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!

VERSE|CUCUMBERS WITH EMOTION

They say with some frivolity that we humans
Are nothing more than cucumbers with emotion.
Even in this bizarre drollery
There is some existential irony
As we go from one diet to the next;
One new year’s resolution to the next;
One promise of commitment to another;
One version of truth to another;
One moral compass point to the next;
One exhausted ideology to the next …
Always yearning, needing and wanting;
Promoting, demoting, hiding and flaunting;
Also faltering, crumbling, momentarily falling;
Then rising and moving, stoically persevering;
But ever Hoping; always enduring
To become ever better; to build something lasting.
And so we continue to live on our blue green planet,
Perpetually watering 60% of our body weight;
Unconsciously threading into the throb of Existence
As it weaves its alchemy in the H2O continuance
In and around us; into the grand scheme of things;
Our emotions are there to remind us of this.
So the next time you feel somewhat overwhelmed,
Under the weather; emotionally spent;
Take a deep breath, and remember ladies and gents.
That we’re just watery green vegetables endowed with sentiment.
I’m kind of a big dill …

OPINION| THE PRODIGAL SONS

Earlier this year, after decades, the island of Sri Lanka welcomed the Pakistani cricketing legend of yore. Thankfully, the political mantle is still too new to disenchant the international fan base. Not that I think he is a corrupt bag of officious bones in the manner peculiar to many of his South Asian compatriots and indeed, his very own predecessors. No, he’s just a little soft in the head; a natural affliction, I have come to believe, when one decides to not go down the oft trodden path of political corruption and depravity. The cerebral mush of course, leads to an entirely different set of bureaucratic disasters. The long and short of it is that Imran Khan’s heart is in the right place but his brain is an addled brew of eye of newt, and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog*... And so, even with the best of intentions, the empire double doubles, toils and troubles!* But i digress… and can you blame me! Like everyone else in our beleaguered country, I too am a devoted armchair warrior and am wont to vent.

So why did our PM Imran Khan visit Sri Lanka?

What an interesting question, full of intrigue and the promise of riveting conspiracy theories (rubbing my hands gleefully and wanting to quote more eccentric old world verse!)

So here’s my take on it. The global power structure is gradually changing, and the South Asian bloc wants to be ready to play its part. Colonially-seeded geographical antagonism is seeming more and more irrelevant and incongruous as our unipolar world dithers on its North American weighted axis. As the US struggles with its burgeoning domestic issues, its inconvenient truths, it seems less and less likely to hold the moral mantle of global leadership. And when that dignity, skin deep though it may be, is shaken, the fall of the rest of the edifice is not far behind. No one wants to be told what to do by someone who can’t keep peace in their own backyard. And so, when some little but worthy nation somewhere tells Uncle Sam to mind his own business, we need to be ready to play our parts in catalysing the new equilibrium. Who those game-changing tRICksters* will be, is anyone’s guess. What is pertinent is that success will depend on there being some semblance of peace and harmony between the mighty neighbours of the Eastern hemisphere. And that peace has to begin ground up; with the smaller warring nations politely brought to heel first, so to speak. And so it was that on a swarthy February day, in the golden arms of the south Asian tear drop island, Pakistan was brought into the loop of the Global Reset. Because having two bickering nuclear armed neighbours in the region is generally not favourable to the efficacy of grand plans. And so, a meeting of the two estranged sisters, India and Pakistan, was arranged.

It is also interesting to note that hot on the heels of the Pak PM’s visit, the citizenry was treated to rather strategic Indo-SL combined military aerobatics, showcasing the battling might of mostly the Indian airforce. A polite but stratospherically overt reiteration that while there is some appetite for absurd but fit-to-current-form alliances, it’s best not to forget who the Saber Holders are and who the Saber Rattlers are.

All this of course is a funny-feeling-in-the-gut conjecture; the waxing eloquent of conspiracy theories. But these days, when truth has so often been stranger than fiction, the civic mingling of sworn enemies is not such a far fetched ideal. The proof of the gesture will of course be in how the two neighbours deal with each other going forward. (Watch out for startlingly long periods of peace along usually tempestuous/ skirmish-ridden borders).

Wade Davis’ words are a reverberating mantra for our times when he said, “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”.

Let’s hope America continues to scratch the surface of its domestic/ social inequities, leaving little power vacuums across the globe. Let’s also hope that the Prodigal Sons of the East (daughters are in scarce order!) rise to the occasion. When the time comes, it will take a concerted effort of going against the grain of everything we know to be our patriotic truths, to seed a new epoch.

*eye of newt.... verse quoted from Shakespeare’s Macbeth
*tRICksters: the RIC in the word stands for the 3 global powerhouses of Russia, India and China.

TRIPPING GOALS| CALAMANSI COVE VILLAS

HOTEL: CALAMANSI COVE VILLAS BY JETWING
AT: Wijerama Road, Balapitiya 80550
TYPE: LUXURY BOUTIQUE HOTEL (with 12 villas in total)
DISTANCE FROM COLOMBO: ABOUT 2 HOURS DOOR TO DOOR

In the spirit of getting away from the urban milieu for a bit and taking advantage of the south western coastal season, the Calamansi Cove Villas visit came about. This was our first time at this little gem of a place in Balapitiya and it was serendipitously refreshing.

OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT:

-We were served our meals in the alfresco dining area overlooking the coastal side of the property.  While the other meals were delightful, dinner was fraught with a militant army of mosquitoes that were bent on vanquishing the enemy!  There were no coils or other repellants in place.  Thankfully, the much travelled, much beset duo that we are, we’d come prepared with our own cream repellant and citronella incense sticks. Once we lit the sticks and slathered ourselves, the meal became lovely.  Would be a good idea for the hotel staff to light a few mosquito coils or the Lanka Sumeda citronella/ cinnamon/ lemongrass incense sticks (priced at ~Lkr 250/- for a 100 sticks).  They are very effective and make all the difference between having a memorable outdoor meal or becoming an aperitif and an entree for the entire resident vampire-insect population.

-There was a body wash and a shampoo (which felt eerily the same) but there was no little tube of hand lotion. And so, the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet remained in uncomfortable arid limbo post our splash in the briny sea.

-The Calamansi is a small, contained little place with 12 villas in total. As such, there is not too much ambient lighting from any surrounding hotel recesses/ areas, and so towards the evening, the place had taken on a dark, deserted look. We had to request the staff to switch on the lights in the garden/ pool area which the dining hall overlooks. It completely changed the atmosphere, making it more welcoming/ lived in.

-The check-out area was also outdoors. There was not even a pedestal fan, and in the heat of the afternoon (the usual check-out time), by the time we were done paying our bills, we were drenched. Settling the bills somewhere inside or at least having a fan outside would make for a fitting end to the entire experience.

THE GOOD STUFF!

-The entire property is beautiful.  Small and contained, the Calamansi is perfect for getaways in our current Pandemic-stricken times where big places with teeming dining areas and pools pose a hazard all their own. 

-The villas are reminiscent of lovely, airy little apartments, each with its own little garden and the structural amenities that come with an outdoor area: a beautiful veranda opening out into a private little garden. The beds are made for hours of beauty sleep and then some! The pillows were perfect too. (Having, on a number of occasions, lost many hours of sleep in the dubious intimacy of a hard/ lumpy bolster, I appreciate the head-hug of a plump, downy pillow).

-The Calamansi definitely has one of the better ocean views/ feels. The beach is absolutely gorgeous with its powdery fine sand and gentle undulation into the water. The February waves were perfect for body boarding or, for the more gentle of demeanour, a walk along the lapping, foamy edges of the water.

-The food was quite palatable and was part of a set menu with 3 or so main choices to select from at every meal. There was a combination of local and continental cuisine to choose from. Because of the set menu, we also had the flexibility of having our breakfast quite a lot later than the usual 10.30am meal time limit.

-The piece de resistance at any of the resorts is really its people and their expertise and service. On that front, I have to commend the Calamansi for having a lovely set of people on its staff. From the life guard, Sujith, who had more than a few palpitations as my partner and I gambolled in the sea, turning inadvertent somersaults in the cresting and waning waves; to our main server, Chandana and the chef who obliged us on more than one occasion with fulfilling the little culinary requests that we made that were not a part of the set menu.

-The villas are perfect for an intimate getaway or a little holiday with the entire family. Suffice to say that the Calamansi Cove Villas has already become a favourite and we’re already planning a subsequent trip in the next couple of months.

FEATURE|BY TUK OR BY CROOK

I have now been using these four-stroke creatures to transport me around the island for the last 5 years, and I have to say that we’ve developed quite a lovely (e)motional symbiosis. They take me where I have to go, and I help them log a part of their daily distance while we both also get in a bit of a quaint conversation. The tuk tuk chatter ranges from Imran Khan’s political likability (he’s at least universally loved by the SL 3-wheeler brigade), to expertly compressed 6 minute summaries of their lives delivered amidst unexpected swerves, dodges and lurches, as my driver looks back during the choicest parts of his particular narration. I react congenially enough until imminent death threatens our largely blindly-pitching carnival of drama. Then I don my mother superior mantle, cut my voluble driver short and tell him if he doesn’t focus on getting me to my destination still in possession of my earthly form, that I will disembark right there, right then. That works, because losing a “hire” is almost as bad as having an animated conversation killed at its apex – this tuk tuk double whammy is a thing to be avoided at all costs. So the rest of the journey continues in inhaling the toxic and nauseating but thankfully silent, and undramatic fumes of over-taking vehicles.

Tuk Tuk drivers come in all manner of forms, from the road runners to the pavement huggers and a whole colorful gamut in between. There are the staid, honest types who drive in sedate silence (a perrenial favourite and an increasing rarity); the sly, intrepid ones who will take you on wildly circuitous routes to your destination; the meter cheaters who with undisguised enthusiasm will punch in 10 extra buttons on the instrument to awaken the tuk tuk Beast of Deceit; the MI6 Hall of Famers who will glance suspiciously at every other vehicle they pass, with special x-ray vision scans reserved for when they stop at traffic lights. The ones that are big fans of external trappings, their carriages outfitted with WiFi, a DVD player, a 15 inch monitor, sanitizer, a tissue box and, wait for it…. seatbelts! The nervous, anxious ones driving barely intact tuk tuks that groan and whine in anguished protest – (I tend to tip them the most generously. My sentimental, rooting-for-the-underdog knee jerk reactions continue to be alive and well). The Goodwill Ambassador who will, over the 10 minute ride, deliver a heart warming speech on the goodness of his countrymen and the many wonderful bounties of his paradise isle. Then there are the tenacious shopping mall 3-wheeler brigades with ethics that are as dubious as they themselves are territorial – one has to spew some quantities of brimstone and hellfire to get out of their clutches; also probably the only contingent that all the other tuk tuk drivers hesitate to lock their … headlights with!

This endearingly sensationalist lot also believes in pithy, public declarations of the meaning and gist of their lives, emblazoned as they are on their autos. There’s a sweet, almost nostalgic obsession with certain historical personages and quaint adaptations of favored English idioms: Like Che Guevara who always wants the tuk tuk contingent to rebel; Bob Marley who would like them to forget their woes in most likely, a moonshine-steeped, reggae-rocked weekend. Then there is the tuk tuk driver throwing out a barefaced challenge asserting “if you’re bad, I’m your dad“; or the one who’s had it with arrogance saying “fly not high so you fall not low“; or the myriad others who loudly declare that their hearts are up (on their tuk tuk behinds) for the taking, and as many more who have publicly closed themselves to love… certain lady passengers always being an exception!

On wet days, of which there are many on this tropical island, the rickshaw drivers will race home largely oblivious to the desperate hails of rain-soaked pedestrians. The ones with a flair for a bit of perverse drama, will even pretend to slow down and then rev up almost immediately, leaving momentarily buoyed spirits crashing into the puddles forming all around; revelling in the reversal of the supply/ demand structure for the course of the monsoon torrent. I have tended to see the comic relief in this too as I have been lured and then abandoned by the fickle advance and departure of an unoccupied tuk tuk. Like they say, everyone needs their own particular form of catharsis!

As colourful and varied as the character spectrum is on these public carriers, they, one and all, manage to go where no other/ bulkier vehicles can. Through nooks and crannies, brushing, with millimetres to spare, past a lumbering bus, racing down paths barely wide enough for 2 people to walk abreast. There is something of a mild urban censure of these contorting asphalt plyers – many say, a menace on Colombo’s narrow roads that are already burgeoning with their automotive burdens. But for us, the carless, environment-preserving lot (inadvertent as this reduced CO2 footprint state of being may be!) they are our reasons for remaining happily mobile across our neighbourhood geographies.

And so, as I spend my days roaming the city in between bouts of reading, writing and grocery shopping, I have formed an almost affectionate bond with the tuk tuk posse of the metropolis. Despite the ravages wrought by the pandemic of 2020, they remain optimistic, enterprising, courageous and cheerfully defiant on the roads. I still call them out for over-charging, they still respond with outlandish excuses but together we go pitching and careening across the city in a haze of mutual appreciation.

Getting around the island by Tuk or by Crook!

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. 

POLITICAL FARCE|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 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.

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

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!

VERSE| PARADISE EARTH

Another day breaks on Paradise Island,
Little glimmers of it coming through the gap at the top of the curtain rail
That was a structural detail I hadn’t intended to but quite happily overlooked when I was putting up my blackout drapes.
Still in bed, from the play of light and shadow on my wall,
I know whether it’s going to be a sunshiny day
Or whether the island would wear its Nimbus* cape,
Disrobing only when all has been washed clean;
When all has been purged and restored yet again,
For us to do over; for us to get it right.

I get to “my” cafe, always armed with my iPad or my book
My book or my iPad; my iPad or my book - never without.
My cafe, that safe haven of familiarity and space
Always the same cafe, my cafe; the one cafe - never another.
The place, the accompaniments, even the latte I always have:
A conglomerate of sameness, of routine, of security
Shotgunned together by the compulsions of a creature of habit;
Unsettled only, infrequently, when I momentarily feel something stir inside
A sensation, an excitement, a consciousness of Something More.

Come evening, I sit in my lounge, post workout, post shower
Cloaked in a gentle haze of endorphin fuelled fulfilment
For getting my steps in; my cardio done; for being “conscious and good”.
For staving off the Monster of Maladies; for helping the universe protect and preserve.
And then I turn on the television to the News: that digital Carnival of Disorder;
To Mankind’s ravagement, sadism and deception
To Nature’s retaliation of catastrophes and devastation
And it continues, ON and ON and ON...
And I PAUSE ||

A feeling of wretchedness and hopelessness overcomes me
And then irritation, frustration and a tired exasperation
And finally a fading away in a self-preserving haze.
And I get on with my evening of dinner, Netflix and some reading;
Then to bed.

Another dawn breaks; and the timorous glow of another new day
Reaches into my bedroom; also flickering into the homes of 7 billion other people.
A tenuous beacon of second chances, do-overs; of divine favours...
And I step out of my home; and head towards my cafe,
Once again, walking down the road of endless possibilities, new beginnings; of better things to come.

De khudai pe aman.

*Nimbus: rain bearing clouds

OPINION|LOVE ACTUALLY*

In the current chaos of the world, an international relations argument for why, especially now, we need Imran Khan at the helm of affairs in Pakistan

“Yatha raja, thatha praja* – As the King, so are the People.”

A sage old saying that has not had more relevance and resonance than in our current erratic, wayward, even mercurial times; when all the world is actually a stage and all the men and women merely players, following the charge of the madman with the loudest megaphone. More and more we see the dictatorial, the deranged and the downright demoniac garner adoration, loyalty and an ever burgeoning electorate.

In all this terrifying chaos, however, there are still those who with mindful purpose, shine their torches on plurality, decency and probity. And one of these relatively new, tender footed yet mightily zealous people, also happens to be the Premier of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. And I say this not out of any rose coloured glasses affliciton for the historically charsimatic Khan of Philanthropy and Cricket, but as a denizen of our beleaguered country who is residing overseas.

Here’s why.

For the last 40 years, our status in global politics and our international relations have been incrementally dismal and inauspicious, to say the least. From counter intuitive proxy wars to unmitigated corruption to dynastic political subterfuge, we have avidly done it all. And as the world has become smaller and international borders have become increasingly blurred, the strength of our passport has progressively dwindled into the twilight zone of global esprit de corps and camaraderie. The once rising star of South Asia, has become the battle-worn, terrorist-nurturing, drug den of the world and the blowback for its citizens, both resident and abroad has been life altering. There is an almost resigned political fatigue that has settled on its populace, despite the daily boisterous harangues on the numerous news channels- that is merely noise to fill the silence of the pariah space we now occupy. At the heart of it all, there is an almost hypnotic/ philosophical acceptance of the reaping of what a handful of us sowed some 4 decades ago.

For some of us though, the overseas residents that are somewhat displaced from the mesmeric daze of our collective state of mind, the grimness of our reality is both sobering and painful. From the persona non grata treatment at the various international airport immigrations and embassies (and i have a few scarring anecdotes to tell of my own!) to the deriding or sympathetic social vibes in the global drawing room, the entire gamut of a Pakistani’s international experience is skewed far and away from anything in the confines of “normal”. Even the most ardent ambassadors of the wholesomeness of what it is – even what it was – to be Pakistani, feel the full force of the detractory drag of the global collective. And so it has been for almost as long as i have travelled – until now.

That small but intrepid torch light i spoke of…. I’m finally seeing positive little glimmers of it even as i sit it out as a foreign resident amidst the 2020 Covid 19 pandemic. People I meet don’t instantly look confused or disinterested or conversationally challenged to meet a Pakistani. They have been smiling more (genuine grins at that too!) while they ask how our PM is doing and how “lucky” we are to have him when most of the rest of the world is going to pot. There have been more of those hitherto rare little dialogues where i have been able to share, with shoulders squared and eyes glinting with confidence (and the restfulness of 9 hours of sleep!), the progress Pakistan has made battling the virus and keeping its populace safe, while also keeping the engines of enterprise running; small, even moot successes, but all steps in the right direction. From business associates to friends to tuk tuk drivers, the international narrative on the Pakistani State of Being is veering back from the vagrant fringe just a bit at a time, to what is normal and congenial. So yes! I’m putting it down to our prime minister.

Even so, keeping true to our nature of the last couple of decades – that of the earnest albeit combative acceptance of our besieged nationality – we continue to be exultantly vocal and contentious of the current administration too. Be that as it may. Where previous regimes have had multiple stabs at methodically and obsessively ruining the country, it may be a good time to show some grace, forebearance and patience even when the reins of the country are in the hands of a politically unseasoned, wet behind the ears, wont to pivot and falter, non dynastic office holder, who also happens to be our only current hope towards some semblance of sincere nation building. With time, this political newbie could indeed become, not an expert politician, but the Statesman our nation so desperately needs.

Do i sound like one caught in an emotional maelstrom? Perhaps. Maybe. I prefer to call it the nostalgic discernment of the geographically removed; with the distance-enhanced ability to see the starkness of the administrative options in front of us. And really, for the first time, the choice is not difficult.

So yes, in all this crazy milieu, it’s Love Actually that i feel for our very own Captain of the Republic, Imran Khan.

De Khudai pe aman

*Love Actually: title inspiration from a 2003 movie (starring Hugh Grant) where the key protagonist is the British PM.

*Yatha Raja, thatha praja: a saying from ancient Hindu scriptures.

SHORT STORY|SOILANT GREEN* – Part 2

COLOMBO; SRI LANKA:

December 20th, 2021:

“Rockin’ around the Christmas tree

Have a happy holiday!

Everyone dancin’ merrily

In the new old-fashioned way!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue Decorations on our Christmas Tree

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

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

The Sojourn to Save

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

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

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

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

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

Invitation to a Turning

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

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

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

I swallowed hard and looked at Aunty Christine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Religion

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

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

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

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

De Khudai pe aman

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

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

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

SHORT STORY| SOILENT GREEN* – Part 1

COLOMBO; SRI LANKA:

September 21st, 2021; 10pm:

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

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

September 29th, 2021; 8am:

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

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

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

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

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

Then there was the first sighting.

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

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

It had also struck horror in the hearts of men.

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

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

No Man is an Island.

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

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

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

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

T + 28 Days Later

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

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

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

It is not over yet.

De Khudai pe aman

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

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

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

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

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