunteers...often accompanied by a police escort." They have the power to arrest unrelated males and females caught socializing, anyone engaged in homosexual behavior or prostitution; to enforce Islamic dress-codes, and store closures during the prayer time. They enforce Muslim dietary laws, prohibit the consumption or sale of alcoholic beverages and pork, and seize banned consumer products and media regarded as un-Islamic (such as CDs/DVDs of various Western musical groups, television shows and film). Additionally, they actively prevent the practice or proselytizing of other religions within Saudi Arabia, where they are banned."

They are honestly loathsome people who make the life of any non-Saudi non-Muslim, living hell. People were always in fear of these Mutawwa and their ability to walk in to anyone's life and tear it apart. I knew about them and had seen what they could do, but I, myself was quite sheltered and never had direct dealings with one.

The general populace consists of two types of people, the educated elite (educated abroad in Europe or the US) and the bedouins who make up one group are understanding and welcoming of foreigners. The former, because they see that expats are necessary to run the country because the majority of the Saudi population can't and the latter, because they still believe in the old ways of bedouin hospitality where they treat a guest with utmost respect but are quick to anger at an insult. Then there's the other group of small-minded, fundamentalist Islamists who know that foreigners are necessary but feel that they are better than any non-Muslim, non-Saudi. I have no idea what perpetuates this belief because a lot of them are plain stupid and/or ignorant, but that's the general belief.

This is the reason that over 90% of expats there prefer to live in closed or sheltered communities with other non-Saudis and very rarely do you see a Saudi and a non-Saudi fraternizing.

I have mixed emotions about Saudi. When a person lives their entire life in a country, they have a sense of belonging to their adopted place, some loyalty. Saudi Arabia makes it very hard to feel anything towards it but a thinly veiled mistrust. I myself love the country and dislike the people. I would never go back there voluntarily. But having said that, once a person moves to the Gulf, it's almost impossible to leave (any Gulfie can back me up on this). Most of my friends grew up there and are still there, working, as are their folks. I don't know whether it's the lure of money and no taxes or it's just simply that easy to fall into a routine that's almost impossible to break.

Gas still costs less than a Riyal per liter. That's Rs.12 or $0.25. And this is AFTER a 25% increase.

I both love and hate Saudi Arabia and I guess now, you know why. 

Before I end with this, I want to show you pictures of some of these sprawling colossi that Saudis called "malls". This one is the biggest and most famous, it's called Al-Rashid Mall. This is where my friends and I spent a lot of time as kids, eating and checking out Burqas. ;)

I was in Saudi, Grades 1 through 12. The moment I was done, by some lucky chance, I moved halfway across the world to another little known place called St.John's, Newfoundland in Canada.

But before we leave Saudi, I'd like to talk about a little incident called the Gulf War.

(to be continued)

Memories - Saudi Part I  

Posted by CK in , ,

I'm feeling quite nostalgic today so I thought I'd revisit some of the places I've been to in the past, through pictures and memories.

I was born in India waaay back in 1980 and moved quite quickly to Saudi Arabia. My parents were doctors and they were working there so I spent the next 17 years of my life in the sun-soaked country where temperatures reach 55 degrees Celsius (that's 131 Fahrenheit, for those of you who are metrically challenged). I had a good childhood. I spent the first few years in a place called Al-Oyoun in Saudi's Eastern Province. It's a sleepy little town (oasis) about 60kms inland from the sea. It's near the populous Eastern Province city of Hofuf. It was 120 kms back and forth to school everyday which isn't as bad as it sounds when cars can speed at 130-140 kmph.

It's not abnormal to see sword-wielding Bedouins in Oyoun's quiet streets as the entire area is still unofficially under the rule of the powerful and proud Shi'ite Muslim tribes in the predominantly Sunni Kingdom.

"In classic Arabic, Ahsa means the sound of water underground. It has one of the largest oases in the world with Date Palms of the best in the world, the oasis is located about 60 km inland from the Persian Gulf. All Urban areas are located in the traditional oasis of Al-Ahsa. In addition to the oasis, the county also includes the giant Empty Quarter desert, making it the largest county in Saudi Arabia in terms of area. The Empty Quarter has the world's largest oil fields and connects Saudi Arabia to Qatar, the UAE, and Oman."

The gun and sword laws aren't really enforced because, it is rumored, that these tribes can ride out and set fire to these fields at a whim and the government would be powerless to stop them.

So, as I was saying, going to school was an adventure. It's a beautiful drive, too. When you're driving, you have nothing but the highway in front of you and the desert in every direction. The first 5 years of my life, I spent at least 2-3 hours a day looking out at the sands and dunes roll by and it seemed like they were frozen relics of a time when the country was at the mercy of the elements and humans hadn't yet found the courage to wander the unforgiving landscape or disturb it, lest they awake some primeval beast from that deceptively quiet and beautiful scene. But, I remember feeling safe despite there being nothing but openness in every direction. I felt like nothing could disturb me there and it always seemed a welcome place. Once in a while, I'd see a herd of camel roll by and they seemed not to notice us and our trespass.

After a few years, we moved to Tarout. Tarout is a little island just off the coast of Saudi. It connects to the coastal town of Qatif which is one of the largest oil-producing cities in the world. In Tarout, there was a village called Sanabes and this is where I spent the next 8 years of my life. It was gorgeous. We lived about a few hundred meters off the beach and yes, it was palm-lined and the high-tide used to bring the water to a point where it almost touched the road that ran the perimeter of the island.

We used to go for walks along the beach at night. If you notice on the map, the entire central part of the island shows no habitation. That's because it was nothing but date palms and stud farms. Here they used to breed championship Arabian stallions the way they did way back in the day and I'm sure these animals never went for less than a few $100,000. And I could see the trainers running these horses up and down the beach at times, training them, exercising them. Even as a kid, I knew that I was in a special place. From our window on the 4th floor, we used to be able to look out at all of Sanabes and then right out to sea. We could see the three oil platforms of Ras Tanura and these massive tankers pulling up beside them.

This place is even more like the land that time forgot than the rest of Saudi. Saudi is a paradoxical place. It has rich, luxurious cities with everything in the world that oil-money can buy but it is also a thousand villages, with houses built of mud and people in their thobs and burquas selling dates and drinking black tea on carpets on dusty roads. I lived for the better half of my childhood amongst these people. The nomads and the date-sellers.

"Tarut or Tarout means goodness and beauty in the Semitic languages. Additionally, the town’s name is recorded as "TARU" in historical Chinese texts and "Ashtarut " in Arabic history. Today, however, most of the new researchers argue that the correct name is "Ashtarut " because the Canaanites and Phoenicians, who originally lived there, idolized the beauty of the town and called it Ashtarut. 

We cannot separate the history of Tarut Island from the Eastern Arabian Peninsula's history. Tarut Island has survived for thousands of years and its antiquities prove that it was inhabited since the Stone Age, approximately 5000 B.C. It died several civilizations ago and was part of many Empires and countries. Some of them were before Christ, such as Dilmun, the Akkadian country, the Assyrian country, and the Persian Empire. Others were after Christ such as the Persian Empire, the Islamic country, the Portuguese Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. Now, Tarut Island belongs to Qatif city in the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia. It was a place of economic migration because of its important strategic location and it was a trade center between Indian contraries, the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq. In addition, it has a lot of natural resources, including pearl fisheries and date farms."

In the heart of Tarout, is this massive sand fortress that is, I believe, over 400 years old. I used to see it everyday passing by it, as a kid and I remember thinking that it still looked impregnable just like it must have when it was first built.

"Tarut Castle is the most famous castle in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia and the oldest castle in the Persian Gulf. Tarut castle was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, on the rubbles from an event 5 thousand years before. It is located in the center of Tarut Island in Ishtarut near a waterhole known as Al-Awda in the sixteenth century. Later, it was fenced in. moreover; it is located on main beautiful streets near shops and main services. It is even now fighting nature’s force, age, and negligence to remain an important emblem of antiquities and heritage not only in our valuable country but worldwide. On the towers of the castle, the viewer can see most of the island, its shores and ardens from every direction, and can see where the blue of the sky meets the blueness of the sea and the greenness of the land. "

I loved it. Even now, almost 20 years after I left, I still remember the warm, salty sea breeze blowing in my face when we opened the windows and that is the smell I associate with my childhood.

(to be continued)

I hate Mondays  

Posted by CK in

Sigh. I have nothing against Mondays per se. (When I lived in Saudi, the first day of the week was Saturday and at that point, I hated Saturdays.) So, let me rephrase. I hate WORKING Mondays. Especially after you barely get a weekend.

In fact, I hate the first day of every week. That's it. That's my post.

Oh and one interesting thing I found while getting these pictures:

First day of the week.
Derived from the Latin

dies solis, "sun's day," a pagan Roman holiday.
Second day of the week.
Derived from the Anglo-Saxon monandaeg, which means "the moon's day." Latin: dies lunae, "day of the moon."
Third day of the week.
Named for the Norse god of war, Tiu, or Tyr, the son of Odin.
Fourth day of the week.
Named to honor Odin, or Woden, chief god in Norse mythology. Onsdag in Sweden and Denmark.
Fifth day of the week.
Named for Thor, Norse god of thunder. Torsdag in Sweden and Denmark.
Sixth day of the week.
Named for the Norse goddess of love, Frigg, or Frija. Variation of the Old High German frìatag, "day of Frija."
Seventh day of the week.
Named in honor of the Roman god Saturn. Latin: Saturni.
by the Anglo-Saxons.


South-Asia & Terrorism - Origins  

Posted by CK in , , , , ,

A new blogger friend, Roshmi Sinha and I are having a discussion (in the comments section of a movie review post) that I think deserves attention.

We were talking about the state of current affairs in South Asia and it's development today. But let me backtrack so I can give you a little bit of history about the current topic.

The term Mujaheddin essentially means freedom fighter in Arabic. The most popular usage of the term came to light with several tribal leaders and opposition groups forming a coalition against the pro-Soviet Afghani government that came to power after overthrowing King Mohammed Zahir Shah in 1973. Now, the Soviets have had interests in Afghanistan strategically since the days of the Romanov Russian Empire with billions of dollars of aide flowing in to Afghanistan to secure alliances. This interest obviously carried over in to the days of the Cold War.

"In June 1975, militants from the Jamiat Islami party attempted to overthrow the government. They started their rebellion in the Panjshir valley, some 100 kilometers north of Kabul, and in a number of other provinces of the country. However, government forces easily defeated the insurgency and a sizable portion of the insurgents sought refuge in Pakistan where they enjoyed the support of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's government, which had been alarmed by Daoud's revival of the Pashtunistan issue."

Now, the unpopular Afghan government started calling upon the Soviet Union to send reinforcements to fight the resurgent and hugely popular Mujaheddin rebels. The USSR, seeing this as a great opportunity sent regiments of Soviet regular troops into Afghanistan under the guise of protecting the elected government.

This prompted the Mujaheddin to reach out to the enemies of the Soviets, the Americans, for help. In 1979, Jimmy Carter authorized the funding of anti-Communist guerrillas in Afghanistan and Operation Cyclone, a covert CIA plan to arm the Mujaheddin was born.

Now, if you watch Charlie Wilson's War and other movies detailing that era, you have a good idea of how much money and training went in to upgrading the Mujaheddin from a ragtag group of revolutionaries to a battle-hardened fighting force capable of beating the mighty Soviets. It is also open knowledge that in order to be discreet about the funding and aid, the US used Pakistan's ISI to train the rebels instead.

After almost a decade of Cold War hostilities from both sides being fought on the Afghan battlefield, billions of dollars went to the Mujaheddin from their prime benefactors, the Americans and the Saudis. This decade also saw the Mujaheddin become one of the most formidable fighting forces in the world and the only one to defeat the Russian Army.

The Soviet Union, after a severe beating, withdrew from Afghanistan on Feb 15, 1989.

Post-Soviet Withdrawal

The war in Afghanistan took an incalculable toll on the people and the nation.

"Over 1 million Afghans were killed. 5 million Afghans fled to Pakistan and Iran, 1/3 of the prewar population of the country. Another 2 million Afghans were displaced within the country. In the 1980s, one out of two refugees in the world was an Afghan.Along with fatalities were 1.2 million Afghans disabled (mujaheddin, government soldiers and noncombatants) and 3 million maimed or wounded (primarily noncombatants)."

Afghanistan, as a country, was completely and utterly destroyed as was any and all infrastructure the country once had. Also, three years after the withdrawal, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan collapsed to the mujaheddin resistance.

Then, the expected happened with the Mujaheddin turning in on itself and broke off in to several warring factions until finally, the Taliban rose to deal with the corruption that had infiltrated all ranks of the Mujaheddin. The Taliban initially enjoyed enormous good will from Afghans weary of the corruption, brutality, and the incessant fighting of Mujaheddin warlords. The Taliban was also overtly funded by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who felt that the Islamic radicals and fundamentalists who made the rank and file of the Taliban would be easier to control. They held power from 1996 till late 2001 when they were removed from power by the invading US and allied forces.

Bin Laden & Al-Qaeda

Now, from amongst this chaos rose one very prominent individual with the money to back his own brand of radical Islam.  

"Bin Laden believes that the restoration of Sharia law will set things right in the Muslim world, and that all other ideologies—"pan-Arabism, socialism, communism, democracy"—must be opposed. He believes Afghanistan under the rule of Mullah Omar's Taliban was "the only Islamic country" in the Muslim world. Bin Laden has consistently dwelt on the need for violent jihad to right what he believes are injustices against Muslims perpetrated by the United States and sometimes by other non-Muslim states, the need to eliminate the state of Israel, and the necessity of forcing the US to withdraw from the Middle East. He has also called on Americans to "reject the immoral acts of fornication (and) homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling, and usury," in an October 2002 letter."

After leaving college in 1979 bin Laden joined Abdullah Azzam to fight the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and lived for a time in Peshawar. Bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia in 1990 as a hero of jihad, who along with his Arab legion, "had brought down the mighty superpower" of the Soviet Union. However, during this time Iraq invaded Kuwait and Laden met with Sultan, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and told him not to depend on non-Muslim troops and offered to help defend Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden's offer was rebuffed and after the American offer to help was accepted he publicly denounced Saudi Arabia's dependence on the US military. Bin Laden's criticism of the Saudi monarchy led that government to attempt to silence him.

This caused the birth of Al-Qaeda which went on to become the threat that it is to the world today. 

Bush & The Middle-East Wars

George W. Bush, who I believe to be the biggest mistake ever to happen to world politics, probably worse than Neville Chamberlain and his appeasement of Nazi Germany from 1937-39, used the 9/11 attacks to start his global War on Terror with invasions of Afghanistan, the overthrow of the Taliban regime and of course, the invasion of Iraq based on some fabricated WMDs.

I am of the genuine opinion that Bush never wanted to capture Bin Laden, not because of any collusion between the two but because Bin Laden was Bush's excuse to walk into Asia and then use this as a platform to take out his father's old nemesis, Saddam.

The bruised Taliban, in the meanwhile, gathered their forces and made a massive resurgence not just in Afghanistan but in neighboring Pakistan where they had ties to the JUI party.

"For a period of seven years since their origin, Pakistan's government had been the Taliban's main sponsor. It provided military equipment, recruiting assistance, training and tactical advice that enabled the band of village mullahs and their adherents to take control of Afghanistan.

Officially Pakistan denied it was supporting the Taliban, but its support was substantial—one year's aid (1997/1998) was an estimated US$30 million in wheat, diesel, petroleum and kerosene fuel, and other supplies. The Taliban's influence in its neighbor Pakistan was deep. Its "unprecedented access" among Pakistan's lobbies and interest groups enabled it "to play off one lobby against another and extend their influence in Pakistan even further. At times they would defy" even the powerful ISI."

The formation of a Pakistan Taliban umbrella group called Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan was announced in December 2007.

As of now, the Pakistani government and army is in a full-blown war with the Taliban in many provinces with suicide bombings happening in Pakistani cities on almost a daily basis.

As of December 2008, at least 889 persons were killed and 2,072 others injured in 61 suicide attacks in Pakistan, as the total number of suicide bombings in the country since 2002 rose to 140.
The suicide bombings in 2008 surpassed the last year's figures of 56, including the one in which former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, whose first death anniversary would be observed on December 27, was killed in Rawalpindi.

My view on South Asia and the current crisis

The Taliban is a monster created by the US and Pakistan to counter what was then, the communist USSR. Now, they are a terror force the likes of which has never been seen. Al-Qaeda, using the protection of the Taliban, continues to plan and execute strikes all around the world in any country that seems unsympathetic to the Islamic cause.

I believe the Taliban and terror activities of the Asian Subcontinent can only be contained locally. The US is already in it's own sequel to Vietnam where they've dedicated hundreds of thousands of troops to both Iran and Afghanistan in a completely no-win situation that can only lead to more deaths and definitely no victory. They are invaders or "saviors" in a country that doesn't want to be saved, especially by them.

They should also stop funding Pakistan as it admittedly uses a good portion of aid sanctioned for the War on Terror against India. On September 25, 2009, Indian External Affairs Minister, S.M.Krishna told reporters, "Considering the statement that has been issued by the former president of Pakistan Musharraf himself where he has said that the aid provided to Pakistan by the United States have been used for directing its hostile operations against India."

It is only a matter of time before the discontent within America over the deaths of US soldiers on foreign soil will become vociferous enough that the US will have to withdraw, either voluntarily or because the cost of keeping forces abroad just does not outweigh the losses the forces are incurring in terms of both lives and money.

Roshmi believes (and I agree) that the powerful defense contractor lobby within the United States will not allow the War on Terror to end because of the billions of dollars in funding that these companies get for conducting the wars, both logistically and otherwise.

This doesn't seem an unpopular belief either. If you reference a recent spate of movies and shows, both 24 and State of Play both deal with Private Military Corporations responsible for providing private contractors (mercenaries) to handle certain aspects of the War on Terror. Their claim is that these PMCs are bolstering terrorists' capabilities on the battlefield through illegal arm supplies in order to increase their necessity on the battlefield.

According to a news report dated November 12th, 2009:

US defense contractors are funding insurgents in Afghanistan, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, according to a report in The Nation published Thursday.
The report, by veteran investigative correspondent Aram Roston, asserts that US military contractors charged with assisting US forces in Afghanistan are actually funding the groups killing American soldiers. Roston describes a protection racket similar to that of the mafia, in which contractors pay the Taliban "protection money" not to attack them.

"In this grotesque carnival, the US military's contractors are forced to pay suspected insurgents to protect American supply routes," Roston writes. "It is an accepted fact of the military logistics operation in Afghanistan that the US government funds the very forces American troops are fighting. And it is a deadly irony, because these funds add up to a huge amount of money for the Taliban. 

"It's a big part of their income," a top Afghan government security official purportedly told told The Nation.

This is exactly the kind of gross mistreatment of War that spawns fears of Defense Contractors' involvement.

This essentially means the US is giving the Taliban money that will eventually be used against it.

My question to you is, how can America not loose? Obama is paying for Bush's gross incompetence and is continuing to pour troops and money in to Afghanistan and Iraq. The money, in some instances, is going directly to the Taliban.

The only way out is for the US to pull out and support these countries through partner states like India, Brazil and China. Any direct influence will, again, be misconstrued as setting up "Puppet Governments" which Karzai's government is already accused of being.

Related Posts with Thumbnails