An Afternoon with Mossad

Okay! Maybe it was not Mossad. Maybe it was Shin Bet. I really wanted to ask them but I was not brave (read, stupid) enough.

It all started when I had the bright idea of going to Apollonia National park with friends, Slash (name modified) and Xiaolin Zeng for Rosh Hashanah or the Jewish new year. In Israel, a holiday means a holiday for (almost) everyone; there is no public transport. Hence we had to cycle to the spot to start with. I was too lazy to follow the map and Slash was enthusiastic about it; hence he was our leader. A beautiful cycle ride along the Mediterranean sea lead us to the park. It was beautiful but not very pleasant. The sun was pelting us with hot coals and the slopes continued to drive us up and down. Also part of the trail was sandy and made it impossible to cycle on. We decided to take another path on the way back; Slash mentioned that there seemed to be another way.

The park draws its name from the Greek god Apollo; the town surrounding this area was named so by the Phoenicians (an ancient civilisation) in the 6th century BC. But that is not what it is known for. Apollonia national park holds the remenants of the crusader castle located on the Mediterranean coast of Israel. Wait what are the crusades? Long before Islamic terrorism was in vogue, people had eyes to recognise other forms of terrorism. The crusaders were Christian war mongers who ravaged large tracts of land for (not really) unknown reasons (consider news articles like http://www.christianheadlines.com/blog/afghanistan-growing-number-christians-unease-muslim.html
and ask yourself how is it that there a growing number of Christians in the first place?). Anyways, I am losing track. They chose a nice tract of land in Apollonia (now Arsour) and fortified it. And then a lot more history which I do not have time to get into.

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After a nice ice-cream break we began heading back. Our new route took us through surprising terrain; we passed farmlands, weird bridges, shopping malls and then suddenly there was a “Restricted Area” sign followed by a post stopping us. Cars were coming by, beeping some card and then passing by. There was a button for the speaker and Slash began to speak.
Speaker: Something in Hebrew
Slash: Something else in Hebrew
Speaker: More Hebrew
Slash: (Gives up.) Can you let us pass?
Speaker: More Hebrew.
Slash: We want to go to Tel Aviv. Can we pass?
Speaker: Who are you?
Slash: We are from Tel Aviv university…

And so the conversation continued for a few minutes. I think among the three of us (Slash, Xiaolin and me), I was the only one who had seen the restricted area sign earlier. It was all becoming too weird when suddenly two fancy looking cars came by and a man rolled down his windows pointing us to a sunny area. Slash was still struggling with the speaker phone and I informed him that we had real company.

We walked to the said location and keeping our hands clearly visible; the car door opened and I saw large guns straddle out along with rather suave-looking men. My first reaction was instant admiration. I have always wanted to be a secret agent all my life; some one who works on super secret stuff which is super important and can help nab super bad guys. It was like my meeting with superstars.

They asked us to leave our bicycles on the side and follow them. We were separated and then started the interrogation. We were each questioned by different people several times. They would ask the same question again and again in different forms.
For instance
Question 1: What did you eat in the morning?

A few question later: What was your breakfast?

Question 39: How did you get here?

Question 2830: What led you here?

Question 281388e^9: What did you eat before leaving home?

Each person who interviewed me took down detailed notes and there was someone who cross verified them with some more interrogation. This was all in the hot sun with no respite. I noticed that my friends were getting slightly irritated but what could be done. As an honest mathematician I tried to distract them with some mathematics but that did not work so well. Well!

One thing that must be added is that they were extremely well-behaved and in the end offered us some cool water (I wished that they had offered us some food as well; the ice-cream had long disappeared). This was remarkably different from my experience in India (with the police):

As an undergraduate in Bangalore (now Bengaluru) I would often go with friends for movies in the city. It would be late in the night and my institute was in the outskirts; we were too cheap for the autos and too late for the buses; hence we would walk all the way. A number of times, we encountered unpleasant drunk stick-wielding policeman (so called highway control); I will spare you the details

In another instance, not so long ago I applied for a fresh passport having exhausted my previous one. This was a tatkaal application and had to be followed by police verification; I called policeman up since I was leaving for Israel and he replied irritatingly “No no no no! Don’t worry.” The policeman came to my place 4 months later and my mother was extremely happy: “The man did not even take a bribe.” Now I have a negative report against me in India and the Ministry of External Affairs is threatening to impound my passport. In contrast, once when I was stuck on some Canadian street with my friend with more than we could dream to carry a couple of policemen gave us a lift in their car!

You can now guess what I was thinking: https://youtu.be/07AP_BcB0ng?t=36s
“Don ka intezaar 11 mulkon ki police kar rahi hai…” (“The police force of 11 countries is waiting for Don.”

After about a couple of hours of interrogation; we were in turn asked to sign some document which said that we were arrested but not harmed. Suddenly I became scared:

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My doubts were cleared and we were shown the correct way back to Tel Aviv. There is so much I wanted to ask in return for the interrogation but muffled my voice down.

 

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Before
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After

 

After I got back home, my advisor gave me a call.

Advisor: “Hello Nishant. I heard that you, Slash and Xiaolin were trying to break into some military facilities today…”
Me: #$%%@#

I am glad that they were so rigorous; this only helped instil a feeling of security in me. I am happy to be safe, secure, back in one piece awaiting with abated breath yet another adventure.

War and Terrorism

How to protect your borders? How do you deal with terrorists? How do you deal with your own people who are supportive of terrorists? How far will you go to protect your ‘people’? I am posting this now because many concurrent events around the world (and not far away from home either). 

These are not easy questions and people who take one side or the other are stupid! 

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N2BqrpLaDVw

Sharing is Caring

I have been sharing rooms and apartments all my life. As a baby with my parents, as I grew up with my sisters and then as I grew up further with my brothers and my grandfather. I don’t remember much about the former but about the latter I remember a few things. 

Calvin-and-Hobbes-Night-Time

 I was terrified of the dark and hence I would clasp my sister’s hand till I fell asleep. Later as I grew out of my fear, I have fond memories of having mosquito killing competitions and singing caricatured songs through the night; they were caricatured not because we were talented song-writers but more because I wouldn’t remember the lyrics of the songs I wanted to sing. Necessity is the mother of invention. Of course some other people might not have enjoyed this as much as we did.

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Anyways, I eventually grew up and a day came when the erstwhile young hatchling had to fly out of the nest and so I did. I remember my roommate at ISI then welcomed me with open arms. Those were very strange times. A young 18 year old, just out of home with no clue about the world shares a room with his compatriot. What started with open arms ended with miffed ends and I eventually shifted to single room (or a double room with a single occupant). But to anyone who has stayed in an Indian hostel one should know that you are essentially sharing you room with the entire hostel. These were fun times, many ups and downs and in the end I was happy to get out. That is when I flew to Canada. 

The cold lands! I spent 6 years in Vancouver. The first few months in Vancouver were not exactly fun but thanks to my nice roommates and some great friends I managed to get over those dark days. I was sharing an apartment on the 15th floor by the sea shore (the view!!) with 2 Chinese folks Xiaolei and Wei and an American fellow. The Chinese folks were students in electrical engineering department and this was essentially my first introduction to another culture (not saying that India is a huge homogeneous bob). They would often be stuck with some problems in linear algebra and that got the conversation started. In those days I learnt a lot about the Chinese culture which was essentially closed to me back in India. This was also the time when I did not even know how to boil water and my talent showed in various shades, for instance almost burning down the microwave, coating the hot plate with a layer of Indian plastic and starting my own entomological garden. My roommates were kind. This is also when I discovered the wonderful thing called pasta. Boil some pasta, put in some vegetable and add chilli powder and jeera powder and some Indian spices and woaw you have a meal. Xiaolei was truly enamoured by this and I had to invent some elaboration of intermediate steps to make it more credible. He of course took it to another level and added meat to eat. I left eating meat. Anyways we became good friends and spent a decent time hiking the following summer.

The seashore 15 floor apartment turned out too expensive to keep and hence I moved to a cheaper apartment next summer. It was again a four bedroom apartment but two vacant rooms and a friend from Iran, Javad. He was great fellow and I remember many long discussions of ethics, philosophy and such. But the most notable was the kheer incident: People who know me would know that I love cooking and I love sweets. So there was this one day when I was cooking kheer (a rice pudding). Javad often would be in the kitchen in bare minimums, singing the farsi version of Speak softly love (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQBW6G0hSrs) and cooking (of course in my absence). Anyways, so I finished preparing kheer and I asked Javad, “Would you like some kheer?” Suddenly the song stopped and big dark eyes glared at me. “Did my friends say something to you?” I was thoroughly confused and mumbled, “Kheer” pointing to the cooker. This was followed by loud guffaws; it turned out that kheer meant penis in farsi.

This was also the time when I realised that I would not have enough money for PhD applications next term and so I had to look for a cheaper place. Desperate, I moved into the first place I found. A one bedroom apartment where I would be in the living room and finally save some money. It was a shit hole to start with. For the past 6 years (this how long we had the records) this place had been occupied by Indians. I stayed there for about four and half years (by the way it is still occupied by Indians). Anyways, it was this shit hole. The entire place was crawling with disgusting insects and what not. Even the fridge had garbage (to prevent the odour from spreading?). I remember opening a drawer and almost loosing consciousness because of extremely pungent smell (Beat you H2S!). I will not disgust you with lurid details. There I began the arduous task of cleaning the apartment and brightening the interiors. I shared this place with someone in the education department and I don’t remember much more. He left in a years time and I decided to stay at UBC for my PhD.  My friend Krishna joined in. It was great having him around and we had long conversations about a great variety of topics. Cooking sessions and commonalities of all kinds formed a basis of a great friendship. It was around then a newcomer Anujit wanted a place for a few days before moving and a good friend Aniruddha also needed some transit time. So they joined in and sadly loved it. Of course this was against the rules but who cares? Well well! They loved it so much that wanted to bunk their new places and stay with us. I realised that 4 people is going to be tough and so played the party pooper showing Aniruddha the door; Anujit was new after all.

And there in comes a time I am not proud of, it is probably the only thing in my life that I regret. I was irritable for many reasons back then and I treated Anujit very poorly, being a rigid and a beastly roommate, eventually having him leave. Krishna had already left for India, still in the doldrums regarding what to do next. I am glad that Anujit is so forgiving to be still a great friend. Anyways, he was replaced by Marc: 

https://nishantchandgotia.wordpress.com/2011/10/23/the-lacey-story/

oatmeal

Marc with all his curiosities is a great friend. He went through some very difficult (academic) times and I tried to lighten things at home, introducing him to what I knew of the great Indian cuisine. He in turn introduced me to the wonders of baking and often great mathematics. Gradually he really took to Indian cooking but lacked some patience. Once he was hungry and the cooker was taking too long too open. So he took off the whistle on the top by force and oh behold! He had a halo on the top of his head. No, no don’t worry! He, the cooker and the daal were all fine but there was a circle of turmeric on the ceiling.

Marc left and I was joined in by another dear friend Ankur who stayed in till the end of my stay in Vancouver. I realised here what a difference to life a like-minded person make. Far beyond me in many respects, Ankur brought some sanity to the apartment, taught me how to cook and many other things. I felt sad as I left!

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Haven’t you, o man in your 20s considered this before? I did and in the process found why Calvin’s father indeed never shared an apartment with several scantily clad female roommates. Searching for apartments in Tel Aviv wasn’t easy and by the end of things I was quite desperate and took up the first place that I could find in my budget. I was very low on money back then and had to save up enough for my trip to United states in a few months time. Well! The owner was very nice, the apartment was top-notch and I was sharing it with a pretty Israeli woman. What could be better? My friends, of course, had a field day and I, for one, thought of this as a great opportunity to learn some Hebrew if nothing else; the woman did not know any English. But instead I learnt quite quickly what happens to the best laid plans.

First day in the apartment, the lady asked for a light for her smoke. I had none and I suggested the stove. Soon the smell of weed filled the apartment and she gave me a lesson  via google translate in Israeli nationalism, why people with no grasp of Hebrew had no place in Israel. Then we argued about whether or not we needed a sofa; I was there for 4 months and there was no way I was going to shell out a dime. The apartment needed professional cleaning as well and being low on money I told her that I will pay for it next month. Next day I left for Jerusalem. It was early in the morning and as soon as I entered the kitchen I was viciously attacked by a bee and had to flee immediately. Well! Too bad. Next week when I was back I hear these loud complaints and she points out a rotten banana on the top of the fridge. I apologised and then she changed tac and started asking for the money for the cleaner. I reminded her that it was supposed to be the next month but she was adamant. In came her team of translators who tried to force me. Of course I am not your run-of-the-mill-kind; sadly neither was she!

Every night she would strut in at 3 in the night with horrible music, high heels and other female friends (who stayed over for the entire period of stay). This would of course wake me up, I would walk to her room, curse (which she sadly did not understand) and get her to shut up. But by then I would have lost my sleep. There I would lie on my bed, wide awake waiting for the morning. What can you do lying in your bed? No, no, no! That is not what I meant… So I would lie there, slowly my anger would subside and I would start thinking about things in life, philosophy and eventually return to my love, mathematics. But of course, I would not switch on the lights for that would completely kill the chances of sleep. Lying there I think I arrived at some brilliant (for me) mathematical ideas which might be useful later. Unintended consequences, huh? Touché!

Lesson: All roommates have a ‘use’! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4CEk47P8-k

Well I did not have much sleep for the four months and my clothes perennially stank of weed. I tried to return the favour by my horrible flute playing, guitar works, singing and the wonderfully sharp Indian cooking (Cough all the way to hell, you *****!). I sadly did not get much work done as a consequence and learnt grudgingly the pitfalls of a desperate measure. I also learnt that despite being flexible, I just can’t live with anyone and everyone; I too have some boundaries.

Well now providence has delivered me from the lady’s clutches and I am warm and comfortable warm in the cold US town of Providence, bracing myself for the roommate to arrive. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x8ZrN_pizyQ

The Killing

I wrote this poem a very long time back. As I write these words I begin to question them. How may I attribute this authorship; Isn’t this piece getting ‘rewritten’ with days, hours, seconds and minutes? I am not sure; I do not understand. Irrespective, let us get back to what I was saying.

I wrote this poem a very long time back. In the present context it takes a strange hue which I did not foresee. The pen indeed is dangerous. Possibly such events are not new; it is or it is not, it is certainly not something which can be resolved by playing the blame game which many of us somehow like to indulge in; whether we are political or we are not. If we are not walking towards a resolution then why are we walking?

In any case, I somehow have mixed feelings for self-censorship and so I share this piece even though I cannot recognise it anymore.

The Killing

Do you still hear the dreadful wails?
That night they led her out as her calves watched,
She was silent for she knew
That time had come to milk the green pastures.

“Thud!” Down came the axe upon her head,
Splattered blood on the walls,
Struggled her limbs for the last breath of life,
But where was it to come from?

Some quipped that it was painless,
Others resigned to the greater good,
My eyes saw it and yet I was blind,
That fateful night when a mother died.

They relished the meat for days to come,
And when they were done,
I saw them gather around the pen,
For yet remained the calves.

Do you still hear the dreadful wails?
That day they led him out as his children watched,
He was silent for he knew
That time had come to reap the harvest of debts.

“Imbecile!” pronounced the council that day,
Burdening him for life and more,
He begged for mercy from door to door,
But where was it to come from?

Some quipped that his pains were over,
Others resigned to the nature of life,
My eyes saw it and yet I was blind,
That fateful day when a father died.

They ravished the spoils for days to come,
And when they were done,
I saw them gather around the farms,
For yet remained the children.

An Indian back in India

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A few things about my trip… mostly for personal recollection!

Click on this link to Link to view online and the following ones to download PDFS:

  1. An Indian back in India
  2. In an Indian Train after Six Years (Kolkata to Chennai)
  3. Goats, Shrines and Coconuts (Mahabalipuram)
  4. Where the Oldies had Walked (Rajasthan)
  5. Elephant! AAAAAAAA (Mumbai)
  6. Mumbai se gaye Puna (Pune and Relagan Siddhi)
  7. Sringeri: The Lord and his People (Sringeri and Beyond)