“Heinrich Aitor Goldhahn was a German ancestor, who appears a long way up in my family line.” Snowbird’s voice sounded very, very relaxed.
“He left Germany shortly after the death of Martin Luther in 1546. Not much is known about his life, apart from the fact that he had been disinherited by his father for his adherence to Protestantism, and that he travelled extensively all over Europe after that. Later he came back to Germany and became a rich man by successfully investing what little capital he was left with into the latest technology known to Europe, the printing press invented by Gutenberg. Luther’s new version of the Bible was making quite a sale. At the time of his departure Germany was burning in the clash between Protestants and Catholics, and most of his fortune had gone up in smoke in one such fire. But he was fortunate enough to exit Germany alive with his family. A little money and few of the ancestral mementos aside, all he was able to carry with him to England were his family and the printing woodblocks to be used for the last section of the last edition of Luther’s German translation of the New Testament, now known as ‘Apocrypha’. Those sections were never published.
Unlike him, his dearly beloved and devout Catholic wife had never converted to Protestantism, and she could not bear the pain of the exodus. She died en route. To Goldhahn, this was the greatest loss of his life. He loved her more than his life. So before he could reach England he was already a broken man. He traded the woodblocks to an English Baron in exchange for some land and an animal farm to keep. The woodblocks remained in the Baron’s personal collection for a long time.
Before her death, Goldhahn’s wife had made him promise to her that he would raise their children as Catholics. After her death, religion meant very little to Goldhahn, but he kept the promise. So his children remained Catholics. His family survived the religious turmoil that were to unsettle England over the next few decades and by the early 17th Century, prospered a little from farming and expanding the land property that Goldhahn had left.
By the end of the century, the old feudal order was practically on the wane and a new kind of economic system was on the rise. Land and agriculture were no longer the heart and soul of the economy. Instead, kings and knights wanted to build a mercantile economy around capital so they could gain profit from the new leases and channelize that profit to finance commercial, industrial, and colonial ventures. Land was converted for a new ‘progressive’ model and peasants had to enter into new lease-holding agreements. They were eventually evicted from the converted land and became “free” wage labourers. Most of them headed for the industrial cities.
Capital was the new currency now, land had lost its traditional economic value, and the landscape also changed. ‘Enclosures’ became increasingly regular. As a result of more and more common land being taken as private property, woods, marshes, bogs, and wetlands were drained to provide more wood and land. Flora and fauna, along with birds, otters, frogs, and fox populations were endangered or threatened. Needless to say, the Goldhahn family was also facing severe financial crisis. There had always been a glass ceiling to how far upwards the common man could rise in the ladder of prosperity. The emerging mercantile economy made it impossible to exist for those who failed to evolve with it.
Almost three centuries ago, when my ancestors came to settle in America, it was still a European colony. My ancestors were that part of the European civilization that had become frustrated with the two millennia of Europe’s history. They saw that the social, political and religious structures of its machinery were hindering the individual man’s freedom at every turn, at every sphere of life. Europe, to them had become a truly fallen world, corrupt and repressive. But they foresaw that a regeneration could still be possible in some other land. So they plucked themselves from their native soil and braved through tumults of the Atlantic to arrive at the shores of the American continent. In front of them were the vast tracts of a wilderness where the seeds of a new civilization, the American civilization was already being sown. Here the individual man would earn his bread solely at the strength of enterprise and the sweat of the brow. No aristocracy would breathe down the neck of the man who sought his path upward through the ladder of success. The free man would aspire and strive upwards unencumbered by the old-world oppression. Such were the dreams.
So one day they overthrew the European colonial regime under the leadership of George Washington. The colonial states became the United States. The American revolution became living proof before the eyes of the world of what the willpower of a united magnitude could achieve. It whispered into the world’s ears the perfect utterance of freedom. It was the birth of a huge wave that sent, not ripples, but shock waves across the Atlantic back to Europe, from where their forefathers had one day crossed the same waters to reach America’s shores. The shock waves reached France in 1789. Europe saw the birth of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Celebrations were everywhere in America, the country that was just a newborn child. Finally we had achieved what humanity had pined for through ages. Freedom, sweet freedom.
My great great grandfather Tyler Finch came to California during the gold-rush in 1849. Searched for gold for ten years to not much avail. He was married in 1860 and the year after, following the birth of his son, he had to leave home to join the Civil War. He named his newborn child Joseph Walden, from which my surname derives.
Like my father, my great great grandfather Tyler Finch also took great pleasure in recounting the journey of his ancestry from the old world to the new. One day in the army during the war, a fellow soldier and he exchanged their stories. Both were drunk. But he was startled when this fellow-man told him of his great ancestor (from his mother’s side) Antonio de Alvarado who had been a military general during the Spanish conquest of the Mesoamerican Aztec empire in 1519-1521, almost two and a half decades before Martin Luther’s death. According to the fellow soldier’s account, Antonio de Alvadro with his army had sacked Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire and made a secret gold reserve worth the loot of twenty other generals. But as destiny would have it, his jealous colleagues conspired against him and called for his retribution to Cortez. Alvadro had no choice but to flee to escape execution. In 1522 he sailed away from America in a ship. He could not return to Spain. Instead he sailed to Germany where he settled for the rest of his life. His secret reserve of gold was never found.
Even though he was drunk, the name Antonio de Alvarado did not fail to ring a note in Tyler Finch’s ears. Despite having a very extroverted and adventurous nature, he had been an avid reader too in his early youth. And among his readings happened to be the genealogy of his family. Antonio de Alvarado was the same man, whose daughter his ancestor Heinrich Aitor Goldhahn had married in 1540. Goldhahn had known many men across Europe in key positions. He arranged for Alvarado’s daughter to be brought from Spain to Germany. She was in her early youth and Alvarado was happy to give her hand to Goldhahn who had at the risk of his life, rescued his dear daughter from Spain to make his reunion with her possible.
Apart from the joy of finding a distantly related brother among his brothers-in-arms in the military, the mention of hidden Aztec gold rekindled my great great grandfather Tyler Finch’s extraordinary exploratory interests.
By the end of the war, they say Finch had lost quite a bit of sanity. After he returned home he remained immersed for fifteen years in studying ancient documents, much to my great great grandmother’s annoyance. It had become his fixed belief that Heinrich Aitor Goldhahn had not carried the printing woodblocks of Luther’s Apocrypha all the way from Germany to England for nothing. He was sure that the woodblocks carried some message pertaining to Heinrich’s father-in-law’s secret reserve of gold buried away in America.
Madness was common in most of those who had been drawn to the gold-rush, and everyone thought that Tyler Finch was no exception. But he surprised everyone when he claimed, after fifteen years of painful research and running around between America and Europe, to have actually located the collection of the woodblocks. Sometime in the previous three hundred years, half of the woodblocks had made their way to Ireland. The other half was apparently lost. He bought them for a handsome price from an old Friar in whose private collection they had stayed for a long time. Unfortunately he could never make it back home across the Atlantic. The ship carrying him capsized along with the historical wooden pieces. The Atlantic that had been witness to almost half a millennium of cross-overs between the two continents, devoured such an immense memento of both the continents’ history and kept it within its depths.
In the 1960s my grandfather, a historian, wrote a book about numerous such shipwrecks that had taken with themselves such interesting pieces of history. His writings were able to inspire a few government-funded probes. But even after those explorations over the years, the ship in question was never found. Like much of the legends of the Mesoamerican treasures, the ship too had defied discovery. Myths apparently were resistant to verification.
But a myth is never just a story. There is always a part of you that still wanted to believe in that myth which you knew was just a story.
After I returned from the war at Iraq and joined the CIA, I spent a considerable amount of time trying to locate any information relating to the names in my family line – Goldhahn, Finch, Walden… and one day, there it was. Hundreds of ancient woodblocks containing fragments of Luther’s Apocrypha, tucked away in the silence of a metal box, kept under military protection, apparently because of the legend’s association to new-world treasure. They had found the ship.
I had never felt the kind of mixed feelings that I felt that day. Sitting at the Langley office, in front of the computer screen, guarding as one of the guardians a secret that was as personal as it was national, a secret that was as profound as a key to my soul, to the history of the two continents. And I was guarding that secret all the while not able to look inside the metal box.
Treasure or no treasure, I felt elated to have discovered the location of the box. Did I want to know if it contained clues to the hidden treasure of Aztec gold? It was no longer important. I already knew that it did contain a treasure. But unlike in the dreams of my great great grandfather, for me it did not have to be a treasure in gold.
I felt a strange feeling towards my nation, my people, a feeling of gratitude bordering almost on affection that day. I closed my eyes and an imaginary image of Heinrich Aitor Goldhahn flashed in my mind. Did you know that ‘Aitor’ meant ‘good father’ in Spanish? His Spanish wife used to call him that affectionately, and he carried that sound as his middle name till his death.
Here was the American soil that had sheltered and sustained my line, the name that I carried. And I was now guarding the silent treasure of its trans-Atlantic history. To guard a safe without being able to see that which lay inside, somehow gave me a sense of purpose, a meaning! To bask in the beauty of the past, to rejoice in the significance of the present, to not want to know further beyond my individual eyes was a choice, a freedom.
I felt a connection to the living soul of America that had given me my present, and the present will meet its future in time. I felt I felt grateful to America beyond anything. I would fight a hundred more battles to safeguard that freedom which had been achieved by my forefathers on this soil.
That was the version of the story I told myself that day, and believed in it till I found out that it was only a sub-plot to a much larger story in which we all were playing puppets.
Because every story, just when you had started to fall in love with it, comes with an ending, with the rude awakening to the fact that it was just a story.”
Almost five thousand miles away across the Atlantic, seated at the Langley office, General David Tsarnaev, Director, CIA, exclaimed with much the same smile that agent Rob Halpen had on his face at the Sheremetyevo airport half an hour ago – ‘Just a story! Well, that part is for me. Walden is just repeating a worthless piece of story for us.’
No, this reaction did not come from one of General David Tsarnaev’s subordinates at the CIA headquarters. This was a befuddled comment that appeared on the forum’s page right below where Mukasa had stopped. It summarized the reaction of all the members (including Kaustav, as well as Piku and I) who had followed the story until this point.
#FichelMukho wrote, “Why waste so much time in recounting his family history that doesn’t even have anything to do with the situation?”
“Patience, darling!” Mukasa continued.
“After I had entered Snowbird’s room, he welcomed me and looking at the screen of one of his laptops, shushed me and wrote something on a piece of paper and thrust it in my hand.
‘Are you clean?’ It said.
‘As far as I know, yes.’ I wrote in reply.
‘After you entered, my system shows that there’s a bug in this room which is sending feed to a receiver at the airport, which might be feeding straight to Langley for all I know.’
‘I am carrying a state of the art communication device that wouldn’t even be detected by any system, including yours, unless I intend it to be detected. And it’s certainly not transmitting to anyone I would trust my own safety with.’
I took out the lithium cell powered mobile phone from the pocket and placed it on the table.
‘Strange!’ Snowbird wrote. ‘This is not the device that is transmitting, and yet my system detects something the moment you enter this room. I can disable it even without finding it, but then we’ll lose the advantage. Let them think, whoever they are, that they are really eavesdropping on us. We’ll have to converse in writing.’
‘They’ll suspect anyway if we are silent.’
‘Oh I’ll keep them busy. Meanwhile, let me introduce myself and my clan to you.’ He wrote and started to recount aloud the story of Goldhahn, his German ancestor.”
“Tsarnaev… Tsarnaev….” Kaustav muttered, “The name seems familiar!”
But Mukasa had already begun.
“I used to absolutely love the concept of individual autonomy that the American history promised you’ Snowbird was saying, ‘and more than anything, I always considered myself to be a soldier of the internet. The cyberspace was that space where you found the full freedom of expression. It was a space that didn’t side with the left or the right, about Christian or Jew, about straight or gay. You may call it virtual space, and the freedom virtual, but ironically, humanity was more inter-connected in the virtual space than it was in the real world, and it let you be yourself, not judging you, not stocking you, not tagging you out of interests of national security.
The awakening came when I was entrusted with duties that required me to serve the nation by doing exactly those things. The panic-stricken, now-adult nation was unfortunately harbouring a culture of paranoia, had become obsessed with developing technologies of recognition, watching over each and every movement of its subjects like they observe guinea-pigs in a lab.’
For some reason I thought of Dr. Bharadwaj’s experiment.
‘During my years with the CIA and NSA, I did convey my concerns regarding the violation of individual freedom to my colleagues, to my seniors. My equals either turned a deaf ear, or showed indifference to those concerns, or turned out plain corrupt. The only person who showed even a little bit of diplomatic sympathy towards my concerns was General David Tsarnaev. He tried to convince me that all of us, including himself, were helpless parts of a machine who must act according to greater needs. He made it abundantly clear that for the sake of the nation’s as well as my own safety, I should forego petty concerns and concentrate on the bigger picture.
‘Protection of individual freedom! Those are just stories we love to tell ourselves, while watching on the TV screen how the twin tower went down in rubble. You are an Iraq war veteran, ain’t you?’ He said.
I found it useless, even dangerous to push the argument further. But deep down inside, I had already a glimpse of my true calling.’
‘However it took some time for me to finally make up my mind. It was not vigilance…’ He wrote. ‘What General Tsarnaev wanted me to pay as the price of the nations ‘safety’ was my conscience. I was to learn shortly after why the nation needed safety in the first place.’
For the bug that was planted somewhere in the room and still indicated transmission on one of Snowbird’s laptop screens, he continued his verbal account – ‘It was perhaps in exchange for my continued allegiance, that I was finally granted permission to see the treasure with my own eyes. I was not let near the metal box that contained the woodblocks. Rather, I was made privy, on special non-disclosure agreement, to the story those wooden blocks of printing signs had to tell. They had rearranged the blocks and recorded those unpublished parts of Luther’s Apocrypha. I was allowed to read the digitally restored manuscript.’
As General Tsarnaev had rightly guessed, this verbal account from Snowbird wouldn’t have anything to do with the Michigan Lab experiments. But they were still listening in to this conversation to find out about how far Snowbird was privy to, or was ready to reveal about the real extent of surveillance that the world was soon to fall prey to. Snowbird was a multi-tasking genius, I had to admit, as he was speaking and writing two different narratives at the same time. His speech that was very close to a monologue, however was going on at a much greater pace than the written account, which gave me the real picture in short hand. Much of it I was already aware of, but he surprised me when he mentioned something completely unexpected to this context.
‘Are you aware of something called the ‘Project Mayflower’?’ He wrote.
‘Somewhat, yes. What about it?’
‘The project has something to do with X37C, the undisclosed, unmanned US aircraft, fondly called the ‘Columbus’. It has been orbiting the earth for quite some time now. I have strong reasons to suspect that it has got a great deal to do with the Michigan Lab experiments.’
I would hardly have guessed that the Project Mayflower would have any connection to the Michigan Lab experiments. Even Snowbird was not sure about the exact details of its workings, but he strongly suspected that the discovery of ‘Psychon Signature’ at Michigan and the flight of Columbus were interconnected. The picture surely was getting broader, the horizons darker.
So as he wrote down the useful details that I am going to elaborate in a while, he continued with the story he was verbally recounting, and to which the CIA head was still listening closely.
‘The defeated and exiled Napoleon was given more privacy by his English captors than a common citizen today is capable of affording in the American soil itself, not to speak of the rest of the world. But…I’m straying from the point. Perhaps the Napolean metaphor doesn’t quite do justice to the true nature of the crisis we are facing today. Let me elaborate.’ He said aloud.
‘Oh absolutely!’ I said as his written account came to a close.
‘Right.’ Snowbird now concentrated fully on the verbal. ‘Almost a decade after America’s declaration of independence, the liberal economist and social reformer Jeremy Bentham came up with this idea of a model-prison. In the earlier times, penitentiaries used physical torture to reform the criminal’s soul. But the ingenuity of Bentham’s prison model was in its engagement with paranoid behavior. It advocated the building of prison houses with tiers of cells that open to a central courtyard with a guard tower in the middle. Cover the guard tower with opaque glass, and the prisoner would constantly feel exposed to observation, even without anyone occupying the tower at times. Because of this constant exposure, the prisoner would be driven psychologically to behave in a socially, legally acceptable way. Thus, even without torturing the body like in the medieval ages, by simply isolating of the body from others, by placing the prisoner under maximum visibility, instilling the prisoner with sheer consciousness of being observed all the time, you could reform the subject’s soul.
But what is a soul? If one is born inside such a prison, can one have a soul? We, in the western civilization have been watched, observed and analyzed so thoroughly from the beginning that we have come to concede that we never really tasted true individual autonomy in the first place. We left Europe five hundred years ago to escape the religious and social vigilance that defined our subjectivity. Now the state watches us twenty-four-seven to ensure its own safety. Wherever we go, whatever we do or speak, whatever we search on Google, is monitored, and the end result is the complete absence of what it is like to feel unencumbered, free. We have never really known what it is to be free. U.S, Britain, Russia… everywhere we are in this capsule of identity always locatable by someone watching. We never know what it is… to be ourselves when no one is watching! Is there even such a thing we can truly call our self? We have never known.
I was lucky enough to be working with the NSA, in the position of the watcher. Because when you are the observer, you have the key to other people’s souls as well as to your own, and it doesn’t take long to realize that whether you are the watcher or the watched, once you dare to look into the depth of your own being, there’s this complete absence of anything that can be called a soul. It is this bottomless hollow, it is this vast abyss. In the rush and hurry of our way of life, each one of us lives in this capsule of loneliness, wearing masks of religious, social, political adherence, and yet, when left alone with ourselves, we don’t dare to look into the true nature of our beings. In fact, we discover with horror that there is no ‘true being’ that is not defined by the machineries we must belong to. We are those prisoners that have been made to believe and act according to lifeless machineries called religion, society and state. We are the zombies that have been bred by vigilance and fed by a belief in the non-entity called individuality. We are the eyes that have been kept blindfolded from birth to death by the legend of an all-seeing eye, we are the bodies kept prisoners by the legend of the soul. The reality of our inner being is, at best, apocryphal, inauthentic, unconfirmed!’
Snowbird Walden paused, but he was not finished. I must give him time to recollect himself before I offered my bit of revelation.
‘Why carry on then?’ I asked, preparing him for what was to come.
He said, looking gloomy, ‘It is perhaps sheer habit, sheer inability to get out of a lifelong belief in that Rousseauian day-dream that still keeps me going. I feel robbed of any sense of purpose now, any conviction that is necessary to sustain one’s mental life. But still I have the blood of the self-propelled American, or rather the ghost of it, acting out under the curse of non-being, learning the Russian alphabet, spending time reading Dostoyevsky, without knowing why. Time itself, it feels in this transit, has entered a no-passing zone. All I have now is this counting the endless and meaningless hours to the end, without love, without a purpose, without a home, without an identity at all. Our mutual friend Dmitry Klyuev has some exciting future plans for me, none of which I feel interested in. In fact it was he who told me you were coming here. No offence, but I don’t think anything you say or do can undo the dark revelation I have had. To be is either to live in capsule of traceability for a paranoid machinery or to wither away in habit of blissful ignorance of one’s sheer non-essentiality. Neither holds any significance for me and I rather prefer not to be to that.’
Capsule, he had said. For a moment, I remembered that Dr. Martinez was waiting anxiously in one of those rooms of the airport’s capsule hotel for any word from me on Snowbird’s intentions. Would it make him happy to know that presently Snowbird had absolutely none?
How could have Dmitry Klyuev possibly known of my arrival here beforehand? Only he could answer. But I had a much more pressing concern at hand here. Snowbird had really transcended all the petty parameters of identity. But that transcendence had, in its characteristic way, opened his eyes to the darker side of the coin, as he himself just acknowledged. Being subject to identity is not identical to being. When subjectivity is lost, self-hood can begin. But when identity is equated with self-hood, the loss of subjectivity can lead to nihilism, quietly leading to the loss of any possibility of the birth of the self, – which was exactly what was happening to Snowbird in the humdrum of other tangible or intangible losses that he and the world around him was experiencing.
The situation was dire. The thin border between hope and despair was vanishing fast. I needed to act fast. An electric shock might not be desirable till the last breath, but a patient in cardiac arrest is left with little option.
‘I would not try to persuade you to do anything Mr. Walden.’ I said. A benign but plain falsehood. ‘Your summarizing of the crisis of the soul is brilliant. Perhaps sooner or later, it is to be faced by the whole humanity. This conversation tells me one thing at the very least…’ Snowbird Walden was listening intently, ‘That like your ancestors Heinrich Goldhahn and Tyler Finch, you too are a widely-read person. So let me guess that you also know who you really owe your surname to!’
‘Henry David Thoreau, the transcendentalist.’ He said, readily. ‘So intense was his faith in the existence and authenticity of the human soul that he actually quit society for some time and went to live alone in the lap of nature, by the Walden pond. And that became the subject of his celebrated book Walden. My great great grandfather had read the book before he named his son after it and left for the war.’
‘Quite right. Although in the light of how you have come to see things, the Thoreauvian ideals might sound purely impossible today, I would like to draw your attention to one little fact though.’
‘Which is?’ Was there a ring of an almost imperceptible eagerness, an enthusiasm still alive in his voice?
‘Do you know that many of the transcendentalists used to appreciate the Bhagvad Gita for spiritual inspiration?’
‘Yes! The Bhagvad Gita was a collection of holy utterances by the Lord Krishna and is supposed to be a holy text for the Hindus.’
‘Quite right. The holy shlokas were uttered forth to lift the spirit of Arjuna, the warrior, Lord Krishna’s dearest friend, who felt that he had lost the cause to fight in the epic battle of Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata. Lord Krishna knew how important it was to have Arjuna to participate in the battle that was to decide the fate of the Aryan race in India, mythology would suggest.’
Snowbird Walden was perhaps able to guess what was to come next. Or perhaps not.
I said, ‘We however, have had a long enough timeline of history between the age of the myth and the age of disillusionment to know exactly what modicum of significance we are to attach to ourselves, to our role in history as we know it. So I would not bother you with that. Moreover, I definitely wouldn’t go so far as to compare ourselves with those mythic proportions. Rather I would ask you a basic question about Jeremy Bentham’s prison model.’
‘Okay. Go ahead!’ He said, still unsure.
‘In order for that prison model to work on the psychology of the prisoners, what would you think was absolutely necessary?’
He stared at me in silence.
‘It was….for the prisoners to at all know that they were being watched. If the prisoner didn’t know that he was being watched, wouldn’t the model fail?’
Snowbird Walden’s melancholic blue eyes suddenly burst into the recognition of the other side of the equation.
‘It is indeed true that the world has immensely benefited from your disclosure of the data mining operations. Now they know that nothing is private any more.
But since there is nothing that can be done to resist that, the disclosure has now successfully instilled the whole world with the fear of big brother always watching. Without the passive participation of the one being watched, the watcher cannot exert psychological influence. The awareness of being observed is the other half of the machinery. The paranoia has now been injected and confirmed. The prison is done building now, down to the last psychological brick! The awareness has set the wheels in motion. With that awareness of always being in optimized visibility, the world is now ready to enable the proverbial Panopticon to carry out the exact mission it set out to accomplish.’
Snowbird got up on his feet as the realization hit him with full impact.
And as I looked at his laptop screen that showed the feed from the security cameras of the hotel Novotel, I saw two figures appear in the corridor right outside the room where we were sitting. The two Chinese reporters I saw back at the terminal E of the airport. Both of them took out their guns as they came and stopped outside our door. For once, guns were mightier than the pen.”
– Utsab Ray