Nights at the Ayurvedagram and the Ultimate Truth

[This is my 50th post  after the publication of my two books of blogs. I thought of celebrating the 50th post by writing on a topic that is little different. This post was written after a long and strange dream at the Ayurvedagram.]

I decided to spend two weeks in Ayurvedagram near Bangalore to address several of my health concerns. Most of my health problems were due to sheer negligence, lack of understanding and low priority given to my body and mind. But never too late, I thought. Ayurvedic therapy had worked for me in the past. I gave a long list of my problems to Dr Manmohan, the Chief Medical Officer. Dr Manmohan chalked out an elaborate plan for me for the required “correction” and “prevention”. I am sure coming up with such a plan was challenging to him.

I was tired of the multiple ailments however and wished that I could get another body for a change so that I could continue my work. But I knew that this would require some Godly intervention. So, when I was woken up at night by Lord Vishnu in Ayurvedagram, I was rather delighted.

Lord Vishnu heard my story patiently with a smile. He said “Dr Modak, you are still not understanding the Ultimate Truth and hence are worried about your health issues and thinking about the world of work.. Once you understand the truth, everything will be different and you will live differently”

I asked Lord how can I understand what you are saying.

“Well Dr Modak, I will have to “free” you for a while to experience. Come with me” said the Lord.

I soon realized that I had left my body. It was like a breeze as I was perhaps blessed. I was  floating in an astral form that had no more pains and the ailments. Lord Vishnu took my hand and navigated me.

We left the campus of Ayurvedagram, rose on the skyline of the Bangalore city, and gradually reached above the Indian peninsula where I could see both Arabian sea and Bay of Bengal. That was a fascinating view and it humbled me.

“We will go even further Dr Modak. We will exit the Earth shortly and move towards the Universe”. Lord Vishnu said.  His face had a different glow.

To me it was going to be a magic carpet ride and with none other than the Creator and Protector of the Universe. I considered myself  to be very fortunate.

In few minutes, we had left the Earth. The journey beyond was new and exciting to me.  After crossing several planets, we stopped.

“Now close your eyes Dr Modak” Lord Vishnu said. “You will soon realize the Ultimate Truth without me saying anything”

I closed my eyes.

I saw that nothing was existing contrary to what I believed. There was no earth and no planets.. and no mountains and the seas and no people. There was only light that encompassed the universe. There was a deep humming sound (Omkar – that is the primeval sound) giving vibrations. It looked like an everlasting or chirantan Brahmic universe with all the emptiness. And  yet it seemed complete.

And this universe was me.

Was that the Ultimate Truth?

I was in a trans.

After a while, Lord Vishnu asked me to open my eyes. I did not want to but I simply obeyed.

Lord Vishnu had taken by then his mighty form stretching the universe. I looked at his Viraat Swaroop or Vishvarupa. And I understood that I was Him too! We were not different.

Vishvarupa


Vishvarupa is considered the supreme form of Lord Vishnu, where the whole universe is described as contained in Him.


Lord Vishnu then assumed his humanoid form like before and navigated me back to the Earth and to the Ayurvedagram. We did not speak a word in this journey.  There was no need.

When Lord Vishnu put me back to my body, I realized that there was nothing much to worry or discuss about the ailments I was facing. There was nothing to fear as fear appeared irrelevant. Would you agree?

I realized that all I had to do was to put my body and mind to the best use I could – till I have.  Helping someone was logical as the one suffering was me and rejoicing in someone’s happiness was a joy – again to me.  I saw all the boundaries one perceives to be blurring.

But the realization of the Ultimate Truth put me to another difficult question. Knowing that nothing is real, should you be in the state of sthitaprajna?


The sthitaprajna is a free soul, ever steady in knowledge of Self. A sthitaprajna is also known as a jivanmukta, or one who is truly free while still living. Though engaged in actions, being free from ego and free from motive, the sthitaprajna is not a doer of actions. Though having a physical body, the sthitaprajna is merely a dweller within the body and is unidentified with it. The wisdom of the sthitaprajna is wisdom of a cosmic oneness. Ever established in the state of yoga, the sthitaprajna remains in constant union with God and, at the same time, is the ideal exemplar of karma-yoga, demonstrating steady wisdom through every action.


Attaining the state of sthitaprajna is perhaps ideal but certainly not easy.

I thought of asking guidance from the Lord on how to accomplish this difficult task when and if he visits me again in the nights at the Ayurdevagram. Having exposed me to the Ultimate Truth, I thought He better teach me how to be in such a state. I had several questions to ask.

But well, if you have the answers, then please let me know. I would love to get your insight and guidance.


Text on sthitaprajna taken from https://indiaspirituality.blogspot.in/2010/05/qualities-of-sthitaprajna.html


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Will you Marry Me?

All those who fall in love – either speak or listen to this asking “Will you marry me?”

Many believe that to say “Will you marry me?” requires a great courage. You are also at the risk of receiving a negative response. And if the answer is negative, then there is a greater risk and a pain if you further asked “Why? or “Why not?”. One should never make that stupid mistake.

If the answer is Yes, then many are dumb founded and don’t know what next to do. Few smart ones, insert a ring in the partner’s finger or some bold ones give a long hug and plant a deep kiss. This moment is cherished throughout the life irrespective of the regrets later!

I came across five seemingly straight forward steps in proposing a marriage.

Step 1: Make sure that you’re both ready for marriage. Before you take the plunge, you should know if you’re really ready to be together for the long haul of life. …(I know its hard many times to be “that sure”. But you need to be an optimist).

Step 2: Pick the right ring,  before you propose…. (This Step is as real practical. Note that this will be some investment)

Step 3: Pick the right time. …(don’t ask when your partner is in some stress and when he/she cannot be receptive or attentive to what you say)

Step 4: Pick the perfect location. ...(a deserted beautiful beach? a romantic top terrace of a hotel overlooking city at night? Or in a plane flying at 35000 ft when the sign of fasten seat belts off? – you need to be imaginative here)

Step 5: Ask the right way.(with all the passion, grace and love; in a voice that is thicker than usual, holding the hand in a firm grip when you speak)

It seems that if you follow these 5 steps, and rightly so, then you would probably hear the answer Yes, see a loving and assuring smile messaging an unspoken response as YES.

Many however follow the usual style of communication like sending flowers with a (surprise) note, post a love letter with a box of chocolates, get help from friends who sing in choir “Will you marry him/her?” with a brass band or a drum line in the background.  Alabama’s (a music group) song “Will you marry me?” and a solo by John Berry are often played.

All these tricks are interesting but not exciting.

There are web pages that present a compilation on different ways to propose a marriage. See the 58 tips on so called romantic ways to propose and 100 such ideas

But I find that these resources and tips are rather drab, conventional and not that innovative. So I started asking my friends how they did it.

My friend Bill working in an investment firm in New York was in love with a colleague. They used to partner in many assignments.

Opposite their office was a McDonald outlet where they used to take a bite because of the bizzare work pressures. A branch of American Express Bank was next to the McDonalds. Bill asked  his girlfriend  while crossing the street “how about opening a joint account in Amex”. The message was subtle (a bit fit for professionals in the financial world!) but the proposition of the joint account set the ball rolling! They eventually married.

One of my Thai friends Veerawan was courting with a boyfriend for quite a while with no progress on asking “Will you marry me?”. One day, Veerawan was lunching with Surasak (name of her boyfriend). She pulled out a pocket book from her purse that is used as a guide for naming newborns. Veerawan asked “Sura, what name should we choose if we get the boy first?” Sura chose one quitely – as if they were already married!! There was no need to ask “Will you marry me?”

But story by good friend Aron from Manila is interesting. Tes (his girl-friend) and Aron were close friends in the college. They used to go out with friends on the weekends for music. Both loved to read books and later have a conversation about them. Alan used to paint and was pretty good at portraits.

One of their favorites place to meet was the Books and Border Café located on the Tomas Morato Street in Diliman Quezon. The Café held a stock of 650 books and served great coffees.

Aron and Tes would pick up an interesting book, read the book for a while, sit quietly in the Café on the bean bags and then after an hour or so sit on the table and order a coffee. They would exchange the books and discuss their reading experiences. This would generally happen on the weekdays as the Café was less crowded giving them more peace and privacy.

Book and Border Cafe in Manila

Aron was in love with Tes and wanted to propose marriage, but their closeness and friendship became a barrier to express his love.

The book shelves of the Border café had unique book markers. You could write your name on the book markers, so the next time you visit the Café, you could pick up the book that is not yet finished and reach the place to continue reading instantly. Most popular books boasted several book marks, and you could see names of people who are reading the book “along” with you. That was quite interesting.

The book markers

Aron picked up a book, wrote on the book marker his name and then wrote in capital letters “Will you marry me Tes?”. Tes was engrossed reading another book.

When they sat on the table for conversations, Aron passed on his book to Tes and started to talk about it. “It’s a great story of life of a painter like me”. He said.

Tes was turning the pages of the book as he spoke. “Read the section that I book marked – that may interest you. The story has a twist at the end” said Aron while browsing through the pages of Tes’s book. He avoided looking at her.

Tes reached the book marker. And the communication happened …. She closed the book, gave a warm smile to Aron and softly said “I don’t need to read the rest of the book now” The story was clear and over. That was the twist!

Aron and Tess married in the Church within a month. The Owner of the Books and Border was warmly invited.

I asked my Professor friend where did he propose to his late wife. “In Samover Café at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai”. He said while lighting his cigar. “It was just past 8 pm. The main door got closed for the day. I paid 10 Rs tip  to the waiter to let us stay. He told us that we could  leave from the back door after 10 minutes that had an automatic latch. We were the only couple in the Café. Everything happened in those 10 minutes –  We did not speak. But our eyes did. When we stepped out of Samover, we knew that we were to get married”

Cafe Samover in Mumbai

Professor was perhaps lost in the memories as he sat quiet.

I thought that the Professor was right. His wife who was a famous artist and a noble soul, deserved place only like Samover for that unspoken “Will you marry me?”.

Professor had chosen the right place and the right time.

Unfortunately today, Samover is closed.


Started by Usha Khanna in 1964, Cafe Samovar in Jehangir Art Gallery was an icon of Mumbai’s cultural landscape and for decades. It served as a haven for the city’s creative minds across the arts. This cafe was a theater for dramatic performances, a meeting place for executives, especially lawyers, young lovers and the students.


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Eating With

We go and eat out often. In most cases, we do this to be with friends. Well, eating something special (e.g. a different cuisine) and being in a different ambience is also an idea. But what matters is the people we eat with. This makes the occasion memorable. You see pictures on the Facebook where we see more photos of friends sitting on the dining table and very rarely photos of the dishes we eat!

Most of us visit some of the famous restaurants in the cities we travel to. Each city has a list of iconic restaurants that are recommended as a must (like you see on TripAdvisor). We make appointments or book tables at these restaurants to experience the eating and then talk about it on WhatsApp.

And there is also a “hidden” list of little restaurants that are tugged in the narrow by lanes – generally in the old quarters of the city. Owners of these restaurants are there for generations, they don’t change even the furniture and so forget changing the menu! They follow the traditions and that’s why you love them.

I have been patronizing many such restaurants. These restaurants were introduced to me by my friends because of their cuisine, ambience and uniqueness. A concoction of all the three added with friendliness and generosity of the host made the lunches and dinners at these restaurants rather memorable. But above all, as I earlier said, you always remember the people you ate with, the conversations you enjoyed and the friendship that gets brewed. I simply hate business dinners. Informal sessions with friends are the best.

I remember dining at a little restaurant in Paris. The restaurant was close to Eifel tower. There was a deal. You could book Chef’s time (at some extra cost) to have him dine with you. The Chef would customize the dinner and the wines to everybody’s taste and discuss French cuisine with stories to give you a true gastronomical experience.

Six of us went to the restaurant on a Friday evening. My local host booked for Chef Andre. Andre set up our tables on the street outside the restaurant with cane chairs having a round base (like the Irani restaurants in Mumbai). Andre had a stocky and large body with chubby cheeks and a moustache similar to the Bar Tender in the movie Irma la deuce. He had a happy face and was full of life. He spoke broken English. But his daughter Noel who served the dishes could speak much better.  She was a very pretty and witty girl.

The dinner was wonderful. Andre asked us questions on what we liked, where we wanted to be adventurous and what were our allergies (like sea food for me). He then thought, closed his eyes for a while and said something in French giving instructions to Noel. Both father and daughter got inside restaurant and took one us to the kitchen – to watch cooking. This experience was great. We took turns. The dinner and the discourse lasted for 3 hours and all of us enjoyed the experience. At the end, when we were having the deserts with wine, Noel sang a French ballad in a soft voice – that looked impromptu. Andre played a box guitar to accompany and he was pretty good too. I later learnt that the ballad was about saying good bye when you were about to fall in love!

Talking about singing, have you been to the singing waiters and cooks restaurant in Manila? The Singing Cooks & Waiters is the first, the original and the only musical restaurant of its kind in the world. The restaurant was conceived by Mr. Ongpauco. I went there for the first time in 1995 with a bunch of friends. We not only listened to some great philipino voices during dinner but discovered musical talent amongst us that we did not know about! A colleague of mine who was workaholic and always had a constipated face, sang a lovely Tom Jones number. We were simply astonished and floored to witness his hidden talent. The ambience and the mood of the restaurant had certainly made the difference.

But there are occasions we want to be at a quiet place basically for conversations with no agenda. I would recommend two interesting restaurants in India for this purpose. One is the Lodi Garden restaurant in Delhi and the other Kairavali in Bangalore.

But let me talk here about Lodi.

Known for its romantic setting & natural surroundings, Lodi is touted as Delhi’s favorite alfresco restaurant. I have had most interesting conversations in the garden portion of this restaurant with several page 3 personalities of India – influential and learned people who speak words that walk with you after you dine. Lodi is essentially a non-institutional high profile cultural hub. The best time to be there is evenings – a bit early like 7 30 pm and start with cocktails. The wine bar at Lodi boasts of an extensive wine list and a 16-tap wine machine and is popular for its innovative cocktails.

The best part of Lodi’s is the sparse placement of tables in the garden area and proximity to the trees. You feel that you are sitting and chatting in the garden of your own house. You also feel private while conversing with someone intimate to you. You feel like confiding to share your concerns, worries as well as joys and happy moments in life –  but with no agenda.  The conversations simply sail or drift like a ship with a slow but steady wind on a lazy sea. Often you don’t even realize that you have reached an unknown destination in the conversations.

I remember a quiet dinner with a close friend of mine at Lodi’s when she disclosed to me that she was hit by a cancer of bone marrow and had only six months to live. There was silence when she spoke about this dreadful disease. The truth was harsh but the trees around us were patient and kind. They listened to her agonies. They didn’t even whisper. I saw her unmoved with a courageous face. I held her hand while walking out of the restaurant – and firmly so – to let her know how much pained I was. There was also  a promise to express that I will  stand by next to her in these difficult times. It was a dinner to realize how do you take a trauma with courage and elegance.

But let me not depress you. Well, have you heard about EatWith? If you visit the website, it says that “The future of dining is here”. EatWith invites you to join at a “communal table” to lunch/dine located in 200+ cities and 50 countries around the world. The concept is simple. You log in and access the 650 hosts who are profiled on the EatWith. Hosts are offering lunch or dining service from their homes because they love cooking, meeting with strangers and in the process, make some money. You select the host based on the menus displayed and make a booking. You are generally in small numbers, so could do interesting conversations, make new friends and of course converse with the chef host to learn more about the recipes.

On my recommendations, a friend of mine visited Chef Yves in the famous market La Boqueria in the Raval district of Barcelona. There were four customers who met Chef Yves at the market at 5 30 pm. The Chef walked them through the colorful market stands nearby, and introduced different to them  local and fresh products that are the basis of Catalan gastronomy.

After the interactive food tour, they were taken to Chef’s personal kitchen in the little village of Esplugues de Llobregat, 15 minutes driving from Barcelona. Here they were then taught way around his catalan kitchen while following the instructions for the preparation of a delicious 3 course dinner that took about 2 hours. Every participant was given a cutting board, the required tools and an apron to take an active role in the cooking class. After cooking was done, the dinner was set up on a rooftop terrace that overlooked Barcelona – city warmly lit with lights at the night.

I asked my friend why this dinner was so memorable to him. He was a bit hesitant to answer my question. But when coaxed, he told me that he was in a very interesting company of three women for the cooking and dinner. He got famously along with one of the women, and both of them kind of flipped on each other. The conversations got a bit personal too – and more so with each glass of green wine that the Chef generously served. After few drinks, Chef Yves brought meatballs stuffed with the cuttlefish tentacles and stewed in a fish broth. The woman asked my friend to get up and walk down the staircase with her. My friend obeyed. As they reached the patio downstairs, she held him tight and gave him a long and a deep kiss. My friend was simply shocked and dazed.

The woman said “Dude, I had to kiss you right now as I don’t like the cuttlefish”

Oh, I then understood the excitmnent  and the fizz of eating with!

 

Cover image sourced from https://rapidiq.wordpress.com/2013/05/04/eating-with-bare-hands/


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UN Meetings of the Usual Kind

 

 

I was to attend a UN conference in Prague. The organizers as a part the “deal” had asked some of the us to draft the outcomes of the meeting so that the summary could be presented in the concluding session and “ratified”.

We were told to stay late in the evening and continue to work in the meeting rooms. The work was divided and each one of us was asked to capture the key messages of the allotted session, based on the speeches made and comments from the participants.

I was not happy with this expectation. I knew that these kinds of meetings really do not lead to outcomes worth discussing and be agreed upon. I am saying this out of the experience I have in attending several UN meetings as a resource person. The summaries are drab, wordy and sometimes even meaningless.

In our resource person group, there were however few younger colleagues in the mid-forties, who did not know this truth. Some of them in fact felt elated to be called as the resource persons so that they could sport this title in their CVs.

I had planned that after the days long, routine and ritualistic presentations to get out on the streets of Prague. You need to have a good drink after the dose of terms like sustainability, striking partnerships, promote harmonization etc. You are often siting in a poorly ventilated room.

In Prague, my favorite place has been the Reduta Jazz Club. It is situated on Národní street in the centre of the city, close to the National Theatre. Redutta is a legendary jazz spot where stars like Ray Charles and Louie Armstrong have played including Bill Clinton. It’s a small, old and traditional (a little shabby) club located in the basement floor. My idea was to give some excuse to Carlo, the organizer and escape the so called working session of the evening.

During the lunch break at the meeting, Carlo introduced to me to Tamara, a Japanese-American girl. “Tamara is a professional writer” Carlo said. “I use her in most of the UN meetings as she is quite familiar with the protocol (especially in citing the country names etc.). She will take over the draft summary you guys will do and polish to come up with a final draft that we could present in the last concluding session.” Tamara was a pleasant personality, with chinky eyes and an American accent and had a smiling face. She must be in her mid thirty.  “Nice to meet you Dr Modak, I look forward to drafts from you and your colleagues”.

I told Carlo about my unhappiness of spending time in the evening to work on the draft summary.  I told him that I plan to go to Redutta. I assured him that when I will return, I will work in my room and email the draft each night to him and Tamara. The meeting was for two days and each day one session was allotted to me.

Carlo wasn’t happy with my proposition as he wanted that the resource persons discuss as they write the draft and thought that I could provide the overall direction. But when I pleaded, he gave up “But Dr Modak, please ensure that your drafts reach me, Tamara and other resources persons in time”. I assured him. I realized that my seniority, age and long connection with the UN system worked.

After Carlo left, Tamara continued conversation with me. “Tell me about Redutta Jazz Club” She asked “Must be an interesting place since you don’t want to miss. Can I join you too? This is my first visit to Prague and I love Jazz”

Well, you are most welcome to join, we will leave the hotel by 7 pm so that we get the seats.  I said

“But Tamara, how would you manage?” I said this with great concern “You are in charge of the final summary and perhaps this would require your continued presence in the meeting room. There are 7 sessions over 2 days with 20 speakers and 80 participants – that’s going to lead to a large cloud of words that will need to be burst to get some drizzle” I said in a lighter vein.

Tamara smiled – “Yes, Dr Modak, there will be lots of words of wisdom that will need to be managed and massaged”

I continued “And don’t forget that the drafts you will receive from the resource persons will need to edited from language and protocol point of view. That will be some challenging work. I expect you to work whole night tonight as well as tomorrow to come up with a summary that can be presented”

Tamara said “I am aware Dr Modak and honestly I am quite used to. I will manage. See you at 7 pm in the lobby”

I was surprised with Tamara’s confidence

We reached Redutta in time and grabbed good seats next to the stage. We got craft beer to start with. The jazz band was fantastic. After the first break, Tamara and I started talking. She told me about her life. Her father was American and mother a Japanese. She grew up in Washington DC, did mass communication in the bachelors with MBA from Wharton. She worked for a News magazine in New York and in the past five years started freelancing. UN was one of her major clients.

“Wow, exciting Tamara, so do you work for many UN meetings of this kind in the year” I asked

Well, on an average at least 4. I also do post production of the event apart from the summary. I have a team of photographers/videographers who do for me photoshoots and video bites.

The second session of the Band was getting even better. Both of us were enjoying another round of craft beer. After the second session got over it was already 10 pm and I realized that were getting late.

I told Tamara that let us return now return to the hotel considering that I have to do my draft as promised to Carlo and she will need to work on the drafts of the resource persons.

Tamara held my hand and spoke to me in a hush hush tone as if she is revealing a big secret.

Well Dr Modak, I write the summary of the event BEFORE coming. Based on my experience of several UN meetings, I know the outcomes already. This meeting “designed” by Carlos has an internal agenda that he wants to be “ratified” in the group of 80 who have been carefully invited to ensure representation of countries – not forgetting the presence of LDCs and SIDS. He has already given me a brief and copies of PowerPoint presentations of the speakers. On this basis, I have done my job and prepared a working draft. Generally, the draft will not change and there will be a bit of tweaking required if someone does make an out of the box point. But given the kind of participants UN invites, I have rarely come across such a situation. So don’t worry, there isn’t any original work to do”

I always suspected this cheeky UN strategy but didn’t realize that there was the case in reality. So Tamara was a highly-specialized writer and hence a valuable resource for person like Carlo. The outcomes of the event were already decided and me, other resource persons and even the participants were just the pawns of the “game”.

“So, let us stay more for the third round Prasad. Its the famous Alice Springs Blues Band who would play” Tamara held my hand and kissed on my cheek.  And I stayed.

 

Cover photo taken from http://www.prague-guide.co.uk/reduta-jazz-club/


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The Meisterklasse

Staying in a hotel is a drab idea when option of living in a Pension is available. The term pension is typically used in Continental European countries. Pensions are generally cheaper than other lodgings, such as hotels, although they offer limited services. Pensions are often located in historic buildings and are mostly family-run.

I used to work as a consultant to UNIDO and visit Vienna frequently. I was recommended Pension Chistina on Hafnersteig 7. The location was near Schwedenplatz with excellent transport links and proximity to tourist areas. The Pension boasted of a dignified ambience where the old Viennese style of furniture was blended with the modern convenience. The Pension was run by a family.

Pension Christina

“Bitte sehr” Mrs Becker said when I was checking in for the first time in Pension Christina. It was early morning of November and the weather was rather windy and cold.

I finished the checking in formalities. Mrs Becker ushered me to the breakfast area that was warmly lit. “I call you Prasad?” she beamed “I know you badly need a hot black coffee now. And while you warm up, let me get you some sausages with a tinge of mustard and couple of croissants. You must be tired and hungry”. She said this in a kind and friendly tone.

Mrs Becker was a plump lady in fifties I guess. She had a great smile and wrinkles on the face. She was the caretaker at Pension Christina.

As I was finishing my breakfast, I heard someone coming down running from the staircase. “Hey, Nora” Mrs Becker yelled “We have a guest here from India – show him his room please?”

Nora must be in early twenties. She had a beautiful face with long hair and an athletic body. Nora carried my bag to the tiny lift where we barely squeezed in. “Give me a shout if you need anything” she said as she reached me to my room. Then she winked and said, “or Press 9 – make your choice!”.

I took the Metro and reached UNIDO office at the Vienna International Centre. In the evening, when I got back, I did not see Mrs Becker at the reception. Nora was in charge. “Oh, my mother has stepped out for some shopping” She explained. “She is getting some Kopfsalat, Brokkoli and Spargel from the market to make you something vegetarian”. I really appreciated Mrs Becker’s concern and the kind gesture. I felt at home.

I stayed for a week at the Pension. I became friendly and close to the Becker family. Nora used to ask me hundreds of questions on India while Mrs Becker used to tell me stories about the history of the city of Vienna.  Mr Fischer who used to drop by every day for a beer also became a good friend. We used to have couple of glasses of Hefe Weissbier (a popular beer) after the dinner service was closed and watch Mrs Becker and Nora cleaning up the kitchen. Mr Fischer was a teacher who retired from a school where Nora used to study.

During my assignments with UNIDO over three years, I made frequent visits to Vienna. I always stayed at the Pension Christina. Mrs Becker, Nora as well as Mr Fischer used to look forward to my arrivals and the gifts I used to carry, especially the Indian handicrafts.

“Hey Prasad, have you visited the green wine places in the Alps?  Nora asked. She was peddling a bicycle, accompanying me as I was returning from a short walk on the Stephansplatz.  It was a bright Sunday morning with light breeze rustling around on the cobbled street of the Hafnersteig. “Today there will be a viola recital – Interested?”. I readily agreed.

At 5 pm we were all set to go. Nora took out her Beetle car and I hopped in with sandwiches packed by Mrs Becker. As we were taking a turn on the A1 motorway (West Autobahn), Nora pulled the Beetle aside. There was a handsome man waiting for us. “Come on in Berk” Nora said.

Berk is a Turkish name. I could see that the handsome man had a Turkish accent and a Turkish face. He was Nora’s best friend. I asked Berk to take the front seat next to Nora and moved back.

Berk was an amazing person. He was a musician par excellence and played keyboards as well as Harmonica.  At the green wine place, he explained to me about the Austrian folk music and deciphered some of the viola pieces that were being played. He used to perform at the famous Louisiana Blues Pub (LBP) located at Britta Schönstein KG.

 

Louisiana Blues Pub in Vienna

“Prasad, we must go to the LBP someday to listen to Berk” Nora said. I could see her admiration about Berk and an awe in her eyes. Certainly, the girl was in love.

I told Mrs Becker about meeting Berk and the LBP. “I don’t like this Berk character” Mrs Becker was very clear. “He is no Austrian you know. He is Turkish”.  She did not mince the words. I could see Mrs Becker’s dislike towards Berk. I dont think she had ever bothered to know more about him.

On Monday night, Nora took me to the LGP. Berk was performing on the harmonica. He was simply superb and I could see the audience mesmerized by his renditions. The final piece he played was Beethoven Sonata No. 8 ‘Pathetique’ Mov. 2 following the “style” of the great Wilhelm Kempff.

A look alike of Berk

At this point, I saw Nora getting up and taking on the microphone. She started humming as if to complete the 360 degrees of the Pathetique – Her accompaniment was so gentle and so spontaneous. I could sense the deep emotions between Berk and Nora – so much was unspoken – and I felt rather envious. The Beethoven piece ended with a great applause. “I want to be a regular performer here Prasad – this is the place to play music in this city” Berk sounded a bit emotional.

A look alike of Nora

When we sat down with a glass of wine, Berk showed me the harmonica. It was a Hohner Meisterklasse that is played by professional players. This harmonica could master any score written for the violin. Its construction utilized a narrow mouthpiece with rounded channel openings. More importantly, it had 56 Classic chromonica reeds and apparently, it is the only Hohner chromatic with a range of 31/2 octaves from g – c. The case of Meisterklasse had letter B (i.e. Berk)

The Meisterklasse with a Case

I have been an amateur harmonica player myself and play reasonably well. I always had a dream to buy a Hohner harmonica but never got the guidance. Hohner is the world’s largest manufacturer of quality harmonicas. Berk said that the best place to buy a Meisterklasse in Vienna was the City Music Wien located at Taborstraße 14. “We will go there one day with Berk and get you  Meisterklasse” Nora said

But we could not – as I had late work sessions at the UNIDO practically every day.

The night before I was leaving for Mumbai, Mrs Becker “hosted” a dinner for me. “This dinner is not going to be invoiced Prasad. Its for you from the family”.  I was really touched by her gesture.

“Prasad, Nora has invited Berk for the dinner. I really don’t like his coming. He is not the kind of person Nora should be involved with. He doesn’t have a regular job. He is only a musician and plays in a Pub. And besides, he is not an Austrian” Mrs Becker was clearly disturbed

I told Mrs Becker that Berk is a nice guy. He may take some time but sure he will do well. He has the talent and the confidence. And more than anything – he will take good care of Nora as they love each other. Doesn’t this matter the most? I said.

Mrs Becker listened to me patiently and then said “Prasad, let us see. I really don’t know much about Berk. But if I like the boy, I will open a bottle of Grüner Veltliner (great Austrian white wine) during the deserts and if I don’t like him then it will be something ordinary”. I liked this deal.

The dinner was lively. Berk impressed Mrs Becker with his wit and insights. He spoke about the historical places in Vienna – a subject that was close to Mrs Beckers heart. Mrs Becker told stories about the Stephansdom, Vienna’s cathedral and one of the tallest churches in the world. Nora was more of a listener but she ensured that all of us were well looked after. During the dinner conversations, she held Berk’s hands a number of times and he held her hand firmly with affection. Mrs Becker was watching. Both of us noticed Nora’s eyes – the warmth and happiness she was expressing. When we finished the dinner, Nora went to the kitchen to get some deserts.

“Mrs Becker, can we have a glass of wine with the deserts” I asked

Mrs Becker said “sure” and walked down the stairs to the cellar.

I was real tense.

She returned to the table with a bottle of Grüner Veltliner.

I was so delighted that I did thumps up.

Nora didn’t know about our deal – but it was clear to her that Mrs Becker was now very comfortable with Berk and probably I had a small role to play.  She drove to drop Berk at the metro station.

After she was back, she knocked on my door and offered help to pack my bags. I let her do a bit as I didn’t want to disappoint her.

I was at the security of the Vienna airport in the morning to take my flight to Zurich. The inspector at the security asked me to show my handbag – “Sir, are you carrying any metal device?” When I said no and showed my surprise – he asked me to open the handbag and spotted a case. I was surprised as I did not recollect that I had one. “May I request you to open the case please” The Inspector asked politely.

I opened the case and noticed that it carried letter “B”. There was a small note – with complements Berk and Nora

“Excellent choice Sir” The Inspector said while closing the case that had “my Meisterklasse”


Today, Christina Pension is not there anymore. The management has changed. The pension is now renovated to a hotel called Alma Boutique. The old charm has gone.

Hotel Alma Boutique 

I have stopped working for UNIDO and no longer travel to Vienna.  I don’t know where Mrs Becker, Nora and Berk are today as I don’t have their contacts. I really miss them.

I play Hohner Meisterklasse occasionally. But the magnificent piece of ‘Pathetique’ Mov. 2 that Berk played, still haunts me – and not to forget the spontaneous voice over from Nora.

I plan to visit the Louisiana Blues Pub once again.


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Drinking to get Drunk

Drinking alcohol is no more a taboo. It probably never was. Many drink occasionally (that is what they say!) and some drink on a regular basis –every day. These regular drinkers take a peg or two of a large whisky at home after the dinner. Some prefer a glass of red wine as doctors say its good for the heart. The key is to drink moderately and not to get drunk. Some social drinkers drink only at the parties. These party drinkers stick to a drink or two to avoid making a scene.  Very rarely you see people overly drinking – and those who do so are generally captains and chief engineers sailing on the ships. These gentlemen are pretty used to swaying.

I admire those who drink solely to get drunk. These are the brave hearts. To these “drunkards”, any moderate drinking is not exciting as you don’t get “high” enough if you just had a peg or two. They feel that one should get drunk, then let yourself go with no chains to your mind and the body. “When you are truly drunk, man –  you are simply free” said a friend of mine. Another friend of mine who works for a multinational bank said that unless you get drunk you don’t get the “value for money” – he was perhaps right.

When I studied at IIT Bombay, we believed in the value for money. We used to go to a shady bar outside the Y-Point called Ratna and have couple of glasses of Mosambi and Naringi (cheap drinks that contained more than 60% spirit) and return to the hostels late night almost “floating”.

During the night of Mahashivaratri, we used to have “Bhang” that used to knock us down. I remember that I got so “high” after a glass of Bhang that I thought I had two large spans of wings on my body – replacing hands. I wanted to jump outside the window to fly over the Powai lake under the moonlight. My friends who were not that much drunk (fortunately) made all the efforts to hold me back jumping out of the window.

The rationale of getting drunk reached another dimension when listening to music from some of the maestros. We used to invite Pundit Bhimsen Joshi during Mood Indigo at IIT. There were occasions when he used to come in a “trance” and we, in order to appreciate his performance, used to overly drink and get “high enough” to reach his “level”.

But indeed, many artists do get drunk when they create or perform unusual art. I remember I went to a friend living in one of the old mansions on the Marine Drive in Mumbai. (Only people who are lucky or have done good deeds in their past lives get to live in these wonderful houses facing the sea). This friend was one of the famous guitarist – playing jazz. He did not make much money as to him money did not matter.

When I reached my friends house just after the sunset, his servant told me that “saab” is in the balcony playing guitar and has instructed not to disturb. I went close to the balcony and saw him sitting on a chair, holding his large box guitar and strumming. He would occasionally hum like an iceane on a rum cake. There was a large glass of whisky next to him on a teapoy. He would pause sometimes to take a shot from the glass. He was doing a fantastic piece of jazz – something very unconventional. It resembled a bit like numbers from Liona Boyd – an amazing Canadian Guitar Artist. I asked the servant “kitne glass liye (how many pegs has he had?)”. The servant showed 5 fingers (meant five glasses). I did not disturb him. I only wished I could record – as he wouldn’t even know what amazing pieces he was playing.

Apparently, people tend to talk too much when they get drunk. When you sit at the bar, you do meet such people. These people tell you something that would otherwise be not shared with anybody. These are their secrets. When these people get drunk, you discover an entirely new personality. Sometimes they abuse you, tell how they felt hurt because you did not treat well in the past and in some occasions they tell about someone they had a crush and alas – things did not work out. It could be a can of worms sometimes that gets opened. You are supposed to forget or pardon when these folks speak in a drunken condition.

I was working in Bangkok on a mission with the Asian Development Bank. We had a pretty mean and nasty American project manager, Nick, who used to kind of “harass” the Team. He was very difficult to work along but we both used to be pretty good friends. Julia, one of our Team members was from Australia. Julia was always uncomfortable with Nick and used to tell me how much she hates him. Nick also did not seem to like her. They not only had differences when it came to technical matters but also had strong differences on opinions and philosophy of life. Nick used to play saxophone at a German pub in one of the by lanes (soi) of Sukumvit. He was really good on the sax.

We used to go to the pub after the work and Julia used to tag along – but rather reluctantly. “I see him enough for the day – so not again” She used to say. We used to joke – what if Nick and Julia were married! Such different personalities!! I used to tell Julia that Nick was actually a nice person and somehow he did not know how to work with intelligent and beautiful women. I even told her that Nick actually likes her company. But Julia never seemed to be convinced with all my “stories” and defence.

We used to sit on the bar and have couple of drinks while Nick used to play the Sax. All of us were moderate drinkers. Julia was very careful as she feared she would speak rubbish if drunk.

One of the Friday evenings, however, we noticed that Julia was a bit high. The bar man was handing over the fourth “shot” of “long island” and she was all in the mood to get “drunk”. Long island is lethal drink that contains 1 part tequila, 1 part gin, 1 part whiskey, 1 part white rum, 1 part vodka, 1 oz sugar syrup, Coca-Cola and orange juice. It has all the “devils” in just one place.

On gulping the fourth shot of long island, Julia started speaking in a bit of slur. She asked me to move towards a table leaving the bar. “I want to talk to you Prasad”

I saw a different Julia when we sat on a side table. She started speaking in all emotions. She asked “Are you sure about what you told me about Nick? Does he really like me?”. She asked. She was looking towards Nick who was mending notes on the Sax. He was doing real good.

I told Julia that I truly believed so. Julia then spoke about how she admires Nick sometimes, but has somehow a bias of not liking him in the first instance. She realized that it has been a kind of “ego trip” – who will make the first move.  She went on to explain that it was not fair on her part to blame him all the time. She wouldn’t mind patching up if I spoke to Nick and explain. I could clearly see all this happening because she was overly drunk. It was her inner mind that was speaking out loud. Her eyes were moist and the voice was quivering. “Well Julia, I will certainly be the mediator if this will help and talk to Nick tomorrow. Let me help you however to get a taxi and I suggest you go home. You are overly drunk”.

I dropped Julia to the Taxi. She could hardly walk. “Forget what I said Prasad – I must be blabbering  something crazy” She whispered in my ears.

When I returned to the bar, I told the Bar tender to get me the last drink. I told my colleague about how drunk Julia was and how when you get drunk, your inner mind expresses what you really feel” I asked “can you ever imagine that Julia would ever get so soft on Nick?. I saw her venting out today. The Long Island worked. Must let Nick know sometime”

The bar tender while passing me the last drink said “ Strange woman, she took 5 shots of Long Island asking me only to mix sugar syrup, Coca-Cola and orange juice with no alcohol and paid the full price”.

I was astonished with the trick Julia played. You don’t need to get actually drunk to be free.


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Arrivals of the Departed

Airplane landing with sunrise

On a Sunday morning, my Professor Friend visited my house. He seemed a bit exasperated.

“I have to receive Erin Brockovich at the international airport. She is arriving tonight at 1 30 am from New York. I am unable to pick her up as I am in Delhi for a meeting with the Prime Minister. Can you please do me a favor. Pick her up and drop at the ITC Grand at Lower Parel.

Many of your know Erin was instrumental in building a case against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) of California in 1993. Her successful lawsuit was the subject of a 2000 film, Erin Brockovich, which starred Julia Roberts. Erin is now the president of Brockovich Research & Consulting.

When I did not answer, Professor patted me and said “I know you were expecting to receive Julia Roberts when I mentioned Erin Brockovich. If Julia was to be received, then I would have never come to you with such a request and cancelled appointment with the Primate Minister”. I thought the Professor was right.

But with some reluctance, I agreed to Professor’s request. Well, I hadn’t received anyone lately from the international airport. Receiving folks at the airports is really a pain. It may require sometimes hours of wait especially if are receiving someone flying Air India. I decided to help my Friend.

Professor seemed to have read my mind. Dr Modak, don’t worry. I have two offerings for you. One is the Airport Receivers Guidance Manual. I prepared this Manual when I was young and had to receive international guests every other week. This Manual illustrates how to handle 26 different scenarios e.g. what if the flight is late, what if the power supply at the airport is suddenly cut off and what if the mobile phone runs out of power etc. just to illustrate a few. This Manual will put you in peace and help you to deal with any uncanny situation”

I glanced through the Manual. The Manual was very comprehensive. A job – well done. I knew Professor always looked for perfection.

“I have one more interesting item for you”. Professor said this in a rather mysterious tone. He handed over to me a small box. “Open the box when you feel bored or frustrated at the airport. But not otherwise”. He almost warned me. “And Dr Modak, you will return this box to me tomorrow”. Professor left.

I reached the Mumbai International Airport at 1 30 am. I estimated that Erina will come out of the immigration and customs by 2 15 or so. I was carrying a placard flashing her name in large capital letters.

There must be arrivals of several flights nearly at the same time as there was a flux of passengers streaming out of the gate. Nearly 70 to 80% looked like Indians – but some were clearly Indians with foreign passports. They looked different and walked out as if aliens.

I saw some seasoned travelers. They carried one piece of luggage with 4 wheels (that worked) and glided through the gate swiftly. They knew where to get the taxi and carried Rupees.

Then there were gulf based passengers who carried big boxes with Sony Television and such electronics. The big boxes were tied with a rope and had their names and addresses written in ink with large size letters. There were spelling mistakes.

Like me there were several hanging in the arrival area. Many were carrying flowers to greet. When met, there were hugs, smooching and touching of feet. When a couple would arrive, the man would push his wife to bend down and touch feet of the Mom (or the mother in law). And it was touching sometimes to see a daughter hugging her dad – may be after parting for a year or more. The sons appeared a bit stiff and looked confused with poor body language.

The foreigners were looking for the banners to locate the pick-up drivers. They seemed worried and a bit lost. When connected, I could see an expression of relief on their faces.

During the first half hour that I was waiting for Erina, I saw arrivals of Sadhus or equivalent, Politicians (in power and out of the power) and Corporate Honchos. They arrived in style with a contingent following them with the “tamasha” of garlanding and then getting escorted to the VIP exits.

I think I saw some Bollywood celebrities when Swiss Air arrived –  Some old flames wearing dark goggles with large frames and some young one’s sporting shorts. They carried with them a cloud of sophisticated perfume.

And then I saw the airline crew arriving. I saw the Singapore Airlines crew that sailed out of the arrival gate in grace like swans.

It was now nearly 2 30 am and my arriving passenger Erina was not in the sight. Did I lose her? My banner was prominent and she couldn’t have missed. I got worried. I decided to refer to Professor’s Guidance Manual on the 26 scenarios. However, none of the scenarios were of relevance. The flight arrived on time. There was power at the airport and my mobile phone was 90% charged!

I pulled out the printout of the ticket that was given to me by the Professor and decided to approach the information desk. The desk was right in the arrival area.  “Sir let me check for you about your flight” The girl at the desk said in an assuring tone. She was eating a chewing gum to pass her time.

“Well Sir, the flight you are looking for is to arrive tomorrow. You have come a day early. All other details remain the same i.e. 1 30 am arrival”

I was shell shocked.

No wonder why the Professors are called absent minded souls. He had simply missed the date because of 1 30 am.

So, this was the 27th scenario that was not thought of by the Professor! I was really upset with this mess. I thought of calling him up right away and give him a piece of my mind – but then I refrained as I knew that this was something unintentional and now nothing could be done!

I then remembered the box Professor had given me with a tip that open the box when you feel frustrated at the airport.

The box contained a pair of spectacles – routine stuff I thought but it had an emblem “Ultra Vision”

So, I wore the spectacles for amusement.  And wow, what did I see.

I saw Mr JRD Tata walking out with Homi Bhabha. All know who JRD is and many would also know Sir Homi Bhabha.


In 1937, together with W. Heitler, a German physicist, Bhabha solved the riddle about cosmic rays. Cosmic rays are fast moving, extremely small particles coming from outer space. When these particles enter the earth’s atmosphere, they collide with the atoms of air and create a shower of electrons. Bhabha’s discovery of the presence of nuclear particles (which he called mesons) in these showers was used to validate Einstein’s theory of relativity making him world famous. Bhabha soon realized the need for an institute fully devoted to fundamental research, and wrote to J.R.D. Tata for funding. This resulted in the establishment of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai in 1945, with Bhabha as the Director, a position he held until his death. In 1948, Homi Bhabha was appointed the Chairman of the International Atomic Energy Commission. Under his guidance, nuclear reactors like the Apsara, Cirus and Zerlina were built. A multi-faceted personality, Bhabha was immensely fond of music, painting and writing. Some of his paintings are displayed in the British Art Galleries and the TIFR art collection today is rated as one of the best collections of contemporary Indian art in the country. He died when Air India Flight 101 crashed near Mont Blanc on 24 January 1966


I stopped JRD and Homi Bhabha “Sirs, how come I see you here?” I was astonished to see these wonderful people after their death years ago.

“Well God tells us sometimes to visit the Earth and help him. We get into the aircraft and take empty seats when passing through the clouds. Nobody knows how we do it. Homi says that it is all courtesy the cosmic rays. But I don’t understand the physics as much as he does”. JRD said this with a warm and kind smile.

I was simply dazed to hear this. Tata and Sir Bhabha left the airport.

My attention then went to two gentlemen behind. One was John Jacob and second was Vasant Takalkar. Both famous environmentalists who devoted their life for protection of nature, forests and biodiversity.

When I waived at them, they asked “How did you “see” us? We never get noticed when we arrive. God asks us to arrive whenever He notices that there is need to push the agenda on sustainability”.

The third man behind them was Anupam Mishra Noted Gandhian, journalist, environmentalist, and water conservationist who recently passed away. While joining Jacob and Takalkar he said “I know him – he is our Professor’s Friend and today he is wearing the Ultra Vision spectacles”

No wonder I realized why the Professor was so secretive and protective about these spectacles.


John C Jacob (1936 – 11 October 2008) was one of the pioneers of the environmental movement in Kerala, India. Jacob was born at Nattakam in Kottayam. At Payyanur, in 1972 he started a zoology club that would form the genesis of campus-based nature conservation activities. The club also became involved in protesting threats to the environment. Jacobs also started a few “green” magazines stressing the need to preserve nature. He also set up the Society for Environment Education, Kerala (SEEK), which published an environment-focused magazine Soochimukhi. Additionally, Jacob led the movement against the Silent Valley project in South Kerala. In recognition of his contributions to the environment, he was awarded the Kerala Biodiversity Board’s Haritham Award and the state government’s Vana Mithra Award.

Environmentalist Vasant Takalkar is famous for the ‘Takalkar Pattern’ of continuous contour trenching, passed away on Saturday morning following a heart attack when he was guiding youths at a tree plantation drive on the Chatuhshrungi hill. For the past 37 years, Takalkar worked for the cause of forestation, carried out soil and moisture conservation activities through continuous contour trenching, spanning about 700 villages in five districts of the state and generated employment worth five million man days for transient and casual labour. The central government had noticed his work and awarded him Indira Priyadarshini Vrikshamitra Award. On Saturday, he had gone to Chatuhshrungi hill to participate in a two-day tree plantation drive organized by Youth to Youth, an NGO. He collapsed while working with the youths and was hospitalised. He died during treatment.

Environmentalist Anupam Mishra Noted Gandhian, journalist, environmentalist, and water conservationist. He had been awarded the 1996 Indira Gandhi Paryavaran Puraskar (IGPP) award instituted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India. He travelled to villages across India describing the value of time-tested systems of water harvesting. He advocated conservation of traditional water structures in India as well as abroad. He wrote books, like, Aaj Bhi Khare Hain Talaab (Lakes are still Standing, 1993) and Rajasthan Ki Rajat Boondein (Radiant Raindrops of Rajasthan, 1995), — landmark works in the field of water conservation.


I really appreciated God’s strategy to send these noble souls back to the Earth at least for a while to help the humanity. These arrivals of the departed were indeed encouraging. Our humanity and especially in India we need such people once again.

As I was lost in these thoughts, I heard a loud noise and then saw a bunch of three people fighting amongst themselves and making a scene that only I could “see”.

These people included Idi Amin, Adolf Hitler and Stalin.

arrivals

I didn’t quite like these arrivals – and did not understand the game God wanted to play.

I removed the spectacles, packed them in the box and returned home.


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