OPINION|WHAT IF IT HAD BEEN ME?

Incidence at the Hammad International Airport at Doha

I am still unsure of how to absorb/ make sense of what happened to over 60 women at the Hammad International airport in Doha last month. I can’t seem to compartmentalise it anywhere in my head. In summary, a baby (a few days old) was found abandoned in one of the bins at the airport. The authorities found her and did the only thing that any despotic nation in an apocalyptic horror potboiler would do: They decided without judge or jury that all the childbearing women in all the planes bound out of the airport were guilty, culpable and punishable. So they summarily off-boarded these women, took them to a waiting ambulance somewhere in the airport, had them lie down and then proceeded to strip them down to nothing so they could be invasively examined to determine IF any of them was the mother. The ambulance was surrounded by male security guards and the only privacy was afforded by mostly sheer blinds on the ambulance windows. (I won’t go into the moral debate of why the woman felt such fear, helplessness, such choking compulsion to abandon the infant – ironically, these acts in themselves are the wretched backwash constructs of our “virtuous” male driven social systems and are richly deserving of a whole new rant).

Even more telling of how morally corrupt, power-driven and patriarchal our global collectiveness and the international media machine are, is the almost total silence on the issue from everywhere. The self righteous, voluble right wing media that has an opinion on everything has been as silent as the clock in our universal Halls of Justice. The only reasons that i got to know of the incidence was the fact that one intrepid woman came forward to talk of this physical (she describes it as sexual) abuse on foreign soil while she was en route to Australia; and that I’ve subscribed to Austrialia’s current affairs program “60 Minutes”, and so this video just kind of half heartedly showed up on my YouTube feed.

Since i saw that brave woman’s interview, this one recurring thought has been gnawing at me psychologically and emotionally: what if I had been on one of those fateful flights bound out of Qatar that evening? What if i or one of my sisters or my niece or any one of my female near and dear ones had been subjected to that kind of coercion, humiliation and gross invasion of my body? I’ve written about this incidence hoping for a bit of catharsis in not only thanking my lucky stars that as a woman, i was not in fact there at the time; but also to do my part in making it known that what happened was NOT ok. It was ugly, misogynistic and especially shameful for the stalwarts of a religion and an ensuing culture that almost a BILLION women are a part of worldwide.

(See the full 60 Minutes interview below)

https://youtu.be/JgIvt9nm_1M

OPINION|THE STATE OF THE (B)UNION VS. THE REST OF THE WORLD

While we wait for the 45th POTUS to (un)graciously concede to his successor, there is a tumult of below the radar conjectures and hypotheses about what a post Trump world will be like for us in the global backwaters. I had earlier, in a fit of existential optimism imagined a continuing Trump administration and its increasingly casual/ diluted semblance of global diplomacy (read: Deal vs. War making interventions) for another 4 years, toxic as his local politics have been. And so, painful as the transition to a Biden presidency is unraveling to be, it is apparent that the majority of the State of the Union has trumped national divisiveness and hate with its version of good old American collectiveness. Just about, though.

Good for the Americans! Maybe not so good for the rest of the world!

(Read here my blogpost on why another 4 years of a Trump administration would have been beneficial for a lot of the rest of the world: (https://theroamingdesi.org/2020/08/19/featureenter-the-dragon/).

The way i see it, there are a couple of ways American foreign policy can go over the next few years:

Kind of diluted as the new administration focuses on licking the wounds inflicted by the socio-ideological scrapings and abrasions of the Trump era; or a good old hark back to the days when the American war machinery was going about its well-oiled way on every continent of the world. Because, although it was inadvertent and there was no moral authority at work on this front, Trump does have the honour of being the “zero war” president. He focused instead on his Art of the Deal to deliver for America and quite completely relinquished any assumptions of America being EVERYBODY’S Uncle Sam whether they liked it or not.

The last four years in fact, have been like nothing the Americans or the world has seen in the last 50 years. The Trump administration has whittled, nay thunked away at a democracy and a social collectiveness/ cohesiveness that was damn near perfect, on the surface. Of course, little malignant glimmers of inequity and distrust did come through every now and then when the first world mantle of sophistication became a little worn out. That was then followed by some casual/ oft-rehearsed political tussle between red-neck septugeneraians in Congress that was meant to appease the community that was feeling particularly marginalised or disenfranchised at that point in time – taking political turns to play the Cop and Robin Hood. There was also that much touted freedom of self, and opportunity for all, that was the perrenial bandaid, the ultimate panacea that made America the greatest country on earth. And so it had gone on, the brain washing and the socio-economic glossing over until every last American was convinced that he/she was a part of some elusive greatness even if one third of them had never ever known how it is to actually be First Class Citizens in the country of their birth (70% of the country is white; the rest, not so much). And so the Black and Hispanic communities still have that toxic coming of age conversations with their progeny on how to survive in a basically white supremacist America. The women too, have made little progress beyond the right to vote. It took racist, patriarchal America 250 years of independence before, in a surprising twin-reckoning of race and gender, they elected an ethnically diverse woman to the second highest office in the land. (In a fitting paradox, developing nations like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka have had female heads of state decades ago). And the American nation still seems to be reeling from this historic event as illiberal/ dogmatic America fights tooth and nail to hold on to the comfort of its whiteness and its maleness in the aftermath of the most recent election.

Trump embodied all the above and to his credit, showed it up for what it is. He didn’t create anything new – he only exposed the unwholesome underbelly of a nation that was already pernicious at its core. He was copiously helped along in breaking down that painfully erected veneer by the volubly chirpy right wing media machine. And thus it came to pass that the greatest country on earth became the union of divisiveness and hate. That is the 4 year national legacy that the Biden administration has inherited.

The million dollar question keeps popping up like a whack a mole*: will the next 4 years of the American administrative effort be predominantly spent in rebuilding some semblance of its erstwhile national socio-political window dressing, or will it be outwardly focused as before to regroup, repair and recover America’s (un)gentlemanly swagger on the international front?

If the Biden administration takes the former route, that gives the rest of the world that supremely advantageous space to fill in the power vacuum thus created. This has already been evidenced by the signing of the recent RCEP* – the world’s biggest free trade agreement in modern history, connecting approximately 30% of the world’s people and output. With the withdrawal of the US and India, it is also emphatically catalysing an intra East Asian collaboration around China and Japan. This is momentous in that it has the conspicuous absence of the regional giant – India, and the (hitherto!) global super power -the USA, from the helm of a major global undertaking. Another 4 years of lacklustre American interference will surely cement the newly burgeoning bi-polarity of our world.

How effective this route will be to repair, even on the surface, the socio-ideological damage done by 4 years of the Trump administration is very moot, but that is a debate for another blog post if the inspiration overtakes me.

If the US, however, decides to reinvigorate its foreign policy manifesto such as it has been for the last 100 years, then there is the very real chance that the RCEP and other such intrepid Asian exploits into the economic stratosphere, may be manipulated into losing the steam necessary for them to bi-polarize the globe. It will take grit and extraordinary determination to keep these regional alliances alive and kicking and working.

We, the world, will just have to wait and see whether the 100 year jinx is still playing out** and whether that together with all our stars aligning right will do the ultimate alchemical trick of shifting the global balance of power.

The not so distant time will tell.

*Whack a Mole: a popular children’s game where players keep whacking moles that appear at random across a perforated board.

*RCEP: Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership

**As per Wade Davis (writer and anthropologist) “No empire long endures, even if few anticipate their demise. Every kingdom is born to die. The 15th century belonged to the Portuguese, the 16th to Spain, 17th to the Dutch. France dominated the 18th and Britain the 19th. [By the 20th century], the torch had long passed into the hands of America”.

THE CORPORATE SERIES|Demystifying Organizational Success – (Part 2)

Too often, in the everyday throng of the corporate world, Management tends to lose sight of many of their star players. The race to better the bottom-line translates into a disproportionate recognition of the sales staff, who are bringing in the business. This imbalance is further exacerbated by the notorious bell curve that shapes most corporate performance appraisals: there are a limited number of distinctions that can be allotted and these are summarily assigned to the usual suspects.

While this system is great in the short term, it is unsustainable and damaging in the longer term. In the relentless competition for limited business, where the pie doesn’t grow as proportionately as the hands digging into it, it becomes a self-defeating endevour. That is because the robustness of the new business is not supported by a congruously adequate operational and service structure/ platform. This disparity translates into dissatisfaction, both internal and external, culminating finally into good staff and customers abandoning their loyalty to the organisation and the brand.

What, then, is a workable panacea to this conundrum?

Where the company is in an early growth phase, skewing your rewards structure towards the left to make it more sales driven, is in fact, a good approach. Based on the presumption that the basic operational and service infrastructure is already in place and functionaing, the objective then can predominantly be to mobilize new business.

Up to what point, then, can this skewed rewards structure be gainfully applied?

That strategic pivot needs to be meticulously defined as the acceptable number of complaints per 1000 customers or the Complaints Ratio. This will also define how the company aims to position itself in terms of a niche or mass market service provider or both. If you’re the former, then a complaints ratio between 5% and 7% will work; if you are catering to a more specific, smaller/ discerning subset of customers, then a complaints ratio of less than or equal to 1% should be the standard.

Right from the start, have a robust feedback system in place to not only capture customer driven complaints but also bank initiated VoC* streams. (I will go into more detail on Customer Experience systems in another blog post). To ensure that the business that your sales teams have so laboriously extracted from the market, remains within the realms of your brand, it is essential to define and keep in perspective the goalpost at which to recentre the rewards program of the company towards a more balanced sharing out of bonuses and compensations. This then, will be defined as the Tipping Point at which the company should regroup and review their performance enhancement techniques and payouts.

Talent Management: While the compensation and rewards system may be frontline-skewed depending on which part of its life cycle the organisation is at, there are other steps that can be taken to ensure internal organisational robustness. A key element here is talent management. This is a hybrid financial and non-financial/ psychological reward system that ensures the company retains its best and brightest even while it is predominantly focusing on business acquisition and growth. Enter the HR department and the Management Committee. These 2 entities will need to work in focused tandem to ensure the success of any talent management initiative. The modus operandi is simple:

The top performers in every unit across the organisation need to be identified. This is your talent pool.

An HRRM* needs to be designated to each of these individuals. These RMs will regularly (every quarter at least) engage with their professional wards to find out how they’re doing/ discuss skill set development opportunities/ identify possible new positions/ optimally manage expectations – basically a VoE* and staff development session.

Each one from the talent pool is also assigned a Mentor who is a member of the Management Committee. They also meet regularly where the conversation is about aspirations/ life goals/ sharing of experiences – basically a Character and Ethics building session.

It is incredible how effective and motivating non-financial reward and recognition programs are. Human beings at their core, are an amalgamation of emotion and feeling. These psychological gestures of appreciation are sometimes more effective than even financial rewards and result in a thriving, loyal, market leading work force. Having said that, both financial and non-financial acknowledgment structures that are highly skewed towards just a few functions/ units, lose their temerity and effectiveness with time. ManCom* wisdom plays a big role in finding that right balance, at a given inflection/ change point in the life of the organization of keeping all their people feeling appreciated and happy to be a part of the brand.

Succession Planning: This element of the corporate rule book is not given half as much importance as it should be. I have seen a number of fabulously managed units/ companies fall to the wayside when the manager leaves. The culprit: poor to non existent succession planning and training. There are a couple of reasons for this inadvertent oversight: the first, mostly because it just is not on the company radar, which means there is no trickle down incumbency of this factor into performance appraisals. This also means that it usually doesn’t tend to happen and even if it does happen, it is haphazard and personality driven rather than systematic, continuous and goal oriented. The other reason has to do with our human emotions again – an insecurity about being challenged or even being outshone by the Second-in-command. This i have also witnessed and have seen the natural/ most probable successors to a job role, leave the organisation as they are sidelined and trivialised.

Again, a robust succession planning system needs to be in place to ensure the organisation does not fall into the rut of outsourcing most key positions or losing its essential human capital of promising/ talented one-downs.

(Read Part 1 here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2020/10/29/corporate-seriesthe-de-mystification-of-organizational-success-part-1/ )

(Read Part 3 here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2020/12/01/corporate-seriesdemystifying-organizational-success-part-3/ )

  • *VoC: The Voice of Customer feedback platform consists of a number of feedback streams to allow customer concerns and suggestions to be effectively channeled.
  • *HRRM: Human Resources Relationship Manager
  • *VoE: The Voice of Employee feedback platforms are formal avenues to facilitate constructive staff critique and suggestions.
  • *ManCom: corporate-speak for the Management Committee.

VERSE|AN ODE TO @therealdonaldtrump

**There's a sad sort of clanging from the clock in the hall
And the bells in the steeple too.
And up in the nursery an absurd little bird
Is popping out to say cuckoo cuckoo, cuckoo...
Regretfully they tell us
But firmly they compel us
To say goodbye...
To YOU!
And so my dear Mr. President
I wrote this ode for you, for you.
Your time is up, you tried so hard
I always rooted for you, it’s true!

Despite intuitive knee jerks to the contrary
I kept steadfast in my fidelity to thee.
And now you’ve been sadly booted out
By the insidious US political machinery.

‘Tis true you created gross divisions
In a fundamentally diverse United States
But you were only showing up what was so viscerally embodied
By large swathes of the American electorate

‘Tis true you were the Demonizer-in-Chief
You gave the Corona Ravagement Envy
You were gleefully racist, bigoted, xenophobic
But you were only exemplifying what so many actually were intrinsically;
Not just quietly closeted anymore with those lofty ideals
But free to strut them, and really relish the feels!

And although there was now all that national drama
There was also the new MAGA*-powered Sovereign Fiefdom
You uplifted the cause of exclusionary statehood
Allowing The rest of the world that rare freedom
To regroup, repair and renew in a space
Not perpetually imprinted with Uncle Sam’s face

You were summoning home all American troops
As you rolled back on the US’ war waging strides
You were making your America great again
And letting the rest of us get on with our lives.
But you were unique in your internationally disinterested approach,
Since America had always been that one invincible roach
That brazenly roams your kitchen by day and by night
Leaving you with the detritus of its pillaging might.

Your political incorrectness was apostatized
To paint you as the resident devil incarnate
Your incongruous presidential demeanor
Was touted to be the fall of the American super state.
And so 45th, you have been summarily dismissed
As a globally failed one term president no less!

But I mourn your hyper-blustery POTUS days,
And Im hazarding a guess that I’m not alone.
The last 100 years of American politics
Have elicited their fair share of planet-wide groans.
Another 4 years of you would have at least shaken
The memory of a bullying, blood-letting American nation.

Now vestigial shadows of America’s wars
Are rearing their ugly heads once again to explore
New conflicts, new conquests, new treasures to be taken;
More intrusion, displacement, refugees, coercion,
Every ounce of dignity and fair play foresaken.
There seems to be naught but more US agitation
Writ portentously large on our collective horizon

And so in ending, to the @realdonaldtrump I say,
We will indeed miss you HUGELY sir;
Your autocratic, Jesus complex,
Your dash of frankincense and myrrh.
Now is also the time for the rest of the planet
To take to their tranquilizing zen spaces;
My crystal ball tells me we’ll soon be battling again,
In America’s brand new edition of The Hunger Games* Races.
PRESIDENT’S BEDROOM, WHITE HOUSE. JAN 22, 2021

De Khudai pe aman

**lyrics from “So long, farewell” from the movie The Sound of Music
*MAGA: Donald Trump’s political slogan - Make America Great Again
*The Hunger Games: A 2012 apocalyptic science fiction trilogy where children battle it out to the death in a bizarre state run electorate-subduing campaign

THE CORPORATE SERIES|Demystifying Organizational Success – (Part 1)

It has now been over 5 years since i decided to take a sabbatical if you will, from my corporate career. I embarked on it more in the spirit of a healing process (life had thrown a few curveballs at me in 2012/13), rather than a wild abandonment of the work rigour, resulting precariously also, in the sudden and definitive staunching of a hitherto steady income!

Even so here i am, half a decade on, happier and probably somewhat healthier and wiser too! However, you can take a person out of the corporate halls of slog, but you can’t take the corporate exactitude out of the person. And so, i have over the last 5 years, approached all my experiences across the service industry spectrum, from the hospitality to the airline to the internet service providers with my customer experience hat adroitly perched upon my head. I have, quite a while ago, given up even the pretence of being a congenial, everyday customer with a heart full of forgiveness and a kind blurriness of mind reserved especially for appalling episodes of experiential breakdown. I notice everything and while i have made earnest efforts to not treat every service gaffe/ misdemeanour like it was committed by a flawlessly trained prodigy, i do pick my “service battles” from the point of view of identifying those likely eliciting the maximum bang for the buck. So while i won’t voice the mental angst of grossly delayed service followed by fumbling/ bumbling remedial efforts, I will respectfully opine on the myriad different withdrawal regulations that are applied to my NRFC* account – each disparate rule a tribute to its creative forger and executor of the day. The subsequent explanations to central bank auditors could make for a whole new banking science fiction genre; not to mention the plethora of post facto documentary and explanatory toil that I, the customer, would likely have to undertake to help the institution to regularise its stream of inadvertent but almost lovingly repeated foibles.

And so, to cut to the chase, i’ll go right to the helm of affairs – to the leadership of the organisation. That seat of power that can make or break the best and the worst of enterprises.

So what does a good Management Team do to create organisational success?

There are a few simple but utterly alchemical factors here that can convert even a seemingly jinxed piece of corporate enterprise into a decent success. I will explain each in successive blog posts.

Creating and Nurturing a Distinct Organisational Culture: There have been a couple of times, (twice for those inclined to use “couple” to mean a scattering!) where i have become part of a company culture where i felt like i was working for a home enterprise. The work environment being so disparate across the board that it ranged from an all out gestapo reenactment in one unit, to a space bubble with barely a shared ethos among its occupants, in another. And although the 2 units were highly dependent on each other in a particular product value chain, the twain barely ever met in purpose, harmony or delivery. Left unchecked, this work culture dissonance had added over a month to the end to end delivery turnaround time of the particular service. Complaints were rife; staff had been changed multiple times; bonuses were withheld. But despite the best of intentions, the issue stuck like the karmic backlash of a past life. Simply because there was no defined work culture, ethos or a shared Big Picture.

This work culture incongruity is a death knell for companies, especially in the service industry where, unlike in consumer goods producing FMCGs*, the end-user gratification is a sum total of their experience at that point in time with the organisation. Think of opening an account at a bank; your entire takeaway is nothing more than the knowledge that you have a new account in a particular bank underscored by the experience that accompanied that fact. Therefore, leaving the objectives of a mid-sized to large corporation undefined to its daily drivers and facilitators translates into the inevitable gross dilution of end-user experience that in time leaves nothing of the original/ intended USPs* of the company

Enter the dual magic of the Vision and Mission Statements*. These vessels allow management to clearly, concisely and effectively embody not only the existential purpose of the company; but also right to the T, what it means to be a part of the company as staff, customer, supplier and advertiser. (I’m personally not a big fan of shareholder stakes being vocalised in these statements). Building focused understanding, enthusiasm and energy behind these formal statements help to create and perpetuate a distinct company culture. People respond because by nature we are social creatures, and these statements of purpose then become the catalyst for nurturing a community of professionals with a clear unified end goal. A robust company culture though, is not a static thing. While the primary values remain unchanged (e.g. an FI’s* focus on technology, accessibility and financial security), the culture around those values is ever evolving to successfully accommodate the continuous diversity of its people, systems, customers and the external environment. The openness to change needs to be learnt/ imbibed at the get-go; imparted with veracity, in the very earliest of company orientation training programs.

Company management, the ManCom*, is the rightful custodian of the Vision and Mission statements; while every staff is the practical incumbent. In the best organisations, Management role models these values in visible ways to give them meaning, relevance, and to embed them into the DNA of the organisation at large. A game-changing organzational culture is one where its staff members are recognizable almost anywhere in the positivity of their bearing, attitude and pride of affiliation. For me, one such organisation was ABN AMRO bank in the late 90s into the mid 2000s in Pakistan. It was a poster child for hitherto unknown brands taking the market by storm; and continues to be a professional alma mater for so many even after it has ceased to exist in that particular market.

And so, a cohesive organisational culture which brings people together into a work community of purpose, is the first cornerstone of an organisation that successfully leads the charge and is able to cement its position as a leader in the industry.

(Read Part 2 here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2020/11/12/the-corporate-seriesdemystifying-organizational-success-part-2/ )

(Read Part 3 here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2020/12/01/corporate-seriesdemystifying-organizational-success-part-3/ )

*NRFC account: Non Resident Foreign Currency account

*FMCG: Fast Moving Consumer Goods

*USP: Unique Selling Proposition

*Vision and Mission statements: A Mission Statement defines the company’s business, its objectives and its approach to reach those objectives. A Vision Statement describes the desired future position of the company. Elements of Mission and Vision Statements are often combined to provide a statement of the company’s purposes, goals and values.

*FI: Financial Institution

*ManCom: corporate parlance for the Management Committee

OPINION| A GRACIOUS FAREWELL

I’ve been meaning to put this hitherto confusing, emotionally wounding mass of thoughts to paper/ tablet for a while now. So far, through all the varied attempts over the last 8 years, I’ve always choked on the words in my mind; cocooned in a kind of benumbing Writer’s Block if you will.

So here i am today, feeling a little more intrepid, a tad more emotionally sound and spurred on by a medley of bittersweet reminiscences, to finally reflect on the vital importance of End of Life acceptance, dignity and preparedness.

To die is inevitable; to lead a life well-lived is a choice. And yet, we leave so much to providence while we can still exercise our power to choose, and put up formidable bulwarks of resistance when faced with the inevitable. This is a construct and a bullheaded perpetuation of our modern times, urged on by medical advances and its numerically incremental effect on our life expectancy. While we are living longer, we have also developed an almost combative relationship with the End of Life. Even when everything is pointing towards the ineludable final exit, we choose to fight. We push back, we suffer, we agonize and we degrade, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually as we try and keep the “monster” at bay. A lot of times, that militancy is dispensed by the people closest to the terminally ill; and despite their good intentions, end up reducing their already suffering loved ones to little more than vulgarised shadows of their former selves.

In 2008, my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. She lived with the disease for four years with the dignity, grace and courage of the superwoman that she was. Never once did she don the mantle of the reduced or the afflicted or the invalid. Right to the end, she remained the gracious matriarch of her warm, welcoming home. Towards the end, the final two days to be exact, when she should have been allowed to make that Final Walk with the same beautiful poise with which she had lived her life, we, her family and her medical specialists intervened with all of our might to fight off the inevitable. She was taken to two different hospitals over the span of the last 3 days where the vitally alive battled to avert or at least delay an end, that became heartbreakingly beleaguered.

My final memory of her last day with us, has nothing in the way of any gentleness, love or the deep peace of final goodbyes. It is a memory fraught with fussing, poking, prodding Medical Staff intubating, pulling and pushing her as they, with assiduous professionalism, executed their Hippocratic oaths. The memory of her looking right at me, confused and exhausted as they inserted the ET tube down her throat is still searingly painful.

For a full two years after that, I thought of that terrible, terrible last scene every single night before i allowed myself to sleep. Perhaps it was my form of emotional self flagellation for being a well meaning party to the inadvertent indignity and torment my mother suffered towards the end.

And then, I’m not sure whether it was a providential helping hand reaching out from my own subconscious to finally pull me out of my emotional abyss, or the tender, cosmic reverberations of the maternal bond that helped me to transition to my current state of mental well being. That said, it was a dream that gave me back some semblance of my peace. So lucid, potent and reassuring was the vision of my mother being well and happy that i woke up with the sheer visceral force of the feeling – the warmth of her touch still lingering on the skin of my hands. (I have written about the dream in another post: https://theroamingdesi.org/2020/03/09/thank-you-for-the-joy/ )

And so, I finally did surface from the viper pit of guilt and grief and i have since, forgiven myself.

All living creatures are the sum total of their experiences and if there’s one thing I’ve learnt from my experience of losing someone close to me is the ability to see death for what it is – unavoidable. While I have lost my fear of the end, i also now understand the profound blessing a quick (relatively painless) exit is. That a departure that is underscored with acceptance, essential conversations, tranquility and quality time spent together becomes the blessed catalyst for more fully celebrating the lives of the loved ones we’ve lost. That the ability to see life and death with more ethereal eyes, to help us to grieve a little less and remember with joy so much more, are the cornerstones of a loving, respectful parting.

These End of Life preparedness conversations need to logically start in the hallowed halls of medical science. Medical caregivers need to bring more depth to their oaths taken for preserving the well being of human life, to include the dignity of death. These conversations need to become mainstream; to change the culture of the crusading and contrariness around death. In our current approach, we are left with too little in the way of the love and grace of final farewells.

It will take a consummate change in our emotional and social makeup/ temperaments to begin to ennoble death even half as much as we do life. Given the current state of our world, this gracious labour of love around Final Partings may be the panacea for reminding us of both, the wonderful alchemy of the state of being alive and the eternal fragility of life itself.

De Khudai pe aman

VERSE|MARDANGI – My Patriarchal Burden

This is A sequel to my earlier verse “Ravaged”.
This piece looks at the complicated nuances of nurture and upbringing, as opposed to the static all-out denunciation of the individual perpetrating familial rape. This piece of writing attempts to highlight the grotesque patriarachy which we have allowed to perpetuate and which has damaged generations of both, our girls and our boys, in its terrible wake.
I am Harris Jan Saleem, the son of Owais Jan Saleem
I am the scion of the Saleem ___ family
I have been raised like all the men in my family:
To hold my dreams high and my head higher
I have been taught that nothing bends that proud bearing. Nothing.

I was 8 when I first saw my father. In Asma apa’s room.
Asma apa is my cousin; my father’s sister’s daughter.
She is 4 years older than me.
I saw him many times; he saw me see him many times.
I learnt tacitly like so much is at home. Nothing needs to be said for it to be understood and emulated.
“It” was a dutiful visit to Asma apa

I was 20 when i too knew that I had to pay a dutiful visit to a woman of the family
She was a feisty one; too independent-minded for her own good. Her mother said so.
I was going to teach her.
I was going to teach her to be Good. To ensure no harm came to our family honour if she got out of hand.
She was 11; she was old enough.

I first visited Sophia on a rainy monsoon afternoon.
The family was surrounded by a haze of food-satiated, heat-fomented stupor;
Each in their own space in the sprawling ancestral home.
That I knew was the congruous ground for the undertaking of such obligations
She was a handful. I almost came away without fulfilling the onus on me of safeguarding the family honour.
But I persisted - it took a chokehold (and I don’t generally believe in inflicting violence on women).
She ceded.
I learnt that the chokehold was a necessary evil. Every time.
(I also realized with time that it wasn’t really violence since I was doing my duty towards upholding the family honour).
There are a slew of such behavioural nuances no one tells you about; which you have to learn on your own.
All of which you perform for upholding the family honour.

One day my older brother saw me visiting Sophia
Like i had seen him for so many years, visiting Asma apa.
This time he looked at me - with a wisdom of the ages.
And i knew then that we are the MEN of the family.
We are expected to know; to be versed in the DNA prescription passed down in virtuous silence along the patriarchal line.
I felt i had been let into an ancient, sacred secret.
I felt an inexplicable pride in being a Man of the Saleem Jan family

It’s my wedding day today; I’m to wed Sophia
When I was asked if I would marry her, I had said yes.
Although she was ... tainted.
But I was a male scion of the family; a custodian of my family honour.
I was expected to bear that burden of protecting, of upholding the family name.

But I have been deprived of the consummaiton of my marriage.

Today her sister is coming to stay with us,
For the summer.
She is 10 and I think already very much like my wife, in her waywardness ...
Tomorrow I will do my duty to protect my family name
In whatever way i need to -
Tomorrow, and for as long as i live.

De Khudai pe aman

OPINION|THE BIG BANG OF SMALL KINDNESSES

As the pandemic marches on, this is more true than ever. I have felt impelled to write this piece mostly because we have all now, as a planet, lived through almost 8 months of the Covid-19 blight. All 7 billion lives have, in some measure, been affected, afflicted or completely upended. And the sobering truth is that there is no real end in sight yet. These past 8 months have also seen families not only devastated by the virus in many parts of the world, but crippled also by the general economic slowdown/ shutdown.

We in the South Asian belt have been relatively more fortunate with regard to our pandemic mortality rates. The conjectures and theories on how the delevloping world is coping so peculiarly well with the disease are varied and many. Call it providential or karmic or the universe finally lining up all the fortuitous constellations in our Asian skies – that is how it is and for that we are grateful. Grateful while still being aware of the economic ravages wrought on the healthy but the vulnerable; the uninfected but the reduced; the vigorous but the poor. Which brings me to the mission of this piece – the importance of being kind. Of engaging in little everyday gestures of generosity to alleviate in some part the struggles of the less fortunate members of our communities.

Start with your neighbourhoods.

Give just a little bit extra to the tuk tuk driver who’s been whisking you about town (or running errands for you) through blazing hot days and even the errant tropical storm. Even if you don’t get into his carriage much or at all these days, tip him for all his gracious service and for persevering still, to earn a decent living despite bleak business.

Patronise your local fruit and vegetable sellers and your standalone neighbourhood grocery stores rather than the larger franchised establishments. The balance sheets of the latter will survive a year or so of beleagured business; the former, however, will be forced to shut down their doors permanently, changing the fortunes of entire nuclear and extended families forever.

⁃ Even if you’re of the genteel old school of thought, for whom the hawkers of malodorous incenses, oddball children’s story books and car cleaning paraphernalia are persona non grata in the general milieu of roadside traffic, be kind. At the traffic lights, despite yourself, roll down and buy some incense, buy a book or buy a cleaning product. Be gracious with your privilege.

⁃ With restaurants and bars in operational flux, if you do go out, tip generously. For most of the kitchen and serving staff, your service gratuity makes all the difference between being able to send a child to school or not.

⁃ For those that are now enjoying, in the safety of their homes, the gastronomic pleasures of Italy, Pakistan or the entire junk food spectrum of the Americas, tip the delivery staff openheartedly. For many of them, their endless google mapped excursions around the city are second and third jobs taken on to supplement incomes made ever more meagre by the pandemic.

Be kinder to your domestic staff, those consummate companions one can’t do without in keeping the household engine well-oiled and chugging along immaculately, peaceably. It’s also no secret that a lot of domestic bliss is owed to their inimitable roles in our daily lives!

⁃ And last but not least, our usually bustling towns and cities are also home to a multitude of scavenging animals. These urban-bred packs of stray felines, canines and even a sizeable number of the avian population depend on the scraps and oddments of the teeming human millions going about their usual day. That food source has become unreliable at best. Do your bit by putting out some water for our creature cohabitants, and food if you’re blessed with an outdoors.

These neigbbouhood civics, in my mind, are fundamental and therefore incumbent on all of us. They are the very basic protocols of social decency and community living, but have over time, and as i look around me, lost their place in our intuitive DNA. And hence, as with so many other virtuous but faded/ lapsed communal interactions in our lives, the need to recall, restore and revitalise is important.

And so, this petition is meant as just a little scratching of the surface to that human part that is intrinsic to all of us bad eggs, good eggs, tough eggs, quirky eggs and all.

I’ll leave you with a cheeky little refrain as a gentle reminder of the compassionate beings we really are, and for when we lose that thread now and then in the frenzied rush of life.

I was a hard boiled egg
Less sugar, more spice
It’s taken a pandemic
To remind me to be nice!

VERSE| CARPE DIEM

I sit here, encircled in my routine,
My safety net spread around me like a bright yellow blanket.
The sameness, the everydayness keeping it close, gently embracing.
I’ve gulped down the first half of my mug of coffee
So now I’m surrounded also, by a warm cloak of caffeine.
I stretch inwardly with the languid requiescence of a just-fed, just-loved cat.

I look outside at the recently blue sky
Where the clouds have now gathered in heavy eskers of grey
The suddenness of the assailment, the eclipsing of the sun,
Breaking the spell of my Constancy Ritual.
I sip on the second half of my mug of coffee, rhythmically bolstering my caffeine haze
Even as the sudden coolness of the breeze loosens my other multitudinous layers of psychical warmth.

Then the rain begins to fall.
Free, fluid, gleaming,
Skipping down the sidewalk; dancing in eddying pools on the street below.
And i stand up and stretch with the lustiness of the Alive and the Kicking.
I reach out and catch the falling raindrops in the trough of my open palm;
I reach out and seize the day.

De Khudai pe aman.

FICTION|A TWILIGHT IN SERENDIB

Some background to this piece is essential i feel, to give it that bit of relatable relevance. Felicia’s character is based on an old family friend in Sri Lanka who is as lovely as she is absolutely, delightfully eccentric. Donald Rajapakse is a more sinister inspiration, based on the character of a man whom i know nothing of but who has been in my coffee shop writing space for the last 6 months – loud, obnoxious and a bit of a hassler. (I had to have the cafe management intervene to have him back off). Ruwani is a happy figment of my imagination, introduced to bring life and comical depth to the madcap machinations of my 2 main characters.

Felicia looked around her with the air of the resident matriarch, her gaze more acicular than that of a quality control inspector at a pharmaceutical manufactory. She noticed everything; from the brand of shoes on a toddler’s little feet to the caliber and concentration per square inch of a counterpart’s cosmetic applications. She sniffed delicately, her scan of the Cinnamon Grand lobby complete, and picked up her mug of double chocolate drizzled mochaccino.

She turned to Ruwani, her friend of 50 years and a bulwark of a woman in bearing and bulk.

“I’ve had a new salwar* stitched for the next meeting of the International Ladies’ Club. It’s from Pakistan. That Shihani thought she looked like a beauty queen with her Janpath market purchase. Did you see the cheap gold lace on her shawl?” She rolled her eyes as she spoke disparagingly of her social arch-nemesis.

Ruwani laughed her high tinkling laugh, delicately belying her ponderous mien. Her eyes twinkled as she said, “imitation is the purest form of flattery darling. She’s always looked up to you as her role model”. She laughed again at the mental image of Shihani looking up to Felicia as a role model of any sort. The two women could barely coexist in a social environment, and when they did somehow manage to come within six feet of each other, there was almost always a thrilling finale to the affair. The stuff of Page 3 high adventure.

Felicia frowned and took a slurpy swig of her saccharinus coffee, letting the heady brew course through her body, giving her the mental vigor to “drop it for now”. She had recently been diagnosed as a prediabetic and on the behest of her Ayurveda* guru, she had begun meditating to “will away the extra sugar” as she called it. She had also realised more recently that her willpower increased dramatically when her blood was fortified with caffeine or spirits. Still, she gave a last withering look to Ruwani before allowing the sugary caffeine to whisk away the wisecrack into some not so obscure recesses of her mind; the memory to be retrieved later, brazen and embellished, when she needed stirring reinforcements of lividity in the wake of an especially karmic day.

Ruwani watched Felicia’s face as expressions of resentment, detachment, reanimation and a final ferocity played out in the fond encore of an oft repeated act. Despite the bluff and bluster, Felicia was a good sort. The kind that needed copious scratching of the surface before any glimmers of goodness shone through though; a diamond in the consummate rough. Felicia Pelpola and Ruwani Edirisinghe had been friends for 50 years now and had had their fair share of fall-outs and run-ins. But time and grace (mostly on Ruwani’s side) had brought a bristly tenderness to their equation and their friendship had triumphantly weathered multitudinous storms in teacups and the occasional tsunami.

Felicia had, in her heydays, been quite the social starlet. She was the debutante that had changed the norms of the party circuit with her boisterous manner and her delicate anatomy. Her demeanour and her countenance were at such odds that the resulting befuddlement of the senses became her piece de resistance. She provoked a serendipiptius sensation of attraction and discomfuture that pulled at all the male heart strings and incensed, in equal measure, the traditional ladies of leisure. Ruwani looked at her now robustly girthed friend and chuckled. Time had diminished her beauty yes, but had also compensated her unsparingly with a persona that strode into most rooms before her person did. She was absolutely, delightfully formidable!

“Oh look who’s here!” Ruwani, still grinning, looked towards where her friend was gesturing. Donald Rajapakse had just walked in, behatted and bellicose and loudly berating someone on his way into the coffee shop.

“Donnie! Donnie! Aney!* He’s getting deaf as a door nail!” crowed Felicia.

“DONNIE!”

There was startled hush in the cafe which neither Felicia nor Donald noticed as the one shrieked back a “Hellooo!” and the other cackled in what was meant to be a guileful titter. Donnie came towards them, swaying from side to side in his quintessential rheumatic lurch.

“Hello my beauties! How are my favourite ladies?”

Felicia smiled affectedly and in the high pitched, adenoidal voice reserved only for eligible men and her hair dresser, she quipped, “We are fiiiine! Having cappuccino. You want? Come sit aney!”

Donnie sat in the chair that afforded him the best view of his surroundings and looked around. Felicia continued to smile like a loon and shifted her bulk at a precipitous right angle towards Donnie’s chair, her hand delicately supporting her chin. But Donnie was already distracted by a solitary woman sitting two tables away, engrossed in a book. He stared hard, only half hearing what Felicia was chirping into his ear. When his hypnotic stare didn’t get the creature to look his way, he devolved in his trademark manner into Neanderthal mode and then there was a bustle and a frenzy as he guffawed, bellowed and produced all manner of primitive-man noises to hassle the object of his current coffee shop infatuation into acknowledging his presence. She did finally, by calling for the bill, casting a disdainful look towards the voluble, geriatric party of 3 and sauntering out into the sunshine. Donnie was woebegone as his buoyant hat came off and he sat there with an inadvertent twinkle on his bald pate. But not for long; you can’t keep a socially catastrophic but tirelessly optimistic man down for long. And so the next couple of hours were spent sipping coffee and annihilating plates of mutton pies and smoked salmon wraps over boisterous conversation.

At 3pm, Donnie left the group to join another party at the 80s Club. Felicia took back command of her person and her surroundings and the next 30 minutes were spent in a focused wardrobe and character breakdown of the other coffee shop patrons. All in all, it had been a charming afternoon!

On the way home, both women were thoughtful mostly because of the stupor of all the food consumed and partly because of the waning day…. Life. Ruwani glanced at her friend who had put her head back against the seat and closed her eyes, blocking out the world perhaps, after spending an afternoon in its fervid embrace. She looked outside her window. They had stopped at a traffic light. A young man on a motorbike was arguing with his female pillion as she pushed away from him clutching a Beverly Street bag to her chest. A snot-nosed boy ran across the road with a dripping ice cream cone in his hand, following a hassled mother. A tuk tuk driver looked at his phone in distressed anticipation while glancing every so often at the red traffic light. The only quietude in the scene outside surrounded a duo of mynahs promenading along the sidewalk in perfect creature harmony.

Back home and post a shower, Felicia sat at her dressing table looking at her reflection. She brushed her hair slowly, the once lustrous strands now feeling meagre and inadequate in her grasp. She looked at the lines in her face; each had become a more avid companion as the years had gone by. She looked away and out of her bedroom window. In the waning twilight she saw a pair of mynahs, frolicsome and songful, performing a last little dance before being blanketed by the stillness of the night.

*Salwar: local colloquialism for the Shalwar Kameez, the long shirt and loose pants indigenous to the northern subcontinent

*Ayurveda: An alternative medicine system with historical roots in the Indian subcontinent. 

*Aney: a colloquial Singhalese expression meant to show mild irritation/ concern.