OPINION|LOVE ACTUALLY*

In the current chaos of the world, an international relations argument for why, especially now, we need Imran Khan at the helm of affairs in Pakistan

“Yatha raja, thatha praja* – As the King, so are the People.”

A sage old saying that has not had more relevance and resonance than in our current erratic, wayward, even mercurial times; when all the world is actually a stage and all the men and women merely players, following the charge of the madman with the loudest megaphone. More and more we see the dictatorial, the deranged and the downright demoniac garner adoration, loyalty and an ever burgeoning electorate.

In all this terrifying chaos, however, there are still those who with mindful purpose, shine their torches on plurality, decency and probity. And one of these relatively new, tender footed yet mightily zealous people, also happens to be the Premier of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. And I say this not out of any rose coloured glasses affliciton for the historically charsimatic Khan of Philanthropy and Cricket, but as a denizen of our beleaguered country who is residing overseas.

Here’s why.

For the last 40 years, our status in global politics and our international relations have been incrementally dismal and inauspicious, to say the least. From counter intuitive proxy wars to unmitigated corruption to dynastic political subterfuge, we have avidly done it all. And as the world has become smaller and international borders have become increasingly blurred, the strength of our passport has progressively dwindled into the twilight zone of global esprit de corps and camaraderie. The once rising star of South Asia, has become the battle-worn, terrorist-nurturing, drug den of the world and the blowback for its citizens, both resident and abroad has been life altering. There is an almost resigned political fatigue that has settled on its populace, despite the daily boisterous harangues on the numerous news channels- that is merely noise to fill the silence of the pariah space we now occupy. At the heart of it all, there is an almost hypnotic/ philosophical acceptance of the reaping of what a handful of us sowed some 4 decades ago.

For some of us though, the overseas residents that are somewhat displaced from the mesmeric daze of our collective state of mind, the grimness of our reality is both sobering and painful. From the persona non grata treatment at the various international airport immigrations and embassies (and i have a few scarring anecdotes to tell of my own!) to the deriding or sympathetic social vibes in the global drawing room, the entire gamut of a Pakistani’s international experience is skewed far and away from anything in the confines of “normal”. Even the most ardent ambassadors of the wholesomeness of what it is – even what it was – to be Pakistani, feel the full force of the detractory drag of the global collective. And so it has been for almost as long as i have travelled – until now.

That small but intrepid torch light i spoke of…. I’m finally seeing positive little glimmers of it even as i sit it out as a foreign resident amidst the 2020 Covid 19 pandemic. People I meet don’t instantly look confused or disinterested or conversationally challenged to meet a Pakistani. They have been smiling more (genuine grins at that too!) while they ask how our PM is doing and how “lucky” we are to have him when most of the rest of the world is going to pot. There have been more of those hitherto rare little dialogues where i have been able to share, with shoulders squared and eyes glinting with confidence (and the restfulness of 9 hours of sleep!), the progress Pakistan has made battling the virus and keeping its populace safe, while also keeping the engines of enterprise running; small, even moot successes, but all steps in the right direction. From business associates to friends to tuk tuk drivers, the international narrative on the Pakistani State of Being is veering back from the vagrant fringe just a bit at a time, to what is normal and congenial. So yes! I’m putting it down to our prime minister.

Even so, keeping true to our nature of the last couple of decades – that of the earnest albeit combative acceptance of our besieged nationality – we continue to be exultantly vocal and contentious of the current administration too. Be that as it may. Where previous regimes have had multiple stabs at methodically and obsessively ruining the country, it may be a good time to show some grace, forebearance and patience even when the reins of the country are in the hands of a politically unseasoned, wet behind the ears, wont to pivot and falter, non dynastic office holder, who also happens to be our only current hope towards some semblance of sincere nation building. With time, this political newbie could indeed become, not an expert politician, but the Statesman our nation so desperately needs.

Do i sound like one caught in an emotional maelstrom? Perhaps. Maybe. I prefer to call it the nostalgic discernment of the geographically removed; with the distance-enhanced ability to see the starkness of the administrative options in front of us. And really, for the first time, the choice is not difficult.

So yes, in all this crazy milieu, it’s Love Actually that i feel for our very own Captain of the Republic, Imran Khan.

De Khudai pe aman

*Love Actually: title inspiration from a 2003 movie (starring Hugh Grant) where the key protagonist is the British PM.

*Yatha Raja, thatha praja: a saying from ancient Hindu scriptures.

SHORT STORY| SOILENT GREEN* – Part 1

COLOMBO; SRI LANKA:

September 21st, 2021; 10pm:

I breathed in deeply. I had to reduce my heart rate, get rid of all the disquieting thoughts ricocheting in my head and get my Calm back. I closed my eyes and focused on my chakras….each one visible, glowing, holding me safe….

There was a loud clamour from somewhere in the sprawling Sleeping area. I heard it but I ignored it. I kept my eyes closed and concentrated. Ten minutes later, I lay down and fled, thankfully, into a dreamless sleep.

September 29th, 2021; 8am:

I ate the bread and butter ravenously. Hungry as I’d been, I had skipped last night’s dinner of rice and fish curry. There was still enough food around to enable me to maintain the urban quirks of my palate. That meant no seafood and no pork; not even curries spiced with fish paste. I had been primarily subsisting on carbohydrates and sugar for the past 3 weeks.

We were almost into week 4 of The Turning as it had begun to be called; the Purge as i believed it was. That word; that thought for the ‘greater good’ helped me reason and compartmentalise the entire happening into serene, halcyon boxes in my mind even if it was for short periods of time. It helped me step back into the macrocosm of our very existence and to relieve to some extent, the enormity of our collective helplessness and anguish. And that was important to remain …. normal.

I got up to do the first of my 4 times daily, 20 minute ‘Corridor Walk’. A throw-back to my normal days and one which I held onto with the tenacity of a bulldog.

It had begun very soon after the Covid-19 vaccine went global.

At first, there were unexplained disappearances; mostly of middle aged men and women in the cities. They went to work and simply never came back. Then there were inexplicable instances of whole new patches of vibrant vegetation coming up in the meticulously preserved pristine spaces in and around concrete structures: A shrub appearing overnight, rising from a craggy cleft in the footpath where the earth sat between two imperfect flagstones; a vibrant, young bougainvillea suddenly sharing a fastidiously tamed flowerbed alongside its longtime botanical residents; groves of young Mara/ Rain trees appearing overnight parallel to the railways tracks creating a cool, shadowy pall over the carriages that still chugged back and forth carrying their human burdens.

Then there was the first sighting.

A woman walking along the Galle road had wrapped her arms around one of the Araliya* trees on the walkway and had simply… “melted”. She had disappeared; just ceased to exist anymore – like in a scene out of a real-life time travel thriller. And in the middle of that still tropical afternoon, the leaves on the tree had visibly rustled, almost like a joyous little victory dance after imbibing new life into its ancient architecture. Someone had got the episode on video….mid-disappearance.

It had gone viral with 30 billion views in 3 weeks.

It had also struck horror in the hearts of men.

First, there were slews of wild conjectures ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous; followed by extraterrestrial conspiracy theories; giving way finally to ceaseless terrified anticipation – who was next?

In the rush to get back to ‘normal’ post the Covid 19 outbreak, and under the dubious auspices of the current world leadership, the vaccine had been churned out in record time. But there was something not quite right with the Ac19-nCoV vaccine. It was causing a gross genetic mutation in at least one out of every 3 people who had it. It was metamorphosing them into Green Carbon; devolving complex human biological structures into the simpler compounds that we collectively called Mother Nature. It was terrifying; it was shocking; it was bizarre and it had led to the Great Chain of Being upending itself – Nature was God was Nature. And this Neo-vegetation grew thick around concrete structures, obliterating almost overnight, the greatest industrial revolution triumphs of man.

No Man is an Island.

People realised quite early on that their chances of survival multiplied manifold if they banded together in large numbers as close to the ground as possible. High rise buildings were abandoned, and the built-up ground floor areas were turned into mass shelters.

Endurance was easier in the city than in the thriving green environs of the suburbs. This allowed the Saw and Machete battles against the ever-advancing fury of Nature to be fought with some degree of success. For now.

Our group is tenanted at the local 5 star hotel, for a price. We still have the rare luxury of venturing out into the sunshine. Into the “great outdoors” – (what a morbid oddity that now sounds like!) – where a thick canopy of rustling leaves has not yet taken over every inch of the earth and the sky; always growing, always advancing, always darkening, before ultimately enfolding everything in its suffocating, chlorophyllic embrace.

I walk around the perimeter of our lobby-shelter, completing one 360 degree perambulation in a minute. Twenty such laps undertaken to think… think… make some sense of it all. To wrap my head around yet another new post pandemic Reality…. Ultimatum… Finality. To learn to accept….to ACCEPT. To rationalise and accept.

T + 28 Days Later

I hear the alarm go off. It is my turn to help clear the new vegetation outside. I pick up the machete (it’s a handy, lightweight version that I have become quite proficient at using) and go outside. I look at the luscious palm that has come up in the corner overnight – probably a hapless Covid-Vaxer* who had fled the suburban wilds and been vanquished instead by the insidious city-slicking verdancy. I have this strange urge to wrap my arms around it; to take a deep breath at last; to close my eyes and let what will be, just be….

I take up my machete and hit the stem once, twice, three times, until the sap oozes out thickly, flowing to the ground, feeding the greenness of the earth. I bring my foot down as hard as i can on the spot…the grass flattens momentarily and then bounces up defiantly. I choke back a sob as fury mixes with the hopelessness of it all.

The palm yields on the 5th stroke of my machete and falls to the ground.

It is not over yet.

De Khudai pe aman

*Soilent Green title inspiration from a 1973 American ecological dystopian thriller – “Soylent Green”, starring Charlton Heston.

*Araliya tree: the local name for the Plumeria or Frangipani.

*Covid Vaxer: Any of the 3 billion people who were administered the Covid 19 vaccination

Read SOILENT GREEN – Part 2 here: FICTION|SOILANT GREEN* – Part 2

POLITICAL FARCE|THE AGE OF STUPID – Part Deux

This political farcical piece was written in September of 2020 in the wake of the American presidential elections.

May 24th, 2021:

The President Is Dead.

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

Mike Pence Was Confused.

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

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

Ivanka Glowed

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

June 9th, 2021:

Bloody Wednesday

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

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

June 9th, 2023:

The Immaculate Assimilation

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

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

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

Where We Go One – We Go All!*

Long live the Aryan Republic of America!

Glossary of Terms:

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

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

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

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

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

VERSE|The Lady with the Mona Lisa Smile

For the gracious Padmini Pelpola – the lady who lit up the porch every evening at number 12 Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha.

We were in the throes of the affliction, all lives tossed quite asunder,
Everyone struggling with their own version of their worlds-turned-upside-down.
I too was grappling with the changes
In a curfew-riddled cocoon of my own.
There was a painful psychosis that had swept over the city
And it was all we could do to hold on to little glimmers of patience, resilience and hope.

It was in this atmosphere, saturated as I was with pandemic fatigue
Holding onto the one thing i knew that helped me to center
To fight off the depression for one more day - my evening walk;
It was then that I saw her sitting in that little porch near the car park of the apartment building.
A vision of serenity, grace and beauty, borne of a life well-lived.

She was holding court as I came to see she would, every evening
Equally at ease with her solitude, as with the conversational company of those that sought her out;
She was scintillating, she was vibrant, she was calm and she was kind.
I watched in awe and then through occasional glances.
For i was mesmerised and yet I was aware that I might spook her -
Spook the perfection of those two blissfully normal hours of which she was the gracious alchemist.

So I looked forward to my evening walk in the apartment parking lot,
For that was the extent of our locked-down freedom.
And i looked forward to saying hello to her and to receiving in return, her lovely smile every time.
I fed off the revitalizing energy of that precious little exchange for the next six weeks.
And then things returned to normal and I didn’t see her for a while.
But the memory of those heart-warming little interactions stayed with me like the glow of a just-settled sunset.

And then I heard that she’d passed on. Suddenly. Just like that.
And the news hit me in a strange, inexplicably sad manner.
And I realised that I didn’t know her at all, and yet, for me and a handful of others,
She had been the unwavering harbinger of a wonderful, uplifting calmness at a time of great disquietude.

And so I write this little eulogy, a remembrance if you will
Of a life well-lived, and I am sure, a soul well-loved;
Of the lady with the Mona Lisa Smile.

De Khudai pe aman

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.

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 Covid Stigma

Of Humanity, Dignity and Collectiveness

Of late, I have found myself thinking, contemplating and ruminating on our general state of being human. And I can only put down the uncomfortable confusion I feel to my obstinate tendency to see the glass half full. Because had I been a realist, I’d probably see our current humanity for what it is: shallow, empty and decaying; echoing with the many ironies of how it should be, but stridently, mockingly, isn’t. The insulating layers of apathy and lassitude have further made our human connections tenuous and encumbered. But again, the knee jerk reactions of the eternal optimist still kick in to make me believe in our collective human community. Our journey as a species thus far has to count for something. And so I think, I hope, that it’s more like being somewhat lost in translation, where humankind “has not [really] ceased to love each other but an accumulation of disappointment and past anger [has] burdened them like underwater insects and made their progress towards each other clumsy and impractical”*.

My oft repeated refrain above is meant to serve as a background to yet another deviation from our humanity. The rising Covid Stigma. It is fast becoming a state of mind, forming its very own stereotypes with continually expanding horizons of censure. In our overriding fear of the unknown, we forget that this is not an affliction of the sinful or the undutiful, nor is it the genetic scourge of the brown, the white or the black – we as a planetary collective are undergoing this blight. Six months down the road, chances also are that you or your loved ones have undergone some form of the infection; the very virulence of the bacillus warrants that probability. Six months on, even more harrowing than the lives lost, is the colossal emotional devastation and heartbreak it has wreaked across the planet; the everlasting emotional scars it has left in its wake. And yet, we have managed, with all the force of our individuality, to the exclusion of all that is communal, collective and shared, to shamelessly repudiate and exclude our neighbours and our fellow city dwellers who have or may have convalesced through the disease.

I have been witness to an occasion where an entire residential complex rose up in belligerent revolt to bar entry to a recovered Covid-19 community member, armed as he was with a clean bill of health from the local infectious diseases centre where he was quarantined for 3 weeks.

These actions wrongfully, cruelly stigmatise and disenfranchise people. We need to be better than that; we need to be more self aware as the intelligent species; we need to stop responding to our basal knee jerk reactions of misplaced fear, anger and self-centredness.

The Novel Corona is here to stay. The lockdowns and curfews are easing up. People are getting back to work. People will begin to travel again. There will be interactions and even disease communication.

There will also at some point, be another wave. There will at some point, be a close friend or family member who will get infected. You will, at some point, then also feel the pain of a stigma that you helped to create, that will by then have taken unyielding root in the fabric of our society.

Now therefore, is the time to break this abhorrent cycle of ostracising people who are infected and being treated or are quarantined for the Novel Corona. Now is the time to resist the primitive urge of blacklisting people who have as socially conscious, responsible citizens, followed treatment and isolation protocols and have recovered from the disease.

Let us start dignifying our humanity.

De Khudai pe aman

*Quote from Phillip Oakes‘ “A Lion in the House”

OPINION|The Reluctant Martyrs

The “ill-fated” Pakistan International Airlines flight of May, 2020

As this pandemic rages on, the truth of things, the bare bones architecture of our flawed sensibilities and ethics are rattling like so many skeletons in our collective closet. It is almost an embarassemnt to be a part of the human species in this, our very own alternate Earth reality. Yes, it helps to believe that there are other universes where our little blue planet is faring copiously better on all human levels!

And so i feel constrained to give my two bits worth on the tragedy that befell scores of families who lost loved ones in the “ill fated” PIA commercial flight en route from Lahore to Karachi on May 23rd, 2020.

“Ill fated” – words full of the promise of a clean getaway; of insidious lies; of crass insensitivity; of cruel heartlessness; of passing the buck. Words that are used as copiously and as mindlessly as are the sacrosanct verses intoned 5 times every day to the Almighty. Somewhere along the way, our inner voice, our conscience- our very humanity was cast off as a burdensome, inconvenient companion, while the optically grandiose rites and rituals have marched stridently along with us through the ages.

Worse than the Covid 19 pandemic, is the ethical and moral pandemic ravaging our humanity, our sense of community and our work ethic. We have become insensible to all manner of injustice, lack of incumbency and the flagrant flouting of any semblance of a civic sense. We have lost not only our capacity for, but also our moral awareness of what it means to be compassionate, dutiful and responsible.

Worse than the tragedy of the event itself is the tragedy that there will be no definitive, resolute consequences to this incidence. It has already been accredited to fate and martyrdom and therein lies the sum total of the analysis, diagnosis and fix of a catastrophe that killed close to a 100 people, leaving families – children, parents, siblings, friends and relatives, bereft and shattered.

I can’t help but compare the almost negligible call to some kind of answerability in this calamitous incidence to the recent case of Dominic Cummings, Chief Advisor to the British PM. The man stepped out during the lockdown to seek childcare for his 4 year old son while both he and his wife were displaying Covid symptoms; an act that’s arguably open to some manner of interpretation as per the country’s Lockdown guidelines. And so, they could have/ might have exposed the public to the infection. There was no actual death or destruction wreaked; but the mere probability of harm embodied in the act of leaving his home during lockdown, was a culpable offence. Cummings was consequently subjected to a harrowing series of brutal questions, loud clamours for accountability and insistent calls for justice and even his dishonourable discharge by the state, the media and the body politic at large. While we, the self proclaimed stalwarts of our faith and of its copious prescripts on “Huqooq-ul-Ibad*”, have summarily dismissed a 100 fatalities as yet another act of God. The God that we are so adept at putting front and centre of all our duplicitous, corrupt and brutish actions.

Maybe if the state institutions, our political overlords and the general powers that be, began to think of this nation, first and foremost, as a Republic of Humankind rather than a bubbling, imploding cauldron of divisions and differences, there would be some hope for our humanity. And since we’re all such champions of liturgy, labels and nomenclature, maybe this change in our national identity would also have a more profound impact on how we conduct ourselves socially and morally. And maybe, just maybe, this vicious cycle of ‘copious cause and no personal consequences’ will break to allow just a little more conscience, answerability and justice to pervade the various “ill-fated” streams of our lives.

De Khudai pe aman.

*Huqooq-ul-Ibad: the responsibility/ duty every Muslim owes to the rest of his fellow beings, regardless of the others’ faith or spiritual leaning.

REFLECTION|The New Superhero: Your Inner Voice

Is it just me or is the universe really trying to say something to this little blue planet, the size of a pin point in the gigantism of the cosmos? Is it me or is nature needling us with just a little more force than it’s usual maternal nudge for us to finally awaken? Is it only me or is there something prognostic, sobering and depressing when we do “awaken” every so often and see what we’ve become? If it’s really only me feeling this sense of urgency to get the plot right on our Humanity; this sense of impending doom and gloom if we tarry longer; and this looming finality, good or bad, to life as we’ve known it, then I’m definitely a stray time traveller who’s arrived in the wrong alternate earth reality. In that case, woe is me because I’ll be carrying the burden of conscience for the entire planet while the rest of the 7.5 billion laugh all the way to their Corona-stupefied finales (or indeed fueled by any of it’s gamut of equally virulent cousins).

But that’s drama – for effect; I’m hardly Osho or any of the other spiritual giants that have come and gone, with their Third Eye* as wide open as the big blue sky. So it’s safe to presume that i echo the sentiments of many, many more when i say:

Look within you; stronger and more powerful than any religious doctrine or traditional wisdom, is your own Inner Voice. It has undergone 200,000 years of evolvement to be honed to this apex. Yet, it has stayed prodigally disregarded and has with time, become mute. Look within; teach it to speak to you again. Listen to its sage common sense, its intuitive compassion and its innate nobility. Let it flow through your senses; let it touch your heart, let it course through your very core.

Don’t be afraid to let your mind inquire; don’t be afraid to let it wander into secret passages that have been walled off by archaic conventions, rites and rituals. Don’t be afraid to take down those walls, stone by stone, rite by rite, ritual by ritual. Don’t be afraid to see; don’t be afraid to feel. Don’t be afraid to revel in the universal truths of equality, empathy and respect for all; and through it all, let your Inner Voice be your biggest cheerleader and champion.

Change your thinking; change your attitude; change your sense of self; change the way you interact with the world. Change the old ways that have sown strife, discord and division; be an Agent of Change, and let your Inner Voice be the brightest star in the firmament that lights up your path ahead.

Reach out. Reach out to your neighbour; reach out to your community; reach out to the shop assistant who’s been bagging your groceries for years; reach out to the municipal worker who’s been sweeping your streets for decades; reach out to the doorman whose ready smile has lifted your spirits more than once; reach out to the good, the bad and the ugly. Reach out to the world, and let your Inner Voice be your loudest megaphone.

It is time to meditate, ruminate and contemplate on all that makes us Human. It is time now to face up to the emergent truths, and indeed to exemplify and embody those truths with the fervour and passion of a tsunami. We are at the cusp, indeed at the crossroads, of the spiritual, cognitive and ethical evolution/ devolution of our species. Now more than ever, we need to think beyond our individual selves and look past the myopic lens of our self serving ideologies. Now more than ever, we need to define and embrace a new shared philosophy that is in line with everything that makes Humankind the most intelligent, aware, humane and beneficent super-species of our planet.

It is time to rouse from our stupor, dust ourselves off and take the ‘other’ fork in the road; the baton is in your hands and your guide is your Inner Voice.

De Khudai pe aman.

*Third Eye: the eye of insight; the ability to see beyond the obvious and the mundane.

OPINION|Where (Sh)eagles Dare*

As this pandemic rages on, gleefully rubbing together it’s glycoprotein-encrusted club-claws, we are absolutely befuddled, divided and overcome. As it continues to decimate our cities and our people, we watch on in demented awe, the dubious badge of honour of the Intelligent Species clinging comically to our faded lapels.

The Novel Coronavirus has blithely continued to wreak carnage in the face of every strategic, scientific, political and economic spear our male-dominated civilization has thrown in its path. It continues to ravage and plunder as entire nations are being brought to their already arthritic knees. It really does feel like we’re all part of an intensely immersive, exceedingly painful virtual reality game. And the “Strongman” here has no resemblance to the Homosapien Male: the ultimate distillation of millions of years of evolution, or God’s most pithy creation, depending on which philosophy you subscribe to. No indeed! The Big cheese here, is a Tiny terror with an insatiable appetite for human life- and it appears to be a gourmand of the male specimens of our species.

Enter: Women; the Grande Dames of Substance. So where have they been during this great blight? Where have they been wielding their sage influence from when everywhere else has been caught in the perfect storm of crippling economics, toxic male egos and a cataclysmic contagion?

They have been wisely, quietly insulating little geographical pockets around our planet; little precincts of peace, wellness and normalcy when all about them is pandemonium. Small havens to remind us of what we as intellectually advanced, emotionally intelligent creatures should be bringing to the human equation after 200,000 years of evolutionary bumbling about. From New Zealand to Taiwan; from Singapore to Denmark, Germany and Belgium; from Greece to Namibia; from Nepal to Norway – the pandemic charge is being led by women. These countries are faring markedly better than their male-run counterparts, on all fronts in the fight against the Bacillus Extremis. It therefore, doesn’t take a rocket scientist of the ilk of Mary Sherman Morgan, brilliant as she was even without a formal university degree in the 1950s, or the more recent millennial prodigy, Tiera Guinn, to see which gender is faring better against the unique and indeed formidable challenges of our current world.

The prescription for a more robust, mature, equitable, empathetic world order is clear as day: let the women take their turn at the helm of global affairs. Let them bring their innate competencies of generosity, community nurturing, compassion and good old common sense to the woefully beleaguered socio-political and economic realms of our lives. Give them the opportunity to lead from the front, hand in hand, in equal measure, if you will, with their male counterparts. Let them pilot us out of the choppy seas of national isolationism, divisiveness and war.

In the sedately glorious traditions of Khadija bint Khuwaylid, Rosa Parks, Marie Curie, Mother Teresa, Emilia Earhart, Razia Sultana, Florence Nightingale, Malala Yousafzai, and so many countless others, it is time for the women of the post pandemic world to stake their claim on our wounded planet and make it healthy, joyful and whole again.

De Khudai pe aman.

*Title inspired by a similarly named 1968 Richard Burton/ Clint Eastwood movie, of courage and gumption displayed in the face of extraordinary odds.

SHORT STORY|Days of Purgatory – (Part 3)

“I have a bit of a secret to tell you”, said Sabeen lounging contentedly on the sofa near the wall.

Dinner had been fabulously satisfying. She’d had two helpings of the fettuccine in all its curried glory and had just finished a not ungenerous slice of hot apple pie. The sprites of Gastronomical Excesses were prancing merrily around in her stomach while the much-worshipped gods of Abstinence were only vague entities in her subconscious for now. The satiated body had further banished discretion and circumspection as the evening wore on. There was no cautionary gut feel nor any protective sixth sense reining in her excitement and her urge to share her joy. She was on the tipping point of divulging the ultimate secret; an affair so close to her heart that she hadn’t breathed a word about it to anyone yet for fear of jinxing the whole business.

Farzana looked up at Sabeen expectantly, her eyes bright, the ice cream laden spoon forgotten mid-air. She loved a good secret and Sabi usually wasn’t very forthcoming with her confidences. Farzana on the other hand, compelled by force of habit and an actual physical discomfort in the company of an unshared secret, happily let loose the flood gates when thus encumbered. This was going to be quite a treat!

“Kya? Batao na…..”(1), Farzana responded tentatively, afraid to disturb the amenability of the moment. One could never tell with Sabi she thought; one moment she was happy and talkative and the next, like a closed up clam with social issues.

Sabi was making her wait it out as always. Farzana felt the hair on her arms prickling in anticipation and also a growing sense of wariness. Uncharitable thoughts began glutting her mind… despite being one of her best friends, Sabi, in Farzana’s mind, had always resented her more “privileged love interest” liaisons. There had been one occasion in fact, where she’d come and stolen her man right from under her nose! She ignored the nagging post script that always followed that thought….the fact that Arsalan had always maintained that he and Farzana were never “going out”, and that he had told her quite early on that he was interested in her friend from Faisalabad. Even so, she thought, he and Farzana had attended two parties together; granted it was together with other friends. But he was Mian Jalaluddin’s grandson and she had exclusive entitlement until he too had seen the light of day and reciprocated. He would have – ultimately, Farzana thought ruefully, had Sabeen not come into the picture. The memory of the day she’d invited Sabi over to meet Arsalan still made her cringe with ardent regret. Her only consolation was that that entanglement hadn’t lasted long!

She caught Sabi looking at her thoughtfully. Farzana was getting visibly agitated at not only the prospect of being secret-deprived at the nth hour of confidence-sharing, but also by the strange look on Sabi’s face.

I’m your best friend yaar. Mujh se kya chupana. I’m like an open book with you. Batao na”(2), Farzana cajoled, moving closer to the still reposing, still contemplating Sabeen.

“I’m getting engaged, Fara; to the Nawab* of Bahawalpur”, came the deadpan response. Delivered with just that air of indifference to make it into a screaming headline.

Sabeen looked at Farzana, a slow smile spreading across her face. She knew her friend enough to expect any of a range of emotions; barely concealed resentment being one of the more realistic predispositions on this occasion. As time had lapsed, their bachelorette banner had determinedly unfurled in Spinster Territory, changing perceptions, prospects, attitudes and with it, notions of self worth. And Farzana was painfully besieged by the change in social status, spawning a wave of desperate love affairs and subsequent unpredictable outbursts. Sabeen was earnestly hoping this wasn’t one such instant; she was really hoping, yearning for a propitious ending to this evening.

Farzana blinked uncertainly, and slowly put the dripping spoon of ice cream into her mouth. She felt hassled and unsure; hassled about whether Sabi was in fact telling the truth, and unsure whether she herself had heard it right.

“Kaunsa nawab?(3) What are you saying? Farzana managed to ask, looking agitatedly at Sabeen. Her feeling of unease grew as the enormity and sensibility of the affirmation dully sank in. She swallowed hard, her mouth suddenly feeling dry even as she sensed the sweet liquid sliding down her throat. She was unaware of the change in her expression or her bearing as she stared unblinkingly at Sabeen while hunched over in an almost foetal position in the chair opposite. She waited for a response; laughter, some reassurance that this was just a really terrible joke.

Sabeen sat up and looked directly at Farzana, taking both of her hands in hers. She suddenly felt an intense desire to have her friend acknowledge her joy, and to be happy for her. She wanted Fara to understand that this was not just another ephemeral burst of scarlet on the romantic horizon. This boded longevity and was replete with not only the rainbow hues of new love, but also the many shades of grey that constituted a real relationship. This was going to be her “happily ever after”.

Farzana looked on in confused fascination; at this point, she was only aware of the maniacal intensity of Sabeen’s hold of her hands and thinking if in fact her friend had finally given in to senility just shy of her 50th birthday. She was talking of Nawabs and horses and knights….had she said horses or princes…? She wasn’t quite sure. But there was music playing, so Farzana did the only thing that seemed lucid to her at the time.

She pulled up a startled Sabeen and said, “let’s dance meri jaan(4)….. all those extra calories you’ve had today are making you sound crazy!”

And she whirled her friend around the room, grinning loonily while humming along to Jenny Young’s quirky love refrain:

“….Here is a heart,

I made it for you so take it.

Battered and braised,

Grilled and sautéed

Just how you like it…”

De Khudai pe aman.

(1): “What? Tell me…”

(2): “What do you have to hide from me…… tell me”

(3): “What prince?”

(4): “my love”

*Nawab: ruler/ prince. (Largely a figurative title now but still respected as incumbents of a privileged lineage).

SHORT STORY|Days of Purgatory – (Part 2)

“….. If you change your mind, I’m the first in line, Honey I’m still free, Take a chance on me!” Farzana hummed along to ABBA’s whimsical lyrics as she sat in the lounge, clumsily dabbing on the 4th layer of metallic silver nail polish on her fingernails. The two battery operated tealites were already dancing a merry jig on the wall from where Farzana’s grandfather’s portrait, enshrined in a gilt-edged frame, looked on in grim reproach. It was just a little past 8pm and house no. 64 in GOR* was buzzing with high spirited energy and excitement. The evening looked very promising indeed, in the wake of juicy gossip to share and sultry confidences to bestow and receive.

Finally there was the grating squeal of the gate being opened and the crunch of the driveway gravel underfoot – both sounds now almost subliminal nuances of incoming visitors who were still 10 feet or so away from the main door. A little window of opportunity which Farzana always utilised to look herself dead in the eye in the lounge mirror, followed by a quick all over glance ending (most times!) in a final pleased pout.

“Sabi jaan!(1) It’s been too long!, exclaimed Farzana giving Sabeen a quick hug and two airy kisses in the relative proximity of her cheeks, while she ushered her in. Sabeen smiled broadly, looking in turn, at Farzana’s face and then at the fat golden brown braid of hair perched precariously on top of her head.

“It’s always fabulous to see you, babe! Sabeen said laughing exultantly.

“I’ve ordered your favourite dish from the club and your favourite dessert. You’re not still dieting are you? Aaj tau na kar yaar!(2)” Farzana pleaded cajolingly, taking her friend’s hand.

“You know i don’t have carbs at night; it’s always just a salad and some fruit. How do you think i maintain this body, meri jaan(3)? But I will have copious cups of tea”, Sabeen responded while looking around her.

The house was looking shabbier, dowdier and sadder. Over the years, the sparkle and gleam facilitated by copious government contracts accorded in the 60s and 70s to Mohammad Iftikhar Buksh, (Farzana’s father, who was also Sabeen’s father’s childhood friend) had waned with the timorous finality of the end of an epoch. Farzana remained an odd spectre of that era, languishing absurdly in the throes of practical everyday life.

Sabeen looked at Farzana with an almost tender look and then sighed. Farzana was a difficult person to be nice to, and Sabeen accepted that she herself wasn’t a saint either. So for the past 50 years, the affiliation between the two was generally that of strained congeniality, sugar-coated with exaggerated shows of affection. Occasional verbal sparring sessions helped to balance out the sugary sweetness.

Anyhow, thought Sabeen, it had been six months since she had last seen Fara. Having known this childhood friend since they were toddlers, she could easily read Farzana’s excitement and genuine pleasure to see her. Sabeen’s heart too, was feeling light and yielding. Today, they’d chat, they’d laugh, they’d connect, and then there would be the blithesome physical and material dissection of all the eligible men in town, and the happy prospecting of new beaus on the urban horizon. In all the discordant milieu of their association, she stolidly shared her involuntary single status with her friend. A shared nemesis, which had been the dubious trigger for more than a few misunderstandings between the two, she thought wryly. All in all though, Fara wasn’t a bad sort; she was just plagued by her own demons as were most people including herself, she thought in that charitable moment of reflection.

Sabeen leaned back in the sofa with a satisfied sigh. She’d probably peg today down as a cheat day – that fettuccine looked just like the mouth-watering curry hybrid we desis* love so much, and were so spectacular at concocting around every cuisine. The light trundle of the tea trolley propelled her hollow gut into a tentative rumbling dance.

She smiled to herself ….Princess Sabeen! Maybe…. probably… hopefully! She laughed at her own childlike excitement, while a delightful little secret flitted around the periphery of her present elation.

De Khudai pe aman

*GOR: Government Officers Residence – an elite neighbourhood in Lahore where the privileged segment of the bureaucracy resides

(1) – “love

(2) –“my friend, at least today, don’t!”

(3) – “my love”

*Desi: a colloquial term used to define the residents of the larger subcontinent comprising of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

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