OPINION | THE AFGHANISTAN CONUNDRUM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHORT STORY| THE GODS OF FURY

Asha adjusted her bra after a final pat on its other, non-fleshy contents; the fifteen thousand rupees now nestling securely in its pendulous grasp. It was the day she had to drop off the rent at her landlord’s house on her way back from work. She smiled widely and catching her reflection in the little mirror on the wall, became at once guarded, gathering up the grin into a coy little smile. Dark spirits were everywhere and she knew innately through generations of stories and behavioural legacies that she couldn’t be overt with the profoundness of her joy. Bad omens had a propensity of springing from the happiest of moments.

Even so, she walked to work with a spring in her step. She was a short, portly woman so that buoyancy itself was a purveyor and teller of her bliss to even the least discerning of spectators. In her mind though, while she had to watch herself outwardly, her thoughts were free to roam unfettered in her secret spaces of delight. Finally! Finally the day that she and her husband had been dreaming of for the last 25 years was around the corner: their eldest son, Danish was graduating from university with a Bachelors degree. He would change his world; his sister’s future; their combined fortunes. She would quit her job as a maid and her husband would stop cleaning the sewage lines he’d been wallowing knee-deep in for the last two decades. The smell never quite washed off his skin now. They’d build their own little house; no more scraping and scrounging every month to meet the rent – that monster that loomed large with ravening regularity outside their tiny two room hovel.

Her breath caught in her throat as she allowed her imagination to revel in the bountifulness of precious opportunity and new beginnings. She looked towards the sky with a little prayer on her lips whispering a soft Hai Bhagwan … to the gods and goddesses, this time for their unconditional beneficence. Her prayers were usually modest, economical, always allowing for the fickleness of fate and the peevishness of deities. She never asked for the requiescence of impossible dreams; only the rendering of realistic milestones such as they were in the thorny existence of her people. But this time, she had put in the work; For 25 years, 10 hours every day; of her blood, sweat and tears; of washing, sweeping and cooking for others. This time, her life’s main purpose would be done when her son graduated from university. She could do with every ounce of celestial magnanimity and largesse in the completion of this, her most blessed enterprise.

‘Walaikum salam. Kya baat hai? Aaj bari khush lag rahi ho’(1) said her employer as Asha walked into the apartment, her face flushed with her recent cerebration. She smiled shyly and decided that the home where she had been working for the last five years was as devoid of ill omens as a place could be, and proceeded to share her good news. Her employer, Baji or older sister as Asha and the vast majority of domestic staff called their female employers, had always been good to her and most of all, was undiscriminating. Unlike the vast masses, she was surprisingly unaffected by the faith of those who cooked and cleaned for her. That was probably one of the main reasons for the longevity of Asha’s current employment. She glowed in the rare telling of an even rarer propitious event in her life. Her Baji was genuinely happy for her and told her that she was expecting a box of Asha’s special home made gulab jamun* the day of Danish’s graduation.

Besides being the curator of discreet, precious dreams, Asha was an accomplished cook and was the designated neighbourhood sweetmeat maker for festivals like Diwali and Holi. Her services were also sought out during Eid celebrations by those whose gastronomic inclinations outweighed their fear of moral transgression: If she cooked in their homes, in their vessels, the designated sin allocation was greatly reduced. And then, there were other prayerful ways to wash away such lesser impieties …

Asha got to work, her mind far away in fields of her own dreams. During her short break for lunch, she pulled out her phone to look at he her son’s smiling face on the display screen. He’d been at the front and center of her mind today, pulling at her heart strings and filling her thoughts. She suddenly recalled the words of a relative who imagined himself to be something of a fortune teller. He’d said, Danish would he famous- his name would be in the newspapers …

She smiled indulgently. She’d be happy with his uneventful graduation and an unremarkable transition into the cadres of bank officers that she saw driving to work every day. Rising every morning with their big dreams and fulfilling them in the cool sanctums of enterprise that towered on both sides of the I.I. Chundrigar road. They were resplendent in their suits and ties – Danish would be resplendent in his suit and tie! She felt a little shiver run up her spine as her one prodigious vision for her one son enveloped her in its fiery, explosive embrace.

Today she was leaving early to stop by the landlord’s and to visit the Punch Mukhi Hanuman Mandir in Soldier bazaar. Like all her compatriots, while she revered the entire deific gamut, she had her divine favourites too, and hers were Lords Shiva and Hanuman.

After a brief stop at her landlord’s house, with the month’s obligation fulfilled, she caught the W11 bus to Soldier bazaar and made her way to the temple. Even though it was a Thursday, the wide arched entryways into the temple were thronging with worshippers. The Maha Shivrathri* festival was approaching and while the actual event would take place at the Shiv Mandir in Umerkot a month from now, the regular petitioners like herself and the generally devoted were already faithfully marking time at their city temples. She had already asked her employer for a week off in March when she and her family would travel to the southern part of Sind to Amarkot as Asha and her community referred to the fort city among themselves; harking back to the days when the city was ruled by its Hindu founder Maharaja Amar Singh. It was one of the many little linguistic deviations that they held onto among themselves, from the Islamic recolouring of history in their now Islamic homeland. Despite the prevalent lack of formal education, these pithy historical and cultural facts had permeated through their community as a meaningful reminder that they were as much a part of the rich tradition and history of the land as their Muslim neighbours and rulers were. Rulers, because there was also still a vestigial sense of being the minority peasantry in someone else’s kingdom. But these were the visceral, unavoidable facts of being a part of the fabric of the country; and despite the ordinary and extraordinary odds, there were also glimmers and inklings of a better future. A future secured by their children and spearheaded by the tireless enterprise of their parents and grandparents.

Asha walked into the temple and sat down on the cool black and white tiles. She closed her eyes and folded her hands in supplication and prayer. She had to talk to the deities, beseech them, cajole them for their blessings; for their generosity and their kindness. This time, she had no bargaining chip to offer. She wanted the whole blessed profusion of her son’s graduation, job and future.

Asha remembered the incidents of the next two days in a haze of delirium and torment. It had been a sticker with a verse on it. Someone had put it on Danish’s text book. He had removed it and pasted it on the desk. And then … she couldn’t think beyond that sequence of events. It ratcheted through her head in an endless loop, protecting her and agonising her in turn. The innate self preservation instinct of a mother with another yet vulnerable, yet susceptible child, prevented her from recalling the entire tragedy. The tragedy that had transformed joyous anticipation and smiling fortunes into a cruel, heart-wrenching finale.

The local paper called it a “scuffle on university grounds triggered by a wilful act of blasphemy”. While Danish survived the savage mob that was out for blood-thirsty retributon, he was not spared the statutory penance of his act. And so, he was stripped of his university credentials and incarcerated for “desecration of the Quran”. With him he brought down the tenuous little edifice of dreams and aspirations of yet another generation of his family.

In the wake of the tragedy, Asha’s husband had called her employer saying she was ill and would be away for 10 days. Now they also had to contend with keeping this new born scandal under wraps from employers, neighbours and random justice wielders.

Asha went back to work after a week. It took her those many days to pick up the broken pieces of her heart and put them away in some dark corner where no one, not even she could see them. She had to go on. There was 12 year old Ramesha to look after. She would have to uproot and reseed her dreams, her prayers and her hopes. She would have to go on.

‘Kya haal hai Asha? Theek ho abhi?’(2) asked her Baji with a look of concern on her face. Asha responded automatically with the alacrity born of the restlessness of time and the lightning glance of never-to-return opportunities of her world.

‘Gulab jamun ka intezar hai – Inshallah, abhi itni dair nahi rahi’(3), she added smiling. Asha touched her heart as if in placation, humble recall, while the broken pieces inside huddled a little more into her grieving, weeping spaces.

(1): ‘What’s up? You’re looking very happy today!’

* Gulab Jamun:
A milk-solid based sweet from the Indian subcontinent.

* Maha Shivrathri: A major festival in Hinduism, the solemn occasion marks a remembrance of overcoming darkness and ignorance in life and the world. It is observed by remembering Shiva and chanting prayers, fasting, and meditating on ethics and virtues such as honesty, non-injury to others, charity, forgiveness, and the discovery of Shiva.

(2): ‘How are you Asha? Are you recovered now?’

(3): ‘I’m still waiting for the gulab jamun. God willing, it can’t be long now’

FEATURE| THE NOSTALGIA OF A NICE CUP OF TEA

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

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

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

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

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

*Dahi Bhalla: a savoury, yogurt-based snack indigenous to the subcontinent.

OPINION|Love in the Time of the Mullah**

Recently there was a simple, endearing display of affection between a couple that had just decided to spend the rest of their lives together. The proposal was made on the University of Lahore campus amidst their friends and was followed by an affectionate hug between the couple. That embrace was so demonised by the vocal right, that it now hangs like the sword of democles over the heads of the hapless couple*. A hug! Their fault was that they behaved normally in a sweet moment of joy, rather than in the unnatural constipated manner that is de rigeur and “decent” for all happy occasions involving a man and a woman. Most of the social media comments about the incident have left me not only stunned but also depressed. They well and truly show up the ugly patriarchal underbelly of our besieged society.

From celebrating birthdays to personal successes to proposals, the way of the pious right around their other halves in public is to behave with no more feeling than a vacuum cleaner. (Or a toaster if your tech knee jerk brings visions of food to mind rather than a sparkling floor!)

When did we become so hypocritical, intolerant and judgmental? It could have been during the focused militant Islamization of the country in the wake of the American proxy war with Soviet Russia. Or, it could have been the critical tipping points where socio religious decisions that could have laid the blueprints for a more equitable, inclusive and psychologically healthy society, were made instead to appease the extremist fringe which has always had the loudest megaphones. And so now in 2021, while the rest of the world is debating AI* ethics, we still consider half our human population as circumstantial, where laws and rights blur into oblivion: if you happen to inherit the Y chromosome, every opportunity opens up to you; but if you land up with the double (h)ex, you’re left to the mercy of male egos, testosterone-fuelled whims and religious fillibusters. Indeed, it is this gross distortion in how the State views each gender that has led to this stunning breakdown of social normalcy.

This dismal failing on the part of our legislative bodies and our religious leadership has also led to what can only be described as a collective national psychosis. Women and men alike are exhibiting bizarre mental derangement, with one imagining the world revolves around him and the other, that the world does indeed revolve around him. Oh, and she helps to spin it.

So detrimental to our social structures and mental and emotional wellness is this state of affairs that as with any imbalance in nature be it physical or emotional, there are ultimately equalizing and opposing forces to repair the equilibrium (bless Newton!). And so, in the case of our Islamic republic, despite being the alleged custodians of orthodoxy and conservatism, we also have the dubious recognition of being one of the top porn searching/ watching countries in the world. (There are some Western and African countries that surpass our national porn viewership but they don’t profess to be Islamic, Christian or Jewish Republics. They are secular states and largely follow the philosophy of “live and let live” that we combatively decry). Does Islam consider this kind of sexual titillation a cardinal sin? Yes absolutely. Is that a deterrent? Never, in spite of all the impassioned denials. Can we sit back and morally judge this fall from grace? No; since it is, in big part, the attempt of our human psyche to compensate for the abnormal lack of everyday warmth and emotional fulfilment in even normal, legally contracted relationships.

Relegating all kinds of affection behind closed doors also paints the most innocent gestures of love and care with the brush of indecency and impropriety. Children in our society never see their parents sharing a quick hug or a kiss on the cheek in public; and because they don’t see that affection, they never learn to associate it with the simple fact of being human, being a family and being connected. And so we’re assiduously spawning generations that are increasingly intolerant, embarrassed and offended by any overt show of warmth, affection and joy.

I recall a couple of episodes from my own corporate life where I was also a member of the Committee on Ethical Conduct. The committee, expected to dispense disciplinary action, was shown CCTV footage of young boys and girls, fresh entrants into the corporate fold, caught in compromising situations in little-used ATM kiosks. These hijab-wearing young women and bearded young men were probably from stiflingly conservative households. Having had no outlet for even normal social interactions with the opposite sex while growing up, and later, outside of work, led them to commit unthinking acts of pent up frustration. These were not “bad” men and women. They were the unfortunate products of our small minded, aberrant approach to inter-gender community, accessibility and interaction.

Until we stop claiming the moral high ground with nothing dazzling to show for it; until we stop judging and look beyond ourselves at some of the progressive ways of the rest of humankind that is almost 8 billion strong; until we stop associating rigidity and patriarchy with the essence of Islam, we will continue to erode the very humanity from our societies. We will continue to devolve until there is nothing left but the detritus of hate, bigotry and dogmatism.

The violent invective and demeaning actions we reserve for any kind of openness have to stop. The egos have to be reined in. We as a nation and as an Islamic community need to unlearn the intolerance and hypocrisy around love, and relearn how to feel comfortable with expressions of basic warmth and affection. There has to be more to us than unkempt beards, holy wars and houri* birthrights.

It’s time we found and focused on other, more positive legacies of our rich Islamic heritage.

** Title inspiration and adaptation from the 1985 Gabriel G. Marquez novel titled “Love in the time of Cholera”
* Read the original News story here: https://ara.tv/g558y
* AI: Artifical Intelligence

*Houri: a beautiful young woman, especially one of the virgin companions of the faithful in the Muslim Paradise.

VERSE| RAVAGED

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

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

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

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

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

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

De Khudai pe aman.

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

VERSE|PARADISE EARTH

Another day breaks on Paradise island,
Little glimmers of it coming through the gap at the top of the curtain rail
That was a structural detail I hadn’t intended to but quite happily overlooked when I was putting up my blackout drapes.
Still in bed, from the play of light and shadow on my wall,
I know whether it’s going to be a sunshiny day
Or whether the island would wear its Nimbus* cape,
Disrobing only when all has been washed clean;
When all has been purged and restored yet again,
For us to do over; for us to get it right.

I get to “my” cafe, always armed with my iPad or my book
My book or my iPad; my iPad or my book - never without.
My cafe, that safe haven of familiarity and space
Always the same cafe, my cafe; the one cafe - never another.
The place, the accompaniments, even the latte I always have:
A conglomerate of sameness, of routine, of security
Shotgunned together by the compulsions of a creature of habit;
Unsettled only, infrequently, when I momentarily feel something stir inside
A sensation, an excitement, a consciousness of Something More.

Come evening, I sit in my lounge, post workout, post shower
Cloaked in a gentle haze of endorphin fuelled fulfilment
For getting my steps in; my cardio done; for being “conscious and good”.
For staving off the Monster of Maladies; for helping the universe protect and preserve.
And then I turn on the television to the News: that digital Carnival of Disorder;
To Mankind’s ravagement, sadism and deception
To Nature’s retaliation of catastrophes and devastation
And it continues, ON and ON and ON...
And I PAUSE ||

A feeling of wretchedness and hopelessness overcomes me
And then irritation, frustration and a tired exasperation
And finally a fading away in a self-preserving haze.
And I get on with my evening of dinner, Netflix and some reading;
Then to bed.

Another dawn breaks; and the timorous glow of another new day
Reaches into my bedroom; also flickering into the homes of 7 billion other people.
A tenuous beacon of second chances, do-overs; of divine favours...
And I step out of my home; and head towards my cafe,
Once again, walking down the road of endless possibilities, new beginnings; of better things to come.

De khudai pe aman.

*Nimbus: rain bearing clouds

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.

OPINION|THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

The 110 million Shadow People of the Pakistani populace: its WOMEN.

For to be fully alive and to be accepted as an individual in her own right, you would have to have control over your body and your life, and all movements/ shifts/ evolutions and inclinations thereof. And the Pakistani woman is the antithesis of all the above.

I won’t go into endless rants about the hideousness of the many recent episodes that have afflicted the women in our country; the Public Outrage Machine is doing quite a spectacular job of that, and as it should. That’s the positive glint-of-steel point of the double edged sword that is our digital social media these days. I will however go into the systemic, grass root level ideological and academic changes that need to be implemented to ensure events like these are prevented, not from the fear of being caught, but by the moral force of our collective social compass.

So where did we go wrong?

Let’s take a quick traipse through history. The advent of Islam some 1400 years ago in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, came at a time when women were considered little more than chattels to be bought, sold, used and abused. One of the main guiding constructs of the new religion then, was to bring some semblance of decency to the female equation, anecdotally exemplified time and again by it’s primary champion, the Prophet Mohammad. He himself fell in love with a successful businesswoman (Yes! They obviously met, interacted and got to know each other prior to their nuptials, contrary to the backwardness now associated with any interaction of familially unrelated men and women). Khadija Bint Khuwaylid was as proficient at commerce as Mohammad was at managing caravans along the frequently dangerous trade routes between Mecca, Syria and Yemen. The business partnership ultimately evolved into a marriage of 25 years which ended with Khadija’s death. It is interesting to note that at the time of their union, Khadija was 40 years old, while Mohammad was 25. It is logical to glean then, that the much younger man must have taken both relationship and business cues from the older, twice married and widowed, already successfully established business woman. Throughout, their relationship was underscored with equality, mutual respect and love. That is the legacy and the stature of women in Islam, consummately upending any patriarchal nonsense that has for so long now been affiliated with the role and station of Muslim women in their communities.

What we see now; the crude, revolting patriarchal version of Islam and it’s sordid view of women is a much more recent perversion brought about by unethical leadership, crude politics and power mongering.

So straight out, let’s leave the religious gerrymandering and filibustering at the door. After 1400 years, using religion as an excuse to justify the vile regression of the way we behave is a desperate ploy to perpetuate the unbalanced mess that is our society now.

In comes Society and Culture then – the sum total of our norms and customs. That ever-changing chimera that has made paupers into kings and brought us out of the dark ages. If it was not for social and cultural progress, the slave trade would still be thriving and women and minorities would still not have the right to vote.

Now that the two primary purported roadblocks to change have been laid to rest, where do we go from here?

Below is a pithy, grass root level prescription that can start paving the way for a more equitable, respectable Islamic society.

Change the culture in your homesteads: There is no greater or more effective education than that which is provided in the impressionable years in the sanctity of the home. For too long have we, the Pakistani (and in fact, the sub continental) parents fostered the preferential son treatment. Of putting the boys at the front and centre of the universe. Of promoting the bizarre idea that their sisters are convenient appendages to their superhero cloaks of getting ahead/ of progressing/ of “carrying on the (dubious!) family name”. You, the parents, know every time you faithfully abet and encourage this exploitation of the girls in your family; and you need to stop. In the name of all that is just and decent, you need to cease and desist playing your horrendous part in this patriarchal ploy. I won’t go into preaching what to do here instead. The prescription is as simple as it is clear: foster an environment of trust, respect, security and equal opportunity for all your children.

Make all schools and universities all-inclusive: The version of religion/ custom/ creed where girls and boys are kept rigorously separate during their formative years, has to change. It is not only that we do not have the economic luxury nor the academic expertise to run parallel systems of education segregated by gender, it is also the most counter intuitive manner in which to prepare these young women and men in becoming upstanding members of their communities. It is at these centres of learning that they will acclimatise to each other, to learn to respect each other and to live communally without the awkwardness that is currently a part of almost all adult inter-gender interactions. This convention of keeping “our girls safe” by keeping them distant from the boys, has led to the formation of a social system that is regressive, archaic and has shown to be unconscionably harmful to the psychology and well being of both genders. One has ended up donning the mantle of the victim and the other has become the perpetual perpetrator. Gender-unify our educational system, and while endowing our young boys and girls with “book smarts”, coach them equally on developing their “street/ community smarts” to enable each one to live a respectable, rewarding life despite the curve balls the universe tends to throw off and on.

Overturn and replace archaic, female-victimising policies: Starting from the national and moral embarrassment that is the current Hudood Ordnance*, to all the primitive rural customs that put the female front and centre as the Pawn of Retribution for all the criminal actions of the men in their communities. This particular facet requires somewhat of a step-back because it compels our very lawmakers to recalibrate the way in which they perceive the status of the average Pakistani (Muslim?) woman. It requires unequivocally clamping down on the religious fundamental fringe taking women’s lives and the law into their hands to dispense their barbaric version of justice. It requires an end to Inquisition-era relics preaching to women on how to best fade into the scenery. Which brings me to the next point.

Re-introduce Civics as a compulsory university level course: Civics, that academic gem from yesteryear, teaching public propriety and communal sophistication, that has, with every other decent and ethical credo, been washed away by the corrupt tides of recent times. Enrich it with a Social Ethics curriculum, at the beating heart of which should be the steady progress towards true gender equality. Let the gender dialogue start in this Civics & Social Ethics class. Make it legitimate and appropriate to expose, debate and discuss the sexual discrimination that is rampant in every aspect of our society. Encourage both men and women to look within themselves and their communities for ways in which to counter the gender blight. For those already in sensitive policy making posts, this will mean a re-education on modern gender roles and in the case of Islamic republics, also highlighting the rich religious tradition on the status of women, that has existed for centuries.

Rejuvenate the CPLC: The Citizen Police Liason Committe has traditionally been a non-political, operationally independent institution, managed by dedicated and concerned citizens offering their honorary services. It is currently situated in Sind but can be expanded to the other provinces/ metropolises. Re-energise it with Neighbourhood Watch protocols of systematic local vigilance by householders to discourage crime. Liaise with the “good apples” in the community police force to ensure your environments and spaces are safe at all times. In the porous social and judicial fabric of our country where it is easy for perpetrators to get “lost”, this group can play a pivotal role in identifying and bringing to justice, locally based criminals.

Institute behaviour-changing punishment for perpetrators: Last but nor least, crime and due punishment. Unless the state makes an example of the consequences of gross physical abuse, it is impossible to bring about any real or lasting change in culture or mindsets. Justice has to be definitive and the sentencing swift and permanent. Whether it is lifelong incarceration or chemical castration for charges of rape and paedophilia, the decree must be carried out to the letter, every time, until both, the inclination and the behaviour are unlearnt and permanently purged from our societal DNA.

We, as a nation, are at a crossroad of reckoning on many fronts, our values and religious comprehension and followthrough being at the forefront of this reconnaisance. We cannot afford to remain mired in our current regressive impasse. It is time to get past the stubbornness of archaic customs; it is time to be honest with ourselves; it is time to reawaken some semblance of our socio-moral conscience; it is time to start real and difficult dialogue.

It is time to acknowledge the Elephant in the Room.

De Khudai pe aman.

*Hudood Ordinance: Gender-biased laws enacted in Pakistan in 1979 by the military ruler, General Zia ul Haq as part of an overall Islamization process. This was done, with American support as a part of a larger focused Islamic militarisation strategy to help fight the USA’s proxy war against Russia.

SHORT STORY|SOILANT GREEN* – Part 2

COLOMBO; SRI LANKA:

December 20th, 2021:

“Rockin’ around the Christmas tree

Have a happy holiday!

Everyone dancin’ merrily

In the new old-fashioned way!”

Deen sang aloud, with the crazed optimism of the generally reduced and the beaten down. He had dragged the unwieldy box of christmas decorations to the lobby entrance and had dived into its depths – hoping for a short, carnivalesque reprieve from the outside perhaps.

I was sitting in the lotus position, trying to meditate; the tongue-twisting words “stepping space” skipping, jumping, cavorting in my mind like so many wildly uncorralled horses; or was it more like the pernicious tendrils of the Cats Claw vine – its bright yellow flowers ironic little suns in our now shadowed world – that grew an inch every couple of hours creeping over obstacles, slithering through its own green tentacles as it forged ahead and spread and enmeshed….

It was no use. I couldn’t grasp at any semblance of inner peace or quietude. I lay back looking at the ceiling, at the skylight that had once let in sunlight, and that was now covered in thick green foliage – a veritable fortress of flora that continued to multiply horizonantally along the roof; it’s vertical endeavours having been (s)nipped in the bud by us, the tenacious denizens of number 77, Galle Road, Colombo 3.

We had lost the roof. But we had maintained our dominion over the ground floor of our shelter. We were surviving and even thriving if you can call two hot meals a day, running water and a “safe” strip of garden outside, that.

We were now 60 strong in our shelter. There was strength in numbers. We exercised every day; we had daily doses of magnesium, zinc and vitamins; and we took turns, morning noon and night, to stave off the perpetually advancing, malevolent verdure. There was definitely strength in numbers. For now.

The Neo Flora – constituted as it was of the human and the plant species, was now replicating with a sense of purpose. There was now a method to the chaotic green madness of the first few months. The first thing to go was the electricity supply as Covid Vaxers by the dozens, embraced the girths of trees growing near the overhead and subterranean power lines. Shelters were now dependent on generators mainly. Solar panels had long been abandoned as they were decimated again and again by the capricious new branches of an old, now all-seeing shrub, or by the pliant young stem of a whole new plant growing right through it. There was definitely a cerebral coming-together of the Nature around us as it plotted and planned new conquests, just as we the survivors, endlessly fortified our defences.

Blue Decorations on our Christmas Tree

Deen had got shimmery blue bunting up at the top of the entrance door. The floor was covered in silver, red and gold. The trees had stayed inside as had all the other green decor. I picked up a string of silver baubles and handed it to him. I noticed my hands – they looked rough and calloused and … reassuring. They looked like the kind of hands that could do their part in keeping us safe. I looked up at the sudden burst of festivity on the wall and felt a strange mix of sensations: Nostalgia and incongruity; joy and sadness; love and antipathy.

Christmas was coming …. and so was Nature, empowered, emboldened and unremitting.

The Sojourn to Save

Yesterday i had met someone who had come to Colombo from Rajagiriya. She knew Aunty Christine and Shehani – that quirky, lovable duo, as vestigial and unchanging in spirit as the colonial architecture of the island. They had been trying to get to the city for the past month and, like so many others, had been unable to. But they were alive… they were … still themselves! I began to plan my sojourn to bring the ladies to our version of safety such as it was.

Deen said he’d come with me. Deen and I had an odd camaraderie that is born of a natural introversion now complicatedly mixed with the tenacity to be at the front and centre of everything. For “everything” now was about survival and we, with a handful of others, had begun to lead the not-so-reticent charge on that front.

We got ready, armed with machetes and axes and a backpack of victuals. We were going to walk the 7 kms, and then deal with the return journey squiring our charges, once we got there.

We set out along the main Galle road, the dual carriage way now a slender path overgrown by thickets of young Ironwood trees and an especially rugged, spiny variant of the bougainvillea. It was like walking through a tortuously overgrown nature reserve rather than the heart of the metropolis. We hacked at overhanging branches that laboured unceasingly to form a meticulous canopy before advancing groundwards to create opaque, impenetrable neo-forests every few metres. And the smell! It was like death mingled with the torrid redolence of tropical flowers. Nature had conquered the road to Galle face green; while the road towards Galle town remained a constant battle front where the humans had the barest of edges. We proceeded down that bolt hole for a couple of kilometres before we encountered the bamboo forest. Tall sinewy stems had taken root inches from one another. I had, at this point, lost all sense of direction. Deen kept us on course with a solar compass – that North Star of daytime voyagers in the post pandemic world.

About 2 kms from Nawala Road, we came across the Slumbering Palms as the place was now called. Orderly bosks of coconut palms grew from and around the median strip that had once divided the incoming and outgoing city traffic; their sturdy trunks almost horizontal with the ground, blocking the road but creating inadvertent, unconventional bridges to and between the rooftops of once bustling stores. We were finally able to attain elevation as we scrabbled 10 feet above the ground in fantastical sun dappled terrain. It was almost fun.

Invitation to a Turning

We arrived on the exposed rafters of 210/5 Nawala road at about 1pm. There was a perfect palm tree ramp from the roof to the garden. The garden itself, although much abbreviated with its new fringe of palmyra palms, was still clear of the ineludible, inevitable thickets and coppices of green. The universe seemed kind so far. We walked into the house which looked like the inside of The Magic Faraway Tree*. Trunks and branches grew in meandering, traversable collages from roof to ground. It was a quaint, almost gentle subjugation of the domain by an empathetic conquerer. I walked ahead to Aunty Christine’s room and stopped in my tracks at the door. The sight within was a surreal interfusion of beauty and absurdity. The bed was surrounded by 5 magnolia trees some of which had grown right through the roof, letting in mottled sunlight in little patches. Aunty Christine lay motionless on the bed.

“My God! It’s you!” I jumped at the voice just behind me. Shehani stood there, looking pale but ready to strike with a large butcher’s knife. There had obviously been intruders during their course of Nature’s lockdown, and the women had prevailed. I hugged her close, feeling the energy drain out of me suddenly. Emotions that had been locked away when our lives changed, threatened to overwhelm, overcome and dissolve me. I sat down on the bed fighting for control.

“M, we can’t now….don’t give in now” Deen said in a low voice.

I swallowed hard and looked at Aunty Christine.

“Is she alright?” Deen asked the question looking at the prostate, gently breathing form that lay in almost majestic repose on the bed.

“She’s been sleeping a lot lately…. but she’s ok” Shehani responded as she walked around to the bed and gently shook her friend of 40 years.

The older woman opened her eyes and took in everything calmly. She smiled and i grinned, choking again.

She got up, more sprightly and energetic in her movements than i had seen of her in years.

“It’s good to see you. You look thin. You must eat properly. And don’t worry darling, it will be alright”, she said giving me a little hug. She walked around the room, gently touching a vase of wilted flowers, caressing a picture frame, fixing a drooping cushion, all while looking around her as if for the first time…. or the last time.

“Take care of this one” she finally said to me, smiling towards Shehani, “she’s a fighter and will see this through just like you will”.

And with that, she lightly touched the largest of the Magnolia trees in a gentle caress. Even as I watched, i knew….

And then she was gone….one with the beautiful, tall tree that now rustled softly in the quietness of the room. I looked on, my mind devoid of all thoughts and feelings – a merciful fleeting benumbing. I looked at Shehani. She was immersed in a private communion of her own with the murmuring copse around us. She finally looked back at me and in that glance, we shared a moment of surreal clarity on the new nature of our timeworn world. I then whispered my little farewell to Aunty Christine, to our own Steel Magnolia.

A New Religion

I was feeling overwhelmingly contemplative, disembodied almost in a strangely unemotional way as we headed back. A new spirituality around our neoteric/ augmented End of Times was taking root. And i think i was experiencing the first glimmerings of a new metaphysical awakening; an acceptance of an alternate end to our human forms; a consciousness of the very real cosmic thread that binds all living creatures in a dignified whole.

No, it was not all bad. It was new, it was counter intuitive (for now), and so it elicited fear and aggression. But it was also the closest we had come to finally reckoning with our inter-species relationships; to understanding our absolute mutualism with Mother Nature.

I knew it then; I could it feel it in my bones; this was not a blight that would someday go away or be vanquished by the force of the Human collective.

This was the start of a new Epoch of Consciousness, and we would accept and we would learn this new Faith for all.

De Khudai pe aman

Read SOILENT GREEN-Part 1 here: FICTION| SOILENT GREEN* – Part 1

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

*The Magic Faraway Tree: A 1943 children’s novel by Enid Blyton

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

De Khudai pe aman.

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