Epitaph #63

No time this time.


Snowing leaves

Murakami’s wind-up bird hides in these trees. It spends the day chirping and singing most rhythmically. Its call fills the background, pup, pup, pup, at short regular intervals. It is so common a sound you barely hear it. It’s only when you hear it that the bird stops calling, intentionally one may think, as if to deceive you. The call is as uniform as the ticks of a metronome, as water dripping from a tap, as a coppersmith striking a horseshoe with a hammer. The bird indeed is known as a coppersmith barbet. It is very difficult to spot and from its hiding place it winds-up an earthly clock with every call.

It snowed leaves yesterday, as I was having lunch, pulled off trees by gusts of wind. It was enchanting.




This happens in the canteen, every morning during breakfast.

The first utterance is soft, whispery. It is spoken by a western scientist who does not fit in this place, his voice almost a resigned sigh. Approaching the counter he will show his visitor card and will skip the formal good morning. No etiquette in his book. His first spoken word of the day will be, of all words, omelette.

The second utterance is loud, emphatic. It is yelled by the local in charge of the counter so that his voice reaches somebody’s ears beyond the canteen’s kitchen door. His face is expressionless, inscrutable. He simply processes the information and gives his command.

The western scientist seems tired of eating his omelettes. The local man at the counter is an enigma. The information exchange is unnecessary. The local knows what to expect, the foreigner knows what to order. Yet the former won’t yell until the latter has whispered.

Amused, I witness this little ritual every morning.


Elsewhere [ST, Nov 13, 2002]

A consequence of my recent writing about my current stay in Pune is that I have read again an old entry I wrote about my 1997 visit and about terrible events that once hit the headlines and about Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. I am posting it below.

Comparisons are always tricky. I have been tempted to modify things in the old entry, here and there, but in the end it seemed honest not to do it.

Incidentally, a few days ago I dropped Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, her latest. Much too thick a plot.


Picture a cow, a dead cow, a dead sacred cow. And picture five people on the run, a kid among them.

In December 1997, on the week before Christmas, I traveled to India to pay my, so far, only visit to this country. And to Asia for that matter. I flew Swiss Air, an airline which no longer exists today. Amazing how something so apparently “solid” as an air company, which allows people to fly from, say, Zurich to Bombay, among dozens of other possible routes, may disappear overnight dragged in the wake of major bankruptcy. I reached Bombay on an early cloudless morning. The final destination of the journey was Pune, further east, where a large bunch of relativists was to gather together for possibly the world’s largest international conference on general relativity. Such meetings take place once every three years, each time in a different location of the globe.

The non-frequent flier is still shocked by the first impressions of the country, despite having watched a good many TV documentaries on the subject. This is definitely Third World arena, an impression readily conveyed from the aircraft window on the few minutes before landing. The early vague ideas, the first suspicions, rapidly become solid as a rock for the passenger arriving in Bombay, one of the largest cities in overpopulated India. Taking a bus for a ride through the city allows one to realize, sharply and fast, and constantly surrounded by the annoying loud honks from all kinds of motor vehicles, of what Misery in capital letters – Big Leagues Misery – is all about: the homeless, the eventual leper with no arms and no legs, the unseemingly real. While leaving the city heading east toward Pune, one can clearly see how miles and miles of the outskirts are literally flooded with countless huts and hovels where the poorest among the poor, the condemned, pile up. The vision is devastating. The imagination, running wild and uncontrolled, increases the effects by many e-folds. One has suddenly Misery face to face, one greets No Future Land without a basic warm-up, without an elementary word of caution, without a badly needed warning. Seeing is believing. But there’s much more to add: seeing is feeling, and feeling bad and ugly as a first world privileged, confused by the unfolding scenery over the flat land awkwardly mixing up with full-blown jet-lag weariness. Reading about it in books, even watching it on TV, comes second down a distressing list. The live show is the very real thing, the breathtaking experience escaping common sense analysis.

Picture five Untouchables on the run. Picture a wild crowd of people, Touchables, outnumbering the former by far.

Somewhere I read a sentence which went more or less like this: India is a country which somehow manages to live in various centuries at the same time. The author of the sentence is Arundhati Roy. Roy is also the author of an outstanding novel, The God of Small Things.

Picture five Untouchables on the run. Picture a mere suspicion, picture a crime. Picture a dead sacred cow whose skin has been peeled away. A chase, a capture, a cold blood lynching by a wild angry crowd. Picture the sad demise of a few Untouchables, five, a kid among them. Their eyeballs had been first taken out, the paper explicitly reported. Trading with sacred cow skin for a living, or a dying, no matter the cows might be already dead, holy dead by natural causes, outliving many Untouchables.

This happened barely a few weeks ago, in twenty-first century India, the country which somehow manages to live in various centuries simultaneously.

In The God of Small Things Roy writes:

As a young boy, Velutha would come with Vellya Paapen to the back entrance of the Ayemenem House to deliver the coconuts they had plucked from the trees in the compound. Pappachi would not allow Paravans into the house. Nobody would. They were not allowed to touch anything that Touchables touched. Caste Hindus and Caste Christians. Mammachi told Estha and Rahel that she could remember a time, in her girlhood, when Paravans were expected to crawl backwards with a broom, sweeping away their footprints so that Brahmins or Syrian Christians would not defile themselves by accidentally stepping into a Paravan’s footprint. In Mammachi’s time, Paravans, like other Untouchables, were not allowed to walk on public roads, not allowed to cover their upper bodies, not allowed to carry umbrellas. They had to put their hands over their mouths when they spoke, to divert their polluted breath away from those whom they addressed.

When the British came to Malabar, a number of Paravans, Pelayas and Pulayas […] converted to Christianity and joined the Anglican Church to escape the scourge of Untouchability. As added incentive they were given a little food and money. They were known as the Rice-Christians. It didn’t take them long to realize that they had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. They were made to have separate churches, with separate services, and separate priests. As a special favour they were even given their own separate Pariah Bishop. After Independence they found they were not entitled to any Government benefits like job reservations or bank loans at low interest rates, because officially, on paper, they were Christians, and therefore casteless. It was a little like having to sweep away your footprints without a broom. Or worse, not being allowed to leave footprints at all.

Picture a rape in a small village in Punjab in neighbouring Pakistan. A caste-driven rape. A tribal council, the papers said, condemned an unfortunate eighteen year old woman to be raped by four men. One of those was a member of the court itself. Imagine a reason, try to make sense of the nonsense. Picture the woman’s twelve year old brother having an illicit affair with a woman of an upper caste. Reality surpassing fiction by enormous amounts – the running theme of Roy’s novel itself is nothing but a caste-driven crime.

To punish an innocent woman by an “illicit” act carried out by a male member of her family is no news. It is indeed common practice in some parts of the country. A dramatic example of no news being dreadful news.

Tribal courts, jirgas, are regarded as unofficial by the official Pakistan law and government.

The illegal sentence was nevertheless fulfilled on June 22nd, at midnight, inside a hut. It was cheerfully staged with a background of shouting and laughter by about 500 people who gathered outside the house. An amusing ceremony. A party. An event. The girl “prayed for mercy”, she “pleaded and begged” but the four men behaved “like animals”. One put a gun on her head while the others teared off her clothes and patiently took turns.

Patiently. Took. Turns.

London Times reported what farmer Fareed, the ill-fated woman’s father, said about the event. About how he clearly heard the cries of her daughter while she was being raped. About how he had to swallow his rage, being, as he was, surrounded by a good many armed men from the hostile tribe. About how he picked up his naked daughter from the filthy floor and brought her home amid the stares of a silent, guilty crowd.

More than 300 women are killed every year in Pakistan in the name of honour, the London Times said. People rely on jirgas, and not police, to solve the so-called “matters of honour”. A dangerous place for women.

The girl told the press she first wanted to commit suicide. On second thoughts she said she wanted to live to see the rapists dead.

That was last July. Now the four rapists are indeed dead, after an official sentence by an official court. They were hanged. Pakistan, India, castes, tribal councils, feudalism, Middle Age procedures taking place in the Space Age, in the era of the Internet, cell phones, nuclear weapons and first world comfort. Middle Age vividly bolting into action, instantaneously beamed in our secure living rooms while, absent-minded, we have dinner or play with the kids.

Picture a cow, a dead cow, a dead sacred cow. Picture the lynching of five Untouchables, a kid among them, their eyeballs out of their natural place, elsewhere. Picture a woman’s youngest brother having an illicit affair with a woman of an upper caste. Picture the lower caste woman’s multiple rape as a result. Picture the four rapists’ corpses hanging by their necks from four ropes. Picture the ongoing routine and try to make sense of the nonsense. Try hard.



Life here is very simple. You work a bit, walk a bit, rest a bit, pay your customary visits to the canteen for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The same routine. Each day is a succession of the same bits, the same work, walks, food. I don’t leave the premises. I don’t feel adventurous enough to go out on my own.

Time stretches as a rubber band here.

Time sometimes becomes translucent and twists and bends, when fatigue starts to take its toll halfway through a long trip and you still have to catch another flight in the middle of the night – there is always yet another flight. Time then takes command and events become dreamlike. Picture yourself as a straphanger in a bus being taken from a gate to an airplane at night, swaying uneasily during the long ride, surrounded by red-eyed people and excessive luggage, the outside flashing lights of the airport – red and green and yellow – diffracted by the water droplets on the fogged windows, half-discerning the surreal view of the lights silhouetting the Burj Khalifa in the distance. Time warp-drives the moment the stewardess welcomes you on board with a cheerful good morning when you were expecting a good night. It suddenly strikes you that your night’s slipped away.

My first visit to India was 20 years ago, on December 1997. Then, everything was new. Now, I know what to expect. I am no longer surprised by the chaos in the streets, by the filth and the dust, by the density of people, cars, bikes, three-wheelers or motorcycles, by the incessant blowing of horns, by the slumdogs and the poverty of many. I am now aware of things that perhaps went off my radar when I first visited this country – the exuberant vegetation, the magnificent trees, the screaming birds, the amount of stray dogs, the humidity, the way pedestrians cross the heavily trafficked roads, slowly and confidently, the times when ocassionally a total stranger would engage in a long conversation with me about this and that for the sake of politeness, the beauty of small kids’ brown-skinned faces.

Sometimes it takes me a moment to realize the current month’s January.




From the balcony of my room in the IUCAA guesthouse I watch two guys kicking a ball. They play on the lawn of the inner court of the residence. The guys are PhD students, yet they enjoy kicking the ball just as two little kids would do. It takes me no time to realize their skills at football suck. They should try cricket or badminton, as most of their peers surely do.

Watching them I’m reminded of myself kicking balls as a kid. We, the kids in the neighbourhood, played football games in the street. There was usually only one goal – a metallic sliding door of some garage. Every time someone scored the noise was very loud. Passers-by complained, car-drivers complained, as did the owner of the garage whose door was our goal. She feared we might break it, or bend it, or something.

Relative to most of our small team of street players I was very good at those games. I had some skills, good ball control, and always scored a few goals. I liked the feeling of being the best player.

Remembering those games today, on this saturday afternoon so far away from home, overcomes me with nostalgia. Suddenly those silly games become the symbol of utmost happiness itself.

Years later I would sometimes kick the ball with dad, on the lawn at the house by the sea. Occasionally I would play goalie and would dive for the ball much too theatrically. And when I became a father myself, despite the roles changed the ritual went on – my son also liked to kick the ball with me, on that same lawn, and the feeling was reciprocal. He almost always wanted to play goalie. I happily approved, the years of grass-diving gone for good.



A plain and humble room smelling of naphthalene a tad too much. A wardrobe with two hangers, their wires oddly twisted. A ceiling fan. Mothballs. A kettle. Fifteen bottles of water. Aged furniture. It suits him, for a change. Taking it as it comes. Being thankful. Nights are still, noiseless, the only sound the distant horn from the eventual train. Long blows at periodic intervals, reminding him of faraway nights at home in his childhood. Tonight, hours earlier, sitar music from the patio below filled the air, as a welcoming token, an unambiguous hint of the far-off-ness of the place.



After dad’s passing I didn’t turn on the radio of my car for a while. Everywhere I drove, I drove in silence. I know it sounds silly but somehow it didn’t seem right to enjoy a bit of cheerful music. I should feel somber and sad. And actually I was, real sad, effortlessly sad, head-to-toe sad. It took me almost a month to turn the music on again.


Oretes fletes

Games of cards on summer afternoons. My grandpa and grandma and my aunt and uncle. I joined them sometimes, more often than I perhaps should have. I enjoyed being amongst the elderly, playing cards. My grandpa and my uncle used to voice funny statements while playing and they sometimes sang. My uncle was a bit odd, but my recollection is probably not one to be trusted. He was always repeating the same mysterious expressions, time and again. One of them was “oretes fletes” that he uttered whenever he played a card of the suit of coins (oros). (This is one of the four suit symbols of the Spanish playing cards.) He was always ready to utter those intriguing words. To this day they still mean nothing to me.

He liked to win, my uncle. To him playing cards was a competitive sport, and when he lost you could tell it. He did not behave foolish as a small kid may react to defeat in a game but you noticed he was annoyed, in a subdued kind of way, all the while trying everyone else not to notice.

My grandpa on the other hand couldn’t care less about winning or losing. He just enjoyed being there with his wife and in-laws and, I suppose, his grandson, playing cards for the fun of it, just because that was the pastime they chose. He enjoyed the company, the game was irrelevant. He was a happy good man, my grandpa was. At those card games he was sometimes carried away and that was when he started singing. It was always the same song, as far as I recall, and he mostly focused in just one single verse that went like “… i passaven la vida baix la figuera …” which translates as “… and they spent life under the fig tree …”. Perhaps he also sang other verses from the same song but that’s the one that stuck. Memory’s a stranger.

Every time he went off singing my aunt would burst into laughter. She was a lovable person, my aunt was. She did not play, she just kept the rest company with a permanent smile in her face and the sporadic bursts of laughter. I don’t know why she didn’t play, perhaps she could not hold the cards properly. She had had a stroke in midlife, an ictus during her sleep, from which she recovered well but not entirely. Parts of her body were somewhat numb, her arms in particular. But not her goodwill and happiness, plain and simple. That didn’t stop working.

My grandma did play but she didn’t pay much attention. She liked to poke fun at her husband and her brother in law, in a respectful kind of way. But she never tired of the mild scorn. My aunt’s laughter went up a few notches with every witty comment from her older sister.

They are all long gone, my grandpa, grandma, aunt, and uncle, as those summer afternoons.

I also remember how my dad complained that I spent too much time with the elderly. He wanted me to go out to play with kids my age. I could see his point but it was usually funnier to stay home.



The pain in the chest was intense but tolerable. I became aware of it gradually, as if my awareness was slowly growing as the pain intensified. The feeling was unusual. I was in my office, working. I stood up, stretched my back and walked a few steps to see if a change in my posture could stop the pain. It didn’t. At some point, after a few minutes, the pain receded. It didn’t go away fully – a low-intensity residual was still apparent like some kind of background hum.

I phoned M. We discussed how to proceed. She told me to come over to the hospital where she works and have some tests done on me. I was hesitant. My morning agenda included hosting a visitor who had to present a talk for our students and, after that, a department’s lunch. Three colleagues had just been promoted to full professorshipdom and they were going to celebrate. As head of the department I was somehow supposed to attend that lunch.

M phone back a while later. She was with an emergency doctor and put her on the phone. I explained the episode to her and she agreed I should visit. I told the doctor about my busy agenda, the presentation, the lunch I could not miss. She was sympathetic but let me know, in a condescendingly way that I did not mind, that intense pain in the chest is not something to be taken lightly. (Another doctor who was following the conversation acknowledged my atitude, M later would tell me – “We men are like that”, he repeated a few times, nodding in masculine solidarity.) When M was back on the phone I told her I’d go to the hospital after the presentation, which is what I did.

I arrived to the E.R. ward and M showed me inside, side-stepping the queue (this is something I’ve done before; I don’t actually like it. It’s tinged with embarrassment but I always end up doing it anyway). In no time a blood test and an ECG were performed on me. Neither of them revealed anything strange. I felt fine and the results did not surprise me. I was told to wait for a few hours to repeat the tests. I waited in M’s office, staring at the screen of my cell phone, checking email, tweeting. We had lunch at the meeting room with a couple of doctors. M is an administrative officer in the emergency unit of a major hospital in town. She knows everyone around and, from what I hear, she seems indispensable to them.

The afternoon ticked away slowly.

Broadly speaking, everything is fine. And then it stops being so, fine. This is one of life’s immutable truths.

After a few hours the tests were finally repeated. Again, nothing strange. One of the doctors (one with whom we had had lunch) decided that more conclusive results could only be obtained through an exercise stress test. It was early evening already and the nurses that run those tests were gone – these tests are done in the morning. However, an Italian cardiologist who knows how to run those tests was around – Paolo – and up M and I went with him to the third floor to walk and run on a treadmill.

Another cardiologist produced little islands of shaved hair on my chest so that the wires of the ECG device could be adhered easily. I got tired quickly of the walk, hardly had any time to run. I even felt a bit dizzy. Paolo told me the test was uncertain but he did not seem concerned. I should stay at the hospital for the night so the doctors could continue with further tests in the morning.

Somehow I presumed those additional tests were going to be more of the same, ECGs and blood tests. They were not. Early the next morning a cardiologist (yet a different one) came into my room and told me they were going to insert a catheter into my body to evaluate my heart condition. I was taken aback by this sudden, most unexpected announcement. There was no point for complaining or questioning. I had no other real choice than to sign the form giving the authorization for the procedure.

Soon I was wheelchaired to a surgery ward, stripped of my hospital pyjamas, and found myself lying flat on a stiff bed with a cold sheet covering my body. The catheter was going to be inserted through my left arm. The pelvis would be used as a backup point of entry, and a nurse shaved some of my pubic hair. The surgeon explained what he was about to do. He told me the results of the stress test from last evening were quite bad. (Paolo’s evaluation seemed to have been purposedly harmless.) The catheterization was going to show the actual reason of my pain. He listed three possible outcomes. The first one was a false positive. In that case, another stress test would be carried out. The second one was that the three arteries were not functioning as they should. This would require triple bypass surgery. The final possibility was somewhere in between, perhaps only one artery was damaged.

I remember listening to the doctor’s prognosis and not quite grasping the full meaning of what his words entailed. My mind seemed focus on two single words – triple bypass. One moment your life is a routine repetition of eventless days, the next you face triple bypass surgery.

The catheterization revealed the most likely outcome. Only one artery was damaged. It was however significantly obstructed. The torrent of blood was a narrow stream, a thin, slim, insufficient brook. The surgeon’s words still resound in my head – in a few days time the artery would have certainly closed and I would have suffered a serious heart attack. Serious, that’s the word he chose. A stent was next placed on the damaged artery to relieve the obstruction. I was blessed, though – my heart had not been harmed.

The sequence of decisions we took – me, M, various doctors – from the time I noticed the original pain in my chest to the final moment my artery was fixed, was a series of right decisions. A lucky sequence of correct actions. A vital timeline. It scares me to think about how easily this might have gone wrong, how any of the decisions in the chain might have distractedly been inappropriate.

That happened last November. I am since taking daily doses of drugs to keep going. I’ll have to take those for at least a year.

I am in my early fifties. The usual risk factors that increase a person’s chances to develop heart disease – obesity, no physical activity, smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol – do not apply to me. I’m left with less quantifiable factors to blame my faulty heart condition on – stress, family genetics, an unhealthy diet.

Yes, I am in my early fifties. Should I still be considered a young person? I would have thought so, at least until last month. The aftermath of the episode has left me confused and aged. Psychologically aged.