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VERSE | LET ME BE ME

For all the girls, and the women young and old, who are made to feel less, inferior or impaired because they have dreams that are different to the ones dreamt up for them by others. May you find the strength and the passion to be you.

Why must I be what I don’t want to be?
Why must I change the state of my dreams?
Why must I cower in fear of my world?
Why must the story of my life stay untold?

Why must I hide myself away?
Why must I look behind me always?
Why must there always be danger to me?
To my spirit, my soul, my mind, my body?

Why can I not laugh out loud when I want?
Why must I hide all my joy in my heart?
Why can’t I turn my face to the sun?
Why must I hide in the shadows you’ve spun?

Why must I bear the ball and chain of my roots?
Why must I remain invisible and mute?
Why was I born if not to revel
In life’s ever cresting and falling swell?

I’m a child of this world, let me roam free
Let me think, let me speak, let me be me
I’m a creature of this earth, I belong everywhere
Let me spread my wings, let me lay my heart bare

Let me be, let me be, just what I want to be
Let me dream, let me dream, what I want to dream
Let me walk in this world unafraid and kind
Let my life tell the story of my heart and my mind.
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FEATURE|LETTER FROM AN AFGHAN GIRL TO HER TALIBAN CAPTORS

This is a tribute to all the women in fact who are oppressed, reduced and shamed in the name of religion, and who still find the strength and dignity to go on another day.

O Talib*, O ye self-professed Learned One,

I have something to say to you.
You can whip up monsters from the air and call them your Shariah*.
You can torture and mangle “your” women, break their spirits and their bodies and call it the Word of God.
You can wear your imperious lungee* and as it swishes around in the wind, you imagine the very angels dancing around you. You grow your hairy beards, and hide your malevolent grins behind them.
You rumble and you roar and that is your devotion.
You maim and you kill and you call that Divine intervention.

But then secretly you also glance at your reflections and you see what we all see: imperfect, angry, reviled men trying to validate their existence in the only way they can - by wiping the planet clean of the scourge of the Double (H)Ex*. But then you pause with the greatest effort known to the Men of God and you think:
How can we annihilate this evil, garbed in soft flesh if we are to propagate and procreate? How else are we to add to the rank and file of Allah’s soldiers?

The conundrum is excruciating. So you continue to brutalize and ravage just short of pushing her six feet under. Just so you can crush her under you instead and make her pay for staying alive. To bear and to beget your many sons. To nurture and feed your rabid army of the Men of Allah.


O Ye Men of Allah,

I have something to say to you. Hear me.

I am the Daughter of the Universe; the Yin to your Yang, the ultimate balancing act of God’s will gone wrong in your hands.

Hear me. We will be who we are: the proud women of Afghanistan. Our honour lies serenely, supremely, completely in the depths of our own eyes, not in yours.

Look at me. Don’t hide behind your fragile male bravado.
Look at me. Don’t turn your suddenly shameful eyes away.

Look at me. Look at me.

Look at me as I rise like a Phoenix from the ashes that you kicked aside.
Look at me as I look at you.
Look at me and see what you have become.
Look at me as your heart Drains … Shrivels …. Breaks …. Burns in its own hell.

Hear me, my voice will echo through my sisters even if mine falls silent. You will Hear me.

Look at me, even if it is at my corpse as I go to meet my Maker. You will Look at me.

For Allah hears me. For Allah sees me.

Allah stands behind me as we both look at you. As we both await you.
* Double (H)Ex: Word play on the double X chromosomes that all female mammals possess.  Hex is a spell or a curse.

* Talib: Scholar; Learned one.

* Shariah: Islamic law derived from the teachings of the Quran but mainly from the Prophet Muhammad. It is not a list of rules but rather a set of principles on aspects of life, including marriage, divorce, finance and rituals such as fasting and prayer.

* Lungee: turban/ cloth worn around the head.
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OPINION | THE AFGHANISTAN CONUNDRUM

US Hegemony, Its Lingering Pakistan/ Afghanistan Embarrassment and now a Taliban Government

It was the early 80s. I still vividly remember as a child, standing on the side of the iconic Mall road in Murree (a mountain resort town situated about 30kms northeast of Islamabad in Punjab, Pakistan, and also home to a number of missionary boarding schools) with compatriots from my school and others, waving little Pakistani and American flags as President Zia ul Haq accompanied by the then US Vice President, George H. W. Bush (Bush Senior) drove by in their endless cavalcade of black luxury sedans. For us it was a joyous day out of the regular rigour of boarding school life; for Pakistan it was the beginning of the end of its Rising Star status in the region.

Pakistan, so geostrategically well situated to catalyse the downfall of the Soviet empire- the one thorn in the side of the Americans and the only obstacle to an all out USA dominated planet- was requested to become Ally Numero Uno. And we complied in the then considered most shrewd and cunning manner – through religiously radicalising, arming and mobilising an entire nation in a war that was to turn in on itself for decades after the USSR fell. By God, did we comply! And for very little in return. A statesman at the helm of affairs at the time (or even a half-way successful businessman like Donald Trump armed as he is with his career collage of bankruptcies), rather than a religiously devout military man like Zia Ul Haq, would have at least got us better trade deals to help shore up the economy once the dust of battle settled. But these are wishful conjectures…and the rest as they say, is history.

Soviet Russia sputtered and fell and the USA couldn’t get out of the region fast enough, leaving two countries with populations in the area of 130 million (circa 1992) to clean up the mess. But radical religion has a way of festering, sometimes out of sight, and emerging multiplied, more virulent, more destructive and deadlier than before. And that has been the dubious Vestige of Alliance bestowed on the two countries, the “rewards” of which we are continuing to grimly reap. Kabul, once considered the Paris of the East, is now a wraith of its former self, and the country has been declared a failed state. Pakistan itself has been teetering on the edge of the abyss of Pariah States. It’s people have undergone decades of global dismissal at best and damnation at worst. Despite being the fifth most populous country in the world and a nuclear power, it has fallen behind all its compatriots on almost every index of progress, prosperity and nationhood. The war on terror in fact, has purportedly cost the Pakistani economy a total of almost USD 130 billion since 2001.

And now in a not entirely shocking but surprising turn of events, Afghanistan has fallen to the Taliban. I’m not even sure anymore as to how appropriate the term “fallen” is in this case. After all, for 40 years, the country was propped up by mostly US military might and the puppet government that it supported. The powers that be, were quite completely ignorant of the real dynamics of the region: the centuries old tribalism, the multicultural factionalism. They were attempting to colour Afghanistan with the same brush that they have done in almost all of their other failed military endeavours of the 20th and 21st centuries. They were trying to homogenise the country; bring it to heel via a myopic vision that they thought was applicable to all the tribes, all the different kinds of people that made up the rich social and cultural fabric of Afghanistan. They failed, utterly and completely.

The below are a few key reasons for this most recent watershed moment in the country:

⁃ The average Afghan, (mean age: 20 years) having lived in a state of mostly active war, has developed an innate distrust of its sham government and its “enablers” (the West). They see the country as having been taken over, “invaded” by the US; and that has never been a sustainable state of affairs for the proud, sovereign Afghan people. And so, after 40 years of occupation, many in the beleaguered country preferred to opt for the dystopic, ultra orthodox approach of the Taliban since it also brought with it freedom from the invading forces. There was thus, a perfect storm created at the centre of which was the formidable desire for self determination.

⁃ The last 20 years have purportedly seen billions of dollars siphoned towards the Afghan cause. But when you have a country with no economy to speak of, no development and no nation building, the aid tends to find its way into the local pockets of the crooked and the powerful. And so it has been with Afghanistan with very little of the aid finding its way to the communities at large. Investing in building trade and industry would have been the optimal way to make real, effective inroads into the lives of the people. But that requires sitting down with the people, understanding them and working with them at grass root levels. That was never the agenda of the US. They wanted things done their way backed by the full force of their military might. Which brings me to the third point.

⁃ The average Afghan also saw that there was massive corruption in the government, among the very people who were supposed to lead them out of their war-driven poverty. Over the past 40 years, a complete and utter trust deficit had grown between the people and their “infidel-supported” puppet government – there was no fifth, sixth or twentieth chance left to give to their leaders; no opportunities for do-overs by their government. And so, the exit of the allied troops also served as the inflection point for their exploitative, demoralised leadership to be overturned. That the Taliban were doing the overturning was inconsequential. At the end of the day, they in all their perverse, radical glory, were still their fellow citizens, their brothers in arms.

And so it was, that on a balmy August day in 2021, Afghanistan was once again a free country. Bizarre as it sounds given who freed the proud Afghan people, that for them, is the inalienable truth.

The million dollar question now is how the brand new Afghan sovereignty will be managed by the Taliban leadership. It is important to note that they as a faction, are also older, wiser and more cognisant of global norms, ethics and diplomacy. They are aware also that they are no longer a rag tag militia group hiding in caves and living on the edge with no clear and sustainable vision or mission. They have been catapulted against all odds (or indeed because of them!) into the role of the leaders of their homeland. They know they’ve outgrown the plundering, riotous band of robbers and murderers that they were. They know they now have the formidable task of the leadership and governance of almost 40 million people. The Taliban are aware that almost overnight they have morphed into statesmen.

The million dollar question beckons again: how are the Taliban going to go about being national leaders who will also be welcome on International platforms? A state that other countries will engage with on trade, diplomacy, military/defense, intelligence and foreign aid? They know they cannot exist as a dystopian island unto themselves; even if they have the inclination, they don’t have the means.

The early glimmerings in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban takeover indicate that it can go either way: their spokesperson is articulate and willing to share their points of view and to be questioned by mainstream international media. So far, the sound bites have been almost liberal by historical Taliban standards.

While I, as a woman, would not want to be a citizen of the newly independent state, I would still pause before summarily dismissing the new regime. We are living in strange times where no nation can lay claim anymore to being more righteous than the rest and presume to lead the natives out of their ignorance (everyone now has public skeletons in their History closets). These are also times where global ethics and policies are constantly being reshaped by the voices of the people of the world as they look for the truth; as they learn to separate the chaff from the grain on the information super highway.

While everything right now points to the country being pulled back into the dark ages, while our knee jerks are all about reclaiming the land back from the Taliban, we need to pause. We need to wait and watch. Like I said, we are living in strange times and while we continue to champion human rights, to raise our voices for the basic freedoms of every citizen everywhere, we still need to be aware that the one size of the western democratic ideal doesn’t fit all.

Closer to home, countries like Pakistan, Russia, China and Iran have a direct stake in this new equation since any militant activity will tend to spillover into these countries either in the form of terrorism or refugees or both as has been the unfortunate case in Pakistan. Now is the critical juncture where all the allies (and the adversaries!) in the region need to come together to make this transition in the Afghan government as seamless as possible, while also ensuring that the small steps made towards modernization and individual emancipation in the country over the last few years, are not completely decimated by the new orthodox Islamist regime.

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VERSE|HAVE YOU HEARD THE NEWS TODAY?

Rap this if you’re feeling especially bold and rhythmical today 👩‍🎤🎶🎤

‘Did you hear the news today?’
A friend asked avidly
Like a magician about to pull
A rabbit from his brolly

Scratch that, it’s actually a hat
Poetic license at play
But let me get back to the topic at hand:
What he was about to say

I looked at him expectantly
My facial muscles tense
I had to look the part you see:
Eyes wide in burning suspense

He was about to share the stuff
Of top notch gossip rags
My left eye twitched; I wish he’d just let
The Infernal cat out of the bag

It’s not that I’m averse to all
The spice of life a-brewing
Some days .. well, actually most
I’m just happier not knowing.

‘Did You know’ he finally said
‘That we’re all figmental beings
Of someone’s mad imaginings
The Covid and even us yuman beans

I looked at him, blinked in surprise
Then laughed a merry laugh
At least it wasn’t about the politico
Who looked startlingly like a giraffe.

‘That thought has passed my mind’
I said, conversationally
Lattice Quantum Chromodynamics
And the matrix anomalies


News that wasn’t “news” deserved
obscurely fab theories
Fuzzy heads and tails and all
I thought, to keep it company.

He looked at me with great disdain
‘What’s your frickin’ deal?
Just call it what it really is
We’re hamsters in a wheel!’

‘We’re hamsters in a wheel!’ I sang
‘We’re chasing our own tails
Creating our little purgatories
We’re chasing our own tales!’

And so I heard the news that day
And it had made me grin
The universe too doesn’t mind a few
Light jabs every now and then.
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VERSE | THE PERFECT LATTE

She bubbles and she froths
She spills over on the table cloth
She frolics and she plays
My steaming mug of latte

Voluminous creamy lace
Hiding her caffeinated face
Her heart swells in youthful glee
On the table in front of me.

I read; wait a while; turn a page
In latte time, it’s already middle age
The lace is tattered, burnt skin showing through
The passionate heat has left the brew

Mindful of its waning charm, I grip
My mug of latte to take a sip.
I grimace, the perfect moment has passed
I get a mouthful of tepid coffee, alas!
She’d sat before me, in gracious state
I ignored the moment, realized too late.

And so it is with so much in our lives
Rich with serendipity, with do-overs rife
But We sit back ignoring the universe
Rueing our luck - ‘Our fate is cursed!’
Opportunities come and pass us by
‘It’s just God’s will’ we blame it on high.

But here’s the truth, simple and clear
The passivity, the stupor is unfounded fear.
So as each opportubity bubbles and froths
Onto your life’s pristine table cloth
Know this is your moment to make your own
Reach out to receive it before it has flown.
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OPINION | FAITH

Faith: more and more, a tenuous ideology as it has traditionally existed. Increasingly, we are seeing how conventional belief systems are becoming less and less able to minister to the spiritual needs of believers at large.

As our spheres of existence evolve, leaping and bounding into the digital age; as we progressively become part of a smaller and smaller global village, we are also increasingly being faced with unprecedented challenges in terms of how we interact with the communities we live in, and others around the world. More and more we see how intolerance, hate and suffering are being directly perpetrated in the dubious paths of organized belief systems. The way I see it, we have slowly but surely lost our humanity to the relentless machinations of modern day religious powerhouses.

What is Faith then, in the current times? What does it mean to be devout and devoted? Is it a copious measure of ritual practice while the heart continues to race in fear and the mind is a cacophony of discord in times of trial? Is it the demonstration of exalted acts performed in the way of glorifying one’s particular belief system which, at its very core, is selfish and ungenerous? Where every “good deed” is performed on a quid pro quo basis: you are charitable primarily so YOU can go to heaven, and not because someone is needy – (that’s just a circumstantially advantageous outcome). You go to church and to the mosque so YOU can get into the Almighty’s good books so YOU can skip into Eden, not because you have the well- being of your community at heart. All, spiritually depleting ideologies of faith practised solely from a fear of consequences, rather than the simple desire to embody and celebrate our humanity.

What is it then, to truly believe? Could it be simply, the genuine attempt to be the best version of oneself spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically? To be able to look within to become a force for good without? To be able to think for oneself more and to rely less on the divisive narrative of neo-evangelists? Is it to finally pay fit tribute to our innate “God-given” spiritual and mental prowess? To finally breaking through the webs of intrigue and confusion woven by self serving belief systems and sifting through the spiritual antimatter for ourselves.

Look around you. Nature itself has manifested how irrelevant caste, creed and racial differences are. How even more insignificant religiously wrought community and political boundaries are: The recent Corona virus pandemic didn’t pick political or religious sides. No one was beyond the reach of its pestilential nature. Why then are we not heeding what we instinctively know to be true: That our shared humanity is bigger than any individual religion. That our communal joys and sorrows are more spiritually potent than any Sunday service or Friday ‘Khutba’*. That together we are a stronger, better, more spiritually evolved species than we are when projecting our differences of Faith. At the end of the day, the very essence of all religions is entrenched not only in equality, kindness and charity among “our own flock”, but in thoughtfully and inclusively channeling these attributes to ensure one becomes a more universal force for good.

It is time. Time to break through the inertia and the paralysis of our different religions; of the illogical but deeply ingrained ways we are taught to hate one another. It is time to start having the difficult but essential discussions on renewing and revitalising our counter intuitive belief systems. It is time to take back our hijacked/ distorted ideologies of belief and once again breathe the essence of universal humanity into them.

* Khutba: publicly held formal sermon, especially delivered after the communal Friday prayers in the Islamic religion.
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SHORT STORY | ROSE TALCUM POWDER – Part One

A babble of raised voices filtered upstairs from the salon on the ground floor. Sana looked up from the video she was watching on her phone and wondered if it was another begum of leisure who was throwing a hissy fit. How she hated this raucous upheaval of the sanctity of her home. Why couldn’t they just live respectably in a non commercial area that was devoid of beauty parlors, tandoors* and paan walas*. It was one of the reasons why she hadn’t invited any of her friends over from work yet. Most of them didn’t even know that her mother owned a salon on the fringes of phase 5 in DHA*. She and her mother lived above the salon in a two bedroom unit. Aside of the little oasis in their immediate surroundings, their apartment overlooked vast expanses of undeveloped land in the otherwise lush and burgeoning Defence Housing society of Lahore.

Sana sighed and walked out onto the balcony. It was only 5 O’ clock in the evening which meant another three hours of salon frenzy, a myriad cars parked downstairs, watched over by as motley a crowd of drivers. She sometimes stood in the creeper latticed shadows of the terrace and spun entire character sketches in her head about each of the men who sat waiting for their lady employers to emerge from the secret sanctums within, blow-dried, beautified and seasonally bedecked: The wedding season metamorphoses were quite spectacular, transforming many plain-jane bibi-jis* into princesses.

During her tale-weaving meditations, Sana would focus on one of the men gathered below – on his facial hair, his clothes and the way in which he huddled or draped himself on a chair in the Driver’s sitting area outside. From the shrinking violet to the wily watchful types to the portly, loud and laughing types, she’d seen them all and then zoomed into their lives with the telescope of her lively imagination. Today she focused on a vocal one with a twirled mustache and slickly oiled hair: he seemed like the kind who was happily married in a village somewhere in the interior of Punjab but who also had a local lady love; maybe the maid from across the street … He would steal ripely blooming roses for her from his bibiji’s garden and douse himself in ittar on his evenings off when he would go to meet her. Date nights, desi* style.

At a quarter to nine, Zulaikha walked into the lounge upstairs. She went straight to the bathroom to wash her face and perform her ablutions for the one prayer a day she religiously performed. She sat at her dressing table and looked at her reflection for a moment. She then took the powder puff of her rose talcum powder and dabbed it on her neck and her feet and finally on her hands. She rubbed it in gently, inhaling its sweet fragrance like she had done for the last 30 years. She then spread out her janamaz*. Fifteen years on, there were only a few vestiges that reminded Zulaikha of her past; the Rose talcum powder was one of those. It had been a panacea for most ills of the body, the mind and the heart: A burn or a rash or a gash; a bad day or a headache or nausea were all dispelled with the healing softness and the soothing bouquet of her Yardley’s rose scented talcum powder.

Her Isha* prayers done, she went into the kitchen to see what there was for dinner. It was Sunday so Sana had been off from work. Her daughter worked in a bank as a Customer Service Officer. Every time Zulaikha thought of her daughter sitting at her desk in the cool and respectable environs of the Muslim Commercial Bank, she felt a little surge of pride in her heart and a tug of emotion in her throat. Sana had broken through the generations of tradition that had dogged the footsteps of the women in their family. For as long as she could remember, theirs had been a long and uninterrupted lineage of dancing girls. Zulaikha would be the last of that insidious matriarchal line; and Sana would be the first of the virtuous and respectable patriarchy.

There was two day old biryani* in the fridge and some chicken karahi* that they had had for lunch that afternoon. She took out both containers and set them on the counter. They would serve themselves and heat their food in the microwave. After all these years of living with the amenities of modern city life, Zulaikha still marvelled at the technology that surrounded them. She now watched from a safe distance as the display on the microwave efficiently counted down the minutes while its shallow bowels generated enough heat to turn her insides to ash if she stood too close. Like so much in life, the electronic conveniences had also come into their home with their fair share of facts and fiction.

‘Sana! Come and serve yourself’, Zulaikha called out to her daughter.

Sana meandered in from her room, surrounded by the stupor of an uneventful day and an especially protracted afternoon siesta. She served herself some biryani with a generous serving of yogurt on the side. The watered down raita that usually came with the spiced up rice did nothing to pacify her screaming taste buds. She had not inherited her spicy food genes from her mother (or even her father probably) and the biryani made her sniffle and snort as the spice turned on her internal fire-fighting waterworks; unless she added on some cooling yogurt to the gastronomic fray.

Mother and daughter sat in silence while eating their food. Zulaikha was ticking off a mental list of salon supplies she would need to get the next day. Every month, she restocked her inventory from her two main suppliers. They had both been kind to her when she had started her own beauty parlour ten years ago; on many occasions, marking more than their due time on their accounts receivable. She had in turn, remained their loyal customer as her business had grown along with the size of her orders. Mrs. Anwar was the third customer this month who had asked her about laser hair removal. Zulaikha wondered how much of an investment would be needed to add that service on to her beauty parlour repertoire …

Sana looked at her plate, carefully spooning a dollop of cold Nestle yogurt onto her biryani before putting the mixture into her mouth. She enjoyed the burst of coolness on her tongue and palate before the chillies began their now sluggish assault. She had always had a quirky palate and happily mixed textures and flavours that gave even her mother occasion to pause. The biryani and yogurt mixture was definitely not her most outlandish combination of food. She thought of Rizwan. He loved his biryani; the spicier the better. She smiled to herself, instinctively gathering up the corners of mouth in the next instant. Rizwan was her secret. For now.

Zulaikha looked at her daughter who was deep in conversation with herself. She recognised that ethereal, far away look that came over her lovely face then. Her daughter had a secret. Zulaikha smiled to herself; she’s know soon enough. She shared a tender and close bond with her only child. She thought back to how their lives had changed over the last fifteen years. Zulaikha had got a job at a local salon and had shown a natural talent for catalyzing aesthetic transformations, conjuring up all shades of loveliness on plain, sometimes marred canvases. Sana had got into a good school and from there she had gone to university. Both mother and daughter had thrived in their new environment. They were a million miles away from their room in Qaisery Gate in Faisalabad.

That night Sana got a text message from Rizwan. He had finally spoken to his mother about her. That was all he said but it made her nauseous in a strange way: a combination of excitement and anxiety was turning her stomach which had already been grumbling in petulant protest at the earlier biryani onslaught. She sat up and had an antacid with a full glass of water. Then she picked up her phone again to read the message.

He had told his mother that he was interested in her. That was all. That was everything! That would mark the absolute, final end of the old, and the beginning of something new, dignified and permanent. No one would be able to take that away from her.

She re-read the message a few times, trying to bring her frenzied, racing mind back to the moment; back from its leaping somersaults into the sacred, secret visions of her future. Her nausea quelled, she leaned against the headboard of her bed, smiling at her screen as it lit up her face in the quiet of an otherwise uneventful Sunday night.

* Tandoor: Also known as tannour is predominantly a cylindrical clay or metal oven used in cooking and baking.

* Paan-wala: Paan is a preparation combining betel leaf with areca nut widely consumed throughout Southeast Asia/ the Indian subcontinent. Paan-wala is one who sells paan.


* DHA: Defence Housing Authority, a planned housing scheme in a number of cities in Pakistan

* Bibi-ji: Respectful term of address for the lady of the house usually used by the domestic staff of the house across the Indian sub continent.


* Desi: Urdu/ Hindi meaning local/ of South East Asian origin.

* Janamaz: Muslim prayer mat

* Isha: The fifth and last prayer of the day in Islam

* Biryani: A mixed rice dish originating among the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. It is made with Indian spices, rice, and meat, and sometimes eggs or vegetables also such as potatoes and brinjal.

* Chicken karahi: a spicy chicken dish of the Indian subcontinent. It is usually made in a heavy, cast iron pan called the karahi and hence the name.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/07/22/rose-talcum-powder-part-two/
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KIDSBOOKS| THE UNHAPPY CLOUD

Glumbus Bean was a sad little cloud
All day he’d cry his little eyes out
While his other friends played fun games in the sky
Glumbus would sit by himself and cry

One day while he was bawling away
And sneezing out cold sleet
Mr Gale-Force-Wind came rushing in
On speedy, nimble feet

He looked at Glumbus’s wet face
And tumbled around with laughter
I’ve never seen a nimbus cloud
Who did a great job and sobbed after!

You are the rainy season cloud
And naturally you cry
But these are not unhappy tears
That’s just the way you fly!

You’re the best little Cloud School student
That I have ever seen
So keep your rainy rivers flowing
You’re an ace, Glumbus Bean!

Glumbus Bean smiled happily
All over his cloudy face
It pitter-pattered rain that day
As he skipped about the place.
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VERSE| THE MARRIAGE SCH(R)EME

To those who are blissfully wed, may no ones words or odes tear you asunder; to those who are still unshackled, forewarned is forearmed; to those who are in blissless contractual unions, here’s more food to ruminate, ponder and fret over 🤓

Someone asked me why we love, the way we love; 
Someone asked me, self-consciously, hesitantly of
Traditional bonds of loving; of contracts galore,
Of inviting in the government to tamper and explore
That which is so personal; the workings of the heart;
Of sanctioned forces barging in and prying it all apart.

I listened with a quickening of my own protesting heart
I too had felt these candid rumblings from the very start;
I had also walked down the same traditionalistic aisle;
I too had been a part of its teeming rank and file;
I too had signed on dotted lines, confirming legalese,
That made a mockery of the love, respect and dignity.

It’s almost like Humanity is bound to slip and fall;
To devolve into barbarity; to sputter and to stall.
The only way to save us is to firmly bind us down
In sacrosanct bondage; in virginal robes and gowns.
Genuine love, self respect, honesty and choice
Are not the sounds of virtue; nor the devotional Voice
Of all the great faiths that in their wisdom divine
Have instructed us exactly on how to walk the blessed line.

Someone asked me why we love the way in which we do
So bound in ceremony; counter-intuitive to the truth.
Someone asked me why we could not just trust
Our own sense of right and wrong; our own moral compass.
Marriage - I too wondered about this absurd and quirky norm
That duly institutionalises us before we can be with someone.
Is it well intentioned business that has sadly gone awry?
Or is it another patriarchal construct; a powerful, pervasive lie?
I’m still trying to discern its gameplan; its true wherefore and why
But the enigma continues to survive; and we continue to comply.
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VERSE| WE, THE WOMEN OF PAKISTAN – Part Two

This is a tribute of determination, hope and new beginnings not only for the Pakistani women, but for all the heroic women around the world who are speaking out and standing up for themselves against all manner of cruel and brutal patriarchy. It is also a testimonial and a resounding voice of support for those brave sisters of ours who are living from day to day, facing their detractors with courage and resilience in the hope of a better tomorrow.

I have grown in its shadow; I have felt its hot breath
As it slithers around me; dogging my every step.
I hear it jeer in the brightness of day
On streets and in parks and in quiet cafes.
I see it brazenly growl at my sisters too
As it strides along its pernicious route.
It thunders and lashes and speaks in strange tongues
My head is reeling; there’s no air in my lungs!
From quiet dark murmurs it’s upsurged to discord
The brutal Patriarchy - our master and lord!

I’ve decided I won’t heed its vanquishing rail
I’ve resolved I will fight it tooth and nail.
And so I have become one of the “pariah” few
Who is resoundingly calling for something new.
I make my case; then await the backlash
For sticks and stones; a bruise and a gash.
There are more like myself who are throwing back the knives,
We’re banding together to take back our lives.
One more voice, one more person, one more protest
We’re the Women of Pakistan; and we’re up to this test.

From the farthest reaches of our blessed land
We will raise our voices, our spirits, our hands;
Let’s tell them, That’s it! That’s enough! No more!
We won’t be your chattels, your “Islamic honour”.
We won’t hide away so you can roam free
With your hormones and lust; your uncontrollable needs.
We won’t be degraded, threatened and shamed
While you play out your age old tribal games.
We, your wives, your sisters and your daughters
Will be shepherded no more like lambs to the slaughter.

We are the tender, formidable half of our world
We are the guides, the teachers and the nurturers
We birth generations to carry precious legacies
Of peace and love; progress and humanity.
For too long have those reins been usurped by the men
We are taking them back on every continent.
We will be your equals in every way
Step down from those pedestals; come out of your caves.
Hold our hands as your partners as together we walk
We have risen; we are strong; we are the Dome of the Rock*.
* Dome of the Rock: A holy site in Jerusalem which hosts the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, a seventh-century structure believed to be where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

Read THE WOMEN OF PAKISTAN - PART ONE here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/08/we-the-women-of-pk/
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SHORT STORY|RIOTOUS LOVE – Part One

Dharshini got into her red Honda Fit, wincing in pain. The visit to the orthopaedic specialist had become essential after a week of agony; her whole right leg throbbed like the devil! She knew she had weak knees, troublesome joints and yet, she’d whirled about that room like her behind was on fire! God! Hormones … or was it the lack of them … she thought wearily, the thrill and the motivation of that performance both now squatting in her head like large stupid birds, staring blandly at her. She grimaced as she gently pressed the accelerator, and drove into the Galle Road traffic.

Dharshini, known fondly and unfondly as Dharshi by her various circles of friends and frenemies was 57, bold and beautiful. The perfection marred, just as all sublime things tend to be, in this case, with osteoarthritic joints. Still, she carried herself with the easy confidence borne of almost always standing out in a room full of people. The occasions where she was upstaged, were few and summarily forgotten under dutiful bouts of social amnesia; both, by her and her coterie of cohorts. She was hands down, the alpha of her group, a fact that nobody could deny or indeed, had the temerity to.

A month or so ago, Dharshini had signed up for social dancing classes. She’d heard rumblings of this venue of perspiration and contortions being the place to meet “Good” people. “Eligible” was of course not what she was looking for; after all she was a married woman. Not entirely happily, and not quite cohabiting with her somewhat estranged spouse, but still to all intents and purposes, secured in sacred wedlock. That fact had been conveniently relevant thus far in keeping at bay, the droves of ill suited middle aged and senior hopefuls who constantly vied for her hand and her heart. She had developed a rejection strategy all her own: with every new admirer, although she knew from the outset how it would end, she would only gently, gradually pass on that knowledge to him; after exacting a few lunches, a trip or two for herself and her girl friends and maybe even a bauble or two, in at least silver. It was a sweet, harmless enterprise she always thought coyly, where both parties benefited. She was not one given to dwelling on the aftermath of a broken heart; her moral due diligence ended with her making it resoundingly clear at some point, that she was only ever a friend. And that even if there was some misunderstanding that she hoped that her most recently crushed courter had enjoyed their camaraderie and that they’d continue to be genial with each other. She’d bestow her most beatific smile and come away contented and cheerful, warm in the glow of a problem solved and her moral compass pointing truly heavenwards.

It was on the Dance floor – that battlefield of laborious leg work and fitful grace, that she’d met Danny. A 45 year old divorcee, Daniel had recently moved back to Sri Lanka after a 10 year stint at marriage and business in Brisbane, Australia. Both had come crashing around him about a year ago. He’d decided then that home was where the heart really was and had, bag, baggage and a dog, returned to his hometown of Colombo. He had always loved dancing and was quite consummately professional at executing the lusty, physical moves of the salsa, bachata and the waltz. In an effort to forget the last decade, he plunged into everything that had defined him before he moved abroad and that ironically, went against many of his predilections now. And so, one of the first things he’d done was to sign up as an instructor at his old social dancing school. A decade ago, he’d been one of their more popular teachers with an avid throng of female admirers who were obliged by their fluttering hearts to sign up as students too. It was a lucrative scheme for dashing Danny and a two hour theatre of titillation and thrills for the dancing brigade. Danny had in fact, met his ex-wife at that very school. She had no talent for the Waltz but had sure-footedly danced her way into his heart. That was really the only time they had ever danced for the sheer pleasure of it. After matrimony settled them into its no-nonsense folds, she realized that she quite despised the art form and he realized with some alarm and then resignation that that fact was the least of his marital woes.

Like the other women, Dharshini too had found herself responding to the agile charms of her dance instructor. He had, on more than a few occasions, taken her as his partner to demonstrate to the rest of the class, a particularly complex move full of wild, rousing acrobatics. She came away from these twists and spins breathless and reddened with exertion and excitement. She was sure he too felt his heart strings being jiggled and jostled in all that animated physicality and closeness. He was different though. He wasn’t smiling too readily at her; or babbling; or otherwise showing any signs of being under the influence of her enchantment and allure. Traditionally she was the pursued and the besotted men did all the labour-intensive pursuing. He was congenial but just distant enough to show that he was in control of the situation and if this … this thing… had to go anywhere, it was for her to make the first move. This realisation was both heady and new. She had smiled to herself. There was something else that was new here too: her heart after ages, was beating for someone else!

And so Dharshini had thrown herself into her Salsa and Bacahata lessons, three times a week. A fortnight into the enterprise, she had slipped and fallen on the tiled floor, landing directly on her knees. In the heat of the moment and in the insular glow that now surrounded her at every class, she didn’t feel the pain nor the ominous creaking of her joints every time she bent her knees or leaped deer-like out of her partner’s arms onto the hard floor. She went to bed in a haze of contentment and love. She even felt a random gentle wave of affection rise for all her other unfortunate suitors who had gone their own way. I hope they’re all happy just as I am, she’d thought charitably, big-heartedly. And with that she drifted off into a dreamless, restful sleep.

‘Why was I jumping like a monkey on steroids? Why? Why?’ Dharshini complained bitterly to Sabeena on the phone the next morning. Her mid morning phone chats with one or another of her friends marked the start of every day. She always came away feeling invigorated, light of load and rearing to get on with the rest of her day. Sabeena too came away from the phone call, her inner calm now quite shattered by the torturous raving and ranting of her bossy but well-meaning friend.

The morning after her fall, Dharshini hadn’t been able to bend her right knee at all, and had thought it was best if she stayed in bed. These restful, placatory measures had often worked when her joints occasionally rebelled in the tropical rains and humidity. This was the first time, however, that she’d subjected them to such pounding, ceaseless torture. For two whole weeks! They were obviously going to act like petulant, griping grande dames. For Dharshini, her ankles and her knees were like a twinsome of spinsterly companions that had set up permanent residence on her person. While everything else felt youthful and sprightly, these joints never matched up. They creaked and complained at the slightest intrusion of weather or activity and it took large doses of rest and relaxation to get their grumbling soreness to settle.

The pain had not subsided even after a week of missing classes and tending to her knees. She had finally decided to see her orthopaedic specialist. The doctor and she shared a love-hate relationship on behalf of her joints which he quite practically considered his wards too. He knew that Dharshini only ever came to him when things had gone from bad to worse and when he’d have to resort to strongly advising, cajoling and then threatening, to have her be more compliant. She knew that the good doctor meant well but he was always so grim and pessimistic; always making her feel old and doddery.

‘Mrs. Gunaratne, have you been trying to run relays lately?’ he asked feeling her swollen right knee. She grimaced and mumbled something unintelligible. The universe and he both knew what she meant.

‘You have weak joints Mrs. G. There is hardly any cartilage left in your right knee and the gel* injections are soon going to be insufficient to keep it going. It’s knee replacement surgery for you if this goes on’, he said darkly but also with some satisfaction. He was really quite at his wits end with patients like Mrs. Gunaratne who refused to take supplements, had congenital osteoarthritis and were always up to some joint-jarring misadventure.

‘Doctor Herath, please just give me the injection and I promise to take the pills. I have to go soon. I have another appointment’, Dharshini said somewhat testily. But not too aggressively. He was after all the best orthopaedic surgeon in town. And when it was absolutely necessary, he would be the one to endow her with a set of new knees. She always balked at the idea of surgery and not even the prospect of agreeable, maiden knees could dispel her horror of the surgeon’s scalpel.

* Gel injections: One of the more effective treatments for arthritis is gel knee shots — also referred to as viscosupplementation or hyaluronic acid injections.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/06/05/riotous-love-part-two/
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VERSE | CORONA NON GRATA

Lockdowns, inbound, not allowed to go out.
While Queen Corona, that prima donna gaily traipses all about.
She’s making sure we don’t forget
Her microscopic savageness!
So she merrily mutates every 60 days
In Vietnam, Brazil, India and the UK.
I do despise her with a passion so!
That dung of Newt; that Toady’s toe!

I tried to see the cosmic grace;
Nature’s reckoning, her showing us our place;
Cloaked in all her viral majesty,
Bequeathing wisdom in all this travesty …
But enough already! How much more
Do you want us humans to buckle down and endure?
You know we’re as stubborn as the proverbial asses
No amount of beating will turn us into planet-loving masses!

So begone! Away with you, Ye vile Covid,
Get out of our systems - Scat! Move it!
Two years is enough of a pandemic battle;
Go away! Depart with your deathly rattle.
Even Nature is kind after tap-tapping her cane;
You’ve ravaged our bodies; now you’re driving us insane.
Seclusion, Solitude, I’m so done with these Ice Maidens
Give me a cafe, a bar and a mall that is laden
With throngs of happy and virus-free crowds
Chattering, nattering and walking about!

This ode is for you as an un-fond farewell
Please go to Mars; I hear its volcanoes are swell!

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VERSE| MY NOISE-CANCELLING HEADPHONES

The below verse is somewhat farcical and maybe even a tad fanciful; but sometimes it takes a bit of a tongue-in-cheek nudge to arouse our fitfully slumbering consciences. May we all continue to persevere towards creating a better, nobler world.

I look at social media and I see anger and hate and prejudice;
I look at the television and I see propagandists, debauched messiahs and wily pundits;
I look at the newspaper and I see political intrigue, national fatigue and ceaseless power mongering -
It goes on, never ending, ignited with the fire from our fossil fuel stores …
I look within me and I see the mirror of my mind reflecting, deflecting, dodging and fending
The piercing, stabbing, blinding light from all this frantic, raving media commotion.

I look around me and I see love and peace and co-existence;
I look around me and I see people coming together to help, protect and build better;
I look around me and I see the universe weaving, constantly interlacing Harmony.
It goes on, forever, propelled by the spirit and soul of our humanity …
I look within me and I can feel my heart echoing, returning, rebounding and celebrating
The warm glow, the shimmer and gleam of the wonderful world around me.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . .


Oh, but it doesn’t end there. Some endings are just not fairytale-ish.
If I gave in to my easeful delusions, I would be naive and tragically remiss.
Here’s the deal: Human beings are sometimes cruel and that creates a gross impasse
And that’s when we need to use our own eyes and our moral compass
The world around us may glimmer and shine in serene equilibrium
While pockets of humanity elsewhere thrash in blood-thirsty delirium.
Look for yourself, seize your courage, tell your truth, play your part
This is our ONE world; our one chance. We don’t have the luxury of a Re-start.
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OPINION| WORLD ON A WIRE*

Global politics, our collective Moral Compass and the Palestinian tragedy

Funny what our world has become. We grow, we evolve, we hope to become ever better versions of ourselves, and then life gets in the way; our pursuit of success and even our quest for happiness gets in the way. Somewhere down the line, we’ve lost the actual essence of those pursuits; we’ve lost touch with what makes us human – the heart and soul equation we call our Moral Compass. This degradation of our will to distinguish between what feels wrong and what doesn’t, deep in our gut, has gone on for so long that now we don’t even recognise when we are party to cruelty, injustice or irrationality in the name of ideology, faith and correctness.

We, as a species however, are not innately bad. The overwhelming majority of us mean well. We want to do the right thing; we want to stand for the right causes; we want to speak up where it matters. But so insidious and crafty is the state of our global politics and the malicious power mongering that goes on in its toxic folds, that for large swathes of humanity to be duped, brain-washed and even numbed to atrocities is now completely normal.

The one double edged sword where the glint of steel can go either way is digital media. While it is rife with conspiracy theories and extremist ideologies, there is also a healthy spectrum of enterprising, truth telling news and information sources on there. What becomes a necessary obligation on behalf of us, the bulk of humanity using these platforms, is to do the work to separate the grain from the chaff; the truth from the lies; the sincere from the duplicitous. That will depend heavily on first, how true we stay to our own value systems and then, on how we navigate through the tortuous labyrinth of information surrounding us.

Case in point: the Palestinian tragedy. The bare-faced atrocities have gone on for so long, that we seem to have lost our collective capacity to see them for what they are. And all the while, they have become ever more brazen and cruel. If this was a hypothetical study, it would be an open and shut case long before it had even reached its current levels of criminality. And yet, while we are ideologically devoted to fair play, we appear to have lost our will, our voice and our moral authority to really make it happen. The overwhelming reason: Because the global power brokers, deal makers and profiteers continue to blast their deafening megaphones with cooked up intrigues and imagined threats, confusing, bewildering and paralysing the rest of us.

In the wake of the recent unrest however, despite all the grossly biased journalism and political posturing, it’s been heartening to see the entire international community come together as one, to voice their concerns; to make their genuine feelings about the situation heard. This time, our collective moral compass seems to be swinging in the right direction. We have proven that the vast majority of us still believe in basic decency and justice.

This then is something of a hope and a prayer for the truth seekers and the compass bearers out there. May we continue to find the moral and ideological strength to discern, weigh in and be heard. For the Palestinians and for all the others that are disenfranchised, marginalised and oppressed. Let us take back the global diplomacy narrative from the politicians and their funding platforms. Let us put back some soul and some humanity into the voices that we are raising for a more just and honest world.

* Title inspiration from Fassbinder’s 1973 movie of the same name. 
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FEATURE| THE NOSTALGIA OF A NICE CUP OF TEA

Teatime- a word that invokes so many nostalgic memories, while also carrying with it the promise of another little social do right around the corner. I write this from the subcontinental (read: classic) perspective where tea means exactly that, and is not in fact a culinary codeword for another meal…like dinner perhaps! 😄

Having lived in a country, nigh upon 6 years now, which is known for its magnificent tea plantations, I came here expecting to be swept off my feet with supremely flavourful tea served with as much fanfare. But oh, the lost pleasure of the perfect cup of tea! Not only has the stately beverage been woefully overshadowed by its more robust cousin, the sinewy coffee, but the genteel art of tea making itself has been all but sabotaged by our time-constrained lifestyles.

Tepid tea, (whatever happened to tea-cosies?) just this side of being too anaemic or too vigorous, is the norm at most places. Tea brewing is a lost art that even tea timers haven’t been able to revive (those aging relics that lie there, unused, taunting tea drinkers; and then fading a little more into oblivion as they realise the futility of their efforts). Tea strainers are further dying remains of the classic tea trolley. So, even potentially good cups of tea will quickly take on a bizarre, almost bovine experience as one chews the leaves along with each sip.

The silver lining in all this post modern annihilation of the elegant art of tea making is the teatime legacy my sisters and I have carried into our lives. Having grown up in a home where tea and the accompanying panoply was the norm, this has been a delightful happenstance. Teatime at home consisted of lavish spreads of everything from pastries and sandwiches to biscuits and dahi bhallas*. And of course it meant steaming pots upon pots of Kenyan tea laced ever so delicately with earl grey. It became an affair, synonymous with togetherness, laughter and chatter. A time for capricious banter and tender confidences- a caffeine-warmed embrace of the ebb and flow of our lives. And at the centre of this lovely intimacy was Momsy, the gracious matriarch who made this teatime magic happen.

In conclusion, of all the tea connoisseurs/ growers/ curators of the experience on the island, I ask that you breathe fresh life into this exquisite tradition. It is the assured panacea to many a dreadful day, of which sadly, we have all seen our fair share lately. In the words of Bernard-Paul Heroux, “There is no trouble so great or so grave that cannot be much diminished by a nice cup of tea”; the “nice” there being replete with all manner of ambrosial and soul and spirit uplifting possibilities.

*Dahi Bhalla: a savoury, yogurt-based snack indigenous to the subcontinent.
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VERSE| THE WOODEN BENCH

We have all, at some time or another been overwhelmed, overpowered, bested by our grief, anxiety and wretchedness. At those times, some of us have also been lucky enough to have that one place where we have, for a while, found some degree of quietude and peace. This is a tribute to those secret little places and spaces of comfort and healing in our lives.

There is this wooden bench I like
It’s not fancy; quite the common type.
Cloaked in by the dappled canopy
Of a gracefully pirouetting Mara tree,
It sits in the park like a dear old friend
It’s well-worn embrace ever welcoming.
A young couple walks up, caught in the grips of wrath
Love is lost; it’s the wretched aftermath;
Words are exchanged until the fury’s spent
Frustration - Anxiety - Sadness - Silence.
Then they sit down on the wooden bench ...
Gradually, muscles relax and nerves untense.
Even if it is a passing interlude,
Loads are lightened; hearts are soothed.

Wild flowers grow lushly around its feet
Bobbing bright heads to Earth’s vital beat.
The bench sits there like a quiet friend
It’s well-worn seat ever welcoming.
A man sits down in a state of unease
Holding on to his hat in an errant breeze.
He picks up his phone and looks at the screen;
The unlit glass reflects the tranquil scene ...
He looks up and around him his brow somewhat eased
Fleeting albeit, he’s found his moment of peace.

Songful birds and their terrestrial friends
Roam warbling and chittering around the bench;
Hoping for a serendipitously fallen treat
They browse busily around the seat.
A wheelchair-bound man looks up at an overcast sky;
His female companion already has water in her eyes.
They sit side by side in worlds of their own
Reminisnce weighs heavy of days that are gone ...
A mynah trills as a light drizzle falls
And a sweet petrichor briefly dispels the pall.
The man looks at her, takes her hand and she smiles
For now they’re alright; tomorrow is still a while.

I too have sat in Nature’s restoring arms
On that bench where she weaves her alchemical charms.
I too have unburdened my hopes and my fears
I too have laid my bursting heart bare;
And I have heard her soothing murmurs
That have quietened my deepest despair.
I’ve looked into her soft eyes from that corner in the park
For a time, my soul too has emerged from the dark;
The clouds have parted; the sun has shone through
And I’ve breathed more easily, sitting on that wooden pew.

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VERSE| SOLITUDE

I wrote this old world ditty when I was around 16 years old.  Introverted and a lover of words, this was a fitting tribute to my world then.
The funny thing is that of the little poetry I wrote as a teenager, this is the only piece I remember by heart. The rest I have committed to a well worn, dog eared diary which once I get home to Karachi, I will also reproduce here. If nothing else, I (and anyone else who feels intrepid and fancifully armed!) can reflect on my eccentric adolescent mind when re-reading the mostly quirky, sometimes pained, sometimes euphoric pieces that I wrote.
O Solitude, thou art to me
A silent, wholesome company.
When of the world of beings I tire,
To thee for solace I retire.

Each moment that I spend with thee
In thy wholesome company
Retrieves for me my peace of mind
Worries and cares are left behind.

And the world itself begins to seeem
A place where is upheld one’s own regime;
And the heart is filled with serenity
In thy wholesome company.
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OPINION | We, the Women of Pakistan

And so it was on another quite uneventful day that the PM of our besieged nation finally put in his two bits to exacerbate our social dilemma just a little more. The tenuous progress that we had made, all things considered (the “Aurat” [Women’s] March, the now audible Moderate social segment lobbying for change, the little everyday triumphs of the Pakistani woman) were pushed right out the window with a single damning sentence. With one unthinking response, Imran Khan gave license to 120 million of the nation’s denizens to judge, demean and assault the other 120 million based on nothing more than macho whims and fancies.

Still, I’m sincerely hoping it was a primal knee jerk reaction not entirely thought through (our patriarchy is copiously given to that). The alternative would mean that he’s been well and truly conditioned by the right wing brigade outside of his home; and by the crystal balls of a soothsaying spouse inside.

If I put aside all emotions and outrage (and believe me, that takes some doing in this case) and analyse it for what it is, it still comes across as grossly irresponsible coming from a Head of Government. More so, because so many of us who believe in a better, more progressive, more prosperous Pakistan have consistently jumped to his defense over the past not entirely scintillating 3 years. When his naysayers condemned him; when his detractors demonised him; when other global leaders criticized him, there was a bulwark of us who stood by him, defended him and made excuses for him. After all, he was a newbie in politics and he had the right to make his share of mistakes in matters of governance and international diplomacy.

But this…. this has really been heart breaking. Disappointing. Infuriating. Like the tragic submersion of the last lifeboat on a sinking ship. One would think that for someone who’s been married 3 times, who consistently exercised his right to seek the most optimal mate for himself; one who obviously appreciated a woman who knew her mind, was aware of her rights and who lived by those credos, would be more sensitive to the adversities that the average woman suffers in Pakistan. Whether it is exercising her right to education, to working, to her freedom, to her basic safety, to making every effort to be the fullest and best version of herself. Instead, Imran Khan behaved like the archetypal patriarchal male who’s been caught with his shalwar down and has to somehow deflect the blame elsewhere.

The truth is, there is still no one else out there to honestly attend to the matters of the State. Here the qualifying word is Honesty. In our nation mired as it is in subversive political antics and corruption; where every preceding head of State has somehow managed to defraud, snatch and steal from the ever suffering public, IK was an honest to goodness breath of fresh air. We the women have, through the unceasing trials and tribulations perpetrated by the men in and around our circles of life, learnt a wisdom that has also been our survival tactic: to look at the larger picture, put aside even monumental grudges and march on. That’s what makes us formidable but also vulnerable. So while we march on Mr.PM, we also look to you to do your duty: Apologize publicly to the 120 million women of the country that you’re leading. Not because we would wither away without those words of redress, but because we want to continue to feel relatively safe in the land we call home.

I raise up my voice—not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard. … We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.
Malala Yousafzai
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OPINION| THE STATE OF THE (DIS)UNION

It seems like the great American nation has been roundly cursed with the evil eye; like the hexes and insidious incantations of overtly and covertly jealous nations are finally beginning to take effect. Indeed, the star spangled banner is looking increasingly tattered as it waves in the buffeting, tearing winds of change.

Or it could be that Uncle Sam is finally reaping as he has sowed for much of the last 200 years. Demon seeds of racism, inequality and toxic individualism are now putting out chokehold tendrils as the country grapples with not only the pandemic but also a social fabric that appears to be coming apart at the seams.

The road rage episode and the mass shootings, 3 tragic incidences in rapid succession, appear to be the tip of a now grumbling, grousing iceberg. At least two of the three acts of terrorism were perpetrated by young men barely out of adolescence. It isn’t difficult to form a reasonable hypothesis about what has happened. Here’s my informed conjecture:

The 4 year Trump presidency unleashed an era of brute honesty that was heretofore unprecedented. Contrary to the popular sentiment rife amongst his detractors, he was not the cause of the social mayhem that is playing out in America; he was in fact that pariah magician that reveals the deepest, darkest secrets of his trade to the masses. And so, with grandiose fanfare (aided in no small measure by the force of his absurdly narcissistic personality) he exposed the festering underbelly of the great American nation.

The American dream was shown up for what it really was – a utopian ideology pandering exclusively to the whitest and the most dogmatic denominator of the citizenry. With the raw truth finally seeing the light of day, social chaos was bound to follow. The pandemic of course hasn’t made it easier, innervated by the stunningly ridiculous outrage of the average American at having to take precautions for the greater good of the community. What the whole world is seeing is an America that is no more than a loose amalgamation of individuals who are living together as long as they are not expected to sacrifice their space, their time or their right to go maskless wherever they please. It appears that the concept of community in its true sense has dissolved into defiant, impenitent individualism quite some time ago.

The ones hit the hardest by this disruption of everyday civility and tolerance are the infirm elderly and the hormonal young adults. The former have little in terms of strength or capacity to fight off the virus, biological and social. The latter however, on the threshold of newfound independence and the unlimited freedom America promises, are flexing their muscles with the brute abandon of untrained warriors. With no outlet for their bursting world of expectations, these hapless young men didn’t entertain second or third thoughts about their actions. Call it frustration, guns for the taking, or an explosive coming of age, the fact is that they felt empowered, indeed emboldened enough to kill. They went down the path affording them the greatest adrenaline rush to appease their heightened agitation with the suddenly stifling world around them. Can you blame them for their actions? Not if this was an ethical society that had accepted its failings as a protector and nurturer of its people. But like so many other morally failed and failing nations, America too will blame the messenger (the hapless killer) for the insidious last note he delivered. A note crafted and etched into the social fabric by a successive line of self serving politicians masquerading as statesmen (Ladies: thy counteracting wisdom is still in short order). And so, the Machiavellian state passes on its treacherous buck to its citizens, making them pay for its moral bankruptcy.

While psychologists and sociologists may have a plethora of whys, wherefores and what-to-dos on the current American condition, there is one thing that stands out like a sore thumb. A simple soreness that if healed, can stop the gangrenous decay from befouling the rest of the body politic. Basic compassion and a sense of community. If there’s one thing that we in the global backwaters with our emotionally replete cultures know, it’s a deep sense of community: a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together**. These are simple overtures of our humanity that have got lost in the grand American pursuit of individual freedom.

Now more than ever, the Union will benefit from reaching out and offering psychological support to the young and the old, the marginalised and those living on the peripheries of society. I’m not speaking of divisive, half baked gun control laws or grand multi trillion dollar conciliatory, tranquilizing, short-lived plans of rehabilitation and reparation. I’m referring to something as simple as the mushrooming of wayside safe havens/ Conversation Kiosks where people can come in and just talk through the turmoil in their hearts and their minds. The vestigial need to connect, to be acknowledged, to see oneself as part of a bigger, better, vibrant whole, are essential in identifying and addressing agitation, loneliness and hopelessness – all three, treacherous inciters of discontent and violence. Getting the nation to open up at grassroot levels, having them exorcise the demons of alienation and social marginlization, giving them a sense of communal purpose appears to be the likely and unsurprisingly elemental panacea to the great American unrest.

And so, my prayer for the socially and psychologically battered people of the United States is for them to find the strength to finally accept one another for who they are; to unlearn the hate for those who don’t look like them and see the beauty in diversity. For everyone to finally feel like part of a bigger community, not the black, not the brown not the white denominators, but the American community. It doesn’t have to be pitch perfect; it just has to be real and it has to be taught to be aspirational. And with that, there will be ever greater hope for true peace and prosperity for all.

One good conversation can shift the direction of change forever – Linda Lam

**Quote from McMillan and Chavis (1986) “Sense of Community”

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VERSE| AN ODE TO LITTLE JOYS

It’s the little joys in life 
That lift and hug the soul;
It’s the little brushes with sublimity
That paint the rosiest strokes

It’s the steaming mugs of tea shared
With a friend, over confidences and laughter;
The mugs wrapped in hands as warm as the hearts
That are bonding, ministering, healing ... and after
Memorializing that perfect little moment of joy.

It’s the sudden cool breeze that caresses the cheek
And then wraps me up in its vital embrace;
It’s the happy burst of a monsoon shower
As she dances and cleanses; prances and quenches
Leaving behind her intoxicating petrichor
In a joyful bouquet of nostalgia and grace

It’s the intrepid, songful, mirthful mynah
That unexpectedly struts right up to my feet
Warbling of little delights; trilling with all her might
Laying her little heart bare in melodious refrain
It’s the big, big soul in that fragile frame
That reminds me of the precious little joys.

It’s the beautiful Sakura tree, bounteous in its white and pink
Waiting for a wayward breeze to stir up her flower-bedecked limbs;
It is seeing the frolicsome duo of tree and breeze
Create magic in a moment they mutually seize
As the blossoms flutter down in lusty effusion
Covering the ground with inflorescent profusion
An enchanting, enthralling moment of joy.

It’s little kindnesses wrought in the moment
A helping hand on a busy street,
A warm smile in the milieu of rushing feet
A tender word to the transiently fallen
A little something more for the lonely and forgotten
It’s seeing this shared transcendental camaraderie
That gives me that small little rush of joy.

It’s looking up into a clear night sky
And finding Orion and Taurus winking up high
It’s watching the Big Dipper look tenderly upon
Little Ursa Minor nestling just under the moon
It’s seeing our little world from the vastness of space
That fills me with joy and bolsters my faith

The quickening string that binds us all
Our whole web of life; all living creatures
Are these startlingly simple acts of joy
These wondrous, alchemical creations of nature
It’s this coming together of life’s vital energy
That lifts and elates with its mystical synergy
This is the mannah that nurtures the soul
Mending our cracks and making us whole.
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VERSE| A Conversation with the Universe

I ask you if you’re Happy
You say that you ALMOST are ...
But for that deal still stuck in the pipeline;
The car you’ve had your eye on;
Of someday getting into the privileged fold
With a house in a gated neighbourhood.

I ask you if you’re Hopeful
You say that you ALMOST are ...
But for the country’s socio-economic situation;
The children’s future; their education;
And, oh your eternally dismal luck!
Your lottery ticket is always a dud.

I ask you if you’re at Peace
You say that you ALMOST are ...
But for the fear of contracting a dire disease;
Of neighboring countries planning a seige;
And that infernal noisy discord!
from the red duplex across the road.

I ask you if you’re Alive
You say that of course you are!
You’re breathing, you’re living;
You’re thinking, you’re worrying;
you’re working, you’re hurrying;
You’re planning and hedging
Against what might be coming...

Stop! Breathe .... Listen ....

Open up your mind and your heart;
Cast off the spell of your self-doubting trance;
Quit just living, and come gloriously ALIVE!
Be happy and be hopeful even as you strive;
Face the sun, take control of this time, seize the day,
The magic is NOW, not in your ‘morrows or yesterdays.
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VERSE| I AM ALRIGHT

You ask me if I’m alright ...
I am alright, but the stabbing ache in my heart is not alright.

You ask me if I’m ok ...
I am ok, but the stranglehold of despair around my throat is not ok

You ask me if I’m fine ...
I am fine, but the icy grip of fear in my soul is not fine.

I need to remove the steely shards from my heart, one piercing sliver at a time;
Even if a hole, an abysmal gorge remains, I can learn to fill it with other things, better things.

I need to loosen the malevolent grip of hopelessness, one hoary, gnarled finger at a time;
And learn to open myself up to the comfort of a quiet, gentle embrace.

I need to thaw the icicles of dread, one knifelike lance at a time;
and learn to warm my soul with the simple heat of being alive.

I know that I need to learn to separate my angst from my being; learn to put the wretchedness to bed
So that every so often, I am able to feel whole, happy and free.

And so my friend, when you ask me if I am well
I say I am well, because I’m learning to take care of the most fragile parts of myself.

I will be alright; I will be fine; I will be ok
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VERSE|MY CHOICE TO MAKE

Day ends and darkness sweeps in,
Enveloping the ready and the unready into its blackened folds.
It scuttles into crannies and leaps into fissures,
Blotting out the light for another 8 hours ... or eternity...
Tonight, am I happy to be in its restful, warm embrace
Galvanizing my body and my spirit for tomorrow?
Or am i dreading the walk with Erebus* in the murky corridors of gloom?
The choice is mine to make.

Night ends and daylight marches in
Casting off the monochromatic grey-black silhouettes.
Lingering shadows disappear; the sounds of silence explode into daytime clamor.
Exultant photons ricochet through the air
As Earth waltzes around her own cosmic maypole; one dance done, another begun.
Am I ready to seize the day today?
Or am I dreading the tread of Helios* outside my bedroom window?
The choice is mine to make.

The gods of Myth and the gods of Now
Continue their battle in the sacred space of my heart.
They wrangle with each other, the twain never meeting;
Perpetuating confusion, torment and intrigue;
Shredding my soul as the spoils of their unholy war.
Will I continue to shed blood, lose hope and malinger for the false prophets within?
Or am I ready to make this day, this life, my own?
It is MY choice to make.
*Erebus: The god of Darkness in Greek mythology
*Helios: the god of the Sun in Greek mythology
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OPINION| THE PRODIGAL SONS

Earlier this year, after decades, the island of Sri Lanka welcomed the Pakistani cricketing legend of yore. Thankfully, the political mantle is still too new to disenchant the international fan base. Not that I think he is a corrupt bag of officious bones in the manner peculiar to many of his South Asian compatriots and indeed, his very own predecessors. No, he’s just a little soft in the head; a natural affliction, I have come to believe, when one decides to not go down the oft trodden path of political corruption and depravity. The cerebral mush of course, leads to an entirely different set of bureaucratic disasters. The long and short of it is that Imran Khan’s heart is in the right place but his brain is an addled brew of eye of newt, and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog*... And so, even with the best of intentions, the empire double doubles, toils and troubles!* But i digress… and can you blame me! Like everyone else in our beleaguered country, I too am a devoted armchair warrior and am wont to vent.

So why did our PM Imran Khan visit Sri Lanka?

What an interesting question, full of intrigue and the promise of riveting conspiracy theories (rubbing my hands gleefully and wanting to quote more eccentric old world verse!)

So here’s my take on it. The global power structure is gradually changing, and the South Asian bloc wants to be ready to play its part. Colonially-seeded geographical antagonism is seeming more and more irrelevant and incongruous as our unipolar world dithers on its North American weighted axis. As the US struggles with its burgeoning domestic issues, its inconvenient truths, it seems less and less likely to hold the moral mantle of global leadership. And when that dignity, skin deep though it may be, is shaken, the fall of the rest of the edifice is not far behind. No one wants to be told what to do by someone who can’t keep peace in their own backyard. And so, when some little but worthy nation somewhere tells Uncle Sam to mind his own business, we need to be ready to play our parts in catalysing the new equilibrium. Who those game-changing tRICksters* will be, is anyone’s guess. What is pertinent is that success will depend on there being some semblance of peace and harmony between the mighty neighbours of the Eastern hemisphere. And that peace has to begin ground up; with the smaller warring nations politely brought to heel first, so to speak. And so it was that on a swarthy February day, in the golden arms of the south Asian tear drop island, Pakistan was brought into the loop of the Global Reset. Because having two bickering nuclear armed neighbours in the region is generally not favourable to the efficacy of grand plans. And so, a meeting of the two estranged sisters, India and Pakistan, was arranged.

It is also interesting to note that hot on the heels of the Pak PM’s visit, the citizenry was treated to rather strategic Indo-SL combined military aerobatics, showcasing the battling might of mostly the Indian airforce. A polite but stratospherically overt reiteration that while there is some appetite for absurd but fit-to-current-form alliances, it’s best not to forget who the Saber Holders are and who the Saber Rattlers are.

All this of course is a funny-feeling-in-the-gut conjecture; the waxing eloquent of conspiracy theories. But these days, when truth has so often been stranger than fiction, the civic mingling of sworn enemies is not such a far fetched ideal. The proof of the gesture will of course be in how the two neighbours deal with each other going forward. (Watch out for startlingly long periods of peace along usually tempestuous/ skirmish-ridden borders).

Wade Davis’ words are a reverberating mantra for our times when he said, “No empire long endures, even if few anticipate their demise. Every kingdom is born to die. The 15th century belonged to the Portuguese, the 16th to Spain, 17th to the Dutch. France dominated the 18th and Britain the 19th. [By the 20th century], the torch had long passed into the hands of America”.

Let’s hope America continues to scratch the surface of its domestic/ social inequities, leaving little power vacuums across the globe. Let’s also hope that the Prodigal Sons of the East (daughters are in scarce order!) rise to the occasion. When the time comes, it will take a concerted effort of going against the grain of everything we know to be our patriotic truths, to seed a new epoch.

*eye of newt.... verse quoted from Shakespeare’s Macbeth
*tRICksters: the RIC in the word stands for the 3 global powerhouses of Russia, India and China.
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OPINION | Ghosts in the Shell*

A gender-optimal philosophy for more effective, ethical and harmonious global leadership

I’ve been thinking. Not quite in the usual staring into space for a moment or four, while wispy little disconnected thoughts do a bit of a foxtrot around the noggin. But more akin to the aftermath of a persistent intuition, a nagging logic that marches around the brain until one’s forced to contend with it. And so this opinion piece has come stridently into the light of day, hoping to give some pause for thought, or at the very least, to become part of the endless, reverberating ether of information.

World Leadership. That cunning, convoluted beast that has taken on a form that neither the gods of war (NATO) nor the cormorants of peace (the UN) nor any semblance of a half way evolved human ethic would have ever envisioned for it. From hiding in its dank, dark cave because some post facto stab of conscience made it scurry back, it now proudly, fearlessly, openly dons the mantle of bigotry and apathy. It struts about our borders, spies into our lives and tosses a western grenade when neighbours become too peaceful. That beast has to be fed and war is its nutriment of choice.

I don’t want to go on a prolonged impassioned whinge about the state of our lives and indeed our very species as the Cognocentibus – the original Intelligent Beings that have somehow gone awry. That understanding and knowledge now is like organized religion: after thousands of years of wrangling with querulous belief systems, everyone knows what there is to know, yet there is power in creating ever new vacuums of faith and filling them with ever more profitable doctrines of fire and brimstone. And so it is with the way we behave with one another across our planet. We know the ultimate panacea is some semblance of peace and equality for all; but that’s no fun when you’re riding the Cock Horse to Banbury Cross* and can partake of over USD 90 trillion dollars* of global riches on the way.

So what am i really getting at?

A changed world order. I won’t say new; that would be naive and ideological and by those very facts, impossible to achieve. But i will say, modernised, reconditioned, improved. Here’s what I believe will at the very least, begin to bring about some viability, some sanity and some heart into our lives.

No MAN over the age of 65 should run for the office of President or Prime Minister. More and more we see how the patriarchal septuagenarians and their seniors have doggedly held on to mores and codes which are not only outright dogmatic and sexist, but increasingly at odds with mainstream thought and ethics. The barely veiled misogyny and racism in the hearts of the fagged and ageing US congressmen are a sputtering but compelling beacon for other similarly inclined world leaders. And it was difficult to miss Japan’s 83 year old ex PM, Mori’s absurdly sexist comment made recently in his capacity as the 2020 Olympics Head https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/2/12/tokyo-2020-chief-yoshiro-mori-resigns-over-sexist-comments . It is time for these seniors to sit back, dated ideals and all, and let the global human equation finally begin to re-evolve.

At least 40% of all senior political appointees to be women. We have some absolutely scintillating examples of wise and wonderful female leadership: Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, Angela Merkel of Germany and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia to name a few. However, women serve as Heads of State or Government in only 21 countries, and 119 countries have never had a woman leader. As of October 2019, the global participation rate of women in national-level parliaments was less than 25%, with only 14 countries having achieved 50 per cent or more women in cabinets (unwomen.org). More than two-thirds of these countries have applied gender quotas – either legislated candidate quotas or reserved seats – opening space for women’s political participation in national parliaments. With some concerted effort, these indices can be made more representative of global male/female population ratios. Indeed, it is high time for women to resolutely take the other half of the global leadership reins.

Female Leaders around the globe, 2020.
Still a dismal, despairing, desperate, sad rarity!

Head of State tenures to be capped at 5 years at one time, with the opportunity to run again after at least 5 years, for no more than another half a decade. This will serve to discourage self serving oligarchs and quell dynastic politics. The shortness of the tenure and with it, the duly limited opportunity for power-mongering will mean that only the serious nation builders will apply for the job of running a country. This will, in time, spearhead the creation of a new brand of Statesmen and women who will safeguard the interests of all their people while leading their nations to peace and prosperity.

Every Executive Government position holder and parliamentarian to undergo Executive courses on World History covering the last 500 years, with special emphasis on how their particular region has impacted or was impacted by the events therein. This would entail essential courses on colonialism, slavery, the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries and their respective aftermaths. A specially designated, international body of scholars will keep the content of these courses true and relevant to the times. This simple yet critical geo-political prescript will help to bring about global baseline knowledge and sensitivity around some essential truths that are still dogging the socio-cultural fabrics of so many nations. Reparation and healing will then begin top down, via an informed, “woke” and upstanding world leadership.

There is much to be said for the sadly dismal distribution of global wealth and the vulgarity of the Billionaire concept in our current times. But that will require more than just a shift of quotas and governance standards as these are the very themes considered as stalwart markers of success and happiness. It will take a few generations of unlearning to erase the greed that is now inherently a part of our DNA. And for that reason, I am not putting it down as a current critical imperative; the prescribed hopeful/ logical/ nuanced global administrative change will gradually take care of it.

In the aftermath of the last 4 years and indeed post the apocalyptic past year of the Pandemic, I’m hoping, like so many others, that our humanity, the simple homogeneity of our species and Better Sense prevails. I’m hoping that by embracing the best parts of our human collective, we can finally create a better world for ourselves and for our children; that we can finally be more than just ghosts in our dated, jaded, cracking shells.

*Ghost(s) in the Shell: title inspiration from the American adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s original 1989 manga/ Japanese anime of the same name.
*”Ride a cock horse...”: part of an old English nursery rhyme
*USD 90 trillion: the approximate USD value of global GDP as of 2020
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FILM PICKINS| STAR TREK – DEEP SPACE 9 (1993 – 1999)

It was slow I admit, the nascency of a connection with the ST-DS9* characters and their Deep Space shenanigans. But by season 2, I had developed a mild fondness for the Captain and his Federation crew. And by season 4, the affection I felt for the space Station denizens was deep-rooted and personal. By season 5, I was already forlornly anticipating the end of the series and feeling at odds with the rest of the Netflix science fiction repertoire.

That is not to say that i was blinded to the obvious shortcomings of the production; they just became tenderly blurred as the characters became increasingly larger than life. I still remember cringing slightly during season 1 and wondering for the 347th time why i felt such a compelling commitment to see every series through, dubious and otherwise, that I’ve embarked on. Here’s what I remember even as I dredge up the memories from the practical, unemotional series-bingeing depths of my mind:

The characters were more than a tad over-dramatic – Captain Sisko often comes across as a stand up comic endearingly poking fun at would-be space bigwigs; while the good Doctor Bashir appears so entranced by his own look, feel and sound that one would be forgiven for mistaking him for the English, Space version of a Doogie Howser impersonator. Major Kira (Colonel now!) is relentless in her adolescent knee jerk outbursts of anger, vengeance and the insatiable need to be the biggest bully in the Alpha quadrant…. nah… all Space. Then there are the dated special effects: the barely camouflaged fluorescent primary coloured lights blinking on 24th century tricorders and control panels; the landing/ disembarkation pads which look like ponderous railway tunnels; the defiant, brave little ships in space, dithering ever so slightly against their starry backdrop – trembling reminders of their actual minuscule size and mass; the phasers and other laser weapons put to shame by the contents of aisle 15 in Toys ‘r’ Us. But…. like i said, i had to laboriously dig up these first and not so lasting impressions.

What I do remember effortlessly is the superb characterisation of Quark the quintessential Ferengi who’d grown a heart and a bit of a conscience over the course of the 7 seasons; Garak who was as devious and resourceful as he was genteel and intrepid; Dukat the bipolar Cardsassian who fought a war of conscience for most of the 7 seasons, finally relenting with a Bajoran bow and a twisted flourish to his dark side; Weyoun, the Gamma quadrant clone who was as duplicitous as he was “god-fearing”; and of course Vic Fontaine, a holographic throwback to the 1960s Las Vegas rat pack style entertainment who was as good a singer as he was a psychothera-pal for the DS9 crew. All in all, the alien characters of DS9 delivered a far superior performance to that of their human counterparts.

The piece de resistance of the series however, is definitely its ability to take its viewers on a compelling, emotional journey into the lives of its main characters. The cloak and dagger plots set a million light years away from earth still took place in what was essentially a little town with its very own set of the good, the bad and the alien. And that was ultimately what made the series so memorable.

Other Deep Space Distillations:

-The mainstream ethics/ moral compass portrayed by the Federation of planets, while being lofty and aspirational by our boorish 21st century standards, was still shown to be insidiously riddled with intrigue and deception; its Section 31 dutifully and covertly performing all its ungallant business. I suppose some things are so hard-wired into our psyche, a basic distrust of anyone different from ourselves being at the top of that list, that no amount of evolution and sophistication can wring it out of our DNA.

-America, as is customary across the Hollywood universe, bravely endeavoured to save the day or lead from the front. And so unremarkably, Uncle Sam continued to fill in most of the shoes of the DS9 and the Federation nawabs*.

-I discovered a new-found love for Frank Sinatra’s soulful crooning. I’ve had his vocal jazz and swing numbers on quick recall on my phone for the last fortnight. Vic’s repository of the legendary tunes pulls at all the heart strings!

-The MC at Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony sounded eerily like Worf, the Klingon!

I watched the last show of the last season last night. A net total of 176 episodes viewed, imbibed and psychoanalysed nostalgically during the last 4 weeks. Almost made me forget we’re in the middle of a pandemic as I traversed through space and time with the crew and the citizens of Deep space 9/ Terek Nor.

I leave you with a nostalgic old Sinatra refrain sung by DS9’s own Vic Fontaine, just because it’s such a lovely old song and even half a millennium on, it resonated richly, poignantly, on a space station somewhere in our cosmos.

*ST-DS9: Star Trek – Deep Space 9

*Nawab: a male title which literally means Viceroy; the female equivalent is “Begum” or “Nawab Begum”. The primary duty of a Nawab was to uphold the sovereignty of the Mughal emperor along with the administration of a certain province. In modern times, it is often used to denote men of power.

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FEATURE|BY TUK OR BY CROOK

I have now been using these four-stroke creatures to transport me around the island for the last 5 years, and I have to say that we’ve developed quite a lovely (e)motional symbiosis. They take me where I have to go, and I help them log a part of their daily kms while we both also get in a bit of a quaint conversation. The tuk tuk chatter ranges from Imran Khan’s political likability (he’s at least universally loved by the SL 3-wheeler brigade), to expertly compressed 6 minute summaries of their lives delivered amidst unexpected swerves, dodges and lurches, as my driver looks back during the choicest parts of his particular narration. I react congenially enough until imminent death threatens our largely blindly-pitching carnival of drama. Then I don my mother superior mantle, cut my voluble driver short and tell him if he doesn’t focus on getting me to my destination still in possession of my earthly form, that I will disembark right there, right then. That works, because losing a “hire” is almost as bad as having an animated conversation killed at its fastigium – this tuk tuk double whammy is a thing to be avoided at all costs. So the rest of the journey continues in inhaling the toxic and nauseating but thankfully silent, and undramatic fumes of over-taking vehicles.

Tuk Tuk drivers come in all manner of forms, from the road runners to the pavement huggers and a whole colorful gamut in between. There are the staid, honest types who drive in sedate silence (a perrenial favourite and an increasing rarity); the sly, intrepid ones who will take you on wildly circuitous routes to your destination; the meter cheaters who with undisguised enthusiasm will punch in 10 extra buttons on the instrument to awaken the tuk tuk Beast of Deceit; the MI6 Hall of Famers who will glance suspiciously at every other vehicle they pass, with special x-ray vision scans reserved for when they halt at traffic lights. The ones that are big fans of external trappings, their carriages outfitted with WiFi, a DVD player, a 15 inch monitor, sanitizer, a tissue box and, wait for it…. seatbelts! The nervous, anxious ones driving barely intact tuk tuks that groan and whine in anguished protest – (I tend to tip them the most generously. My sentimental, rooting-for-the-underdog knee jerk reactions continue to be alive and well). The Goodwill Ambassador who will, over the 10 minute ride, deliver a heart warming speech on the goodness of his countrymen and the many wonderful bounties of his paradise isle. Then there are the tenacious shopping mall 3-wheeler brigades with ethics that are as dubious as they themselves are territorial – one has to be forcefully belligerent to get out of their clutches; also probably the only contingent that all the other tuk tuk drivers hesitate to lock their … headlights with!

This endearingly sensationalist lot also believes in pithy, public declarations of the meaning and gist of their lives, emblazoned as they are on their autos. There’s a sweet, almost nostalgic obsession with certain historical personages and quaint adaptations of favored English idioms: Like Che Guevara who always wants the tuk tuk contingent to rebel; Bob Marley who would like them to forget their woes in most likely, a moonshine-steeped, reggae-rocked weekend. Then there is the tuk tuk driver throwing out a barefaced challenge asserting “if you’re bad, I’m your dad“; or the one who’s had it with arrogance saying “fly not high so you fall not low“; or the myriad others who loudly declare that their hearts are up (on their tuk tuk behinds) for the taking, and as many more who have publicly closed themselves to love… certain lady passengers always being an exception!

On wet days, of which there are many on this tropical island, the rickshaw drivers will race home largely oblivious to the desperate hails of rain-soaked pedestrians. The ones with a flair for a bit of perverse drama, will even pretend to slow down and then rev up almost immediately, leaving momentarily buoyed spirits crashing into the puddles forming all around; revelling in the reversal of the supply/ demand structure for the course of the monsoon torrent. I have tended to see the comic relief in this too as I have been lured and then abandoned by the fickle advance and departure of an unoccupied tuk tuk. Like they say, everyone needs some catharsis sometime!

As colourful and varied as the character spectrum is on these public carriers, they, one and all, manage to go where no other/ bulkier vehicles can. Through nooks and crannies, brushing, with millimetres to spare, past a lumbering sedan, racing down paths barely wide enough for 2 people to walk abreast. There is something of a mild urban censure of these contorting asphalt plyers – a menace on Colombo’s narrow roads that are already burgeoning with their automotive burdens, many say. But for us, the carless, environment-preserving lot (inadvertent as this reduced CO2 footprint state of being may be!) they are our reasons for remaining happily mobile across our neighbourhood geographies.

And so, as I spend my days roaming the city in between bouts of reading, writing and grocery shopping, I have formed an almost affectionate bond with the tuk tuk posse of the metropolis. Despite the ravages wrought by the pandemic of 2020, they remain optimistic, enterprising, courageous and cheerfully defiant on the roads. I still call them out for over-charging, they still respond with outlandish excuses but together we go pitching and careening across the city in a haze of mutual appreciation.

Getting around the island by Tuk or by Crook!

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OPINION|MY 72 HURS* AND I

I probably would not have been able to write this piece as intrepidly as i am doing now had I been in the motherland. And therein lies the basis of the conundrum that is our religion: an ideology that is deeply, consumingly rooted in loathsome patriarchy with a formidable intolerance for debate and discussion.

1400 years after the Prophet Muhammad brought the message of peace, tolerance, equality and most importantly, the elevation of the status of women in the fabric of our religious and social structures, we have not only forgotten the essence of that message, but have regressed in ways that would be considered somewhat extreme even in the wild misogyny of ancient Arabia. Islam, in the developing world, led ideologically by our oil-rich Arab brethren, has degenerated into a cacophony of fear mongering, at the heart of which is a gender bias so sick, it is boggling to the mind in the 21st century. So embedded is that illogical, bald-faced chauvinism that its nefarious cultural roots are no longer visible in the milleu of religious (mis)interpretation and ritual. In the masterful manipulation of all organized religions, Wahabi/ orthodox Islam too wields its power by staunching all debate that questions its ethical and moral viability for the current times – for to question is to be a Kafir* and thus branded, you may be exposed to the unwitting but ferocious wrath of the rest of the believers; or if you’re lucky enough to escape that gory end, you are forever a pariah in the fatherland.

I consider myself privileged for growing up in that little bubble of sanity that floats just atop the rest of the malignant mass that is our socio-religious national fabric today. Our generation of females in the family, led by absolutely prodigious women of substance, has been bestowed with those critically strategic opportunities to break through the debilitating and handicapping proverbial glass, nay granite ceiling. We have been raised to believe that the only people who are better than us are those who bring more to the the table as human beings, and that does not include their inadvertent Y chromosome. And yet, during my time working in the corporate sector which is known for its gender inclusivity with its strategic human capital goals of at least 45/55 percent female to male ratios, I was reminded on not infrequent occasions, that to be a man regardless of your professional acumen was to have a clear advantage. One example of this state-sponsored misogyny is the weight/ bearing of a woman’s signature on a legal document. Two female signatures are required for every one male signature for the document to hold up in a court of law. And so on more occasions than I care to remember, the resident tea boy who had nothing to do with the legal gambit or the event (except for the steaming cups of tea in our hands) has put down his testosterone-fortified signature as a legal witness, because I, the woman who was leading the charge on the matter, was not deemed fit enough by our state legislatures to understand it as well as any male can, including our tea boy – who, quite frankly, was a good soul but had limited knowledge of BPRD* circulars and responses to the Central bank.

And so this system of overt bias is perpetuated to keep our gender from ever reaching its full potential – an unmitigating stream of psychological and jurisdictive attacks cloaked in fuzzy patriarchy to keep 50% of the country in a constant state of entropy.

Despite these disabling encumberances, our generation has forged ahead – thinking, questioning and expanding our minds and our hearts to become more of the emotionally, mentally and spiritually replete beings that we inherently are. This has also led to a sizeable denominator of women being essentially left in limbo viz-a- viz workable/ aspirational personal philosophies. On the one hand, the religious and cultural ideologies of their forefathers no longer fit their lives in any manner that is respectful, empowering and enriching; on the other hand, any discourse or analysis that could lead to a more gracious and inclusive embodiment of religious tenets is tantamount to sacrilege. This is the state of half the population of the Muslim world; the state of almost a billion people on the planet. I am one of those women.

As we continue to the top of the personal ideological food chain, the number of denizens occupying those upper tiers get very much fewer. The ironic paradox with this food chain is that the apex means surefire disenfranchisement, backlash and predation. Like I said, it is still a rare privilege to be born a female in a truly enlightened Muslim family – i am grateful to be one those. But our numbers are few and the patriarchal landscape is vast and riddled with a hate of dissidents that has only become more fanatical through the centuries. However, every revolution of the hearts and the minds begins with a few intrepid idiots calling out the injustice and the oppression. I am also one of those women.

And so I’m diving into my ideological debate with some essential satire on a salient reward of the Hereafter; a lustful vision so unashamedly made synonymous with goodness that it has compelled the righteous to decimate entire populations and on frequent occasions, themselves too: the 72 Hurs or splendid female companions of Paradise. Promised to every believer. I’m a believer and I think I’m a good human being; (I’m also as straight as they come!) So is that vision, touted as it is in every inspirational Khutbah*, an enticing end to a life well lived? I’m going to hazard a guess on behalf of us Muslim women who are almost a billion strong: Nah!

The religious conversation needs to evolve beyond the all male-corridors of our masjids*; beyond erotic visions of the afterlife as the penultimate reward, to a wholesome, dignified ideology of life itself.

It is time, ladies and gentlemen, to take Islam out of the Neanderthal man caves into the light of the 21st century.

*Hur: a “splendid female companion” in the afterlife epitomising the spoils of a righteously led life for every devout Muslim man

*Kafir: unbeliever/ infidel. The term refers to a person who rejects or disbelieves in God as per Islam

*BPRD: Banking Policy and Regulations Department of the State Bank dictating the rules of business engagement for all banks

*Khutbah: A Muslim sermon that is delivered at places of worship mainly on Fridays which are considered holy days in Islam

*Masjid: Islamic places of worship predominantly visited by only men.

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FEATURE|FROM TROPICAL URBANIA, WITH LOVE

Maybe it’s the naive rambling of the blissfully ignorant, or the intuitive musings of the arduously life-initiated, or maybe it’s just the endorphins doing an extra merry jig in the face of our pandemic-crippled times – but here goes in the vein of the duly afflicted: I am Mahvash, and i am a true blue urbanite!

Almost daily, I experience some gently euphoric moment in my current tropical metropolis. Gentle because that is the nature of all lovely things experienced in copious repetition; if one’s lucky, the pleasure remains while the mad rapture of the initial days, fades into a fond familiarity. And so it has been with so much of my urban roaming and rambling.

My morning jo – such a simple start-of-the-day ritual and yet so filled with happy anticipation for me. I make an event of it as I tuk tuk it down to my favourite cafe and while sitting ensconced in all that caffeine-warmed intimacy, I absorb the ethereal substance of my environment. I sit with my latte, sipping it hot and gulping it tepid, as i take in the sun-kissed beauty of the Island Downtown. Soaking in the sweet lethargy of a tropical metropolis as it gently undulates into the late morning hours, like a cat languidly treading a much-loved, oft-frequented promenade. Even the busy intersection which the cafe overlooks has the air of the transiently hurried, as the pervasive lagurousness of the place seeps right back into every interval in the automotive street tumult. The verdant green of the Indian Almond and the white-flowered Plumeria trees amplify the constant harkbacks to the tropical abundance of nature even in the heart of the cacophonous city. Two mugs of lacteous latte and my daily dose of spiritual enrichment later, I’m propelled into my daily routine. This early afternoon energy is vitally palpable no matter how late the hour was when I retired to bed the night before – yup, night owlishness is second nature to yours truly!

Most days, I will try and make something of my 11am to 2pm time slot – a much neutralised/ tropicalized throwback to my 9am – 6pm corporate rigour. And in those specially designated hours, i will make my calls, pay my bills online and mostly write. The combined alchemy of my surroundings, the mental vigor bestowed by the caffeine and the relatively recent unleashing of a creative urge long suppressed in the throes of corporate enterprise, has been serendipitously empowering. I write to facilitate not only my flow of self expression, but also to tick-mark the “Productive” box in my day – I realise I’m innately enterprising and even in the midst of time off, i will inject some semblance of stringency to balance work with leisure. I think sometimes, that I might actually have been an industrious worker ant in some not so distantly-elapsed past life. A shining example for my colony, of the love of labour, as I hoisted choice burdens of nourishment 5000 times my weight in the dappled canopy of some tropical fruit tree…. a fruit tree home-base because I would like to believe the spirit of industry came with some smarts too!

Some days, I will give myself a break such as that is when you’re on a never-ending sabbatical, and roam the city. My roaming days tend to be cloudy and therefore more conducive to long, rambling walks across the city’s tree lined avenues. These sojourns extend over a few hours and I may end up circuitously walking 9 or 10 kms. Usually I will detour through shady back lanes laced with copiously flowering trees and creepers nodding their bright-hued heads in the breeze; or strewn almost in staged perfection with all pink or all white or all yellow petals; or adorned with pretty little balconies nurturing their own abundance of foliage, dropping their resplendence across their railings in exuberant, meandering bunches of cats claw yellows and purples.

Six days a week, I will also go for my run in the picturesque surroundings of the neighbourhood park, tree-lined as it is with the Indian almond, the Mara and the Neem*, all casting long eventide shadows onto the flagstones. On quieter evenings which are brought on mainly by a preceding short but animated tropical storm, the beauty and the tranquility of the place are especially sublime. There are only the few weather-intrepid out and about in the aftermath of such a downpour (of which I am one). The trees glisten, the sky clears to reveal entire twinkling constellations and the whole atmosphere is scented with a rich post-rain petrichor*. In the absence of the regular milieu of running, walking, strolling, cycling and otherwise in all manner contorting humanity, the sounds of dusk also find their place in the quietude of nature with the chirp of the crickets, the end-of-day calls of a tardy lapwing and the flapping of occasional wings as nature’s aviary settles for the night.

The weekend also brings with it the cheerful, spirited calls of Downtime for the industriously employed swathes of urbanites. In my tropical metropolis, this translates to an abundance of celebration in the happy torpor of music and tipple as families, friends, frenemies and foes gather to renew love, acquiantanchip, gossip and rivalry. I’m one of those introverted types who surrounds herself with a bubble of solitude and ventures forth to partake of the party; a psychical phenomenon, I have realized, only the reclusively outgoing can relate to.

The beauty of Tropical Urbania* is its rare ability to hold on to its earthiness while manifesting its contemporariness; its deeply organic feel while delivering on its urbanity; and its infinite capacity to feel like nature’s embrace in the midst of all the metropolitan milieu.

This is the city that I love.

De Khudai pe aman

*Neem tree: Indian lilac or mahogany

*Urbania: related to, or of the city

*Petrichor: the smell of the earth immediately after it rains

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THE CORPORATE SERIES|Demystifying Organizational Success – (Part 1)

It has now been over 5 years since i decided to take a sabbatical if you will, from my corporate career. I embarked on it more in the spirit of a healing process (life had thrown a few curveballs at me in 2012/13), rather than a wild abandonment of the work rigour, resulting precariously also, in the sudden and definitive staunching of a hitherto steady income!

Even so here i am, half a decade on, happier and probably somewhat healthier and wiser too! However, you can take a person out of the corporate halls of slog, but you can’t take the corporate exactitude out of the person. And so, i have over the last 5 years, approached all my experiences across the service industry spectrum, from the hospitality to the airline to the internet service providers with my customer experience hat adroitly perched upon my head. I have, quite a while ago, given up even the pretence of being a congenial, everyday customer with a heart full of forgiveness and a kind blurriness of mind reserved especially for appalling episodes of experiential breakdown. I notice everything and while i have made earnest efforts to not treat every service gaffe/ misdemeanour like it was committed by a flawlessly trained prodigy, i do pick my “service battles” from the point of view of identifying those likely eliciting the maximum bang for the buck. So while i won’t voice the mental angst of grossly delayed service followed by fumbling/ bumbling remedial efforts, I will respectfully opine on the myriad different withdrawal regulations that are applied to my NRFC* account – each disparate rule a tribute to its creative forger and executor of the day. The subsequent explanations to central bank auditors could make for a whole new banking science fiction genre; not to mention the plethora of post facto documentary and explanatory toil that I, the customer, would likely have to undertake to help the institution to regularise its stream of inadvertent but almost lovingly repeated foibles.

And so, to cut to the chase, i’ll go right to the helm of affairs – to the leadership of the organisation. That seat of power that can make or break the best and the worst of enterprises.

So what does a good Management Team do to create organisational success?

There are a few simple but utterly alchemical factors here that can convert even a seemingly jinxed piece of corporate enterprise into a decent success. I will explain each in successive blog posts.

Creating and Nurturing a Distinct Organisational Culture: There have been a couple of times, (twice for those inclined to use “couple” to mean a scattering!) where i have become part of a company culture where i felt like i was working for a home enterprise. The work environment being so disparate across the board that it ranged from an all out gestapo reenactment in one unit, to a space bubble with barely a shared ethos among its occupants, in another. And although the 2 units were highly dependent on each other in a particular product value chain, the twain barely ever met in purpose, harmony or delivery. Left unchecked, this work culture dissonance had added over a month to the end to end delivery turnaround time of the particular service. Complaints were rife; staff had been changed multiple times; bonuses were withheld. But despite the best of intentions, the issue stuck like the karmic backlash of a past life. Simply because there was no defined work culture, ethos or a shared Big Picture.

This work culture incongruity is a death knell for companies, especially in the service industry where, unlike in consumer goods producing FMCGs*, the end-user gratification is a sum total of their experience at that point in time with the organisation. Think of opening an account at a bank; your entire takeaway is nothing more than the knowledge that you have a new account in a particular bank underscored by the experience that accompanied that fact. Therefore, leaving the objectives of a mid-sized to large corporation undefined to its daily drivers and facilitators translates into the inevitable gross dilution of end-user experience that in time leaves nothing of the original/ intended USPs* of the company

Enter the dual magic of the Vision and Mission Statements*. These vessels allow management to clearly, concisely and effectively embody not only the existential purpose of the company; but also right to the T, what it means to be a part of the company as staff, customer, supplier and advertiser. (I’m personally not a big fan of shareholder stakes being vocalised in these statements). Building focused understanding, enthusiasm and energy behind these formal statements help to create and perpetuate a distinct company culture. People respond because by nature we are social creatures, and these statements of purpose then become the catalyst for nurturing a community of professionals with a clear unified end goal. A robust company culture though, is not a static thing. While the primary values remain unchanged (e.g. an FI’s* focus on technology, accessibility and financial security), the culture around those values is ever evolving to successfully accommodate the continuous diversity of its people, systems, customers and the external environment. The openness to change needs to be learnt/ imbibed at the get-go; imparted with veracity, in the very earliest of company orientation training programs.

Company management, the ManCom*, is the rightful custodian of the Vision and Mission statements; while every staff is the practical incumbent. In the best organisations, Management role models these values in visible ways to give them meaning, relevance, and to embed them into the DNA of the organisation at large. A game-changing organzational culture is one where its staff members are recognizable almost anywhere in the positivity of their bearing, attitude and pride of affiliation. For me, one such organisation was ABN AMRO bank in the late 90s into the mid 2000s in Pakistan. It was a poster child for hitherto unknown brands taking the market by storm; and continues to be a professional alma mater for so many even after it has ceased to exist in that particular market.

And so, a cohesive organisational culture which brings people together into a work community of purpose, is the first cornerstone of an organisation that successfully leads the charge and is able to cement its position as a leader in the industry.

(Read Part 2 here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2020/11/12/the-corporate-seriesdemystifying-organizational-success-part-2/ )

(Read Part 3 here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2020/12/01/corporate-seriesdemystifying-organizational-success-part-3/ )

*NRFC account: Non Resident Foreign Currency account

*FMCG: Fast Moving Consumer Goods

*USP: Unique Selling Proposition

*Vision and Mission statements: A Mission Statement defines the company’s business, its objectives and its approach to reach those objectives. A Vision Statement describes the desired future position of the company. Elements of Mission and Vision Statements are often combined to provide a statement of the company’s purposes, goals and values.

*FI: Financial Institution

*ManCom: corporate parlance for the Management Committee

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OPINION| A GRACIOUS FAREWELL

I’ve been meaning to put this hitherto confusing, emotionally wounding mass of thoughts to paper/ tablet for a while now. So far, through all the varied attempts over the last 8 years, I’ve always choked on the words in my mind; cocooned in a kind of benumbing Writer’s Block if you will.

So here i am today, feeling a little more intrepid, a tad more emotionally sound and spurred on by a medley of bittersweet reminiscences, to finally reflect on the vital importance of End of Life acceptance, dignity and preparedness.

To die is inevitable; to lead a life well-lived is a choice. And yet, we leave so much to providence while we can still exercise our power to choose, and put up formidable bulwarks of resistance when faced with the inevitable. This is a construct and a bullheaded perpetuation of our modern times, urged on by medical advances and its incremental effect on our life expectancy. While we are living longer, we have also developed an almost combative relationship with the End of Life. Even when everything is pointing towards the ineludable final exit, we choose to fight. We push back, we suffer, we agonize and we degrade, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually as we try and keep the “monster” at bay. A lot of times, that militancy is dispensed by the people closest to the terminally ill; and despite their good intentions, end up reducing their already suffering loved ones to little more than vulgarised shadows of their former selves.

In 2008, my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. She lived with the disease for four years with the dignity, grace and courage of the superwoman that she was. Never once did she don the mantle of the reduced or the afflicted or the invalid. Right to the end, she remained the gracious matriarch of her warm, welcoming home. Towards the end, the final two days to be exact, when she should have been allowed to make that Final Walk with the same beautiful poise with which she had lived her life, we, her family and her medical specialists intervened with all of our might to fight off the inevitable. She was taken to two different hospitals over the span of the last 3 days where the vitally alive battled to avert or at least delay an end, that became heartbreakingly beleaguered.

My final memory of her last day with us, has nothing in the way of any gentleness, love or the deep peace of final goodbyes. It is a memory fraught with fussing, poking, prodding Medical Staff intubating, pulling and pushing her as they, with assiduous professionalism, executed their Hippocratic oaths. The memory of her looking right at me, confused and exhausted as they inserted the ET tube down her throat is still searingly painful.

For a full two years after that, I thought of that terrible, terrible last scene every single night before i allowed myself to sleep. Perhaps it was my form of emotional self flagellation for being a well meaning party to the inadvertent indignity and torment my mother suffered towards the end.

And then, I’m not sure whether it was a providential helping hand reaching out from my own subconscious to finally pull me out of my emotional abyss, or the tender, cosmic reverberations of the maternal bond that helped me to transition to my current state of mental well being. That said, it was a dream that gave me back some semblance of my peace. So lucid, potent and reassuring was the vision of my mother being well and happy that i woke up with the sheer visceral force of the feeling – the warmth of her touch still lingering on the skin of my hands. (I have written about the dream in another post: https://theroamingdesi.org/2020/03/09/thank-you-for-the-joy/ )

And so, I finally did surface from the viper pit of guilt and grief and i have since, forgiven myself.

All living creatures are the sum total of their experiences and if there’s one thing I’ve learnt from my experience of losing someone close to me is the ability to see death for what it is – unavoidable. While I have lost my fear of the end, i also now understand the profound blessing a quick (relatively painless) exit is. That a departure that is underscored with acceptance, essential conversations, tranquility and quality time spent together becomes the blessed catalyst for more fully celebrating the lives of the loved ones we’ve lost. That the ability to see life and death with more ethereal eyes, to help us to grieve a little less and remember with joy so much more, are the cornerstones of a loving, respectful parting.

These End of Life preparedness conversations need to logically start in the hallowed halls of medical science. Medical caregivers need to bring more depth to their oaths taken for preserving the well being of human life, to include the dignity of death. These conversations need to become mainstream; to change the culture of the crusading and contrariness around death. In our current approach, we are left with too little in the way of the love and grace of final farewells.

It will take a consummate change in our emotional and social makeup/ temperaments to begin to ennoble death even half as much as we do life. Given the current state of our world, this gracious labour of love around Final Partings may be the panacea for reminding us of both, the wonderful alchemy of the state of being alive and the eternal fragility of life itself.

De Khudai pe aman

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VERSE| CARPE DIEM

I sit here, encircled in my routine,
My safety net spread around me like a bright yellow blanket.
The sameness, the everydayness keeping it close, gently embracing.
I’ve gulped down the first half of my mug of coffee
So now I’m surrounded also, by a warm cloak of caffeine.
I stretch inwardly with the languidness of a just-fed, just-loved cat.

I look outside at the recently blue sky
Where the clouds have now gathered in heavy eskers of grey
The suddenness of the assailment, the eclipsing of the sun,
Breaking the spell of my Constancy Ritual.
I sip on the second half of my mug of coffee, rhythmically bolstering my caffeine haze
Even as the sudden coolness of the breeze loosens my other subliminal layers of warmth.

Then the rain begins to fall.
Free, fluid, gleaming,
Skipping down the sidewalk; dancing in eddying pools on the street below.
And i stand up and stretch with the lustiness of the Alive and the Kicking.
I reach out and catch the falling raindrops in the trough of my open palm;
I reach out and seize the day.

De Khudai pe aman.

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SHORT STORY|A TWILIGHT IN TAPROBANA

Some background to this piece is essential i feel, to give it that bit of relatable relevance. Felicia’s character is based on an old family friend in Sri Lanka who is as lovely as she is absolutely, delightfully eccentric. Donald Rajapakse is a more sinister inspiration, based on the character of a man whom i know nothing of but who has been in my coffee shop writing space for the last 6 months – loud, obnoxious and a bit of a hassler. (I had to have the cafe management intervene to have him back off). Ruwani is a happy figment of my imagination, introduced to bring life and comical depth to the madcap machinations of my 2 main characters.

Felicia looked around her with the air of the resident matriarch, her gaze more acicular than that of a quality control inspector at a pharmaceutical manufactory. She noticed everything; from the brand of shoes on a toddler’s little feet to the caliber and concentration per square inch of a counterpart’s cosmetic applications. She sniffed delicately, her scan of the Cinnamon Grand lobby complete, and picked up her mug of double chocolate drizzled mochaccino.

She turned to Ruwani, her friend of 60 years and a bulwark of a woman in bearing and bulk.

“I’ve had a new salwar* stitched for the next meeting of the International Ladies’ Club. It’s from Pakistan. That Shihani thought she looked like a beauty queen with her Janpath market purchase. Did you see the cheap gold lace on her shawl?” She rolled her eyes as she spoke disparagingly of her social arch-nemesis.

Ruwani laughed her high tinkling laugh, delicately belying her ponderous mien. Her eyes twinkled as she said, “imitation is the purest form of flattery darling. She’s always looked up to you as her role model”. She laughed again at the mental image of Shihani looking up to Felicia as a role model of any sort. The two women could barely coexist in a social environment, and when they did somehow manage to come within six feet of each other, there was almost always a thrilling finale to the affair. The stuff of Page 3 high adventure.

Felicia frowned and took a slurpy swig of her saccharinus coffee, letting the heady brew course through her body, giving her the mental vigor to “drop it for now”. She had recently been diagnosed as a prediabetic and on the behest of her Ayurveda* guru, she had begun meditating to “will away the extra sugar” as she called it. She had also realised more recently that her willpower increased dramatically when her blood was fortified with caffeine or spirits. Still, she gave a last withering look to Ruwani before allowing the sugary caffeine to whisk away the wisecrack into some not so obscure recesses of her mind; the memory to be retrieved later, brazen and embellished, when she needed stirring reinforcements of lividity in the wake of an especially karmic day.

Ruwani watched Felicia’s face as expressions of resentment, detachment, reanimation and a final ferocity played out in the fond encore of an oft repeated act. Despite the bluff and bluster, Felicia was a good sort. The kind that needed copious scratching of the surface before any glimmers of goodness shone through though; a diamond in the consummate rough. Felicia Pelpola and Ruwani Edirisinghe had been friends for 50 years now and had had their fair share of fall-outs and run-ins. But time and grace (mostly on Ruwani’s side) had brought a bristly tenderness to their equation and their friendship had triumphantly weathered multitudinous storms in teacups and the occasional tsunami.

Felicia had, in her heydays, been quite the social starlet. She was the debutante that had changed the norms of the party circuit with her boisterous manner and her delicate anatomy. Her demeanour and her countenance were at such odds with each other that the resulting befuddlement of the senses became her piece de resistance. She provoked a serendipiptius sensation of attraction and discomfuture that pulled at all the male heart strings and incensed, in equal measure, the traditional ladies of leisure. Ruwani looked at her now robustly girthed friend and chuckled. Time had diminished her beauty yes, but had also compensated her unsparingly with a persona that strode into most rooms before her person did. She was absolutely, delightfully formidable!

“Oh look who’s here!” Ruwani, still grinning, looked towards where her friend was gesturing. Donald Rajapakse had just walked in, behatted and bellicose, loudly berating someone on his way into the coffee shop.

“Donnie! Donnie! Aney!* He’s getting deaf as a door nail!” crowed Felicia.

“DONNIE!”

There was startled hush in the cafe which neither Felicia nor Donald noticed as the one shrieked back a “Hellooo!” and the other cackled in what was meant to be a guileful titter. Donnie came towards them, swaying from side to side in his quintessential rheumatic lurch.

“Hello my beauties! How are my favourite ladies?”

Felicia smiled affectedly and in the high pitched, adenoidal voice reserved only for eligible men and her hair dresser, she quipped, “We are fiiiine! Having cappuccino. You want? Come sit aney!”

Donnie sat in the chair that afforded him the best view of his surroundings and looked around. Felicia continued to smile like a loon and shifted her bulk at a precipitous right angle towards Donnie’s chair, her hand delicately supporting her chin. But Donnie was already distracted by a solitary woman sitting two tables away, engrossed in a book. He stared hard, only half hearing what Felicia was chirping into his ear. When his hypnotic stare didn’t get the creature to look his way, he devolved in his trademark manner into Neanderthal mode and then there was a bustle and a frenzy as he guffawed, bellowed and produced all manner of primitive-man noises to hassle the object of his current coffee shop infatuation into acknowledging his presence. She did finally, by calling for the bill, casting a disdainful look towards the voluble, geriatric party of 3 and sauntering out into the sunshine. Donnie was woebegone as his buoyant hat came off and he sat there with an inadvertent twinkle on his bald head. But not for long; you can’t keep a socially catastrophic but tirelessly optimistic man down for long. And so the next couple of hours were spent sipping coffee and annihilating plates of mutton pies and smoked salmon wraps over boisterous conversation.

At 3pm, Donnie left the group to join another party at the 80s Club. Felicia took back command of her person and her surroundings and the next 30 minutes were spent in a focused wardrobe and character breakdown of the other coffee shop patrons. All in all, it had been a charming afternoon!

On the way home, both women were thoughtful mostly because of the stupor of all the food consumed and partly because of the waning day…. Life. Ruwani glanced at her friend who had put her head back against the backrest and closed her eyes, blocking out the world perhaps, after spending an afternoon in its fervid embrace. She looked outside her window. They had stopped at a traffic light. A young man on a motorbike was arguing with his female pillion as she pushed away from him clutching a Beverly Street bag to her chest. A snot-nosed boy ran across the road with a dripping ice cream cone in his hand, following a hassled mother. A tuk tuk driver looked at his phone in distressed anticipation while glancing every so often at the red traffic light. The only quietude in the scene outside surrounded a duo of mynahs promenading along the sidewalk in perfect creature harmony.

Back home and post a shower, Felicia sat at her dressing table looking at her reflection. She brushed her hair slowly, the once lustrous strands now feeling meagre and inadequate in her grasp. She looked at the lines in her face; each had become a more avid companion as the years had gone by. She looked away and out of her bedroom window. In the waning twilight she saw a pair of mynahs, frolicsome and songful, performing a last little dance before being blanketed by the stillness of the night.

*Salwar: local colloquialism for the Shalwar Kameez, the long shirt and loose pants indigenous to the northern subcontinent

*Ayurveda: An alternative medicine system with historical roots in the Indian subcontinent. 

*Aney: a colloquial Singhalese expression meant to show mild irritation/ concern.

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VERSE| RAVAGED

A tribute (brutal and raw so we don’t forget) to all those courageous girls who have been made victims of our ugly patriarchal social fabric, and who have stood up to their tormentors/ violators and even their protectors to stop the abuse. And to those brave, brave girls who continue to fight to survive another day. May we see this horror begin to end in our lifetimes.

It’s my wedding day today; i am 17 years old.
It is also the 6th anniversary of the 28th time “It” happened,
And the 3rd anniversary of the 153rd time.
I have this terrible memory - my teachers call it a photographic memory.
I remember everything. I can’t forget even when i want to.
My mind is a notebook, each page blazing with the clarity of vulgar recall
I have tried to be good; to remember only what i should
But I have this terrible memory...

Today I’m to wed my uncle - My father’s younger brother.
For him, it is also the 6th anniversary of the 28th time “It” happened.
And all the anniversaries in between.
I wonder if he remembers the 28th time...the 10th time....
The First time...
I wonder if his memory is as unforgiving as mine.
My notebook has no entries on conjectures, or pain or anguish
Not mine; not anyone else’s.
It is only the sum total of the number of times “It” happened.
Each page pristine, detailed, crystal clear, with edges as sharp as knives;
Bestowing countless paper cuts as they stir secretly in my head.
Those blessed paper cuts ... mental cuts .... numberless abrasions, innumerably inflicted to forget a page;
To forget one instance.
That never happens.
But i find some peace as the physical pain temporarily cloaks me in its tenderly piercing grasp.

Today I will become the wife of Harris lala* .... Harris.... No, I can’t bring myself to drop the suffix
Maybe he will finally become nameless. Tranquilizingly, numbingly, mercifully nameless.
My mother is relieved... she has been a silent witness (his co-conspirator?) to the last 5 anniversaries of when “It” first happened
My father hasn’t really spoken to me in 3 years (his Protector?) .... not since the day I tried to tell him that his brother had ... had been ... my mind still refuses to name “It”
Today I also learned that I’d stood first in the Board matriculation exam.
I resent that accolade .... that worldly consummation of my terrible memory.... my terrifyingly acute, my savage, unrelenting memory.

Today, my tormenter (my violator?) will become my partner for life
Today, I’m going to finally close the Notebook in my mind
Today, I’m going to be respectable once again.
Today will be the First day of the consummation of my marriage!

(Today will be the 389th time that i will be ravaged).

De Khudai pe aman.

Lala: term of respect for older male relative, mainly denoting “big brother”. Used commonly across most communities in Pakistan and the northern parts of India.

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POLITICAL FARCE|THE AGE OF STUPID – Part Deux

May 24th, 2021:

The President Is Dead.

It was not exactly a shock but it did put the Administration into a bit of a tailspin. DT’s* tenuous hold on his vitality and even his lucidity, had begun to loosen quite quickly after he won the 2020 election – through the electoral college loophole yet again, trailing as he was by a popular vote count of 4,321,786 to be exact. It had been sad to see his trademark animated crazy-man persona take a nosedive in the aftermath of a Covid 19 attack in February 2021. Respiratory complications had led to double pneumonia and a heart attack from which he had never quite recovered. And thus it came to pass that with a sniffle and a stroke, the “Wuhan” virus had finally triumphed over its greatest Detractor and Denier in Chief.

Mike Pence Was Confused.

Mother* had been anticipating a turn in her otherwise vapid husband’s fortunes. She was a devout Christian and believed that because of her prodigious equation with God, her Mike was destined for greatness. Privately, Mike was terrified. He was used to doing someone’s bidding- the more autocratic the bidder, the more effectively Mike Pence tended to advance the [political] will of God. Mother said that when the time came, he was to “rise to the occasion”….

He mopped his brow and picked up the phone to call Mother. He put it down almost immediately. He looked across at Ivanka, squinting in anticipation.

Ivanka Glowed

In the wake of her father’s battle with the Chinese scourge, Ivanka had stepped up just like the chip off the old Trump timber that she was. In fact, she’d been the defacto Head of State now for the last 3 months while the President elect had relegated himself to laboriously showing up for the necessary photo and video Ops. In the short course of 2 months and through unrelenting public interactions and fact-repelling, fantastical incendiary speeches, she had expertly manipulated his fiercely loyal electorate to look on her as the heir apparent to the American throne. When the time came, she was going to gleam; she was going to be queen!

June 9th, 2021:

Bloody Wednesday

A million Trump supporters marched on Washington DC on June 5th, 2021. They had one mission in mind: to ensure the legacy of Donald J. Trump endured in the only way possible/ plausible. Ivanka Trump was to be President – some said Sovereign Leader.

Over 5000 people were killed in that endeavour (which came to be called the Lafayette Square Massacre in clandestine, ragtag liberation groups). On June 9th, 2021 Washington fell and Ivanka was installed in Mar-a-Lago, Florida as the Supreme Leader of the Republic of America.

June 9th, 2023:

The Immaculate Assimilation

There are still hopeful little insurgent clutches that come up here and there like miniscule trickles of water in the desert. They raise tenuous battle cries for the old values; for equality and justice. They are brutally crushed every time. The QAnon* governed, Portland based torture chambers, i have heard, rival none.

A newage caste system, inadvertently borrowed from the 1500 year old Vedic period in ancient India, has been installed as the elemental social fabric of the Republic of America. It is a fundamental alchemy of economic and racial hierarchy; and it is thriving in all its unstifled, newly-released glory. Washington is now home to the Mass Re-Cognition Camps where participants are concertedly reconditioned on the values of the new republic or Great America as it is now called.

I am a working class brown woman in this new America. And I have ‘volunteered’ to relearn the manifesto and the ethos of our new country, my position in it and especially, the very definite limits to my aspirations.

Where We Go One – We Go All!*

Long live the Aryan Republic of America!

De Khudai pe aman.

*The Age of Stupid: Title inspired from a namesake 2009 dystopian movie. This feature is the follow up to the original OPINION |The Age of Stupid*

*DT: Donald J. Trump, the 45th President of the USA

*Mother: Mike Pence’s (and indeed, all of America’s) endearment for his wife

*QAnon: A far-right cult of conspiracy theorists alleging that a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles running a global child sex-trafficking ring is plotting against President Donald Trump, who is battling them

*WWG1WGA: Where We Go One We Go All– a QAnon credo based on the “Great Awakening” of the public to share the load of restoring faith in the rule of law in a post-media age.

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OPINION|In God we Trust, But Our Morals are Negotiable

US Hegemony, Its Lingering Pakistan/ Afghanistan Embarrassment and Media Morality

It was the early 80s. I still vividly remember as a child, standing on the side of the iconic Mall road in Murree (a mountain resort town situated about 30kms northeast of Islamabad in Punjab, Pakistan, and also home to a number of missionary boarding schools) with compatriots from my school and others, waving little Pakistani and American flags as President Zia ul Haq accompanied by the then US Vice President, George H. W. Bush (Bush Senior) drove by in their endless cavalcade of black luxury sedans. For us it was a joyous day out of the regular rigour of boarding school life; for Pakistan it was the beginning of the end of its Rising Star status in the region.

Pakistan, so geostrategically well situated to catalyse the downfall of the Soviet empire- the one thorn in the side of the Americans and the only obstacle to an all out USA dominated planet- was requested to become Ally Numero Uno. And we complied in the then considered most shrewd and cunning manner – through religiously radicalising, arming and mobilising an entire nation in a war that was to turn in on itself for decades after the USSR fell. By God, did we comply! And for very little in return. A statesman at the helm of affairs at the time (or even a half-way successful businessman like Donald Trump armed as he is with his career collage of bankruptcies), rather than a religiously devout military man, would have at least got us better trade deals to help shore up the economy once the dust of battle settled. But these are wishful conjectures…and the rest as they say, is history.

Soviet Russia sputtered and fell and the USA couldn’t get out of the region fast enough, leaving two countries with populations in the area of 130 million (circa 1992) to clean up the mess. But radical religion has a way of festering, sometimes out of sight, and emerging multiplied, more virulent, more destructive and deadlier than before. And that has been the dubious Vestige of Alliance bestowed on the two countries, the “rewards” of which we are continuing to grimly reap. Kabul, once considered the Paris of the East, is now a wraith of its former self, and the country has been declared a failed state. Pakistan itself has been teetering on the edge of the abyss of Pariah States. It’s people have undergone decades of global dismissal at best and damnation at worst. Despite being the fifth most populous country in the world and a nuclear power, it has fallen behind all its compatriots on almost every index of progress, prosperity and nationhood. The war on terror in fact, has purportedly cost the Pakistani economy a total of almost USD 130 billion since 2001.

Ironies and hypocrisies are rife as the countries in the West continue to strengthen themselves in nuclear armament while using every tactic in the book and outside of the realms of international law to bully the weaker/ developing nations into maintaining their globally vulnerable positions. The touted purpose: because these countries cannot be trusted with independent nuclear arms for they may wage globally destructive wars. The ironic truth: almost all the wars of the 20th century and the 2 decades of the 21st century have been initiated or aggressively intervened in by the USA, whether it was Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria; or Cuba, Panama, Kenya and Yemen. We, the developing nations, have sat on the sidelines, watched our economies bled dry, our social systems dragged into the Middle Ages and our international reputations ripped to tatters. The 20th century has indeed been a bloody epoch despite all the noble peace-promoting intentions of the victors of the 2 world wars. We as the human species have remained true to our baser instincts: power has tended to corrupt; and absolute power has corrupted absolutely.

And now enter the new devil! The mainstream digital and broadcast American media which in the blink of an eye can school millions of viewers around the world onto any hypothesis, conspiracy theory and interpretation of facts…and fiction. For the Global Village such as it is, besides making the world that much smaller and more accessible for its citizens, also ensures that current affairs are copiously and constantly coloured only with the pens of the victors of the 20th century, the USA.

Case in point: A few months ago, Pakistan displayed quite remarkable success in not only reining in the Covid-19 pandemic in the country while the wheels of economy continued to turn; but it was also reported to currently have the best performing stock market in Asia. Hot on the heels of this positive press, the major American media conglomerates began blitzing their screens with how Pakistan and Afghanistan are still the only countries in the world which still had rampant wild strains of polio. And so there it was again – the habitually insidious carpet-pulls from under our beleagured feet….

The Avengers of the Digital Age then, are not the politicians nor the military Strongmen. They are the Media. And granted that on the Information Super Highway, it requires great ethical tenacity and character to claw through the putrefying onslaught of political bias, power and oneupmanship. But never have the stakes for the preservation and endurance of our collective ethics and morality been higher than at the present time. Now more than ever, this fraternity needs to people itself with the most courageous visionaries, opinion makers and informers who bring an unwavering moral predisposition/ force to the sacrosanct task of building a higher globally shared ethical instinct and awareness.

God save the Queen, the USA, the Sheikhs, the Despots and the Champions of our collective moral integrity!

De Khudai pe aman.

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FEATURE| The Call of the Wild

I’d been hearing its haunting calls for a while, and so there was a sense of urgency of the spirit if you will, to go off into some wilderness sunset somewhere. It was in this chakras-in-a-flux kind of state then that the opportunity to soulfully recoup befell me. And so it was at the tail end of a tropically balmy July that i found myself taking the scenic route to Habarana – home to a number of national parks, eclectic wildlife and the majestic pachyderm, the Asian elephant.

We (my travel adventures partner in crime and I), drove to Habarana which is located in the Anuradhapura district of Sri Lanka. It is ideally situated as the departure point for safaris in the Habarana jungle and a throng of nearby wildlife sanctuaries. It is also home to a number of beautiful hotels one of which is the Cinnamon Habarana Lodge. Boasting sprawling grounds alive with the sounds, sights and smells of nature, the Lodge offers fabulous walkways replete with forest trail-like pathways; water bodies straight out of a Monet painting; and a profusion of chittering, chattering birds and primates. Nature truly is free and floating at the Lodge, dancing in a mesmeric carnival of greens, browns, blues and reds. Needless to say, we walked off many a lavish meal in the midst of this resplendent profusion.

Our first deep-dive into nature was a trip to the Minneriya National park situated a half an hour drive away from the Habarana Lodge. Close to the culturally historic city of Polonnaruwa, it is home to 160 species of birds, 9 species of amphibians, 25 species of reptiles, 26 species of fish, and 75 species of butterflies. The park offers majestic views of wild elephants foraging in the shrub. The famous Gathering of the Wild Elephants occurs at this meeting place, also known for the largest gathering of Asian Elephants at one place anywhere in the world. During the dry season of August to September each year, herds of up to 300 elephants are seen within a few square kilometers of the vast Minneriya Reservoir.
The whole experience is almost meditative as these gentle giants go about their foraging activities while the calves romp, play and trunk-wrestle one another. We also had the unique good fortune to see 1-month old twins born in the wild – a fabulous rarity in the pachyderm species. The day of our visit, there were only 5 other jeeps at Minneriya, where there are usually over a 100 on any given day. The pandemic has definitely put a spanner in the wilderness works at Habarana! In an ironic way, as is true for so much in our lives, this break from the human horde has been greatly psychologically salubrious for the resident elephants, who have been known to occasionally charge at the safari jeeps. Not in any harmful way but in more of a display of self preservation as they protect the herd, especially their juveniles and infants.

We were also able to spot wild Axis deer, Jungle fowl, Peacocks and wild hare. Curious troops of Toque Macaque monkeys and Tufted Grey Langurs greeted us at almost every bend in the road, sitting on their haunches like so many subcontinental men who, done with their daily toils, congregate on sidewalks to watch the world go by, while also wishing for some serendipitously divine change in their fortunes. Many are carrying cute as button infants who are chips right off the old blocks – inquisitive, sociable and perpetually waiting for divine (or homosapien) manna.

Wild elephants at the Minneriya National Park

With the copiously tranquil vibe of Minneriya still reverberating in our city-wearied bones, we were hooked. So on the morrow, we embarked on yet another safari, this time to the undulating plains of the Kaudulla National Park. Situated about 20 minutes away from the Lodge, the park is known for sightings of leopards, fishing cats, sambar deer, endangered rusty spotted cats and sloth bears. On a typical trip, one is guaranteed enthralling views of a variety of birds including resplendent junglefowl, peacocks, ibis, egrets, hornbills and rain quails. The piece de resistance again however, are the herds of wild elephants and their calves, observable in their wild habitat; and of course the habitat itself. Lush greenery amidst undulating plains meets the eye for miles. Kaudulla Park is yet another close up zen experience with Nature and her great and small beasts.

Wild elephants at the Kaudulla National Park

The national park sojourns are as much journeys into the great outdoors, as they are into contemplative/ meditative spaces replete with the sounds and smells of the peaceful wild. I came away from the Habarana trip revived, rejuvenated and rested. It was like the spiritual letting down of my hair while walking barefoot on rain-moistened grass. Indeed, it was like living, for a few delightful days, in a Khalil Jibran quote: Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.

De Khudai pe aman

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VERSE|Thank you for the Joy – Part 2

For my beautiful, wise mother on what would have been her 72nd birthday on the 8th of July 2020. And to all the other wonderful mothers who have left us too soon ❤️🌺

Sometimes I wake up in the morning
Feeling a little less vibrant, a little more melancholy...
I get dressed, and I look in the mirror
My hairbrush poised in my hand...
And I see a flash of someone familiar
A fleeting gesture, a nuance, an expression,
And I smile, a gentle joy touching my cheeks.
And then I look into my eyes
And I clearly see the lingering glimmer of someone resting in my heart
And my heart bursts, my throat chokes up and my eyes twinkle
And I know that i have shared
A special mother-daughter moment in my dressing table mirror.

KIDSBOOKS | SLOW MO, THE SLOTH

In the tropical rain forests of Nicaragua
There’s the cutest little animal
Always smiling, forever lounging
He keeps his movements to a minimal

His favourite food is the avocado
He can easily digest the whole seed
Crushing it, mushing it and then dispersing it
Through his once a week poop routine

Despite the fact that he’s quite blind
And lives his life in blissful slow motion
He’s got a keen nose and can recall where he goes
He’s also the undisputed pull up world champion

He’s three times as strong as you and me
And yet he digests only a leaf a month
Hugging and smiling, napping and grazing,
He does only super slow things for fun

One day Slow Mo fell off his tree
Remember, his reflexes are very slow
He plummeted down a hundred feet
Crashing into the vegetation below

But lo and behold! He was whole
Unhurt he crawled out of the brush
It took him four days and twenty one hours
To ever so slowly climb back up

He decided he didn’t like such adventures
Because poor Slow Mo also had vertigo
And as he was climbing he had this odd feeling
That his ears had changed places with his toes

But he made it back home, a smile on his face
As he settled himself at the top of his tree
He took three hours to pick a delicious flower
And once again began his multi day feast

KIDSBOOKS | THE MAJESTIC MARKHOR

In the great Himalayan and Karakoram ranges
There lives an intrepid herbivore
She scales the sheer wooded cliffs
The beautiful, agile Markhor

Her name is a hybrid of two words
Mar: the snake, and Khor: the eater
Despite the fierce legend she wields
She’s quite the gentle barnyard bleater

She’s one of a group of nine ladies
Three aunts and five frisky cousins
They live together harmoniously
Ten thousand feet up in the mountains

She’s known for her dexterous climbing skills
And is also a fabulous forager
She’ll search for grasses and for leaves
She’ll roam like an adventuring voyager

She looks like an interesting mix
Of both a boy and a girl I’ve heard
Sporting a lovely russet coat
And also a spiffy little beard

She’s also got tremendous horns
Like ten inch long corkscrews
Weapons to keep bullies at bay
And to dig up tussocks of grass too

The Markhor is the national animal
Of the south Asian country of Pakistan
She’s quite iconic, a logo classic*
Even featuring in puppet shows in Afghanistan

And there we leave this regal Capra*
As she walks with grace, her head held high
Mistress of all that she surveys
Majestic horns spiralling into the sky.
* The markhor was one of the 72 animals featured on the World Wide Fund for Nature Conservation Coin Collection in 1976. 

* Markhor marionettes are used in the Afghan puppet shows known as buz-baz.

* The markhor has also been mentioned in a Pakistani computer-animated film known as Allahyar and the Legend of Markhor.

* The Markhor is present on the logo of the Inter-Services Intelligence, the intelligence agency of Pakistan.


* CAPRA: a genus of mammals consisting of goats, the markhor and ibexes.

KIDSBOOKS | THE TALENTED LYRE BIRD

A soulful fluting sound is heard
From the rainforests of Queensland
Also the whirr of an electric saw
And the toots and da-dums of a brass band

They’re not the sounds of a jungle party
Nor a trumpeter tuning his instrument
It’s just the superb lyre bird
Showing off his vast vocal talents.

He can be found in the theatres he builds
In the dense brush of his forest abode
In which he dances like a prima donna
For all the girls in his neighbourhood

He fans out his beautiful lyre-like tail;
The girls all watch with interested eyes
He’ll also sing a little melody
His courtship rituals are quite sublime

He then goes up to the nearest bird
And asks her if she likes his dance
If she says “Oh yes! I do good sir”
Well, then its the start of a little romance

The superb lyrebird sets out to impress
Not one girl but a score of them
He’ll sing for up to four hours a day
Until every last one is in love with him

With each passing year he performs ever more
Incredible acts of song and dance
Better and better are his displays
As he entertains his special audience

If you ever chance to come across
A particularly friendly lyre bird
Say something to him a few times
And he may just mimic your magic word.

KIDSBOOKS | THE BOXING MANTIS ALI

Kaboom! Boom! Biff! Biff! Thud!
That’s the sound one hears from this stomatopod
As she pummels her prey like a wrecking ball
Breaking them up shells, pincers and all

She’s a warrior of an ancient line
Fierce and savage is this lass
She can punch the living daylights out
Of anyone who dares to show her sass

She has independently roaming eyes
Nothing escapes her fearsome glare
Your friend and you can run and hide
Ms. Mantis will follow you each with her stare

She’s not all bad; she has friends
They even have a secret code.
Their bodies iridescent in the sun
As they dance in their shallow pool abodes

If you chance to come very near her home
In the balmy swells of the Indian ocean
She’ll growl at you in scary tones
And get her boxer mode full on

She has a cousin whom she loves
Who lives in the warm Pacific waters
They meet up once in a great while
And get up to all sorts of fun and laughter

This super girl is quite a force
As she tackles the world with all her might
She has also been known to beat
Prey that’s more than twice her size

And there we leave Miss Mantis Ali
Of the Mantis Shrimp family
Boxing champion of the deep blue
Fearless daredevil of the sea.

KIDSBOOKS | STICKIE TRICKSTERS

Have you ever seen a creature
Disappear in front of your eyes?
No crazy magic, no maddening tricks
But by dint of its natural disguise?

Come, I’ll let you in on a secret:
Hidden away in the branches of trees
Are master camouflage artists
Who are never quite what they seem

They’re not grasshoppers nor crickets
Nor cicadas nor cockatoos
I’ll give you a hint, it rhymes with trick
And that’s exactly what they do

They trick you into believing
You’re seeing a dead old twig
When they’re hiding in plain sight
These incredible walking sticks!

Also called the stick insects
They come in greens, browns and blacks
Trees and shrubs of all kinds
Are the platforms for their acts

The Giant Prickly is probably
The coolest of the pack
When disturbed it strikes a pose
Like a scorpion poised for attack

There are some three thousand types
Of these wonderful creatures
Big and small, wingless and winged
All kinds of green leaf eaters

So if you’re ever near a tree
Look closely at its branches
And if you’re lucky you might see
A stickie on its haunches.

KIDSBOOKS | THE SHOEBILL STORK

There is this strange old bird
He has a bill like a wooden shoe
Sharp as a knife with a hook at the end
He looks like he could gobble up me and you!

He has a big old nest he’s built
On marshland in South Sudan
He is a loner, a solitary roamer
Doesn’t like the look of beast or man.

He wades in mud-thick waters
Looking for a bite to eat
Monitor lizards and lungfish,
Crocodiles, snakes and eels.

The people in his neighbourhood
Keep far away from him
They think he brings them bad luck
They think he’s a bad omen.

But despite his reputation
And his mean looking face
The shoebill stork is a lovely bloke
And he keeps a tidy place!

He’s always looking out for
The perfect friend for him
Another stork, a red river hog
Or a majestic elephant

He walks among the weeds and plants
Loudly clattering his bill
Sending sound waves across the marsh
Announcing his arrival.

And there we leave old Shoebill
To his African exploits
Where sometimes he is very good
And other times he’s really not!

VERSE | THE ANATOMY OF HOPE

It’s feeling like the world has overcome 
You body and soul and then some
It’s like drowning in a bottomless sea
Gasping, gasping, trying to breathe
Sputtering, choking reaching for air
Crashing, thrashing limbs everywhere;
It’s feeling the whole world closing in
Vision blurring, darkness descending.
It’s being sure that many endings are near:
Of wanting, of living and even of fear;
It’s feeling the numbness spread like a pall
Binding you, blinding you even as you fall
Into the swirling, whirling abyss
Of dead emotions; of nothingness.

It’s finally seeing the smallest of gleams
Picking the darkness at its hoary seams
Little by little the flicker grows bright
Ever so slowly it pierces the night.
Your leaden heart too warms in the heat
Resuming its vital, pulsating beat;
You rise to the surface on a rip tide
You’re thawing and warming on the inside.
You break the surface of your despair
As your throttled lungs fill up with air;
Gasping, gasping you take in a breath
Sputtering and choking you hold on to the thread
Of the world coming back within reach;
Hope on strong wings, has ended the siege

She gathers you up in her healing arms
Anointing you with her soothing balms
Freeing you, steeling you so that you may walk
Another day with strength and love in your heart.

VERSE | THE KNOCK KNOCK JOKE WITH A MENTAL TWIST

Written amidst the mind-numbing perils of never ending curfew lockdowns. Read at your own mental risk 🤓

Tak taka tak - Tak Tak
Kaun hai bhai bata ab tak

CHINA!

CHAI NA girana babu
Bari tarpay tarpay tarpay
Meri leg not so halkay halkay

Knock knockity! Knock Knock
Who’s there, before I click back the lock

ZEBRA!

ZE BRA in France is black or white
Practical and just hugging one right
And if you feel the added zeal
Add some colour, like lilac and teal.

Tap ti tap tap - Tap Tap
Who is it? That was a fine rap

LIZARD!

LIZ ‘EARD you call her “mighty stout”
You really put your foot in your mouth!
She may be big but she’s got style
She’ll make you eat your words for a mile

Ding da ding ding- Ding Dong
Who is it? Come sing us a song

RHINO! O-O! O…OOOO!

Mr. RAI, NO we will not do this
Mrs Rai yes it’s all the craze
Rainbow coloured hair for you
And I will go for baby blue

Clap de clap clap - Clap Clap
Who goes there? Who gives my door a thwack?

‘Tis me MAYNA!

MAY NA bhoolonga
MAIN NA bhoolongi
My nemesis is bharta de cauliflower
And mine is garbanzo beans!

Open the door for salvation
Open the door for your soul
Who … who’s there?
‘Tis me your moral sense,
Call me your conscience
No punning, rhyming words here
No weighty equations.
Just you and me and clarity
That’s been lost too long at sea

I’m deaf! I’m deaf! I can’t hear you
Ps. I’ve not seen any clarinet either! (Hehe!)
So the door stays closed, barred and locked
Not opening any windows neither!
Go elsewhere, go where you can be heard
The (h)earless are quite rampant here
Don’t come knockity knocking upon my door
Amd I’ll pretend as if you were never here - dear!

Conscience! Right! Where’s the pun in that!

SHORT STORY| MOHABBAT MEIN TWIST – Part Three

(I)

The sisters didn’t speak of the confidence sharing or the fragile moment of overt affection that they had bestowed on one another. But for Aliya there was now, added to the light footedness of new love, also the bouyant warmth of a sisterhood that had matured, mellowed overnight from the abrasive harshness of a protracted adolescence. She’d seen the soft inside of her diamond hearted sister. It had been a coming of age of the two women bound as they were by their shared DNA.

The next two months passed in a haze of coffee outings and the odd soirée at a friend’s house. Ali and Aliya attended most of these social dos together. Although they had grown closer in some ways, there was no physicality. Aside of one random kiss that Ali had dropped on her in a state of high spirits, there was no intimacy. So even though this was her first real relationship, she had felt her cautionary sixth sense kick in a few times. She had also caught him, in their quiet moments together, seeming to look more at her bulk than at her; but only for a moment. It had made her shift uncomfortably. Then almost instantly he would remember something else to talk about and the smile hovering uncertainly around his mouth would return to his eyes. And so the euphoria of being in his company, of never running out of chatter, of being sought out, had superseded all the other foreboding notions that sometimes reared theirs sage but irksome heads.

Hesitantly at first, Aliya had quite earnestly tried to include Saira in her plans with Ali. Saira always declined. This socialising with her sister was still too new; uncharted territory for the sure footed Saira. Also she was adamant about not stealing the limelight from her sister because she always had, everywhere. This relationship had to mature beyond the skin deep surface to surer ground before she would join the duo. She already had a trail of ill gotten admirers in her wake: Many a friend’s ardent suitor after having met Saira, had lost his original romantic plot and veered off after her, leaving the detritus of cursing girl friends, bands of sparring women, and specifically for Saira, the dubious reputation of being a “man eater”. Her sister had never had a man before so she had been spared that added insult to injury. Saira had in fact, met Ali a few times and they had exchanged basic pleasantries. To her mind he had displayed no particular quality to indicate that he was immune to random female charms, even if they were not in any way cast in his general direction. There were more than a few times that Saira had looked in the mirror, into the depths of her hazel eyes and wondered if she was really evil or if the world around her was just deficient in personal ethics. The toss up was even keeled depending on her state of mind during those moments of introspection.

(II)

There was a party at a friend’s to which Saira was going but Aliya was not. She had come down with a cold and was going to spend the evening tucked into her duvet with a flask of hot tea and the company of her best friend. Although they’d talked on the phone, she had met Saqib only a couple of times over the last two months. On hearing that she was spending the evening in the quietude of her home finally, he had walked across to see her. Saira looked in on the pair, waved a cheery farewell and whisked off to the party.

Saqib sat down on the twin bed next to the one Aliya was snuggled up in. He looked at her, his heart skipping a beat even after all these years of being friends. He loved her. He always had really. She was a beautiful girl who was in the wrong environment he thought for an uncharitable but brutally honest moment. Her sister and her mother had made it difficult for her to really open up and blossom. She was usually closed in, clammed up; but he had seen the dazzling little glimpses every now and then of the woman she really was. Of course all these sentiments meandered cozily within the innermost confines of his own heart. He had never spoken to Aliya about how he felt. In a whimsical way, he thought the universe would intervene when the time was right. He and Aliya shared that ephemeral belief about things, about their world.

He looked at her now, her beautiful skin even more radiant in the heat of her flu induced fever. His heart did another little skip as he looked at her, smiling in the warmth of his secret … held in the protective palms of the universe… to float into their shared ether when the time was right… soon he’d thought only two months ago. Now … well, now, he felt like a transparent wall had come up between them, looking very surmountable still. Like he could just reach through and pull her into a tender hug. It was strange but her relationship with Saqib had not changed a thing. He still felt the quiet elation and the intimacy of their close kinship. They spent the evening talking easily, comfortably until Aliya was ready to sleep. On his way out, Munir uncle had invited him for a glass of scotch. Saqib enjoyed the company of this older, scholarly, wise man, just as much as Munir Mian appreciated the sensible, grounded younger man. It was after midnight when Saqib finally walked back home.

(III)

The thing happened abruptly, unexpectedly, in the throes of alcoholic fuzziness and it has to be added, in the thick of stage haziness from the fog machine. It was one of those Saturday nights in November when it was chilly, romantic and many a heart was fluttering on its wayward sleeve. People were huddled together around gas heaters set around the garden. The inner sanctums belonged to the energetic and sure footed as they cavorted euphorically to the dance beats of the 80s and the 90s. Saira had ramped up not only her spirits with four vodka and oranges, but also her step count of the day with an hour on the floor with the other dancing queens. She now sat on one of the chairs inside surrounded by the extra warm stupor in and around her.

‘Oh hello’ came a voice from somewhere to her left.

She squinted through the mind and machine fog as she tried to locate the owner of the voice. She was wondering if in fact it was a figment of her swirling imagination when someone dropped into the chair next to hers. It was Ali.

Fifteen minutes into their banter, Ali placed a confident hand on Saira’s thigh. Her reflexes were slow which he took for compliance. When he leaned over to kiss her, Saira suddenly leaped up slapping his head away. She could feel the multi-layered warmth leaving her body in a visceral, almost palpable way, like the blood draining from a severed artery. She stood up, swaying ever so slightly and turned towards the now blubbering man.

‘You bloody a**hole! Don’t you come near me again’. She thought only for a split second before adding, ‘Or my sister’.

The thing about blood being thicker than water is that when that adage does hold up, it brings entire families closer than they ever were before the calamity struck. And so it was with the twins. Saira came into Aliya’s room the next morning and sat on the bed opposite hers just as Aliya was reading a meandering text from Ali that sounded as cryptic as it did defensive. But he had mentioned Saira in it.

‘What happened’, Aliya asked simply looking at her sister’s drawn face.

‘It’s Ali … he’s a creep’ Saira said looking at her sister hoping that their new found understanding would make the awkwardness, the hurtfulness of this incidence easier to manage. When Aliya continued to look at her with clear, questioning eyes, Saira began to relate what had happened. Aliya listened quietly, unmovingly until Saira was done.

She then looked towards the window, willing away the tears that had sprung to her eyes. She had known there was something amiss about her equation with Ali, something that just didn’t sit properly, uprightly. But to have made moves on her sister after everything that they had shared … What had they shared? Easy banter about things that they both liked but that was it. And if she was absolutely honest with herself, she had imagined more than a few scenarios where he had shown his unabashed preference for Saira. No… she wasn’t shocked. She was hurt. She swallowed hard, but the tears came anyway and she cried as Saira hugged her, silently weeping with her.

That was another thing the sisters never spoke of again but it had brought them closer; and that was what mattered Aliya thought to herself in her moments of not entirely happy reminiscences and uneasy introspection.

(IV)

Saqib was at his best friend’s side after that. He came by everyday even if it was for twenty minutes at a time to see how Aliya was faring. Her cold was better and between her bruised heart slowly repairing itself and the bouts of wretchedness that assailed her off and on, there were glimmers of her lovely smile again.

‘I’ve put on 3kgs in the last ten days Saqib’, Aliya said laughing through her tears. She was trying to see the lighter side of things… that was who she was. Positive and unputdownable was his Aliya. He felt his heart bursting with affection and a strange pride for who this girl was, to him and to the rest of the world. He smiled at her with love in his eyes.

Saqib had spoken to the Wellness Centre that Aunty Maryam (Aliya’s mother) had been raving about. They had a nutritionist (who absolutely looked the part of course, he grinned) and a physiotherapist specialising in chronic injuries (childhood handicaps included). So he and Aliya were both going to enrol together.

She smiled at Saqib feeling the familiar warmth and comfort that she always did when they were together. She had always basked in the glow unquestioningly. Now she touched it, feeling it all over. Maybe … maybe they had always had something special between them transcending friendship she thought. She waited for her heart to respond to her timorous suggestion: it fluttered ever so slightly and then beat strongly, happily, serenely. She felt a lump rise in her throat and felt her eyes sting just a little. She grinned at Saqib.

She didn’t want to tell him that she loved him just as he was: melting brown eyes, the sweetest smile, rolling gait and all. He didn’t want to ruin the camaraderie of their shared enterprise by telling her that he’d had all the physiotherapy he would ever need and that his walk wasn’t going to benefit from this new intervention; and that he had always loved her as she was.

It was going to be a shared labour of determination and love for themselves and for each other.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/08/28/short-story-mohabbat-mein-twist-part-one/

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/08/29/mohabbat-mein-twist-part-two/

* Mohabbat Mein Twist: “A twist in the Love story”. “Mohabbat” means “Love” in Urdu.

SHORT STORY | MOHABBAT MEIN TWIST – Part Two

(I)

Aliya and Saira had cousins in high places; their mother’s brother owned a prestigious ad agency. While their uncle was a prominent presence in many a corporate board room, his wife and children had donned the mantle of the most formidable movers and shakers on the flambouyant party circuit. The Lahore party scene was known for its extravagance and its scandals. Many were the nights that started out genteel and elegant and that ended in the wastelands of too much alcohol, too much food and rapidly unravelling sophistication. Hearty breakfasts of halwa puri* and trite and contrite phone calls between the triumphant and the fallen of the previous night were then the order of the next morning.

Courtesy of their cousins, both girls had debuted on the Lahore party circuit some five years ago and now at twenty five years old, both occupied their own distinct places: Saira was the quintessential diva, the sought after bachelorette at the apex of the food chain and a secret Firestarter – (she appeased her conscience with the fact that she only ever lit a match to already smoldering goods; purging was her goal she professed).

Aliya occupied the small cerebral fringe (aka people carrying more than the regular baggage who had to park it somewhere for the evening she thought wryly, no self deprecating pun intended she always emphatically added to herself). This group sat mostly on the sidelines, analysed everything from the sublime to the ridiculous and assiduously avoided the frenzied eye of the social storm heaving and roiling in front of them. They were the designated drivers and general voices of reason when shindig hell broke loose upon the by then madly gyrating, occasionally screeching horde, their strobe-lit shiny faces appearing to grimace almost fiendishly in the pulsating greens, blues and reds – like a late 20th century version of Dante’s Inferno. And when one of this group was going through personal trauma, of which there were more than a few occasions since the afflicted, in irony’s own twisted dance, tend to get more than their fair share of the ball curving back at them, the whole coterie drank too much in comfort and commiseration.

It was on one such occasion when Aliya had for a while, abandoned her station of the lawn chair critics, that it happened. The day that she felt an almost fossilised stirring in her heart. The last time she had felt this elated anxiety was when she had lost 10 kgs off her 100kg frame – that was five years ago, in the bright eyed, stomach rumbling anticiaption of her first ever ball of the season. God! the naivete, the cloying innocence she thought unable to control the self reproach that often overtook her now when she flashed back to half a decade ago.

She had been looking for Saira in the thick of the milieu in front of her, when he had come up to her. Behind her actually. She had been craning her neck, fervently hoping she wouldn’t have to dive into the throng milling about the bar area outside.

‘I have a bit of an advantage. Can I help with the subject seeking?’ he’d asked conversationally.

Aliya had turned around at this unexpected whisper in her ear … offer of help, she corrected herself practically, also bracing herself for whomever she would encounter.

‘You’re Saira’s sister aren’t you?’ he added smilingly when there was no response to his first question.

Aliya blinked once, twice, frowned ever so slightly and nodded with a ghost of a smile in return. He was obviously one of her sister’s snooty male acquaintances.

‘I saw her at the gate a little while ago’ he added looking towards the far end of the lawn at the other throng at the entrance.

‘Thanks’, Aliya responded briefly, looking at her watch and making to walk back to the comfort of her group.

‘I didn’t mean to spook you,’ he quickly added. ‘Just came to, you know, chat’. He looked at her with no hint of any snide humour or quiet judgement. She stood for a while unsure of where this exchange was leading.

‘I’m Ali – Ali Basit’ he said smiling at her.

‘I’m Aliya, Aliya Muneer’ she finally responded smiling back despite herself.

(II)

It was 9 O’clock in the morning. Aliya opened her eyes, feeling disoriented. She had had her recurring dream – this time though, she was plummeting into water, an ocean, when her nameless, faceless champion had at the very last moment, broken her fall. There was also something else on the periphery of her morning visions … someone else … Ali, she thought with a happy smile that became suddenly self conscious and then was wiped mostly off as she gathered up her floating, rhapsodic musings.

It had been an eventful night; one of the few she had spent mostly on her feet rather than on the seat that probably bore the mark of her loyal and substantive bottom by now she thought laughing inside: The handful of prestigious party planners and their furniture did the rounds of all the functions in their City of Gardens. She had been skeptical of a decent conversation unfolding in the midst of the revelry and the excess but that is exactly what had happened. She and Ali had stood for what had seemed like hours talking about the comic enigma that was Sheikh Rasheed*, the inevitability of a zombie apocalypse and the best mutton karahi* in the city. It had been a lovely evening. She smiled again, this time allowing her pleasure to course through her body as she stretched out with the gratified languor of a just-fed cat.

Aliya had only a mug of coffee that morning. Her usual breakfast gusto was lost in the crush of butterflies that was dancing around in her stomach. Her sister looked at her strangely and smiled. Aliya braced herself for another thwack in the gut … or maybe, today it would only be a light little missile of words that would just graze her shoulder, vanishing into the small obscurity of missed barbs. For today she felt fortified, invincible, of mind and heart.

Ali called her that afternoon and for the next week of afternoons. Aliya lived for that week, in a strange bubble of euphoria and starvation. She felt the hunger pangs but nothing in the fridge, on the table or on Food Panda seemed like it would appease the ache in her belly. So she resorted to having copious cups of unsweetened tea throughout the day, winding it all down (up!) with the sugary burst from a bowl of fruit for dinner. In her few clear-headed moments amidst the fog of passion that had befuddled her brain, she admitted that there was nothing quite like fledgeling love to help shed unwanted burdens of the body and the mind.

Her mother was ecstatic at the change in her daughter. She was looking better, happier and dared she say it, thinner. Her father watched her quietly, thoughtfully. He knew his daughter enough to gauge that something out of the ordinary was happening; something that could culminate in quiet triumph or great distress for his sensitive child. He realized he was more concerned about than interested in the cause for his daughter’s moony behaviour.

(III)

‘What is it?’, came the question finally from Saira on the sunday when she was going to go out for coffee with Ali.

‘What do you mean?’ Aliya responded in her characteristic defensive manner even though she had been anticipating the query for a while now. Her usually fleet-footed sister had shown remarkable forebreance this time.

‘Give me a break yaar*. Just tell me’, Saira looked at her pointedly, her toast halted midair like a hovering premonition of doom in the event of anything withheld or concealed.

Aliya sighed inwardly while retaining her stoic, watchful front. She had learnt to be wary with her sister. It was a caution that harked back to their childhood; when Saira used to rat on her to their mother when she used to sneak in a snack in the midst of her many maternally imposed and managed diets. She remembered little else from her childhood as vividly as she remembered her mother’s admonishing stares and her perpetually rumbling stomach. Suffice to say that theirs was not the winsome twinsome of the year, never had been. Theirs was a difficult relationship that had settled into a watchful acceptance by one and a relaxed bossiness by the other.

Still, this was her first serious love affair, thought Aliya; well, it was on its way to becoming one at least. It had all the glimmerings and the trappings of a love affair, a serious one, that could have … auspicious endings. She didn’t want to dive into the relationship boxes created by society; that could jinx the entire liaison. There was time enough for it to fit itself neatly into one of the institutions of blessed convention. Her mind was wandering she realized – this was her first serious love affair she thought again, marshalling her faculties of reason and goodwill, and she needed for her sister to be supportive. This once.

‘There’s someone …. someone I’ve met’, Aliya said to her sister, looking at her, wishing earnestly that she would respond with grace; that she would be nice. This once.

Saira looked at her sister for a long moment, then looked away and brought the toast to her mouth biting into it with sharp-toothed ferocity almost, thought Aliya. She looked away and sighed, this time outwardly. Who was she fooling? Saira didn’t understand her; never had. She understood her joys and her heartaches even less …

Aliya suddenly felt soft arms around her shoulders and a kiss on the back of her head.

‘I’m happy for you Aloo’, Saira whispered, continuing to hug her.

Aliya turned her head to look at her sister, expecting to see a mocking smile or a spiteful grin. There was only her sister’s gently smiling face and her eyes that were reflecting the quiet hurrah in her heart. Saira came around and sat down on the chair next to hers and laughed now, self consciously almost.

‘You’d better get this right Aloo; I’m not going to be the good samaritan saving the day for you’ she joked realising that she needed to break the spell before it became by its uncharacteristic softness, unwholesome and unkind. She had always been agitated by her twin; by her total lack of being able to look out for herself, look after herself in any way. Over the years, she had allowed her concern to morph into derision and sarcasm. She never intended to be cruel but she knew she had been a little sadistic over the years. And now, her sister was glowing in the warmth of a formidable venture; a venture of the heart. So rare were these scintillating personal moments with her sister; and she had to let her know, this once, that she was her biggest champion.

Aliya was looking at her sister as a myriad gentle emotions flitted across Saira’s face. What a watershed moment this was for their sisterhood! The surface had been scratched and there was a nice person under there after all thought Aliya, now grinning widely. A shared joy multiplies manifold. She laughed softly in pure elation and hugged her sister.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/08/28/short-story-mohabbat-mein-twist-part-one/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/08/31/mohabbat-mein-twist-part-three/

* Mohabbat Mein Twist: “A twist in the Love story”. “Mohabbat” means “Love” in Urdu.

* Halwa Puri: A traditional Pakistani breakfast that features semolina pudding or halwa and a soft fried dough called poori. Halwa is typically made with a mixture of fried semolina and sugar syrup, which is then combined with nuts such as pistachios and almonds.

* Sheikh Rasheed: A politician who is currently serving as the Interior Minister of Pakistan. He is known for his peculiar, flambouyant style.

* Mutton Karahi: A Mughlai dish that is traditionally cooked in a wok or karahi. The rich mutton curry is made by slow cooking lamb pieces with tomatoes, onion, garlic and garam masala.

* Yaar: Means “friend” in Urdu/ Hindi. It's a popular term in Indian English, used especially as a term of address for “friend.” It ultimately comes, via Urdu, from the Persian and Arabic yar, meaning “friend,” and is recorded in English as early as the 1960s.

SHORT STORY | MOHABBAT MEIN TWIST* – Part One

(I)

Aliya opened one bleary eye to glance at the clock on her bedside table. It was just past 6 O’ clock. She felt a familiar quickening of her pulse as she thought of the day ahead, the obstacles to be surmounted. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. There was nothing on the agenda today, stress free as it was in the aftermath of her masters exams. Her anxious nature still had to catch up to the fact as she stilled her agitated heart. She turned on her side, away from the window and the blitheful rays of sunshine that glanced cheerily off her desk that lay in the corner of the room. She’d sleep in today she thought, catching at the fading strings of dawn time dreams. Soon, she was back in the familiar collage of her recurring dream visions: she was falling off some place – the catapulting surface was always different – and she always experienced the same great fright, and she always just about missed the concrete or the jungle floor or the carpeted surface below as her foggy saviour came to her rescue. His … her … (another conundrum) face was never clear, remaining obscured by the ephemeral mists of her dreams.

She finally arose at 11 O’ clock when her mother came into her room armed with clean laundry and the loud efficiency of having been at the helm of the domestic wheel for the last four hours. She felt groggy and tired even after her ten hours of sleep. She looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her double chin was looking more pendulous than ever she thought. She clutched at the rolls on her stomach, feeling for the insidious deposit of more weight. She had been good about her meals this past month and had not given in to any stress eating even though she had been in the throes of her exams. Her nails had taken the brunt of that deprival as they now sat like ravaged half moons in their nail beds. She looked at the weighing scale lying right opposite the WC, its meticulous placement a tribute to her weight loss earnestness. She decided today was not a day for unpleasant metric system surprises and pointedly ignored it through the course of her morning ablutions.

‘Hello late latif*’, her father called out to her cheerfully as Aliya walked into the lounge. She smiled. Her father, Mian Muneer, could brighten most of her days, afflicted as they were with her mother’s constant anguished refrains for her to lose “at least ten kgs!” and her own unremitting anxiety about her weight, and everything else too. In all that maternal censure and self deprecation, he was like a breath of fresh air. Never remarking about her weight, let’s be honest she thought, her bulk. Never making her cringe at the sight of her reflection or at the sight of food even when her stomach was rumbling from protracted deprivation. He loved her just as she was, her beloved father.

‘Good morning Baba*’, Aliya responded with a kiss on his cheek.

‘Aloo*, there are parathas* for brekkie, come get them!’ came a jaunty call from the dining room. She walked towards the voice (dubiously) and towards its announcement of gastronomic delights (zealously), her stomach rumbling with hunger – was it hunger or comfort-seeking she thought fleetingly. For the former came with relatively guilt free appeasement while the latter needed to be worked through mentally and emotionally and if all went well, was rebutted, ignored, nipped in the gut. She accepted also, that despite all the diligent evaluation, she had never been very good at distinguishing between the two, as hunger loomed large on most food horizons.

Saira was sitting at the head of the table looking, even at that early hour of the day (for she too had woken up only after 10) fresh, dewy and gorgeous. This was her twin sister, the sum total of her antithesis. Aliya helped herself to three parathas and an omelette. She could feel her sister’s eyes on her; she was going to say something, she always did … irksome at best and hurtful at worst.

‘Go easy sis, that’s a thousand calories right there’ Saira released the expected verbal arrow as she put a condensed milk laden piece into her own mouth.

Aliya gave a wry smile as she loaded her parathas with condensed milk and cream.

‘Aliya, what are you doing?’ came the accusatory voice from behind her. Their mother had come in and was discharging her duty as the maternal voice of reason and outrage.

‘Having breakfast Amma’, Aliya responded doggedly. Damned if she was going to be denied the first meal of the day, twelve hours after her last one too, in all its life (and courage fostering!) fulfilment.

Her mother gave an exasperated sigh and walked out. Saira sniggered. It was just another day at 14-Z in DHA, Lahore.

(II)

Aliya had dug into her breakfast as she dug in her heels every so often when she felt the world closing in on her; Judging her, railing at her, accusing her. She had ended up having four and a half parathas. She stood looking into her wardrobe, eating herself up inside now, for her breakfast time excess; cursing her food induced and reduced anxiety. No, food didn’t induce her anxiety (except in her apocalyptic fantasies when the world was overrun by zombies and all kinds of human nutrition was scarce); it was her panacea in fact, for the maddening world around her. She sighed deeply, chose a grey baggy shirt and black track pants. She was in the mood to merge with her dreary thoughts today. She was meeting her best friend and neighbour, Saqib in a little while. He was going to help her fill in the forms for the Masters in Sociology course at Uppsala university in Sweden.

Saqib Mir was the only child of his parents, the apple of their eye, the next progenitor of their eminent lineage and the scion of the family business. Marring this perfection was a somewhat unsymmetrical gait as he was also crippled by childhood polio. The whys and wherefores of how he had contracted the disease are foggy; rife with rumour and speculation until about decade or so ago, the direful hypotheses were now obscured by an acceptance born of familiarity. For those who had known him forever, it had become like a little smudge on a Sadequain* painting that has with time, blurred into oblivion. For those meeting him for the first time, while there were no origin-theories being bandied about anymore, there was almost always that self conscious nonchalance of trying not to notice the obvious. Saqib felt both, a sense of quiet amusement and compassion for this denominator knowing the mental exhaustion their involuntary Secret Spy syndrome was bestowing on them. Humanity, even amidst the deficiencies of the developing world, has largely got used to polio free perfection; a certain basic physical congruity is a sacred expectation especially among the upper crusts of society. Saqib then was the paradoxical element that jarred the sensibilities of the well heeled more than it did that of his favourite chai wallah’s or fruit wallah’s. They acknowledged his disfigurement in a practical, unselfconscious way. He was crippled and so what? He couldn’t run but he could still walk and get about unaided. Saqib was well liked in the more modest social circles too.

The Mians and the Mirs had been neighbours for fifteen years and Aliya and Saqib had become kindred souls for each other, afflicted as they both were with their respective vulnerabilities.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/08/29/mohabbat-mein-twist-part-two/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/08/31/mohabbat-mein-twist-part-three/

* Mohabbat Mein Twist: “A twist in the Love story”. “Mohabbat” means “Love” in Urdu.

* Late Latif: In Urdu, a fond colloquialism for a tardy person

* Baba: In Urdu, a term used to denote an old man and also used for father.

* Aloo: Aliya’s nickname. Also meaning “potato” in Urdu.

* Paratha: A flatbread native to the Indian subcontinent, where wheat is the traditional staple. Paratha is an amalgamation of the words parat and atta, which literally means layers of cooked dough.


* Sadequain: Renowned Pakistani artist known for his calligraphy and painting.