Categories
Musings

A Taste of Bibimbap & More…

By G Venkatesh

Ulsan, South Korea. Courtesy: Creative Commons

This was long ago. In the summer of 2013. Destiny brought me to South Korea for a week-long conference, the International Society of Industrial Ecology conference. I reached Ulsan, a city south of Seoul. Not having time to convert my USD to South Korean Won, before stepping onto the bus which would take me to the conference venue, and assuming that I could pay for my ticket on the bus, using my credit card, I proferred the latter to the bus driver. He shook his head. I then pulled out some USD notes and looked at him, hoping that I could pay the required amount of money in USD equivalents. He shook his head again. I said, “Okay, sorry,” and was about to turn and alight, when he turned his head and said something in Korean to the passengers on the bus. A young schoolgirl ran down the aisle towards me and said in fluent English, “You do not have to alight. I will but your ticket.”

I looked at the driver, and he smiled and nodded and beckoned me to take a seat. I looked at the girl, thanked her and asked, “Can I repay you in dollars?”

She smiled sweetly and said, “You are our guest. It is our duty to make sure that your stay in South Korea is comfortable. You do not have to repay me. You enjoy your stay here.”

I was lost in thought for the remainder of my journey, not having experienced anything similar to that before.

Bibmbap: Courtesy: Creative commons

The next day, I was guided to a restaurant about 200 metres from the conference venue, where I could eat some good-quality Bibimbap (Korean rice+vegetable dish). Being a non-experimental eater (one from whom gourmands would most certainly wish to stay away), I visited the same place for the very same meal at the very same time every evening for the next four days. Every time the elderly Korean lady who manned the counter, saw me walking in, she would intuitively know what I would be eating, and shout out ‘Bibimbap’ to the cook inside. On the 4th day, she asked me, in her broken English, ‘You here tomorrow also?’

I said, ‘No. I am going to Seoul tomorrow and then I fly to Mumbai.’

‘Oh, so last day dinner here. Then, you no pay today. Today free Bibimbap for you.’

‘But I would like to pay. I cannot eat without paying for it.’

‘No, no, free. I say free! You liked Ulsan?’

‘Okay, thank you so much. I liked the city a lot.’

I noted down the postal address of the restaurant and would send a postcard from Trondheim (Norway) – where I worked at that time in my career.

The next day, I had to take a train from Ulsan to Incheon. Time was at a premium when I reached the station. For some strange reason, my credit card ‘malfunctioned’. I had run out of Won and had foolishly forgotten to equip myself with some, as I assumed that the credit card would surely work at the ticket-vending machine at the station. I was a bit tense and started sweating profusely. I turned back and asked the young Korean boy who was next in the queue if the machine would accept USD or if there was some place nearby where I could quickly trade in my USD for some Won. He smiled, and said, “Do not bother. Where are you headed?”

When I said, Incheon, he stepped up and purchased my ticket for me. I read the price askance, did a  quick mental conversion to USD and requested him to let me repay him in that currency. He smiled again and said, ‘‘You are our guest. It is our duty to make sure that your stay in South Korea is comfortable. You do not have to repay me. Hope you enjoyed your stay here and will visit our country again.” So saying, he hastened towards the escalator on the right of the ticketing machine.

The very same words I had heard on the first day on the bus from the young girl. Perhaps this boy was her brother. Do-gooder siblings. Or perhaps they just represented the South Koreans – hospitable and helpful, doing God’s bidding on earth, smilingly and gallantly, without expecting anything in return…

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G Venkatesh (50) is a Chennai-born, Mumbai-bred ‘global citizen’ who currently serves as Associate Professor at Karlstad University in Sweden. He has published 4 volumes of poetry and 4 e-textbooks, inter alia. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Musings

Istanbul

By G Venkatesh

Istanbul Airport. Courtesy: Creative Commons

The Schengen visa did not help much, being as it was on one of the pages of an Indian passport. I was told I could not get an on-the-spot transit visa to walk out of the airport and see the city of Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, which was one upon a time Byzantium, which in turn was known as Nova Roma when the Romans ruled it. Well, that meant spending 24 hours at the Kemal Ataturk airport – waiting for the Turkish Airlines flight to Oslo the next day in the morning. Memories of Tom Hanks in Terminal flashed past the mind’s inner eye.

Coffee and vegetable burger later, I sat down to test if a free wireless connection was available in the precincts of the airport. It was, and I could check my e-mail; not just that, I could also thereby shoot across some crosswords’ designs that I do for a magazine. Great way to spend time, I thought. Time was, is and will always be money!  My focus on the laptop screen was disturbed when a man walked past on my left, proferred his right hand and asked “Indian?”

“Yes,” said I, accepting the handshake.

“Pakistani, Shakeel,” he responded and sat down on the chair next to mine and immediately asked me if he could use my laptop for 5 minutes. I had heard about instances of threat mails being sent from cyber cafes or from laptops or desktops of totally-innocent, unsuspecting friends or acquaintances. Wariness did creep in instantly, but then I decided that I would not leap before looking… looking at the screen as he was accessing his mail. I did not wish to play into the hands of the ‘enemy’ as a noble do-gooder. There would have been nothing more disconcerting than that!

He spent more than 5 minutes and an edgy yours sincerely had to butt in with, ‘Boss, I have some urgent work to do; if you have finished.’ When I got back ‘possession’, I vowed to work on till the battery ran out, designed a crossword in the process, and then on the pretext of my fear of using unsecured wireless networks for too long, strapped the laptop back in my backpack.

After a long silence, I devised a means of dissociating myself from his company. “Okay then, I think I will just take a walk around the airport. It was nice meeting you.” I held out my hand.

He looked up and said, “I guess I shall also join you. What will I do sitting here all alone?”

I wanted to say, “That is none of my concern.” I did not. I would be saddled with Shakeel for the next 24 hours!

From my side, the ice was not broken. Hence, when he quizzed in Punjabi about what I did for a living, where I worked and how much I earned, I was a bit startled. I recalled being in the situation of the protagonist (played by amnesiac Aamir Khan) in the film Ghajini and wanted to say exactly what he says when a woman tries to get very informal with him – “I do not think I have known you so well as to be obliged to answer those questions.”

I brushed aside the questions however and decided to be as wary as wary could be. Shakeel, it turned out, had been living in Austria for seven years, managing a restaurant with his uncle. He had missed his Austrian flight in the morning, as the Emirates flight which got him into Istanbul from Dubai was delayed by 15 minutes. He had now asked his agent to rebook a seat for him on the flight to Austria next morning.

Shakeel talked of Indo-Pak business partnerships in Europe and lamented at the tension that has gripped the relations between these two neighbouring countries. I had the book, Wings of Fire with me. He pointed at Dr APJ Abdul Kalaam’s picture on the cover and commented that he is a very competent individual and wondered why he could not continue for a second term as President. During the conversation, mostly one-sided, he also said that people in India and Pakistan are more engrossed in producing babies while the rest of the world is pulling up its bootstraps and progressing fast. This statement, coming from a Muslim, took me aback a bit.

I treated him to Turkish coffee, after which he excused himself to go to the in-airport mosque, requesting me to mind his bags. “Risky undertaking,” I thought. What if…

He returned after a while though, and I scolded myself for having succumbed to paranoia and subsequent suspicion.

At around 6.30 pm, Shakeel insisted it was time for dinner and wanted to repay me for the coffee I had treated him to, by buying me dinner. I told him to carry on and said that it would be too early for me to dine. He looked at me and said, “Okay then, we will dine whenever you want to.” This was surprisingly very heartwarming and as we had known each other for just about 12 hours or so, seemed a bit too unreal. Such acts are the prerogatives of brothers and good friends.

As the day petered to a close, we decided not to sleep-starve ourselves anymore. Shakeel, still unsure of whether or not his agent would be able to confirm his booking on the next morning to Austria, dozed off and slept soundly. They say that anyone who can sleep without burdens or worries on his mind, has a clean and pure conscience. I, with a confirmed ticket, could not sleep for more than four hours – unclean and impure conscience?  I was up at 5.00 am, and at 7.30 am when I headed to board my Turkish Airlines flight to Oslo, Shakeel was still sleeping! I did not want to wake him.

Once in Norway, I sent him an e-mail. At the time of writing, it has been quite a while since I did that, and there has been no response, Maybe, he will not respond. Maybe, he is a good person who was upset with my not having the courtesy to bid him a proper ‘Khuda Hafeez’. I would never know.

Strange lessons learnt at the Kemal Ataturk Airport.

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G Venkatesh (50) is a Chennai-born, Mumbai-bred ‘global citizen’ who currently serves as Associate Professor at Karlstad University in Sweden. He has published 4 volumes of poetry and 4 e-textbooks, inter alia. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Poetry

A Third Coming?

By G Venkatesh

KNOW THE ‘WHY’; FORGET THE REST


The ‘When’ and the ‘How’
Stimulate his mind
Towards half-baked theories
On the origin of mankind.
He talks of Crunches and Bangs,
Of black holes and dark matter,
Of infinite space and infinite time,
Endless prattle, idle chatter.

The gift of reasoning,
The power of thought
Which arrogant man
Has from somewhere got,
Is used by him
More often today
To explain the existence
Of its Giver away,
Quite as X
Would use Y’s pen
To pull him down
In the eyes of men.
The gift is taken for granted
The ‘Why’ never interests man,
As that probing would be exacting,
He would rather be Darwin’s fan.
Charlie boy, rise from your grave
And help the world to see wrong from right.
Would you rate a selfless do-gooder,
On par with a selfish and cunning sprite?

Hollow rhetoric, mere verbose
Reams and tapes for no reason
Except to pander to the basest of senses
And proclaim aloud the hegemony of Mammon.
Clamour and clutter,
Confusion and chaos,
A melange of unrest,
Erosion of ethos.
Will there be a Third Coming
Of Jesus the Christ?
Or a rebirth of Lord Vishnu
As man disguised?
For did not they say
That they would come again,
Whenever they would see
Their precepts in vain,
To tell all men around
That the mind is to be employed
To seek and understand
The pure Self, unalloyed?


Turn inward, a little will do,
The Lord is there at close quarters,
Give up your quest for the When and the How
Know the Why, obey His orders.
Shafts dug deep into diamond mines,
Spaceships launched far off into Space
Distract man and lure him away
From the near-at-hand divine grace,
Which serves to Know and not just know
Enables to Be, and not just be
And while Being, serve to launch
A veritable deluge of spirituality,
For black and white and brown and yellow
Rich and poor and fast and slow
To give and take, accept and offer
For eyes to well up at another’s woe.
Sink your shafts and get out the gold
To feed and clothe the millions
Languishing in gut-wrenching misery
Else worthless are your bullions.


The ‘Why’ of muscle and the ‘Por que’ of the brain
Not to be one-up on the less-endowed.
It is rather an unspoken divine command
Do His bidding – silently, untold

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G Venkatesh  is a Chennai-born, Mumbai-bred ‘global citizen’ who currently serves as Associate Professor at Karlstad University in Sweden. He has published 4 volumes of poetry and 4 e-textbooks, inter alia. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Musings

Ruleman Ngwenya and Johannesburg

By G Venkatesh

Johannesberg Skyline. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Johannesburg or Jozi. This was the first city I visited outside my country at the age of thirty-two. Quite late for someone to embark on a foreign trip. Of course, my parents had never been abroad, but I was comparing myself with coevals here. And what a sojourn that was! Quite like a debut test for a cricketer where he gets into his own and looks forward to more stints at the crease or more overs to bowl. And there are many names which stand out in my mind’s eye – Rhoda (Anglicised version of Radha), Richard, Ruleman…Interestingly, the people I interacted most with during my short stay in the city, have names beginning with the letter ’R’!  

Before I embarked on my journey, and even after I arrived there, I was told that Johannesburg was notorious for the rampancy of crime – car thefts, knifings, muggings, rapes, daylight robberies and what have you. I was told:

“Never take any valuables with you when you go out.”

“Well, man, even if you do that, they will put a knife on you and ask you to give them your short and trousers and the ordinary footwear you would be wearing…these are guys who need to sell things to get money for their drugs, you see.”

“Take care, friend, your first visit to our country should not leave behind bad impressions on your mind. We want you to take back good memories and share them with your folks and friends in India.”

The Westerners and Indians in the city were concerned. I would hear these words of advice from almost every South African and Indian I would meet during my stay there. They cared and never let me venture out alone anywhere. Many offered to drive me down wherever I wished to go. I felt protected…a kind of informal Z security, unasked for. But perhaps I felt safe, perhaps imprisoned and fettered. It is hard to say.

I arrived in the city with the intention of meeting a publisher who was keen to employ me if it would be possible to obtain a work permit for me from the Government of South Africa – a gargantuan task even now. I wanted to get away from India, experience different working cultures and live a fuller life – professionally. It was at this magazine-publishing office that I met Richard and Ruleman. Richard of Dutch and English parentage, working as the editor of a mining magazine, and Ruleman of Zimbabwean origin, was employed as the office-boy.

While every minute of my stay in Jozi was memorable, considering that this was my first sojourn outside India, the last two days left a lasting impact on my mind. The dreams of obtaining a work permit were shattered, and I started making plans to wend my way back to India. I had purchased a return ticket and would have travelled back in any case – of course to return in case the work permit was granted.  On the last day but one, I was working late in the office, in order to do full justice to the project which has been assigned to me, even though I knew I had no future in the outfit or the city.

Only Ruleman was waiting, sensing that I should not be left to work alone in the office – burglars had broken into this office as well, I was told, a few months ago, and taken away some of the computers. Ruleman came into my room and assured me that he was waiting downstairs and that I could call him if I needed anything. At around 5.00 pm (work normally was wound up in Jozi at around 3.30 pm…they started work at 7.30 am) – which by Johannesburgish standards was late, I wound up, and walked down the stairs. Ruleman nodded, smiled, went around running a last-minute check of the doors and the lights and fans, and then escorted me out of the office. I used to walk back home – it was a 20 minute walk. Ruleman’s house was on the way. As we walked down, he asked me how I liked my stay here and felt sad that I would be leaving. He asked about India, and said he had always considered India as the ‘Land of Mahatma Gandhi’. I recalled that the African cabbie who had driven me down from the Jan Smuts International Airport two months ago, also told me the same thing. We reached his house.  He told me that his parents would be delighted to meet me, if I could come over for tea the next day. I smiled and said that I would love to. I thought that he would bid goodbye for the evening.

He did not. ‘I shall drop you at your doorstep. You see, this is not a safe time to be walking around in this city…I do not want anything to happen to you just when you are about to leave Jozi.’ I was thankful, though I would not really have bothered about walking down alone. ‘My father talks a lot about India. He had a lot of good Indian friends when he was working in East Africa in his younger days. You should come over tomorrow. He would be very pleased, and so would I.’ Ruleman dropped me off at the gate of the house I stayed in as a tenant and bid me goodnight.

Next day, when it was time to leave, I remembered Ruleman’s invitation. However, till the day I had walked down with Ruleman back home, Richard used to drive me down to my place of residence before turning right and heading home. This being my last day, Richard wanted to drive me down at 4.00 pm, for one last time. Ruleman said that he wanted me to visit him, as decided on the previous day. I did not know what to say or do. If I had told Richard that I would visit Ruleman, perhaps, it would not have been appropriate. Turning down Ruleman’s invitation would also not have been a very nice thing to do. And clearly there was no via media.

Richard drove me down eventually. I rued my decision. I may possibly never see that ever-smiling, do-gooder Zimbabwean again. I sent Ruleman a card from India on my return and Richard wrote to me conveying Ruleman’s thanks for the same. Small consolation perhaps. Man often talks about looking for the via media – the middle path – the path or course of action which would leave none the worse for it. There are occasions where a middle path does not exist at all.  A take it or leave it situation stares one in the face…just to remind man that no matter how hard he tries, there are many things beyond his control.

On a different note, when one sees goodness around, and care and concern for strangers who one would possibly not see again, one’s faith in God’s kindness being expressed through human agents gets reinforced. Jozi taught me a lot of lessons, which changed my perspectives towards life immensely. I was a totally different person on my return to India – calmer, spiritually aware, more respectful towards my parents, and in a nutshell – ‘grown-up’!  I realised that deep down, we are all connected to the Super Soul….and a desire to do good and a willingness to help, resides in all human hearts.

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G Venkatesh (50) is a Chennai-born, Mumbai-bred ‘global citizen’ who currently serves as Associate Professor at Karlstad University in Sweden. He has published 4 volumes of poetry and 4 e-textbooks, inter alia. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Musings

An Existential Dilemma

By G Venkatesh

Thermodynamics’ – the word itself evokes images of entropy and chaos (heat and disorderly motion). However, it is a science which looks for the elusive order in the chaos its name evokes. There is classical thermodynamics – the macroscopic sister to statistical thermodynamics which is the bottom-up approach to understanding the behaviour of systems (studying the parts with the expectation of understanding the whole). While the classical is a mere approximation (better than not able to describe at all), the statistical is a mere prediction (something close, but not exactly).

During a period of intense and painful introspection in a coffee shop in Karlstad, Sweden, an idea perhaps floating around in the realm above the astral, settled on yours sincerely.

Picture a closed cylinder filled with ‘ideal’ gas. Students of thermodynamics often befriend the ‘ideal’ gas ideally, even though this friend is just an illusion. The gas is composed of numerous molecules, which are moving around at random, colliding with each other and with the walls of the cylinder. Indeed, over any period of time, all the molecules do not suffer the same number of collisions with others, or for that matter, do not ‘bang’ into the inner wall of the cylinder to be ricocheted back into the pack, at identical frequencies.

If the cylinder is opened for a short period of time, and then closed, some gas would leak out. Of course, while all molecules may look alike, what they experience within the cylinder is never the same for all of them. Some molecules would leak out into ‘freedom’. That seamlessly brings us to our analogy with souls on Earth.

Now, replace the small cylinder with our planet Earth. And the gas molecules with individual human souls. Pause for a minute and you would perhaps be able to visualise. Souls trapped in human bodies wander about on Earth, interacting with others (analogous to the collisions among molecules), supposedly reaping the rewards of their  karma, repeatedly. Let us assume that the law of action and reaction holds good, indisputably, the reaction in this case being from the universe or God. Just as one defines the quality of energy as ‘exergy’, if one conceives a property which represents the qualities (degrees) of good deeds, bad deeds, rewards and punishments, and labels the same as ‘exergy’ then, it must follow that:

  1. Exergy (Good deeds) = Exergy (Rewards)
  2. Exergy (Bad deeds) = Exergy (Punishments).

In other words, the higher the quality of a good deed, the better the reward, and the graver the bad deed, the more serious the punishment. Now, does this apply to every individual soul during its sojourn on earth in a specific bodily envelope? Does one find a perfect correlation? Definitely not. After all, the equations used to understand the state and behaviour of gases, do not apply to every single molecule, do they? We tend to easily tide over this impasse, just as we do in thermodynamics, by theorising that:

3. Σ Exergy (Good deeds) = Σ Exergy (Rewards)

4. Σ Exergy (Bad deeds) = Σ Exergy (Punishments)

If someone wishes to know the time period over which these summations apply, one will say that this would be the entire length of time humankind will walk on Terra Firma, and for all the reincarnations of all the souls.

Indeed, I or you will not be able to test this in any way, just as we would never be able to summarily and conclusively prove that there is life after death, while we are walking around on Earth. Further, how does one define the quality factor of good deeds and rewards, punishments and bad deeds? Who decides? So, that is that! We then turn to the Bible or the Gita or the Koran or the Zend Avesta or the Guru Granth Sahib or the Torah or any other religious text just as we refer to textbooks of thermodynamics for those equations.

For generalisations. To simplify and pretend that we understand everything, or to be humble enough to admit that we do not. To calm our minds and believe that our turn would come. We would never know where we are placed in the queue to receive rewards or accept punishments. After all, like those molecules inside the cylinder, we are tossed about here and there, and find ourselves at the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong set of ‘molecules’ around us. ‘My turn would come’, implies being in the right place, at the right time, with the right people. They give this a name – divine timing. Is it random? I do not know. Neither do you.

Which souls (molecules) would ‘leave deceitful knaves for the higher and better society of gods and goddesses’ (from a play referred to by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay called  ‘Heroism’ in The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson) and when, none knows. Surely, the equations (1) and (2) will never hold true for you when the time comes for you to ascend to the astral realm. You may either have been very fortunate or extremely unfortunate; may have got a fair-enough deal, or may have been scapegoated ever and anon. You would need to return to help equations (3) and (4) to manifest themselves at the fag end of the human race – perhaps at the Big Crunch or much before that….again, just as the gas molecules which are ‘freed’ may be brought down by rain again to the terrestrial hydrosphere, to cycle back and forth.   

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G Venkatesh (50) is a Chennai-born, Mumbai-bred ‘global citizen’ who currently serves as Associate Professor at Karlstad University in Sweden. He has published 4 volumes of poetry and 4 e-textbooks, inter alia. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL