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

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.

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 Clockwork Digital*

A Socio-Political Media Conundrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

De Khudai pe aman.

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

*DT: Donald Trump

*IK: Imran Khan

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

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

POLITICAL FARCE|Gone With the ‘Tind’*

The “Brown Sahib” Aspirations of the 45th POTUS

Until very recently, i thought that the Brown Sahib* state of mind was the social cross borne by certain privileged demographics of the previously colonised and the enslaved. After 500 years of seeing the White Man do his thing, while ruling and owning large swathes of humanity, even the most tenaciously dogmatic among the brown and the black populations learnt to emulate their white coercers to survive, and in fact thrive. Over the ages, this brand of social exposure to both, the colonially enforced ways of the West and the doggedly defiant cultural elements of the East produced a quite unique post colonial urbanity, exclusive to the 1.5 billion indigenous people of the Indian subcontinent.

But turns out, mindsets are fickle things in our current bizarre, beleaguered world. The character and cultural traits that have been the sole tokens of the Brown Man for the past few hundred years, are now raising their sun-kissed heads in the pale white hearts of the colonists and the enslavers. Or at least one. And so, we bear bemused witness to an almost karmically apologetic social course correction, as the 45th POTUS (once the most powerful man on earth – makes the mind reel!) decided to make unwitting amends for his colonial predecessors, through personal example.

The Foreign Bahu*: If you’re a progressive and privileged brown person, you’ll do your Western Hemisphere stint and come back home, armed with not only a foreign degree but possibly a foreign wife too (Caucasian of course). Mixed race children, we believe, are known to better the family prospects in an ethnically and racially divided world. And so, if we give him the benefit of the doubt, the 45th POTUS married an Eastern European woman to even out the playing field for the rest of the world to aspire to greatness by association. And if we go with just our good old gut instinct on this POTUS, because eastern exoticism is a thing.

Misogynistic Ambitions: If you’re a Brown Man anywhere, you’ve been raised to believe that you’re the centre of everyone’s world, especially all the women that wittingly and unwittingly occupy your universe. The gruellingly paternalistic environment (from archaic Panchayat* codes to the gender despotism inherent in the Hudood Ordinance*) has been carefully maintained to consistently fuel that ego. And so, marvelling at the subcontinental man for knowing and showing what a tremendously huge gift from God he is, the 45th POTUS has frequently and passionately tried to “put women in their place”. From sexual misconduct to name calling, he continues to frenziedly negotiate his way through all his political and social interactions with the opposite gender.

Brown skin complex: 500 years of the White Man’s dominion has understandably wrought some social psychosis in its wake. One among them is the Brown man’s continued, thriving quest for white skin – literally. It may have started off as “if you can’t beat them, join them”, but over the ages, this ardour has taken on a life of its own. From the multibillion dollar fairness cream industry, to the “fair bahu*” syndrome, a laundry list of overt and covert skin colour stigmas has taken root and spread like gnarled old ivy over our social fabric. And so, the 45th POTUS, since he can’t get any paler, and deciding that racial irony is the best form of praise, has embodied a bullheaded brownness that is both unprecedented and scary. The resultant orangeness in fact, rivals a fiery tropical sunset during a duststorm.

Hirsute Motivations: We are a race that is (mostly!) endowed with and proud of an abundance of dark luxurious hair. So when we do experience a dearth in the follicular territory, we jump right on to the bandwagon of toupees, transplants and wigs. The resulting downiness ranges from the barely perceptible, all the way to the absurd and the ridiculous. And so the 45th POTUS has with all his heart, embraced the Brown Man’s tenacious hair love affair, and taken it into realms of comb-over inventiveness that no modern day tempest can rip asunder!

Despotic Tendencies: The urge and capacity to rule with an iron hand has traditionally been the way of the South, Central, Pacific and Middle Eastern blocs; with many countries having the dubious honour of martial law as state administration for more than half their independent existence. It is not so great a secret and opinion, that the Eastern and Southern hemispheres just do better with a hybrid democracy/ autocracy approach. And so the 45th POTUS, in his most outstanding tribute to the Brown and Black Man yet, established a unique First World dictatorship that set new global despotic standards. Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and even Kim Jong-un seem lumbering and lethargic in the wake of the autocratic inclinations and machinations of the Trumpian zeal.

To the (predominantly white) American populace at large we say a big Thank you for this peculiar apology in the shape of Donald J. Trump, for all the centuries of Black and Brown skinned subjugation. For providing so much comic relief when the world needed it most. For mortally endangering your nationhood and your political and economic progress built over hundreds of years. For racing, like sporting martyrs, to relinquish your identity as the leaders of the Free World.

But even we, the historically conquered and crushed, feel it’s a bit much. So please feel free to abandon any more such zealous, self defeating presidential level attempts at reparation. We will be happy with anyone sane, reasonable, half way eloquent and racially colour blind. Scratch the last; even the most delusional of us know that’s a big ask.

De Khudai pe aman.

*Brown Sahib: a colloquialism meaning brown master in the nature of his white predecessor. Now used farcically to define people from the subcontinent who behave like white people trapped in brown bodies.

*A wordplay on the 1936 novel by Margaret Mitchell, set amidst the American civil war and reconstruction period, entitled “Gone with the Wind”. (Screen-adapted in 1939).

*Tind: Punjabi/ Urdu colloquialism for ‘noggin’ or head or baldness.

*Bahu: Urdu/ Hindi for Bride.

*Panchayat: A village council of elders

*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|The Year (or 4) of Scholastic Irrelevance

The more I’ve thought about this phenomenon, the more convinced i have become of its current urgent relevance. And the more i have marvelled at yet another capitalist economic powerhouse that is the traditional university/ college degree for all manner of non technical accreditation. Here’s a not-so-hidden secret folks: It’s a convoluted plot to bankroll a few and encumber a host of others as they pass out, armed with not only a humanities degree but also a formidable college tuition debt. And thus begins the spiral downwards into living paycheque to paycheque, paying off money you could have nest-egged, into a system propping up the very same cycle of academic debt accrual, masquerading as vital subsistence training.

But those are the tangled economics, made thus so I’m sure, for us to lose the plot on their inherent Gangster capitalism. Had to get them past the Muses of Controversial Opinions before i dived into why, now more than ever, is the right time for you/ your child to consider boycotting the hallowed halls of higher education. A bit of a sweeping statement, but I’m getting to the specifics; just a flash in the sensationalist pan, thank you.

It doesn’t take a sage or a twice tenured professor to tell you that it is the glorious age of the Gap Year(s). With the universe and its myriad of events too conspiring to make it so, the time has never been more right for on-location academia to take a back seat. The penny has dropped on a lot of critical thought and ideology spaces in the recent months and the quest for academic enlightenment is not excluded.

It is also a fabulous time for the ambiguous amongst us to explore our future livelihood options by participating in the practical arena. Get an internship, an apprenticeship, a shadow-ship if you will, with people who are ostensibly living your dream jobs. Absorb the work environment, read the professional vibe, be cognisant of the not so professional machinations, be sensitive to the ethics, be aware of the deviations thereof, all the while, soaking up the full gamut of the workplace experience.

We are now living, nay quite firmly entrenched, in the digital age as we rapidly shift from traditional industry to economies based on Information Technology. The resultant information super highway has changed everything about how we access knowledge – facts, fiction, statistics, controversies, conspiracies and also (and here’s another not-so-hidden secret), entire cornucopias of erudition imparted across a 4 year liberal arts degree. From Shakespeare to the Cosmos; from critical race theories to the question of God and morality; from colonialism to capitalism to socialism to despotism; from the geography of K2 to the Diplodocus habitat; from political science philosophies to socio-religious studies. The World Wide Web is now replete with enough credible, encyclopaedic information to arm a would-be scholar of the Humanities to source, procure and do well at a job of their liking. Even some technical savants pursuing careers in Health care administration, Criminal justice, Animation and graphic design, Engineering and Business administration to name a few, can adequately equip themselves for the job market. The requirements: personal drive and energy, a perseverance to see the online learning through, aided by a robust ISP*.

Maybe together with all the other puzzles and predicaments of life that have of late created a holy clamour for change, the current mainstream institution of academic advancement has also seen its day. Maybe a revolution is needed here too, to re-sanctify the cause of learning and remove it from the realm of capitalist profiteering. And the will and ability to bring about that metamorphosis lies yet again with the young populace at large. You can lead the charge – Gerontocracies* are as bound for oblivion as picture tube televisions.

So, to the Class of 2020 (and to the intrepid adult scholars) i say: don’t be afraid to break with tradition. No equitable, ethical system meant to provide the inalienable right to education is meant to encumber you in your pursuit of joy, health and prosperity. Put on your digital super hero mantles and go against the grain, because you triumphantly can. Embrace the hallowed halls of your public libraries, your homes and your neighbourhood coffee shops and learn. And maybe, in a couple of generations, mercenary educational institutions would be as offensive a concept as ethnic bias and colonialism.

I leave you with these words from Mahatma Gandhi: Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.

De Khudai pe aman.

*ISP: Internet Service Provider

*Gerontocracy: a society where the young do as the old say.

SHORT STORY|Days of Purgatory – (Part 5)

A slate grey Mercedes S-class stopped at the traffic light near Kalma Chowk*. Its single occupant engaged in meditative contemplation, seemed unaware of the myriad admiring, envious and studiedly indifferent glances directed towards his carriage. At that moment, Saif too was thinking of how like Cinder-fella* he felt, enroute to the reception of his lady love in his modern day coach; this time, the Prince was going to be on social display. He looked at himself briefly in the rear view mirror and brushed back an invisible strand of hair. He was nervous… Saif was actually feeling those “monarchs* dancing in his gut” like his best friend and customary partner in crime, Zainab liked saying every time a new paramour sauntered into her life. They both knew it was more for the drama of it all, than any actual feeling of apprehension or distress. Together, they had triumphed over many a glitzy evening and had walked away effortlessly with all those tacit, transcendental laurels of Class A social circuit-eers. The pair had been the talk of the town for five years before the bawdy coterie of the Lahore party scene accepted that this was indeed just a friendship that was not going to go into any tantalising realms of couple-hood.

Sabeen was immersed in her own thoughts while she luxuriated in a bubble bath, languidly, delicately caressing the foamy peaks like so many fledgling dreams. She was already thinking of how she was going to be dividing her time between the largely unglamorous, small-town venue of All Things Princely, and the urban lavishness of her beloved city, Lahore. Saif had said they’d build a house, a mansion in fact, in the city. But that meant more time away from her urban roots while their castle slowly came up out of the air. The thought made her quite decidedly claustrophobic. They would have to rent…she shuddered at the bourgeois ring to that word. It would be very discreetly done and to everyone that mattered, they would own the place. She thought ahead to their very first party which they would host as a couple; and generations of matriarchal planning, organising and embellishing skills kicked in as she flash-imagined the affair right down to the white carnations arranged elegantly around the house, and the special bergamot incense from Harrods wafting in fragrant wreaths amidst the gracious company. She smiled widely, held up her head regally and then in a coquettish moment of elation, lifted a shapely leg and an arm in a comical, semi-submerged arabesque.

“Shabana! Mairay kapray lay ao!”(1), Farzana said loudly, wrapped in a towel, head bobbing like a chicken’s outside her bedroom door, while she tried to catch a glimspse of the madly elusive girl.

Aur teen samosay bhi thal lo(2), she added with a cheery lilt in her voice. She needed her fried food euphoria as she navigated through the laborious but much adored exercise of getting dressed for the evening. She had a plan. She had invited Farrukh over to even out the group this evening. The vital fourth person to help break awkward silences and to more essentially, balance out the conversation if the love birds got too chatty among themselves. That too had happened with Sabeen’s sometimes bossy love interests, leaving the loquacious Farzana wondering where her tongue had got to. Farrukh, Farzana’s eternal suitor, was one of those not so rare individuals who was infinitely endowed with the power of speech but lacked woefully in the power of conversation. And sometimes, the ensuing gibberish was Farzana’s soul food as she happily spaced out, while the other targets of the verbal onslaught were themselves, stunned into stupefied silence.

She had decided to wear a pale pink, diamanté encrusted chiffon sari this evening. It was the very same one worn by her mother when she had first been introduced to Farzana’s father 60 years ago. The diamantés had sparkled, the pink had glowed, the voluminous beehive bouffant had held and within twenty minutes, the conquest was complete, so it was said. And thus the ensemble was subsequently, reverently recruited from time to time to wield the same age old coupling alchemy.

Sabeen walked in first, resplendent in a peach and cream silk outfit. She tossed her bag on the sofa and walked towards the kitchen.

Sabeen: “Fara jaan*, do you have an apple? I’m starving”

Farzana: “I have qeemay walay samosay yaar; woh khao”(3)

Sabeen: “Chalo lay ao (4). Ive been good this past fortnight”

Farrukh: “Hello! Hello Ladies! I’m here!”

Sabeen: “Oh hello Farrukh, we’re kind of busy tonight….”

Farrukh: “I know! What fun! I’m here to meet and greet Shahzada Gulfaam* too!”

Farzana: “I invited him Sabi; four is a lucky number. [In a whisper]: “He can get the Rasmalai* from the Club later”.

Saif: “Hello ladies…”

Sabeen: “Saif! We didn’t hear you come in…”

Saif: “I saw the front door open so I let myself in”. [Smiling at Farzana]: “I hope it’s ok”

Farzana: “Yes yes! Please come in. I’m Fara… Farzana. Sabeen’s best friend”

Saif: “Yes I’ve heard a lot”. [Still smiling]: “Charmed”

Farzana: “And this is our friend Farrukh ____”

Farrukh: “YOU! What the hell is he doing here?”

Sabeen: “You know each other….? What’s going on?”

Farrukh: “This is the ass**** who ran off with my sister twenty years ago. She was all of 17 years old, you sick bas***d!”

Farzana: “Hai!* Sidra eloped with him?!”

Sabeen: “Saif….”

Farrukh: “We had to give him 5 crores* to keep his mouth shut. Bloody swine…. I’ll bet you that car outside isn’t his either!”

Sabeen: “Saif… is this ….” [sitting down slowly] “is this true?”

Saif: “Sabeen… it was fifteen years ago. It was a crazy time….. ”

Sabeen: “But you’re the Nawab of Bahawalpur! You’re Royalty…”

Saif: “Yes! Yes….. I’m the Nawabzada’s nephew…..he’s my uncle…

Sabeen: Nephew?

Farzana: Uncle?

Farrukh: Royalty my foot! He’s some far off orphan cousin of the Nawabzada. Spent so much time in the royal household, he’s lost his head!

Saif: [chuckling sheepishly] “Still… the 25th in line to the takht*…”

Farrukh: “Babe, I’m off. Can’t handle this. Sabeen, bhagao is beghairat ko”(5)

Sabeen sat still, an odd calm enveloping her. She felt almost disembodied as she leaned back slowly and looked straight ahead through half closed lids. She noticed a gecko on the wall opposite with a strangely twisted tail…. it was in agile readiness to attack something she couldn’t quite see. Something else was happening too…. another twisted tale…. the details were hazy…. lurking somewhere on the periphery of her mind….

Farzana stuffed an entire samosa into her mouth as she gawped from Sabeen to Saif and back to Sabeen. She was in social scandal heaven as she absorbed every concrete and intangible detail with the tenacity of a widow spider. The indefatigable Gossip Chronicler was in prime form! This had turned out to be the best evening in a long, long time. With barely concealed delight, her face shining, she decided it was now up to her largesse yet again to salvage an awkward situation.

“Chalo*….it was a long time ago. And Sidra is married now. And you never know, in villages life expectancy is not that long; loag jaldi mar khap jaatay hain(6)….. who knows Sabi love, Saif could still become Prince!”

Bibi, chai….”(7), Tehseen the old family retainer hobbled in with the groaning tea trolley.

She gave Saif a myopically appreciative glance, and then grinning conspiratorially, toothlessly at Sabeen and Farzana, she crowed delightedly:

Hai! Kinna sonra munda ai!”(8)

* Monarch: a type of butterfly with yellow and black colouring

*Chowk: intersection

*Cinder-fella: the male version of Cinderella; also a 1960 Jerry Lewis film

(1): “Shabana! Bring me my clothes!”

(2): “And fry up 3 samosas too”. (a samosa is a fried or baked pastry with a savoury filling)

*Jaan: love

(3) “I have mince filled samosas; have those”

(4): “ok, get them”

*Shahzada Gulfaam: Urdu colloquialism for ‘Prince Charming’

*Rasmalai: a classic subcontinental festive dessert made with milk, sugar and saffron

*Hai!: an exclamation; in this case, of distress

*Takht: princely seat/ throne

*Crore: 10 million

(5): “throw this shameless scoundrel out of the house”

*Chalo: figuratively in Urdu, ‘come on, cheer up!’

(6): “people tend to die off sooner”

(7): “Madam, tea is served”

(8): In Punjabi, “Oh! What a handsome young man!”

OPINION|Where (Sh)eagles Dare*

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

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

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

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

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

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

De Khudai pe aman.

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

PANDEMIC 2020|For Whom the Curfew Ceases

(A soapbox on Breaking Free, the Outdoors and Vegetable Markets)

In my Book of Life in all its quirky fullness, May 11th, 2020 will probably go down as some version of a post Pandemic Independence Day. After almost 8 weeks of an almost spirit-breaking curfew, I, albeit briefly, embraced the great urban outdoors again; and it was absolutely sublime in all its beloved mundane glory!

The infinite visceral pleasure of the excursion has so hit me in my cardiac periphery, that to log it, i feel compelled. Just so i can re-read it on endorphin-challenged days for a good old pick-me-up! Re-connecting post facto with such fortified bursts of creativity bests any number of synthesised mood enhancers, said someone astute, I’m sure, at sometime!

I woke up with the lark….well… with the happy go lucky larks in my circadian world, which means at just a little past 9am. With a spring in my step, i got ready, passing the Lipstick Test with absolutely tripping colours! I felt the anticipation building with every indoor step taken to finally reclaim the outdoors; of finally stepping on real asphalt after 2 whole months in absolute time, and a couple of millennia on the psychological clock.

A similarly curfew-fatigued friend was going to be my partner in crime. We left our bacillus-sanitized footwear inside, put on our microbe-fighting gear and thus bolstered, ventured forth on Day 53 of the curfew.

The feeling – it was climactic, it was thrilling, it was invigorating, it was emancipating – it was absolutely momentous!

We drove down Galle road, taking in everything that was so familiar and yet so removed from what our lives had now become. The nearby hotel, the adjoining mall, the normally bustling Colpetty intersection flanked by it’s imposing trinity of superintending lions. Now looking forlorn and….hungry even! We gave them a cheer and a wave and i’m sure, a touch of our rhapsodic certainty of better times to come!

Our first stop, the vegetable and fruit market, was a sight for lockdown-sore eyes! More than half the shops were open, displaying rows upon rows of colourful plenty! Their vendors beaming happily, radiant smiles reaching conviction-brightened eyes on otherwise masked faces. It was all the beauty of hope springing eternal! I gave in to the knee jerk reaction born of shopping from the much awaited, not always optimally stocked fruit and vegetable trucks that we’d been relying on for our daily sustenance such as it was! And so on the 11th of May, 2020, I picked up enough perishables to stock a mid-sized vegetarian restaurant for a fortnight. My fridge now, is filled to capacity, it’s compressor groaning in censorial remonstrance, while my left ventricle dedicated to all thing vegetarian, swells with joy at every glance inside.

We next blazed our Freedom Trail along the 2 main roads traversing the city; looking, sighting, exclaiming as we saw timorous but intrepid signals of our urban paradise coming back to life: Little shops already open, leading the charge on the city’s sojourn to normalcy. Bigger establishments showing their own preparation with winking reflections of brooms, mops and buckets gathered in blithesome groups behind glass facades. Then back towards the homestead along the sea circuit; just for a while though!

Our Independence Day celebrations spilled blissfully into the evening too, as we then headed for the Racecourse. It had been 2 months since I had last treaded those much-loved flagstones. The track lay ahead of me, almost shimmering in all it’s cardio potential; and my mind was flooded with all the dramatic epochal music accompanying all the transcendent events in all of celluloid history! (My high energy playlist could have had something to do with that adrenalin rush too!). And so, those 11 brisk-walked circuits of the Independence Square quadrangle are now etched in my memory quite in the iconic manner of the one small step for a (wo)man but a giant leap for all of (wo)mankind!

The catharsis was finally complete as we drove homeward, into the curfew-bound arms of our current reality.

The feeling – It had been rejuvenating, it was heart-warming, it was calming and even a trifle funny as Farrokh Bulsara* reminded us of the fickle nature of one-off days of freedom….

“So baby can’t you see

I want to break free…!

I’ve got to break free….

I want to break free…!

De Khudai pe aman.

*Farrukh Bulsara: aka Freddy Mercury of the 70s British rock band, Queen.

SHORT STORY|Days of Purgatory – (Part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

De Khudai pe aman

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

(1) – “love

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

(3) – “my love”

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

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