January 2013

Welcome to 2013, and to the two men who are the focus of this month’s comments. The first, a Bombay-born Parsi whom I shall call Hormazd, whom I met in 1975 when he was still a teenager, has for many years been the captain of an LNG tanker, a $350 million ship which carries a cargo valued (depending on the market of the moment) at between $100 million and $150 million. Nowadays he usually loads in Aden and discharges in China or Korea, and as master of his floating half-billion dollars it is on his desk (or at his chair on the bridge) that the buck stops. Much is to be managed on such a platform of mobile volatility, during which some of the gas is continually boiling off into the atmosphere from tanks whose walls are thinner than 1 mm(!):


Among Hormazd’s other concerns is a potential piratical assaults, which he worries about less in the Strait of Malacca (which he traverses on each voyage), where buccaneers tend only to steal things off the ship, than near the Somali coast, where entire vessels and crews get held to ransom. One of his comrades and his boat are in fact currently being held hostage while the insurance companies and the shipping line negotiate their release, a process that can take months. That this is itself some manner of racket is shown by the fact that when the Somalis do finally end your ordeal you are given a special phone number and code, and if you are pirated in those waters again within that year you merely phone the number, punch in the code, and your assailants will be told to stand down. (Apparently kidnaping in some countries works in a similar way: after you pay your ransom you are given a “get-out-of-jail free” card that is also good for one year.) Hormazd has been chased by pirates before, but thus far has always been able to outrun them. He’s not willing to have armed men on his ship, as they are too much of a potential liability: as mercenaries, he can’t guarantee that they will obey him if he orders them not to fire on someone (and two Italian marines acting as guards on another craft are indeed currently on trial in India for shooting some local fishermen that they mistook for freebooters).

Though Hormazd understands that the complexity of his vessel makes it impossible to run it without computers, he laments the fact that the younger generation seems dependent upon them; and so he insists that his juniors learn to navigate by sextant and make calculations by hand, just for those moments when the instruments fail and they have to rely on their wits and intuition. And even then, he emphasizes, mistakes can be made. Cyclonic storms apparently have one semicircle that is safe for shipping and one semicircle that is unsafe (if I understood him correctly, the unsafe circle is what we along the Gulf Coast term the “dirty” side of the hurricane), and a complicated calculation can tell a mariner which is which. Once, faced with a cyclone, he and his first mate each made the calculations – and both got the wrong answer, whereupon they unknowingly started to steam directly into the unsafe direction. The storm then suddenly (and rarely) made an about-face, so they actually ended up passing through the safe semicircle – due to Providence, or perhaps blind luck.

Luck, sadly, ran out in mid-January for Stephen Theodore Schaffer, whom everyone (except the IRS) knew as Shyamdas:


Shyamdas and I first met in the summer of 1986 in Vermont, when he was living in Montpelier. It soon became evident that me that he was something of a force of nature, and that when around him it was easiest, and usually most productive, to follow along with his plan of the moment. Many were the pleasant days in the ensuing months and years that I spent in his company, conversing with him in Hindi (and occasionally Sanksrit, though his conversational Sanskrit was far better than mine) as we pursued his interests of the moment.

During the ensuing quarter-century Shyamdas and I rendezvoused in many locations in the US and India, and I got to know many of his friends and family well, in both hemispheres, including particularly luminaries of the Vallabha Kula like his guru Sri Prathameshji. Shyam habitually (and pointedly) addressed me as his younger brother (though I am but four months younger than he), for in India it is an iron rule that younger brothers always obey their elder brethren; and he always endeavored to make me feel guilty for failing to come when he summoned me. In anyone less transparent I would have found this annoying, but the affection we shared for one another transformed it into an endearment.

Events over the past five years conspired to cause our paths to cross less frequently, the final crossing occurring last February in the sacred city of Kashi. When I arrived he was departing the next day, so he & I & his partner Ally made the most of that limited time by spending the afternoon on the ghats, crossing the river by boat to bathe on the other shore, then dining and chatting until late that night in the company of his aunt and his mother Gloria, whom I had last spent time with several years before. There was something about his energy then that gave me pause; at the time I assumed it was related to his chronic conditions (for which, as usual, he requested Ayurvedic advice which thereafter he most likely, as usual, followed sparingly), but now it seems more of an augury. This February I will return to Benaras, where I will perform shraddha in his name on the banks of that very Ganga in which we so happily swam one year earlier.

Shyamdas, who was single-mindedly devoted to his spiritual path, was a generous man, and of all that he gifted me over the years I value most his sacred music. I had been introduced to Vallabhacharya’s sampradaya long before meeting him, and had already visited Nathdwara on more than one occasion, but it was Shyamdas who brought the Pushti Marga to life for me via his patient tutelage in the songs of Mahaprabhuji and his descendants, and of Rasa Khan, Surdas, and others of the ashtachaap poets. These priceless songs so embody Divine Love that I have continued regularly to sing them in praise of the Supreme. My intention had long been to spend some serious time in Braj with Shyamdas learning more of such celestial music, and though Shyam repeatedly chided me for not coming to visit him there annually, I always assumed that there would be ample time to do so in the future. That assumption has now been cruelly proved false.

When the phone rang to inform me of the accident and his passing I had just completed a short retreat in South India, and as I listened with shock and sadness, looking up into the mountains behind me, a passage from Rumi came to mind that seemed at that moment abundantly apt:

“Don’t worry about saving these songs!

And if one of your instruments breaks, it doesn’t matter.

We have fallen into a place where everything is music.”