17 July, 2014

Chance Encounter - The Magic Of The Five

The voice was unmistakably Parsee “So beautiful, listen to what this talented Madarchod writes”

A Man Young and Old:
"My arms are like the twisted thorn
And yet there beauty lay;
The first of all the tribe lay there
And did such pleasure take;
She who had brought great Hector down
And put all Troy to wreck."

William Butler Yeats would certainly have choked and died yet again, had he heard this exact praise. The mischievous Bawa had now effortlessly switched to the Queens English. On the footpath that housed the bookstall he read aloud the verse. He was Yezdi Khambatta, a fellow browser of many a year.

I had made many friends browsing around the footpaths. Like smokers, footpath-book-browsers are a breed by themselves. Each one has their marked out spots like two or three favourite destinations, a few favoured vendors and this is how a gathering of the usual suspects comes together at a location. The past two and a half decades of browsing had turned me into one such peculiar stereotype. There are three stages in meeting people at these browsing zones. The first stage is where no one speaks to one another, neither the book seller to the new prospect nor the other browsers to the new entrant. He is sized and categorized from his first pull. The pull is the book that he picks up first that decides his station among the regulars and with the seller. A quick purchase and his leaving would at times be excused for shyness only if he makes a repeat appearance, which is stage two. Then the vendor would nod at him while the browsers still observe him. It is only after his next visit in the third stage that browsers nod at him and he begins his journey into seriously being counted. Once he is accepted as regular then other browsers and the vendors both start to recommend titles & ask for preferences, share information, on title availability of both location and period. He is now a bonafide member of the club. I have been a diamond class member for years now.

Yezdi was about 70 years old and very much into poetry. Yeats's inspiration Maud Gonne had gone into his creating this visage of Helen of Troy which was passionately enjoyed many miles away from his native Ireland nearly a century later. “This is pure genius, aisa creative Chutyagiri ek Irishman hi kar sakta hai” Yezdi had reverted into Bombay Bawaspeak again. The Irishman would have been proud to have his work treasured but I was not exactly as confident about the same enthusiasm display for the unique praise bestowed upon him, with absolute irreverence. Yezdi was a quirky piece of work. He referred to authors and characters in the first person. This though was extremely peculiar, never had pursued this line of inquiry with him. On noticing what I was looking for, he promptly said, Its Isabhai for you & whispered, you just may be ready for the magic of the first five. There are times when I think he has gone seriously senile. We were after all companions of a location and had never extended our acquaintance beyond this zone. It was the code, a line that fellow browsers never crossed. Isabhai had fresh stock, was the message for me. With a nod of thanks to Yezdi, I started walking across the busy street to the other footpath where that stall was. Isabhai is yet another one of Bombay’s unique component populace. He is simply huge not the baseball player kind of huge, but more like “Jabba the Hutt” (Star Wars) huge. He sits on a large metal folding chair wearing a lungi and a T shirt and if one can spot the chair from under him, I would give that person a medal. He simply spills over the chair from all sides. Isabhai knows his customers and knows his books. His collection is the best around not for its number but sheer quality. He had a natural eye for the rare book. Today though it was not the rare but the specific that I had come for. I looked around and picked up five books and retired into a corner to browse. My titles : The Prince – Nicolo Machiavelli, Arthashastra – Arya Chanakya, Sun Tzu and the Art of War, Shivkalyan Raja – Swami Ramdas, Ethics & Logic – Aristotelian Thoughts.

I have never articulated my utter fascination for books, both new and old. Leisurely browsing at a library, a book store or on the footpath, I lose myself. My techno friendly friends keep advocating the Kindle, a device from which to read E-Books. Store zillions of them into it, save money, weight and improve convenience.

I was yet to be convinced to go down that path. With an E-book device, one can only browse within the confines of one’s knowledge or some ones suggestion. The E-Book browser can never experience the absolute pleasure of landing on a title that has eluded one in the past. I could picture myself picking up such a copy of an author never tried before nestled among other titles, turning the cover and experience the joy of flipping a page.

“From the top my boy, always from the top”, Ramachandran sir’s voice rang clearly in my ears. He had taught us English in the 9th grade and had instilled this habit in all his students. “The pressure is off the seam as you turn a page from the top. He would insist , always use a bookmark instead of folding a page at the corners. Respect a book and you would be amazed at how it loves you back. The book then speaks to you way differently from the chap who doesn't care for it.”

The smell of a tome, musty and old in used books to the fresh ink of the new, running a finger down the seam of the binding to check its sturdiness, to caressing the cover to check for a blemish, I was a confirmed page turner. Someday in the future the e-book just may offer all these features as an experience but by then I would have moved on.

The busy traffic of Flora Fountain whizzed on, cars were honking, people were yelling as I browsed on, examining the condition of the books; reading a line here and there at random, checking whether there were any missing pages. At Isabhai’s one generally got good stuff and these were outstanding by any standards. I got lost in the pages.

I felt something brush past me again and again while my face was buried in the tomes. The dull dank day vanished and brightness took over.The sounds of the city receded and died. After a while I looked up to find myself staring into the face of one of the handsomest of men. He was tall, very fit as if he exercised every day. He wore a saffron loin cloth and had a flowing beard with hair worn long tied back. His eyes were a nut brown and sparkled with such radiance as he smiled at me; inadvertently I smiled back at this friendly visage and then looked around. There was no footpath; no Isabhai, no city and we were standing beside a cave up on a mountain. There was a large banyan up here in the clearing and sitting on its foundation around was an assorted group of three men while a fourth one paced about in front with a manic energy. The pacing man wore the bare clothes of a Brahmin about to go to a temple, he curtly nodded at me. Among the sitting three, one wore clothes of such magnificence but from an era past and his sharp features and dark black eyes told me he was distinctly Italian. Farther to him sat a plumpish man with a very friendly face obviously oriental with his almond eyes shining bright. He was middle aged and carried a long smooth willow staff. The last of them wore the strangest of costumes quite similar to our lungi and angavastra but worn very much like a Greek toga. Then I looked at his face and he too nodded sagely, he was indeed Greek. What was happening, where was I and who are these people, why was I here and more importantly how did I get here?

The Greek spoke as if he heard me, when I introduce us you will arrive at the answers yourself. My name is Aristotle the Greek there was a time when I was Macedonian but in your times its best to introduce oneself this way. Sun Wu said the oriental, Niccolo Di Bernardo Di Machiavelli from Florence said the guy who I had guessed was Italian, the man pacing up and down barked out a terse Vishnugupta – jeez this was the famous Chanakya and the tall man standing in quiet repose said Narayan Suryaji Thosar – holy cow this was Samarth Ramdas. He just nodded at the books in my hand and said it was time.

Now Yezdi’s quirky message started to make sense. Ramdas continued that there comes a time and tide in the life of every man that he does what he does. It’s a combination of heart, will and love after which he can achieve anything. We are the living proof of it. Living? I blurted out, at once regretting my tactlessness. Ramdas nodded; yes living in fact when you hold our works in your hand we remain alive. We shall live as long as our work gets read, digested and understood. How shall I address you because I do not want to seem to presumptuous and each one smiled now. Whatever you have been calling us so far said Chanakya. I felt relieved because this man seemed so ill tempered that a force emanated from him that made one wary of his presence. Chanakya, Sun Tzu, Nick please interrupted Machiavelli with a charm that was switched on so suddenly that I was dazzled, Aristotle and Ramdas Swamy. Please drop the Swami and use only Ramdas because it’s a contradiction my name and how it has been made popular. When I am a Das (Servant of god) how can I be a Swami (Lord and Master)?

These very questions were in my mind that these guys were answering way before I had even uttered them. Looking at me Sun Tzu said, why waste time on that when we can talk ahead of things to come ? It was then I realized that why these men became forces of nature in their times they walked on this earth. Of all the people in the world what connects the five of you? There have been many before you and after you, why are just the five of you together. Aristotle looked at me and beamed. We are here together because of you, now why did you pick us five? It did come back to me . I tried articulating nervously and said that Heroes and Kings have been recognized celebrated and even worshiped for ages. But it was my conviction that they would not have been great Kings or even reached their station without guidance. Being Guru Pournima that day, the idea had cropped up and I had before me five majestic Kings in King Helu of the Wu dynasty, Sun Tzu smiled, Chandragupta Maurya and his golden age, Alexander of Macedonia, The Medici’s & Borgias of  Rome and Florence and Shivaji Raje Bhosale of Deccan.

Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC, 62 years)

Aristotle exclaimed that this was what I advocated before it was understood properly. I had a question mark on my face as he continued while the others soberly listened to the great man speak. His voice rang out clearly and his oratory was magnificent. His toga twirled around as he captured the circle and looked straight at all of us. Didn't your mind separate the wheat from the chaff, the sense from the verbiage and step by step arrived at the answer when probed. I nodded quietly. This process in its most simplistic form where the answer is reached by separating the sense from the rhetoric is called Logic. The mind has a natural ability to cull out the useless but it needs practice else the garbage piles up. So beautifully did he put the point across.

 I had to ask him the thing which no historian had clearly answered for me. How did Alexander die? Is it true that you had a part to play in his death? He took a deep breath and paused before replying. He said, Plato was my guru and I studied with him in Athens till 347 BC. Then I was 37 years of age. For the next 4 years I wrote studied and had the best part of my working life creating my thesis on Logic, Live Sciences, Metaphysics but then in 343 BC Philip of Macedonia invited me to tutor his son Alexander. I had refused initially, stating private tutoring spoils and unless there were other boys of equal merit to compete with him he would never make a good King. Philip had vision and he had Ptolemy from neighboring Egypt along with Cassander brought along to keep his son company. My nephew also studied with them. When they were about 12 years old in one of their boisterous plays my nephew was killed at Alexander’s hands. Philip was the man who I looked up to for justice but he kept mum then on account of his son. It would be a lie to say from that day on I did not bide my time. Yet I was true to my job and taught them well. All were bright and after their graduation Ptolemy went back to Egypt. In my ward lurked an ambition to conquer the world. I hated the moor Darius the III and his grand kingdom of Persia and steered Alexander to him. Either ways I would have my satisfaction. Alexander proved to be a brilliant tactician and brave in battle and kept winning all the way right up to the Indus. It is from here with his tired troops that he turned back. He also was injured. An arrow had hit his ankle,his excesses in celebrating battle victories had damaged his liver and he also had a venereal disease that today we know as Gonorrhea. By the time he reached Babylon in 323 BC it was Junos and he was delirious. I had him in my care. In my biological studies I had access to many rare poisons and every single day was tempted to temper his wine glass. But in the boys suffering I laid to rest my ghosts of revenge and he breathed his last. Ptolemy and Seleucus Nicaetor his generals had a difference of opinion and Nicaetor came back as a victor to Macedon. Ptolemy dug out the body of Alexander from Babylon and had him buried in his own kingdom of North Africa naming the port Alexandria. He nursed a hope that the warring spirit of his friend would protect the kingdom. That in god’s presence is the truth. 

Sun Tzu / Sun Wu / ChangChing / Chang Qing (544 BC – 496 BC, 48 years)

I looked at Sun Tzu and asked him Why did he come to write the “Art Of War”? The monk in a sing song voice said China then (2500 years ago ) was only known as the middle kingdom and in it we had provinces that were at war with each other. My education was simple in the temple of the Wu-dan province where I learnt calligraphy, sword fighting, meditation and the Wu-Shu arts. After my education at the age of 30 I joined the court of the principality of Helu. Helu was young and a good administrator but faltered in warring times. His commanders and army had no clue. For two years in his court I simply watched the young King being misled by his generals.By this time I had enough clout in his court and got myself appointed the sole General of his armies. I had no choice then but to kill the then current general who refused to vacate his position. He paused as I asked a question “So you are a warrior?” In the blink of an eye I found myself flying in the air and landing on my back as the plump man had transformed into a speedball. The staff in his hand that I had mistaken for a walking stick was twirling in the air and he had it stop a hairs breadth away from my Adams apple. The others simply laughed. Sun Tzu without any modesty stated, I was the best warrior of my time and all that I have written is from my own experience.

The preparation of an army starts with the idea of a nation. The middle kingdom was forever attacked by the fierce raiding Manchus along with the armies of other provinces. Against them, I allowed this idea to take birth and grow into the land of the Wu. I sacked all the mercenary professional soldiers and recruited from the land; those who have something at stake fight the fiercest and longest. I trained spies and had them garner latest information and keep it updated. Advance information is the key to winning a battle. A prepared man wins because he fights from a position of knowledge. This is the position that allows a man to also avoid a engaged battle and win without bloodshed. This is the greatest of victories when the loss to self and others is minimal. It seemed so natural coming from his mouth and so practical and I told him that his work has now being used most often by corporate businesses. It is a reference book in most management schools. He bowed humbly and said my greatest teaching is the one very few understood which was how to have no wars. Helu and the Wu dynasty after the initial battles ruled the middle kingdom well for 50 long years. I had retired from active life to meditate and it was then that I captured my thoughts and learnings into the “Art of War”. Why is it not the Science of War because victories can come from even numbers inferior, ask him, he will elaborate this point better, he said pointing to Ramdas. War is a state of the mind but its execution is a skill that lies in the realm of creativity because you are managing the most intemperate of resources ever known, your fellow man. With that he sat down and looked at Chanakya.

Arya Chanakya / Vishnugupta  ( 370 BC – 283 BC, 87 years )

Vishnugupta was an impatient spirit and his energy hit me the moment he turned his eyes upon me. He seemed friendly only with Aristotle but then it was only natural, they were two great minds both teachers who lived in the same period of time. They had a lot more in common and had much to share with each other. Chanakya looked at Sun Tzu in the same manner a brilliant student would look at his even more brilliant guru. He had seen me catch that look and said, I was a teacher in Takshashila ruled by the great Ambhi the father of this Ambhi who invited Alexander in. I learned under the great Panini who was the principal of the University of Takshashila and after him I became the head there. At age 32 I felt its time to go back home (Kusumpur, near Pataliputra) and that’s how I landed back in Magadha. It was ruled by Dhanananda who was a degenerate king  but the kingdom had a good prime minister in Amatya Rakshas. As he looked up I asked him “Who exactly was Chandragupta Maurya ?”.

He smiled at my question and said Magadha though well administered had in Dhanananda a man who indulged himself in a whole lot of vices and women. He himself was an illegitimate son of the previous monarch. “Is it true that Chandrupta was fathered by Dhanananda ?

Well who Chandragupta’s father was not known even then. He had to be from a higher family than his mother was sure. His mother. Mura was a maid in the palace of the Nanda’s, hence the rumours, however Chandragupta’s being from a noble family was definite. He was a platoon commander in the army of the Nanda’s. I too was employed in the court for sometime but the Nanda’s insulted me and I left the court. In a fit of temper had shouted back that this Brahmin will bring down your empire in such a fashion that people shall remember your successor far more easily than you. Sun Tzu’s scrolls were transcribed in the library of Takshashila and I had learnt the art of strategy from this work. Chandraguta was the student that every teacher hungers for, quick to learn, having loads of potential and absolute faith in his master. Together we raised an army and won many battles. Sun Tzu is right, most of our battles were psychological and we won them without even having to draw a weapon. Our spy network was strong hence we could spot the Vishakanya sent and we inverted the game. We out thought the Nandas and established the first golden Age of this subcontinents history. Down south Raja Raja Chola & Krishna Devaraya and in the north Akbar came after. No other periods have been titled so. It was then I started writing the thesis on Economics and Administration called the Arthashastra. One European sociologist Adam Smith and an economist john Malthus are rumoured to have drawn inspiration from this work. Boy, I was impressed with the sheer pride that existed in Chanakya…age that even death had not managed to dull.

Niccolo Di Bernardo Di Machiavelli (AD 1469 – 1527, 58 years )

Isn’t it surprising that the more recent the history the less clearer it becomes? Machiavelli had to possess the most perspicacious mind amongst these five was pretty obvious. The Prince was such a work that more could be inferred from reading between the lines than from the lines themselves. This skill of writing and choice of words had conjured up a crafty, evil, manipulator instead of the strangely good looking open faced man facing me. Do not be mistaken, I practiced very hard to never betray my feelings on my face because the times I lived in Florence were very violent. Then I discovered that people read just as easily from a blank face and a closed expression and worked at a unqiue deception which was the approachable friendly face. His frank admission had me laughing out for the first time I was with them.

He said all of our times were very violent yet of them I am the only one who has experienced physical torture at the hands of the same people who I helped bring to power, the Medici’s. Cesare Borgia, have you heard of him? Pope Alexander VI th’s son? Yes, you know your history, good it helps me proceed faster. The pope was one of the most violent of men but his son was infinitely worse. They had designs on all the provinces of Italy which were kingdoms in their own right. Florence, Venice, Rome, Tuscany were the principalities Alexander like his namesake wanted under the ambit of the Vatican. I was in charge of the Florentine army for 3 years and we defeated Pisa but the Medici helped by the Spanish took over Florence and I was relegated to surviving in the courts. Briefly I also served in the courts of the Borgia’s and then back with the Medici’s when they tortured me. Political survival is a game and the Prince is my allusion to the effort invested in surviving through such a time which perhaps was the bloodiest in Italian history. I backed anyone and everyone. The Greeks, he said looking at Aristotle had invented the Democracy and a political system of administration. But I may just be the one credited to have given the word Politics a verb form in "Politicking" and making it sound negative. He laughed his charming laugh then he said, I had to use the only tools in my possession way better than those brutes, my mind and my wits, simply to exist, live and be. I never intended to write a treatise, it was just a satirical mockery of the Medici’s but here are you trying to read between the lines. Read well my friend, I have left as much unsaid, now you go and say it.

Narayan Suryaji Thosar / Samarth Ramdas (AD 1530-1608, 78 years)

 Ramdas smiled and said Machiavelli is right. The more recent the history the more cloudy it appears to be. There are people who call me a saint, which I certainly was not. I chose not to have a householder’s life which the family had planned for me. So is it real that you ran away from your own wedding? I asked. Yes, said he. Simply because why spoil a girl’s life? How did you come to aid Shivaji ? He looked around and said originally am not from these parts but have lived here at Chaphal and Sajjangad the longest. It is here that I met the young man from the Sisodiya clan who had sworn to establish the Mahratta Empire. Basically he wanted to win his land from the outside invaders who were the Muslims from Adilshahi kingdom in Central and South India and the Mughals from the North.

Shiva Bhosle was a single minded man;  he was not the best swordsman though his guru Dadaji Kondeo skilled him adequately, nor was he physically impressive, he was short, but what he had was the gift of leadership, a silver tongue, tonnes of courage and sheer ruthlessness when it mattered. What are u saying , wow, really so?  I asked. He continued, do you know the incident of Chandrarao More…I said vaguely yes I know. He was one of the Maratha chieftains who did not agree to Shivaji usurping leadership of all chieftains. History has romanticized this episode while it was brutal in reality. After More had announced this disconnect, Shiva just attacked his house and had him killed. No fair chance was given, in fact no chance at all. He would certainly have become an enemy later and a powerful one too hence he was squashed, immediately, there and then. So also when he looted Surat not once but twice after because money was needed to raise an army and buy provisions. He was a great man and great men are focused. When he came to Sajjangad, we had met a few times; this is the first time I am referring to. I saw his soldiers all heavy, broad and stocky, they were hardy fighting men but something did not sit right with me. I told Shiva, at this rate you won’t last one year. He was surprised as he had come in from a spate of victories. I told him his men were unfit, have them exercise, do the surya namskar drop weight.  A heavy man sits heavy on his horse, tiring it and reducing the speed, time and distance the animal can travel. He had no spies in his camp and till then his information gathering process was adhoc on an as is where is basis. So you were his spymaster? He laughed loudly. Of course, someone had to be. People being people do not question a religious man and my followers in all temples, devasthanas and muths were spread across the land ideal for just this purpose. I simply deployed them and created the most efficient information gathering system this state ever knew.

They had started talking among themselves. Aristotle and Chanakya walking side by side had gone on into a distance.  Sun Tzu had kept the staff beside him and had closed his eyes. In repose he looked like a marble statue, so quiet that the fly which had buzzed around was now perched on his forehead but did not seem to bother him. Machiavelli was stretched out eating a ripe mango enjoying it immensely and said to Ramdas, this is very good. We don’t have this fruit in Florence or Pisa. Ramdas too turned to go into the cave. All the attention was off me. I looked in pure wonder at possibly the best collection of strategic brains the world had ever produced, casually exchanging conversation totally comfortable in each other’s company. And I had conversed with them. This was fabulous; I had enough material for a thesis and as I stepped back, bumped into an overhanging branch.

It hurt and as I rubbed the spot, my ears rang. I closed my eyes. Opening them, saw that Isabhai had opened the door of his cabinet box next to where I was sitting on the compound ledge. The door had swung with a wind and bumped into my head. I was back on the footpath of Flora Fountain. Paying Isabhai for the books, I walked back wondering what had happened. Was it a dream, a hallucination or something entirely different? Walking on I bumped into Yezdi again. One look at my face and he seemed to know it.  You are wondering now what was it, right am I correct? He asked and I nodded. Arrey Chootyyaaa why bother, just call it a Chance Encounter.


Harry said...

Are these street side book shops still a reality? These were my source of books between 1983 to 1995, mostly bought all my books from there. Recently in Bombay (Dec 2013), I wanted Tanya to have this experience. Strangely, none of the shops existed.

kau kau goes the crow said...

Not in the Flora Fountain area ...Harry, some of them have their trade but they are now inside into the by lanes...readers have gone down making their business unviable...the ones on Kings Circle footpaths though are still there but the charm is gone.