SHORT STORY|A BRAVE NEW WORLD*

A tribute to the brave young men and women who battle everyday to come to terms with their identity and a perennially judgmental, dogmatic society. May each of you find the strength to be the truest and best version of yourself.

Geena woke up with a monster of a headache. She sat up slowly, disoriented, the neurons in her brain firing a piercing staccato. She held her throbbing head as the events of the previous evening flitted across her hippocampus in discordant technicolour… a night out with friends, B52 shots, Neelu was there, more shots, they’d talked, vodka shots, she was definitely the one, they’d danced, even more shots, they’d kissed…. The memories bounced around her head in weird harmony with the stabs of pain in her body, making her grimace. Geena, the fighter of causes, the Robina-hood of small but essential kindnesses, the dogged agent of change for others, was a frightened, anxious little girl when it came to herself. When did she become so weak? She frowned against the whipping, curdling flow of her boozy blood, arming herself with the shifty valour of self-suggestion.

Say it Geena! Just own it! SAY IT OUT LOUD!

Her head pounded harder, punishing her… for what? For what she wanted to say? For what she couldn’t say? She quivered with the effort.

She couldn’t voice it; her identity, her very being continued to hide inside her like a deep, dark, dirty secret. She crumpled, her spine bent, her voice as silent as the tombs of long forgotten conquerors. No, this wasn’t the day she was going to be her own hero.

Geoff came inside the house, tossing his keys onto the console table. He was glad to be home; it had been an unusually busy Sunday morning. He went straight up to Geena’s room and found her still in bed. She was asleep. He looked at her, at the exhaustion etched in her beautiful face, at the sweet innocence that still enfolded his 18 year old daughter. It had been another one of those nights when she’d arrived home drunk, angry and tearful. How he wished his wife, Ruwani was still around… was still alive. She had been the loving, grounding anchor for this now somewhat dissonant family. He sighed… Ruwani would have known how to handle this teenage angst. He had tried talking to Geena but had always come up against a wall as fortified as it was high; she wouldn’t let him in. He got himself a glass of ice cold water and sat down, mindlessly switching on the television. Anderson Cooper on CNN was saying something about America’s decaying morality…

Something was nagging at him. It was something about morality and uprightness. About righteousness. It was about family values, about being respectable and … being normal. There was an elusive element of normalcy that seemed to be missing from his life… from Geena’s life…

He shook off the strange, disconcerting feelings – like he always did. He’d have to talk to Geena about her drinking. And he’d make it a point to ask about that new boy he’d seen with her group the other day. He never thought he’d say this to her before she was 30, but a nice boy in her life would actually be good for her.

Geena woke up at past 6pm, splintery glimmers of her hangover still keeping her company. She took a couple of panadols to quiet the tumult in her head and lay back in bed, looking at the ceiling overhead. As the pain receded, she became aware of a faint little feeling in her chest… a feeling of something new, something spirited, something honest. It warmed her, tickled her, strengthened her. She smiled tremulously, blinking in the anticipation of the ultimate truth-telling, of a final release from her demons. She was going to talk to her father about it. She was going to tell him that she … she liked girls. She always had. She was a lesbian. That word… still awkward on the tongue and yet that’s what she was. She let the idea float around her head, felt it fuse with her thoughts, sensed it coursing through her body.

She grinned widely – hopeful, nervous, anxious… but mostly hopeful.

It was another Friday night at apartment TP-1.

Tonight though, there was the ragged aura of broken hearts. The truth-telling, the sharing of confidences, the spiritual reckoning had been had. A father sat slumped in his chair, wounded, silent. A daughter stood looking at him, shattered, resigned, her breath coming in ragged gasps. Despite everything, he wanted to reach out. Even in the abyss of her despair, she looked at him, willing him to reach out.

De Khudai pe aman

*A Brave New World: Title inspiration from Aldous Huxley’s dystopian social science fiction novel of the same name.

VERSE|The Lady with the Mona Lisa Smile

For the gracious Padmini Pelpola – the lady who lit up the porch every evening at number 12 Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha.

We were in the throes of the affliction, all lives tossed quite asunder,
Everyone struggling with their own version of their worlds-turned-upside-down.
I too was grappling with the changes
In a curfew-riddled cocoon of my own.
There was a painful psychosis that had swept over the city
And it was all we could do to hold on to little glimmers of patience, resilience and hope.

It was in this atmosphere, saturated as I was with pandemic fatigue
Holding onto the one thing i knew that helped me to center
To fight off the depression for one more day - my evening walk;
It was then that I saw her sitting in that little porch near the car park of the apartment building.
A vision of serenity, grace and beauty, borne of a life well-lived.

She was holding court as I came to see she would, every evening
Equally at ease with her solitude, as with the conversational company of those that sought her out;
She was scintillating, she was vibrant, she was calm and she was kind.
I watched in awe and then through occasional glances.
For i was mesmerised and yet I was aware that I might spook her -
Spook the perfection of those two blissfully normal hours of which she was the gracious alchemist.

So I looked forward to my evening walk in the apartment parking lot,
For that was the extent of our locked-down freedom.
And i looked forward to saying hello to her and to receiving in return, her lovely smile every time.
I fed off the revitalizing energy of that precious little exchange for the next six weeks.
And then things returned to normal and I didn’t see her for a while.
But the memory of those heart-warming little interactions stayed with me like the glow of a just-settled sunset.

And then I heard that she’d passed on. Suddenly. Just like that.
And the news hit me in a strange, inexplicably sad manner.
And I realised that I didn’t know her at all, and yet, for me and a handful of others,
She had been the unwavering harbinger of a wonderful, uplifting calmness at a time of great disquietude.

And so I write this little eulogy, a remembrance if you will
Of a life well-lived, and I am sure, a soul well-loved;
Of the lady with the Mona Lisa Smile.

De Khudai pe aman

FEATURE|My Balcony and Other Creatures

Of glimmering balconies, frolicking flora and organized murders

This pandemic has changed a lot of elements including the manner of things usually relegated to the realms of the mundane. And that is exactly what has happened in the microcosm of my balcony. A whole new world within has come alive, as the world without has slowed down to a pandemic-induced comatose crawl. From donning a shimmering garb in the fiery evening twilight, to gleaming with raindrops when a tropical storm bursts forth, to mischievously inviting the entire motely flock of city birds to perch on its sun-lit circuit a while, to socialize and then depart in the wake of dubious farewell gifts deposited on its glass exterior. Indeed, the little overhang outside my apartment has morphed into a whole new creature.

And in its tiled embrace are smaller microcosms of both flora and fauna. While the potted plants were just that pre-pandemic, plants that had become a part of the background in my balcony, they have now become an eclectic community of leafy denizens living, loving, parenting, mostly thriving, sometimes grieving, sometimes euphoric, at other times scheming in distinct cliques as they bloom in explicit sets of only 3 and only 4 at a time. The 2 groups never disbanding, and never harmonising outside of their own green universes. So my bright pink bougainvillea, the red-hearted hibiscus, the scarlet geranium and the flame violet will bloom for a month, colouring the balcony with their reds, pinks and fuschias. They will then cease and desist from their joyful cavorting and pass on the Baton of Blooms to the next group, the white bougainvillea, the sweet Jasmin and the pale pink ixora. (Obviously there is such a thing as Potted Plant Politics!)

The flying fauna is almost entirely comprised of crows and mynahs with the odd dragonfly or monarch butterfly that have somehow found a precocious air current to carry them from their usual low flying social activities, all the way to the 9th floor of a high rise apartment building. These perplexed visitors usually move on after a vertigo-filled glance or two down from the balcony.

The crows, those keen eyed A-list city scavengers are definitely at the top of the heap when it comes to reading balcony visitor protocols. If you’re a “Feeder” as i am, they will very soon discern that unique food source (for the Feeder venues are as diverse as are the many murders* across the city!) They will sit in orderly rows along the balcony railing, heads cocked, beady eyes shining in anticipation as they spy Feeder movement on the other side of the closed balcony doors. They are also hugely territorial and one gets to witness epic Corvus battles as the various murders engage in all out “Feeder-Fending”. I have, however, learnt with time and my own manner of aviculture, to cease being a source of cookie manna for this visitor. They WILL take over your balcony and even your home. I have had the more intrepid hop into my lounge, pick up a bag of crisps from the table, take it politely out onto the balcony and go at it with that monster beak until they’ve made holes big enough to get at the contents. In the wake of a visit from the murder that has claimed you as their own, the balcony glass exterior looks more like the floor of a well fed aviary rather than the facade of a luxury apartment. And so it has been with a twinge of guilt and a lot of determination that i am presenting myself, armed as i am now with a spray water bottle, as persona non grata to all the Colombo black birds.

Last but not least, the delightful Mynah! These cocky little creatures will whistle and warble their way right into your heart … and into your lounge. And again, with a twinge of Corvus guilt, i admit that i have continued to feed and indulge these happy balcony transients while i have gently sprayed away the other crowing, cawing visitors. There is one mynah in particular whom i have in a fit of creativity called … Mynah! She too has claimed my balcony as her own little paradise of free food. She will visit me daily, making her entrance not from over the railing, but by walking jauntily through an opening at the far side of it, traipse through the plants and up to the balcony door. There she will warble her distinct call now reserved for me I fondly imagine (or it could just be balcony romanticism on my part!). In case i don’t respond, she will hop right up to my couch and look at me askance, chirp a little “get off your behind” ditty and when she knows I’ve seen her, she’ll hop right back outside to await a generous helping of Chesma’s jaggery cookies* – her ultimate soul food! I am not ashamed to admit that Mynah has me pulled quite completely by my balcony creature heart strings. Every afternoon I wait for her to make her appearance. And the day she finds her daily succour elsewhere, i’m also not ashamed to admit that i feel a palpable wash of disappointment!

Maybe my balcony fever is a post pandemic psychosis, or if I’m to be positive, a keener opening of my Third Eye to the many joys of nature. In any case, i am convinced that in some peculiar manner, i am on my way to becoming a resident bird and plant whisperer as I wield my strategic ammunition of jaggery cookies and Baby-bird/ Potted-plant Talk, while occasionally with chastened fervor, brandishing my green spray water bottle.

Mynah hanging out on my iPad

De Khudai pe aman

Feature Title inspiration from Gerald Durrell’s 1956 semi-autobiographical novel “My Family and Other Animals”
Murder: term used for groups/ flocks of crows
Jaggery: A traditional cane sugar concoction consumed in Asia. It is a concentrated product of cane juice and often date or palm sap without separation of the molasses and crystals, and can vary from golden brown to dark brown in colour, and is similar to the Latin American panela.
Chesma’s Jaggery cookies: artisanal cookies created by the gracious Chesma; and tradition carried on by her enterprising progeny.

PANDEMIC 2020|For Whom the Curfew Ceases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So baby can’t you see

I want to break free…!

I’ve got to break free….

I want to break free…!

De Khudai pe aman.

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

PANDEMIC 2020|The Journey to Calmness

Acceptance, Grace and Tranquility

It’s been tragic, arduous, bizarre and even downright dull in the wake of the Bacillus Extremis. It’s been stressful and emotionally draining. The novel Corona, in all its microscopic might, has turned the world as we knew it, radically upside down and even inside out. It’s left many of us wondering if life as we knew it, is an epoch now past and if we are indeed on the threshold of a new kind of world. An existence underscored by a uniquely new approach to community, sociability and even intimacy with our loved ones outside of our nuclear families. The anticipation of what is to come is tremulous with disquietude. Glimmers of hope are rare and are constantly shrouded by the ever-burgeoning core of this malaise we are calling the novel Corona.

I have over the long, sometimes interminable hours of the last month had ample opportunity to think, remonstrate, deflect, clamour, feud, conjecture and concede. Most times, with myself; sometimes with the screen of my LG television and also via a few unpropitious encounters with near and dear ones. Like many out there, i went through the whole gamut of emotions experienced in the aftermath of a trauma. The degree varied but the angst was much the same and it took the whole experiential sequence for me to attain my post-Covid calm and the almost existential approbatio* of whatever will be will be. Here’s my journey:

  • Shock and bewilderment – just as i was ready to come out of corporate hibernation and re-enter some semblance of a working environment, WFH* becomes the new standard. So it was back to a sketchy hibernation much like a wide awake, ready-for-a-big-fat-spring-meal bear who has blundered out in a blustery January.
  • Hypervigilance about the future – a zombie apocalypse was bound to follow and the only skill i could bring to the “Walking Dead” In Situ was an uncanny ability to multitask and a canny capacity to write farce…. facts, pithy historical facts…. who am i kidding, Farce with, I’m hoping, a bit of heart.
  • Intense anger and irritability – the cabin fever coincided very nicely with the PMS peevishness, so the beloved familial circle was hardly the wiser. They all took the usual ‘shelter in place’ when the spillways of tetchiness and petulance sent forth their monthly rush of acidity.
  • Sadness and depression – the biggest contributor here was the woeful lack of my mid morning caffeine ‘jostle’, imbibed in the form of a very anaemic latte in the wistfully clammy, alfresco environs of my neighbourhood bistro and wine bar. The atmospheric withdrawal has been excruciating…. “Oh Sugar! Honey honey! You are my candy girl and you’ve got me wanting you!”
  • Apathy and emotional numbness: This phase consisted entirely of tremendously long hours spent tuned into the CNN, the BBC and Aljazeera. I watched these unblinkingly, unemotionally, waiting for the penny to drop. At their end. For the media parody to finally end so i could go back to buying lacteous lattes and sipping them pensively while i waited for epiphanous writing plots to excitingly unravel.
  • Recurring nightmares – Saturnine, spine chilling horrors. I dreamt of being chased by the spectral detritus of every spider and gecko I’d ever cursed or quelled in my life – may the universe keep the arachnid and reptilian populations in its blessed, all encompassing (read: inescapable) embrace. It was terrifying and worse than any human zombie herd, bearing down on me with its gnashing assortment of acid-corroded teeth.
  • Acceptance – And then the essential provisions/ food trucks started coming with a reassuring frequency so we knew with a measure of confidence that we weren’t going to starve anytime soon. In their nutritive wake, we also got the bearers of big and little treats like ice cream, cheese, cold meats and cakes. And that’s when the tide turned on all the under-the-breath utterances from across the spectrum of condominium dwelling humanity. The “Myth of the Super Luxury condos” was in the happy throes of being nullified, debunked, annihilated- at least in this episode of Man vs. Corona. The Myth of Super-Luxury Condominiums – Part Deux; The myth of “Super Luxury” condominiums
  • Moving on – Many of us have harnessed our new reality and even temerity of our existence and moved on the best we can. Some have embarked on halting but brave attempts at reviving a hobby or honing an aspirational skill; others have revisited their approach to health with new fervour; still others are taking the time to unwind, meditate, introspect and heal. While we make our individual post-Covid journeys of renewal and self discovery, we have, as a species, also stepped back so that our battered planet can recover, revive and renew.

I leave you with the below lines from Carl Sagan:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam“.

De Khudai pe aman.

*Approbatio: Latin for approving, assenting, acceptance

**WFH: Working From Home

OPINION|The Myth of Super-Luxury Condominiums – Part Deux

(When the Food Chain upends – The age of fastidiousness, curfews and microscopic annihilators)

The current high stress, painfully limiting, curfew-constrained environment has been a fitting test for how well the Super luxurious developments in the city have responded to the basic needs of their residents – like the politico with the 100 watt smile and zero good intentions. Yes, it has been quite entirely dismal. One can probably, in a fit of magnanimity (and copiously blithesome inebriation), forgive the unconscionable oversights; but what has to be gleaned from all this all-out service ineptitude are lessons for other such times. For other such pestilentially afflicted times, there will be.

Besides the obvious and debilitating confinement brought on by the various lockdowns and curfews, there has followed in its wake, the almost non-existent fall back protocols for the supply of basic necessities and services at the besieged condos in the heart of “Premium Colombo”. Residential complexes in other areas/ townships, in fact, have had much better organised conduits of supply to meet demand. The worst faring have indeed, been the Super Luxury developments.

On a personal note, if it had not been for a friend’s domestic aid living in Homagama* from where he sourced vegetables, fruit and dairy, I’d be living off Lilly’s** 10 day old food, fastidiously apportioning it and then scraping the last bits off so that the further lack of dish washing soap at least, wasn’t going to be a problem.

My Super premium condominium actually has a mini market on the premises. Needless to say, it remains shut quite frequently even at the most easeful of social times so it was no surprise to see its sombrely shuttered facade through this entire ordeal; a jeering reminder of how fickle the entire super luxury leitmotif really is.

The management of these developments needs to rouse itself from the salubriously benumbing breezes of the Galle Face Green and look at actually making “Life in the times of the Bacillus Extremis” less arduous for their high-paying residential populace. It’s time to re-evaluate essential skeletal staff numbers together with what constitutes essential services, to ensure life can go on in the sundered cocoons everyone is being forced to build around them. Standing agreements with grocery stores, pharmacies and even laundry services, will be integral towards appreciably improving life in isolation for the residents of the Premium branded residencies.

Time to look and act beyond having the residential address doing all the high-caliber talking. Time to get your hands dirty and implement some real value- added services for the convenience of the residents. The age of the Mighty Microbes is only just beginning and we need to have a head start in making sure we adapt our lives likewise, underscored by carefully deliberated standards of comfort, safety and sophistication.

De Khudai pe aman

Mahvash.

*Homagama: a little town 24kms south east of Colombo in Sri Lanka

**Lilly: a wicked cook who, twice-weekly, whips up gastronomical delights for me; and who heretofore has also been the bearer of all perishable food to my humble abode. Without her, my larder is as barren as the Gobi desert in June.

OPINION|The myth of “Super Luxury” condominiums

Colombo is still a quaint little city with a population of about 2.3 million people*, a small portion of which lives in apartments. And most of this denominator consists of the super privileged (read: professional expats and local landed gentry who have moved with the times, and therefore, out of their sprawling, oftentimes crumbling homes). And the latter is why venue perceptions have frequently begun to border on fantastic delusions of grandeur – a nostalgic attempt at holding onto the vestigial glory of the olden days. These pipe dreams, brought fondly to life by the Management Committees (made up almost entirely of the genteel aristocracy) are believed wholeheartedly by the support staff (administrative, maintenance and security teams) with fires in the belly of their own, becoming unwitting accomplices to the whole morose charade.

In our little city by the sea, the chimera of the super splendrous residential complexes has been in vogue for a number of years now. And given the fact that these apartments are located in the upscale neighbourhoods of the Galle Face area and all environs within a 5 km radius thereof, the illusion is convincingly imperforate. Until one begins to reside at one of these. Yes, i write this affectionate harangue from copious personal experience. And i haven’t yet got to the point; but some cause and effect/ empirical evidence based background was essential i thought!

The ignis fatuus begins with the misconception that the super luxuriousness of the complex is directly proportional to how dazzling the facade is. The myth is further perpetuated by the presence of ancillary but sadly, quite impuissant benefits like a supermarket, a cafeteria, an in-house maintenance team, a laundry service and maybe even a salon. But that is where the high stakes bucking bronco stops. The service levels at these outlets are usually dismal, tardy and over-priced. Add to it the occasional financial tomfoolery (I’m being kind!) and related mendacity brought on no doubt, by a complacent management committee, and you’re living in an Aldous Huxley utopia – A Brave New World where the art of illusion is paramount and short, anaemic memories serve one well.

Unsurprisingly, the solution lies in getting these basic condominium services to function in a robust, effective and equitable manner. It lies in channelling the quite significant financial flexibility gained from the exorbitant monthly maintenance fee (that is another dubiously proud hallmark of the super effulgent residencies), into developing the support structure human capital in terms of skill sets and work ethic. It lies in enabling them to establish their own superior benchmarks in the industry. That, dear ManCom** will be the key driver in capitalising on your brand equity and building longevity into that status, regardless of how many newfangled condominiums streak our horizon.

Oftentimes, the simplest solutions elude us just because they lack the fanfare and perplexity of, say….quantum physics or even Disintermediation (these are purely for sensation; please don’t dwell on either!) The 21st century, with its plethora of advances has also pulled a fast one on our collective psyche. Anything simple just does not ft into the domain of the affluent anymore. A bewildering, complex, almost always self-defeating whitewash of service levels, ethics and of course, high profile apartment facades is where the super luxury buck stops.

To all the developers/ ladies and gents at the top of the luxury condominium food chain: Stop this madness please!

De khudai pe aman.

*Source: world population review.com
**ManCom: Management Committee - an affectionate vestige from my corporate days

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