VERSE | THE QUEEN

LISTEN TO THE POEM BEING READ AT: https://vm.tiktok.com/ZSdJxm38V/?k=1
I see her sitting under the tree
Dignified and serene even as she is encircled
In the cumbersome arms of poverty.
Destitution has cloaked her for many years
From head to toe it has persevered. But still
There are nuances of grace and light;
Of a decorum that has bested the blight.

Sparse hair is pulled back into a little knot
Threadbare clothes are mended and clean
Calloused feet wear leather sandals
Thousands of steps etched into their seams.
She sits there solitary and separate
Her expression is one of learned abjection
As she labours on in her enterprise
To live another day, to go on, to survive.

But every so often, when there is a lull
In the cresting and falling human swell
Where she sits, under the leafy canopy
The wretchedness leaves her face
And in its place
Shines a serene and quiet majesty
A poise, a stateliness
Quietly they still linger in her being.
Even as she sits under the tree
To beseech, to plead, to request
I can still see the queen.

VERSE | STRANGE-HEARTED

It’s Strange
How some people call all the shots
For you and me; on what’s right and what’s not
On how we should all live our lives
On what we should want to grow and to thrive.
And we follow them like so many mice
The Pied Piper surely leaves us no choice

It’s Strange
How some nations are on top of their game
And others continually parry insults and blame
Some swirl around in their blood, sweat and tears
While others race on winds of good cheer
And yet we stand by like so many sheep
The First World Dream will not let us be

It’s Strange
How the spirit of our humanity
Has gone into permanent servitude
For the battle of egos of the few
Losing our grip on what’s right and true
And we circle around like so many moths
Burning our wings in the flames of their wrath

It’s Strange
How hard it has become of late
To step out of the comfort of the bell curve
Created to kill off the being that’s you
Teaching you how you must hate and love
And we fight on like so many soldiers sore
Thinking one more battle will win us the war

It’s Strange
Even as I write these lines
A question skips on the edge of my mind
No, there are two for misery loves company
Who’ll tell me the answers that I seek to find -
When did the glow inside you cease to exist?
When did Instinct and Courage let go of my wrists?

VERSE | THE IMPERMANENCE OF BEING

I wake up, my mind numb, my legs feeling
Like 10 kg bags of wet cement
Have been tied to my ankles; weighting
Me down, ripping a dent
With my name in the fabric of the universe.
I think briefly of yesterday, it was the reverse
Of the state of my mind, as it ties and it binds
Me today as if to remind
Me that nothing ever is permanent - No.
Nothing stays forever, it isn’t meant to.
Charmed luck, joy, good health and peace
Hardship, tragedy, anxiety and disease
They come, they take their turns at the wheel
Some lasting longer, some just touch you and flee.
I wake up, my mind numb, my body feeling like lead
But tomorrow I’m hoping I won’t feel so dead.

VERSE| THE MARRIAGE SCH(R)EME

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

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

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

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

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

VERSE| MY NOISE-CANCELLING HEADPHONES

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

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

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

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

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


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

OPINION|CHILDREN OF MEN*

Our Earth, now home to almost 8 billion humans. Also home to 153 million orphan children. Also the nursery to 140 million new births every year. Empirical population statistics when you look at each one individually. But when you connect them via the human equation, one can see the bizarre manifestation of our humanity gone awry.

The need to procreate has been so essential to our culture, beliefs and even our biology, that to build a family unit without passing on our exclusive DNA to our progeny is unthinkable; even unchristian, unislamic. And so, we continue to go from generation to generation, bequeathing with unrelenting tenacity, not so much our values, ethics and a spirit of industry, but the genetic codes that cellularly define us. We proudly bring another nestling into the world, the amalgam of our essential genomic structures, while another child somewhere not far off, adds to the global orphan count. The latter faithfully, effortlessly remains a de-sensitised statistic.

Even organized religion has given in to its baser instincts; and via insidious cloak and dagger plots of familial temptation and intrigue, has summarily discouraged adoption. For how can an adoptive father not be carnally tempted by the fact of the unshared DNA; or an adoptive mother blame herself for her lack of love and care for the child who is in fact, not her child. These are the ugly predispositions that guide our belief systems. And so it has come to pass that some of the most devout nations on earth continue to have the highest birth rates in the world.

I don’t profess to being maternal. The sum total of my maternal instincts extends to my niece and my nephew (they’re as close to my own children as I’ll have), my team in my corporate past life, the support staff in and around my regular surroundings, and the animal world. (It would appear, there are vestiges of the instinct after all; just not in the customary manner of speaking!) However, I have seen many, many… too many snot-nosed little kids that have become a part of the crazy, conveniently distant tumult on our busy urban streets. And I have heard countless … heartbreakingly countless horror stories of the forgotten children that are manipulated and mauled in the same orphanages and sanctums of faith that avow to protect them. Somehow, somewhere down the line, we have forgotten that we, the human collective, are the nurtures and providers of all the children that we bring into this world.

I am also not a detractor of the traditional family unit. It is, in fact, still one of our conventional social constructs that constantly reminds us that we are innately compassionate, loving and tolerant. However, I am a detractor of every dogma, ideal and manifesto that equates those same human qualities with the sharing of DNA. I am a detractor of all the myths and parables that typecast the concept of adoption in anything but the most judiciously humane light. In our current existences where economic inequality is shamelessly rife, the right of every orphan to be loved and cared for, unassailably surpasses our own need to perpetuate our heredity. The traditional family unit has to evolve into a more conscionable, accepting and diverse whole. The patriarchal ego has to take a back seat as we gradually but steadfastly make the word “Orphan” obsolete.

We no longer have the luxury of compartmentalising the children of our planet into a hierarchy of care, based on genetics. It is high time in fact, that we rallied together like the proverbial village to raise all the children of our world.

*Title inspiration from a 2006 dystopian science fiction movie thriller of the same name.

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|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.

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.

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| The Call of the Wild

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

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

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

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

Wild elephants at the Minneriya National Park

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

Wild elephants at the Kaudulla National Park

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

De Khudai pe aman

OPINION| A Low Down Dirty Shame

The “Dirty Old Man” Syndrome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

De Khudai pe aman.

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

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