Monday, 2 January 2017

The Origin(?) of the fable An Appointment in Samarra: Sherlock Season 4

An Appointment in Samarra is W. Somerset Maugham's retelling of an ancient Mesopotamian tale which is about the encounter of death (or the angel of death) and a man from Baghdad. Sherlock makes a reference to the tale in episode 1 of season 4. It immediately caught my attention because my mother told me a similar story when I was young. Naturally, I started digging and found out that the original story is related to Prophet Solomon (or Sulaiman in Arabic) and a reference to it is found in the Babylonian Talmud. A reference to the story is also found in Islamic literature. In all the three versions, however, the place to which the man goes is different; Samarra, the district of Luz, and India respectively in Maugham, Talmud, and Islamic literature's version respectively. The three different versions follow.

"The Appointment in Samarra" 
(as retold by W Somerset Maugham [1933])

The speaker is Death

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

Talmud's Version
(Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 53a)

R. Johanan stated, A man's feet are responsible for him; they lead him to the place where he is wanted.

There were once two Cushites who attended on Solomon, and these were Elihoreph and Ahyah, the sons of Shisha, scribes, of Solomon. One day Solomon observed that the Angel of Death was sad. ‘Why’, he said to him, ‘art thou sad?’ — ‘Because’, he answered him, ‘they have demanded from me the two Cushites who sit here’. [Solomon thereupon] gave them in charge of the spirits and sent them to the district of Luz. When, however, they reached the district of Luz they died. On the following day, he observed that the Angel of Death was in cheerful spirits. ‘Why’, he said to him, ‘art thou cheerful?’ — ‘To the place’, the other replied, ‘where they expected them from me, thither didst thou send them!’ Solomon thereupon uttered the saying, ‘A man's feet are responsible for him; they lead him to the place where he is wanted’.

Islamic Literature's Version
(Angels in Islam, a translation of Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti's al-Haba'ik fi akhbar al-mala'ik)

Abū ‘l-Shaykh from Dā’ūd ibn Abī Hind; he said: It reached me that the Angel of Death was made responsible for Solomon (peace be upon him), and he was told: ‘Go into his presence every day, and ask what he needs; then do not leave him until you have performed it.’ He used to enter upon him in the image of a man, and he would ask him how he was. Then he would say: ‘Messenger of God, do you need anything?’ If he said: ‘Yes’, then he did not leave him until he had done it; and if he said: ‘No’, then he left him until the following morning. One day he entered upon him while there was an old man with him. [Solomon] stood up, and greeted [him], then [the Angel of Death] said: ‘Do you need anything, Messenger of God?’ He said: ‘No.’ The [angel] glanced at [the old man] and the old man trembled; the Angel of Death left and the old man stood up and said to Solomon: ‘I beg you, by the truth of God! to command the wind to carry me and throw me down on the furthest lump of mud in the land of India (hind)!’ So [Solomon] commanded it and it carried him [there].

The Angel of Death came unto Solomon the next morning and asked him about the old man. [The Angel of Death] said: ‘His book came down to me yesterday, [saying] that I should take his soul tomorrow at the rising of dawn in the furthest lump of mud in the land of India; but when I came down, and thinking that he was there, I then found him with you. I was astonished and could not think of [anything] other than him; I came down to him today at the break of dawn and found him on the highest lump of mud in the land of India, and he trembled, and I took his soul (rūh).’ 

Friday, 11 December 2015

No, You'll not get 36 books!

Of late, I've been seeing a surge of lucrative status updates on Facebook in which the premise is giving people books as Christmas/New Year presents. The statement goes as follows:

“The best present one can give is a book. This will truly be an amazing end to the year. Join in. I need 6 people of any age to participate in a book exchange. You only have to buy ONE book and send it to one person and you'll receive 36 in return! Comment if you're interested and I will PM you the information.”

Now, if you've shared this as your status, there is one of the following possibilities:
  • You are a sheep. You saw something lucrative and shared it because everyone else was sharing.
  • You were smoking something while you did the math.
  • You understand the inherent deceit in the offer and posted it anyway because you know you are near the top-level in the hierarchy and you'll get a number of books.

Before I go on to explain the deceit and possible outcomes, I must bring your attention to this simple rule (and no, it is not rocket science). Matter (read: Books) cannot be created or destroyed, which means, Santa is not adding books to the transaction. (If Santa is real, is a different debate altogether.) So,

Books Gifted = Books Received as Gifts

Coming back to deceit, this type of business model is called a Pyramid Scheme which Wikipedia describes as, often illegal and unsustainable that lures members via a promise of payments or services for enrolling others into the scheme, rather than supplying any real investment or sale of products or services to the public.

If you're near the top-level in the hierarchy i.e. a famous Facebooks user, with a lot of friends/followers, and you put this up as your status (and 6 or more people subscribe to the plan who in turn put this up as their status and so on) there might be a number of people who would want to give the one book they purchase to you as a gift. So, you'll end up getting a lot of books (even more than 36) depending on how far this shit propagates and the number of your followers.

On the other hand, if you're at the bottom in the hierarchy, you will end up getting not 0 (zero) but -1 (negative one) books i.e. you will gift the only book you purchase and will get none in return. And yes, the number of people at the bottom will eventually be far more than the ones at the top.

In technical terms,

For the directors (the top-level), the scheme is potentially lucrative—whether or not they do any work, the organization's membership has a strong incentive to continue recruiting and funneling money to the top of the pyramid. Without creating any goods or services, the only ways for a pyramid scheme to generate revenue are to recruit more members or solicit more money (here books) from current members. Eventually, recruiting is no longer possible and the plurality of members are unable to profit from the scheme.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Am I Institutionalized?

It is four in the morning and I’ve still not fallen asleep. I think I have gone crazy, a retard, or maybe I am institutionalized. What is institutionalized, you ask? Institutionalized like Brooks was in — The Shawshank Redemption. I think I’ve become so used to the life in the cubicle that I cannot handle a life this serene. I mean, for God’s sake! I’ve taken this two day leave just to instill some life in me and I am not even able to sleep.

I’ve grown kind of weird these days. At times I want to judge people on scales of logic, science and rationality and at others I just want to sit like how God sits in Christian paintings, up in the heavens, with the earth as his footstool and smile at people caring very less about logic and rationality.

I get up and head outside. The sky is still dark, full of gloomy clouds. Its not looking scary actually. Its looking just like me. I drift towards a nearby hill. Hill stations are beautiful.

I reach the hill top in about half an hour. I see that the trees have started swaying. I think even the hill doesn’t like my being here. Or wait! Maybe it is just welcoming me in its own way. I hear the beautiful sounds of the birds moving out of their nests and flying high in the air in search of food. Food — that’s all what they seek, and we? We seek wealth. And why? To lead a life of luxury. It sounds very ironical though.

I see the environment brighten up a bit. The sun has started to come out of its sleep. I see it coming from far behind the mountains. I think the sun has brought a glad tiding with it. I’ve suddenly started to feel calm and serene. Sometimes I wish that I lived in the era when nobody knew if the earth was flat or a sphere and if the earth went round the sun or vice versa. “Life of a pirate,” as they say. A drop of rain falls from the heaven and tickles my skin. I’ve never felt like this in years.

I’ve learned that the beauty of nature can give you the much needed happiness and resurrect your devastated life and it turns out, I am not that institutionalized after all.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

The Hour Before Nightfall

When your hair have gray streaks
And your skin is wrinkled, withered.
When your bones become frail.
I'll be there in all those ebbs
And when the water crosses the line.
I'll be your stick so you do not fall
And when you do fall
My hand will be there
Ready to hold you before all
My hand, for you to hold
While we walk together
To see the last sunset along the shore
We'll have our share of fights, no doubt
But you'll find me closer, throughout

All strings are frail, They may not hold.
But I'll always cherish these memoirs of old.
And I'll wait for you somewhere, someday,
To spend—with you—the last hour before nightfall.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

O Slumber!

O puissant! Intoxicating slumber,
Wherefore art thou lost?
Far and wide I dig thee,
Through all temper and frost.

Say, Beloved Sleep! Where art thou found?
Under these lids ye silently creep,
Fly me to a world with peace profound,
Walking through dreams and visions deep.

O Mighty Sleep! Sister of death,
Take me with you to heights new;
Weary I am of late with sorrows untold,
Colorful memoirs of past make me view.

Listen O Slumber! Mistress of night,
Come hither I invoke thee,
Bring me the skies tied to thy flight,
Come apace here lies an impatient me.

A Memoir May Remain

Soon I'll be gone with an expeditious stream,
On a swift time torrent as flick of a dream,
How much ever you may try you won't hold,
An emotion seldom summons once sold.
All marks of my existence will flow in a drain,
In a nook of your heart a memoir may remain.

Each soul has a given date you were oft told,
But to my silent tears you were often cold.
My footprint on sands you may perchance find,
A sweet recollection may flicker through your mind.
Tears from your eyes will then roll out in vain,
In a nook of your heart a memoir may remain.

The echoes of that laughter will all die off,
A cold reminiscence will remain in mind's trough,
To touch me then you will give out your heart,
"It’s too late my friend," will be said by the dark.
In the monsoon cloud, you'll miss me in rain,
In a nook of your heart a memoir may remain.

Stopping By The Woods ... Continued

Desire in my heart forms a heap,
Stunned by woods' beauty, I weep.
But I won't stop 'cause there are,
Acres of corn field yet to reap.

Both the thoughts are still at par,
My heart with mind is caught in war,
Leaving the snowy woods I've to move,
Following that bright still north star.

In state of such dilemma you've,
To make one choice and prove,
That you can never have it all,
How much ever you desire the grove.

My wish is naive but promises are tall,
Now they give my weary spirit a call,
So let the white snow flakes fall.
So let the white snow flakes fall.

A tribute to Sir Robert Frost.
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