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 papers 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 heart 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.
Anita walked into the room with a spring in her step and a song on her lips. Today though, she wasn’t going to belt it out diva style – she was saving her rich alto for the karaoke evening tonight. She stole these evenings of song and meter with the panache of Victorian highway men; effortlessly, cleanly and with a swashbuckling bow.
Her father was sitting in his easy chair poring over the paper. He was tut-tutting quietly in full conversation with his news-fretting self. ‘Another elopement that has ended badly. When will they learn to be content on their own sides of the fence … the scandal … the violence. Tsk! So needless. God protect us …’
‘Daddy, who are we trying to protect ourselves from?’ chirped Anita cheekily.
‘Our foolishness. Our madness’ her father responded with a sigh. He looked at his daughter thoughtfully trying to glance into her future; read her heart. She was such an exuberant girl. He worried about her sometimes surrounded as she was with all her Muslim friends … girls and boys. She tended to be trusting, unrestrained and had been in a roaring affair with life since she was born. If anyone took the bull by the horns and danced with it too, it was his Annie. Where did she get it from … her zest for life; her tenacious survival instinct. It was an enigma both he and his wife had pondered over with sometimes apprehension and at others, elation. How he loved his little girl! And how he agonized too … These were not good times. There were too many inter faith love stories that had gone wrong. Wild hearts and racing hormones that had headed straight for family guillotines; brazed together as they were from the bottomless patriarchal pits of honor, ego and vanity. Eustace Shergill aka Yousuf Shergill with his diminutive form and distrust of even the neighborhood feline’s seasonal caterwauling, was a perennially worried man.
Anita looked at her father fondly. The furrows in his brow had deepened over the last few years, giving this lamb of a man the look of a tyrant. His fleet-footed movements further belied his fragility of form and spirit. Irony was indeed rife with this dear man; her beloved father.
She kissed him on the cheek and took away his newspaper.
‘Daddy, come to the market with me. I need to get some snacks for this evening. The gang is coming over’ she said brightly knowing how he loved these little jaunts with her.
He grinned at her from behind his glasses and rose nimbly to his feet.
‘Let me get the shopping bag’ he said, walking purposefully out of the room.
‘Did I switch the fan off …?’ He wondered aloud when they were on the road. His expression was thoughtful, strained.
‘Daddy, relax. We’ll be back in 20 minutes’ Anita piped up knowing full well he would stew over the fact until they got back home. Unless – she created a magnificent enough diversion! Usually one of her punny jokes, that she had a bizarre flair for creating, got him to ease up, if only fleetingly.
‘Ok, what’s an Optimistic Wise Mancalled?’ She asked emphasizing the three words and grinning to herself. This was a good one.
‘Hmm … a Sage-o-glass-full? said her father, momentarily distracted and in the spirit of the drollery.
‘Nope. You won’t get this one. It’s one of my better ones’ she said sassily laughing with the combined pleasure of the joke and her father’s smiling face.
‘A Kan-garoo!’ she said with the flourish of a stand up comic at the end of a particularly successful segment.
‘You know – Kangaroo … “Can-guru”, she grinned at her father.
He laughed out loudly with a mixture of pleasure and pride in his bright, vivacious daughter. Anita followed with a bow such as she could manage on the road, from the driver’s seat.
They drove on in silence for a while, Anita still warm in the glow of her recent comedy, while Yousaf Shergill despite himself was back in the living room, fretting about the ominously spinning fan.
Seeing her father’s worried expression, Anita persevered with her enterprise of distraction and diversion, now bringing up a nugget of new information about her work.
‘We’re moving our office to Clifton next month’ she said non chalantly, waiting for the endearingly familiar change of gears in her father’s mind as he temporarily relieved himself of one burden and picked up another. Although these initial sound bites of news were yet out of his immediate capacity to worry about; still too new in their tendencies and their implications. He looked at her questioningly, the fan forgotten in as much as it could be, given that it was only moments ago in his mind, whirling to a calamitous descent onto the lounge table.
“You’re moving office? Is Maham moving too?’ He asked referring to her boss, now full of curious inquiry.
The rest of the 15 minute drive was spent with Anita waxing eloquent on the newly refurbished office, which was also luckily, quite a lot closer to home. Annie would be only a 10 minute drive away! He smiled toothfully, delightedly – a burden laid to rest; a serendipitous blessing received.
Yousuf Shergill was a partner in a company that provided Visa, Citizenship and Residency Services to off shore journeying hopefuls. It had been a flourishing little enterprise. Years of reading immigration laws from across the world, solely for the fascinating study they provided in social and ideological behaviour, had made him a natural at his chosen profession. He could tell through just a brief conversation with the candidate and a cusrsory glance through his brimming, reverently clutched folder of documents whether in fact he would have the pleasure of kissing the motherland a gracious farewell, or whether he had embarked on an ill fated (blessed!) enterprise. Mr. Shergill, despite and imaginably because of his many anxieties and misgivings, was a firm believer of staying put where the roots were. If their own homeland was a maze of dichotomies and confusion, he believed the rest of the world was as labyrinthine and befuddling as the tangled jungles of the Amazon. So while he happily gave advice and facilitated a few flights of fancy and more of the traditional metallic, tangible variety, he was himself happy to be living in his cacophonous but familiar city of Karachi.
* EUSTACE: A word of Greek origin meaning “steadfast” and “fruitful/ productive”.
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 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.
Asha adjusted her bra after a final pat on its other, non-fleshy contents; the fifteen thousand rupees now nestling securely in its pendulous grasp. It was the day she had to drop off the rent at her landlord’s house on her way back from work. She smiled widely and catching her reflection in the little mirror on the wall, became at once guarded, gathering up the grin into a coy little smile. Dark spirits were everywhere and she knew innately through generations of stories and behavioural legacies that she couldn’t be overt with the profoundness of her joy. Bad omens had a propensity of springing from the happiest of moments.
Even so, she walked to work with a spring in her step. She was a short, portly woman so that buoyancy itself was a purveyor and teller of her bliss to even the least discerning of spectators. In her mind though, while she had to watch herself outwardly, her thoughts were free to roam unfettered in her secret spaces of delight. Finally! Finally the day that she and her husband had been dreaming of for the last 25 years was around the corner: their eldest son, Danish was graduating from university with a Bachelors degree. He would change his world; his sister’s future; their combined fortunes. She would quit her job as a maid and her husband would stop cleaning the sewage lines he’d been wallowing knee-deep in for the last two decades. The smell never quite washed off his skin now. They’d build their own little house; no more scraping and scrounging every month to meet the rent – that monster that loomed large with ravening regularity outside their tiny two room hovel.
Her breath caught in her throat as she allowed her imagination to revel in the bountifulness of precious opportunity and new beginnings. She looked towards the sky with a little prayer on her lips whispering a soft Hai Bhagwan … to the gods and goddesses, this time for their unconditional beneficence. Her prayers were usually modest, economical, always allowing for the fickleness of fate and the peevishness of deities. She never asked for the requiescence of impossible dreams; only the rendering of realistic milestones such as they were in the thorny existence of her people. But this time, she had put in the work; For 25 years, 10 hours every day; of her blood, sweat and tears; of washing, sweeping and cooking for others. This time, her life’s main purpose would be done when her son graduated from university. She could do with every ounce of celestial magnanimity and largesse in the completion of this, her most blessed enterprise.
‘Walaikum salam. Kya baat hai? Aaj bari khush lag rahi ho’(1)said her employer as Asha walked into the apartment, her face flushed with her recent cerebration. She smiled shyly and decided that the home where she had been working for the last five years was as devoid of ill omens as a place could be, and proceeded to share her good news. Her employer, Baji or older sister as Asha and the vast majority of domestic staff called their female employers, had always been good to her and most of all, was undiscriminating. Unlike the vast masses, she was surprisingly unaffected by the faith of those who cooked and cleaned for her. That was probably one of the main reasons for the longevity of Asha’s current employment. She glowed in the rare telling of an even rarer propitious event in her life. Her Baji was genuinely happy for her and told her that she was expecting a box of Asha’s special home made gulab jamun* the day of Danish’s graduation.
Besides being the curator of discreet, precious dreams, Asha was an accomplished cook and was the designated neighbourhood sweetmeat maker for festivals like Diwali and Holi. Her services were also sought out during Eid celebrations by those whose gastronomic inclinations outweighed their fear of moral transgression: If she cooked in their homes, in their vessels, the designated sin allocation was greatly reduced. And then, there were other prayerful ways to wash away such lesser impieties …
Asha got to work, her mind far away in fields of her own dreams. During her short break for lunch, she pulled out her phone to look at he her son’s smiling face on the display screen. He’d been at the front and center of her mind today, pulling at her heart strings and filling her thoughts. She suddenly recalled the words of a relative who imagined himself to be something of a fortune teller. He’d said, Danish would he famous- his name would be in the newspapers …
She smiled indulgently. She’d be happy with his uneventful graduation and an unremarkable transition into the cadres of bank officers that she saw driving to work every day. Rising every morning with their big dreams and fulfilling them in the cool sanctums of enterprise that towered on both sides of the I.I. Chundrigar road. They were resplendent in their suits and ties – Danish would be resplendent in his suit and tie! She felt a little shiver run up her spine as her one prodigious vision for her one son enveloped her in its fiery, explosive embrace.
Today she was leaving early to stop by the landlord’s and to visit the Punch Mukhi Hanuman Mandir in Soldier bazaar. Like all her compatriots, while she revered the entire deific gamut, she had her divine favourites too, and hers were Lords Shiva and Hanuman.
After a brief stop at her landlord’s house, with the month’s obligation fulfilled, she caught the W11 bus to Soldier bazaar and made her way to the temple. Even though it was a Thursday, the wide arched entryways into the temple were thronging with worshippers. The Maha Shivrathri* festival was approaching and while the actual event would take place at the Shiv Mandir in Umerkot a month from now, the regular petitioners like herself and the generally devoted were already faithfully marking time at their city temples. She had already asked her employer for a week off in March when she and her family would travel to the southern part of Sind to Amarkot as Asha and her community referred to the fort city among themselves; harking back to the days when the city was ruled by its Hindu founder Maharaja Amar Singh. It was one of the many little linguistic deviations that they held onto among themselves, from the Islamic recolouring of history in their now Islamic homeland. Despite the prevalent lack of formal education, these pithy historical and cultural facts had permeated through their community as a meaningful reminder that they were as much a part of the rich tradition and history of the land as their Muslim neighbours and rulers were. Rulers, because there was also still a vestigial sense of being the minority peasantry in someone else’s kingdom. But these were the visceral, unavoidable facts of being a part of the fabric of the country; and despite the ordinary and extraordinary odds, there were also glimmers and inklings of a better future. A future secured by their children and spearheaded by the tireless enterprise of their parents and grandparents.
Asha walked into the temple and sat down on the cool black and white tiles. She closed her eyes and folded her hands in supplication and prayer. She had to talk to the deities, beseech them, cajole them for their blessings; for their generosity and their kindness. This time, she had no bargaining chip to offer. She wanted the whole blessed profusion of her son’s graduation, job and future.
Asha remembered the incidents of the next two days in a haze of delirium and torment. It had been a sticker with a verse on it. Someone had put it on Danish’s text book. He had removed it and pasted it on the desk. And then … she couldn’t think beyond that sequence of events. It ratcheted through her head in an endless loop, protecting her and agonising her in turn. The innate self preservation instinct of a mother with another yet vulnerable, yet susceptible child, prevented her from recalling the entire tragedy. The tragedy that had transformed joyous anticipation and smiling fortunes into a cruel, heart-wrenching finale.
The local paper called it a “scuffle on university grounds triggered by a wilful act of blasphemy”. While Danish survived the savage mob that was out for blood-thirsty retributon, he was not spared the statutory penance of his act. And so, he was stripped of his university credentials and incarcerated for “desecration of the Quran”. With him he brought down the tenuous little edifice of dreams and aspirations of yet another generation of his family.
In the wake of the tragedy, Asha’s husband had called her employer saying she was ill and would be away for 10 days. Now they also had to contend with keeping this new born scandal under wraps from employers, neighbours and random justice wielders.
Asha went back to work after a week. It took her those many days to pick up the broken pieces of her heart and put them away in some dark corner where no one, not even she could see them. She had to go on. There was 12 year old Ramesha to look after. She would have to uproot and reseed her dreams, her prayers and her hopes. She would have to go on.
‘Kya haal hai Asha? Theek ho abhi?’(2) asked her Baji with a look of concern on her face. Asha responded automatically with the alacrity born of the restlessness of time and the lightning glance of never-to-return opportunities of her world.
‘Gulab jamun ka intezar hai – Inshallah, abhi itni dair nahi rahi’(3), she added smiling. Asha touched her heart as if in placation, humble recall, while the broken pieces inside huddled a little more into her grieving, weeping spaces.
(1): ‘What’s up? You’re looking very happy today!’
* Gulab Jamun: A milk-solid based sweet from the Indian subcontinent.
* Maha Shivrathri: A major festival in Hinduism, the solemn occasion marks a remembrance of overcoming darkness and ignorance in life and the world. It is observed by remembering Shiva and chanting prayers, fasting, and meditating on ethics and virtues such as honesty, non-injury to others, charity, forgiveness, and the discovery of Shiva.
(2): ‘How are you Asha? Are you recovered now?’
(3): ‘I’m still waiting for the gulab jamun. God willing, it can’t be long now’
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.
There was a nip in the air as the sun settled rosily into the waiting horizon. Layla looked across the Arabian Sea, directly into the heart of the still bright sun. She did that sometimes when she was looking beyond her world for ethereal clues; cosmic answers. In her transiently altered reality, as grey-black floaters swam around her field of vision, she imagined some message, some intuition taking form. She thought she saw a face this time … a mouth … a pair of dark brown eyes …
She looked away from the horizon and glanced guiltily at her companion; she wanted to make sure Sumaira hadn’t seen through her “sunset illusions”. She needn’t have worried; her friend was immersed in her own world of imagination and thought. Layla smiled, basking in the warm vestiges of her little vision from the universe.
Sumaira and Layla were the quintessential best friends. They’d known each other only for the last 10 years but their effortless bond belied just a decade of friendship. They were each other’s soul sisters as they liked to say. Their friendship wasn’t based so much on similarities as it was on their happy incongruities. Layla was the nerd, a whimsical poet and a shrinking violet of the post modern variety – an introvert with occasional, blitheful bouts of extroversion. Through most of her adolescence, she had been beset by insecurity and a few unnerving moments of “ending it all”. She was born with a slight facial deformity that favoured the right side of her face. While it was barely noticeable when her face was at rest, it did give her a lopsided smile. To those who knew her, it was an endearing part of her personality; to her it had been the savage hand of karma at work. With time and the wisdom life is wont to bestow on the fortunate few, she had learnt to accept and even embrace her little peculiarity. It helped to keep her introverted bubble intact while doing away with the inadvertent negative qualities of arrogance and aloofness that the world tends to otherwise bestow on the quiet and the restrained.
Sumaira was the looker, the social butterfly and the life of the party. The world had always been her oyster and she had partaken of it sumptuously, delectably. Despite the generous loving hand of the universe holding her in its plentiful trough, Sumaira had also learnt a wisdom, a sageness about life and its fickle quality. Surrounded as she was with admirers and opportunities, she unremittingly took to her friendship with Layla to balance her emotional and spiritual equation. The two had struck a chord at the very heart of their being and so it was that the most sought after bachelorette in town and the ethereal child had connected and become kindred spirits.
“Are you going to Hasan’s party tomorrow?” asked Sumaira breaking through their companionable silence.
“You know, I do feel the diva inside me flexing for an evening out, so yeah, let’s go!” said Layla with a cheeky grin.
Sumaira laughed and pinched her crazy friend. She loved Layla’s delightful bolts from her reclusive bubble. When she put her mind to it, she was quite the charmer! She linked her arm with Layla’s as they walked slowly to the car. Clifton beach was now bathed in a hazy luminescence as it held on delicately to the sun’s afterglow.
Layla lived alone in Karachi. An endeavour that at first had appeared fraught with unsurity and anxiety, was now a providential panacea to the bustling, crowding world outside. Her family home was in Lahore which she visited often and gladly. But she always looked forward to coming back to the quiet joy and peace of her own place. She had a handful of friends in Karachi that she occasionally met. Sumaira was the exception and she was happy to regularly, unreservedly share her mental and social space with her best friend.
Tonight, Layla felt an odd elation. She sat looking unlisteningly to Fareed Zakaria on CNN. She was trying to recall the source of her hazy euphoria …. her sunset illusion…. She’d seen someone; the outline of someone in that moment of solar sightlessness. She’d seen the face that had launched a thousand what-ifs in her mind for the past 2 years now. She had actually seen Karim’s face this time. She grinned like a loon. It didn’t matter that they had only ever just nodded at each other in fleeting acknowledgement. What mattered was that she’d had a sign from the universe.
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.
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.
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.
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. Basiccompassion 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.
**Quote from McMillan and Chavis (1986) “Sense of Community”
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 eternal 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.
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 glimmeringly 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.
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
A couple of months ago, 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 Holdersare 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.
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.
–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
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 looked 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 melody-clinched strings of my heart!
-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 “NawabBegum”. The primary duty of aNawabwas 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.
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.
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 Fridayswhich are considered holy daysinIslam
*Masjid: Islamic places of worship predominantly visited by only men.
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
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.
*NRFC account: Non Resident Foreign Currency account
*FMCG: Fast Moving Consumer Goods
*USP: Unique Selling Proposition
*Vision and Mission statements: AMission Statementdefines the company’s business, itsobjectivesand its approach to reach thoseobjectives. AVision Statementdescribes the desired future position of the company. Elements ofMissionandVision Statementsare often combined to provide astatementof the company’s purposes, goals andvalues.
*FI: Financial Institution
*ManCom: corporate parlance for the Management Committee
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 numerically 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.
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 languid requiescence 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 multitudinous layers of psychical 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.
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.
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.
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:
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 sharethe load of restoring faith in the rule of law in a post-media age.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Following from “The Creatures of the Park” https://theroamingdesi.org/2020/03/04/the-creatures-of-the-park/, this piece is inspired, nay, made quite imperative by my varied experiences at the 2 or 3 cafes i regularly frequent in Colombo city. Because, as with my obligatory evening walk, i am also a devout tea and latte aficionado. And as a creature of habit, i do tend to absorb the full gamut of gastronomic, service and atmospheric experiences at the handful of places i go to. So here is my affable ode to the characters who, like me, can be found at the oft-frequented coffee places around town.
Angst, amusement and even downright vexation Are some sentiments that have inspired this particular narration. Because when my adrenaline is not racing haphazardly around, Yours truly can’t weave verse or prose that is suitably profound. So here’s a bit of a congenial ramble About coffee shop folks and their queer, quirky angles.
The first of this set that I chanced to espy, Was the gaggle of ladies who meet over coffee and pie. They are genteel and smiling and conversing lightly Of Ruwani’s boyfriend and Andrew’s new-found sobriety. Of weddings and parties and stand-out memorial services; Of yoga class affairs and other sexagenarian caprices.
Following sharply on the last set’s heels, Is the would-be Romeo who’s eternally spinning his wheels. While on his regular tarriance through the cafe, He’ll go through the motions, happily epitomising the cliche- Sauntering gait, wandering eyes, and obnoxiously loud! Because how else would this Adonis be noticed by the crowd? This one engenders both, frustration and pity, Deluded sense of self; diddly squat in the mental kitty.
This next one (my favourite) is quite off the charts, The nonagenarian with tremendous love in his heart! He’s delicate and fragile and yet undauntingly sure Of his libidinous vigor and marvellous allure. He speaks in faint tones, each gossamer vein outlined; “I want to make love to you”, he solemnly opines.
There is also the resident troop of servers, With personas as varied as their gelato flavours. There’s the hero who averts a gastronomic disaster; And the shrinking violet who couldn’t have disappeared faster. You’ll also see “Lurch” on his tropical vacation Waiting tables, no doubt, for some fiscal augmentation (Who’d have believed the fiendish frugality Of the profusely munificent Addams’ Family!) There’s also Happy and Dopey and Sneezy and Bashful- Each cafe with its own quirky take on the fairytale.
The likes of me, of course, continue to be, The nose-in-the-book kind, with the-tail-on-the-seat. Looking up only to rest remonstrating muscles, Perennially ensnared in the Introvert’s social tussle: Latte on standby, with napkins and spoon, I’m in a world of my own in the bustling tea room.
The rest of the coffee shop throng is assorted The foodies, the guzzlers, the loners, the courted. The suited and booted, the flip-flopped, the Collared* A theatrical cycle of life streaming onward. This gamut of movement, that with spirit is rife Is what makes the modest coffee shops larger than life. And so i continue to frequent the tea rooms and cafes To reclusively delight in the milieu and lacteous lattes.
*Collared: priests, monks and other caffeine-relishing clergymen.
A little background to the below piece. My evening walk is as integral a part of my day as my first copiously caffeinated cup of tea. I venture out 6 days a week, inclement weather notwithstanding, and no matter where I am (I have an uncanny resourcefulness for finding workout venues, even if the source of my next meal disquietingly eludes me). And having followed this body and mind discipline for close to 20 years now, i have had ample opportunity to observe, experience and expertly categorise my fellow park-goers. What follows is the somewhat meandering result. If some of it resonates with other fellow walking track creatures, the bleary-eyed hours writing it, were not for naught!
It all started in those very early days Social media was limited, it was the digital Stone Age. Post a relationship, solo-winging it again, No other pastime seemed to make sense. So jiggity jog, I began doing the laps And that’s when I discovered the creatures of the track.
This funny set is the first that I came by: The posse of old gents who give you the glad eye. And if they’re feeling especially brave, They will ardently stalk you around the enclave. The dignified gait transforms into a stampede Which an imminent coronary doesn’t seem to impede! The breath is ragged, the pupils dilated If I wasn’t The Stalked, I’d have slowed down and waited!
The next of the regular crowd in the park Is the muscle bound ‘Lone Ranger’ who’s out for a lark. Acutely aware of his tittering fans Like a peacock he’ll do his trademark dance; (Read: do a slow jog looking totally focused But we know his nonchalance is quite entirely bogus!)
Then there’s the most entertaining stream: The ladies who’re out there to see and be seen. They glow and they glitter and shine in their gear Quite confident they’ve outdone all of their peers. Most have come from vast distances off Because Wednesday is ‘event day’ at the Racecourse! They walk and they talk and they scan their environs Hoping to catch a gander of the super fine ‘uns. (Please note that I feel abundant affection For this vibrant, spirited ladies’ faction).
Then there’re the crowds of parents and children Of bicycles and tricycles and scootie action; Of badminton, football and even cricket Right in the midst of the walking thicket. Of aimless ambling and head-on collisions; Guardians and wards on their own park missions. Of flash mob type coordinated collectives Sweating it out over their synched acrobatics. This crowd doth teach uncommonly well The precision art of duck, dive and repel.
But I’d be amiss if this septet ignored The likes of myself in the regular park hoard. Yes, I’m the one that’s outrunning demons Not one or two, but prodigious legions! Eyes straight ahead, “baton” in hand, I march to the sound of my own brass band! I may even come across as a tad bit demented But a bracing, tearing traipse is so well worth it!
And so in closing, It’s quite essential to mention That in building satire into this narration, I mean to soften the blow of my words Because haranguing I definitely am still, by God! A little more farce? To the whole park crowd: You’re the molasses in my tea, there isn’t a doubt!
The beautiful tropical monsoon sky That changes colours in the blink of an eye. Inspiring awe in its kaleidoscopic wake It shifts and shimmers; now translucent, now opaque.
From the deepest depths of a cornflower blue To the delicate flush of a just ripe peach, It drifts and glimmers in rainbow hues An iridescent paradise just out of reach.
Then there’s the never ending mesmeric motion Of the cresting and falling Indian Ocean; It’s white laced edges hugging the shore In a primal dance telling tales of yore. This is the magic of the Lighthouse* promontory Where the heavens lustily encircle the sea.
The dust and clamour of the city assailed her with its brawny vigour as soon as she walked out of the airport in Karachi. She looked for Rustum’s familiar face in the surrounding milieu of cacophonous welcoming parties, stuporous janitorial staff and the predatory hordes of taxi kiosk attendants. In his low key, efficient manner her driver located her before she had caught sight of him. He took control of her luggage trolley and led the way expertly through the throng to the parked car.
At home, she was greeted with the faint smell of lavender Lysol mixed with the fading aroma of freshly cooked, spice-resplendent food. Layla felt her stomach rumble in anticipation as she went into the kitchen to look at the gastronomic delights rustled up by her housekeeper. She’d cooked bitter gourd stuffed with minced beef, and fried okra. The hot pot had four still warm chapatis nestled in its cozy interior – one for her and three for the driver. She had a hot bath; relished her quiet dinner and sat back in the sofa, enveloping herself in the familiar sounds of silence of her apartment.
It was good to be back home.
Her phone rang as soon as she was turning in for the night. It was Sumaira.
‘Yay! You’re back!’ she said as soon as Layla picked up the phone. It was good to hear Sumaira’s voice – still buoyant, still chirpy, even at the waning end of the day.
‘I am back! Missed you woman!’ said Layla rousing herself from her solitary stupor. They talked for a while but Sumaira gave nothing away about who her mystery man was. After fifteen minutes of circling around the obvious with blitheful nimbleness, Sumaira finally ceased her torture of her friend and hung up with an exuberant bye and a kiss. Layla was left fretting in the grips of intrigue and conjecture for more than an hour afterwards. She gave an exasperated sigh and picked up a book to distract herself and to lull her somewhat jangled nerves. Sumaira was a tormenter and a bewilderer and even with her best friend, there were no special confidence privileges until she decided so.
After work, Layla headed for La Etilier Suma to catch her friend in her own workplace where she was more likely to reveal and embellish than to bedevil and distract. Sumaira was bent over a sketch and was delicately filling the colours into each roseate and paisley, the very picture of imperturbable professionalism.
Layla looked at her for a moment and grinned ‘Maestro, thy deception is done. Out with it!’
Sumaira looked up startled. There was a pattern emerging to her being caught off guard she thought fleetingly before she closed her sketch book and stood up to hug her friend. She laughed as she sat back down.
‘It’s Karim’ she said simply.
‘Karim who?’ asked Layla while deftly suppressing the inadvertent bloom of emotions in her own heart at the mention of that name; that was still her little secret …
‘Of “Karamat and Sons” – Karim Zaidi’
Layla looked at Sumaira uncomprehendingly for a moment. But only for a moment.
‘Wow, really?’ she mananged to say while quieting her now pitching, hammering, lurching heart.
‘It was one of those unexpected things. I mean we’ve known him forever from a distance haven’t we? He was always so quiet… so aloof. But he’s actually a lovely man. Sophisticated, well read and …uff… those eyes!’ Sumaira gushed, laughing at her own quickened heart even as she glowed in the sharing of fledgling but precious confidences.
Layla looked at her friend as swarms of disconnected thoughts rampaged through her own head: What were the odds? Of all the men Sumaira could have had out there! Had she misjudged his quiet demeanour? Did she think he was the one man who would remain perfectly unaffected by Sumaira’s charms? Why did she think he was going to fall into her lap just like that? Why couldn’t he have fallen into her lap just like that? Well played, Universe! …
‘… and we spent that entire evening together’ Sumaira ended smiling.
Layla hadn’t heard very much after the First Disclosure and now looked at her friend with new eyes … hurting and resentful … forgiving; stabbing and piercing …accepting; stinging and pricking eyes. She blinked twice, three times, willing away the flood that was gathering at the peripheries of her eyelids.
She said nothing but she smiled, for the benefit of her friend. Her angst, like her secret, was also her own now; and even in the throes of her frenzied emotions she knew now was not the time for either affliction to rear its tormented head.
That evening Layla sat with her solitude and her despair; the tranquility of her three week vacation, a now buried and forgotten memory. She washed her face and looked into the mirror. She lifted up the corners of her mouth in what should have been a smile but was instead a grotesque caricature of joy. She froze her face in the lopsided grimace, forcing herself to recall similar moments from her past; moments of self loathing, of unremitting agony, of wanting to end it all …
But she didn’t feel any of her earlier sense of tragedy. She felt only a pervasive emptiness that was almost narcotic in its numbness. She realized that she was not the tortured 17 year old anymore. She was a resilient, stalwart product of the curve ball life had pitched at her. She’d learnt to bat right back, into the eye of the storm. Even when her ordinary and extraordinary anxieties overwhelmed her, she remained afloat with her head above the water; taking in the serenity of the entire ocean rather than the tempestuousness of the cresting and falling waves around her.
She would survive this too.
Life, of course, was full of surprises, but she also knew the limits of joyful happenstance. Even while she sat on her wooden bench, enveloped in her solitude, daydreaming of knights in charcoal grey shalwar kameez, she was at peace with the calming ordinariness of the relationships in her real life. Ultimately, even when she made her brief, magical forays into What-Could-Have-Been, she always veered right back to reality. So yes, she would survive this.
Her friendship with Sumaira was worth more than a few lusty pulls of her heartstrings. Her soul connection with her best friend had to be worth more than her illusions of love and couple-hood; for that was what her fantasy romance had been – a theatre of the heart.
She drew back the curtains on the night sky and lay down, looking at the vastness of the city from her her 7th floor sanctum. In time, the city lights faded in the radiant luminescence of a milk moon that shone into her bedroom lighting up her face as she slept.
‘I hear you’re quite the designer – I myself was a coffin maker in the US. Fancy coffins are big business there’, said someone who’s name she’d forgotten but who was steadfastly standing by her side while carrying on a mostly non-reciprocal conversation. Sumaira smiled blandly yet again and took a sip of her sprite and soda. She wondered for the 10th time in as many minutes where Hassan had disappeared to. Usually the crowd was larger and she was familiar with many of the usual suspects at these soirées. This appeared almost like a last minute attempt to make something of a Friday night – the patchy crowd that had gathered was dolorous and … sticky.
She excused herself from Mr. Glue-some, and walked purposefully towards nowhere in particular.
She stood in an unobtrusive corner of the garden and took a deep breath. God! When did unfamiliar crowds start getting to her? She usually loved the banter and the energy. It was this whole marriage prospect that was playing with her mind; even the oddball, to-meet-and-to-forget strangers at a party were now threatening to join the Groom Queue lined up in her head.
She needed a real drink.
‘Hello. I hope I’m not barging in on your … lonesomeness’, said a low mirthful voice near her. She looked up, startled to find Karim smiling at her, suddenly becoming conscious of her uncharacteristic shadowy form and furrowed brow.
‘Hi’ she smiled a little self consciously, feeling a tinge of discomposure touch her cheeks. The light and shadow accentuated her flush making Karim momentarily catch his breath. She shone even when she cloaked herself in eventide shadows … he thought in that moment of mush and liquid emotions.
‘I didn’t see you here … I was looking for Hassan and, you know, trying to hide from a Party Romeo’ she said laughingly, in superintendence once again of her wits and her charm.
Karim laughed and looked again at her beautiful face. He was still feeling the afterglow of the earlier heat of the moment; a pleasurable warmth that belied the usual gin and tonic haze he surrounded himself with at these social affairs. They stood in that corner of the garden, chatting comfortably about nothing in particular, blanketed from the world, while a nebulous moon looked on.
Like Layla, Sumaira too lived alone, but in the bounteous arms of a family homestead that was equipped with its crew of maids, gardeners and all the other amenities that are de rigeur for many privileged South Asian families who live between two or even three homes. Sumaira’s parents lived in Kent in the UK but came home every winter. Karachi’s winter, if its spring-like coolness can, at all be called that, was short and flamboyant. It was when the flowers bloomed and the parks were full of promenading, socialising hordes of Karachiites, glad of the faint, sometimes even fondly imagined, nip in the air. There was that handful of wintry days however, when one definitely needed a sweater or a jacket to brace against an almost desert-like evening chill.
She was having her first of many mugs of coffee of the day, a faraway look in her eyes. Asha, the old family retainer broke into her reverie to ask about what to cook for dinner. That question had become a pet peeve, resounding as it did with the regularity of sunrise, while holding within it none of the sustaining, nurturing quality. Asha’s cooking had suffered in almost defiant sympathy with her aching bones and failing eyesight.
She told her to make a salad. She’d have eggs and salad for dinner tonight.
Her phone lit up momentarily. She glanced at it abstractedly and then picked it up. She smiled; it was a message from Karim. Well.. it was more a forward really of something they had talked about the other evening, but still …
Was she falling in love with Karim? She asked herself upfront, point blank.
She wasn’t wholly sure, but he was definitely on the short list now … at the very tippy top …
Layla lay on the sofa in the lounge. The television was droning on in the background; her father was fast asleep on his recliner after a fulsome meal; her mother was on the phone with one of her sisters. She sighed contentedly. It had been a relaxing, settling, centering fortnight in Lahore. She still had another week to go before she descended into the tumultuous and confusing but also loving and giving arms of her adopted city. She looked at her phone. Layla had been so caught up in the happy sociability of parents and home that she hadn’t noticed the almost radio silence where there was usually a daily digital exchange between the friends. After a somewhat cryptic message that she had received from Sumaira last week, she hadn’t heard from her at all. She’d said something about having met someone new; about short lists that were becoming ever shorter and a choice that was becoming ever clearer. So, the Husband Hunt was in full progress Layla thought and waited for the familiar tightening of her chest. She felt only a nostalgia; a gentle wistfulness. It was the way of things. Sumaira would get married and she may even get busy as married couples do. But their friendship would stand the test of matrimony and its many busying enterprises. She felt unusually accepting and calm.
She suddenly missed her best friend, her soul sister. She typed in a message and put her phone away. She got up in the brightened spirits that were the trademark bestowal of all her home visits and gave her mother a quick bear hug from behind. They were going for their post dinner stroll in the lane outside the house. She looked up at the clear night sky with its winking constellations. Amid all that starry brilliance rested a demure quarter moon like a half closed eye …
It’s probably going to be Dawood, thought Layla musingly as she went through a mental list of eligible husbands for Sumaira. After her initial rush of anxiety where she had imagined herself being left alone with only a dolefully fluttering spinster flag as her constant companion, she’d pulled herself together. It wasn’t that her fear of losing her best friend to Wedded Bliss(ters!) had just disappeared; it was more a deliberate effort to closet the feeling until it had faded away, as most tragic things tend to, into some sort of emotional oblivion. So now, in that wholly preoccupying mental distraction mode that is such a friend at times like these, she was engrossed in the arduous and exacting task of ‘Guessing the Groom’.
Even with the inherent ironies of the phrase, Dawood was the ‘perfect husband material’, she thought. A lean, mean, money-making machine! She grimaced inwardly – that definitely was an uncharitably crude sentiment with regard to her best friend’s prospects. Fundamentally true but …. indelicate. Now, she was also momentarily overtaken with the anxiety of self doubt – was she acting out some sort of repressed resentment because Sumaira had broken their bond of friendship? Had Sumaira broken their bond of friendship? Was she never going to see her again after she had a ring on her finger? Each subsequent question sounded more ludicrous than the last; and yet, there was an instinctive feel of baser truths in all of it.
Layla took a deep breath and continued to pack her suitcase. The Eid holidays were around the corner and she was going to Lahore for at least a fortnight. The holidays were a week long but she had an office in her hometown too so she was planning on mixing business with pleasure … and a bit of escape artistry. Yes, she was going to get away, for a while at least, from the changes that were looming large on the entirety of her life in Karachi.
Sumaira was sitting with her feet up on the easy chair in the inner sanctums of her boutique. The belle of the party circuit was also the creator of many a dream wardrobe. She was a gifted designer with patterns and colours that stood out in the cacophonous milieu of formal wear. She was looking at pictures on her phone, her mind extrapolating sensory stimulation to long term marital success. She had a shortlist now. Of course, each candidate had already, many times over, declared his undying love, while also logically certifying the longevity of their particular match.
The whole process – this picking of a man to be my partner for life; it was all so clinical, she thought. No butterflies in the stomach; no happy anticipation. Just another trek down the Boulevard of Tradition. She had expected the lead up to marriage to be a little more exciting. The flat feeling in the pit of her stomach almost made her wish that she’d married at 23 so she could have floated on the blissful waves of premarital innocence and naïveté at least for a while. There would be time enough for reality to bite and for her to learn the wisdom of mustering her own happiness. Now, she had the stoicism of experience but had lost the euphoria of guilelessness. Life! Always about toss-ups.
There were twenty unread messages in her “Friends and Frenemies” chat group. She opened it and saw Hassan leading the weekend charge as usual. He had asked everyone to name a song that best described them. Sumaira was glad of the diversion and was wondering whether in fact, she was Patti LaBelle’s ‘Lady Marmalade’ or Whitney Houston’s “Every woman” when Layla poked her head in through the doorway.
“Hey! I’m glad you’re here; was going to call you” said Sumaira smiling up at her friend. “Tell me, what’s a song that describes you?”
“That’s easy! I am a Rock” said Layla, delicately assuming the Chin Mudra* with her hands and closing her eyes.
“That’s a quiet song isn’t it? God! I need some of that quietness in my life right now, even if it’s for a day!” said Sumaira earnestly but uncharacteristically and typed her response into the already buzzing online conversation thread.
Kareem picked up his phone and looked at his messages. 157 unread messages in the chat group he rarely looked at during the week. He now tapped on it and looked at the last few entries. Simon and Garfunkel … he smiled. That had been his signature song throughout his quiet, largely solitary teen years and now, it evoked a sense of nostalgia, comfort and serenity. It was Sumaira’s entry … He looked thoughtful; he hadn’t imagined her to be the kind that stayed shielded in her armour and hidden in her room. He looked at her display photo. She really was gorgeous.
“When are you coming back?” asked Sumaira while they both dug into their Calypso salads.
“Two weeks, maybe three if I have to do a detailed audit of the Lahore branches” said Layla looking assiduously into the depths of her salad.
“That’s almost a month! Hurry back… I need my best friend by my side to help me pick my Shahzada Gulfaam(1)”, she laughed and kissed Layla on the cheek. She had to get her friend to relax around the thought of her marriage. She knew hardly anything would change; but Layla had her own conversations with the universe and sometimes she took the circuitous route to seeing things that for others were in plain sight. Many times she had been right to do so … This time, Sumaira hoped her friend’s hesitancy was just the knee jerk reaction of her social anxiety and not a prophetic omen of things to come.
Layla looked at Sumaira, realising her friend was worrying on her behalf. “I know! I’d kill you if you just went eenie meenie miny moe and deprived me of the pleasure of a SWOT analysis on your husband to be!”
Sumaira chuckled, relieved to see the humour returning to their equation.
Layla grinned. Even as she lightened the atmosphere, she was bolstering her own heart …
I am a rock, I am an island …
(1) Shahzada Gulfaam: Urdu colloquialism for ‘Prince Charming’