Author Archives: Keya Majoomdar

Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, cinco …

It’s Cinco de Mayo, or the fifth day of the fifth month  and in the state of Puebla, Mexico, the people are celebrating the symbolic victory of their small and poorly outfitted Mexican miliita over Napoleon III’s mighty French army in 1862.

Cinco de Mayo is not to be confused with Mexico’s Independence Day. No, no … Mexico’s Independence Day is celebrated on September 16 to remember that day in 1810 when Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a priest in the town of Dolores Hidalgo rang his church bells and exhorted the local tribes to “recover from the hated Spaniards the land stolen from your forefathers …”

Padre Hidalgo was hanged for his pains in 1811, was succeeded by Padre Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon who was shot by a firing squad for his dissidence in 1815. But Morelos’ army continued his fight against the oppressors, and in 1821, Mexico finally broke free from Spanish rule after more than 300 years.

But the young nation’s troubles were far from over – internal conflict and wars including the Mexican-American War and the Mexican Civil War, left Mexico financially ruined. When President Benito Juárez stopped paying back the nation’s loans to European governments, France, Britain and Spain occupied Veracruz to collect Mexican debt. After negotiations, Britain and Spain withdrew from Mexico, but France, ruled by Napoleon III, decided the time was right to carve out its empire in the region. A French fleet landed in Veracruz and forced President Juárez and his govern

ment to flee to Puebla de Los Angeles, a small town in east-central Mexico. The French declared Maximilian I of Austria, a distant relative of Napoleon III, as emperor of Mexico. 

Certain of a swift victory, 6,000 French troops set out to attack Puebla, President Juárez had managed to gather a rag-tag militia of 2,000 loyal men and led by General Ignacio Zaragoza, the outnumbered and underprepared Mexicans fortified the town and prepared for the French assault. On May 5, 1862, the French troops with heavy artillery led an assault on Puebla from the north.

The battle raged from daybreak to early evening. At day end the French had lost nearly 500 soldiers and decided to retreat while on the Mexican side, less than 100 militiamen had been killed.

It was a small victory for the Mexicans but it bolstered their spirits. In 1864 the forces of President Juárez captured and executed Ferdinand Maximilian, emperor of Mexico by Napoleon, and with help from President Abraham Lincoln of the United States, the French finally withdrew from Mexico.

The Mexican victory over the French on May 5, 1862 on the fields of Pueblo is celebrated ever since as Cinco de Mayo, and that’s why Mexican culture is celebrated in several cities in America with a Mexican heritage every year on the fifth day of May.

Adios muchacho!



Next time someone offers to pay a penny for your thoughts you can tell them to lump it because by this fall the penny will be out of circulation here in Canada. It has lost 95% of its value and it costs 1.5 cents to make the copper coin …!

U.S. advocacy group called Citizens for Retiring the Penny has called Canada a trailblazer for taking the bold step of eliminating the coin. The same praise came from David Owen who wrote a piece in 2008 in the New Yorker, “Why do pennies exist?” Owen says Canada has come out early on a number of fronts including doing away with the bothersome one-dollar and two-dollar currency notes.

In the US several attempts to do away with the penny have been unsuccessful – one, because Americans have an inordinate passion for historical artifacts and two, they are sentimentally attached to the penny. Oh, and…

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The Kiss of Death

The Kiss of Death.

The Kiss of Death


Judas' Kiss
A small detail of a Byzantine mosaic "The Betrayal of Christ" in the church of St. Apollinaire Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy. This detail is an exact copy of the original mosaic using modern versions of traditional materials and techniques of mosaic building and shows Judas leaning forward to Christ with a kiss. Italian Smalti, granite, marble, gold vitreous glass on lime plaster, ungrouted.According to gospels written by Mark, Matthew and Luke which are considered the primary source for historical information on Jesus,

In the Garden of Gethsemane – according to the gospels of the apostles, Mark, Matthew and Luke, our primary source for historical reference about Jesus – Judas identified Jesus to the soldiers by means of a kiss. The kiss leads directly to his arrest by the soldiers of Pontius Pilate, the Prefect of the Roman province of Judaea who orders the crucifixion of Jesus.

But why did Judas Iscariot betray Jesus, the one whom they thought to be the Messiah, who would some day come to the people of Israel, “anointed” as ProphetPriest, and King by God Himself?

Let us rewind to the day before, the evening of what is now come to be known as the Last Supper when Jesus sat with twelve of his disciples around a table on the first day of Passover. As they ate, Jesus said, ” …One of you who eateth with me shall betray me” (Mark, Chapter 14:10-82)

And then he took the unleavened bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to his disciples saying,

“Take it, and eat. Behold, this is for you to do in remembrance of my body; for as oft as ye do this ye will remember this hour that I was with you.”

And then he picked up the wine cup, gave thanks, and passed it to his followers to drink from, saying,

“This is in remembrance of my blood which is shed for many …And as oft as ye do this ordinance, ye will remember me in this hour that I was with you and drank with you of this cup, even the last time in my ministry.”

After supper, the twelve walked to the garden at the foot of  Mount of Olives in Jerusalem and Jesus turned to his followers and said,

“All ye shall be offended because of me this night; for it is written, I will smite the shepherd and the sheep shall be scattered. But after that I am risen, I will go before you into Galilee.”

But Peter, one of Jesus’ followers, earnestly replied that he would never be offended, to which Jesus replied, “… this day, even in this night, before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice.”

And then he turned to Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve and said, “What thou doest, do quickly; but beware of innocent blood.”

The betrayal by Judas is still a mystery to me. I would like to learn more of what made him do it? Was it envy, greed or even jealousy? In order to understand Judas’ action a little more let’s go back a few more days before the Last Supper.

It’s the evening of the Sabbath before the Passover, in Bethany, when Jesus is sitting in the house of Simon the leper who has prepared supper for him. According to the Gospel of the Holy Twelve, Mary Magdalene comes in bearing a box of very precious and costly ointment of spikenard. She opens the box and pours the ointment on the head of Jesus, anointing his feet, and wiping them with the hair of her head.

Judas, on witnessing this ceremony, questions why waste the expensive ointment “which might have been sold for three hundred pence and given to the poor?” causing others at the table to murmur against Magdalene.

Jesus replies,”Let her alone, why trouble ye her? For she hath done all she could; yea, she hath wrought a good work on Me. For ye have the poor always with you, but Me ye have not always. She hath anointed My body for the day of My burial.”

Okay, I think I am getting a picture now … Is it possible that Jesus’ favour towards Magdalene made the other followers jealous of her and turn against him? Or did they feel that Jesus had become too vain or too proud or too powerful?

Anyway, back to the story, taking it up with the Gospel of the Holy Twelve, a scripture which had been protected century-after-century from falsification by Roman emperors  (in Lections 75:6, and 76:27-28). Judas says to Jesus, “Master, behold the unleaven bread, the mingled wine and the oil and the herbs, but where is the lamb that Moses commanded?” Quick aside here, Judas had bought the lamb for the meal, but Jesus had forbidden its sacrifice.

The significance of the lamb’s sacrifice harks back to 13th Century BC and the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. God, through Moses, had ordained that the blood of a sacrificed lamb was to be sprinkled on the door-posts of the Israelites as a sign to the angel of death to pass over the houses of the Jewish slaves living under the tyranny of the Pharaoh. And this observance was to be repeated annually for all time.

Stop! Who’s this Moses? What is this thing called Passover and what Exodus? Let’s go further back in time to discover the origins of the Passover and the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt in 13th Century BC.

Moses was born in Egypt into a Jewish family during a time when the Hebrews were slaves to the Pharaoh who had decreed that all male Hebrew infants be drowned in the River Nile. To save the life of infant Moses, his mother set him in a basket and floated him down the river. The basket floated down the Nile and, by a twist of fate, infant Moses’ cries were heard by the Pharaoh’s daughter who decides to adopt baby Moses as her own. So a Hebrew boy is raised as a Prince of Egypt.

As a young man, one day Moses witnesses an Egyptian overseer beating a Jewish slave. Outraged, he kills the overseer who had been carrying out his duties to the Pharaoh. The next day Moses witnesses two Hebrews fighting and tries to make peace between them, but the aggressor asks Moses: “Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”

Fearing his life would now be in danger from the Pharaoh Moses flees across the Red Seas to Midian. Here it is said, God speaks to Moses to help the Israelites escape from Egypt. The Bible says the Children of Israel escape slavery in Egypt when God inflicts ten plagues upon the kingdom, the tenth and worst was the death of every Egyptian first-born. The Israelites were instructed to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a spring lamb and, upon seeing this, the wrath of God would pass over the first-borns in these homes. In Exodus 12:21-36 Moses says,

“You shall observe this rite as an ordinance for you and for your sons for ever. And when you come to the land which the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. And when your children say to you, `What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, `It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he slew the Egyptians but spared our houses.”

"Departure of the Israelites", by David Roberts, 1829

And so the Israelites fled from Egypt in such a hurry that they could not wait for bread dough to rise  or leaven. That’s the reason during the Passover no leavened bread is eaten and Matzoflat unleavened bread, is a symbol of the holiday.

Now let’s turn back to that night in Bethany when Judas asks Jesus why there was to be no sacrificial lamb as Moses had commanded. Judas takes his complaint to the Jewish high priest appointed by the Romans, Caiaphas, saying,

“Behold He has celebrated the Passover, within the gates, with the Mazza in place of the lamb. I indeed bought a lamb, but He forbade that it should be killed …” to which Caiaphas replies,”Truly this is a Passover of the law of Moses. He hath done the deed which is worthy of death, for it is a weighty transgression of the law … Let us tell these things to the people who follow Him, for they will fear the authority of the law.”

Now let us return to the evening of the Last Supper, to the garden of Gethsemane. Knowing that soon one his disciples would betray him, Jesus asks them  to wait. He confesses to Peter and two others that his heart was heavy and his soul sorrowful and requests the three to watch over while he prays. In his prayer he asks, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; not as I will, but as thou wilt.” When Jesus returns to the three disciples he finds them asleep. He reproaches them saying, “What, could ye not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that ye enter not into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing; but the flesh is weak.”

“He went away again the second time and prayed, saying, O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done. And he came and found them asleep again; for their eyes were heavy. And he left them, and went away again, and prayed the third time, saying the same words. Then cometh he to his disciples, and saith unto them, Sleep on now and take rest. Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. And after they had slept, he said unto them, Arise, and let us be going. Behold, he is at hand that doth betray me.” (Matthew, Chapter 26)

Judas came to Jesus and said, “Hail, Master!” and kissed him to which Jesus said, “Wherefore art thou come to betray me with a kiss?” Had he come to take Jesus away with swords and staves like a common thief? All the disciples fled in fear as Jesus was taken away to Caiaphas, all except Peter who followed him from afar and watched.

Jesus in the upper right hand corner, is at the high priest's house, his hands bound behind him, and turns to look at Peter, in Rembrandt's, 1660 depiction of Peter's Denial.

But a woman recognized Peter and said, “Thou also wast with Jesus of Galilee.” Peter denied it saying he did not know what they were saying. Then another came up to Peter and said, “This man was also with Jesus of Nazareth.” Again Peter denied it with an oath claiming he did not know the man. After a while some others came up to Peter and claimed,

“Surely thou also art one of them; for thy speech betrayeth thee. Then began he to curse and to swear, saying, I know not the man. And immediately the cock crew. ”

And so it happened exactly as Jesus had said, “Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice”,  all his followers including Peter denied knowing Jesus and in as much, betrayed him.

“Turn your face to the sun and the shadows follow behind you.”

“Turn your face to the sun and the shadows follow behind you.”.

“Turn your face to the sun and the shadows follow behind you.”

Turn your face to the sun and the shadows follow behind you … I am told is an old Maori proverb.

Today I want to talk about Sunflowers. Native American people – the Aztecs, the Otomi and the Incas would use sunflowers to represent their Sun deity.The first record we find of this flowering plant is dated  2600 BC in Mesoamerica, in present day Mexico. The earliest known sunflower grown north of Mexico can be dated back to 2300 BC in Tennessee. It traveled to Europe with the Spanish conquerors of South America in the early 16th century. It is even said the Spaniards, in their zeal to convert the Natives to Christianity, tried to suppress the cultivation of sunflowers as they disapproved  of its association with native Indian worship and warfare.

Nevertheless, the sunflower and its seeds reached European shores with the victorious Spanish galleons. In the 18th century the sunflower seed’s oil became a favoured cooking oil, especially in the Russian Orthodox Church, during the six weeks of Lent leading up to Easter.

The sunflower on  its sturdy stem, sitting in a vase, brings a splash of sunshine  to many a home around the world. The flower fascinates us. Much as it did Vincent Van Gogh, the Dutch Impressionist painter, who obsessed about them until his death in 1890. He painted many sunflowers including the one shown below:

Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers.
By Vincent Van Gogh.
Painting, Oil on Canvas
Arles, France: August, 1888

In fact the sunflowers have almost become synonymous with Van Gogh’s name and his technique. The colours are vibrant – bright yellows for the flower in full bloom and arid browns to depict the wilting or dead flowers. Life and Death are bunched together in Van Gogh’s painting mimicking the spectrum of life of all living things and how one is inseparable  from the other. The painting also reflects the diversity of life.

Van Gogh painted different varieties of sunflowers. What is called the sun”flower” is really a flower head consisting of lots of florets crowded together. The outer, petal-bearing florets are the bright yellow, showy but quite sterile ray florets; inside the circular head are the tube-like disc florets that mature into seeds.

Van Gogh’s 1888 painting shows some sunflowers that lack the broad dark centre characteristic of sunflowers and instead show mainly golden petals. This was not an artistic license taken by the painter but  a faithful reproduction of a mutant variety of sunflower called the “teddy bear”  (shown on left). Researchers these days have developed their own sunflower obsession – trying to solve the genetic origin of mutant “teddy bear” sunflowers depicted in Van Gogh’s ochre-splashed canvases.

Researchers have identified the gene responsible for the ‘double-flowered’ (B) variations (black arrows in main picture) captured in Vincent van Gogh’s 1888 painting Sunflowers. A normal sunflower (A) and another mutation with ‘tubular’ florets (C) are shown for comparison.
John Burke/UGA;Christie's Images/CORBIS

The flower petals within the sunflower’s cluster are usually in a a spiral pattern where each floret is turned towards the next by approximately the golden angle, 137.5°, producing a pattern of interconnecting spirals. On an average sized sunflower there would be 34 spirals in one direction and 55 in the other. This pattern produces the most efficient packing of seeds within the flower head.

Is it any wonder the plant biologist John Burke at the University of Georgia says, “ it’s the largest and most successful flowering plant family on Earth” ?

Helmut Vogel  in “A better way to construct the sunflower head” (1979) created a mathematical model to describe the intricate interconnecting spirals of a sunflower head.  For the extreme math geeks amongst you, here is how Vogel expressed it in polar coordinates:

r = c \sqrt{n},
\theta = n \times 137.5^{\circ},
 where θ is the angle, r is the radius or distance from the center, and n is the index number of the floret and c is a constant scaling factor. This model has been used to produce computer graphics representations of sunflowers.
Researchers, painters, mathematicians … have been fascinated, humbled or seduced by the simple beauty of the sunflower. We have all been bewitched by the young sunflower’s ability to turn its face a full 180 degrees to face the sun all day long. This ability by young sunflowers to “track” the sun is called  heliotropism.
Perhaps, heliotropism is something we all need to practice. To turn our backs on life’s dark and sinister shadows and try to look for the brighter side,  keeping our focus on a brighter future.
Who knew a little sunflower could be such an inspiration to us!
This summer I will plant some sunflowers in my garden and worship its simple truth and beauty like the early and wise native Americans.

Last night I dreamt I went to Mandalay again …

Last night I dreamt I went to Mandalay again ….

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