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

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

VERSE|The Lady with the Mona Lisa Smile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

De Khudai pe aman

VERSE| I Need To Find You Again

I wrote this dedication 8 years ago for my mother who passed away in October 2012 after a very brave, very arduous battle with cancer. She’s missed everyday, but now also celebrated every day. She remains the Queen of our Hearts.

My heart’s shattered into little pieces.
My mind struggles to synthesise reality.
I find myself suspended in painful limbo - i look for you; catch glimpses of you in everything around me - and then you’re gone.
I’m left staring at vestiges - a vase of flowers you fixed; a shirt you hemmed; a text you wrote.

Your courage, your grace, your love and your compassion;
These are such dauntingly enormous qualities.
With you around, i gave myself false courage: I had your DNA; i was bound to be in some small measure, the Woman of Substance that you were.
Now I can’t find the courage nor the grace. And my love and my compassion seem spent.
I need to know you’re still around.....

Even as I write this, I see your beautiful, smiling face looking right at me - vibrant, loving, comforting, happy.

I need to synchronise my heart with yours again, Mama.
I need to find my “Woman of Substance” that you have bequeathed to the three of us.
I need to find you again.

And as in birth, so in adulthood, I WILL find you again.

I love you.

VERSE|I Am Dystopia!

WHEN NATURE ROARS

2020 dawned on us, full of the goodness of even numbers,
Of existential vision perfection, insight, wisdom; all symbolic rumbles,
Of good things to come, of new beginnings and of blithesome continuity,
Of travel and adventure, of togetherness and sunny opportunity.

Just when the new year smile from our lips spread,
To brighten the providential gleam in our eyes,
Mother Nature stepped out of her wooded grove
And resolved to cut all 7 billion of us down to size.
She waved her hoary Staff of Life and brought it down hard to the ground,
And created a little critter amongst us, virile and ergonomically sound.

And then around the globe it traipsed as gleeful as a clam,
Across hills and valleys, fields and plains, aeroplanes and trams;
It skipped across the hot asphalt, into neighbourhood grocery stores;
Hopping along trolley handles, even dancing across binned apple cores;
Nestling onto careless hands, touching sun-kissed faces,
The Covid critter had VOA* for a whole gamut of places.

And then it was a few weeks on, late March, early April
That the malignant, morbid pong arose from the places it had traveled.
Sick and sicker people got, with the older crowd being hit the hardest,
It picked at folks everywhere, taking the killing-spree route that was fastest.
It advanced, armed with its axe and it’s murdering scythe as it went for the weakest,
Ravaging not only bodies, but spirits and souls at its absolute bleakest.

The Covid death knell continued to be tolled as the weeks turned into months;
On and on it butchered and killed on copious, disparate fronts.
They say there’s an existential kind of omen in the raging of this pandemic,
Like a paradoxical panacea for even worse killers that are fundamentally systemic.
Like racial biases, climactic atrocities and economic ills,
They say the Covid has descended upon us to collect on Mothers Nature’s bills.

We owe her for the oceans that are perishing by the hour,
For the dwindling woodland space and the raging forest fires,
For tearing into her lungs with each metric tonne of CO2 emission,
For killing and maiming and cruelly placing her creatures in wretched submission,
For all the unkindness, the hypocrisy and the bigoted beliefs,
She finally stepped in from the depth of the earth to deliver some relief.

While she’s imperceptibly taking back the reins of this planet we call home,
We continue to be caught in the toxic harvest of what we’ve already sown.
She’s spreading her roots like gnarled old ivy across our cities and towns,
Reclaiming, repairing, reviving reforming the blues, the greens and the browns.
Soon her deep dark tendrils will wind around our greed-beleaguered throats,
Choking out the poison, the malady of the spirit that has taken such firm root.

It will be the end of an epoch, but also the start of something new;
An honesty, a tenderness, a Oneness with Nature will slowly start to brew.
For Humanity to thrive again, a death of The Now is essential;
The dreams and motivations caught up in that Now will also become inconsequential.
As Nature beckons us closer to her, one lesson at a time,
The world will poise on a transformational brink while she scours off the grime.

2020 will indeed be the year when Humanity attained perfect vision,
When Mother Nature drew copious blood to finally change our Human Condition.

De Khudai pe aman.

*VoA: Visa on Arrival

OPINION|The Consciously Blazing World*

A Post-Colonial/ Post Abolition Prescription for Healing and Moving On

2020 has become the proverbial skeleton in our collective human closet that has been, quite clamorously, wanting out. From the Australian bushfires to the Californian wildfires to the south Asian locust infestation, to flash floods, to the still raging Pandemic, Nature has been rapping her well worn knuckles at us. The seeds that we have sown ourselves, such as they are, in our socio-economic evolution of the past 500 years, are finally also bearing insidious fruit. And some of us are being plated out with that toxic “manna” much more generously than others. The world is in a peculiar state of flux as systemic and institutionalised biases and inequities raise their ugly heads, demanding attention and exacting blood.

With the Northern hemisphere facing its most vocal and vehement push-back yet of institutionalised racism, it seems apt to look into the whys and wherefores of how this monster is still not only alive and well, but traipsing around the globe. The dubious start-up credit, of course, rests with the two most notorious schemes employed by the West to own, manage and use entire swathes of humanity: Colonisation and Slavery.

While the colonists eventually exited their colonised domains (for the most part), it is compelling to note that the enslaved were never repatriated or given a homeland to call their own. Most notably, post the American civil war, they were clumsily declared “free men” (the “free women” movement is, arguably, still a work in progress around the world) and left largely to their own devices and spirit of enterprise to assimilate into society. There was no state-sponsored Integration Scheme, no Reparation Act, no real organised effort made by the enslavers to economically lift and psychologically release tens of thousands of men and women from over two centuries of being treated like chattel. Fast forward 200 years and the vestiges of that national lethargy has taken on an even more insidious anatomy in the form of systemic racism and marginalisation. This scarlet thread has woven its treacherous way through every aspect of the fabric of society, leaving citizens feeling like illegal aliens in their own country. This is being exemplified loud and clear in the current state of world affairs, and so effectively described by the black American actor Will Smith when he said “Racism has always been around. Now it’s being filmed for all to see.”

The colonisers departed from their dominions after demarcating entire continents with the assiduity of a baker cutting a cake with the straightest edges possible. There was almost no political, socio-economic or ideological science applied to demarcating borders. Nations were cut up overnight changing not only the cartography of the world but also the lives of millions of people. Thus seeding a post colonial wave of civic and religious unrest that has continued to simmer and boil over between previously congenial neighbours. Case in point: the Indian subcontinent. With its current combined population of 1.7 billion, 40% or 680 million of which comprises the middle class or the engines of economic growth of a country, the south Asian collective would have been a global force to contend with. The Durand Line and the Radcliffe Award ignited fires that are being stoked to this day in the form of radical religious militarisation and exclusionary nationalism.

So where do we go from here?

There is a critical healing/ advancement process that is integral to moving forward from the grass root levels.

  • Accept that it happened: Currently, the baseline of “popular history” is all wrong. There is an almost smug evasion of the truth; smug, because the pall of racial ignorance and apathy has been allowed to thrive for the past couple of centuries. It is time to come face to face with the reality of what happened, starting from the highest government platforms right down to the man on the street. The facts need to be overtly stated and accepted so that the collective social conscience can finally start kicking in.
  • Embed an ethical awareness: Once the truth has been told and confronted, the moral dialogue needs to start, spearheaded by the nation’s academicians and legislators. A Code of Race Ethics needs to be formulated for the body politic at large, to systemically unlearn and then relearn their moral sense around the subject. Building grit and gumption around commemorative events like Juneteenth* in the United States and probably the Amritsar tragedy* in the United Kingdom, will help to embed the mindset. In the spirit of Veterans’ Day, these memorialisations too will serve as a reminder of the courage to have overcome, safeguarded and progressed, while also ensuring the keen cognisance of the atrocities of the past. The goal being to ultimately bring about a sea change in the “racio-moral”* compass of the world.
  • Make Colonial/ Slavery studies a compulsory part of the school curriculum: This is fundamental for both, the colonised/ the enslaved, and the West. For a systemic national mindset change, race related instruction and knowledge sharing has to begin in the impressionable years. Together with the many glorious battle wins vanquishing sundry foes being featured in History books, a thoughtful, insightful study into their dark historical pasts by the largely western/ white nations is essential to methodically build universal understanding, acceptance and empathy.
  • Encourage ongoing dialogue: This is critical to ensure that the mindset change that has begun, is made permanent. Discourse is important on every aspect ranging from the moral issues inherent in the concepts of the “Colonial Imperialists” and “Slave Masters”, to reparation, to active assimilation and advancement of the affected populations in the 21st century.

Humankind appears to be on the brink of another revolution – this time, a moral and ethical one. This modification/ re-formulation of our global conscience will affect how we survive and indeed, thrive in the 21st century.

The question is, are we up for this challenge of an epoch, or are these difficult high-minded decisions best left to God and the Trumps and Johnsons of the world?

De Khudai pe aman.

*The Consciously Blazing World: Title adapted from a 1666 work of utopian fiction titled “The Blazing World” by Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle.

*Juneteenth: A holiday celebrated on June 19th to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved people in the USA.

*Amritsar Tragedy: Also called the Jhallianwala bagh massacre took place on April 13th, 1919, when Acting Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered British Indian army troops to fire their rifles into a crowd of unarmed Indian civilians in Jhallianwala Bagh, killing at least 379 people and injuring over 1,000 others.

*Racio-moral: the global ethics of race and morality

REFLECTION|Something’s Gotta Give

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

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

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

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

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

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

De Khudai pe aman.

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

*Quote from Alexander Pushkin.

SHORT STORY|Days of Purgatory – (Part 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.

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.

VERSE|I Sat Alone with Sadness

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

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

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

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

De Khudai pe aman