Anecdotes of Europe #2: How karma travelled from Venice to Prague

You may remember Vishal from my last Europe anecdote, the guy I had travelled to a few countries with. In the same weekend that we visited Rome, we also visited Venice for a day. (We also toured Pisa and the Vatican City that weekend. Yeah, hell of a trip.)

So as we arrived in Venice on the train over a bridge through the seas, I went completely and helplessly monkey over seeing nothing but water outside the train window. It was surreal.

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However, as we got off at the station, I started getting a little impatient because I didn’t get the ‘Venice’-y feel from the place that I supposed should have struck me the moment I landed (I had gathered these preconceptions from reading books such as The Thief Lord, with its vivid and evocative sketches of the city). The station we had arrived at (Santa Lucia), looked ordinary and forgettable. I was starting to expect just such an ordinary city outside the station, and was feeling somehow tricked. Vishal went into a queue to ask some questions at a Trenitalia booth about his return Deutsche Bahn ticket. So I decided to take a quick look outside the station. I went out of the doors and bumped right into this:

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Canal, bridge, boat, Venice. The whole deal.

A voice inside me exploded: ‘Ohmygod, this is Venice!’

I scamper into the station and announce excitedly to Vishal something to the end of ‘Ohmygod this is Venice! Canal, bridge, everything, it’s just like Venice! Ohmygod!’

We went back outside after a while. I had already planned a detailed itinerary. We would take the vaporetto (the waterbus or big passenger-carrying boats) that started from right in front of the station and travelled the length of the canal weaving through the whole of Venice. We would get off at the Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), look at all the spots there (there are quite a few), take the boat again to the Lido beach, come back by evening to the Piazza again, and take a walk at night through Venice’s famous narrow, Kolkata-esque winding alleys back to the station in time for our train. The problem was that this was the early part of our stay abroad, so we were still hesitant at all occasions of parting with our Euros, which in quick mental calculations always turned out to be really expensive in rupees. We had therefore gone into some deliberation over managing our primary expense, the vaporetto ticket fare. € 6-7 each is good for tickets that last an hour, so that should get us to the Piazza. But we again needed the waterbus to get from there to Lido later, and back to the Piazza in the evening. We were not sure of spending so much for the tickets in one day and were confused as to whether there could be a better way, with the longer duration or group tickets, but nothing was working out to our advantage. Anyway, we were not sure of anything, and at this time we were just looking around, really excited and all, posing for photos in the open space that you see in that picture, when the first part of the karma story happened.

All of a sudden a young couple came up to us. They looked Indian. They came up and asked us, ‘Are you Indian?’ I felt a little irked at this. I never liked making a big deal out of my nationality while I was abroad, or going and deliberately meeting other Indian people. Anyway, we said yes.

Then they held up two cards and said, ‘These are magnetic tickets for the vaporetto. We bought them, but we have to go somewhere else now, so we have to leave quickly. We cannot use these any more. These are 12-hour cards valid until 9.30 at night. You guys want them?’

Something smelt fishy to me. I am always immediately suspicious of such things, especially in this case because they had searched us out. So I was pretty disinclined at this, and asked them to clarify what they were saying. They repeated the explanation, and said they had been looking for some Indians to give this to, and had found us. They seemed to be in a lot of hurry to get out of there.

Finally I asked, ‘How much do you need for them?’ And they said, ‘Oh, no no no! You don’t have to pay anything. Just take them.’

We were like, whoa!

We accepted the tickets and thanked them furiously as they left. Then we walked to the vaporetti platform. There was a magnetic reader where you could stick your ticket to check it. It confirmed that both the tickets were valid till late evening. We grinned like maniacs at each other. What were the chances that exactly two people, Indians, would find themselves in excess of the exact tickets we needed, at the exact time we arrived, and found us to give them to us, for free? I remember that I went really hypocritical on myself at that time and started feeling really happy about the whole thing, not so much for the money, but for the happenstance of events, and the gesture of the couple, that they found us out because we were Indians, that we Indians do such things. I didn’t know then that this momentary gladness would embed itself in me for a long time.

I checked later that they had saved us near about a total of € 36.

Anyway, we travelled along the canal to the Piazza and saw all the places we wanted to visit, we went to the Lido beach where I had a nice dip and some really nice Italian pizza, came back to the Piazza, all with the same tickets, and had another adventure trying to walk back to the station that maybe I’ll tell you some other day. And all of this in some small extent owed itself to two kind-hearted people who had taken the time and effort to find some people to give their tickets to.

Around a month and half after this, after Vishal had returned home to India, I decided one Friday to go to Prague, Czech Republic on my own for the weekend, because nobody else was available to come along.

Prague was a beautiful place, made more memorable for the experiences in the awesome little Travellers’ Hostel I stayed in (hopefully I’ll write about it some time). In the daytime I went to visit the Prague Castle, the biggest castle in the world. I bought a ticket that included all the buildings inside the castle perimeter. I took a long time going around some of them, and as in most places in Europe they were beautiful.

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It was late afternoon when I realized that 3 or 4 items were still unvisited and thus un-punched on my ticket, but I had not enough time to possibly cover all of them and then walk to the famous old Charles Bridge while there was still some daylight left.

I was about to exit with my unfinished ticket anyway when I caught sight of a group of Indians. They looked like students. I surveyed them as I remembered the Indian couple in Venice from long back and this idea started to crystallize in my head.

I ruminated for a while more, then I walked up to them and asked, ‘Are you Indian?’

The rest, as they say, is history. I can still remember feeling the universe let out a blissful purr as long-forgotten karma balanced itself again at a different place and time.

The Death of Consciousness

Up until a couple of years ago, I had a pretty strong conviction that some grand, strange things happen after we die. A sort of ultimate union with the source in which all consciousness become one and individuality and identity are lost forever. I used to imagine it as a grandiose play of bright flowing lights in a space of otherwise black nothingness.

My ideas have changed since. They may change again, and even change back, but as of now they are different. I still don’t know, of course, what really happens after we die. No one really can at the moment, but one possibility I had not considered at all sounds pretty valid to me now.

Have you ever fainted? I have never fainted, but I hear that when you come around, it’s as if you enter into light again from an unmeasured period of complete blankness. As if you had simply left for somewhere. This is different from sleep. We drift off to sleep and drift out of it. We dream in it. I don’t know about others, but I have an approximate sense of time even as I sleep. When I wake up, I can roughly tell how long I’ve been sleeping. I’m more accurate in the order of minutes, and not so much when I’ve been sleeping for hours. But at least the errors are of the same order as that of the duration of sleep. It’s like a CMOS clock that keeps ticking after you turn off your computer. So sleeping is not a complete blank, except in the special case of people with a specific brain injury that renders them incapable of dreaming. They have testified that sleeping for them is a period of complete blankness, which even causes them to always feel unrested.

What is blankness? It will undoubtedly be difficult to describe it, for our language is built with the purpose of communicating conscious experience, which blankness is the absence of. To put it simply though, a period with no conscious experience whatsoever must be a period of blankness. What is it like? Again, by its very definition, it cannot be like anything because you never feel it. You are nowhere when it happens. You just come around later with no memory of it whatsoever. I don’t know if you retain a sense of time passed after you recover from a fainting, but from things I have heard, I don’t think so. It’s as if someone just cuts off the flow of time at one point and stitches it to another point some time down the line, and you miss whatever happened in the story of the universe in the middle.

Thus, blankness is physically achievable, whether via fainting, brain injury, going into a coma, or some other mechanism. Even though it may be an experience many of us have never had and thus cannot even imagine (I don’t think there’s anything to imagine about it even if you’d had it), it is undebatably possible. And people have come back from it and described it as complete blankness, devoid of experience or journeys or revelations or other worlds.

So why isn’t it possible that the experience after death is just that? Just nothingness? It is already evident that spending time without any conscious experience of anything is possible. With death this state just has to continue forever. If it is quite possible for you to ‘be nowhere’, why not in death? Why is it so difficult for some, including my past self, to believe that?

Almost the whole of what we call this enigmatic consciousness is shaped and structured by our raw sensory perception. Our consciousness, supposedly abstract and transcendental of our physiology, nevertheless turns out to be a collection of inward imaginings of various physical stimuli. We can think, you say, which has nothing to do with our senses. But what do we think? We think images, happenings, things in motion, colour and sound, time flowing and events unfolding as we perceive them in our mind through much the same routes that are analogous to our raw physical senses. We cannot imagine feeling a magnetic field or ultraviolet rays or perceiving another thinking mind. No matter how much we claim our consciousness to be transcendental of our physical senses, we cannot imagine any experiences outside the standard sensory perceptions.

If our consciousness, the only kind of consciousness that we all know personally, is thus so tied down to our biology, then when that biology demonstrably stops working at what we know as death, why shouldn’t our first assumption be that consciousness also switches off right there? If a problem with a small part of our physiology can evidently cause us to faint and switch off our consciousness, why should we expect that with absolutely no part of it working any more, we shall have experiences and meet people and go places? That we shall be judged for our actions in our lifetime, and accordingly be sent to different destinations? It sounds just like life all over again, with conscious experiences deriving from the same sensory perceptions we are used to, and logical decision-making abilities, except without the service of any of our physical senses or our brain whatsoever. Isn’t that weird? Isn’t there a problem here? Now think of all the religious war we have fought over the things that supposedly happen once we’re dead and how many consciousness-es we have snubbed out in the process.

The more I think of this, the more my favourite little theory of the grand bright uniting lights falls apart in  a hundred sad little pieces. I am known to cause myself these unhappy things, armed with just a keyboard.

But indeed, why are we so easily persuaded to believe that there exists experience after our body has stopped working? Why do we, after an entire lifetime of continuous real-time proof that our consciousness is inseparable from our physicality, expect it to just carry on after death? Is it because we fear nonexistence? I, for one, do. Although I cannot put down simply why one should fear it, it is a deep-seated fear among many. But I have a hunch that it is a baseless, irrational fear. It is not simply a fear of the unknown, as some would opine. I do not, for example, as far as I can tell in my limited self-analysis, have a fear of the unknown. I think it is instead a fear of estrangement, of being torn away from all that we know and love and depend on. Familiar people, things we like to do, and all that we love about the world. These are things that exist, and they will be absent in nonexistence. The only limited substitution we can imagine for nonexistence is thus complete solitude, in a stifling static blackness. But it is, as we see now in the light of the discussion, a false picture. For in nonexistence, one cannot oneself exist. Experiencing nothingness, in the form of static blackness, is not non-experience. If there is no experience, one cannot experience this nothingness either. Thus, there can be no loneliness, no estrangement, no sadness. There can only be nothing. Sadness therefore lies only in our moments of thinking about a false picture of nonexistence, not in nonexistence itself. So what are we finally worried about? Should we worry at all? One moment you’re here and you’re happy with everything around you, the next moment you’re not there, you’re not anywhere. What’s to worry about? It’s completely twisted, this fear and deep sadness that we have built around the prospect of death.

In conclusion, I still don’t know if this is what happens after death, but it sounds like a likely possibility, and also by Occam’s razor I suppose any alternate, more elaborate theories can be dumped in favour of this one. In the end nobody can be sure. But we’ll all find out anyway, won’t we?

What do you think happens after death? Why do you think so? Hit me with your thoughts.

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Anecdotes of Europe #1: The Tipsies of Rome

For a long time I’ve been thinking of blogging about some experiences I had in Europe during my summer Europe trip of 2011. I decided I’d write them down in a single blog post as a series of small anecdotes. I sat down today to write it, and found that just one of the anecdotes gets very long. So I decided finally that I’ll write separate posts for each, and name them all in a series: Anecdotes of Europe. So this shall be the first of them. Hope you enjoy them, and do leave some form of feedback.

It was the evening of 29 May 2011 that I reached Rome for a weekend trip with a friend named Vishal. We left the station to take a look at the Colosseum. After we had spent some time there and it was getting late at night, we discovered, as was common with us, that we had no place to spend the night. We took the usual decision, that of staying in the station for the night. So we returned to the station, Roma Termini, the only big train station in Rome.IMG_2251

We went and sat down on the fixed metal benches inside the station. We decided we needed some sleep, so I clipped my camera bag and backpack through the metal arm of the bench using the carabiner climbing clip on my backpack. Then I buried my head on the backpack and tried to get some sleep. Vishal told me before snoozing off that he is a very light sleeper, and that he’ll wake up if there’s any problem and also early in the morning, so I needn’t worry about anything.

I couldn’t fall asleep very easily. I watched Vishal doze off. I stared around at the station that was now near-deserted. This station had been so lively in the morning, bustling with people, tourists, and Roman youths wooing beautiful girls who were giving away promotional cans of Coke Zero (I remember this because of the girls). There were very few people left in the station now. I thought of Howrah station in Kolkata and chuckled inside.

Then I noticed something else. The station had two gates on either end, and thus formed an open corridor for pedestrians taking a shortcut from one side to the other. Our bench was right in the middle of that corridor, so quite a few people were passing us regularly as they walked through the station. This situation made it even more uncomfortable for me to drift peacefully off to sleep.

Some time later I discovered that the street outside the gate that we were facing had a late night pub, and from this pub there issued a steady stream of drunken people, almost all of whom chose to walk through the station. This is not good, I thought. My DSLR cost a lot of money, and we had our passports, rail passes and a fair amount of cash with us. I glanced at Vishal. He was sleeping comfortably. I was tired as hell and all worn-out, but I couldn’t sleep in the middle of this.

After a while though, the weariness and strain of all the travel and walking lulled me into a deep sleep. I didn’t know then that my apprehensions would very soon be justified.

I don’t know how much later, I felt a sudden tug at whatever was supporting my head. I opened my eyes to find that my backpack was moving away from under my head. I blinked and looked up to find… this mountain. Towering over me, well over 6 feet tall, was this very strongly built black man, almost on the verge of portly. He had a clean, smooth bald head. I swear, he must have been Mike Tyson or a close bloodline. He wore a three-piece suit, and was towing a travel suitcase with wheels. With his other hand, he was pulling at my camera bag that was under my seat. This being clipped on to my backpack was causing it to be tugged away from under my head. His huge head was right in front of my face and he reeked of alcohol that sent my head spinning.

I was scared. Not shit scared, because I could still think and rationalize, but scared nevertheless. I noted out of the corner of my eyes that Vishal was still sleeping.

I looked at this man, mastered all my courage, and said something to the effect of ‘Hey man, what are you doing?’

Realizing from my movements and voice that I was awake, he let go of my camera bag, stood up and looked at me. I think then that he tried to say something, as if to give some justification for what he was doing. But before I could hear him properly, he walked away from the bench, lugging his suitcase behind him.

I looked at Vishal. He was sleeping like a baby. I tried to wake him. No response. I shook him, it didn’t work. Light sleep, huh. Finally I slapped him moderately hard and he woke with bleary red unfocused eyes that gave me quite a scare. I seriously thought I had booted his system while his mind was still being downloaded.

Thankfully he came to terms with his surroundings in a few seconds, and I explained to him what had happened. We decided we’d give sleep another go and hopefully get some rest till morning.

Vishal had just nodded off and I was still awake, when one long, lanky person, shabbily dressed in a T-shirt and very dirty jeans, came and flopped heavily down on the seat between Vishal and me. This sudden jerk jolted Vishal into wakefulness, who saw this man and immediately got pretty scared.

This guy laid his hands in front and started saying something in Italian through a hazy drunken drawl. I looked at his hands. They were dirty as hell. They were black and greasy as if he had been clawing through all the city’s refuse the whole day. He kept talking, as I kept staring at his hands. Then he suddenly leaned back very rapidly and the bench shook. Vishal immediately jolted upright, his face now clearly betraying undiluted fear.

The station had a golf cart in which two policemen would patrol round in intervals. Yes, it was a golf cart. I wish I could say ‘a patrol car shaped like a golf cart’, but it was a plain golf cart, with perhaps ‘Police’ written on it and a symbol. This golf cart had been around a few times, without any use whatsoever. It came around now, and I hoped they’d take the guy away or something. But no, they whirred by in front of us, without so much as a second glance.

The guy now started saying something in a low voice, leaning in towards me. I told him, ‘Hey, I don’t know what you’re saying, okay? I speak English.’ He stared at my face, seeming to understand. Then he tried something in English, but he was only drawling unintelligibly. He kept showing me those abominable palms as he spoke, as if explaining something about them. At the conclusion of his monologue, he put a dirty hand on the jeans of my right leg, slightly above my knee, and nodding gently as if he was speaking to his closest friend, he kept saying, ‘So you understand. So you see.’

That was it for me. I was really pissed off. But at the same time I felt a little funny at all this. I told him, ‘No, I don’t understand. I don’t see anything.’

He stared at my face again for a while, then stood up and teetered away.

Phew, I thought.

At this time the policemen in the golf cart came and stopped in front of us. One of them said, ‘the station is closing. You’ll have to leave.’

What? I thought.  A station, closing?  What is this place? How can a station, the only station in such a big city, just close like that?

Nevertheless, we got up and went outside. It was two in the morning.

Great iron grills rose up slowly and dramatically from the ground and the gates were closed. I stared at this in disbelief and suddenly felt such a fondness for Howrah station again.

The station, we heard, would open again at four. Vishal and I climbed a concrete wall of the subway entrance in front of the station and sat there dangling our legs. There were drunken people all around, coming out of the pub, and broken alcohol bottles littered the street. There were a few sober people around too. We discussed whether we should go in the pub for a while, to pass the time and to be somewhere safer than the streets, but we had stuff with us so we dropped the idea. There was a McDonald’s café, but it had closed at two.

There was a bus terminus beside the station, and I watched in surprise as buses arrived at intervals, packed full of people at this dead of the night, sober, normal people, adults and younger people, men and women, all appeared to be dressed for work, who got off the bus and immediately dissipated in all directions.

After a while when we got very sleepy again, we decided we’d sleep like true homeless people on the pavement outside the station. We walked there and saw already a few people sleeping. They were also travellers seemingly waiting for the station to open again. We found a spot, I clipped everything to my arm, and went to sleep. This time it was a peaceful, unbroken, deep sleep.

The sleep was broken only a couple of hours later by Vishal who told me that the station had opened again. We trudged back in, sat at the benches again, and slept right off.

In the morning we woke again to commotion and hustle and sunlight, people, shopkeepers, travellers and beautiful Roman girls in black tees distributing free Coke Zero. I looked around and couldn’t believe what this place had been at night.

Oh well, that’s Italy, I thought, as we put on our backpacks for another day of adventure.