Henry Kissinger at 100: A crooked legacy

Few people remain influential at 100. They are either dead or about to die, frail in mind and body. Henry Kissinger, the former US Secretary of State, is both alive and influential. He might be frail in body, but his mind is sharp. Having outlived almost all his detractors, the man once accused of a dark side that changed much of the world, has evolved over the past decades into a statesman feted by leaders globally. Nobody alive has more experience of international affairs than him, The Economist magazine recently wrote after interviewing him.

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View: De-risking China business

At a closed-door business meeting in Singapore in March attended by representatives of large US firms, much conversation was about China. Is the purported ‘de-coupling’ of the world’s two biggest economies working? Is it the correct direction to take? Will the politics in Washington ahead of next year’s presidential elections, and naming of China as the ‘prime enemy’.

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Atlas ‘shrugged’

There was a time when there were “paper” maps. Some of us who were born in a distant past would remember using them frequently.

Since there was no Google, places and distances could be found and distances measured on large maps, which could be folded nicely and stuck in the book shelves, in the walls, or kept in the car pockets for use during travel.

They had a different charm and they never aged well until such time we started getting some covered in thin, foldable plastic — a clear technology upgrade!

There were also those beautifully hand-crafted globes with wooden bases that sat neatly and importantly on office tables. They came in different sizes and were prized possessions.

And then there were those awesome, detailed world maps, which could be framed and hung in offices and studies. Well-travelled people showed off the places they had been to by tagging colourful pins on those maps.

Maps are always fascinating. They tell stories of places that otherwise don’t get told. Geography decides national boundaries, national interests and therefore — in many ways — our lives.

Why am I writing about maps? I am because I found something during my summer cleaning exercise — the world atlas by National Geographic, acquired with much love during the very early years of global e-commerce. It took me back more than two decades ago when the world was probably much simpler.

I lived in Sri Lanka in the late 1990s at a time when the country was wracked by an ugly civil war. Bombs went off with precise regularity, people died, but life kind of went on despite all the turbulence around.

In between all that one day I registered myself on Amazon.com — the new, very exciting website that could send me books from across the oceans. I had always loved the National Geographic and had always been fascinated by the atlas they produced. The cartography was mind-blowing for someone with deep interest in geography and graphics.

So, after successfully receiving some books from the United States, I put $50 (if I remember correctly) on my credit card for the world atlas and clicked buy. The return mail that I opened excitedly said it will reach me in a few weeks by sea mail! The wait began.

However, at some point I quite forgot I had ordered the atlas as more bombs and more violence in the war zone north of the country distracted me.

Three months later I suddenly remembered that the atlas hadn’t showed up to brighten my otherwise then rather dark and violent world. I wrote to Amazon, expressing my unhappiness over their poor service. 

A day later an apology landed in the inbox, saying they were now sending the atlas by courier and it should be with me in a couple of days. This time the atlas kept its tryst with Sri Lanka. It took a plane instead of a ship and landed at my door three days later.

As I opened the large card box package, I did wonder whatever had happened to the earlier shipment. Had the ship carrying it lost it’s way, or sunk in bad weather. Where could that copy be?

A month later, the phone rang. A voice at the other end asked in broken English whether I had ordered a “big” package from overseas. It took me a while to connect the dots before I said yes and was ordered to show up at the customs warehouse the next morning.

On a rainy morning I walked into this covered compound where consignments were stacked and spread across the floor. I was shown to a corner where sat a large black package — with visible signs of having been opened and peered into.

“There is a war here, sir, and importing maps need security clearance,” I was told. It is a world atlas that I have ordered to donate to a school library, I responded, and gave the name of one of the famous schools in Colombo after handing him my foreign journalist identification card.  

The officer at the counter looked at me suspiciously, but eventually agreed to clear the consignment, and now I had TWO of those beautiful atlases.

One of them had to shrug and accept it won’t stay with me. So, I kept my promise to the customs officer and sent it across to a school from where I received an ecstatic letter of thanks and appreciation.

The other still lives with me — in good health despite having added 22 years to its life! 

Two Conversations

The first was with an old friend who now lives in the United States. We go back 35 years, studied journalism together and shared an apartment for some years.

We have, what my wife says, “venting calls” ever so often. Both he and I belong to a different time and are mostly unable to comprehend why we as people are the way we are when we always have had the option of being otherwise.We make predictions — political and economic — and they mostly come true.

Not so long back we had discussed the possibility of the Covid virus hitting India hard and mutually agreed we could potentially witness a catastrophe. We predicted reasons that would lead India into a dark tunnel where the only light would be those of many pyres. I don’t want to list them, but they all came true.

The other morning we spoke again and tried to not despair even as we talked about what this latest surge was doing to India and Indians — friends, families, colleagues, acquaintances, neighbours and even strangers. He told me he had lost a few relatives to Covid and his elder brother was in the ICU for the past five days. I told him about the challenges we as a people, a nation, were facing. He was sounding brave, but I knew he was rattled.

There is little he can do sitting far except worry. He said he had hardly been able to focus on work in the past 10 days because of the deaths in his family.We spoke about our journey as journalists, worried over the current state of the media and wondered when and where this would end.

He told me to get my sons out of the country, reminding me of a story about one of his relatives who always said he believed in the “Quit India Movement” and had, therefore, first sent his children overseas and then followed them.We also tried to look for funny things in these dire times and laughed nervous laughs.

At one point he got distracted, as his wife called out from another part of his house as he laughed. “No, no I am not crying” he told his wife.

We got to start getting very worried when our laughs begin to sound like sobs. Also when Supreme Court judges and children of politicians die, friends and relatives don’t get oxygen and common people have to be cremated by the roadside because cremation grounds have run out of space.My second conversation was with someone who had a role in saving my life when I was struck by Covid and had to be hospitalised back in December.She’s a nurse at the hospital I was admitted to.

I don’t know what she looks like as everybody was wrapped in PPE suits, but she had dancing eyes and her voice was always calm. She was around for the first seven days of my stay in hospital and then she had a two-day break before she returned to bid me goodbye when I was discharged. “Don’t come back,” she said joyously, wagging a finger.

Large chunk of positivity

She had a steady hand and was happy to chat about her family and dreams and career as nurse. She became my source of information and there was a lot to learn from her about Covid, patient care, situation in the hospital, the tough cases and the deaths in the ward. She would also happily announce the number of patients who were recovering.

There was always a large chunk of positivity around her, which was welcome in an otherwise depressing place.

It struck me that she and her other colleagues who nursed me back to my feet and helped me get through a rather trying period would be in the midst of another battle as patients flowed in the second surge.I messaged her, asking how she was. I received a big smiley back.

“Haan ji, bilkul theek”, she wrote, asking me how I was doing. I asked her what it was like at the hospital, and she responded matter of factly.Patients are very critical. They are unable to hold oxygen (oxygen levels are volatile). Patients were much stable during the last surge.

This virus was definitely a new variant, she said.I asked her whether she was managing well and she said she was, that she was on night duty and asked me to look after myself.I then said I hoped her family was well. “I hope so,” she said, adding that her mother and younger brother had cough.

As always, I marvelled at her equanimity, her dedication to her work and the selflessness with which she cared for patients — stuck in that spacesuit and sweating under double masks and rubber gloves for many hours.I told her that I considered myself lucky that I survived. “Yessss,” she wrote back.

Her display picture on WhatsApp tells more about her. “Shukr hai rabba tune mainu dukh sehna sikhaya, kisi nu dukh dena nahin. She is just one of the tens of thousands of frontliners in this battle we are all waging. We should be grateful to people like her.

Points Of Contact – A Short History Of Door Handles

Despite their ubiquity and pivotal role in the haptic experience of architecture, door handles remain oddly under-documented. There are no serious histories and only patchy surveys of design, mostly sponsored by manufacturers. Yet in the development of the design of the door handle we have, in microcosm, the history of architecture, a survey of making and a measure of the development of design and how it relates to manufacture, technology and the body.

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Tea And Capitalism

For much of the 20th century, Western experts viewed China as a pre-capitalist society. They typically equated ‘capitalism’ with industrialisation and innovation, spectacular benchmarks such as coal-powered engines, steel factories and advances in chemical and mechanical engineering. These technological breakthroughs distinguished the ‘West’ from the ‘rest’, and it was their absence in China – and much of Asia – that marked it as ‘pre-capitalist’.

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Three’s Company

The Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902) has been called the first modern conflict. This is no compliment… A forward-looking view of the war—the dawn of mass-media coverage, barbed wire, and concentration camps—emphasises the bit parts played by 20th-century personages. Winston Churchill, the neophyte correspondent, making his daring escape from Boer captivity; Mohandas Ghandi’s exertions in the Indian ambulance corps; and Robert Baden-Powell’s devil-may-care dispatches from the Siege of Mafeking (“One or two small field guns shelling the town. Nobody cares”; “All well. Four hours bombardment. One dog killed”), which prefigured his Boy Scout movement by 10 years.

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