The Children of Zeus


Apollo, son of Zeus and one of the major Olympian deities, is the God of voyages.

The Apollo space program got its name from the image of Apollo riding his chariot across the sun.

It was the sheer audacity of President Kennedy’s speech in September 1962 which launched the Apollo program. A speech in which he declared, “We choose to go to the moon, 240,000 miles away using  a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out–then we must be bold.” 

A speech that was made based on US’s first manned space flight a year earlier (Alan Shephard, May 1961). A speech that shifted the goal post from near-earth space fights to a manned flight to the moon within the decade.

It was July 20th 1969 and humanity had come together as one. The Apollo Space program had succeeded in placing Man on the moon. Humanity had finally left its cradle. As a school kid, I accompanied my father to the US Information Services (USIS) center near Mandi House in Delhi. A crowd that milled around was gaping at a full size model of the Lunar Module which had successfully landed on the moon, allowing astronaut Neil Armstrong to step onto the lunar surface and utter those famous words, “ That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for Mankind”. These words, successfully relayed over radio stations all around the world, were uniting Mankind like never before. As a child, I could sense that from the manner strangers were excitedly speaking to each other as they pointed to features of the lunar craft named Eagle. Going to school over the next few days, I recall the exhilarating discussions of my classmates vying with each other about how many newspaper cuttings of the momentous event and the grainy photos they had managed to cut out and paste into their scrapbooks.

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The other day, I did a day excursion to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. For me the trip was a pilgrimage, growing up as I had in the sixties and seventies. When Space travel and Moon landings were what our dreams were made of. When our imaginations were fuelled by the stories of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein.

As I stood looking at the full-scale exhibit of the Saturn V Rocket that had powered the Apollo missions as well as the replica of the spacecraft that had successfully carried astronauts to the moon and back more than half a century ago, deep emotions stirred within me.

In the sixties when computing, communication and control systems were so rudimentary, I realised the awesomeness of the belief and effort that not only used brute rocket force to hurtle a spacecraft with astronauts beyond earth’s gravity, it could also deploy fine navigational controls to land the lunar module onto the moon surface and then lift off with the astronauts to dock with the orbiting command module before bringing them back to earth. It was the sheer cowboy-like bravado and risk of a journey into the unknown that had brought up the emotions.

NASA Command & Control center for the Apollo missions

” The Eagle has landed!”

Which brings me to the story of Artemis. In mythology, Artemis, the Goddess of the Moon and daughter of Zeus, is the twin sister of Apollo.

An apt name for Humanity’s next phase of exploring the unknown depths of space. Artemis is all about NASA’s vision to return to the moon after half a century. Artemis would deploy the cutting-edge technological advancements in computing, communications, robotics and materials of this century to not only put men and women on the moon but take them on manned flights to Mars and beyond. The Artemis vision incorporates sustainability, international cooperation and involvement of a plethora of private sub-contractors for developing innovative mission equipment and processes.

The following is an extract from the US Presidential Memorandum on reinvigorating America’s Human Space Exploration program:

“Lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities. Beginning with missions beyond low-Earth orbit, the United States will lead the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations.”

The Artemis initiative envisages the use of a powerful Space Launch System, the Orion spacecraft, a lunar space station similar to the International Space Station called the Gateway circling the moon, reusable human landing systems onto the lunar surface as well as a lunar basecamp. An initiative designed to leverage experience, technologies and mindset from Man’s return to the moon in 2024, to eventually make the quantum leap to Mars and beyond.

In the words of NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, “Pushing the boundaries of space exploration, science, and technology once again, America is on the verge of exploring more of the Moon than ever before. This new era of lunar exploration is called Artemis. Named after the twin sister of Apollo, she is the Goddess of the Moon, and we are the Artemis Generation.”

Could it be that Man’s destiny to the stars remains inexorably linked to the son and daughter of Zeus?

In Learning……..                                   Shakti Ghosal

Acknowledgment: ‘The ARTEMIS Plan – NASA’s lunar exploration program overview’, Sept. 2020

My flight over Greenland


In mythology, Niflheim was a land of primordial ice and cold, with  Élivágar and Hvergelmir, the frozen rivers from which arose all other rivers of the world.

According to legends, Niflheim was the primordial region that was born out of two realms. The Ginnungagap, the home of ice and the Muspelheim, the home of fire. Between these two realms of cold and heat, the world got created as ice mixed with fire. Niflheim became the abode of Hel, the goddess daughter of Loki (remember the estranged brother of Thor from the Avengers!), and her subjects.

As my flight cruised over Greenland, I watched the morning rays streaming, glistening and bouncing off the frozen land. A quote of  Albert Schweitzer came to mind.

 “As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate.”

But is the melting ice really improving understanding and trust in the world I mused.

From my aircraft window, I could spot the rivers formed by the melting Greenland Ice Sheet.  

Greenland’s glaciers, in existence for millions of years, have now suddenly begun to rapidly retreat and thin. Scientists have concluded that the Greenland ice sheet is in the throes of irreversible ice loss. Paleoclimatic evidence indicates that even a mere 2 °C of global warming could endanger the Greenland glaciers leading to a sea-level rise of six meters. Large swathes of inhabited coasts and islands in the United States, Europe as well as densely populated regions of Bangla Desh and India would go underwater.

My thoughts about Greenland, its melting glaciers and the impact on Humanity were interrupted by the flight steward politely asking me about my choice of breakfast. Looking up at him and then around me, I seemed to be in a cocoon far removed from the impact of global warming playing out below. But were I and my co travellers really in a cocoon or were we shutting our minds to the inevitable? I was left wondering.

In musing……..                                   

Shakti Ghosal

A Rajput fort and its Mughal architecture


Amer Fort

The first view of Amer fort is breathtaking. As the car reaches a lake on the left, two forts built at different levels on the Aravalli Mountain range can be seen on the other side. They are crag forts with the walls following the rocky contours of the range. Our guide meets us there and we commence our visit of the fort and all that it holds.

We are told that the Amer fort was really a palace and the fort structure above it was really the fort for protection of the palace below. The Jaigarh fort is connected through subterranean passages with the palace which could be used by the inhabitants of the latter including the royal family to move to the safety of the fortifications, should the need arise due to an enemy attack.  How many times did the Rajas of the Amer palace have to do this, I wonder?

As we enter Amer fort through the Suraj Pol or the sun gate, my mind’s eye can see the vision of Raja Man Singh on horseback entering with his army after his victory over the Raja of Jessore in the faraway lands of Bengal. It is said that after his defeat, the Raja of Jessore gifted a black stone slab. The slab carried the legend of king Kansa killing Lord Krishna’s newly born elder siblings on it. On his return, Man Singh ordered that the stone be used to carve out the image of Durga, the slayer of the demon king Mahishasur, and installed in the fort’s temple.

Getting into the inside courtyards, one sees the huge influence of Mughal architecture with the Diwan-e-Am, the Diwan-e- Khas, the Sheesh Mahal and the Moghul Garden waiting to be explored.  As I stand there, looking around me at the private quarters of the twelve queens of Raja Man Singh, do I hear the eager footsteps of the favoured queen on the staircase going up to meet her Raja?  

An encounter with the witnessing tree


The Witnessing tree…..

I saw this tree standing forlornly in one corner of the Red fort complex in Delhi a couple of days back.

I asked, ‘ So, what have you been witness to?’

The tree replied, ‘ I was born to witness the stars above Shahjahanabad.

Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Audience) at the Red Fort in New Delhi, India.

But what I witnessed was the ebb and flow of the history of this land.

Of the ebbing of the Mughals as the blinded emperor Shah Alam II sat forlornly in his ravaged palace……

Of the ebbing of the Marathas after the defeat in the third battle of Panipat…..

The third battle of Panipat…..

Of the ebbing of the Jats in the late eighteenth-century……

Of the ebbing of the British empire with their departure from India in the twentieth century……

Indian Flag on the ramparts of Red Fort….

And with each such ebb, the plunder of this fort’s riches and the conscience of Man.’

The mystery of the Rupnarayan river


The name ‘Narayan’ literally means the Eternal Man. The name is derived from the Sanskrit words, nara, meaning “man” and ayana, meaning “resting place.” Narayan is the name of a Vedic deity who is also believed to be the supreme Hindu God, Vishnu.

Thus ‘Rupnarayan’ might be taken to imply ‘the beauty of Man in his eternity’.

The river Rupnarayan, emerging as it does in the Chota Nagpur foothills, twists and turns like a snake towards the South East till it unites with the mighty Hooghly.

The Chota Nagpur continental plateau in Eastern India is all of 65,000 square kilometres and spreads through the  states of Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha and Chattisgarh.

The Rupnarayan’s place of origin in Chota Nagpur holds another mystery. This is the remains of an ancient civilisation replete with its collection of artifacts consisting of copper and bronze vessels, ornaments and magical figures of men and animals.  A civilisation that is believed to be  contemporary to Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Indus valley.

As their waters mix, the Hooghly and the Rupnarayan would surely be murmuring to each other of the Rise and the follies of Man through the ages.

We spent a couple of days at Rupasi Rupnarayan Kuthir  resort on the banks of the Rupnarayan near Kolaghat….

The eternal delicacy of Bengal ‘Bhappa Illish’. From fresh Hilsa caught in the Rupnarayan
‘Kochhi Patar Jhol’ Mutton curry

#shaktighosal

A River that separates two nations


Ichamati River, a distributary of the mighty Padma flows quietly, separating as it does the land masses of India and Bangladesh at places.

The town of Taki is one such place.

 I sat looking at the serenity of the Ichamati waters from my hotel room in Sonar Bangla.  As the tide ebbed, the river bed peeped above the water. As if separating the water itself between the banks of the two countries. The sad  impact of the river bed silting is so visible. Decades of uncontrolled construction, encroachment and forcible occupation of the land have contributed to this.

But Icchamati continues to mesmerize the visitor.

I am told the Durga Pujo immersion ceremony on the Ichamati is a unique spectacle with boats full of folks of both the countries immersing their respective Durga Protimas.

In the words of the famous Bengali writer Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay

‘The ashes of so many burnt bodies have been carried by the river to the blue ocean over millennia. The man who expected so much return from his plantain trees on the southern side of that green, and at the bend of the river put bamboo traps to catch fish, is lying today on the bank of the Ichamati – only his white bones remain, bleached by sunrays.

…….… one listens to the music of eternity when one spots the old flowers or smells the pungent fragrance of herbal plants in Autumn. Some can visualise and dream the unlimitable unknown eternity in the image of the Ichamati river during the turbulent rainy season.’

http://www.shaktighosal.com

World’s largest Shiva Linga…..


“You may call me Elokeshi”, said the woman with the black tresses and the mysterious smiling eyes. “Yes, we have met, in a way. During the festival of Maha Shivaratri last year, I had seen you accompanying Boudi when she had gone to offer milk to the Shiva linga. You held her when she climbed up”.

Dipen remembered the festival though could not recall seeing Elokeshi.

The Rakta Kamaleshwar and Krishna Chandreswar Shiva temples had been built by Raja JayaNarayan Ghoshal, nephew of Gokul Ghoshal, almost a hundred and fifty years earlier. The twin temples housed the world’s two largest Shiva Linga because of which the estate came to be known as Bhukailash, in deference to Lord Shiva’s heavenly abode Kailash.

Rakta Kamaleshwar and Krishna Chandreswar feature in the story Pandemic, a part of my forthcoming book, ‘The Chronicler of the Hooghly and other stories ’. Should you wish to receive exclusive previews and the chance of winning a free copy of the book, do write to me @ author.esgee@gmail.com

Nizwa Fort


Savio gestured onto the countryside, “Did you know that till a century back, the Sultan’s writ ran only in and around Muscat? The hinterland was really under the control of the Imam and his capital was Nizwa”.

“Would you believe me if I were to say that this fort and its design is based on deception? Right from its turrets, secret shafts, false doors to camouflaged wells. There are hidden wooden doors with metal spikes as also murder holes and shafts above each of the real doors through which boiling oil or date syrup could be poured on intruders. There were pitfalls in dark passageways as also removable wooden stairs with deep gaping holes to put an end to those unfortunate enough to fall into them”.

Savio stopped for a moment and glanced sideways at Anjan.

Nizwa Fort, built in the 1650s, features in the story, ‘Fault Lines’, part of my forthcoming book ‘The Chronicler of the Hooghly and other stories’. Should you wish to receive exclusive previews and the chance of winning a free copy of the book, do write to me @ author.esgee@gmail.com

Nizwa Fort, Oman
Nizwa Fort inside
Nizwa Fort library room
Nizwa Fort plan

Fort William Calcutta


Did you know that there were two Fort Williams?

 The original fort was built in the year 1696 by the British East India Company under the orders of Sir John Goldsborough which took a decade to complete. The permission was granted by Mughal Emperor AurangzebSir Charles Eyre started construction near the bank of the Hooghly River with the South-East Bastion and the adjacent walls. It was named after King William III in 1700. 

The original building had two stories and projecting wings. In 1756, the Nawab of BengalSiraj Ud Daulah, attacked the Fort and temporarily conquered the city. This led the British to build a new and a more defensive Fort in the Maidan. based on Robert Clive’s directive. The new Fort William was built with open spaces on all sides to allow 360 degree visibility of any approaching enemy.

Fort William features in the story ‘The Chronicler of the Hooghly’ part of my forthcoming book of the same name. Should you wish to receive exclusive previews and free copy of the book, do write to me @ author.esgee@gmail.com

The Chronicler of Hoogly


We booked the sunset cruise on the Hoogly recently. With winter on its way, the sun was setting early leaving behind a long balmy evening. Good time to observe the river and the city as it transitioned from day into the night.

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Boarding the boat from the Millennium Park jetty, we soon chugged out in the company of other sight-seekers like us. The itinerary was to cruise up the Hoogly to Belur Math, the much revered global headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission founded by Swami Vivekananda. We were scheduled to reach in time for the evening Aarati before we returned. Travelling with us was a Study tour group from Germany.

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As I sat on the deck, I was engulfed by a kaleidoscope of sights………….

 Of the looming floating bridge of Howrah, still considered a cantilever feat of engineering seventy-five years after it was built. Of decrepit ghats and jetties. Of derelict and abandoned warehouses, shanties and slums. Of colonial architectures separated by grimy and slushy by lanes. Of how Man’s creativity and resolve has sunk under the grime of his daily struggle and existence………….

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Of temples and riverside religious rituals coexisting with stinking garbage and defecation grounds. Of the riverside walled up   along long stretches as if to hide its shame from the very people who have sullied it thus. Of how Spirituality jostles with poverty…….

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My thoughts and emotions get stopped by a flurry of activity on the deck. Probably sensing the approaching sunset, the service staff had got busy offering beverages and ‘muri and aloor chop’ snacks while the German tourists were busy with their telephoto lenses and cameras. I look at the setting sun, the morphing shades of the flowing waters and could not but marvel at how nature yet manages to shine its beauty on an environment gone increasingly awry…………

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With the falling dusk, I notice a lone figure sitting at the rear side of the deck. Somewhat taken aback for not having noticed this person earlier, I walk across and introduce myself. “You may call me the Chronicler”, he tells me. Intrigued I plonk into a deck chair beside him. “Would you like to hear a tale about all that we are witness to today?”, comes the soft voice. Even before I can respond, the voice continues.

“Great metropolises, they say, grow out of a river. London…. Paris….. Rome…… Moscow…….. Cairo….. Istanbul. In each of these cases, the mighty rivers that flowed, the Thames, the Siene, the Tiber, the Moskva, the Nile and the Bosphorus, provided sustenance and remain the heart and soul of the cities….”

“And so was the symbiotic relationship between Hoogly and what we know as Kolkata. While today we are wont to see the river as some kind of an appendage to the city, what if I told you that it is really the other way around? That Kolkata is really an offshoot of all that the Hoogly has been witness to over the centuries.”

“When we started our cruise, we saw Fairlie Place and its jetty to the right with the Strand running beside it. So what would you say are its important landmarks?”, the Chronicler asks.

“Well I suppose it is the Customs House and the Eastern Railway headquarters. Apart from a few more important office blocks”, I respond.

“But what if I told you that about three hundred years back most of that place including what we know as Dalhousie Square was a large water body called Lal Dighi ? This was the time when the British East India Company was busy consolidating its position and Fort William stood on the banks of Hoogly. That is when the attack happened”

“Attack!”, I exclaim, “By whom and why?”

“The then Nawab of Bengal Siraj-Ud-Daulah attacked, captured Fort William and incarcerated British prisoners in a dungeon which came to be known as the Black Hole of Calcutta. An incident which directly led to the battle of Plassey and the subsequent two hundred years British Rule of the subcontinent.”

“Hang on!”, I interject. “Is not Fort William more in the hinterland, near the Maidan?”

“Indeed”, the Chronicler continues, “but what is less known is that there were two Fort Williams. The present one near Maidan was built by Robert Clive after the attack on the first one.”

“The battle of Plassey, which was to change the history and the shape of things to come for ever for the subcontinent, was also fought on the banks of Hoogly but to the north of where we are. But that is another story.”

“The Fairlie Ghat holds another interesting tale”, the Chronicler continues.” In the mid nineteenth century, Prince Dwarkanath Tagore, while travelling on a train in England, got the brain wave of setting up a rail link to carry coal from his Raniganj colliery to the Calcutta port at Fairlie. On return he invested into setting up the ‘The Great Western Bengal Railway Company’. Unfortunately, his proposal got turned down by the British East India Company bosses on the grounds that ‘it would not be possible to allow a company using such strategic technology under native management….’ His efforts and thoughts however did push the British to set up rail services though the East India Railway Company with its Headquarters at Fairlie Place.”

“Hmm! That name Dwarkanath Tagore sounds familiar. Was he in some way related to Rabindranath Tagore?” I muse.

“Indeed he was!”, the Chronicler quips back, “He was in fact the grandfather of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, that venerable Bard of Bengal and the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature more than a century back”.

“The Hoogly ghats then were a far cry from the crumbling cesspools that we are seeing today. With magnificent facades and European classical architectures, the ghats were witness to impressive steam ships and tall masted  boats sailing out to faraway places in England, Australia and New Zealand as also upstream to ports on the Ganga.”, the Chronicler continues.

“Did you know that there were thriving French, Dutch and Armenian settlements on the Hoogly in the early years of colonisation?” I am asked.

Well I had read about the French settlement and I say so.

“Fascinating is it not that events and rivalries five thousand miles away in Europe would show up in the waxing and waning of the Hoogly ghats! And so it was that as the British colonialism went into ascendancy after winning the Napoleonic Wars in early nineteenth century, the settlements of other nationalities on the Hoogly faded into oblivion.”

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“Which brings us to the Shova bazaar Ghat and its fascinating history. The Ghat and the Shova Bazaar Rajbari ( Palace), was built with great pomp and grandeur by Raja ( King) Nabakrishna Deb.The latter famed for organizing the Shovabazaar Rajbari Durga Pujo about two hundred and  fifty years ago ( which continues till today!). What is seldom spoken of is that all of the Raja’s wealth came from the huge bribe money of Rupees eighty million paid to him, Mir Jaffar and a couple of others by the British administration for betraying Nawab Siraj–ud-Daulah on the battlefield of Plassey. A betrayal which led to a small British force of 3000 soldiers winning a decisive victory over a twenty times larger opponent. A betrayal which led to the British becoming the dominant colonial power in the subcontinent for over two centuries. Is it not ironic that one of the greatest betrayals in Indian history is so inexorably linked to one of the biggest religious festivals in the country?”

So engrossed had I become in listening to the Chronicler’s tales that I had scarcely noticed the darkness enveloping the Hoogly and the boat engine slowing down.

My companion on the deck points to a brightly lit temple and ghat complex to the right. “That is the Dhakshineswar Kali temple built in the mid nineteenth century by Rani (Queen) Rashmoni based on a dream in which Goddess Kali exhorted her, ‘There is no need to go to Banaras. Install my statue in a beautiful temple on the banks of the Ganges river and arrange for my worship there. Then I shall manifest myself in the image and accept worship at that place.’ The temple attained fame because of Ramakrishna Paramhansa, the famous mystic and the spiritual guru of Swami Vivekanand.”

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The boat docks on the Belur Math Ghat. I notice the Chronicler making no attempt to get up even as other guests disembark and start walking up the Ghat steps. The tour supervisor advises us on the way to reach the temple premises for the evening Aarati. As we hurry, some of the German tourists stop to look at souvenirs in the roadside shops.The Belur Math design incorporates the different Medieval, Gothic, Renaissance as well as Hindu and Islamic styles that Swami Vivekanand had observed during his travels in India and abroad.

I return back to our moored boat with the intoxicating chants of the Aarati still resonating in my ears. As the boat starts on its return journey downstream, I look around for the Chronicler but he is nowhere to be seen. Dinner is announced and we go down to the dining room in the lower deck. The fascinating vision of the Hoogly  created by the Chronicler’s tales in sharp contrast to the hugely run-down and depressing sights I had been witness to, continues to wrestle in my mind.

What is it that has made the Hoogly hold onto its rusting warehouses, its hideous shanties and walls which no longer serve any purpose? What is it that has made Kolkata turn its back on the river that brought it into existence? What is that which leads us to abuse and neglect that very water that we consider holy and religious? What is that in our societal psyche that fuels such dichotomy?

As we reach back and walk off our cruise, these questions continue to haunt…..

 

……… In Learning.

Shakti Ghosal

 

 

 

 

 

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