Recently, you told me about a new lady who joined your laboratory and how, being from India, she is familiar with the works of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. This triggered a memory in me, a recollection in connection with my best childhood friend, Robi Paul Richard.
My mother befriended Robi’s grandparents, Fritz and Frida Richard, when they were actors performing in the play “Jedermann” by Hugo von Hofmannsthal in the annual Salzburg Festival and bought a house in the neighbourhood. It must have been after the war, probably in 1946, that I visited them with my mother, but years before, the Richards were affiliated with a theater in Berlin with the director Max Reinhardt. In the late 1920s, Reinhardt staged a production of Tagore’s “The Post Office”, in which Trude Richard, the youngest daughter, played a leading role. Tagore himself came to see his play.02
I must imagine that in the magical aura of the play itself, and with the allure of the exotic Tagore and his entourage of Indian men, Trude became enchanted and, hence, romantically involved. In 1927, she gave birth to an obviously Indian boy. One of Tagore’s traveling companions came forward to claim responsibility for siring the boy, and Tagore (then aged 65) agreed to be the boy’s godfather. As you have probably guessed, the boy was named Robi Richard.
It occurred to me only today that Tagore’s name in the Bengali pronunciation is “Robindronat”. Perhaps, as a child, he was also given the affectionate diminutive of “Robi”! Hmmm.
When Robi Richard immigrated to the USA, he changed his Hindu name to “Paul”. Nevertheless, when he arrived in the States, he was listed on the roster as “coloured”. Trude, who could not live without her son, followed him to New York within the year. Then Robi, along with an old classmate from Vienna, Ivan Illich, enticed me to come to America, as well. Because it would have meant a wait of seven years for me to obtain a US immigration visa, my friends suggested that I make the passage to Canada instead. I agreed, and after pawning his valuable microscope, Robi advanced the necessary funds for me to do so and I arrived in Montreal with you and your mother in 1953.
Years later, Robi suffered a brain tumor and passed away. His mother, Trude, had already been cremated for some time. Robi’s wife called me to come to New York to collect Trude’s ashes, (along with the ashes of her cat), saying that the alternative was for them to be flushed down the toilet. Your mother and I drove down, picked up the ashes, then years later deposited them, according to Trude’s wishes, in her parents’ grave in the cemetery in Aigen, a suburb of Salzburg. You, Chris, faced a similar task with your mother’s ashes, and will face it again when my time comes.
There are so many examples I can think of in my life that prove to me that all is a matter of destiny. Nothing happens naturally or by chance. Everything that happens, happens through some guiding, spiritual cause and effect. I would now advise anyone to become mindful of the spiritual intervention around us and treat it with reverence, as I have learned to do. Particularly, I have come to learn that women have been undervalued, have not been recognized as the most vital part of humanity, and it will only be through them that an advancement to a universal peace will be possible, an advancement which male dominance has failed to achieve since time immemorial.
For my 90th birthday, my wish was to acquire an English, large print edition of the Qur’an. I wanted to finally read it in its entirety as I felt this would enable me to make a more educated contribution to the necessary and imminent reformation of Islam, a reformation that will eliminate the hostile interpretation of this holy book that has resulted in sanctions of barbaric behaviours and discrimination against women.
I have only just read the introductory chapters, “How to Approach the Qur’an”, followed by “A Brief Look at the Life of Muhammad”, an historical account of the prophet’s activities. The latter chapter ends with the story of Barakah, Muhammad’s nursemaid who, by then over seventy years old, visited his grave every day to cry softly. Once asked why, she replied, “By God, I knew that the Messenger of God would die, but I cry now because the revelation from on high has come to an end for us.”
And how right she was. What a mess the Muslims have made of the “revelation”, twisting it into various misrepresentations of radicalism and hatred. These days, the two primary Muslim sects are on a constant war path. The Saudi Arabian Sunnis have enraged the Iranians with their execution of the Shiite cleric, Sheik Nimr al-Nimr, precipitating the burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and in turn, the order for all Iranian diplomats to evacuate Saudi territory within 48 hours. This stunning state of affairs has left the United Nations and Western powers at a loss. How might it be possible to prevent an armed conflict between the two largest Islamic religious communities in the world?
Hostilities have escalated frighteningly in both countries, further distressing the majority population of restless young adults who have been enlightened by the exposure to different cultural choices thanks to the Internet. Young Arabians are bombarded with everyday barbaric news from the Islamic State, but are also attuned to the liberal views of the democratic West, leaving them in a position to question, to choose, as they become more and more disenchanted with the status quo of their lives and mistrustful of the men who have not learned a single lesson from history, that absolute power cannot survive for thousands of years, such as Hitler had assumed. The princely rulers of Saudi Arabia have not learned that the “divine rights of kings” came to an end with the French Revolution in 1799 which overthrew their monarchy, established a republic, experienced violent periods of political turmoil, and finally culminated in Napoleon’s reign of dictatorship until he, too, was deposed as all dictators have been or will be.
Only reasonable, kind minds may prevent the disintegration of humanity in Islam. The new reformation can only become a bloody massacre, nothing more, in the absence of a new Enlightenment which would elevate women to an equal status of power, which would cultivate a peaceful coexistence between nations, and which would eradicate the perpetual uprising of brotherhoods spurred on by corrupt and hungry demagogues.
Let the United Nations intervene to stop the escalation of violence, to invite all factions of Muslim sects, as well as observers of other religions, to listen to women, to theologians, those who have the heart and the sanity to enlighten mankind. Let those who sit on high come to the realization that bloodshed will not serve in the defense of their beliefs, but rather, they might alter their stance to achieve universal peace through a tolerance of diversity.
I was born in Salzburg, Austria, a city populated primarily with Roman Catholics. We began each year’s celebration of the birth of Christ with Advent on the first Sunday in December. As children, nearly a century ago, our traditions were quite different from those I share with my family in North America today. For one thing, we were not permitted see the decorated Christmas tree until Christmas Eve. And for another, we did not have a ‘Santa Claus’, the roly-poly jolly man shouting “Ho-Ho-Ho!” with a toy factory at the North Pole and a sled drawn by magic flying reindeer.
Saint Nicholas was a Greek Bishop of the 4th century and was canonized as the patron saint of children, sailors, merchants and pawnbrokers, for the miracles that were attributed to him at that time.
I do not know when it became a custom in Austria for Saint Nicholas to make his rounds to households with children, nor do I know why it became tradition for him to be accompanied by a descendant of Satan as his helper, a creature with black fur, who toted the Bishop’s sack of goodies, but also carried a threatening bundle of brushwood switches. In any case, these were the personalities that symbolized the beginning of our Christmas season – Saint Nicholas and the Krampus.
I remember only one of these visits from Saint Nicholas and his demonic assistant. I was five years old, the youngest of six children. My parents had had us prepare for this anticipated visit by writing our lists of Christmas wishes which we would have to hand over to the Bishop at nightfall on December 6th only after we had been given his blessing and been forgiven for our sins. I didn’t really know, at that age, what to expect. All I knew was that there were wishes to be fulfilled.
As promised, the Bishop with his ugly, terrifying furry companion arrived at our door when the sun had gone down. Saint Nicholas proceeded to list the petty crimes I had committed over the course of the last year, then pointed out my bad habits. I started to cry for surely this holy man, looking into the souls of sinners, could see the truth! And whenever he pointed out one of my transgressions or faults, the black horned Krampus, hunchbacked and leering, would raise his bundle of switches to swipe at me. The kind bishop calmly held him off each time, but I shivered, waiting for the sin that would have me whipped.
Finally, the Bishop ordered the Krampus to lower his weapon and instead to open the sack. Through my tears, I was greatly relieved to see that I was being handed a present. I was forgiven.
I only found out years later that Saint Nicholas was, in fact, an old uncle of mine, and Krampus was played by our cook, a dark shaggy rug thrown over a sack of chicken feed on her back transforming her too convincingly for a small boy of five to see through the charade. My brothers and sisters had merely played along.
My mother held me on her lap, consoling me after my ordeal, while the Bishop and the Krampus were given drinks to toast a merry Christmas, and everyone was given an edible replica of the devilish helper. I held the six-inch figure made of black dried prunes in my small hands, but looking wide-eyed at the real thing across the table, was a bit nervous to actually bite into my Zwetschgen Krampus.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of you.
As I promised I would keep you informed as to the progress of my book. Here is the preliminary cover design, created by Elayne Griffith. A brilliant artist and a published author. (she is also a very funny cartoonist who appears regularly on my son Tom’s blogs) Thank you Elayne, it is better than anything I could have ever imagined. If you wish to see more of Elayne’s work you can visit her site at; https://elaynegriffith.wordpress.com/