The Aeneid

Biting arctic winds swept down from the north across the great lake and Chicago froze last week. I landed in O’Hare airport just as Chicago was thawing, on Monday, the week after the polar vortex hit.

It was still cold but some semblance of balance had been restored. Chicago was back to being warmer than the Arctics.

I had to get out of Chicago to go to Boston the next day. My flight was at 18:30 to Boston on Tuesday and there was a snow storm expected at 19:00. At the airport, I was standing watching the departure screen as ETAs and gate numbers switched to Cancelled, in a march of the red against the green text – a scorecard of nature wreaking havoc on human plans.

I sat down on a bench opposite one such screen, watching the system updates, watching the anxious faces of passengers as they squinted their eyes to locate and relocate their flights, doublechecking their travel plans.

I was expected to be in Boston for an interview with Google. It was at MIT, Cambridge. I had passed many rounds and this was the culmination of a 2 months process, one that I started in late November. I was excited and aware of the potential and rarity of this opportunity. The stars felt aligned even if the sky was clouding over. The 30-minute window, between when my flight was due to take off and the snowstorm was about to hit, kept my hopes alive, and somewhere, the air traffic gods seemed to concur.

I was reading the Aeneid during that time, as is my wont whenever a critical project is at hand, to take my mind off continuously prepping for the interview.

It was a Robert Fagles translation, one in which he abandons any attempt at metering the epic. I guess he wanted the flexibility to not be tied down to the rhythm of the original text. Even though I was already halfway into the epic I was unmoved by it. I put it down to various reasons. I was constantly comparing it to the Homeric works which the Aeneid was derived from. I found Aeneas lacking agency, a mortal puppet caught in the domestic quarrels of the Roman Gods. Juno’s and Venus’ meddling seemed to leave no room for anyone within the Aeneid to have free will. Dido’s tragedy seemed to be a callous casualty of God’s indulgence. Anchises’ predictions seemed impotent against the divine will.

Virgil, I decided, was not talking about a human journey. He was chronicling the incidentals of Olympians.

I do not know why that interpretation bothered me enough to abandon the book halfway through. Did I want Aeneas and the Trojans to be fully responsible for their actions? Was I so new-age-ey that I cannot stand divinity to play a part in storytelling and rhetoric, that too in a work created millennia ago? When did I start insisting on a narrative that put personal ability above chance with this much vehemence?

Meanwhile, I noticed that the red letters had moved down close to my flight. There were just a few more fights above mine, but the march of the canceled seems to have temporarily stalled.

After Google first contacted me, we progressed along the recruitment process quickly. Two rounds of interviews within two weeks. But the final two rounds had to be postponed, as I had already booked my tickets to India for three weeks, following which, the team that I was to interview with and I could only manage to get together in February. If the flight was canceled, I decided I would wait it out in the airport, and drive right into the interview. It had been a long wait already.

The Aeneid had its periods of waiting too. One of Juno’s favorite stalling technique was to unleash storms and winds to wreak havoc on Aeneas’ fleet whenever the Trojans voyaged towards Italy. Detours last years, like at Carthage, where, tired of searching for the promised land, they are tempted with domesticity by the Carthaginians, until some God decides to urge them on with a sign, sometimes gentle, sometimes violent.

The pattern repeats itself in the Aeneid. Prophesies to Aeneas, followed by voyaging, then detraction, followed by temptation, with fatalities of fellow voyagers on the way. On the way they pass Ithaca, the homeland of Odysseus, arguably the most fleshed out of the Homeric heroes. Trojans rightly view Odysseus with venom, who with his strength, oratory persuasion, cunning, and strategies, caused the destruction of Troy.

How the morals of war change colors based on whose boat you are in!

Finally, I made it into the plane. Soon we were sitting on the runway, the plane coated with antifreeze, the pilot announcing cheerily that he “wanted to get y’all lovely people to Boston”, half the passengers wishing the flight was canceled as they looked at the amassing of lightning laden thunderclouds into which the plane had to plunge.

We landed in Boston safely, I made it to the interview, went through the drill, and in a few days heard back that Google decided to go with someone whose background was a better fit. My performance was excellent they assured me but they found another candidate over the past two months whose experience had more relevance to the role. It was to accommodate him that they moved my interview from late January to early February.

Even within the short time that I became familiar with the works like the Aeneid, the Odyssey, and the Illiad, the epics have aged so well.

The Kleos recedes and Nostos looms.

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