SHORT STORY|SOILANT GREEN* – Part 2

COLOMBO; SRI LANKA:

December 20th, 2021:

“Rockin’ around the Christmas tree

Have a happy holiday!

Everyone dancin’ merrily

In the new old-fashioned way!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue Decorations on our Christmas Tree

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

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

The Sojourn to Save

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

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

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

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

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

Invitation to a Turning

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

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

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

I swallowed hard and looked at Aunty Christine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Religion

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

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

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

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

De Khudai pe aman

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

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

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

SHORT STORY| SOILENT GREEN* – Part 1

COLOMBO; SRI LANKA:

September 21st, 2021; 10pm:

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

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

September 29th, 2021; 8am:

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

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

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

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

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

Then there was the first sighting.

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

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

It had also struck horror in the hearts of men.

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

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

No Man is an Island.

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

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

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

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

T + 28 Days Later

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

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

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

It is not over yet.

De Khudai pe aman

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

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

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

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

POLITICAL FARCE|THE AGE OF STUPID – Part Deux

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

May 24th, 2021:

The President Is Dead.

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

Mike Pence Was Confused.

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

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

Ivanka Glowed

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

June 9th, 2021:

Bloody Wednesday

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

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

June 9th, 2023:

The Immaculate Assimilation

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

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

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

Where We Go One – We Go All!*

Long live the Aryan Republic of America!

Glossary of Terms:

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

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

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

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

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

REFLECTION|Something’s Gotta Give

“Now is the winter of our discontent, Made more [in]glorious by this son of [New]York”* or by the son of any other metropolis anywhere else in the world really. The onset of the third decade of the 21st century has become a tipping point for humanity on so many fronts. All grim reminders of where we have chosen to be in our social, spiritual and ideological journeys. And our reflections in the grand old cosmic mirror are far from being reassuring, appealing or inspiring. We have insensibly, doggedly stretched the limits of our humanity and one can’t help but wonder that something’s gotta give.

The unrelenting sequence of chaotic events that has befallen our little blue planet in the last six months has been almost eerie in its timing, tenacity and reach: From the bacillus extremis doing its plunderous tread around the globe, to inexplicable, calamitous plane crashes, to catastrophic bushfires, wildfires and devastating floods, to the snarling, salivating maws of colourism, racism and ethnicism finally distending wide enough to drag entire nations into their ugly depths. The annihilation of our collective psyche such as it is, continues unabated as our benumbed, handicapped spirits slowly awaken to the fact that there may be a deeper essential meaning to all this disruption and carnage. But Existential perspectives can also go two ways; a pawn-in-the-hands-of-fate approach where we remain gripped in our current status quo, or to take that leap of faith and hold up a mirror to ourselves to see the mere wraiths of humanity that we have become. It is a difficult choice, because “better the illusions that exalt us than ten thousand truths”.*

The way i see it though, (and the cringe-worthiness of cliches be damned!) is that the truth shall set us free! We are arguably at the end of an epoch; in fact by most counts, we’ve overstayed our welcome. If this then, is the beginning of the end, let us make it count. Let us listen to the voice of our collective humanity and do what we instinctively know to be right. Let us do away with the concept of the “Billionnaire” – the person who cannot possibly spend his fortune in his lifetime. Let us do away with Monopolies which bolster a few by disenfranchising a million others. Let us do away with Unhindered Profitability which bankrolls some and indentures/ encumbers a billion others. Let us do away with divisive religion, pernicious doctrines and archaic institutions. Let us rip asunder everything we have known to be “true” for the last 5 centuries.

I have a funny feeling in my bones, and it has nothing to do with the weather or the inept clairvoyance born of our disenchanting world. It is like the low frothing of a tsunami, the premonition of something big and dangerous just over the horizon, the portentousness of being changed forever.

Yes, it feels very much like something’s gotta give.

It feels very much like it’s time to start over.

De Khudai pe aman.

*Quote adapted from Shakespeare’s play “Richard III”

*Quote from Alexander Pushkin.

SHORT STORY|Days of Purgatory – (Part 4)

Sabeen was reflective. Her life was on the verge of a vital transformation; for the better, she fervently hoped. Because despite her single status, she still enjoyed the infatuation of her niche coterie of admirers: A couple of feudal landlords with American college degrees, and a few doctors who had had short but sprightly stints working in the western hemisphere before returning homewards; both sets of suitors armed thus, with not only a foreign specialization but also, in their minds, a marvelously rejuvenated world view. This meant that they now felt abundantly persuadable to breaking with the weighty bonds of age old tradition for the spousal company of a mature (but delectable!) woman who knew her mind. And Sabeen, in her archetypal off-hand way, reveled in all this motely adoration.

She was shrewd enough, however, to slide off her otherwise frequently-worn rose coloured glasses when ruminating on important life issues. And so she found herself thoughtfully weighing the singular glory of being Nawabzadi* Sabeen against the more mundane exorbitance of being another gilded begum* in yet another one of the elite Punjabi families. Despite the former fortuity weighing down the scales in majestic excess, the toss up was bothering her. She was familiar with the lifestyles of her privileged friends and indeed, she herself hailed from much the same lineage. That fact in itself guaranteed financial security, social status of the general-privileged variety, plenty of personal space and… Boredom. The titled position, on the other hand, was replete with exciting new promises of grandeur and glory. She’d be the only one amongst her friends and cousins who would have conquered this new social apex.

Yet…. there was something she wasn’t quite sure of; and the burnish of vestigial royalty had a bit of a tarnished quality to it too…. She shook her head decidedly, repelling all these unpropitious notions. She was in fact, expecting to blithely deflect these very same protestations from other quarters, stemming as they would be from both, envy and concern. She was going to be one of the entitled few who would be written about in history books as Subcontinental Royalty!

A slow smile spread across her face, reaching her eyes and making her skin glow delicately. In that moment, she looked quite majestically beautiful!

The evening at Farzana’s last week had been enjoyable, despite the somewhat bizarre ending. She’d had to sit Fara down and explain to her through succinct, gentle, repeated statements that she was going to be married soon. Farzana had taken it in slowly and had finally smiled. Although the wide wide smile was contrived, she also knew that it was Fara’s way of coping with the news. Of coming to terms with her banner of singledom now doing it’s solitary undulation in No Man’s Land; treaded only by the wearisome few that Farzana had already done her courtship dance with. But no matter, she was going to make sure Fara was a part of everything now – there had to be some universal meaning, some karmic context to why she’d felt so impelled to share her secret with Fara…. even if it was in a gluttonously benumbed state of mind.

And so, this evening there was to be another soiree at Farzana’s, for the pure benefit of introducing to her friend, Sahibzada Saif Muzammil Shah, Heir Apparent to the Royal Takht* of Bahawalpur, and also her paramour. He’d said he was in town for some work with his lawyer and was staying overnight; and that he would be delighted to spend the evening with the ladies.

Farzana sat on her bed, staring into space. Desultorily she picked up the mug of coffee set there by Shabana and took a tentative sip of the sweet, milky liquid. Farzana’s reunion with her absconding maid the day after Sabeen’s visit had been fiery, teary and then affectionate, in a dizzying sequence of emotions as their post-spat reconciliations tended to be. All was well with her domestic world. But something else had fallen apart….Farzana felt isolated and even betrayed. In the wake of this impending betrothal, her best friend, her partner in crime and her cherished arch nemesis who at the end of the day, like Farzana, had unwaveringly maintained the Ms. In her title, was reneging on their shared conundrum. But it had been a happy conundrum full of the heady highs of new love and the showy shenanigans of early courtship, as each tried to out-do the other. Now, she was going to be alone; and her past liaisons suddenly flitted before her like stark, monumental failures.

“Hai Allah! Ab kya karoon”(1) she sighed despondently.

It wasn’t fair. Sabi was not only getting married, she was going to be the Nawabzadi of Bahawalpur! And with acquiescing to host the reception this evening, she genuinely felt like a lamb leading itself to the slaughter. Her absolute selflessness, she thought, and thus her duty to her best friend was complete with this generosity of spirit. She sighed again, delicately, misplacedly, clutching the right side of her chest.

And so despite wishing Sabi the worst of luck and resenting her with every breath in her body, Farzana was convinced she had taken the high road with this show of solidarity with her best friend. Her feelings of martyrdom grew and she felt saintly and ethereal, much like Mother Mary in all those nativity scenes, she thought in momentary awe of the ensuing mental image.

Her thoughts then wandered as they tend to when the heart is caught in purgatorial limbo, and she frowned slightly. She suddenly felt an onrush of unkind thoughts: had it been any of Sabi’s other friends, they’d have picked her to pieces with jealousy. She, Farzana, was always the large hearted, gracious one in matters of the heart she thought with the dramatic flair of a celluloid saint. At some point, the genuine despair had blended with high drama and Farzana, even with all her accumulated affliction, was now feeling quite fortified to charm and conquer. Her intended conquests of the evening had hazy outlines but her very nature compelled her towards a social horizon where she would, at the very least, stand shoulder to shoulder with Sabeen again.

She looked at the old Champion clock on the wall; it was just past 3pm. She got up blinking brightly; she had to look her best. She walked towards her teeming wardrobe, its ancient depths waiting faithfully to bedeck her yet again in all their idiosyncratic glory.

Nawabzadi: princess or lady of a royal house/ lineage

Begum: matriarch of the house; a term used generally by the privileged classes in the subcontinent.

Royal Takht: Royal seat/ throne

(1) – “Oh God! What do I do now!”

De Khudai pe aman.

SHORT STORY|Days of Purgatory – (Part 3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“….Here is a heart,

I made it for you so take it.

Battered and braised,

Grilled and sautéed

Just how you like it…”

De Khudai pe aman.

(1): “What? Tell me…”

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

(3): “What prince?”

(4): “my love”

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

SHORT STORY|Days of Purgatory – (Part 1)

“Kya museebat hai! Aa rahi hoon na!”(1), came the plaintive screech from the inner sanctum of the house. With A fleeting look of trepidation on her face, Shabana the part-time domestic hesitated momentarily outside her querulous employer’s bedroom door. Then with a toss of her well oiled head, she turned back towards the kitchen. She’d show her!

Within the slumbersome recesses of the room, Farzana was lounging in bed, kohl-lined green eyes closed, a smear of red lipstick on her chin and a bandana tying back unwashed hair. It was a sunday evening; tomorrow was office again. The relentless ghosts of Weekend-Past had always sung their doleful dirge to her for as long as she could remember. But Farzana was nothing if not ardently buoyant and had always held these phantoms at bay with dogged contrivance. This usually meant a longer than usual afternoon nap suffused with soulful visions of luxurious foreign trips for two, extravagant parties on the arm of some Mr. Delicious and generally canoodling with all manner of knights in shining armour while being delightfully enagaged in a variety of high society shenanigans. Her enduring adage: If one dreams hard enough, dreams do come true. And so Farzana had spent the last 20 years in the protracted throes of Sunday afternoon REMs* that could brimmeth a romantic sea or two over.

The ringing of her mobile phone put a definitive end to her already waning weekend stupor. She picked it up with the jaded weariness of a finch in a cage. It was a friend who was visiting from Faisalabad and with whom she had a complicated relationship as relationships go between two world-weary, yet desperately optimistic females of a certain age. She was coming over for dinner. The typical Sunday evening dullness started to fade in the burgeoning glow of anticipation and excitement, and Farzana almost smiled. She got up languorously as she contemplated her overflowing wardrobe, replete with fashion assurances spanning at least three riotous decades.

Farzana walked to her bedroom door, with a skip in her step. She was almost decided on what she was going to wear, including the hair piece which made her look like royalty; well, political royalty at least. She had always liked Yulia Tymoshenko’s* thick plaited hair that she wore like a tiara; and she’d been practising her faux braid-atop-the-head look for just such an occasion. She was going to dazzle tonight!

“Shabana! Shabaanaa! Ander aajao. Mehmaan arahay hain aaj raat!”(2), Farzana yelled through the open kitchen door into the falling dusk outside. She had a knotty affiliation with her maid as both faithfully lived out the entirety of the dramatic domestic plots of all the Indian soaps ever aired. The conflict originated from both women artfully and emphatically portraying the insidious role of the mother in law, while neither was capable of personifying the demurely mute bahu*. The resulting sparks were the stuff of Stephen King’s Firestarter* plots – on steroids. For now, the arduously-employed had voluntarily relieved herself of her domestic duties and had gone to her brother’s house on the other side of town. She wouldn’t be back tonight. This act of rebellion still didn’t dampen the zestful spirits of the evening. Farzana would order in from the club – Fettuccine Alfredo and apple pie ala mode. The old family retainer was still around and despite her failing eyesight and an incorrigible disposition for small talk with all and sundry, she’d undertake the making of the tea and the wheeling in of the trolley.

It was 6.30pm. Farzana had an hour and a half to look the part of the pampered, carefree denizen of her abode. She wore leather jeggings and a fuschia satin top that fitted just a tad too snugly around her troublesome middle. Over time, she’d lost the affinity for exercise and also the self consciousness that comes with the somewhat latterly acquired corpulence. Her legs were still her best feature, and she preened in front of the mirror in decades old Guccis that had faithfully withstood the naphthalene-assailed tests of time. The face was then meticulously creamed, powdered and rouged in a timeless regimen that too, had been diligently passed down the line by similarly festooned matriarchs of the family.

She bustled about the house, every so often glancing appreciatively at the image in the cabinet mirror, pouting fish-mouthed, back at her.

Yes, she was consummately primed to be the Queen of the night.

De Khudai pe aman

(1): “What’s the problem! I’m coming out already!”

(2): “Come inside, we have guests coming over tonight!”

*Bahu: daughter in law in Urdu/ Hindi

*REM: Rapid Eye Movement A phase of sleep accompanied by low muscle tone and the propensity to dream vividly

*Yulia Tymoshenko: Former PM of Ukraine (2005- 2010)

*Firestarter: A 1980 Stephen King novel about a lass who is an accomplished arsonist in the tradition of most reviled, ostracised anti heroes

OPINION|What a Wonderful World!

I’m being facetious. It is quite far from being any version of wonderful, cohesive or civilised. As the Novel Corona traipses through our towns and cities like a merciless diabolist, we as humankind, as a planet, could not be rent more asunder.

How did we get here? When did all the values of humankind that stirred the heroic tales of yore become so tenebrous, so archaic? How did we become so divided, so intolerant, so extreme? How, despite belonging to the same species, did we become so “different”? And how did those contrived differences take on such a toxic, pestiferous life of their own?

We, as human beings, have been teetering on the edge of our humanity for some time now. The constant slide towards the precipice of retrogression has been insulated only by the crowdedness of our lives and the increasing obscureness of what we are, at our very core, as civilised beings. Indeed, we have, for quite some time now, been navigating the waters of life with a broken moral compass.

The stark wretchedness of our complete inability to come together as a global collective with a common objective has been grimly parodied by the current pandemic. It has laid bare that which was barely concealed: the self-defeating, meteoric rise in national isolationism and exclusionary economics. It has highlighted the dangerous precedent set by the Post-Trump “America/ My Country First” mantra, while any similitude of a global community ideology/ platform has become a mere spectre in the darkness of the 2020 world stage.

If one steps back to look at where we are after 200,000 years of evolvement, even the most practical and jaded amongst us would cringe at what we bring to the Evolutionary Table. The Novel Corona has struck at the very core of our collective societal and sovereign ethics, morality and probity, exposing them for the tarnished chattels they have become. It has, however, also afforded us the opportunity to visualise the propitious crossroads we are at, as a species.

“The Anthropocentric Age – the first age in which humankind is the dominant species on the planet – cuts both ways: it is up to us to destroy or save the planet. We certainly have the ability”, said Craig Ventor. Can we then, overcome our disparate, divided egos and concertedly embark on an intrepid new philosophy for A Brave New World? Or are we going to wait for that epochally-inevitable “Alien/ Divine” intervention to then put us on the straight and narrow?

In the words of Issac Asimov: “It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be”.

Right now, viewed from a cosmic lens, Earth appears to be blunderous, sick and unkind. That is not the legacy we want to leave to the universe.

De Khudai pe aman.

PANDEMIC 2020|Positivum Cogitandi*

I have waxed eloquent as far as Pandemic Diaries go, on the thrills and the gloom of being “benignly incarcerated”. This piece will dive into the nuts and bolts of the experience as I try and capture a typical curfew-bound day in the tropical environs of the Colombo lockdown.

It all starts at around 9.30am as I have yet again (quite happily) switched my circadian clock to the later morning hours. Less hours to stew a Lockdown Potpie in, being the resounding sanity preserving logic! The regimen that follows is fundamental to helping keep it all together through the interminable weeks upon weeks of government and self imposed confinement.

I make my bed, with the assiduity of a 7-star hotel housekeeping staff. Fitted sheet pulled until the 800 thread-counts crackle at their seams. The duvet laid out just so, followed by the bed cover. I then wash and change into my day-time lounge wear which is different from my nightwear only because I wear it during the day really! It’s the doggedness of routine that is paramount here. I’m still passing the Lipstick Test* as i put on my tinted chapstick and my eyeliner. Thus fortified with the elixir of my morning regimen, I sally forth from my bedroom.

The electric kettle is filled and switched on, almost immediately permeating the kitchen with its hypnotising “double double, toil and trouble” caffeine chant. I busy myself with cutting up a whole host of greens….and reds and yellows as I pull together a big salad. The chopping and the dicing and the slicing are profoundly cathartic, as pent up frustration at Time sliding by in the unchanging surroundings of a limited space…yes, ok, home… is released with every deliberate lancing exploit. The ensuing digital fatigue (of the fingers!) is the sweet pain of yet another daily protocol dutifully delivered.

Then it’s my first mug of coffee in hand and an hour of watching the Pandemic and a host of other bad news unfold on the CNN and the BBC. It’s always bad news or sad news or disturbing news. For good news, people (and I’m thinking, the rest of the animal world too in fact) have learnt to rely on themselves – much better for preserving sanity, dubious and relative as that is too nowadays.

The hunger pangs hit around 1pm. The once rather vague attention to “where’s the next meal coming from”, has during the course of the curfew, morphed into an armageddon-level phobia: I must have a view of where my next 3 meals are coming from or my dreams are suffused with so much biryani and spaghetti bolognaise that i wake up with a heartburn. Mind over matter at disturbing play here….

So while I’m whipping up some Fixed breakfast-component toast with the Variable accompaniment of last night’s leftovers or eggs, I’m also feverishly contemplating the contents of my main meal of the day which is dinner. I have been insidiously photographed by a near and dear one while thus occupied, and i can best sum it up as “there’s a pleasure in being mad which none but madmen (and desperate sustenance seekers) know”! I’m happy to add though, that since the food delivery services have resumed feeding the hordes of the Urban Ravenous, the feelings of deprivation disquietude and lunatic anticipation have much abated.

I am also one of the more fortunate who can, of a torrid locked-down evening, indulge in (suffer through?!) heart-healthy aerobic workouts. The sizeable parking lots of apartment buildings are very effectively doubling as walking tracks for their home-bound residents. And come heat or humidity, or even torrential tropical downpours, my brisk evening walk is another regular ritual that has helped to keep the mental nuts and bolts peacefully in their places.

Even so, the healthful mental effects of a regimen built largely around a 3-room space can last only so long. And some days when the painstakingly cultivated mental tranquility is shattered by the lock-rattling of the inner social beasts that we all still are, I quell the mad urge to scream, rant and even bawl by initiating yet another healthful ritual: I set myself up to write. The iPad is set up, the TV is put on mute and almost instantaneously, the mind collects itself as I immerse myself in the next best thing to a companionable walk at the racecourse/ a trip to the spa/ a belly laugh over a drink/ or just a warm reminiscence over a latte. The world slows down and the frustration fades as the words spill out like a cathartic mist over another clean page. And in that endeavour is also the promise of a new day.

Positivum Cogitandi; Tabula Rasa.

De Khudai pe aman

*Positivum Cogitandi: Positive Thinking

*Tablua Rasa: clean slate

*Lipstick Test: a psychological/ mental wellbeing gauge

*Pandesday: any day in the course of the novel Corona pandemic

VERSE|I Sat Alone with Sadness

I sat alone with Sadness
I felt it’s grainy edges,
I saw it’s grey-bound form,
I touched its dark, dark heart
And then I heard it moan
it’s dolorous dirge.
It whispered of a gloom
that quelled the light inside.
It spoke of a despair
that clung like gnarled old ivy.
It lamented of an anguish
that congealed the blood within.
And i mouldered in the Sadness....

Then it dragged with it the phantoms
of Heartache and Desolation.
And finally it whispered
Of a Final Cessation.
And I listened....
And I crumbled...
And piece by piece, I sank ....
Until I had drowned in my Sadness.

And then the vortex glimmered;
There was promise of some light.
I floundered through the tempest,
Struggling to inhale!
Convulsing with release,
I finally broke the surface,
Of my abysmal grief.

And I wept.... and i wept...
And my ravaged spirit breathed,
As I embraced my Sadness.

De Khudai pe aman

SHORT STORY|The Fatigue

I was so tired.

I arrived at my grandmother’s house, Z___abad, at a little past 3pm. It was a cool mid-March evening and the slight chill in the air felt soothing. I made my way up the broad walkway towards the main house. The familiar spring foliage in the inner garden was in full, salutary bloom. My favourite shrubbery running the length of the high ceilinged veranda was inflorescent with a myriad shades of green, ranging from the deep dark of the Monstera to the delicate green plumage of the Bougainvillea. The late afternoon light played lazily along the palm-shaded steps leading from the garden to the veranda – each umbrous shape flitting like a gossamer phantom between the real and the shadow worlds.

There was a faint smell of the rose and bergamot incense that my grandmother had liked to burn every so often; usually, when the gastronomic labour of love, undertaken daily through prodigious breakfast and lunch preparations for the family and the contingent of domestic staff, was done for the day. It wafted in barely perceptible undulations like shy little wraiths playing hide and seek.

I stopped for a bit to take it all in….breathe it all in. I was home.

But I was so tired.

I walked into the big, airy lounge, greeted immediately by the portraits of my grandmother and my mother. I looked at the pictures, and waited for the inevitable wrenching tug of heartache. It didn’t come. Instead, I felt a quiet calmness and solace… I was back home.

“You’ve arrived”. P. abai, the old homestead retainer said, looking at me quizzically. I hadn’t heard her come in. I smiled and we embraced. Z__abad and P. abai are intrinsically bound together in all my memories of the place.

“Where were you the last time I came here? You’d been ill and then they said you didn’t come back. I missed you”, I said looking at her gently smiling face.

“I’ve missed all of you too. I had to go away for a while….”. She hesitated, looking at me tenderly and then smiled again.

“I’ll bring you some tea – you must be tired” She said with an affectionate caress on my head.

I smiled at her and watched her go out through the lounge doors, melting into the evening shadows that had descended on the sun-warmed veranda. I shivered a little – the residual late winter chill had further cooled the evening air. I sat on my grandmother’s chair at the familiar old dining table. The edges of the flowery linoleum table cloth fluttered tremulously in the crisp March breeze that wafted in through the open doors.

I could still smell the incense faintly. I glanced around the room, vaguely wondering where it was coming from. It didn’t matter; it was replete with nostalgia and serenity. I looked outside at the garden. The twilight of dusk had succumbed to a tranquillising, soothing darkness.

Exhaustion washed over me.

I put my head back and closed my eyes.

I finally rested.

Khyber News Alert:There was an accident on Highway S-1 near Charsadda this afternoon at 3.15pm. The Nissan Sunny car driver had fallen asleep at the wheel and had plunged head-on into a lorry carrying scaffolding girder beams. The driver has been hospitalised with a broken leg. The passenger, a woman in her 40s, died on the spot”.

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