FEATURE|My Balcony and Other Creatures

Of glimmering balconies, frolicking flora and organized murders

This pandemic has changed a lot of elements including the manner of things usually relegated to the realms of the mundane. And that is exactly what has happened in the microcosm of my balcony. A whole new world within has come alive, as the world without has slowed down to a pandemic-induced comatose crawl. From donning a shimmering garb in the fiery evening twilight, to gleaming with raindrops when a tropical storm bursts forth, to mischievously inviting the entire motely flock of city birds to perch on its sun-lit circuit a while, to socialize and then depart in the wake of dubious farewell gifts deposited on its glass exterior. Indeed, the little overhang outside my apartment has morphed into a whole new creature.

And in its tiled embrace are smaller microcosms of both flora and fauna. While the potted plants were just that pre-pandemic, plants that had become a part of the background in my balcony, they have now become an eclectic community of leafy denizens living, loving, parenting, mostly thriving, sometimes grieving, sometimes euphoric, at other times scheming in distinct cliques as they bloom in explicit sets of only 3 and only 4 at a time. The 2 groups never disbanding, and never harmonising outside of their own green universes. So my bright pink bougainvillea, the red-hearted hibiscus, the scarlet geranium and the flame violet will bloom for a month, colouring the balcony with their reds, pinks and fuschias. They will then cease and desist from their joyful cavorting and pass on the Baton of Blooms to the next group, the white bougainvillea, the sweet Jasmin and the pale pink ixora. (Obviously there is such a thing as Potted Plant Politics!)

The flying fauna is almost entirely comprised of crows and mynahs with the odd dragonfly or monarch butterfly that have somehow found a precocious air current to carry them from their usual low flying social activities, all the way to the 9th floor of a high rise apartment building. These perplexed visitors usually move on after a vertigo-filled glance or two down from the balcony.

The crows, those keen eyed A-list city scavengers are definitely at the top of the heap when it comes to reading balcony visitor protocols. If you’re a “Feeder” as i am, they will very soon discern that unique food source (for the Feeder venues are as diverse as are the many murders* across the city!) They will sit in orderly rows along the balcony railing, heads cocked, beady eyes shining in anticipation as they spy Feeder movement on the other side of the closed balcony doors. They are also hugely territorial and one gets to witness epic Corvus battles as the various murders engage in all out “Feeder-Fending”. I have, however, learnt with time and my own manner of aviculture, to cease being a source of cookie manna for this visitor. They WILL take over your balcony and even your home. I have had the more intrepid hop into my lounge, pick up a bag of crisps from the table, take it politely out onto the balcony and go at it with that monster beak until they’ve made holes big enough to get at the contents. In the wake of a visit from the murder that has claimed you as their own, the balcony glass exterior looks more like the floor of a well fed aviary rather than the facade of a luxury apartment. And so it has been with a twinge of guilt and a lot of determination that i am presenting myself, armed as i am now with a spray water bottle, as persona non grata to all the Colombo black birds.

Last but not least, the delightful Mynah! These cocky little creatures will whistle and warble their way right into your heart … and into your lounge. And again, with a twinge of Corvus guilt, i admit that i have continued to feed and indulge these happy balcony transients while i have gently sprayed away the other crowing, cawing visitors. There is one mynah in particular whom i have in a fit of creativity called … Mynah! She too has claimed my balcony as her own little paradise of free food. She will visit me daily, making her entrance not from over the railing, but by walking jauntily through an opening at the far side of it, traipse through the plants and up to the balcony door. There she will warble her distinct call now reserved for me I fondly imagine (or it could just be balcony romanticism on my part!). In case i don’t respond, she will hop right up to my couch and look at me askance, chirp a little “get off your behind” ditty and when she knows I’ve seen her, she’ll hop right back outside to await a generous helping of Chesma’s jaggery cookies* – her ultimate soul food! I am not ashamed to admit that Mynah has me pulled quite completely by my balcony creature heart strings. Every afternoon I wait for her to make her appearance. And the day she finds her daily succour elsewhere, i’m also not ashamed to admit that i feel a palpable wash of disappointment!

Maybe my balcony fever is a post pandemic psychosis, or if I’m to be positive, a keener opening of my Third Eye to the many joys of nature. In any case, i am convinced that in some peculiar manner, i am on my way to becoming a resident bird and plant whisperer as I wield my strategic ammunition of jaggery cookies and Baby-bird/ Potted-plant Talk, while occasionally with chastened fervor, brandishing my green spray water bottle.

Mynah hanging out on my iPad

De Khudai pe aman

Feature Title inspiration from Gerald Durrell’s 1956 semi-autobiographical novel “My Family and Other Animals”
Murder: term used for groups/ flocks of crows
Jaggery: A traditional cane sugar concoction consumed in Asia. It is a concentrated product of cane juice and often date or palm sap without separation of the molasses and crystals, and can vary from golden brown to dark brown in colour, and is similar to the Latin American panela.
Chesma’s Jaggery cookies: artisanal cookies created by the gracious Chesma; and tradition carried on by her enterprising progeny.

FEATURE| The Call of the Wild

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

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

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

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

Wild elephants at the Minneriya National Park

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

Wild elephants at the Kaudulla National Park

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

De Khudai pe aman

OPINION| A Low Down Dirty Shame

The “Dirty Old Man” Syndrome

As a woman who tends to go about her daily routine in largely solitary mode, and who is also a creature of habit, i have had my fair share of run-ins with this odd denominator. I have also realised that more than being an age related malady, the Dirty Old Man syndrome is a mental affliction – a characteristic male psychosis. And more often than not, the advancement of the pathosis is directly proportional to the level of social desperation and the dismal incapacity to move on gracefully into the next phase of life, whichever that is.

You will find them milling in invisible little coveys around coffee shops, malls and even parks, until a high intensity catalyst in the form of a Solitary Woman walks into their quinquagenerain++ radars. Then, despite the mature years, there’s an intrepid spurt of adrenaline, leading to uncontrollable excitement, and a breakout of jittery limb action that could pioneer a dance variety all its own. The conversation becomes inane, for to be heard is of paramount importance then – senior citizen wisdom and grace be damned! The decibels go up until finally, the sitting dance is also accompanied by a rap performance as speech pours out in absurd rhythm, replete with street vernacular.

I have always had a fond bias towards the older folk; (I tend to feel a deep compassion for the aging and the infirm). But i have now also realised that the body may have withered, but the spirit in many cases, has taken on a whole new lease on life. The tenacity to quaveringly engage, indulge and prevail never ceases to amaze …. and worry, as many a heart attack seems imminent in the wake of these senescent courtship dances.

Most times, the titillation ends there so i don’t really begrudge the desperate exertions for attention. But sometimes, the middle-aging and senior hormones take on darker undertones which i still continue to be baffled by. That’s when the “Dirty Old Man” avatars are donned and all attempts at attention-seeking become insidious and creepy. The eccentric old-people-killing-their-loneliness endeavours morph into actual harassment and one is caught between trying to be compassionate while being quite absolutely hassled and repulsed. This is a horrifyingly persevering lot.

In our part of the world, old age commands a certain respect and deference. The older folks automatically fall into the aunt and uncle categories and are expected to be similarly maternal/ paternal in their interactions with the younger set. These are a part of the Eastern value system instilled in us across countless generations. I always wondered at the largely self-centrered, individual-driven social structures in the West and the almost complete lack of empathy and inclusion of the older folk into mainstream life. The aging denominator is relegated to assisted living facilities aka old age homes to live out the rest of their lives mostly apart from their progeny. We, in the Asian hemisphere, always responded with a mixture of bemusement and empathy at this dismal breakdown of civilisation and communal sophistication/ evolution.

That malady is now catching on in the traditionally respectful and dignified East too as some of our seniors themselves shamelessly upend their side of the age-old equation. For my part at least, I have experienced sufficient alienating middle aged and oldster impropriety to make me suspicious of 50+ year old men being amiable.

I have actually experienced focused and relentless covert harassment simply because i chose not to engage with the random loud and obnoxious man in question who was also a regular at the coffee shop that I frequented. Because this was a venue at a prominent 5 star hotel, I decided to rely on the system to dispense justice/ lead with ethical propriety. That was not to be. I reported the harassment to the coffee shop supervisor, failing which i went to the duty manager, failing which i went to the MD of the hotel. I was “advised” by the man serving as the MD to “just move to another seat when the man came to hassle me”. Viva la male patriarchy and the festering misogyny that is such a deep-rooted part of almost all male mindsets now!

Needless to say, my tolerance for older men trying to be friendly is much diluted as I attempt to fit, nay, survive, in the psychology of this new social normal: I am curt; i am distant and i make it supremely obvious that i quite deplore all manner of friendly male overtures. It really is a low down dirty shame.

Ladies, young and old, to you i say just this: if you didn’t make up 50% of the human population, our collective ethical and moral compass would have been lost in the sea of desperate, profligate, indiscriminate mating calls many eons ago.

De Khudai pe aman.

*Title of the feature inspired by a 1994 K. Ivory Wayans film.

VERSE| I Need To Find You Again

I wrote this dedication 8 years ago for my mother who passed away in October 2012 after a very brave, very arduous battle with cancer. She’s missed everyday, but now also celebrated every day. She remains the Queen of our Hearts.

My heart’s shattered into little pieces.
My mind struggles to synthesise reality.
I find myself suspended in painful limbo - i look for you; catch glimpses of you in everything around me - and then you’re gone.
I’m left staring at vestiges - a vase of flowers you fixed; a shirt you hemmed; a text you wrote.

Your courage, your grace, your love and your compassion;
These are such dauntingly enormous qualities.
With you around, i gave myself false courage: I had your DNA; i was bound to be in some small measure, the Woman of Substance that you were.
Now I can’t find the courage nor the grace. And my love and my compassion seem spent.
I need to know you’re still around.....

Even as I write this, I see your beautiful, smiling face looking right at me - vibrant, loving, comforting, happy.

I need to synchronise my heart with yours again, Mama.
I need to find my “Woman of Substance” that you have bequeathed to the three of us.
I need to find you again.

And as in birth, so in adulthood, I WILL find you again.

I love you.

OPINION|Farenheit 786*

Eenie meenie miny mo, Catch a nig** by his toe, If he screams let him go, Eenie meenie miny mo

A lilting rhyme from our childhood, that is as replete with racial nuance as ever there was any prescript especially formulated for a far right enthusiast. Imprinted on impressionable minds around the world; imparted in the hallowed sanctums of colonial missionary schools. And that racial/ ethnic/ religious bias is the normalcy that we have all grown up with in the west and in the colonies influenced by the west.

At the end of the day, our mindsets are the same: the belief that some of us are more superior than the others and that White, and in our case, Muslim Privilege is as real as the afterlife. This fact, even for the most liberal minded of the said demographic, and despite vehement naysings to the contrary, is hard-coded into our very DNA. (You can read this as Hindu, Christian or Buddhist privilege really depending on which religious majority space you occupy).

Let’s take a little traipse back in time, to just before the East India Company set down its roots of Western imperialism and indeed, the rigours of ethnic division into motion in South Asia. Circa 1600.

The region, while having seen its fair share of invasions and dominions, both overt and covert, was a fairly harmonious, prosperous melting pot of cultures and religions. In the early 17th century in fact, the combined GDP of the Indian subcontinent made up 20% of the global economic output. It was also the richest nation on earth at the time, followed closely by China. (Four centuries hence and in the current world scenario, the George Santayana* adage in one of its many variations comes to mind, “history tends to repeat itself”).

And so together with the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha* (aka the British Royal family!) mandated material exploitation of the continent, self-righteous, self-serving religious machinations were also mobilised with the fire and passion of the Chosen Ones. Missionary schools, by the dozens were set up all over the continent from Kolkata to Murree, from Simla to Karachi, and the mental conditioning of the societal creme de la creme aka the future leaders of the dynastic empire, was set in motion. With the impressionable minds of consequence now squarely under the colonial anvil, focused efforts were put into rending asunder adult mindsets. The flames were insidiously and feverishly fanned on previously immaterial religious differences. Being a Hindu or a Muslim or a new Christian convert, depending purely on what was circumstantially advantageous for the colonists at any given time, meant preferential treatment being meted out ranging from critical day to day conveniences to career breakthroughs and ultimately an overall dominant position in society. By the end of it, the hyper-fuelled differences were so all-consuming, that they became the catalysts for one of the most brutal annihilations of an empire; leading also to the largest mass migration in human history.**

The takeaway from the brief history revisit above is the concept of a religious hierarchy that was instilled and has doggedly survived and indeed thrived to this day. 73 years post colonial rule, and the legacy of deistic superiority still lives on. We behave like the religion of 97% of the 220 million strong Pakistani citizenry (and indeed of the 2 billion strong globally), is under threat of obliteration because of the 3% theistic diversity. If ever there was a chronically suspicious, dogmatic, mired in religio-cultural backwardness and quick-to-judge society, we, the Pakistanis gloriously lead the charge. In fact we have proven time and again that our custodianship of the religion is not only divinely passionate but lurking quite bizzarely on the lunatic fringe. A recent case in point is the righteous trepidation and knee jerk opposition by the Islamists, to the construction of a lone, singular Hindu temple in Islamabad, the capital city, and obvious global showcase of our diversity, inclusion and equality. The only rationale being that the one temple could apparently subvert an entire majority religion, or at least its Pakistani version with its warped ideology, immoral patriarchy and all.

The Islamic State of Mind is indeed a thing. And the lines between it and the Pakistani state of mind have with time become a blurred mess. The disgracefully prejudiced Blasphemy law and the criminally right wing Hudood Ordinance are living vestiges of a society set on the path to a holy implosion.

While the silent majority may disagree with the religious fascists, our silence is compelling of our complicity with the fringe.

In the name of all that is civilised, humane and even remotely religious, it is time to at least break the silence.

Eenie meenie miny mo

Let’s catch these bigots by their toes!

De Khudai pe aman.

*Title adaptiation from the original 1953 dystopian novel “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury. The numbers 786 are significant in Islam, denoting the number of letters in “Bismillah…” the opening phrase of the Quran.

*George Santayana: A Spanish philosopher, poet and novelist

*Saxe-Coburg-Gotha: Now called the House of Windsor of the British royal family. The original name was changed in the early 20th century to make it sound less German/ foreign.

**UNHCR estimates that 20 million Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims were displaced during the partition of United India in 1947. Compare with the largest documented voluntary emigration in history – the Italian diaspora, which migrated from Italy between 1861 and 1970, with 13 million people leaving the country.

VERSE|Thank you for the Joy – Part 2

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

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

OPINION | IDIOCRACY*

If ever there were loud-mouthed arm chair warriors anywhere, we, the Pakistanis would definitely take place of state. We take glowing pride in having a (re)sound(ing) opinion about everything under the sun. From the state of our own politics (our most favourite Topic of Rants) to how India should conduct itself within and without its borders, right down to how the emancipated Pakistani female should laugh in public – they’ve already unashamedly ripped through the first part of the sacred social canon of “not being seen, nor being heard” and now to actually hear them having a good time publicly! Qiyamat ki nishani hai bhaiyon! (1)

But i digress, as i tend to do when the feminist within kicks in. The point is that in our closeted but unceasing admiration of the West, we have taken to exercising their First Amendment rights to a whole new local level; Article 19, its Pakistani constitutional counterpart with its myriad crippling pre conditions, be damned! We have, over time, and encouraged by consecutive unscrupulous, corrupt governments, made voicing any kind of an opinion, synonymous with unrelenting whinging and griping. This antagonistic view has indeed, also been sublimely perpetuated by our overly-seasoned politicos. This intrepid lot, in their unceasing efforts at survival, have about-faced so many times keeping with the widely opposing mandates of varied administrations, that to transform a previously defended sacramental truth into current State treason, takes but a heartbeat….and of course the quintessential quality to be passionately gloomy. This has unerringly and copiously helped to paint an overall negative picture of the Republic, many times less maligning facts notwithstanding.

Our elected leaders are like the communal Fathers of the State (if you see an insidious pun in that, i rest my case). And to emulate ones paternal elders especially, is considered a righteous duty in our part of the world. So it is quite unremarkable that the Pakistani body politic following their administrative patriarchs, regurgitates as terrifying a mix of factual and concocted postulations as their varied and many social interactions allow.

A recent example is the PIA pilots’ fake licenses issue that has blown up not only on our own beleagured soil but indeed globally. (As of now, our national carrier has been banned from a number of international destinations for at least the next 6 months). The truth of the matter is far from what meets the eye or what has made the news. Pakistani pilots traditionally, have been some of the best internationally and have not only trained their foreign counterparts but have also served to defend allied states through skilful surgical strikes (PAF pilots led successful, course-altering air strikes against LTTE* bases in 2008 during the Sri Lankan civil war).

The current May 2020 tragedy, while definitely requiring its own set of accountability and remedial measures, has been wrongfully used to malign the entire Pakistani commercial pilots’ fraternity based on erroneous hyperbole in the constant battle of our inept administration to pass on the buck. Political knee jerk, self preservation tactics have always included gross exaggeration of our shortcomings, and in this particular case that penchant has exploded in the most self defeating manner on the international stage when Pakistan is already grappling with copious other negative press.

We may be a nation weighed down by the cumulative incompetence of decades of self serving administrations, but in the larger picture, we are still an independent nation that has survived the turbulence of wars, refugees, lost opportunities and foreign right wing religious subterfuge. There are nations, at least as beset by fate and circumstance if you will; but there is an unwritten national ethical code that the last man on the street follows – in some books it is referred to as Basic Patriotism. We, the Pakistanis have it all backwards: we will always criticise our own when we can; we will dutifully pull the carpet from under our brethrens’ feet if it served to make our individual purpose minutely better; we will glorify gross tradition and quell any semblance of social advancement; we will shamelessly, consistently antagonise, sensationalise, politicise and demonise.

The truth of the matter is that the global community is not in the mood to give magnanimous benefits of the doubt or even indulgent hoists up from the knotty quagmires created by incompetent domestic governments and juvenile societies. A rap on the knuckles is swiftly followed by a myriad organised aggravations that the whole nation is then subjected to from the international collective. These range from crippling trade and travel bans, to the as yet unrecognised psychological effects of being “eternally marginalised”.

The pithy lesson here is that we, the Pakistani citizenry, need to exercise a little more pride or even just forbearance vis a vis our collective nationhood, and indulge in just a little less irresponsible State related defamation and slander. We are already sliding down the slippery sluiceway of “black listed/ high risk” nations. We then, as the body politic can and must do our part even if it is simply to make overall Discretion the better part of Valor in our daily societal interactions.

The ask is considerable, agreed, as we sit comfortably ensconced in our living room sofas, probably suffused in a euphoric post-Nihari* stupor, when the tongue is loose and the ethics looser. But we owe that bit of restraint to our much bedevilled country and the few cogs of our unwieldy administrative wheel that are still trundling away in honest enterprise.

De Khudai pe aman.

*Idiocracy: title taken from a 1996 dystopia movie directed by Mike Judge

(1) – “An indication that the end of the world is nigh, my brothers!”

*LTTE: The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was a Tamil militant organisation that was based in northeastern Sri Lanka.

*Nihari: A stew from the Indian subcontinent consisting of slow-cooked meat, along with the bone marrow; mainly the shank meat of beef, lamb or mutton.

VERSE|I Am Dystopia!

WHEN NATURE ROARS

2020 dawned on us, full of the goodness of even numbers,
Of existential vision perfection, insight, wisdom; all symbolic rumbles,
Of good things to come, of new beginnings and of blithesome continuity,
Of travel and adventure, of togetherness and sunny opportunity.

Just when the new year smile from our lips spread,
To brighten the providential gleam in our eyes,
Mother Nature stepped out of her wooded grove
And resolved to cut all 7 billion of us down to size.
She waved her hoary Staff of Life and brought it down hard to the ground,
And created a little critter amongst us, virile and ergonomically sound.

And then around the globe it traipsed as gleeful as a clam,
Across hills and valleys, fields and plains, aeroplanes and trams;
It skipped across the hot asphalt, into neighbourhood grocery stores;
Hopping along trolley handles, even dancing across binned apple cores;
Nestling onto careless hands, touching sun-kissed faces,
The Covid critter had VOA* for a whole gamut of places.

And then it was a few weeks on, late March, early April
That the malignant, morbid pong arose from the places it had traveled.
Sick and sicker people got, with the older crowd being hit the hardest,
It picked at folks everywhere, taking the killing-spree route that was fastest.
It advanced, armed with its axe and it’s murdering scythe as it went for the weakest,
Ravaging not only bodies, but spirits and souls at its absolute bleakest.

The Covid death knell continued to be tolled as the weeks turned into months;
On and on it butchered and killed on copious, disparate fronts.
They say there’s an existential kind of omen in the raging of this pandemic,
Like a paradoxical panacea for even worse killers that are fundamentally systemic.
Like racial biases, climactic atrocities and economic ills,
They say the Covid has descended upon us to collect on Mothers Nature’s bills.

We owe her for the oceans that are perishing by the hour,
For the dwindling woodland space and the raging forest fires,
For tearing into her lungs with each metric tonne of CO2 emission,
For killing and maiming and cruelly placing her creatures in wretched submission,
For all the unkindness, the hypocrisy and the bigoted beliefs,
She finally stepped in from the depth of the earth to deliver some relief.

While she’s imperceptibly taking back the reins of this planet we call home,
We continue to be caught in the toxic harvest of what we’ve already sown.
She’s spreading her roots like gnarled old ivy across our cities and towns,
Reclaiming, repairing, reviving reforming the blues, the greens and the browns.
Soon her deep dark tendrils will wind around our greed-beleaguered throats,
Choking out the poison, the malady of the spirit that has taken such firm root.

It will be the end of an epoch, but also the start of something new;
An honesty, a tenderness, a Oneness with Nature will slowly start to brew.
For Humanity to thrive again, a death of The Now is essential;
The dreams and motivations caught up in that Now will also become inconsequential.
As Nature beckons us closer to her, one lesson at a time,
The world will poise on a transformational brink while she scours off the grime.

2020 will indeed be the year when Humanity attained perfect vision,
When Mother Nature drew copious blood to finally change our Human Condition.

De Khudai pe aman.

*VoA: Visa on Arrival

OPINION |The Age of Stupid* – (Part One)

Why Donald Trump will likely win a second term in office

Or maybe, it’s just a very enhanced sense of the paradoxical irony that is our world today. Maybe what appears ridiculous is quite likely, the secret panacea for all our global pains. But I’m going to go with my basic instinct; rooted as it is in somber reality and devoid of any Third Eye insightfulness into capricious cure-alls. So here’s why i think that the 45th POTUS will actually get to spend another 4 years behind the Resolute Desk while he entertains dictators, despots and autocrats with the occasional sheikh, king and queen.

His unashamed doltishness: It is indeed rare to see a world leader appear to be so overtly and consistently idiotic. So rare indeed that it raises doubts in the hithertofore wise and mature global political fraternity if indeed they have had it wrong all along. From wondering if Finland is a part of Russia, to the ingestion of general disinfectants as a viral cure-all, the POTUS Experiential Spectrum has been rife with bizarre sound-bites. And yet, he continues to dominate and conquer. His electorate, previously disinterested and marginalised amidst all that rocket-science like nationhood that had been touted as the American Way, now finally able to relate to the basal knee jerks of the president elect. Here is a man finally, that seems human rather than a robot on steroids in Washington.

His majestically delusional sense of self: The American presidential incumbents of the past have, despite their variably chaotic attempts at portraying themselves as the most powerful men on the planet, shown a fallibility. They have demonstrated the occasional need to apologize for a whole gamut of things, from war crimes to racial biases. As the current popular mindset goes, that is not the way of the American presidency. When you occupy that coveted seat, equalising/ harmonising words and phrases like “sorry” and “what are your views?” automatically get thrown out of the executive vocabulary. In fact, POTUS-Speak is supposed to lose all semantic nuance so there isn’t even a stealthy or covert hint of contrition; Ever. And Donald J Trump is that perfect cocktail of awe-inspiring lexical limitation coupled with the superhero confidence of a badass. All paradoxes reign supreme when you’re the POTUS.

His childlike bullying tactics: Modern man is only about 200,000 years old on a planet that has been around for billions of years. Why then don the mantle of maturity and sagacity when we as a species are clearly just babes in the galactic woods. And so, keeping true to this undeniable science, the 45th POTUS has fine-tuned the skill of schoolyard bullying into a political art-form. From belligerently sticking out his tongue at the WHO and the UN, to teaming up with the rowdy truants from Russia and North Korea, he’s kicking ahead with the bull-headedness of the class ruffian. And slowly but surely, the rest of the world, only just holding onto some semblance of human sophistication, are following suit amidst a general crumbling of globally shared values, ethics and ideologies. India with its aggressive anti-Muslim manifesto; China with its ethnic internment camps; the European Union with its not so united pandemic front, to name just a few of the recently untethered, taking their cues from the new Trump dominion.

His glorious capacity to lie unblinkingly, consistently: From lying about his bunker hunkering amidst a rabble of BLM* protestors, to promoting a motley, unsubstantiated array of cures for Covid19, he continues to gleefully spout fallacy after fallacy. For the stat moles out there, during the last 3 and a half years, he has apparently told close to 20,000 lies from various platforms. The lies are like an avalanche, a new one pitching forward to cover the ever-burgeoning fact-hole left by the previous untruth. The critical accomplishment here is the total absence of any kind of moral dithering; no uncomfortable whatcha-may-call-it holes left unfilled. This also ties in beautifully to the aforementioned POTUS fan base expectation of never having to say you’re sorry. And the good news for him is that his supporters (including the silent majority of Trump voters who will vehemently deny their closeted bromance with the POTUS) love that he has an unapologetic answer for everything, cloaked as it may be in outlandish lies at worst, and oddball science fiction during some of his more shining moments.

His naively overt biases: Let’s face it, 500 years of hierarchical racial setups can play havoc with even the most equitable-minded amongst us. And DT* brings a fresh faced honesty of expression to the table, which while being completely at odds with all the lies he tells, is still fundamentally appealing to the 72% of Americans who are white. He appears to have effortlessly transcended that bothersome ethical block of appearing racially correct. He is comfortable with people of his original colour (although how pasty that actually is, is now relegated to history books since orange has become the new white); and he makes no qualms about the innate preference for his own kind. In an almost innocent break-away with propriety, he vigorously stokes racial discord while not fully understanding the blow-back. His genuinely perplexed, almost hurt expressions are dead giveaways of the similarly endearing visceral quality of his politics; and that has been like a magic wand with both, his silent and vocal body politic.

The complete mental and ideological retardation of the Republican Party: This will perhaps be the primary clincher for DT’s second term in office. Despite the 45th POTUS transcending whole new horizons of constitutional and executive irregularities, he has not only survived, but thrived. While the mentally doddering party incumbents continue to lethargically flounder in Right Wing waters, DT does exactly as he wishes. So much so, that the Republicans have now taken on the full time role of preparing arduous defences to make the POTUS appear sane and reasonable in the aftermath of his copious bloopers and distortions. They are completely subservient to the oddball behaviour of their president elect and their constituents absolutely love the all powerful vibe of this brand of executive process.

It was on one such peculiar day 4 years ago that I predicted the coming of age of American politics in the wake of a reality TV star at the helm of affairs. I am now again hazarding a presumption, a crackling gut feel about November 2020. I think DT, with his luck of the devil and his finger on the pulse of a world-weary nation, will prevail; despite all the nay sayers and the pundits of doom, there are many more who see aspirational “order” in the chaos he wreaks. And so, in this age of the sublimely ridiculous, I see the current POTUS golfing and gaffing his way, for another 1,460 days, in the hallowed halls of the White House.

De Khudai pe aman

*The Age of Stupid: Title inspired from a namesake 2009 dystopian movie

*BLM: Black Lives Matter

*DT: Donald Trump

VERSE|Our Little Girl With Rosy Cheeks

Our very own little girl, my niece, is all grown up now! I wrote this poem for her on the eve of her high school graduation. As she heads into another chapter of her life, a beautiful, young girl, we her family given to copious nostalgia as we are, will always remember our little girl with her rosy cheeks.

Here’s to you my dearest Maheen gul ❤️

I remember, i remember, our little girl with the rosy cheeks
Our little girl with the silken hair like a gleaming waterfall.
I remember, i still so vividly recall
From your very first day you held us in thrall.
With those big bright eyes and that soul full of pluck,
Yes, we'd been kissed on the forehead by gracious Lady Luck.
Your joyful energy, your skips, leaps and bounds
And your blitheful grin, Maheen gul, made our world go around.

And then you were suddenly 10 years old; our stalwart little rock
Buffeted too early by the rapacious winds of life,
You were pitched things to deal with far more than your share
But you dear girl, displayed a strength that was precious and rare.
And so you bounded on, with a heart big and strong,
With your eyes full of dreams and your soul full of song.
You were a powerhouse of fortitude for so many around you
Your infectious laughter, Maheen gul chased away all manner of blues.

And now, darling girl, as you conquer yet another milestone in life
I am awed by the lovely young woman that you have become
Funny and loving, compassionate and wise
You're every inch a chip of the old block, which is not a surprise.
I pray that the universe continues to open all doors
For you to go after your dreams, your joys and so much more.
May you continue to grow and prosper in glory and grace
May the gods of good fortune forever hold you in their embrace.

I will always remember our little girl with her rosy cheeks
Now a young woman of substance in her own right.
May you carry your parents’ legacy in all its warm goodness;
May you thrive; may you always shine with your special light.

OPINION|The Consciously Blazing World*

A Post-Colonial/ Post Abolition Prescription for Healing and Moving On

2020 has become the proverbial skeleton in our collective human closet that has been, quite clamorously, wanting out. From the Australian bushfires to the Californian wildfires to the south Asian locust infestation, to flash floods, to the still raging Pandemic, Nature has been rapping her well worn knuckles at us. The seeds that we have sown ourselves, such as they are, in our socio-economic evolution of the past 500 years, are finally also bearing insidious fruit. And some of us are being plated out with that toxic “manna” much more generously than others. The world is in a peculiar state of flux as systemic and institutionalised biases and inequities raise their ugly heads, demanding attention and exacting blood.

With the Northern hemisphere facing its most vocal and vehement push-back yet of institutionalised racism, it seems apt to look into the whys and wherefores of how this monster is still not only alive and well, but traipsing around the globe. The dubious start-up credit, of course, rests with the two most notorious schemes employed by the West to own, manage and use entire swathes of humanity: Colonisation and Slavery.

While the colonists eventually exited their colonised domains (for the most part), it is compelling to note that the enslaved were never repatriated or given a homeland to call their own. Most notably, post the American civil war, they were clumsily declared “free men” (the “free women” movement is, arguably, still a work in progress around the world) and left largely to their own devices and spirit of enterprise to assimilate into society. There was no state-sponsored Integration Scheme, no Reparation Act, no real organised effort made by the enslavers to economically lift and psychologically release tens of thousands of men and women from over two centuries of being treated like chattel. Fast forward 200 years and the vestiges of that national lethargy has taken on an even more insidious anatomy in the form of systemic racism and marginalisation. This scarlet thread has woven its treacherous way through every aspect of the fabric of society, leaving citizens feeling like illegal aliens in their own country. This is being exemplified loud and clear in the current state of world affairs, and so effectively described by the black American actor Will Smith when he said “Racism has always been around. Now it’s being filmed for all to see.”

The colonisers departed from their dominions after demarcating entire continents with the assiduity of a baker cutting a cake with the straightest edges possible. There was almost no political, socio-economic or ideological science applied to demarcating borders. Nations were cut up overnight changing not only the cartography of the world but also the lives of millions of people. Thus seeding a post colonial wave of civic and religious unrest that has continued to simmer and boil over between previously congenial neighbours. Case in point: the Indian subcontinent. With its current combined population of 1.7 billion, 40% or 680 million of which comprises the middle class or the engines of economic growth of a country, the south Asian collective would have been a global force to contend with. The Durand Line and the Radcliffe Award ignited fires that are being stoked to this day in the form of radical religious militarisation and exclusionary nationalism.

So where do we go from here?

There is a critical healing/ advancement process that is integral to moving forward from the grass root levels.

  • Accept that it happened: Currently, the baseline of “popular history” is all wrong. There is an almost smug evasion of the truth; smug, because the pall of racial ignorance and apathy has been allowed to thrive for the past couple of centuries. It is time to come face to face with the reality of what happened, starting from the highest government platforms right down to the man on the street. The facts need to be overtly stated and accepted so that the collective social conscience can finally start kicking in.
  • Embed an ethical awareness: Once the truth has been told and confronted, the moral dialogue needs to start, spearheaded by the nation’s academicians and legislators. A Code of Race Ethics needs to be formulated for the body politic at large, to systemically unlearn and then relearn their moral sense around the subject. Building grit and gumption around commemorative events like Juneteenth* in the United States and probably the Amritsar tragedy* in the United Kingdom, will help to embed the mindset. In the spirit of Veterans’ Day, these memorialisations too will serve as a reminder of the courage to have overcome, safeguarded and progressed, while also ensuring the keen cognisance of the atrocities of the past. The goal being to ultimately bring about a sea change in the “racio-moral”* compass of the world.
  • Make Colonial/ Slavery studies a compulsory part of the school curriculum: This is fundamental for both, the colonised/ the enslaved, and the West. For a systemic national mindset change, race related instruction and knowledge sharing has to begin in the impressionable years. Together with the many glorious battle wins vanquishing sundry foes being featured in History books, a thoughtful, insightful study into their dark historical pasts by the largely western/ white nations is essential to methodically build universal understanding, acceptance and empathy.
  • Encourage ongoing dialogue: This is critical to ensure that the mindset change that has begun, is made permanent. Discourse is important on every aspect ranging from the moral issues inherent in the concepts of the “Colonial Imperialists” and “Slave Masters”, to reparation, to active assimilation and advancement of the affected populations in the 21st century.

Humankind appears to be on the brink of another revolution – this time, a moral and ethical one. This modification/ re-formulation of our global conscience will affect how we survive and indeed, thrive in the 21st century.

The question is, are we up for this challenge of an epoch, or are these difficult high-minded decisions best left to God and the Trumps and Johnsons of the world?

De Khudai pe aman.

*The Consciously Blazing World: Title adapted from a 1666 work of utopian fiction titled “The Blazing World” by Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle.

*Juneteenth: A holiday celebrated on June 19th to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved people in the USA.

*Amritsar Tragedy: Also called the Jhallianwala bagh massacre took place on April 13th, 1919, when Acting Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered British Indian army troops to fire their rifles into a crowd of unarmed Indian civilians in Jhallianwala Bagh, killing at least 379 people and injuring over 1,000 others.

*Racio-moral: the global ethics of race and morality

OPINION|A Clockwork Digital*

A Socio-Political Media Conundrum

You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” – On the Waterfront, 1954

This unenvious state, this pixelated warfront, is true in fact for both, our Prime Minister, Imran Khan and the American President, Donald Trump. In this highly digitised world of communication, facts and fiction are often blurred in favour of the more digitally savvy. It matters little on the Information Super Highway, that you bring laboriously vetted facts and present them with the articulate pen of a scholar. What matters most is how quickly, succinctly, convincingly and doggedly you present your version of the truth. And therein lies the enigma for both these similarly beleaguered leaders. Their social media channels are rife with loud clamours from both sides of the political divide as the body politic takes, like soldiers to battle, to deftly repel all opposing views.

While DT’s* digital media director brings with himself the comforting ethnic sameness that has been at the bleeding heart of American politics lately, IK’s* focal digital media person is a medical doctor happily grinding out quite heavily sedated statements and responses to Pakistan’s social media electorate. Suffice to say that the boisterous digital armchair warriors on both continents, sign into a no-holds-barred online party everyday. The resulting cacaophony is a sight for sore eyes as caution, care and ethics are thrown to the ethereal winds.

Let me dig a little deeper into the particular case of each electronically-bedevilled incumbent.

DT is probably experiencing the least loved moment in his presidency yet. And the surprising truth is that it’s not entirely the fault of his dubious character. There have been moments in his media awkwardness, crassness and downright churlishness where he’s appeared absolutely bewildered by the barrage of negativity he has attracted. His almost wounded perplexity means that he is probably not as complete a write-off as a sizeable denominator now thinks. So it’s time to, at least in part, shift the blame to his media managers. From his twitter handle manager to his White House press secretary, a sea change is required. Or at the very least, a refinement of the media handling process, from start of an issue to the presidential weigh-in of the same; embedding a critical on-the-spot Presidential crash course on the subject before DT is permitted to fumble out a tweet or a statement. Just that small enterprise comprising of mostly keypad forbearance, will do much for the agitated, stressed out and increasingly insane sounding POTUS to skip back over to the side of some semblance of reason and positive poll-rankings.

IK is not too far behind his American counterpart on the (dis)likeability quotient. His once resoundingly mesmeric features of charm and political freshness, now appear quite anaemic and diluted. His media superintendents are even more belaboured and disconnected in portraying his political agility and civic common sense. Add to that, the enduring thrall for the Pakistani political trifecta of the Army meeting a Civilian meeting a Technocrat, being the panacea for all manner of national grimness and incapacity. The Captain has shown an almost loving tendency to not break with a lot of the mouldering 75 year old political tradition of our country and has even installed the said trifecta* to manage his burgeoning media publicity woes. In this case, the technocrat is a medical doctor (employed quite reasonably, as the vernacular mindset goes, in an area completely at odds with his professional training). The goal is to phrase all messages with peculiar medical undertones, then couch in paternalistic diplomacy and finally, deliver with the force of a nuclear bomb. Needless to say that an outright overhaul is required here too, breaking completely for starters, with the trifecta tradition. This should be followed by the installation of a populist-savvy, on the ball, relatable media ‘machine’ that can deliver a proletarian blow for blow in the social media jungle, keeping just a step ahead of the keyboard crusaders and naysayers.

Both leaders are currently caught in a media blitzkrieg intent on portraying them as… bums. And as the digital clock ticks on without any overt correction, it is very likely that the Captain will be clean bowled out and Black* will become the new Orange.

De Khudai pe aman.

*A Clockwork Digital: title adaptation from the original 1971 Stanley Kubrick film “A Clockwork Orange”

*DT: Donald Trump

*IK: Imran Khan

*The Pakistani Media Management Trifecta: Focal person on digital media- Dr. Arslan Khalid; Information Minister- Shibli Faraz (son of the renowned Urdu poet, Ahmad Faraz); Special Assistant to the PM for Information and Broadcasting- Lt. General (Retd.) Asim Saleem Bajwa

*Black: from the mushrooming “Black Lives Matter” protests and demonstrations in the USA that are also sweeping across the globe in various minority-fuelled nuances.

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