Category: Article

The Iceman Cometh

A dilapidated farmhouse in the Polish countryside creaks and groans on its foundation as six men hyperventilate inside one of its frigid rooms. The windows are caked with frost and snow piles up outside the front door. Wim Hof surveys his students with stern blue eyes as he counts their breaths. They are lying in sleeping bags and covered in blankets. Every breath they expel appears as a tiny puff of mist as the heat of their bodies crystallizes in the near-arctic air. When the students are bleached white from exhaustion, Hof commands them to let all the air out of their lungs and hold their breath until their bodies shake and shudder. I exhale all my breath into the frigid air.
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The Commodified Body


The Commodified Body

April 24 2014

The US medical community’s view of the human body shifted in the twentieth century, when it began to be seen as a source of valuable tissues and fluids. In her thought-provoking Banking on the Body, Kara Swanson recounts how the use of human blood, semen and breast milk in medicine was made possible only by uniting interlocking and  occasionally contradictory systems of body-part or product procurement and storage under the broad concept of‘banking’.The financial metaphor set the stage for a show down between competing ideas on how the body is exchanged as either a gift or a commodity. Although she focuses on fluids, Swanson argues that the same lessons can be applied to all body parts, including kidneys or faces for trans- plant, and human eggs.
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Corruption, Justice and Violence in Democratic India

SAIS Review, July 2013

by Jason Miklian and Scott Carney

Institutionalized corruption is pervasive in India. It requires individuals and businesses to negotiate bureaucratic mazes, pay off government servants, and break laws merely to acquire the basic elements of governance. With nearly half of India’s economic activity in the informal sector, ‘shadow economies’ permeate the lives of every citizen. What on the surface looks like a dysfunctional or broken system operates smoothly and ben- eficially for the politicians, businesses, and connected individuals who use it with ease. For the average Indian citizen, however, access is challenging, and corruption is a visible reminder of the failed promise of democracy. This article broadens the anti-corruption agenda in India by recognizing how corruption carries with it ingrained structural components that cannot be disentangled from the formal sector. In some cases, what is thought of as ‘corruption’ actually improves operational efficiency for citizens when compared to India’s overworked judiciary and extensive bureaucracy. Any serious at- tempt to ‘fix’ corruption must also account for the rationalizations of individuals and companies that engage in what are commonly seen as corrupt activities.

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Corruption-Miklian-Carney 2013

Death and Madness on Diamond Mountain

Death and Madness at Diamond Mountain

Playboy March 2013

People come from all over the world to Arizona’s Diamond Mountain University, hoping to master Tibetan teachings and achieve peace of mind. For some, the search for enlightenment can go terribly wrong.

Ian Thorson was dying of dehydration on an Arizona mountaintop, and his wife, Christie McNally, didn’t think he was going to make it. At six in the morning she pressed the red SOS button on an emergency satellite beacon. Five hours later a search-and-rescue helicopter thumped its way to the stranded couple. Paramedics with medical supplies rappelled off the hovering aircraft, but Thorson was already dead when they arrived. McNally required hospitalization. The two had endured the elements inside a tiny, hollowed-out cave for nearly two months. To keep the howling winds and freak snowstorms at bay, they had dismantled a tent and covered the cave entrance with the loose cloth. Fifty yards below, in a cleft in the rock face, they had stashed a few plastic tubs filled with supplies. Even though they considered themselves Buddhists in the Tibetan tradition, an oversize book on the Hindu goddess Kali lay on the cave floor. When they moved there, McNally and Thorson saw the cave as a spiritual refuge in the tradition of the great Himalayan masters. Their plan was as elegant as it was treacherous: They would occupy the cave until they achieved enlightenment. They didn’t expect they might die trying.

Almost irrespective of the actual spiritual practices on the Himalayan plateau, the West’s fascination with all things Tibetan has spawned movies, spiritual studios, charity rock concerts and best-selling books that range from dense philosophical texts to self-help guides and methods to Buddha-fy your business. It seems as if almost everyone has tried a spiritual practice that originated in Asia, either through a yoga class, quiet meditation or just repeating the syllable om to calm down. For many, the East is an antidote to Western anomie, a holistic counterpoint to our chaotic lives. We don stretchy pants, roll out yoga mats and hit the meditation cushion on the same day that we argue about our cell phone bill with someone in an Indian call center. Still, we look to Asian wisdom to center ourselves, to decompress and to block off time to think about life’s bigger questions. We trust that the teachings are authentic and hold the key to some hidden truth. We forget that the techniques we practice today in superheated yoga studios and air-conditioned halls originated in foreign lands and feudal times that would be unrecognizable to our modern eyes: eras when princely states went to war over small points of honor, priests dictated social policy and sending a seven-year-old to live out his life in a monastery was considered perfectly ordinary.

Yoga, meditation, chakra breathing and chanting are powerful physical and mental exercises that can have profound effects on health and well-being. On their own they are neither good nor bad, but like powerful lifesaving drugs, they also have the potential to cause great harm. As the scholar Paul Hackett of Columbia University once told me, “People are mixing and matching religious systems like Legos. And the next thing you know, they have some fairly powerful psychological and physical practices contributing to whatever idiosyncratic attitude they’ve come to. It is no surprise people go insane.” No idea out of Asia has as much power to capture our attention as enlightenment. It is a goal we strive toward, a sort of perfection of the soul, mind and body in which every action is precise and meaningful. For Tibetans seeking enlightenment, the focus is on the process. Americans, for whatever reason, search for inner peace as though they’re competing in a sporting event. Thorson and McNally pursued it with the sort of gusto that could break a sprinter’s leg. And they weren’t alone. More than just the tragedy of obscure meditators who went off the rails in nowhere Arizona, Thorson’s death holds lessons for anyone seeking spiritual solace in an unfamiliar faith.

Until February 2012, McNally and Thorson were rising stars among a small community of Tibetan Buddhist meditators and yoga practitioners who had come to the desert to escape the scrutiny and chaos of the city in order to focus on spiritual development. McNally was a founding member of Diamond Mountain University and Retreat Center – a small campus of yurts, campers, temples and retreat cabins that sprawls over two rocky valleys adjacent to historic Fort Bowie in Arizona. In the past decade Diamond Mountain has risen from obscurity to become one of the best known, if controversial, centers for Tibetan Buddhism in the United States. Its supreme spiritual leader is Michael Roach, an Arizona native, Princeton graduate and former diamond merchant who took up monk’s robes in the 1980s and remains one of this country’s most enthusiastic evangelists for Tibetan Buddhism. McNally was Roach’s most devoted student, his lover, his spiritual consort and, eventually, someone he recognized as a living goddess. For 14 months McNally led one of the most ambitious meditation retreats in the Western world. Starting in December 2010 she and 38 other retreat participants pledged to cut off all direct contact with the rest of the planet and meditate under vows of silence for three years, three months and three days. Unwilling to speak, they wrote down all their communications. Phone lines, airconditioning and the Internet were off-limits.

The only way they could communicate with their families was through postal drops once every two weeks. The strict measures were intended to remove the distractions that infiltrate everyday life and allow the retreatants a measure of quiet to focus on the structure of their minds. Thorson’s death might have gone unnoticed by the world if, days after, Matthew Remski, a yoga instructor, Internet activist and former member of the group, had not begun to raise questions about the retreat’s safety on the well-known Buddhist blog Elephant Journal. He called for Roach to step down from Diamond Mountain’s board of directors and for state psychologists to evaluate the remaining 30-odd retreatants. His posting received a deluge of responses from current and former members, some of whom alleged sexual misconduct by Roach and made accusations of black magic and mind control.

Roach rose to prominence in the late 1990s after the great but financially impoverished Tibetan monastery Sera Mey conferred on him a geshe degree, the highest academic qualification in Tibetan Buddhism. Conversant in Russian, Sanskrit and Tibetan, he was an ideal messenger to bring Buddhism to the West and was widely acclaimed for his ability to translate complex philosophical ideas into plain English. He was the first American to receive the title, which ordinarily takes some 20 years of intensive study. In his case, he was urged by his teacher, the acclaimed monk Khen Rinpoche, to spend time outside the monastery, in the business world. At his teacher’s command, Roach took a job at Andin International Diamond Corporation, buying and selling precious stones. According to a book Roach co-authored with McNally, The Diamond Cutter: The Buddha on Managing Your Business and Your Life, in 15 years he grew the firm from a small-time company to a giant global operation that generated annual revenue in excess of $100 million. The book cites a teaching called “The Diamond Sutra,” in which the Buddha looks at diamonds, with their clarity and strength, as symbolic of the perfection of wisdom. But the diamond industry, particularly during the years Roach was active in it, is one of the dirtiest in the world – fueling wars in Africa and linked to millions of deaths.

During a lecture Roach gave in Phoenix last June, I asked him how he could reconcile his Buddhist ethics with making vast sums of money through violent supply chains. Roach stared at me with moist, sincere- looking eyes and avoided the question. “If your motivation is pure, then you can clean the environment you enter,” he said. “I wanted to work with diamonds. It was a 15-year metaphor, not a desire to make money. I wanted to do good in the world, so I worked in one of the hardest and most unethical environments.” It was the sort of answer that plays well with business clients. Rationalizations like this are not uncommon in industry, but they are for a Buddhist monk. If Roach was unorthodox, he was also indispensable. His business acumen might have been enough for some early critics to look the other way. His share of Andin’s profits was ample enough that he could funnel funds to Sera Mey to establish numerous charitable missions.

His blend of Buddhism and business made him an instant success on the lecture circuit, and even today he is comfortable in boardrooms in Taipei, Geneva, Hamburg and Kiev, lecturing executives on how behaving ethically in business will both make you rich and speeding the path of enlightenment. Ian Thorson had always been attracted to alternative spirituality, and he had a magnetic personality that made it easy for him to win friends. Still, “he was seeking something, and there was an element of that asceticism that existed long before he took to any formal practice of meditation, yoga and whatnot,” explains Mike Oristian, a friend of his from Stanford University. Oristian recounts in an email the story of a trip Thorson took to Indonesia, where he hoped a sacred cow might lick his eyes and cure his poor eyesight. It didn’t work, and Thorson later admitted to Oristian that “it was a long way to go only to have the feeling of sandpaper on his eyes.”

Roach gave Thorson a structure to his passion and a systematic way to think about his spiritual quest. After Thorson began studying Roach’s teachings in 1997, Oristian remembers, some of his spontaneous spark seemed to fade. Kay Thorson, Ian’s mother, had a different perspective. She suspected he had fallen under the sway of a cult and hired two anti-cult counselors to stage an intervention. In June 2000 they lured him to a house in Long Island and tried to get him to leave the group. “He was skinny, almost anorexic,” she says. They tried to show him he had options other than following Roach. For a time it seemed to work. Afterward he wrote to a friend about his family’s attempt to deprogram him: “It’s so weird that my mom thinks I’m in a cult and so does Dad and so does my sister. They talk to me in soft voices, like a mental patient, and tell me that the people aren’t ill-intentioned, just misguided.” For almost five years he traveled through Europe, working as a translator and tutor, but he never completely severed ties. Eventually he made his way back to Roach’s fold. In 1996, when she was only two years out of New York University, Christie McNally dropped any plans she’d had to pursue an independent career and became Roach’s personal attendant, spending every day with him and organizing his increasingly busy travel schedule. And though his growing base of followers didn’t know it, she would soon be sharing Roach’s bed.

The couple married in a secret ceremony in Little Compton, Rhode Island in 1998. As had many charismatic teachers before him, Roach established a dedicated following. As it grew he planned an audacious feat that would take him out of the public eye and at the same time establish him in a lineage of high Himalayan masters. He announced that, from 2000 to 2003, he would put his lecturing career on hold and attempt enlightenment by going on a three-year meditation retreat along with five chosen students, among them Christie McNally. In many ways, Roach’s silence was more powerful than his words. Three years, three months and three days went by, and Roach’s reputation grew. Word of mouth about his feat helped expand the patronage of Diamond Mountain and the Asian Classics Institute, which distributed his teachings through audio recordings and online courses.

Every six months he emerged to teach breathless crowds about his meditating experiences. At those events he was blindfolded but spoke eloquently on the nature of emptiness. Finally, on 16 January 2003 he dropped two bombshells in a poem he addressed to the Dalai Lama and published in an open letter. In his first revelation he claimed that after intensive study of tantric practices he had seen emptiness directly and was on the path to becoming a bodhisattva, a sort of Tibetan angel. The word tantra derives from Sanskrit and indicates secret ritualized teachings that can be a shortcut to advanced spiritual powers. The second revelation was that while in seclusion he had discovered that his student Christie McNally was an incarnation of Vajrayogini, the Tibetan diamond-like deity, and that he had taken her as his spiritual consort and wife. They had taken vows never to be more than 15 feet from each other for the rest of their lives and even to eat off the same plate. In light of her scant qualifications as a scholar, Roach legitimized McNally by bestowing her with the title of “lama,” a designation for a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism.

These revelations severely split the Tibetan Buddhist community. The reprimands were swift and forceful. Several respected lamas demanded that he hand back his monk’s robes. Others, including Lama Zopa Rinpoche, who heads the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, a large and wealthy group of Tibetan Buddhists, advised that he prove his claims by publicly showing the miraculous powers that are said to come with enlightenment – or be declared a heretic. That Zopa Rinpoche was one of Roach’s greatest mentors made the criticism all the more pertinent and scathing. Robert Thurman, a professor of religious studies at Columbia University, met with Roach and McNally shortly after Roach published his open letter. He was concerned that Roach had broken his vows and that his continuing as a monk could damage the reputation of the larger Tibetan Buddhist community. “I told him, ‘You can’t be a monk and have a girlfriend; you have clearly given up your vow,’” Thurman says. “To which he responded that he had never had genital contact with a human female. So I turned to her and asked if she was human or not. She said right away, ‘He said it. I didn’t.’ There was a pregnant pause, and then she said, ‘But can’t he do whatever he wants, since he has directly realized emptiness?’” On the phone I can hear Thurman consider his words and sigh. “It seemed like they had already descended into psychosis.”

Intensive retreats where monks meditate in isolated caves are mainstays of Buddhism in Tibet, where they are typically used to establish the credentials of an important teacher. However, such retreats make less sense outside Tibet’s historically feudal world. The human mind is reasonably fragile, and isolation can act like an echo chamber. For the retreatants, Diamond Mountain was a ritualized place where they could try to sharpen their minds to see as little of the ordinary world as possible and allow their visualizations to be the focus of their daily life. For better or worse, Roach and McNally emerged from their first great retreat as different people than when they began. Much of the explanation for this comes down to physical changes in the brain. In its purest form meditation is a way to look at the mind in isolation. By calming the body and watching thoughts come and go, an experienced meditator can uncover astonishing things in his or her physiology and psychology. Meditation is a little like putting your mind in a laboratory and seeing what it does on its own. Although everyone’s experience is different, it is common to see walls shift, hear noises that aren’t there, observe changes in the quality of light or have time inexplicably speed up or slow down. Neuroscientists have discovered that over the long term meditating can cause changes in the composition of brain matter, and even short stints can create significant physical alterations in one’s neurological makeup.

Whatever changes occur during short, daily meditations are only amplified on silent retreats. Although comprehensive clinical studies on the potential adverse side effects of such retreats are just getting under way (one led by Willoughby Britton, a neuroscientist at Brown University, is in its second year), it is clear that some people find the isolation and mental introspection too intense. Some lose touch with reality or fall into psychotic states. The world generally embraces meditation as a method of self-help, but a 1984 study by Stanford University psychologist Leon Otis of 574 subjects involved in Transcendental Meditation (one of the more benign forms)showed that 70 percent of longtime meditators displayed signs of mental disorders. Another explanation is that our expectations for meditation are often too grand. From a young age we are steeped in tales of superheroes and jedis who are able to perform great feats through their innate specialness and intensive study. We hear stories of levitating yogis and the power of chakras, tai chi and badass Shaolin monks, and quietly think to ourselves that maybe anything is possible.

McNally’s speedy elevation to Vajrayogini and lama mirrors those nascent desires. For those who aren’t instantly anointed, the religion offers a clear method: Meditate often, keep your vows and, if you’re in a hurry, start practicing tantra. From a certain standpoint Roach’s approach was a success. Members of the group noted that during the period when Roach and McNally were in a relationship, attendance at events and lectures was never higher. They taught together, and their mutual confidence and earnestness seemed to be an open door to enlightenment. If it was okay to take a spiritual partner along for the ride, couples could join and work on their spiritual practice together instead of following the more orthodox custom of practicing alone.

After the 2003 retreat, Roach and McNally continued to forge a spiritual path that, to outside observers, looked less like Tibetan Buddhism and more like a new faith that mixed elements of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and good oldfashioned showmanship. They co-authored half a dozen books on Tibetan meditation, yoga and business ethics, one of which attained best-seller status. Sid Johnson, a musician who was briefly on the board of directors of Diamond Mountain, worried that the group was becoming too focused on magical thinking. His concerns came to a head in 2005 during a secret initiation into the practice of the bull-headed tantric deity Yamantaka, whose name translates as “destroyer of death.” As part of a four-day ritual, all the initiates had to meet privately with Geshe Michael and Lama Christie, as their students called them, in a yurt for their final empowerment, which would help them conquer death. Johnson was nervous when he entered the room wearing a blindfold and heard Roach ask him to lie down on their bed. When he did so, McNally started to massage his chakras, starting with his head and ending at his penis. “I’m not sure who undid my pants, but it was part of the blessing,” says Johnson. When they were done, he sat up – still wearing the blindfold – and felt McNally’s lips pressing against his. They kissed. “There is a part of the initiation when your lama offers you a consort, and the way Geshe Michael teaches it, the things that happen in the metaphysical world also have to happen in the real one,” says Johnson. Afterward, he says, they all giggled like children at a summer camp, as though they were breaking taboos and no one else would know. Ten minutes later Johnson left and they asked Johnson’s wife to come in alone. Altogether, almost 20 students had private initiation by the couple that night.

By most accounts McNally began to take center stage in the spiritual road show. It was as though Roach was stepping back and allowing his partner to teach philosophy and meditation in his stead. “He seemed distracted and unengaged whenever she would speak, just staring at the ceiling while she was talking, as if distancing himself from whatever Christie was saying,” says Michael Brannan, another longtime student and current full-time volunteer at Diamond Mountain. “He called her Vajrayogini. Can you imagine being promoted to deity by your spouse and guru?” Even though she was a lama, McNally wanted to prove she could be a leader on her own. She pressed for a second great retreat, this one even more ambitious than the first. Instead of only a few humble yurts on a desolate property, they would build dozens of highly efficient self-cooling solar-powered structures – permanent infrastructure on Diamond Mountain property that could host scores of retreatants for long periods. Roach and McNally planned to lead 38 people into the desert on a quest to see emptiness directly. They had no problem finding followers to foot the bill. Participants were required to build and pay for their own cabins, with the expectation that when they were done with their retreat, ownership of the cabins would revert to Diamond Mountain. Modestly priced cabins cost around $100,000, while more lavish spaces hovered closer to $300,000. Volunteers and contractors labored on the designs for several years while Roach and McNally prepped the spiritual seekers with philosophy and meditation techniques.

By the middle of 2010, plans for the second great retreat were coming together, but Roach and McNally’s relationship was falling apart. The reasons for the split are unclear. Members of the group speak about illicit sexual liaisons between Roach and other students and covert theological power struggles. No one knows for sure, and neither Roach nor McNally commented on the split for this story, but the fallout reverberated through the community. Michael Brannan remembers “a lot of people just sort of swapped partners,” including McNally. Former member Ekan Thomason remembers that Thorson dropped off his then girlfriend at her house with a sleeping bag and disappeared into the desert. The next time Thomason saw Thorson, he and McNally were dancing under a disco ball at a party at the Diamond Mountain temple. In October 2010 McNally and Thorson married in a Christian ceremony in Montauk, New York. Faced with being confined on a silent retreat with his ex-wife, Roach quietly backed away from his commitment to participate and gave over leadership of the affair to McNally. For McNally the second great desert retreat would be a major testing ground for her as a spiritual leader. At its conclusion she would have had almost seven years of silent meditation under her belt, a qualification few Buddhist practitioners – even in Tibet – can claim. With 38 people looking to her for spiritual guidance, including a new husband for whom she was guru, goddess and wife, she needed to impart something special. She found her answer outside Tibetan Buddhism, in the Hindu goddess Kali.

Kali isn’t an ordinary member of the Hindu pantheon. Although a few major temples, including the famous Dakshinewar Kali Temple in Calcutta, are devoted to her worship, most mainstream Hindus invoke her name only in times of violence or war. In the 1700s British colonialists popularized and exaggerated stories of Kali worshippers called thuggee (from which we get the English word thug), who murdered unsuspecting travelers on isolated roads and used their bodies in sacrifices to the goddess to gain magical powers. The few Hindus steeped in tantric practice – usually quite different from Buddhist tantra – will sometimes appeal to Kali for female spiritual power, called Shakti. Although Kali is considered untamable, wild and dangerous, it seems McNally wanted to add the goddess to her tantric meditation in order to speed her journey to enlightenment.

In October 2009 McNally staged a 10-day Kali initiation with more than 100 prospective devotees. She decorated the temple with weapons: swords, guns, crossbows, chain saws and menacing-looking garden implements meant to show the violent side of the deity. In a symbolic rite reminiscent of India’s now-banned thuggee cult, members were “kidnapped” on the road between holy sites and stuffed into a small wooden box to heighten their fear. Roach held his own version of the ritual nearby as Ekan Thomason met Lama Christie in a structure called Lama Dome. There, McNally gave her a medical lancet. “Kali requires something from you. She requires your blood,” McNally said, reminding Thomason of a beautiful swashbuckling pirate as she ran a finger across the sharp edge of the knife. The ceremony was designed to be terrifying, and participants were split in their reactions. Some had accepted McNally as an infallible teacher and hoped to learn despite the theatrics. Others worried that Diamond Mountain was turning toward a dark, occult version of Hinduism. But a year later almost 40 retreatants would lock themselves in a valley under Lama Christie’s sole spiritual direction. In the months leading up to the retreat in 2010 the group showed signs of stress as members became increasingly confused between the spiritual world they were trying to access through meditation and the real world, where actions had predictable consequences.

Under Roach and McNally’s direction they threw parties in the temple at which they served “nectar,” specially blessed booze they could drink despite their vows of abstinence. At one of these parties some members, who wish to remain anonymous, say they saw Roach and McNally perform miracles – allegedly walking through a wall of the temple building by bending the laws of space and time. Such stories became commonplace around the camp, and the communal hysteria vaulted Roach and McNally to godlike status. Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, co-authors of The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, explain these perceived miracles on a psychological level. Kramer says, “People can convince themselves they have seen many things that are really just projections of their own mind.” Alstad adds that disciples give their mental energy to a guru and the guru reflects the energy back to them. It seems likely that McNally learned to see the world through Roach’s lens. “Roach took her mind over – or she gave it to him,” says Alstad. “That’s what followers do: They totally surrender. She surrendered to him as a young, unformed woman. And a similar process was probably reversed between Thorson and McNally. She was his lama, his guru and his wife.”

When the retreat started, no one had much of an idea how their relationship would hold up. Then, in March 2011, after three months of silence, Thorson knocked on the door of a retreatant who was a nurse practitioner. He was bleeding profusely from three stab wounds. She was afraid to treat him and recommended he go to a hospital. But the second person to see him, a doctor on retreat, reluctantly tended to the slashes on his torso and shoulder. The wounds were so deep, the doctor said, they “threatened vital organs.” At the time, McNally and Thorson gave no explanation for how it happened, but soon rumors of domestic abuse began to circulate in the same hushed whispers as the talk about Roach’s supposed sexual liaisons with various students. With most people under vows of silence, it is no surprise that almost a year passed before the event became publicly known. In February 2012, Lama Christie recused herself from her vow of silence to give a public lecture on her realizations during meditation. Wearing her trademark white robes and with a silken blindfold across her eyes, she sat on a throne and talked about the spiritual lessons she had learned while grappling with an increasingly unstable and violent relationship.

In an act she described as playful, McNally said she stabbed Thorson three times with a knife they had received as a wedding present. He could have died in the exchange, and few people in the crowd could grasp what the lesson was supposed to mean. Could violence be a route to their ultimate spiritual goals? Had their teacher gone crazy? Referencing her newfound grasp of the goddess Kali, she asked the crowd to learn from her experience with violence. Although the original recording of her talk has been taken off the Internet, she later explained the incident in a public letter: “I simply did not understand that the knife could actually cut someone… I was actively trying to raise up this aggressive energy, a kind of fierce divine pride… It was all divine play to me.” She went on to write about the tantric lessons Kali had taught her through the event and how she was trying to cope with occasional violence in her relationship with Thorson.

Jigme Palmo, a nun who sits on Diamond Mountain’s board of directors, stated later that the board was worried the focus on violence might spur other meditators down a dangerous path. The directors immediately convened emergency meetings and discussed various plans of action. “It was an impossible situation,” says Palmo. “We didn’t know what was happening inside the retreat, and yet the board was ultimately responsible if something went wrong.” They consulted a lawyer and sent urgent written messages to McNally asking for more information about domestic violence and her increasingly erratic decisions. Suddenly aware that her teachings had created a rift in the community, McNally tried to shore up her control of the meditators by banning all correspondence with the outside world. She ordered that all mail deliveries cease and instructed the retreatants to refuse contact with their families. The board members decided they had no choice but to act unilaterally to remove McNally from her role as teacher and to remove McNally and Thorson from the retreat itself. The board sent them a letter explaining their decision and gave McNally and Thorson an hour to pack their things and leave, offering to cover their relocation expenses, including hotel costs, a rental car, prepaid cell phones and $3,600 cash. The message was clear: Get out now.

But McNally and Thorson had taken vows to stay in Diamond Mountain’s consecrated area, and they had a different plan. Instead of leaving, McNally and Thorson planned to find a nearby cave where they could continue to meditate and still have contact with some of McNally’s students. Before they made their final arrangements to leave, McNally met privately with Michael Brannan to discuss the board’s decision. McNally kept her vow of silence, and the two passed notes back and forth, creating an effective transcript of her thoughts at the time. The document, which Brannan shared with me, sheds light on McNally’s state of mind. In it she mentions ordinations that took place and the pressure that people – especially Thorson – felt while they were “locked up” on retreat. But it all also fit into a broader plan. “Everything is perfect, you’ll see” she begins, adding, “I have inherited my holy lama’s [Roach’s] style of pushing people past their breaking point.” She blames her former husband for having “stoked the fire” and making people fear her as a teacher.

Perhaps the real problem was her former lover’s jealousy over her current husband. She then disappeared without any further communication with the board of directors or most of the other retreatants. She, Thorson and two attendants hauled gear up a rugged mountainside. They found an ancient cave just out of sight of the retreat valley where they could finish their three years of silent meditation unobserved. The few people they let in on the secret promised to ferry them supplies as needed. Water would be placed at strategic points where one of them could retrieve it without being seen. Objectively, the decision to live out the rest of the retreat on an Arizona mountainside was fatal from its inception. Sergeant David Noland, who coordinated the rescue effort, has seen 36 people die of dehydration or exposure to the elements in his county in the past three years. “At that point a death was inevitable,” he says. The cabins at Diamond Mountain were built with the environment in mind, but the pockmark in the rock where McNally and Thorson laid their sleeping bags was exposed. For two months the couple was battered alternately by rain, wind and snow. Though their decision proved to be fatal, McNally and Thorson weren’t suicidal. They thought they were exceptional and the rules for ordinary humans didn’t apply anymore. They were on the cusp of greatness. Enlightenment was within reach.

Three days before Thorson died, McNally’s supporters published a 31-page manifesto she had written, titled “A Shift in the Matrix,” in which she explains their spiritual lessons over the past year. She writes: “One of the highest tantric vows there is is the vow of how you should see your lama and how to behave toward them. When you are with a partner, your partner becomes your highest lama. So I have been [Ian’s] lama for many years, but he recently became mine as well. Your lama is unquestionably a divine being and your job at all times is to fight any desire to see them in a lesser way. You should trust your lama with your life, and totally surrender to them”. To them their cave was a challenge they would overcome together, a sacred location in the tradition of the high Himalayan lamas, whose asceticism and hardships were a path to greatness. McNally and Thorson had been running low on water and began to drink brown, polluted runoff rainwater. On the morning of 22 April 2012, Thorson wouldn’t wake up, and McNally activated the emergency distress beacon she had packed. Thorson was barely breathing. It would take another seven hours for the search-and-rescue team to bring them down off the mountainside. An autopsy would eventually attribute Thorson’s death to dehydration. His corpse weighed only 100 pounds, but McNally did not want to be separated from it and fought the police and mortician with fists and tears when they tried to take it into custody.

McNally recuperated in a hospital in nearby Wilcox, Arizona. Several days later she vanished. Rumors have flown that she is on another silent retreat, meditating on the meaning of her husband’s death. According to various accounts, she is in the Bahamas, South America, Colorado, Kathmandu or California, but no one really knows what she is doing or if she is safe. I saw Roach one more time, during a one-day stopover in Phoenix on my way back to California. He had avoided my emails and requests the entire time I was in Arizona, and this was my only chance to have a private word with him. His lecture that night, on the importance of mindfulness, lasted three hours, and when he was done I got in line behind a 50-ish Indian woman carrying a Louis Vuitton handbag. She chatted with other people in the line and examined a beaded necklace she hoped Roach would bless. “I can’t believe I’m going to meet the enlightened one,” she said excitedly. When it was my turn I stood in front of his throne and introduced myself. I tried to phrase a question about how he was dealing with Thorson’s death. “It was a very sad event,” he said, “but why are people not interested in my teaching? One person dies in the desert and suddenly everyone pays attention. People should be talking about all the good works that I’ve done instead.” It wasn’t a satisfying answer. It was as if Roach couldn’t take a minute to reflect on the profundity of what had happened. To him it may just have been karma ripening, and perhaps the story didn’t end when someone died in the desert. It might have just begun.

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Death on the Path to Enlightenment

Jonathan Spollen, a 28-year-old Irishman with long brown hair and a delicate brogue, was at a crossroads in his life. He’d embarked on a career as an overseas journalist, working first as a reporter at the Daily Star Egypt in Cairo and then as a foreign editor at The National in Abu Dhabi. But now he was a copy editor for the International Herald Tribune in Hong Kong, approaching 30, and wondering if he liked where his life was going. In October 2011, following a split with his girlfriend, he bought some trekking gear, sent his laptop home to Dublin, and booked a flight to Kathmandu, Nepal. From there, Spollen made his way to India. He had visited before, spending time with an octogenarian yogi named Prahlad Jani—who claims his mastery of the ancient arts has allowed him to live without food for 70 years—and had come away entranced with the country. This time, Spollen roamed the subcontinent for several months, visiting the holy city of Varanasi, India’s oldest inhabited settlement. In early February, Spollen called his mother, Lydia, to tell her he planned to spend two or three weeks hiking in the Himalayas near the pilgrimage site of Rishikesh, the yogaphilic city on the Ganges where the Beatles visited Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. She reportedly asked him not to go alone, but he told her that was the whole point. “It’s a spiritual thing,” he explained.

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The Bone Factory

Originally published in Wired

A constable in a sweat-stained undershirt and checkered blue sarong lays a ragged cloth over a patch of mud. He jerks open the back door of a decrepit Indian-made Tata Sumo SUV — what passes for an evidence locker at this rustic police outpost in the Indian state of West Bengal. A hundred human skulls tumble out onto the cloth, making a hollow clatter as they fall to the ground. They’ve lost most of their teeth bouncing around the back of the truck. Bits of bone and enamel scatter like snowflakes around the growing pile.

Standing next to the truck, the ranking officer smiles and lets out a satisfied grunt. “Now you can see how big the bone business is here,” he says. I crouch down and pick up a skull. It’s lighter than I expected. I hold it up to my nose. It smells like fried chicken.

Before the authorities intercepted it, this cache was moving along a well-established pipeline for human skeletal remains. For 150 years, India’s bone trade has followed a route from remote Indian villages to the world’s most distinguished medical schools.

Skeletons aren’t easy to get. In the US, for instance, most corpses receive a prompt burial, and bodies donated to science usually end up on the dissection table, their bones sawed to pieces and destined for cremation. So most skeletons used for medical study come from overseas. Often they arrive without the informed consent of their former owners and in violation of the laws of their country of origin.

U.S. institutions pay a hefty price for human bones.

India has long been the world’s primary source of bones used in medical study, renowned for producing specimens scrubbed to a pristine white patina and fitted with high-quality connecting hardware. In 1985, however, the Indian government outlawed the export of human remains, and the global supply of skeletons collapsed. Western countries turned to China and Eastern Europe, but those regions produce relatively few skeletons. They have little experience producing display-quality specimens, and their products are regarded as inferior.

Now, 22 years after India’s export ban, there are signs that the trade never ended. Black-market vendors in West Bengal continue to supply human skeletons and skulls using the time-honored method: Rob graves, separate soft flesh from unyielding calcium, and deliver the bones to distributors — who assemble them and ship them to dealers around the globe.

Exports to North America are still small compared with pre-ban levels, but shipments are finding their way to American medical programs. Suppliers have ample incentive — it’s a lucrative business. The skulls on the ground before me, for instance, would fetch an estimated $70,000 overseas.

The constable grabs the cloth by its corners and gathers the evidence into a bundle. “You know, I’ve never seen anything like this,” he says. “I hope I don’t again.”

A massive low-pressure system over the Bay of Bengal is threatening to flood the state of West Bengal. Newspapers have already dubbed the storm a “watery apocalypse” after eight people drowned in floods before it even touched land. I’m driving to the tiny village of Purbasthali — about 80 miles outside of Kolkata, the state capital — the site of the processing plant where the police discovered their load of skulls. My rented Toyota Qualis gets stuck in the mud half a mile from the facility, so I jump out to make my way on foot. The sky is pitch-black, the rain suffocating. Toads the size of boxing gloves hop across the muddy track.

When police arrived to investigate last spring, they could smell the stench of rotting flesh from nearly a mile away. Sections of spine strung together with twine dangled from the rafters, an officer told me. Hundreds of bones were scattered on the floor in some sort of ordering system.

This bone factory had been operating for more than 100 years when two of its workers, drinking at a bar, bragged that they were hired to dig bodies out of graves. Shocked villagers dragged them to a police station, where they confessed. The workers said a man named Mukti Biswas ran the factory. The authorities knew him well. In 2006, police had arrested Biswas as the kingpin of a grave-robbing ring; he was released a day later, news reports said, “because of his political links.” The police took him into custody once again, but he was let out on bail and has since taken flight.

After 10 minutes of slogging through the mud, I make out the flicker of a gas lamp. I peek into the doorway of a wood-frame house. A family of four sitting on the dirt floor stares back at me.

“Do you know Mukti Biswas?” I ask.

“The bastard still owes me money,” replies Manoj Pal, a twentysomething man with a thin mustache. His family has been working at the bone factory for generations, he says. He offers to show me around, and we head out along the bank of the Bhagirathi River.

The processing plant is little more than a bamboo hut with a tarpaulin roof — one of a dozen bone factories Pal says he knows about. In April, the authorities confiscated piles of bones, buckets of hydrochloric acid, and two barrels full of a caustic chemical they have yet to identify. All that’s left is a dirt floor with a large concrete vat sunk into the ground.

A third-generation bone trader, Biswas had no problem finding dead bodies. As caretaker of the village’s cremation ground, he claimed to have a license to dispose of the dead. But police told reporters he was robbing graves. Biswas pilfered corpses from cemeteries, morgues, and funeral pyres; he would drag the deceased from the flames as soon as the families left. He employed almost a dozen people to shepherd the bones through the various stages of de-fleshing and curing. For this work, Pal says he earned $1.25 a day. He also received a bonus for keeping the bones from a given body together so they represented a biological individual rather than a mishmash of parts — a feature prized by doctors.

Pal explains the factory’s production process. First the corpses were wrapped in netting and anchored in the river, where bacteria and fish reduced a body to a loose pile of bones and mush in a week or so. The crew then scrubbed the bones and boiled them in a cauldron of water and caustic soda to dissolve any remaining flesh. That left the calcium surfaces with a yellow tint. To bring them up to medical white, bones were then left in sunlight for a week before being soaked in hydrochloric acid.

Biswas sold complete skeletons wholesale for $45 to a medical supply company called Young Brothers, which wired the pieces together, painted on medical diagrams, and sawed away sections of the skulls to reveal internal structures. Then Young Brothers sold the bones to dealers around the world.

Shining my flashlight on the floor, I pick up a wet rag. The translator lets out a low hiss. “I hope you know that’s a death shroud,” he says. I drop the cloth and wipe my hand on my shirt.


Top: A police officer in Burdwan, West Bengal, displays a cache of skulls confiscated from a bone factory run by Mukti Biswas on the outskirts of Kolkata. Middle: The gated entrance to Young Brothers in Kolkata. The company sells human remains at wholesale prices. Bottom: A bag of tibias and femurs* recovered by West Bengal police.
Photos: Scott Carney

The empirical study of human anatomy took off with Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches in the 15th century; the earliest extant articulated skeleton dates from 1543. As medicine advanced, physicians were expected to have a systematic understanding of the human body’s inner workings. By the beginning of the 19th century, Europe’s demand for human remains far outstripped supply.

In England, home of many of the world’s preeminent medical institutions, grave robbing became so commonplace that certain cemeteries were famous for battles between grieving families and marauding medical students. To contain the problem, the government passed the Anatomy Act of 1832, allowing doctors to take any corpse that was left unclaimed in a city morgue or hospital. The law put an end to grave robbery, but the supply of legal skeletons still couldn’t keep up with demand. So British doctors looked to the colonies. In India, members of the dom caste, who traditionally performed cremations, were pressed into service processing bones. In the 1850s, Calcutta Medical College processed 900 skeletons a year, mostly for shipment abroad. A century later, a newly independent India dominated the world market for human bones.

In 1985, the Chicago Tribune reported that India had exported about 60,000 skulls and skeletons the year before. The supply was sufficient for every medical student in the developed world to buy a bone box along with their textbooks. Price: $300.

If most of the merchandise was stolen, at least exporting it was legal. “For years, we ran everything aboveboard,” Bimalendu Bhattacharjee, a former president of the Indian Association of Exporters of Anatomical Specimens, told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. “No one advertised, but everyone knew it was going on.” At their height, Kolkata’s bone factories took in an estimated $1 million a year.

But it couldn’t last. The graveyards of West Bengal were being picked clean, and the lure of ready money soon attracted criminal elements. The industry shuddered to a halt in March 1985, when a bone trader was arrested after exporting 1,500 child skeletons. Because they’re relatively rare and illustrate transitional stages in osteological development, child skeletons command higher prices. Indian newspapers claimed that children were being kidnapped and killed for their bones.

Panic spread with news of the arrest. In the months after the indictment, vigilantes combed the cities searching for members of the alleged kidnappers’ network. In September, an Australian tourist was killed and a Japanese tourist was beaten by a mob after rumors spread that they were involved in the conspiracy. The attacks might have been enough to stall India’s bone industry, but the government had already taken action: A few weeks earlier, India’s Supreme Court interpreted the national Import/Export Control Act to prohibit the export of human tissue.

In the absence of competing suppliers in other countries, the court’s decision effectively shut down international trade in human skeletons. Medical schools in the US and Europe begged the Indian government to reverse the export ban, to no avail.

Since then, natural human bone has been difficult to come by. The voracious demand for fresh cadavers in medical education consumes nearly all donated corpses in the US, and in any case, processing skeletons is a slow, messy business that few people care to take on. When high-quality specimens do become available, they tend to be costly. A complete skeleton in good condition now retails for several thousand dollars, and orders can take months, even years, to fulfill. Students no longer buy their own bone boxes; instead, schools usually keep an inventory that’s replaced only when specimens are damaged or stolen. Stanford Medical School allocates half a skeleton, cleaved down the middle, for every two students. Such policies mean that many established institutions already have all the bones they need. The biggest buyers of skeletons are new and growing schools throughout the world that need to outfit their labs.

Some institutions have turned to plastic replicas. But artificial substitutes aren’t ideal. “Plastic models are reproductions of a single specimen and don’t include the range of variations found in real osteology,” says Samuel Kennedy, who stocks the anatomy program at Harvard Medical School. Students trained on facsimiles never see these differences among individuals. Moreover, the models aren’t entirely accurate. “The molding process doesn’t capture the detail of a real specimen,” Kennedy adds.”This is especially critical in the skull.”

In the US, major dealers like Kilgore International are making do selling replicas. “My father would have done almost anything to get back into the bone business,” says Craig Kilgore, who runs the company his father founded. “He was legally blind but would still come to the office and write letters to anyone, anywhere in the world, that he felt could be of help to reopen the supply.”

His father, who died in 1995, didn’t live to see the turnaround.

Tucked away on a side street between one of Kolkata’s largest graveyards and one of its busiest hospitals, Young Brothers’ headquarters looks more like an abandoned warehouse than a leading distributor of human skeletons. The rusted front gate appears to have been padlocked and forgotten a decade ago. Above the entrance, the company sign is a tableau of peeling paint.

It wasn’t always this way. The building was bustling with activity in 2001, according to former Kolkata Health Department chief Javed Ahmed Khan. At the time, neighbors complained that the Young Brothers offices stank of death. Huge piles of bones lay drying on the roof. When the police refused to file a case, Khan raided the building with a posse of bamboo-wielding heavies.

“There were two rooms full of human skeletons,” Khan recalls. It took five trucks to haul them away. He also seized thousands of documents, including invoices to companies all around the world. “They were sending shipments to Thailand, Brazil, Europe, and the United States,” he says.

Sixteen years after the export ban, it was as if the law had never taken effect. “We used to fill orders all over the world,” says a clerk employed by Young Brothers between 1999 and 2001, who requested anonymity. “We used to buy bones from Mukti Biswas. I saw more than 5,000 dead bodies.” There were other suppliers, too, and factories up and down the length of West Bengal. The company took in roughly $15,000 a month.

Khan’s raid prompted the police to arrest Young Brothers’ owner, Vinesh Aron. He spent two nights in jail before being released.

Today, there are no bones on the roof. I’ve been poking around the area for an hour or so, interviewing neighbors, when a white van pulls up to the building. A man dressed in a pink-checkered shirt steps out. He walks briskly to a side door and knocks: Vinesh Aron.

Aron sees me snapping photos and knocks more forcefully, but the assistant inside is having trouble with the lock. As I try to formulate a question, my translator shoves a microphone in his face and asks whether he’s still shipping skeletons to the West. Looking flustered, Aron blurts, “We won that case!” The entrance cracks open and he slips in before the door slams in my face.

In a subsequent phone conversation, Aron says he now sells medical models and charts, but no bones. However, a vendor of surgical instrument supplies who claims to be his brother-in-law says Young Brothers is the only bone distributor in the country. “My brother-in-law is the only man who still does this in India. He is the only one with guts,” he says. Then he offers to dig up a skeleton for me for 1,000 rupees ($25).

The most recent Young Brothers catalog (2006-2007) takes care to inform customers that it abides by the law. It lists a wide assortment of bones at wholesale prices, noting that they’re “for sale in India only.” Indian skeletons are somehow making it out of the country anyway.

In Canada, Osta International sells human bones throughout the US and Europe. The 40-year-old company offers to fill orders immediately. “About half of our business is in the States,” says Christian Ruediger, who runs the business with his father, Hans.

Ruediger admits that Osta stocks bones from India, presumably smuggled out of the country in violation of the export law. Until a few years ago, he got them from a distributor in Paris, but that source dried up in 2001 — around the time Javed Khan raided Young Brothers. Since then, he has bought his stock from a middleman in Singapore. He declines to provide the name. “We want to keep a low profile,” he says.

Of some 30 institutions I contacted in the course of researching this article, the handful that admitted to buying bones in the past few years declined to reveal their sources or speak on record. Osta’s name came up twice. “I bought a complete skeleton and a dissected human demonstration skull from Osta,” a professor at a prestigious Virginia college says. “Both were excellent.”

Another Osta customer is a firm called Dentsply Rinn, which offers a plastic model head containing a real skull, used in training dentists. “It’s very difficult to procure human bones,” marketing manager Kimberly Brown says. “Our requirements stipulate that the skulls must be of a certain size and grade and without certain anatomical defects. But we have no requirement for their origin.”

Indian authorities express a similar lack of concern. Although the international bone trade violates the national export law and local statutes against grave desecration, officials look the other way.”This is not a new thing,” says Rajeev Kumar, West Bengal’s deputy inspector general of police. “There’s no evidence that they were killing people.” The police took an interest in Biswas only because the bodies of a few important people went missing. “We are trying to implement the law based on the stress society places on it,” he adds. “Society does not see this as a very serious thing.”

The need to study human bones in medicine is well established. The need to obtain the informed consent of people whose bones are studied is not. The reemergence of India’s bone trade reflects the tension between these requirements. Someday doctors may develop a supply chain based on voluntary donation. Meanwhile, the bone factories of Kolkata are open for business.

Scott Carney (www.scottcarneyonline.comwrote about auto-rickshaw racing in issue 15.01.

* Correction appended March 18, 2008, 6:00pm. This bag in this photograph contains tibias and femurs, not just femurs, as previously reported.


Panic Button

Panic Button

Outside Magazine July 2011

Katalina Jimenez was cold. So cold that her fingers were sluggish. So cold that she couldn’t stop crying.

Until now, her strategy for hiking the Pacific Crest Trail had been simple and ­effective: use minimal gear and move fast. On this day—June 3, 2009—her pack weighed less than 20 pounds, and she’d swapped her hiking shoes for sandals and socks. It had taken her only 38 days to pass through the scorching Southern California desert. Jimenez was making great time as she began ascending midsize Sierra peaks inside ­Sequoia National Park, starting with 2,600-foot Sharknose Ridge, about 15 miles south of Mount Whitney.

Jimenez, 36, had made one slight departure from fleet-footed efficiency: she was carrying a small orange emergency-messaging device, made by a company called Spot, that her mother had insisted she take. Though the satellite-linked unit allowed only one-way communication—she used it to trigger a daily ­e-mail that told family and friends in Minne­sota that she was OK—it could save her life if the trip turned dangerous. A Help button would tell her contacts that she was in trouble, while a 911 button would issue a rescue alert in case of life-threatening emergency.

The morning had been perfect, with yellow sun filtering through dense evergreens. By noon clouds had moved in, the temperature had dropped, and there were snow flurries, so Jimenez decided to set up camp and let the front pass by. Her map showed a small pond and a clearing just off the trail, but by the time she reached it the area was blanketed with snow, and she couldn’t tell where the dirt ended and the water began. Her feet splooshed into the cold lake, soaking her socks and sending shivers up her legs.

Jimenez was still shaking when she found a dry patch to set up her tarp and mat. She climbed into her sleeping bag. Wet and alone, she pressed the Spot’s OK button and watched an LED light acknowledge that the message had been sent. It was still only 20 degrees out—not cold enough to put her in any real danger.

Three hours later, the weight of new snow was making the tarp sag and her mind race. This is how people die in the wilderness, Jimenez thought. You get cold and wet, and then you can’t warm up. Then it’s over. She conjured an image of a hiker coming down the trail and discovering her frozen body.

By 3:30, the loneliness and anxiety were overwhelming. She pressed Help. Then she fumbled with her compact camera and recorded a three-minute video, sobbing as she described her predicament. A few minutes later, she pressed 911—an act she would ­regret later, after the weather eased up and she walked to safety under her own steam.

At the time, though, rescuers knew only one thing: somebody was in trouble. Later that day, a California search-and-rescue heli­copter was slicing through the sky.

Read the rest of the article in Outside Magazine

Fortress India

Felani wore her gold bridal jewelry as she crouched out of sight inside the squalid concrete building. The 15-year-old’s father, Nurul Islam, peeked cautiously out the window and scanned the steel and barbed-wire fence that demarcates the border between India and Bangladesh. The fence was the last obstacle to Felani’s wedding, arranged for a week later in her family’s ancestral village just across the border in Bangladesh.

There was no question of crossing legally — visas and passports from New Delhi could take years — and besides, the Bangladeshi village where Islam grew up was less than a mile away from the bus stand on the Indian side. Still, they knew it was dangerous. The Indians who watched the fence had a reputation for shooting first and asking questions later. Islam had paid $65 to a broker who said he could bribe the Indian border guard, but he had no way of knowing whether the money actually made it into the right hands.

Father and daughter waited for the moment when the guards’ backs were turned and they could prop a ladder against the fence and clamber over. The broker held them back for hours, insisting it wasn’t safe yet. But eventually the first rays of dawn began to cut through the thick morning fog. They had no choice but to make a break for it.

Islam went first, clearing the barrier in seconds. Felani wasn’t so lucky. The hem of her salwar kameez caught on the barbed wire. She panicked, and screamed. An Indian soldier came running and fired a single shot at point-blank range, killing her instantly. The father fled, leaving his daughter’s corpse tangled in the barbed wire. It hung there for another five hours before the border guards were able to negotiate a way to take her down; the Indians transferred the body across the border the next day. “When we got her body back the soldiers had even stolen her bridal jewelry,” Islam told us, speaking in a distant voice a week after the January incident.

Other border fortifications around the world may get all the headlines, but over the past decade the 1,790-mile fence barricading the near entirety of the frontier between India and Bangladesh has become one of the world’s bloodiest. Since 2000, Indian troops have shot and killed nearly 1,000 people like Felani there.

In India, the 25-year-old border fence — finally expected to be completed next year at a cost of $1.2 billion — is celebrated as a panacea for a whole range of national neuroses: Islamist terrorism, illegal immigrants stealing Indian jobs, the refugee crisis that could ensue should a climate catastrophe ravage South Asia. But for Bangladeshis, the fence has come to embody the irrational fears of a neighbor that is jealously guarding its newfound wealth even as their own country remains mired in poverty. The barrier is a physical reminder of just how much has come between two once-friendly countries with a common history and culture — and how much blood one side is willing to shed to keep them apart.

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See a gallery of unpublished photos from the trip here.

Cash on Delivery

FROM ITS POCKMARKED EXTERIOR WALLS and stark interior, you’d never guess that the pink three-story building tucked in a narrow alley a few blocks from the train station in the fast-growing city of Anand houses India’s most successful surrogate childbirth business. But this is the place they raved about on Oprah. Nowadays, thanks to the endorsement of daytime TV’s leading lady, the Akanksha Infertility Clinic fertilizes eggs, implants and incubates embryos, and finally delivers contract babies at a rate of nearly one a week.

Doctor Nayna Patel, Akanksha’s founder, has just finished washing up after delivering twins by cesarean section. A team of nurses ushers me into her office from an adjoining one where I’ve had a chance to peruse a stack of press clippings lauding her accomplishments and contributions to international fertility. For the last three to four years, Patel has been the subject of dozens of gushing articles in addition to that game-changing 2007 Oprah segment, which all but heralded Patel as a savior of childless middle-class couples and helped open the floodgates for the outsourcing of American pregnancies. Patel took the publicity to the bank—autographed photos of Ms. Winfrey are displayed prominently throughout the clinic, which claims a waiting list hundreds deep and receives at least a dozen new inquiries from potential surrogacy customers each week.

The doctor, clad in a bright red-and-orange sari, sits at a large desk that covers about a third of the room. Heavy diamond jewelry dangles from her neck, ears, and wrists. Her wide grin projects a mixture of politeness and caution as she beckons me to sit in a rolling office chair. I showed up here without an appointment, fearing Patel would refuse to see me if I phoned in advance: Despite all the laudatory press, in the weeks prior to my visit a spate of critical articles had appeared, focusing on the clinic’s controversial practice of cloistering its hired surrogate mothers in dormitories. Among the claims: Akanksha is little more than a baby factory. “The world will point a finger at me,” Patel responds when I ask about the criticism. “She will point, he will point. I don’t have to keep answering people for that.”

As if to prove it, she politely evades my questions for 20 minutes, and then escorts me out. I had hoped to get her take on the residency units, but it’s not a topic she cares to discuss.


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The Temple of Do

AS CO-OWNER of the Grooming Room on Brooklyn’s Nostrand Avenue, a street so dense with beauty outlets that it almost seems zoned for that purpose, Tiffany Brown is a high priestess of the do. When I first met her yesterday, her face was framed by closely cropped bangs and tresses hanging to her chin. Today she looks altogether different, with hair pulled tight against her scalp into a ponytail just an inch long. Tomorrow, it might well be glamorous locks cascading down her back. The secret of Brown’s chameleon powers: extensions made from human hair. It’s “a necessary accessory, like earrings or a necklace,” she says. “It lets me be whoever I want to be for a day.” Her clients feel the same way; they spend about $400 a month maintaining their extensions, she says, though a few drop thousands. Between shops like hers and celebs who might shell out $10,000 or more for a single wig or weave, the demand adds up to a $900 million global trade in human hair—not counting installation.

Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary, Good Hair, focused attention on the trouble and expense many a black woman goes through in her quest for straight hair. “Have you ever put your hands through a black woman’s hair?” Rock asks some guys in a barbershop. The response: “Hell no! Not a black woman’s hair!” (Too expensive.) But extensions are “not a black or white thing or even a woman’s thing,” says Lori Tharps, coauthor of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. She points to the recent admission by tennis star Andre Agassi that for much of his career his signature mullet was in fact a weave.

In any case, those seeking a high-end look know what to ask for. It’s called “remy” hair, which is more or less synonymous with hair from India. Top salons prize it for the way it’s collected, in a single cut, which preserves the orientation of the hair’s shingle-like outer layer, and thus its strength, luster, and feel. That’s what defines remy, and that’s the reason it commands a premium price. “If you want cheap hair,” sniffs one supplier’s blog, “you’re going to get a cheap looking hairstyle.” Beyoncé wears remy hair, as do Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, and anyHollywood starlet who’s been within a mile of a first-class weave. “The only hair worth buying is remy,” says one of Brown’s clients, her hair wrapped around enormous curlers. “They say that it’s cut from the heads of virgins.”

Read the rest of the article at Mother Jones