Night train to Lisbon

Can God create a stone He couldn’t lift? If not, then he isn’t almighty; if yes, He isn’t either, for now there is a stone He cannot lift.

This book was like poetry. Sentences flew out of the book like lyrics of an old forgotten song and I secretly wished for nttl1the book to never end. Translations usually don’t work for me. Reading “Choker Bali” in English was a disaster. Night Train to Lisbon was written in German initially and that was reason enough for me to be apprehensive. But am I glad that I picked it up! It will undoubtedly remain one of the best books I have read. If you have read a few of my previous posts and have been thinking that why the hell have I turned so philosophical, then the reason is this book.

Raimund Gregorius is a teacher of Classic Languages at the Swiss lycée. He is considered as the best teacher by his students and colleagues and is well respected. One day he saves the life of a captivating Portuguese woman. The act triggers a chain of events and brings him to a book written by Amadeu de Prado, a Portuguese doctor. Raimund is completely drawn towards the book and thus starts his quest to know more about the man who wrote it. Raimund, whose life was nothing less than an immaculate timetable, leaves his class in the middle and takes a train to Lisbon, to know about Prado’s life. To know about the man who could weave magic with his words.

It is death that gives the moment its beauty and its horror. Only through death is time a living time. Why does the Lord, the omniscient God, not know that? Why does he threaten us with an endlessness that must mean unbearable desolation?

As Raimund reaches Lisbon and pick up the threads of Prado’s life, he begins to understand the man, his mind and his hardships through the eyes of people who had known him.

He meets Adriana, Prado’s eighty years old sister who had been living with the ghosts of her brother’s existence and kept everything the way he had left it years ago.

He meets Jorge O’Kelly, Prado’s best friend and confidant for years and the only man Prado could bear to be close to. 

He meets Estefania Espinhosa, the woman who had a brain that could carry every minute detail of the plans of the rebellion against the Salazar’s dictatorship; whom Prado fell in love with and had to part with because of the fear of her falling in the hands of the dictator.

He meets João Eca, an active member of the rebellion and the silent spectator who saw Prado both as a successful and an established doctor and then as a crippled man struggling with life; who had his own horror stories written all over his body. 

He meets Maria João, the woman whose kitchen gave Prado the most dangerous ideas to write. Who saw him go through the trauma of his wife Fatima’s death and who again saw him wither away for Estefania.

But when we set out to understand someone on the inside? Is that a trip that ever comes to an end? Is the soul a place of facts? Or are the alleged facts only the deceptive shadows of our stories?

The most beautiful aspect of the book is the way the story constantly switches between the past and the present, which is entwined with the excerpts from Padro’s book. As Raimund completes the jigsaw of Prado’s life through the numerous people he meets during the course of his journey, you can feel the upheavals of his own life and the transitions he goes through. The book would question your philosophies about life and would force you to look at life in a way you would have never seen it before. It would leave you in an upheaval. 

The book was a major hit in Germany that spent 140 weeks on the best-seller list and went on to become one of Europe’s biggest literary blockbusters in the last five years selling over two million copies. 

Highly recommended. Don’t miss it.

Written by – Pascal Mercier.

Rating – 5/5

I am

I am the fish whom the eagle caught in his claws and lifted in the sky. A second before I died, I thought I could fly.

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I am Heathcliff, the one who could never forgive Catherine all his life but knew that a slight brush of her fingers on his cheek would have melted away the anger.

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I am a dollarbird who does not belong to a piece of land, who could see the world from the blue sky and realize that it all seems the same from there – an upturned sky in the night and green blocks of unsolved jigsaw in the mornings.

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I am Achilles, who was invincible but with a weakness. His heel is my heart.

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I am a witness of the holocaust. The one who saw humans dancing with death, in the warmth of burning flesh.

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I am a harbinger of changing times. An amused spectator who watches a dust particle turning into a galaxy and forgets everything.

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I am Krishna. The last child who was saved before it was too late. The last one to get out before the gates were slammed shut.

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I am an amalgam of Howard Roark and Peter Keating – sometimes a man who couldn’t be and doesn’t know it and sometimes a man who couldn’t be and knows it.

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I am the moon who is imperfectly beautiful.

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I am a Phoenix, whose destiny is to rise from his own ashes.

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I am a promising pariah.

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I am the soul who feeds the master when he flies to him. The soul who does not remember anything when he returns back.

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The shakable article of faith

tins_paintMichael Jackson is now Mikaeel after the singer embraced Islam. According to the reports, Jackson discussed religion with a music producer and songwriter of his new album, both of whom have converted to Islam. Michael warmed to the idea and the conversion happened.

This is not the first time when we have seen a celebrity converting to another religion. Half of Hollywood has already converted to Scientology and Quaker and back home A.R. Rehman’s conversion was the most visible one in the past few years. A common man also finds his own reasons for such conversions. Sometimes its for money, sometimes its because of the fear of death, sometimes its for love and sometimes its because of unanswered question which the present faith can’t answer.

Leaving aside the topic of Forced Conversions, according to this very elaborate survey done by The Pew Forum, 28% of American adults have left their faith in which they were born in favour of another. If the change of affiliation from one form of Protestantism to another is included, the percentage stands at a staggering 44%. Also the number of people who do not attach themselves to any faith have increased.

So, what is the big deal about changing religion and why do people indulge in the activity? Most of the children who are born to parents practicing a single faith, tend to accept the religion. The children born to parents with mixed religions tend to change their faith to an entirely new one because to the conflicts and confusions in their mind. It is nothing more than a mean of ironing out the complexities into which they were born. The whole idea of changing the religion stem out of the fact that people strive to smooth out their lives. It has more to do with psychology rather than pragmatism. It has more to do with finding an anchor.

I also believe that once a person has converted, he begins to subconsciously unclog his life. For e.g. the person can be a true blue dipsomaniac but might tend to leave the habit after conversion. This is something he could have done without converting but maybe he just needed a driving force. This does not mean that we can ask questions like – “So, would I be better off if I convert to another faith?”. The question should be – “Do I have to convert to another faith to be better off?”. Most of the times, the answer would be No, but as I pointed out earlier, some people do need a strong driving force, specially when their life had been turbulent.

Another aspect which raises its hood after conversions is – “How much does the life of the person change?” You can read the story of five people who converted to Islam here. Yes, the person has to go through a tough process of making the family and friends understand specially when the religions had always been conflicting. Sometimes, when the person converts for love, its hard to make the family understand specially when they realize that its the whole persona which is going to change.

Ofcourse, I must emphasise that I somehow don’t subscribe to the thought process which might lead to a conversion. To me, its something similar to changing your shampoo brand. Its still a shampoo which you are rubbing on your head! I somehow don’t connect to the idea of religion playing such an important part in my life and thus this whole topic fascinates me. I have been to a Church, a Gurudwara and a Temple and I could not find much of a difference. We pray in all of them for a better life. I could not grasp the idea where people stop calling God by a certain name and start calling him by another one. But I would love to meet a convert and understand his point of view.

Have you ever known a person who has converted from one religion to another?

Two interesting links which I found –

The Big Religion Chart

The Psychology of Religious Conversion

The Cage

I was sitting on a mat spread lazily on the lush green grass surrounding India Gate when the cage appeared for the first time. It was a sunny winter afternoon and I was in a mood to sketch. My ten months old son was sleeping in a pram besides me while I had sent my husband to bring me an ice-cream. My husband laughed as he closed his laptop and got up because he too loved to eat ice-creams in winters, although they were hard to get. As I took out my drawing pad and pencils and looked at the majestic India Gate, I saw the cage appear in front of it, hanging in mid air.

It was white and big enough to accommodate at least five men. As people noticed it, then dropped whatever they were doing and started to walk towards it, as if in a trance. I too got up when my husband suddenly appeared and took my hand to stop me. I turned and saw two ice-creams in his hand. The traffic too stopped moving after a few seconds. While the murmurs were gaining momentum, the sky suddenly turned dark. It remained pitch black for a few seconds and then all the colours of a rainbow were splashed all over it, moving like molted lava. Something very similar to the play of colors we see when we pour oil over water. And then that thunderous voice which appeared to be coming from everywhere and nowhere.

I have placed 100 similar cages all over the world. These cages will be utilized to cleanse the Earth. I have given all of you enough chances but a few more years and I can kiss goodbye to any hopes of a better Earth. Over the next few months, the world will be in a huge turmoil but I am sure that those who will be left behind will be wise enough to find a path amongst the self inflicted human complexities. The ones, of whom the Earth would be cleansed are those who are devoid of even an iota of love and respect for the fellow Earthlings. Terrorists, rapists, molesters, poachers, murderers, drug dealers, corrupt leaders and corrupt Businessmen are the ones who would enter the cages first. All those who have even a small fraction of purity left in them and whom I consider worthy of creating a better future, will stay. All the cages will always remain on the Earth reminding you of what you all have become! As a parting shot, let me also inform you that I am removing all the weapons from the world. Goodbye.

The skies cleared and for a second it seemed as if it was a bad dream but the cage was still there, hanging in mid air and emphasising the reality. There was such an eerie silence that it seemed as if the Earth had stopped rotating. They say that everyone on Earth heard that voice in the language they understood. I heard it in Hindi while the British tourist standing next to me heard it in English. That was the day when the world stopped and screamed afterwards.

Suddenly a man appeared from thin air inside the cage. He started screaming the moment he realised where he was. He was pleading and asking for help from the bewildered crowd staring at him. The cage started changing colours and turned to orange. Amidst shock and terror, we all realised what was happening. The cage was heating up. The man started jumping up and down to find a cool spot to stand but soon his skin started to stick to the hot base. He grabbed the bars to pull up his legs but his hands got glued to the hot bars. The cage was turning red and the man was melting sending an overpowering stench of burned flesh amidst painful screams for help. My son was wide awake by now and started crying. My husband took my hand and we moved towards our car to get out of there. We sat in the car for five hours before the traffic finally started moving. By that time, the cage at India Gate had taken 300 lives and the screams were ringing in my ears. 30000 people had vanished from the face of the Earth in those five hours. The cage was killing one person every minute. 

*  *  *  *

On the third day from the beginning of the killings, my husband confided in me. He told me that as an eminent businessman of the city, he has given and accepted bribes numerous times. I sat there and listened to what he had to say. I knew all this already but I had accepted him the way he was because I knew that he was beyond repair. 

“I am transferring everything to your name. I might be gone any second. Please bring up my son to be a good man. Not someone like me. I am sorry, sorry for everything.”, he said as tears welled up in his eyes. He cried bitterly that night. For the first time, I felt sorry for him and cried with him. All the property was transferred to my name within the next 15 days. Although I wondered about the worth of all that within a year. 

*  *  *  *

By the end of a year 52,560,000 people were dead. Many of them were notorious criminals and eminent politicians. The world was in a chaos. The stock markets crashed, armies of all the countries were now unemployed and a few countries were left completely leaderless. Some people tried to destroy the cages, while some turned into believers. Despite the chaos, there was a serenity. A tacit calm. People were good to each other. They were hopeful that despite of what they had done in the past, Gods would spare them if they behave themselves now. Fear was driving people to love each other. 

My husband vanished 14 months after the killings started. That day we were having breakfast and talking about our son’s birthday celebrations when he disappeared from his chair mid sentence. I stared at the unfinished toast and the half filled cup of tea for a long time as I didn’t had the courage to switch on the television and see him melt. Those fourteen months were the best time of our marriage. He had completely transformed and I had fallen in love with him.

*  *  *  *

It took the world 30 years to come back to order. Yes, we survived somehow. It became a beautiful place to live eventually. The generation who is running the world now is of my son’s age and they are brought up in an environment were “love” is the only word, the only possible solution. My son got married some years back and I am a grandma now. I had never believed in happily-ever-afters but I am living one now. Of course, I miss my husband at times. I still have that cup and plate in which he had his last breakfast.

And yes, the cage is still there at India Gate. Its a part of that monument now, a part of our existence. But I don’t remember if it has been used since a long time. I go to India Gate at times to have a look at it. To remember the day when the sky turned into a molten rainbow.

The price of being different

How do we react when we come across a woman who is middle aged, successful and not married?

How do we react when we come across a person who is gay/lesbian?

How do we react when we come across a couple who have remarried in old age?

Most of us react in the most inexplicable manner. The reaction starts with amazement and passes to confusion and ends up in a recoil of horror or disgust. We are so much used to live in our own contrived world that a slight deviation lands us in a state of utter bewilderment. We just can’t accept a person who does not think like us and who lives a life which is not considered “normal” by any standard of society. People want other people to be like them and if they don’t succeed then they turn really nasty.

The three instances which I have stated above are too big for many to digest. People cant’ even digest “slight” deviations. As a kid, I was more interested in reading books rather than playing cricket. My Physical Education teacher was a lady who just could not understand me. She always looked at me with such resentful eyes as if I was a pig who just got out of a pool of scum. She tried her best to defame me in the school as I was the topper but I never gave a hoot. I just could not understand that why was I forced to do something in which I was not interested? And why couldn’t she digest the fact that there can be a boy who does not like to play cricket? In such situations, a person turns towards his friends and parents where he expects support and encouragement. Can you imagine the trauma when he finds none? Thankfully, this was not the case with me.

Anyways, this was just a small example. I have known four women who are middle aged, chose to remain unmarried and had fabulous careers. When people are told about such women, they invariably end up making fun of them.

“Oh!! There must be some medical problem. Or maybe she was ditched and she turned into a man-hater. *giggles* “

People just can’t accept the fact that a woman/man can feel complete and satisfied even if she/he does not marry. The person might have a different definition of “Satisfaction” which most of us fail to acknowledge or understand. Its not really hard but many of us don’t have that dimension in our thought process.

A few days back I was having a discussion with a close friend of mine and we were discussing the Gay Pride March which happened in Delhi. My friend asked me that how would I react if one fine day I find out that one of my close friend is gay? This is how our talk went –

Me – Why do I need to react?
Friend – Because its not normal.
Me – What is normal then?
Friend – A girl and a boy falling in love. That’s normal.
Me – Who decides that?
Friend – That’s the way things are.
Me – And who decides that?
Friend – I don’t get your point.
Me – Why should I care about what a person do in his bedroom and what are his sexual preferences as long as I am not asked to get involved? If he is a dear friend then he will remain one. I am no one to decide how a person leads his life. Its his life. I can’t point out fingers at a person who is just living his life his own way. There are many people in this world who do things like killing people, raping innocents, robbing others of their land and money and fooling a whole nation. I would like to point my finger at them.
Friend – Errrr…I don’t know. Guess I will leave him.
Me – Congratulations. You are a part of a vast majority.

Most of us think that nature did not intended it to happen that way but lets not be God and slap our decisions on others. A human must have the right to live the way he wants to as long as he is not hurting anyone. And lets not make fun of people who don’t share our thinking.

We don’t find anything wrong when someone gives or takes Dowry. We don’t find anything wrong when we bribe an officer to get our work done. We don’t find anything wrong when we do illegal constructions on our houses. But we don’t leave any stone unturned to make the life of a person miserable who does not wish to become an Engineer or a Doctor or a person who falls in love at the age of 50 or a couple who decide not to have a baby.

All of us feel bad when someone takes a dig at us but we don’t think twice before disparaging someone. No one likes to be mistreated and told that you don’t fit in. Fit in where? Forming an opinion is good but lets have a rational and logical thinking behind one. Telling a mother that her daughter is a burden and needs to be disposed off(married) as soon as possible is the worst kind of insult you can inflict on anyone. Similarly, telling your son that he has brought disgrace on the family because he is inclined towards a career which is not of your liking is a form of mental abuse.

Lets not turn “being different” into a misfortune for the person. Lets not inflict anxiety, depression and anger on someone when we, as parents and friends, can become the person’s real strength. Lets not make fun of people who, according to our dogmatic and sectarian thinking process, don’t fit in. Lets not be the spiteful, purposeless chauvinists we were never meant to be and give some respect to the fellow humans.

[the photo is taken from – http://flickr.com/photos/nickwheeleroz/2220008689/]