Lights – Despair, Faith and Hope on Broadway. Preface

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
~ ‘Ulysses’ by Tennyson

“Mommy, Mommy!”
Little Henry stood by the doorman at the curb, under the gargoyles peering down at him from the entrance of their granite prewar building. He pulled at Vera’s skirt, “Why do we have to move from here? I like it here and all my friends are here.”
The doorman, in his well-ironed, starched, gray uniform, finally waved down a yellow cab. With his white-gloved hands, he opened the door for Henry and Vera to get in. Doffing his hat at Vera, he whispered, “Have a good day, Miss Lights.” He bowed and closed the door once she had settled in.
Vera instructed the cab driver, “Carter Hotel in Times Square, 250 West 43rd Street.” She noticed Henry staring out of the other window, fascinated by a dog walker taking six dogs out for a walk to Central Park.
She looked at her watch. She was running a little late, as it had taken her some time to settle Loretta with the baby-sitter and get Henry ready. He had insisted on coming with her. She looked out and watched the stately buildings of the Upper West Side and the fancy stores and restaurants go past as they headed downtown.
Vera was meeting one of her old friends from the theater district who had been a producer, and was one of the investors in the recently built Carter Hotel. She planned to move into two rooms of the hotel permanently. The current apartment was costing her too much money and she knew she had to do something, as her savings were dwindling every year.
The producer was offering her a ten-year lease at a ridiculously low rate as he had made a lot of money when he had invested in one of her past performances.
The doorman’s words clicked in the cab driver’s mind and he suddenly recognized Vera’s beautiful face. “Wow!” The cab driver said, looking at her in the rearview mirror, “Ms. Vera Lights, the famous Broadway Star! My wife is a huge fan and has seen most of your performances. Wait till I tell the missus who I gave a ride to today!”
Vera gave him a small smile. She was used to being a celebrity and evoking strange responses in complete strangers.
They finally pulled up to the façade of the hotel and the cab driver refused to take money for the fare saying, “The missus will kill me if I charge her heroine, Vera Lights, for a ride. Please, this trip is on me and it is an honor to have you ride with me.”
The doorman of the hotel held the door open of the cab as Vera and Henry stepped out; and then he guided them into the lobby. Vera and Henry walked in for the first time in their lives through the doors of the hotel which was about to become their Times Square residence.
The journey of Veronica Jones, a farm girl from rural upstate New York State, into a Broadway star by the name of Vera Lights, started at a regional theater in Albany.
Veronica’s parents were tenant farmers and she was an only child. She was a healthy young girl with a glowing complexion and had inherited her mother’s good looks.
Her school was part of a theater competition, organized by a philanthropic organization set up by some of New York City’s old families, for the promotion of the theatrical arts. Her natural talents as a singer, dancer and stage performer were recognized as she stood out amongst the other performers in the competition. When the director of a touring company of playwrights and performers from New York City expressed an interest in her joining their company, her father had objected strongly.
It was her mother who encouraged her. She did not want Veronica to have the hard life of a farmer that she herself, as an ex-city girl from Brooklyn had endured when she married her love and moved to the farm in upstate New York. Her dreams of moving back to the city had never materialized and she had resigned herself to her fate. She had worried about the mortgage and how to bring up Veronica so that she would have a more equitable chance in this world. She did not want her daughter to suffer the same fate and persuaded her husband to let her go and explore the world and make a new life.
It was the Director who coached and refined Veronica’s skills. She had worked with the larger troupe and learnt many of her early lessons in the theater, as they performed across the state and city. The travelling and the performances made Veronica very busy and she immersed herself into the acts and the plays. As is often true in smaller companies, she learnt multiple parts, and her natural talent was improved by countless hours of practice and rehearsals.,.
Her big break came when she was selected for her young fresh farm looks to play the part of Abbie in an off-Broadway revival of Desire under the Elms from the famous playwright, Eugene O’Neil. It was also at this time that the director changed her name to Vera Lights to make it more glamorous and appropriate for a star.
The play was a huge success and the young Vera played the tortured role of the young wife of the old farmer and his two grown sons in a lonely farmhouse to perfection. To the city dwellers the vistas of farm living were stark and made the characters appear larger than life.
A young critic at the New York Herald by the name of Jake Alexander was especially enthusiastic about her performance and gave her great reviews. “A new star has been born and Vera’s performance brings alive the desolate life of O’Neil’s young heroine in a natural talent that is so fresh and yet so ageless. This revival is a must see as the young Miss Lights brings alive a role that many other major stars have struggled to portray. Her final scenes will be scorched into the audience’s memories and no one can come away unmoved by her enactment of her character’s moral struggles and lonely despair.”
Vera’s career went on from there to new heights as she became a recognized star. She won new roles and became a regular feature in the leading theatrical circles of New York. She was wooed by many young men and married one of the young and handsome men after a whirlwind courtship.
Elliot, her new husband, and Vera, settled down in New York City where she bought an apartment with her income from her new stardom. They became a fixture in many of the city’s gatherings of young stars and old money as they hobnobbed with the rich and famous. Her life seemed perfect and she was living out all her dreams and all of Broadway and New York City seemed to adore her and put her on a pedestal of stardom.
She received another break when she was selected to play Stella in the Broadway production of A Streetcar named Desire, one of the most eagerly anticipated productions of that year.
Vera’s story is closely tied to the environment of midtown Manhattan and the history of the city’s decline and rise. There are references to actual events and persona during this period from the 80’s to present day for completeness and are in no way intended to represent their views or lives.
Midtown’s deterioration, the shutdown of some of the famous theaters of the area and its decline into a crime prone area, is tied into the lives of Vera and her children.
The neighborhood had become seedier and was soon known as the armpit of New York. Crime had soared to 2,300 felonies in 1984 or six assaults a day.
The Light family’s struggle is the story of the people of this great city who persevered against all odds, and especially of single mothers, trying to raise their children in a hostile world.
I refer to Herb Sturz of NJ who had taken up the cause of NYC revival and especially of Times Square with a passion and dedication unrivaled by other skeptics and doomsayers in the city.
In 1979, Sturz became deputy mayor of NYC, defining his job when he said, “We want to bring fantasy back to Times Square and replace the grim reality,” as reported by Sam Roberts in ‘A Kind of Genius: Herb Sturz and Society’s toughest problems.’ He enlisted the help of Rebecca Robertson, an experienced city planner, and involved other leading community activists to reinvent the Great White Way.
Douglas Durst and his landlord family, along with others with large holdings in the area, initially fought any government intervention, considering it wasteful. Eventually, Durst started to realize that Sturz was serious in his efforts and went on to build the 4, Times Square building on his holdings, with a major investment and boost for the area.
It was the first green 48 stories tall skyscraper. It houses NASDAQ with the largest LED screen (seven stories) and solar panels on the roof and taller floors. Gigantic fuel cells warm water for the building and Natural-gas chillers cool it, saving electricity. The air is cooled using special shafts and conduits to enhance filtering.
Also, plans were made to build a glass and steel tower at what became the prestigious new address of One Times Square in a revived midtown.
Cora Cahan, a theater impresario, revived the New Victory for Children plays, as it was her lifetime passion to revive family fun in midtown. As part of the city’s revival they reached out to many major corporations for support and Ford Motor restored the Lyric and Apollo theaters back to their former glory.
Disney renewed the most famous of Broadway theaters, the New Amsterdam, for live plays, based on their popular movies. Modern Broadway was born and over 20 million tourists a year made Times Square the greatest tourist destination in the US.
The theatrical revival led to 39 Broadway houses with 7.5 million theatergoers, making it the best live entertainment in the world. With the improved infrastructure over 200,000 commuters a day passed through Times Square, making its seedy past a faint memory.
From her rise to the heights of society, we come upon Vera at a time when her world is collapsing around her, at a time when the Great White Way has crumbled. Slowly, the theaters have closed and, as the producers move on to less risky investments, the work has disappeared.
After a series of unsuccessful short marriages with agents and leading men of her times, she has two children, Henry and Loretta.
. The one shoulder she can lean on is that of her friend, Jake Alexander, who is also Loretta’s godfather. He has known Vera from her younger, vibrant days as a star. Jake is the theater critic of the New York Herald and goes on to become a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and editor of the New York Times.
Vera, sick of touring the regional towns for negligible pay, comes back to live in her Upper West Side rented apartment in New York City. And then moves on to Hotel Carter.
Will the new world that aims to reinvent the Great White Way, with the revival of NYC and especially of Times Square, allow Vera and her family to bring alive their hopes and dreams from the depths of despair? This is the very essence of this tale.

The butterfly effect- a short story

After a grueling trip; I found myself in the hot and dusty city of Aurangabad, after a tedious journey for reasons that I cannot now remember. It began innocently after a couple of scotches with old friends. We were a couple of houses away in our development in the suburbs; when upcoming India trips were being discussed, to pass the time.

I had let slip that I had long had a desire to see the Buddhist caves of  Ajanta and Ellora and immediately Mr. Ranade from Aurangabad chimed in, that he had the best contacts and he would make all the arrangements in his native place. Not having the least idea about what I was getting into; as until that day the only information I had, came from old India tourism pamphlets that left a lot to the imagination.

There are beautiful apsaras and heavenly creatures and the life of the Buddha; all carved out and painted in the caves, so many centuries ago. I wanted to be transported back in time when life was meaningful and hope and happiness were all around; in the compassion of a society lived by simple laws, laid out by the Buddha in his wisdom.

 My romantic notions were not much appreciated by Mr. Ranade; who I believe is a competent Managing Director, at one of those too big to fail megabanks. “We have to make sure that you have a safe trip, and must make all the proper preparations for your upcoming visit,” Mr. Ranade told me the next day and promptly rattled of a list of things, for me to do.

He soon took over all the practical planning and helped me shop for my onrushing adventure with appropriate insect and bug repellents; malaria tablets topped off by some awful jaundice shots from this entirely too old doctor, just to make sure that my travel is safe, to my foreign motherland.

Mumbai had been a mad chaos as the traffic at rush hour had been total mayhem, but somehow the little yellow and black taxi driven by a Mr. Singh; seemed to weave its way in and out of the traffic in those crazy patterns of Indian embroidery, gone bad. All the time we exchanged the latest weather and other news; in a strong Doaba Punjabi; while he drew paisleys on the roadways, and then neatly executed Hindu swastikas at the crossroads.

I hired him by the day and he showed me all his favorite spots in Bollywood; and where all the filmy stars lived, and played the greatest hits on his radio, while we watched sunsets, drinking coconut juice with wood coal roasted corn. He also showed me the free trade zones; where office towers rose to house the new IT and Telecom stars, of a flat corporate global world.

“Take me to your favorite eating place,” I asked him after a long day and hoping to live the life that he lived, however brief.

“I am not sure it is the right place for your sir, but if you insist there is a place close by where I often go to drink and eat.” He told me reluctantly.

 We imbibed these huge bottles of beer with tandoori chicken kebabs, daal, roti and naans, sitting on jute stringed charpoys; at a local dhabha, under the shadows of the towers of modern India. “I am too tired to go back to the hotel,” I told Mr. Singh, and he promptly yelled to the young boy serving us, “Bring some sheets and pillows for us, you good for nothing fellow.” And with a swirling pedestal fan to keep the mosquitoes away, we promptly slept under the open Indian sky.

The train to Aurangabad passed through the Deccan and the Western Ghats. The Ghats have their own climate based on the monsoon; and were intensely green in some parts, brown expanses of craggy hills and red valleys with streams running from the remnants of the monsoons, like silver streaks in the bright sun in other parts. I was fascinated by the countryside and could spy old forts on lonely peaks from where the proud Marathas, had protected their lands from incoming invaders.

Standing in the shade of railway platform one, a young boy claiming to be Sudhakar Ranade a third nephew to the amazing Mr. Ranade of America,  quickly took charge of my luggage. As I struggled with my luggage he quickly intervened and told me, “Please leave everything to me, my uncle has given instructions for us to make sure that your stay here is made comfortable and that you do not lack for anything. He is now the head of our family, and I am honored to serve you as our guest.”

 We were marched out in military fashion; with a poor red uniformed railway coolie leading our way up the stairs and across the metal bridge, to the exit. Much to my protests, he was happily carrying more than his weight; on his head and bags (laden with gifts from Mr. Ranade for his family) slung from his shoulders, than his thin legs would appear to allow.

 We ended up in a small fort like structure; a few miles out of the city, which was the ancestral home of the Ranade family; with ten foot high walls topped with high barbed wire, running around a large compound. On entering the large gates I found a sprawling complex with multiple dwellings, vegetable fields, cowsheds and horse carriages along the back walls in little huts, with asbestos sheets providing the roofs. The original stone mansion had been extended many times with brick rooms and other extensions based on the current generation’s needs. I was quickly given the honor of a room with an attached bathroom; as it had some prestige attached to it, as Mr. Ranade my friend, had personally had the house modernized some years back. This latest expansion was shining in the sunlight as I admired the sparkling new glass, steel and wood practical structure, designed by a leading architect in Mumbai.

The next day I was off to explore the caves and the four wheel drive vehicle arranged with a local guide proved to be a bumpy ride, over ill banked and often unpaved roads. Added excitement was provided by the gaily decorated trucks flashing bold colors and slogans, when they whizzed by harrowingly close, well past any advisable speed limits. The white pair of bullock carts with the high horns tied with twinkling bells hauling sugarcane to the nearby sugar mill, were of course more charming; but a greater menace on the road. The trucks swung around them playing a crazy game of live pinball, with swirling and flashing lights, accompanied with the playing of loud musical horns in a cacophony that are the local high ways. I was quite relieved when we stopped at a local stall for tea and breakfast and the guide explained, where we were headed and the plans for the day.

“We have engaged a knowledgeable guide for you and he will be with you, to explain all the history and details as per Mr. Ranade’s instructions.” The driver told me and explained where we would be staying and what the plan was.

When I returned home three days later; well satisfied after a long and detailed study of the caves, I had even more questions in my head than before I saw the paintings. Who had painted them and why and how could they have been able to do that in the dark without modern tools and equipment. It was definitely a labor of love and the art had left a deep impression on me, and I was still trying to understand the cultural and historical importance of these finds. What was this Nirvana that the Buddha had talked about, and my mind was even more confused that before.

 There was an urgent message waiting for me from Mr. Ranade, and Sudhakar had been anxiously awaiting my return it seemed. He said that a registered letter with acknowledgement due had arrived from the local municipal courts, and Mr. Ranade wanted to speak to me urgently on this matter. After refreshing myself I found myself having tea in the drawing room; in front of the huge color TV, where some cricket match was being watched with great enthusiasm. Mr. Ranade called into this milieu and asked for a huge favor; as he was extremely sorry to impose on me as an honored guest, in their home. He wanted me to accompany his lawyer to the local municipal courts, to clear up a complaint. He was stuck in important meetings with some mid-west banks and was unable to pull himself out of the work; and did not trust his uncles or nephews, as they were all incompetent and had allowed the situation to fester, for decades. Not understanding all that Mr. Ranade was asking; I still agreed as a friend to go with his solicitor, and report back to him as a friendly observer.

“Please make sure that this matter is resolved once and for all; with the help of our family attorney, who will meet you tomorrow and explain everything.” Mr. Ranade explained over the static, and the cheering of the people in the room as the match took an interesting turn.

 The next day Mr. Aggarwal BA, LLB etc. etc. was sitting in the veranda on the white comfortable rattan chairs with extra cushions and enjoying the paneer pakoras that the cook had rustled up for vakil sahib. I joined him timidly as he joked loudly with the staff; oddly intimidated by his black coat and tie, and impressive khaki files tied in red ribbons lying in view on the table. After a loud guffawing laugh about the washer man’s wife’s latest escapade, he finally turned his attention to me. “Ah Mr Kapoor it is good to meet a friend of my dear client Mr. Ranade, come all the way from the US of A.” He shook my hand in a plump, oily and limpid grip and solemnly picked up a file and passed it over to me.

I fumbled with the red ribbon and did not know what to do; but Mr. Aggarwal came to my rescue and in two swift moves, removed the red ribbon and handed me a bunch of papers on government stamp duty paper; with the impressive seal of the Reserve Bank of India or other government symbols, and red lac where they had been sealed and were now open for my inspection. “This new officer at the municipal office Miss Sita Devi is ruthless sir, and probably a witch. She is pursuing each case diligently and now our turn has come, to go up before her in her office. She is a shrew sir; and nobody can escape from her, once she gets her claws on you.” He whispered leaning into my space; breathing the oily fumes from the savories, even though I knew there was no one around, who understood English.

“She is the embodiment of the Devi and rides a tiger, and his claws are deep and have already destroyed a lot of rich people in this area. Some of the oldest property complaints are being acted on by this lady; or tigress, if I may be so bold to say. It is their way to destroy the prestige and reputation of our dear old established families in this area. These low caste people should never have been allowed to come to power, as they are destroying the very fabric of our established society.” Mr. Aggarwal explained while I studied the papers before me.

At a quick glance it looked like a case for willful pollution and destruction of public land. It seemed some twenty years ago; there was noted spillage of water from this compound; out into the back public road. There was flooding in the area with filth and run off from the houses, cow sheds, chicken coops and horse stables. The problem was further compounded by the use of the area; as a preferred open human latrine by the locals, under the protection of the high wall. This morning ritual was helped by the use of a convenient tap with running water provided gratis, by the Ranade family.

Unfortunately a passing municipal inspector had got bogged down in the twenty foot mud road; that had become a nasty stinking swamp, and had to be rescued when his official car broke down in the thick of it. He had to wade through the muck and fell in when he missed a pothole and ruined his white uniform and brown Solar Toppee. He was rescued from the ignominy of drowning in the shallow waste, but could not get the smell off himself even after a week of daily oblations, of castor oil massages and yogurt rinse bathes. To add insult to injury the grandfather was smoking his hookah on the roof of the mansion with his friends; and being generally high, enjoyed this new found amusement happening in his own back yard, and had a whale of a time. He continued yelling hilariously at this moron with lewd insults to his ancestry, who would try and use this back way in the monsoon season.

He guffawed at the drenched official pouring out the brackish waste from his toppee, before putting it back on his drenched head; “What kind of a fool are you to come this way at this time of year? Even the village idiot Ramu knows, to avoid it during the four months around the monsoons,” he shouted down from the roof. With some final lewd remarks about his mother’s training to the fuming official, he was finally pulled back to the game of cards. They were soon laughing and engaged in their afternoon ritual of smoking and swapping stories; used to pass the time, amongst the town elders.

The case had lingered for two decades as is often the case of these less pressing matters. Big cases hogged the time and delays and dates were pursued by the prosecutors and the lawyers in a ritual that was time immemorial. Things in independent India had improved with the blind justice melted out, in dribs and drabs in this great sub-continent today. Now an exasperated Sita Devi in scouring the office for unclosed cases, re opened the twenty year old case and was asking for action.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that our most resolute Mr. Ranade; on becoming the Karta of the Joint Hindu Family, at the passing of his father at a young age from a heart attack, had made rapid amends. Along with the construction of the new wing; the architect had also designed a whole water harvesting, and environment friendly solution. This had been duly implemented and huge underwater reservoirs to reclaim the water from the monsoons had been installed. Drainage ditches and irrigation channels were built across the compound.

They were the secret to the fruit trees and other orchards blooming in the grounds of the compound, and in the green expanse across the now slightly elevated back road with more drainage ditches, all paid for by Mr. Ranade in his wisdom, some time back.

We set off in advocate Aggarwal’s car which turned out to be a white Ambassador, with white curtains and white cotton seat covers along with a driver all dressed in white. All along the way, Mr. Aggarwal enthralled me with his knowledge of the case and various dates and important evidences. Before setting off he had led me to a pump house in the compound and two gardeners had opened up various large potholes, showing indeed a modern sewage and water system installed and working. I had been requested by Mr. Ranade to represent him as a creditable witness, that the work had been completed as planned, and to excuse his personal appearance.

We got to the session court building and the driver fought his way through and dropped us off near the cart vendors; selling knick knacks, snacks and tea, who were blocking the only pedestrian walkway.  Mr. Aggarwal took command and steered me through a maze of typists with official stamp papers in small glass cases; and other touts hanging around everywhere, offering various services, to smooth the way through the court procedures, for small reasonable fees.

We entered a haven of organization from the chaos outside, when we entered Sita Devi’s office. It was a large wooden desk with four chairs facing it with a rattan weave seat and solid wooden legs. A petite dark lady was peering over her horn rimmed bi-focal; at the bearer in a khaki uniform, standing to one side, explaining the disappearance of a particular file.

“Go to the fourth section and look at the files in the third cabinet marked pending cases” Sita instructed the attendant. “The files for pollution cases are all there and hurry up and get the one in the old cases section.”

 She wore a starched white sari with a red stripe border and turned her attention to a smiling and subservient sounding Mr. Aggarwal. “Well Mr. Aggarwal, it is good to see you and I hope that you are better prepared, as I am not ready to give any dates for postponement of the case anymore.” They quickly dived into the details of the pollution case and her eyebrows rose when she saw that the Ranade family was involved in the case.

The bearer returned with the file and she reached out and I noticed that her hand was severely mauled. She was missing three middle fingers and only her thumb and pinky were left around scarred skin. She still managed to balance the file and set it before her on the desk, and started to raise additional points to Mr. Aggarwal. He rebutted all of them and showed the drawings and plans of the improvements done in the compound, to resolve the old issues.  She continued to write notes on the file’s columns with her left hand and seemed to concentrate on recording Mr. Aggarwal’s comments in a methodical and concise manner.

I was finally called upon to explain the absence of my friend Mr. Ranade, on important business in the mid-west of the US of A and my duty, as a witness for the day. She questioned my background and understood that I had a good position with an American multinational and had lived there for many years, and was here to represent my friend Mr. Ranade.

 When I vouched for the septic tanks and storage tanks she just looked on skeptically at the evidence. When I insisted that I had seen the evidence myself she just gave a small contemptuous laugh about trusting Americans and said “Mr. Kapoor you do not know this land or its people. I have seen many photographs tempered with and even seen water wells disappear overnight; and a wholly modern system like you describe is beyond even my imagination. Anyway good try, but I will go ahead and reserve judgment for negligence, as these papers do not impress me.”

I thought of my friend and made one last effort on his behalf, “No madam, you are mistaken as Mr. Ranade is a very sincere and good person. He has really executed what is laid out in this plan. Please come and see for yourself if you do not believe me.” I gave my most sincere explanation.

“Ha Ha! Ranade and sincere and good,” she slapped the desk in her merriment, “I do not know what world you are coming from, but I have lived in these parts for many generations and have never heard of them, being referred to in this way.”

Mr. Aggarwal also jumped in and made all kinds of conciliatory statements. On consultation with her calendar, it was decided that Sita Devi would visit the compound on the following Monday afternoon, and god help us, if she did not find everything as described in the plans. “I will be there promptly at 2:30 and do not want to hear any more excuses. The case will be decided next week either way.” With that she waved us out with a wave of her hands, and I could not but help but stare at the misshapen stump before I turned, and walked out of her office. She seemed to clutch at it with her other hand, as if some old pains had suddenly come alive.

On the way back Mr. Aggarwal was happy that we had made progress, he praised me for making a good impression; as he had never seen anyone tame the tigress before, when she got into one of her foul moods. “Why that stump armed cotton picker, is just trying to her throw her weight around as usual. She does not know who she is dealing with. She is lucky she is dealing with your friend, as other members of the family would not have been so tame in their response. She was just a cotton picker’s daughter and now she thinks she has become a high officer. That is what people call her behind her back ‘the stump’, and now she thinks she will make everything right again for her caste and people.”

I was intrigued by these new revelations from the suddenly relaxed Mr. Aggarwal, swinging back into his usual colloquial terms and expressions. He described how she had grown up in a poor family and like the hundreds of thousands of other young children of her community, worked in the cotton fields and mills. Her main job was to make sure the male flowers came in contact with the female flowers; and she would do it, going from row to row during the growing season.  She seemed to love her work and would be seen skipping between the rows with her other friends, as children often play; while doing more work, than the adults.

Mr. Aggarwal described how when she was around fourteen, she had been able to get work at the cotton mill to support her family, as the pay was much better. Within a year she had met with an accident; when her hand had come into a machine’s blades. She was lucky that they saved what they could, from her shredded parts. Luckily the surgeon at the city hospital had attended to many similar cases of accidents at the local mill before, and was able to patch her up satisfactorily. He never claimed to be a plastic surgeon and left terrible scars, but saved her hand for what it now was. She received a lump sum payment from the mill and they picked up her health care costs for the first year. The mill owners and officials then promptly forgot about her and the other similar cases, attributed to employee negligence in the official files.

Sita was devastated that she could not work and bring in income to support her family and instead had become a burden on them. It was her neighbor; who was a teacher at the local public school, who saved her. She dragged her to school with her and fed her during lunch, from her own meager meals. Painstakingly she taught Sita how to write with her left hand, now that she could not write with her right hand. She knew that only education could help a physically handicapped person, from becoming a beggar in this community. Sita’s parents were relieved to have her take care of Sita; while they worked and soon she settled into a normal school girl’s life, with lots of help from her neighbor

“That no good uppity neighbor was always trying to make her people better that they are.” Mr. Aggarwal remarked. ”If the government did not give them special quotas and privileges we would still be leading our normal lives. Our hard working youth are suffering from lack of economic opportunity, while these folks are living off the government largesse”

Half the money from the settlement had been saved and when she got into the big university in Poona, the money came in handy. Sita with two other girls also going off to Poona; said their tearful goodbyes to their families at the ladies compartment, at the Aurangabad railway station, as the train pulled away. They were to be away for three years with holidays in between, when they would come back to visit.

 Sita had got into one of the best colleges because of the quota system for her community, and she blossomed in the open inquisitive atmosphere of the liberal thinkers. She began to participate more openly and soon was overwhelmed with the storehouse of knowledge that she had found. Poona had many other colleges and students and she soon made friends; amongst the budding lawyers, doctors, other historians like her. She had more difficulty understanding the more serious scientists; with their important sounding labs and other scientific, and mathematical activities.

Slowly she picked up more confidence and joined the debating society in her second year on the persuasion of a close friend, who was an avid debater. They would go to different colleges and participate in discussing on current affairs and generally intelligential topics, which the professors dreamt up. In the end given the opportunities; she excelled at her work, and graduated almost at the head of her class.

The provincial officer’s exams proved to be a breeze, and she returned to Aurangabad under the same quota, that had given her all the privileges before. Her parents were ecstatic at her great success as she was the first one from her family, to get a government job.

 She was sent to a remote district for two years and promptly forgotten about, till election year when the local MLA (Member of the legislative state assembly) praised her work in the district. She had worked ceaselessly on behalf of young mothers and needy children by ensuring their vaccinations and care in the early months after birth. This had led to increased survival rates for the children and mothers who had often died undernourished and uncared for, by the local medical staff. The local public was very happy at the proper use of the health care funds, and the MLA was reelected with a thumping majority.

She was promptly removed; so a more senior officer could carry out the work, in a more organized way. Sita was transferred with a promotion to the district irrigation desk; where hopefully she would not do any further harm, in her new found enthusiasm for actual work.

 She again disappeared for over three years and then in a severe drought year, her area showed no signs of it, as she had worked hard to dig out the old ponds and reservoirs and lined them to help preserve the rain water, and maintain ground water levels. While the other districts around her suffered; she took the irrigation minister for boat rides on her man-made ancient lake, filled with two year old monsoon run offs.


I went ahead and completed my tours of the remaining caves and waited for Monday hoping to see Sita Devi again in the compound. Something about the carved stone figures reminded me at times of the strong love for life, which Sita showed. It seemed that nothing could keep these people from their desired goals. The ancient statues took on new meanings; as at last I understood the pain and suffering; of the people, who built these temples, as an expression of art. I thought in my mind that living beings in the community are modern day examples, of those ancient myths. The beauty that the artists carved into rocks still lives, and one only has to look for it.

On the fateful Monday I had to run into town to finish some last minute errands and to post some letters and correspondence. My time here was coming to an end and I went to the fort and museum one last time and took in some other sights also. After lunch at a favorite restaurant, I headed in for the usual siesta in the hot midday sun; with strict instructions to be roused at two, so I could get ready in time for the appointment.

Mr. Aggarwal showed up in a cloud of dust; as his driver pulled the white Ambassador around, to disgorge him and his files outside the verandah. It was too early for the Bhisht with his goatskin sprinkler system, to come and water down the red gravel drive to the main house; and so the dust flew everywhere. The modern wing had a concrete driveway and I had wanted to have the meeting there.

“All meetings with officials have always been held in the main building’s old offices.” Mr. Aggarwal informed me dismissing any arguments on the subject. “We do not break tradition here and will entertain them in the family style at this great main building. This is far more impressive and will show the officer who she is really dealing with.”

They had planned the visit carefully; so that everything could be shown properly and the head Gardner in his uniform with a large starched turban, and a helper with a smaller turban, had been called to stand by for help with details. With their practical experience I felt that they were ideally suited to explain the advantages of water usage from the new systems. Mr. Aggarwal was hesitant to bring in these lowly staff, but had agreed on my insistence that practical experience was more important than semantics.

Sita Devi arrived promptly and without much ceremony and was shown in by the head Gardner, to the old impressive office with the huge oil portraits of past Ranades looking augustly down in all their glory. The two of us had waited anxiously for her arrival and promptly seated her and offered her tea from the antique silver and china set, brought by the bearer, accompanied by the fried savories, so favored by Mr. Aggarwal.

Sita Devi waved all these away “I have limited time and this is no time for a party. Let us get on with what you have to show me.” This was of course much to the chagrin of Mr. Aggarwal, who was eyeing the disappearing savories with a wistful expression.

Mr. Aggarwal walked her through the plans and maps laid out on the table for this purpose, and to save time. I put the photographs of evidence on the locations in the grounds, where they had been built. Sita reached out and started moving pieces around to understand the lay of the land. I could not look away as her right hand moved the piece above the first storage tank with her thumb and pinky, and the scar seemed to fascinate me.

“I have come here for an inspection and not to move pieces of paper and cardboard around on a table, watched by these ancient fossils on the walls.” She spoke looking straight at Mr. Aggarwal.

“We are ready to take you and show you the improvements,” I spoke up seeing the dumbstruck expression on Mr. Aggarwal’s face, and she turned to look me in the eyes and smiled.

“Lead away,” she said with the usual lively twinkle in her eye, and no nonsense approach that I had come to appreciate.

“I am sure that you will be impressed by what Mr. Ranade has accomplished, with the help of the design from the Mumbai architects.” I told her as the Gardner led the way to the fields under which the septic tanks were downhill. Later on it was planned that he will take us uphill, to the other side where the water harvesting tanks and pumps were.

“There is little a Ranade can do to surprise me, but I will take your word for it,” she walked with a spring in her step and I was able to appreciate her grace; in her sari tightly tucked in and the native figures of ancient India, seemed to come alive in her.

We came upon the first pothole and the Gardner and his assistant quickly pulled it up; and the assistant quickly climbed down the steel steps, down into the large dark tank, and flashed his flashlight all around to show its dimensions.   Satisfied we moved on to the other tanks and the Gardner explained the flow of the underground water pipes and the tanks, and how it all worked together.

He was especially proud of the septic tanks as ever since their installation, no waste had escaped from the compound for two years. Everything was so much cleaner and the old public gardens built across the road in the back; were prospering and already yielding fruits from the many orchards, growing there under the gardening team’s keep.

He was a proud man and would have continued on for a long time; but Sita cut him off with a curt “Thanks and off with you” kind of remark and the two of them trotted off, and left me alone with her as she sat on a bench admiring the orchards, spread out before her. “Times were not like this in the old days, and I agree with you Mr. Kapoor; that now having seen this…, your Mr. Ranade had done good work here. I can’t believe that I can say this about a Ranade, after so many years.” She suddenly clenched her right hand in her left hand as if to stifle an old pain that had suddenly come alive again.

“Yes I never realized what I was getting into when I mentioned Ajanta and Ellora for a desired visit. It has been a true eye opener for me in many ways.” I replied to her. “Tell me about the old days.” I said trying to distract her from her pain.

“Oh I remember being a butterfly and flying in the cotton fields growing up around here.” She looked at the horizon as she spoke, “My family was all there and we were all so happy. We would work all day and then enjoy the festivals and the dances of the seasons. But then this terrible accident happened,” she grimaced at her hand, “and my life changed completely after that. I will never forget that fateful day and the name of the mill, where I almost lost my arm and life.”

“It was a terrible time for me; and if I had not started studying, I do not know what would have happened to all of us. Now my parents live in my government bungalow and lord it over my domestic staff; as if it was their birthright, forgetting the times we went through before. I had forgotten all of this till your friend Mr. Ranade’s file came up. I had even forgotten my butterfly dream and it came back last night.”

As she continued to look at the horizon; I saw the harsh official look disappear from her face, and a young hopeful expression appeared as she mused “I was floating in my dream just like I used to do as a young girl. I went from the male flower and took it and went visiting the female flowers with it. I sampled the honey and flitted from flower to flower in my carefree flight. Thanks to you, the dream has woken up again and I am able to sleep at night.”

I could not say anything to her and just sat there nodding and looking at her strength and determination. I was overcome by the softness that had crept into her voice, as she seemed to remember a life when she was truly happy. She suddenly looked at her wrist watch and said it was time to go. I reached out automatically to shake her hand to say good bye. She stood perplexed for a minute and then she reached out with her claw, and thrust it into my palm and squeezed with her thumb and pinky.

“Oh you modern Americans are such romantics; and do not understand the weight of the ancient cultures, that we live with every day. Have a good journey back and tell your friend that everything will be all right now; with this case. I plan to close it finally once and for all, with some appropriate fines for past negligence. Tell Mr. Aggarwal to come to my office with copies of the plans and to help complete the paperwork, with proper affidavits”

I stood looking into her eyes while my thumb unconsciously soothed the scar skin on her hand, “I hope you have forgiven my friend and his family, then?”

She looked straight at me and said, “There is much about this country that you still have to understand my friend.” She gave a last squeeze and was off in her sari and brisk walk. “It has taken me a long time to understand; what forgiveness and hope truly means. I suggest that you give up your silly romantic notions, and learn about life from all that you have seen here. There is much work still to be done to restore all the wrongs, besides the ancient paintings and statues.”

That week end I was all packed and we did a final round to pick up some mementos of my trip. We headed into the old part of town and I found some unique handicraft shops, and was delighted with my finds. As we turned back the driver took a different route. He said that as the main road had an accident he would try and cut through the Mill grounds.

I had never realized that all along the side of the bazar was a tall wall, which ran down the length of it. The driver pulled into a small lane in the middle of it, and came upon a large green painted metal door and honked. A smaller door was opened and a watchman peeked out. Recognizing the car he pulled aside the large steel doors, and saluted as he let us in.

We drove through the mill, with all its workers and goods looking very busy; and at last emerged on the other side. This was the truck entrance to the main road and away from all the traffic tie ups. The driver was very satisfied; as he had fooled all the other traffic, and soon had us home in time for drinks before dinner. Even Mr. Aggarwal arrived and was served his usual tea and fried savories and snacks.

“I have prepared all the official papers to be presented at the office later this week,” He assured me. “Please tell Mr. Ranade that everything will be taken care of promptly as requested to close the case. It has been a pleasure working with you Mr. Kapoor and I wish you a pleasant journey back and hopefully we will meet again someday.”

  He handed me some important looking papers from the files he had brought with him. “Please deliver these to Mr. Ranade personally as they are important that he review them and get back to me. They are not related to this case, but other important matters that have I have been working on for him.”

I drove back to the airport via the highway and from the overpass, and turned around and took a last look at the town. There under the bridge I saw the long mill for the last time and the sign read Ranade Cotton and Ginning Mill. The connection to Sita Devis ‘s phantom pain and the Ranade name finally clicked in my mind. Suddenly in my confused and troubled mind; things I had not understood before, started to fall in place. I silently reviewed the events of the past few days, and felt a deep pain at all that I had not seen, even though it was right before my eyes.

Later on the plane I fell into a deep exhausted slumber and saw the dream for the first time. I am a butterfly flitting across a cotton field. I am going from the male flowers to the female flowers, sipping the nectar of the gods. Then as I fly, I see Sita looking lovelier as a butterfly, on the nearby row. As she reaches out to the male flower, I can see that she has all her fingers intact again. As I follow her flight; it seems that at her loving touch, the stems of cotton rejoice, causing them to bloom again.

 She is the beautiful goddess of life and nature, and I am so happy and full of hope, in just being with her in this life we cherish. True Nirvana is suddenly a butterfly; fluttering over a flowering cotton field. The ancient paintings and statues come alive and the apsara is no longer in the fables or ancient rock walls; but here with me now, and I find finally the sleep of awareness, and am free.

Entitlement vs Empathetic


According to today’s N Y Times “President Obama welcomed the Dalai Lama to the White House on Friday morning, provoking a sharp rebuke from the Chinese government, which warned that the meeting would severely damage relations between Washington and Beijing.”
I will never understand the Chinese hatred for a man who has always shown compassion and empathy to those around him. They may hate organized religion in a communist state, but the Dalai Lama has not aspired to head a religious state in China or anywhere else.He was born into his cosmic role and since a young age has been trained to spread the word of the Buddha and his eight fold path.
There is a far greater cause for misunderstanding between the self-made man who heads the vast entitlements and forces of a great nation, and the childhood priest who has his robe and little else. There is a far greater inequality here between the ruler and the learned man, both peace prize winners, but of different pursuits. The inequalities that Obama spoke about have grown not reduced and despite the best efforts; there is less compassion and empathy, for the pain and suffering of others. The path that the Dalai Lama speaks about is one of detachment, renunciation and  nirvana.
According to a study carried out at Berkley in a rigged game of monopoly, the winners exhibited signs of posture changing to becoming excited and showing signs of victory, eating more and later claiming their wisdom had helped them win a clearly rigged game. They were trying to answer the question “Does money make you mean?” and answered affirmatively. It raises one’s self interest and sense of entitlement.
In other studies they have shown time and again that when inequality goes down; we have greater social mobility, better economic growth, a more engaged community life leading to increases in social harmony allowing innovation to flourish, and even reduced cases of obesity and drug abuse.
From the meeting of these two great leaders we do not expect world changing announcements, but how I wish we did. If they can resolve their extreme positions and come to a harmonious meeting of the minds, then I guess we all have a lot of hope for the future of mankind. How do we make the self-interested and the entitled to change and part with their wealth for a more equal society? Obama who is the most powerful man in the world is a prisoner to his own state has great external power. Dalai Lama on the other hand is free from the karma of lifetimes and shows the old new way and has great internal power. How does a stateless man state, that compassion and empathy for all living creatures is our prime dharma, while the most powerful man agrees with him that it is also the right thing to do. I guess we are all Pharsiees now and the death of grace is upon us!

Adoptive Optics

The man I would consider the father of lasers was explaining the other day the uses of his discoveries and inventions. The gentleman holds many of the key patents in the field and is world renown for his knowledge in the field of light and lasers. His explanation of adoptive optics was fascinating as without it we would not be able to explore into the deepest reaches of space using the largest telescope or at the smallest of particles using magnifying equipment.
Wikipedia says “When lasers were invented in 1960, they were called “a solution looking for a problem”.[32] Since then, they have become ubiquitous, finding utility in thousands of highly varied applications in every section of modern society, including consumer electronics, information technology, science, medicine, industry, law enforcement, entertainment, and the military.
The first use of lasers in the daily lives of the general population was the supermarket barcode scanner, introduced in 1974. The laserdisc player, introduced in 1978, was the first successful consumer product to include a laser but the compact disc player was the first laser-equipped device to become common, beginning in 1982 followed shortly by laser printers.
Some other uses are:
• Medicine: Bloodless surgery, laser healing, surgical treatment, kidney stone treatment, eye treatment, dentistry
• Industry: Cutting, welding, material heat treatment, marking parts, non-contact measurement of parts
• Military: Marking targets, guiding munitions, missile defence, electro-optical countermeasures (EOCM), alternative to radar, blinding troops.
• Law enforcement: used for latent fingerprint detection in the forensic identification field[33][34]
• Research: Spectroscopy, laser ablation, laser annealing, laser scattering, laser interferometry, LIDAR, laser capture microdissection, fluorescence microscopy
• Product development/commercial: laser printers, optical discs (e.g. CDs and the like), barcode scanners, thermometers, laser pointers, holograms, bubblegrams.
• Laser lighting displays: Laser light shows
• Cosmetic skin treatments: acne treatment, cellulite and striae reduction, and hair removal.
In 2004, excluding diode lasers, approximately 131,000 lasers were sold with a value of US$2.19 billion.[35] In the same year, approximately 733 million diode lasers, valued at $3.20 billion, were sold.[36]”

He went on to explain that at the birth of the twenty first century at the begining of its first new millinieum, the U S military funded a major project on lasers. In the year 2000 Sep, the US finally demonstrated the power of the new laser system that could destroy a newly fired rocket in a matter of seconds. If you are not traveling at Mack 3,000 or higher this death ray will catch you. To hear it being described we can now deliver death itself, at the speed of light, with unerring accuracy against a remote flying object.
So now with the one and a half billion dollar weapon under our belts; we can go into another arms race where the new USAFL 747 adaption will be the new ruler in the skies. It has been built with the latest technology and engineering, featuring a heavy duty titanium nose to house the laser generator. Ladies and gentlemen please do not hold your nreath as I make this statement that, we will be able to deliver death sixty miles away at the speed of light.
We can forget about the glorious dog fights of the spit fires against the Nazi jets or US squadrons against the Jap zeros. Now war is anonymous and long distant and instantaneously destructive and any romantic notions that we humans have about war; should be forthwith discarded. as outdated and even humorous.
Not to be left behind the navy will equip ships all across the world; with the technology and the army is not far behind, and tanks will roll out with the latest weapons. We are on a roll and nothing will stop us now; from keeping our position as the shining light on the hill. From the darkness we will deliver light, whether you want it or not.
May the rest of the millinieum allow saner heads to prevail; and we can start to use the power of these inventions, for the greater good of mankind. We should not despair; and have faith in our basic human spirit, which will always strive to rise to a higher level.The next one and a half billion should be spent, to make the world a healthier and safer place using lazers!

Selective righteousness is morally corrupt!

A recent report by the US Chamber of Commerce ranked India at the bottom of 25 countries in protection of IPR (Intellectual property rights). Senator Orrin Hatch a highly respected US senator has accused India of allowing “rampant piracy and counterfeiting” for the benefit of its own industries. The largest democracy is a bastion of free trade; where free literally means that one does not pay for something; till one can get away with it, until one is caught with the hands in the cookie jar. At that time one raises a hue and cry “I would very honestly describe it as scare-mongering tactics and, frankly, I don’t think it’s helpful,” Ambassador to the US S. Jaishankar said this week.
These short sighted policies are at sharp contrast with what have been the most successful companies; like the Indian IT and Telecom majors, who have made more billionaires in India and who live and die protecting the IPR of their vendors and customers. We have much to learn from the principle that we get what we pay for. The same drug or device or procedure for healthcare in India costs far less than the one in the US as the US consumers are paying heavily for the research and development of safe and proven efficacy of drugs for the world. To enjoy the benefits of the system one has to work with the system and not outside it. US consumers often pay over hundred dollars a dose in the US for what in India costs cents. That just makes the US consumer seem an idiot in the Indian’s eyes; and the larger ramifications of the systems remain tied down in a cultural divide, that will be impossible to bridge.
The problem is getting more acute for intellectual property like movies, music, books as rampant piracy over the internet are seriously eroding the rights of the owners of the copyrights and patents to protect themselves. I can easily buy the latest pirated movie, book or music at a fraction of the cost from any sidewalk in the big cities of India; often right around the corner, from the genuine business that is struggling to survive. If I were to file a case in India for protection of my intellectual property; maybe my grandchildren will be able to get to a final settlement, given the current court system case loads and arcane laws, which need to be enforced in the country. I do not mean to pick on India and use it only as an example, as the same violations are equally true for China and many other countries.
The response from policy makers should have been to enforce laws and speed up the reforms that are so severely needed in a modern and open world. If we do not respect the rights of others, then who will respect our own rights? If we do not pay for what we consume, then who will produce it? If we do not invest in enforcing the laws, then what is the point of having them on the books? If we cannot change our mindset, then why blame others for being rigid? If we want to leave more for our children, then do we have to steal from other’s children? If we cannot enforce our own quality, then why do we mock others shoddy products? The questions are endless and the answers are simple.
Do the right thing and enforce the systems that are needed; and get rid of the ones, that are slowing progress. Selective righteousness is morally corrupt. According to Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author”. We need to incentivize human endeavor for the progress of all mankind and international trade will flourish. It has been shown that countries that protect intellectual property have citizens and corporations who are more progressive and aid in the development of all the people, economically and socially. Innovation and intellectual development will flourish if the creator of a new invention can benefit from the protection of his\her rights. Human intellect is the highest achievement of our species and the more we can do to promote the fruits of such endeavors, the better we all will be.