VERSE | CORONA NON GRATA

Lockdowns, inbound, not allowed to go out.
While Queen Corona, that prima donna gaily traipses all about.
She’s making sure we don’t forget
Her microscopic savageness!
So she merrily mutates every 60 days
In Vietnam, Brazil, India and the UK.
I do despise her with a passion so!
That dung of Newt; that Toady’s toe!

I tried to see the cosmic grace;
Nature’s reckoning, her showing us our place;
Cloaked in all her viral majesty,
Bequeathing wisdom in all this travesty …
But enough already! How much more
Do you want us humans to buckle down and endure?
You know we’re as stubborn as the proverbial asses
No amount of beating will turn us into planet-loving masses!

So begone! Away with you, Ye vile Covid,
Get out of our systems - Scat! Move it!
Two years is enough of a pandemic battle;
Go away! Depart with your deathly rattle.
Even Nature is kind after tap-tapping her cane;
You’ve ravaged our bodies; now you’re driving us insane.
Seclusion, Solitude, I’m so done with these Ice Maidens
Give me a cafe, a bar and a mall that is laden
With throngs of happy and virus-free crowds
Chattering, nattering and walking about!

This ode is for you as an un-fond farewell
Please go to Mars; I hear its volcanoes are swell!

OPINION| THE STATE OF THE (DIS)UNION

It seems like the great American nation has been roundly cursed with the evil eye; like the hexes and insidious incantations of overtly and covertly jealous nations are finally beginning to take effect. Indeed, the star spangled banner is looking increasingly tattered as it waves in the buffeting, tearing winds of change.

Or it could be that Uncle Sam is finally reaping as he has sowed for much of the last 200 years. Demon seeds of racism, inequality and toxic individualism are now putting out chokehold tendrils as the country grapples with not only the pandemic but also a social fabric that appears to be coming apart at the seams.

The road rage episode and the mass shootings, 3 tragic incidences in rapid succession, appear to be the tip of a now grumbling, grousing iceberg. At least two of the three acts of terrorism were perpetrated by young men barely out of adolescence. It isn’t difficult to form a reasonable hypothesis about what has happened. Here’s my informed conjecture:

The 4 year Trump presidency unleashed an era of brute honesty that was heretofore unprecedented. Contrary to the popular sentiment rife amongst his detractors, he was not the cause of the social mayhem that is playing out in America; he was in fact that pariah magician that reveals the deepest, darkest secrets of his trade to the masses. And so, with grandiose fanfare (aided in no small measure by the force of his absurdly narcissistic personality) he exposed the festering underbelly of the great American nation.

The American dream was shown up for what it really was – a utopian ideology pandering exclusively to the whitest and the most dogmatic denominator of the citizenry. With the raw truth finally seeing the light of day, social chaos was bound to follow. The pandemic of course hasn’t made it easier, innervated by the stunningly ridiculous outrage of the average American at having to take precautions for the greater good of the community. What the whole world is seeing is an America that is no more than a loose amalgamation of individuals who are living together as long as they are not expected to sacrifice their space, their time or their right to go maskless wherever they please. It appears that the concept of community in its true sense has dissolved into defiant, impenitent individualism quite some time ago.

The ones hit the hardest by this disruption of everyday civility and tolerance are the infirm elderly and the hormonal young adults. The former have little in terms of strength or capacity to fight off the virus, biological and social. The latter however, on the threshold of newfound independence and the unlimited freedom America promises, are flexing their muscles with the brute abandon of untrained warriors. With no outlet for their bursting world of expectations, these hapless young men didn’t entertain second or third thoughts about their actions. Call it frustration, guns for the taking, or an explosive coming of age, the fact is that they felt empowered, indeed emboldened enough to kill. They went down the path affording them the greatest adrenaline rush to appease their heightened agitation with the suddenly stifling world around them. Can you blame them for their actions? Not if this was an ethical society that had accepted its failings as a protector and nurturer of its people. But like so many other morally failed and failing nations, America too will blame the messenger (the hapless killer) for the insidious last note he delivered. A note crafted and etched into the social fabric by a successive line of self serving politicians masquerading as statesmen (Ladies: thy counteracting wisdom is still in short order). And so, the Machiavellian state passes on its treacherous buck to its citizens, making them pay for its moral bankruptcy.

While psychologists and sociologists may have a plethora of whys, wherefores and what-to-dos on the current American condition, there is one thing that stands out like a sore thumb. A simple soreness that if healed, can stop the gangrenous decay from befouling the rest of the body politic. Basic compassion and a sense of community. If there’s one thing that we in the global backwaters with our emotionally replete cultures know, it’s a deep sense of community: a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together**. These are simple overtures of our humanity that have got lost in the grand American pursuit of individual freedom.

Now more than ever, the Union will benefit from reaching out and offering psychological support to the young and the old, the marginalised and those living on the peripheries of society. I’m not speaking of divisive, half baked gun control laws or grand multi trillion dollar conciliatory, tranquilizing, short-lived plans of rehabilitation and reparation. I’m referring to something as simple as the mushrooming of wayside safe havens/ Conversation Kiosks where people can come in and just talk through the turmoil in their hearts and their minds. The vestigial need to connect, to be acknowledged, to see oneself as part of a bigger, better, vibrant whole, are essential in identifying and addressing agitation, loneliness and hopelessness – all three, treacherous inciters of discontent and violence. Getting the nation to open up at grassroot levels, having them exorcise the demons of alienation and social marginlization, giving them a sense of communal purpose appears to be the likely and unsurprisingly elemental panacea to the great American unrest.

And so, my prayer for the socially and psychologically battered people of the United States is for them to find the strength to finally accept one another for who they are; to unlearn the hate for those who don’t look like them and see the beauty in diversity. For everyone to finally feel like part of a bigger community, not the black, not the brown not the white denominators, but the American community. It doesn’t have to be pitch perfect; it just has to be real and it has to be taught to be aspirational. And with that, there will be ever greater hope for true peace and prosperity for all.

One good conversation can shift the direction of change forever – Linda Lam

**Quote from McMillan and Chavis (1986) “Sense of Community”

FEATURE|THE ENIGMA OF LEISURE TRAVEL IN 2021

When I thought of travel 5 years ago, images of copious, laborious intercity bank visits always came to mind. Job related travels to metropolises, townships and little rural outposts were the sum total of all my hours logged on the road.

Then I embarked on my sabbatical and the whole meaning of the word Travel changed for me. It embodied everything from a leisure trip to Europe or the Middle East, to amiable walks along my own city’s tree-lined, sun dappled walkways. My journeys, big and small, slowly but surely morphed into trips of not only the body but the mind and the soul too as I roamed around and smelled the gardenias, the araliya and the roses. The mind-numbing fumes of business travel were a distant memory in my newly acquired state of finally being free enough to follow my own heart rather than the terse instructions on my work day scheduler. And so it came to pass, that yours truly went from being a reluctant traveller at best, to feeling a rush of endorphins at the very idea of a trip away from the (not entirely unloved!) sweltering bustle of the city. I had become the quintessential Leisure Traveller and I basked in the glorious serendipity of the role.

I also came to realise that Leisure Travel does not have to be limited to trips taken during time away from work. The astute traveller with a love of roaming, can quite successfully combine business and leisure travel with some strategic pre-planning.

-Do a little homework on your destination.  If you’re visiting the place for the first time, it’s always a good idea to take in the top 3-5 tourist attractions.  Take a guided tour for the maximum bang for the buck.  If you’re the intrepid, adventurous type, pick a couple of the places that interest you the most and go it alone.  Some pre-planning on the most optimal modes of transport will be helpful to ensure you don’t find yourself woefully light of pocket post your very first taxi ride.  

-Consult your hotel/ motel concierge. These personages are surprisingly wonderful founts of knowledge on the best, most budget-friendly local sights, sounds and tastes. I have visited some of the nicest little local hot spots and had some of the choicest local cuisine at the behest of their friendly bidding!

-Come prepared with sturdy walking shoes (preferably waterproof), a lightweight umbrella and a light jacket. Whether you’re in the sultry tropics or the cool alpine heights, you’ll be prepared for that unexpected monsoon or seasonal shower.

-Carry a basic medical kit with bandaids, pain killers, anti allergies, mosquito repellant and oral rehydration salts (foreign cuisine can be dicey!)

So what does Leisure Travel look like in 2021?

In our current lives, buffeted as they are with uncertainty on so many fronts, I would define leisure travel as any trip that allows you to relax and/ or rejoice; to realign body, mind and soul to attain some semblance of inner peace and quiet. Whether it takes a solitary retreat in the middle of a forest, or a full moon party at a crowded beach, the purpose of leisure travel is to rejuvenate the traveller. To revitalise the trip-maker to get back into the fray of life, feeling less burdened and more prepared to take each day as it comes.

Given the pandemic and the far reaching limits on travel generally, leisure trips need to become increasingly more creative and out of the box. After a year of enduring pandemic-fuelled lockdowns and curfews, people are more than ready to get away from it all.

Leisure travel can be as simple as a day trip to a spa or a hotel a little way away from home. Little bubbles of rest and relaxation that allow one to get away from the milieu of every day life while also keeping within pandemic defined geographies.

Another increasingly popular avenue of holidaying is to rent a bungalow or a villa somewhere. This is a fortuitous remedy for larger families allowing for both, a change of scenery as well as ensuring pandemic health protocols are observed. There are no busy hotel lobbies or crowded pools or overflowing dining areas to contend with. It’s a pandemic leisure traveller’s dream come true; a kind of “home away from home” holiday.

For the intrepid travellers with dogged wanderlust, there are still places around the world where life goes on undisrupted. With the addition of certain basic health obligations like a negative PCR test, wearing masks in all public places and observing state postulated social distancing rules, these places continue to welcome visitors and indeed have much to offer in the way of travel experience. Some tropical destinations fall into this sphere of venturesome travel.

I, in the meantime, vaccinated and boosted, am content with traveling to my neighbourhood cafe and escaping into the world of abundant imagination across vast spaces through the keys of my iPad. And for the occasional temerarious shock to the system, I and my partner in all crimes of high adventure, pack our overnighters and get away to a nearby beachy or green locale, all the while basking in the simple pleasure of the journey itself.

Leisure travel during the pandemic really is akin to living by the compass and not by the clock, as we tend to our bodies and our spirits in the overwhelming tenuousness of our current lives.

OPINION | A POST PANDEMIC FEIERABEND*

2020 has induced a knee jerk reaction all its own. The instinct to be glad to have seen the back of it as it goes careening into the past, swept along by our combined tsunami of emotions, is palpable in the various conversations had around it. I have tended to hesitate making my voice one with the rest of the inflamed clamour. I have tended to warp speed away from the present to take a far and away, Space Odyssey-like view of the last 300 odd days, and counting. If you ask me then, it is almost like a universal recalibration of the important things in life, presented to us in cosmic fable form; Aesop and Arthur C. Clarke hitting more than a few psycho-social home runs in the timorous expanse of our current life-space.

I have a couple of friends, lovely people, who, simply put, have been bested by life mentally and emotionally. Who have, over the years of “living a productive life” been inextricably caught up in undefined little crags of disquietude – one could call it manic depression on its bad days. Occasional bouts of frustration and anxiety have, over time, taken permanent space in their psyches. So insidious and sly has this psychosis been, that its backlash of exasperation, rage and the unrelenting need to fit in just so, are now synonymous with the spirit of enterprise, success and community. Caught up as we all are in this crazy limbo between life and the final farewell, the essential catharsis comes in the shape of frequent and voluble sounding off on one another. We rave and we rant about the government’s woeful ineptitude, the kilos that just keep piling on, the hijacking of our religion by the crazed Right and the lack of a glass of wine when you need it most to get just a little comfortably numb. We are, one and all, veritable shrinks; roles we have inadvertently taken on, given the stigma (and cost!) attached to the clinical psychological recourse. But when we’re talking of a chronic mental pandemic, everyone pitches in to do their bit in braving a dear one’s purgative assault on their senses. We absorb until our own cups brimmeth over, and then, we return friendly fire!

The truth is, we have all been existing in some version of a survival mode.

And then the pandemic struck.

As it took root and raged, these friends, through no impetus of their own or the social and professional structures they so meticulously occupied, were suddenly left to themselves. Their ties to the lives they’d lived, severed for a few months. And so, left with no choice, they sat back and healed. The transformation has been stunning. They appear happier, calmer and at peace – at least for now. In all its perverse, blood thirsty ravagement, the Pandemic has somehow also helped to heal in the simplest, most unexpected way – by enforcing long bouts of time-out on us in the (mostly!) safe havens of our abodes, enabling us to once again understand and appreciate what it is like for the mind, heart and soul to realign.

I can make the above keen-eyed observation if you will, with some level of distance from the malady we call a “Successful Life” because 5 years ago, i decided to give a bit of a flying kick to what had become my reality – work, workout, dinner and bed – ad infinitum. I may even have, over time, transcended in some modest way, to a higher plane of mindfulness and centredness: Each new day is a blessing, I value my health, I cherish my peace of mind and the sum total of my acquisitive aspirations now boils down to experiences rather than material appropriations.

This past year of being forced to sit back and smell the Araliya*, has been just about long enough to bring us as a species to that critical crossroad. The question before us is that when we do re-embark on the bandwagon of industry and undertaking, how do we proceed from there? Do we continue to live with each day blending insipidly, blandly and sometimes aggressively, even militantly into the next, underscored always by burgeoning bank balances and power mongering? Or do we embrace the timorous quality of life itself and the need to re-evaluate and make it really worthwhile?

For my part, I have this instinctive gut feel. Gone are the days (or very nearly) when bosses evaluated one’s productivity as being proportional to the number of hours that were spent in the hallowed Halls of Slog, empty and fruitless though many of those hours might have been. The new generation workforce impelled by the way our conventional workplaces and work lives have been altered over the past year, is looking for ever smarter, ever shorter, ever more flexible ways to get the job done. In another decade or so, the look and feel of Human Capital will itself undergo a sea change: it will be about new ideologies, epiphanies and insights rather than the sum total of man hours spent on a project, that will determine success. The workforce will be intrepid, and driven on a whole new level – explorers of the very frontiers of the human equation.

And that universal affliction – that global psychosis brought on by the bullheadedness of the 21st century that our lives are so woefully beset by – that may just finally find its nemesis in a post pandemic Feierabend.

“To create the new, we must first de-create the old, and the reality of de-creation is as strong as the reality of creation”**

Feierabend: A German term meaning the time of leisure and relaxation between the end of the work day and bedtime. It denotes a connection to one’s core, of family, friends, hobbies and ones mindspace. In the context of this feature, it means a whole new ideology of how we gauge progress and success as we more fully embrace our humanity.

*Araliya: The colloquial term for the fragrant Frangipani or Plumeria flower/ tree

**Quote by Helen Vendler, an American literary critic and Porter University’s Professor Emerita at Harvard University. 

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 a year 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!

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

OPINION|The Covid Stigma

Of Humanity, Dignity and Collectiveness

Of late, I have found myself thinking, contemplating and ruminating on our general state of being human. And I can only put down the uncomfortable confusion I feel to my obstinate tendency to see the glass half full. Because had I been a realist, I’d probably see our current humanity for what it is: shallow, empty and decaying; echoing with the many ironies of how it should be, but stridently, mockingly, isn’t. The insulating layers of apathy and lassitude have further made our human connections tenuous and encumbered. But again, the knee jerk reactions of the eternal optimist still kick in to make me believe in our collective human community. Our journey as a species thus far has to count for something. And so I think, I hope, that it’s more like being somewhat lost in translation, where humankind “has not [really] ceased to love each other but an accumulation of disappointment and past anger [has] burdened them like underwater insects and made their progress towards each other clumsy and impractical”*.

My oft repeated refrain above is meant to serve as a background to yet another deviation from our humanity. The rising Covid Stigma. It is fast becoming a state of mind, forming its very own stereotypes with continually expanding horizons of censure. In our overriding fear of the unknown, we forget that this is not an affliction of the sinful or the undutiful, nor is it the genetic scourge of the brown, the white or the black – we as a planetary collective are undergoing this blight. Six months down the road, chances also are that you or your loved ones have undergone some form of the infection; the very virulence of the bacillus warrants that probability. Six months on, even more harrowing than the lives lost, is the colossal emotional devastation and heartbreak it has wreaked across the planet; the everlasting emotional scars it has left in its wake. And yet, we have managed, with all the force of our individuality, to the exclusion of all that is communal, collective and shared, to shamelessly repudiate and exclude our neighbours and our fellow city dwellers who have or may have convalesced through the disease.

I have been witness to an occasion where an entire residential complex rose up in belligerent revolt to bar entry to a recovered Covid-19 community member, armed as he was with a clean bill of health from the local infectious diseases centre where he was quarantined for 3 weeks.

These actions wrongfully, cruelly stigmatise and disenfranchise people. We need to be better than that; we need to be more self aware as the intelligent species; we need to stop responding to our basal knee jerk reactions of misplaced fear, anger and self-centredness.

The Novel Corona is here to stay. The lockdowns and curfews are easing up. People are getting back to work. People will begin to travel again. There will be interactions and even disease communication.

There will also at some point, be another wave. There will at some point, be a close friend or family member who will get infected. You will, at some point, then also feel the pain of a stigma that you helped to create, that will by then have taken unyielding root in the fabric of our society.

Now therefore, is the time to break this abhorrent cycle of ostracising people who are infected and being treated or are quarantined for the Novel Corona. Now is the time to resist the primitive urge of blacklisting people who have as socially conscious, responsible citizens, followed treatment and isolation protocols and have recovered from the disease.

Let us start dignifying our humanity.

De Khudai pe aman

*Quote from Phillip Oakes‘ “A Lion in the House”

SHORT STORY|Days of Purgatory – (Part 5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saif: “Hello ladies…”

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

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

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

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

Farzana: “And this is our friend Farrukh ____”

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

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

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

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

Sabeen: “Saif….”

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

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

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

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

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

Sabeen: Nephew?

Farzana: Uncle?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hai! Kinna sonra munda ai!”(8)

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

*Chowk: intersection

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

(1): “Shabana! Bring me my clothes!”

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

*Jaan: love

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

(4): “ok, get them”

*Shahzada Gulfaam: Urdu colloquialism for ‘Prince Charming’

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

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

*Takht: princely seat/ throne

*Crore: 10 million

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

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

(6): “people tend to die off sooner”

(7): “Madam, tea is served”

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

OPINION|The Reluctant Martyrs

The “ill-fated” Pakistan International Airlines flight of May, 2020

As this pandemic rages on, the truth of things, the bare bones architecture of our flawed sensibilities and ethics are rattling like so many skeletons in our collective closet. It is almost an embarassemnt to be a part of the human species in this, our very own alternate Earth reality. Yes, it helps to believe that there are other universes where our little blue planet is faring copiously better on all human levels!

And so i feel constrained to give my two bits worth on the tragedy that befell scores of families who lost loved ones in the “ill fated” PIA commercial flight en route from Lahore to Karachi on May 23rd, 2020.

“Ill fated” – words full of the promise of a clean getaway; of insidious lies; of crass insensitivity; of cruel heartlessness; of passing the buck. Words that are used as copiously and as mindlessly as are the sacrosanct verses intoned 5 times every day to the Almighty. Somewhere along the way, our inner voice, our conscience- our very humanity was cast off as a burdensome, inconvenient companion, while the optically grandiose rites and rituals have marched stridently along with us through the ages.

Worse than the Covid 19 pandemic, is the ethical and moral pandemic ravaging our humanity, our sense of community and our work ethic. We have become insensible to all manner of injustice, lack of incumbency and the flagrant flouting of any semblance of a civic sense. We have lost not only our capacity for, but also our moral awareness of what it means to be compassionate, dutiful and responsible.

Worse than the tragedy of the event itself is the tragedy that there will be no definitive, resolute consequences to this incidence. It has already been accredited to fate and martyrdom and therein lies the sum total of the analysis, diagnosis and fix of a catastrophe that killed close to a 100 people, leaving families – children, parents, siblings, friends and relatives, bereft and shattered.

I can’t help but compare the almost negligible call to some kind of answerability in this calamitous incidence to the recent case of Dominic Cummings, Chief Advisor to the British PM. The man stepped out during the lockdown to seek childcare for his 4 year old son while both he and his wife were displaying Covid symptoms; an act that’s arguably open to some manner of interpretation as per the country’s Lockdown guidelines. And so, they could have/ might have exposed the public to the infection. There was no actual death or destruction wreaked; but the mere probability of harm embodied in the act of leaving his home during lockdown, was a culpable offence. Cummings was consequently subjected to a harrowing series of brutal questions, loud clamours for accountability and insistent calls for justice and even his dishonourable discharge by the state, the media and the body politic at large. While we, the self proclaimed stalwarts of our faith and of its copious prescripts on “Huqooq-ul-Ibad*”, have summarily dismissed a 100 fatalities as yet another act of God. The God that we are so adept at putting front and centre of all our duplicitous, corrupt and brutish actions.

Maybe if the state institutions, our political overlords and the general powers that be, began to think of this nation, first and foremost, as a Republic of Humankind rather than a bubbling, imploding cauldron of divisions and differences, there would be some hope for our humanity. And since we’re all such champions of liturgy, labels and nomenclature, maybe this change in our national identity would also have a more profound impact on how we conduct ourselves socially and morally. And maybe, just maybe, this vicious cycle of ‘copious cause and no personal consequences’ will break to allow just a little more conscience, answerability and justice to pervade the various “ill-fated” streams of our lives.

De Khudai pe aman.

*Huqooq-ul-Ibad: the responsibility/ duty every Muslim owes to the rest of his fellow beings, regardless of the others’ faith or spiritual leaning.

REFLECTION|The New Superhero: Your Inner Voice

Is it just me or is the universe really trying to say something to this little blue planet, the size of a pin point in the gigantism of the cosmos? Is it me or is nature needling us with just a little more force than it’s usual maternal nudge for us to finally awaken? Is it only me or is there something prognostic, sobering and depressing when we do “awaken” every so often and see what we’ve become? If it’s really only me feeling this sense of urgency to get the plot right on our Humanity; this sense of impending doom and gloom if we tarry longer; and this looming finality, good or bad, to life as we’ve known it, then I’m definitely a stray time traveller who’s arrived in the wrong alternate earth reality. In that case, woe is me because I’ll be carrying the burden of conscience for the entire planet while the rest of the 7.5 billion laugh all the way to their Corona-stupefied finales (or indeed fueled by any of it’s gamut of equally virulent cousins).

But that’s drama – for effect; I’m hardly Osho or any of the other spiritual giants that have come and gone, with their Third Eye* as wide open as the big blue sky. So it’s safe to presume that i echo the sentiments of many, many more when i say:

Look within you; stronger and more powerful than any religious doctrine or traditional wisdom, is your own Inner Voice. It has undergone 200,000 years of evolvement to be honed to this apex. Yet, it has stayed prodigally disregarded and has with time, become mute. Look within; teach it to speak to you again. Listen to its sage common sense, its intuitive compassion and its innate nobility. Let it flow through your senses; let it touch your heart, let it course through your very core.

Don’t be afraid to let your mind inquire; don’t be afraid to let it wander into secret passages that have been walled off by archaic conventions, rites and rituals. Don’t be afraid to take down those walls, stone by stone, rite by rite, ritual by ritual. Don’t be afraid to see; don’t be afraid to feel. Don’t be afraid to revel in the universal truths of equality, empathy and respect for all; and through it all, let your Inner Voice be your biggest cheerleader and champion.

Change your thinking; change your attitude; change your sense of self; change the way you interact with the world. Change the old ways that have sown strife, discord and division; be an Agent of Change, and let your Inner Voice be the brightest star in the firmament that lights up your path ahead.

Reach out. Reach out to your neighbour; reach out to your community; reach out to the shop assistant who’s been bagging your groceries for years; reach out to the municipal worker who’s been sweeping your streets for decades; reach out to the doorman whose ready smile has lifted your spirits more than once; reach out to the good, the bad and the ugly. Reach out to the world, and let your Inner Voice be your loudest megaphone.

It is time to meditate, ruminate and contemplate on all that makes us Human. It is time now to face up to the emergent truths, and indeed to exemplify and embody those truths with the fervour and passion of a tsunami. We are at the cusp, indeed at the crossroads, of the spiritual, cognitive and ethical evolution/ devolution of our species. Now more than ever, we need to think beyond our individual selves and look past the myopic lens of our self serving ideologies. Now more than ever, we need to define and embrace a new shared philosophy that is in line with everything that makes Humankind the most intelligent, aware, humane and beneficent super-species of our planet.

It is time to rouse from our stupor, dust ourselves off and take the ‘other’ fork in the road; the baton is in your hands and your guide is your Inner Voice.

De Khudai pe aman.

*Third Eye: the eye of insight; the ability to see beyond the obvious and the mundane.

OPINION|Where (Sh)eagles Dare*

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

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

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

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

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

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

De Khudai pe aman.

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

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.

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