Post 26 – Day 13 ‘Time’s Up!’ (Pt 2)

Post 26b Post 26a

The MV Oceanus makes its way slowly back towards Gadkhali, the town somewhere out of sight, and the meandering shore line keeping town and jetty hidden until the last few kilometres. Along the way I see a large grey monitor lizard perched at the very top of a mangrove. It is related to our goannas. Further along are sleek, green-coloured bee-eater birds, of a species smaller than the one that nests in beach dunes near my home, both species with distinct long beaks and narrow tail feathers. The bee-eaters dart swiftly at insect prey, and then just as swiftly return to the same lookout perch atop a selected tree. I guess these birds are Merops orientalis, a species widespread throughout India though generally restricted to the subcontinent.

There is no breeze, the coolness of the day facilitated by the forward passage of the boat. The estuary is calm without hint of a natural wave. Only the bow waves of river craft breaking the otherwise smooth surface are present, these finally lapping gently against the shore. There is a sense of peace, disturbed only by the thought of the return trip by road to Kolkata.

In such a feeling of serenity it is easy to lose sight of the fact that a century ago the Bay of Bengal was anything but calm. At the turn of the 20th Century the bay sat astride a major sea lane between Australia, the Middle East, Europe and the then Dutch East Indies, now the Republic of Indonesia. For a moment, one of less than a year’s duration, the German light cruiser Emden plied the waters of the Bay of Bengal in search of allied merchant ships. It was World War I and the Emden had been detached from Admiral Maximilian von Spee’s German East Asia Squadron to raid shipping. At that time Germany had extensive territories in the Pacific, most notably in New Guinea, but also the Chinese port of Tsingtao. Disguised with a fake fourth smoke stack to resemble the British cruiser Yarmouth the German cruiser began raiding on the 10th September 1914, ultimately capturing or sinking more than 30 vessels, including two warships, but releasing the ships of neutral nations. On the night of the 22nd September the Emden bombarded the Burmah Oil Company fuel tanks at Chennai, setting these ablaze. The British were obliged to cease movement of merchant shipping in a substantial area of the Bay of Bengal and the allies were forced to commit British, Australian, French, Japanese and Russian cruisers to seek the Emden out. The Emden was successful in eluding them all, and on the 28th October managed to enter the port of Penang in British Malaya. There she surprised and sank the Russian cruiser Zemchug, a veteran of the Russo-Japanese war and the Battle of Tsushima way back in about 1905. The Zemchug’s captain was ashore in the company of his mistress. Onboard were 60 Chinese prostitutes, however, history does not record their fate. Eventually the Emden was intercepted by the Australian cruiser Sydney, the Emden’s captain forced to beach his vessel at Cocos Island. A gun from the destroyed Emden is displayed in Sydney’s Hyde Park, not too far from where I set out on my journey.


I reach Gadkhali to find that my suitcase has been consigned to a bus heading goodness knows where. A bus pulls away, and mistaking the calls of my driver, thinking he is indicating that my suitcase is upon it, I run in an attempt to make the vehicle stop. My efforts go unseen, the passengers who note my waving simply waving happily back, and so the bus, gathering speed, disappears from view. I am devastated. My luggage is orphaned. I had not bothered to give the suitcase a name, a title of unique description, and suddenly realising the depth with which I was attached to it, it is too late. Now it is destined to be pillaged, its contents carelessly spread about, the suitcase ending its days as an ill-treated conveyer of petty merchandise. “I’m sorry suitcase, I’m sorry” I lament, hoping that somehow my thoughts will reach its ears, for are not all things one and interconnected, the hand of creation interwoven through all matter and beings? Then my driver calls again motioning that my despair is unfounded, the suitcase is still hereabouts at Gadkhali, he has heard rumour of its sighting. I and he search hurriedly among the buses still waiting to depart, then I spy the suitcase abandoned, standing alone in the dirt, upended without thought as to its dignity or posture. Nevertheless, it was a fond reunion and I promised we would not be parted again. From now on I would entrust it to no other. And I didn’t, and from remorse for my previous taking of it for granted, I honoured it with a name, ‘Suitcase’, but it is ‘My Suitcase’.

The road journey northward to Kolkata passed more brick kilns, their chimneys belching black smoke suggesting they are fuelled by coal, rather than by wood. These kilns are of an industrial scale, much larger than the ‘cottage kilns’ I had seen earlier in Uttar Pradesh. Consequently they intrude more grimly on the landscape. I had not noticed these brickworks on my way south so either; I was preoccupied by the pollution of the river and had not looked at the scenery on this side of the road, I had dozed off amongst the luggage, or else we are now travelling by a different route. I am confused, and find no conspicuous landmarks by which to gauge whether I had passed here before. Even the river seems to be missing.

One event impedes my return to Kolkata. We are stopped by a great gathering of people who obstruct the highway, bringing all traffic to a standstill. Trucks, buses, light utilities, and us, all packed bumper to bumper together with no ability to proceed onwards. I hoped for a sacred cow to amble past, as maybe I could induce my driver to follow in its wake. There is a large demonstration of young people, and a voice from a megaphone calls loudly to a growing crowd of onlookers, these spilling onto the road and jamming all hope of driving on. There are many placards, raucous chanting, and much waving of flags and streamers. I do not understand the purpose of the gathering but I am eventually informed it is a political rally, one of many in the lead up to national elections. Village after village is visited, speeches and promises are made, and slogans are recited. My informant tells me the current politicians are all corrupt, change is needed throughout India, he will vote for the party calling this rally, but no matter who stands for election a politician will win. I think he was inferring that nothing will change. I was about to advise him of the benefits of a benevolent dictatorship, one based on the teachings of ‘Deep Ecology’ and its cardinal principle that ‘Sufficient is Enough’, but my driver started calling to me from the tour car, and waving his hand as if agitated by my conspicuous presence among the crowd. When I turned again my informant had moved away, though I could see him clearly, hands held above his head and yelling in unison with the shouting crowd. I could not understand a word of it. But after some several minutes more the crowd started to disperse, the megaphone now silent.

I had not been to a political rally, not a rally of any kind actually, since the days of the Vietnam War. But here I found myself caught up in the event, and standing by the roadside I raised my hand in something like a ‘Black Power’ salute as several truck loads of departing student activists drove past. This was a really stupid thing to do. I was not at a 1960s anti-war demonstration and worse for I was in a foreign country. Fortunately, the country was not Bolivia or El Salvador, it was India, and the students all cheered and waved as they sped away, me enjoying the road dust stirred by their jubilation.


I am back within my palace at the end of the dirt lane that runs somewhere off the main feeder highway into Kolkata. It is the very same one which had concluded my day’s journey by India Rail. We arrived at what I took to be the peak hour rush home from work, the traffic so prolific that it seemed we would never be able to cross against oncoming vehicles into the lane. Finally a small autobicycle appears and we bully our way in front obliging the fragile vehicle to give way to us. It swerves to one side, narrowly missing hitting a power pole. There is a caste system amongst vehicles in India. It is defined by size and ownership. You give way to nothing smaller than yourself . It is wise to defer to larger vehicles unless the vehicle you are driving is not yours. If it is not then you may choose to hazard recklessness in the knowledge that any damage done, short of being fatal, is not incurred by your property. The dents and scratches are the expense of someone else. A similar caste structure is to be found in Australia, its expression commonly observed in supermarket parking areas.

Being now quite late, yet unable to sleep, I found myself thinking about the physical nature of chimney smoke and the chemical composition of the foam that floated on that river as I headed to the Sunderbans. If I remember correctly I had previously conjectured on the ability of folk to understand what ‘right’ truly was, right being a word that is often synonymous with ‘good’. I feared that both terms might be relative, and subject to the desires and prejudices of the individual, and that ‘right’ and ‘good’ would too easily fall victim to the whim of self interest. Thus they could in practice, suitably perverted, provide justification for any action no matter how ignoble or destructive that might be, as in ‘I am right’ and ‘my good’ is more so than yours, ‘in fact, your good is no good to me, therefore yours is no good at all’. I started to think that the phrase ‘for the good of all’ might be nothing else than a ploy to manipulate outcomes that in their manifestation were, manifestly, unjust, cruel or evil. It is obvious from this train of logic and explanation that I am no philosopher so, in aid of a better resolution, I sought the wisdom of someone who is, or more correctly was; one Benedictus de Spinoza, born at Amsterdam in 1632 CE of Spanish-Jewish parentage, naturalized as a Dutchman, excommunicated for heresy because he sympathized with René Descartes the French philosopher and mathematician, earned a livelihood by grinding lenses, died in 1677, and wrote a book called ‘Ethics’. Anyone writing a book called ‘Ethics’ would have to know what they were talking about, equally so, one would trust, with anyone writing a book on ‘Economics’. And so, Spinoza, striking me as an obvious authority on a range of matters of a just life, righteous and goodly ethical practice among them, and in the hope that no one claims copyright to his work, I quote freely and at length from him:

“I will at this point only briefly say what I understand by true good, and at the same time what is supreme good. In order that this may rightly be understood, it must be pointed out that good and bad are terms only used respectively: and therefore one and the same thing can be called good or bad according to the various aspects in which we regard it, just as we explained [previously] of perfect and imperfect. For nothing regarded in its own nature can be called perfect, or imperfect, especially after we know that all things which are made, are made according to the eternal order and the fixed laws of nature. But as human weakness cannot attain that order in its knowledge, and in the meantime man conceives a human nature more firm than his own, and at the same time sees nothing that could prevent him from acquiring such a nature, he is incited to seek means which should lead him to such perfection: and everything that can be a means to enable him to attain it is called a true good. For the greatest good is for him to attain to the enjoyment of such a nature together with other individuals, if this can be.”

Spinoza’s discourse continues on, filling a whole volume, but this excerpt gives understanding enough.

It all made sense to me, and I was much the wiser. And I could just discern a little experimental literary ‘post-modernism’ in what he had to say.

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