VERSE | PARADISE

I have lost the rituals 
Of faith. But my devotion has
Become stronger. I no longer
Am afraid or confused by questions that
Whirl around in my head
Never to be brought into existence
Their very substance damning
Pounding, hammering a path to (h)elsewhere
I now wear a cloak around
My shoulders. It holds a super power
A texture all its own. When I’m alone
It reminds me of who I am.
It fosters my introspection
It champions who I want to be
And then I feel
No other burden of pretense
Or suspense
No fear of consequence
For being so much more
And ritualizing less
I have no dire need to find my
Hallowed steed to gallop on with
Me holding on, bound for paradise.
This life, this blessed life is mine
To treat with such passion
Such tenderness, that earth
Itself becomes the Eden I seek.
My paradise is under my own feet.

FLASH FICTION | A DIALOGUE WITH THE DEVIL

(I)

Are you there?

Where else would I be?

I mean are you really there or is it just my mind filling in the dialogue?

Dialogue by its very essence means a conversation between two people

People?

Beings then.

I call myself a ____. But I have so many questions in my head. Secret. All secret. Shared with no one. I don’t want to be termed an infidel. A pariah.

What questions?

Why is religion so … restraining? Incarcerating almost. And claustrophobic.

I want to be good. I want to receive your divine blessings. I want to go to heaven. But I sometimes feel so trapped here.

You have a mind. Listen to it.

I do. And it tells me that the rituals of religion have overtaken my humanity. I do them with more earnestness than any act of actual kindness or empathy or consideration for the people around me. I feel like a fraud. Like I’m doing all this so I can go to heaven and not … not because I really want anyone to benefit from any of my good deeds in themselves.

My mother is going to perform her third pilgrimage … blessed is she! But I can’t help thinking that in place of raking in more divine favour, she could have instead funded the education of our driver’s daughter. She’s such a smart girl but was pulled out of school because it was a choice between her and her brother. Why does wanting my mother to forgo her holy pilgrimage to help someone at home seem right to me? And yet, thinking that seems sinful? And why must I give fully only to those poor that share my exact faith even if I have to look for them on the streets, and give grudgingly or not at all to the Hindu woman who slaves in my kitchen everyday? Why does that seem incredibly unkind to me, and yet even thinking about the inconsideration somehow seems sinful? Like I’m questioning the very fundamentals and wisdom of my faith.

When I’m alone and these thoughts take over my heart and mind, I get frustrated because I can’t do what really feels right to me. I feel like I’m being cold, calculating, ruthless. And then I get panic attacks because thinking like that just seems damnable and wrong. Everything is upside down and inside out. Nothing makes sense anymore.

When you feel right in your gut about something, anything, a conundrum, then that is your moral obligation. Religion is just another name given to that personal value system, that credo.

But I’m not always sure. There are so many mixed messages. The world has changed and yet we have not. We are discouraged from embracing that change in ways that should happen naturally. Change does not sit well with the communities and the people that were enlightened by your wisdom and guidance so many ages ago. They still want to hold on to all those early norms and customs. It seems unnatural. Counter-intuitive. And yet, I want to do what’s right. I want to go to heaven.

Is …. Is there a heaven?

What is your concept of heaven?

What I’ve been told: a place of ease and abundance. Also a place where so much that I’m not allowed to do in this world, I can freely do there.

That sounds complex.

Yes! Again, I feel like a fraud. Why are so many things sinful and wrong in this life and yet those same acts and liberties will be allowed in the blessed heavens?

You tell me.

But it’s in the teachings. Revealed through your blessed apostle. It is your final word.

You have hundreds of years of history behind you. Your humanity and your spirit together with your instinct, make up your three most enlightened and reliable guides. Let them lead you and you will gradually find your way: a state of being that will make you feel light and joyful on the inside. You know, it’s true when someone said that angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.

That last bit was funny; I’m actually smiling. That felt good. But …religion is never lighthearted; it’s not meant to be cheerful or playful.

Any enterprise of the body and the soul that stops you from feeling happy on the inside, is not viable in the long term.

(II)

I listened to my heart and my mind. I tried to do what felt right at the deepest, truest part of me rather than what I’ve been taught is right.

And how did you feel?

I felt elated, free, at one with everything around me. No one was beyond your divine magnanimity no matter what they believed in; it was their goodness that was at the front and centre of any and all consequences. I felt an overwhelming compassion for everyone, every creature. There was nothing binding me down in odd, contrived ways. Rituals became so secondary. They ceased to define my whole belief system and instead became the anchors that I sometimes went to when I felt agitated or overcome. Sometimes I even felt like I had no … religion; at least, no mainstream religion. My renewed faith was like a shimmering pathway in my own heart and mind. I began to question things without feeling guilty, and I looked for answers. I began to see so many similarities with others who are faith-wise not like us. My perspective evolved … changed. I realized how difficult it was to identify and focus on the differences rather than on the similarities; how unnatural that was. We were all the same. I felt free, grateful, confident. And heaven would be more of this.

More of what?

More of every one of us trying to be ever better versions of ourselves. Our true selves. Our natural, spiritual selves. Because there is so much joy and freedom in that. So much honesty. So much harmony. So much peace of mind. Such lightness of spirit. That has to be what heaven feels like.

Yes, I listened to my inner voice and everything seemed so easy, so natural, so unbinding.

You LISTENED to your inner voice. You used the past tense. Why?

Yes, I did. Because my new sense of godliness came with a tremendous price. Everyone around me, those I love, those I look up to, those that have always guided me and protected me, they didn’t like what I had become. I felt my mother’s painful disappointment, my brother’s deafening silence and my father’s quiet fury. It has to mean something … all this outrage and disillusionment.

What do you believe in now?

I believe there is sagacity in the old ways. I believe in everything that I have been taught. I believe in the precise observance of rituals to keep us focused and dedicated. I believe that our differences are important and cannot be ignored; that these differences, even if they appear small, many times outweigh our similarities. They keep us cohesive as a community, an impregnable force that can withstand an assault of any kind. More importantly, I believe that we are not all equal in the eyes of the Divine. In terms of faith, we have got it as right as imperfect human beings can get a belief system. The final Hereafter will be ruthless, exacting for the unbelievers and also for those of us believers that stray from the one true path.

That sounds ominous.

That feels safe. I feel protected, part of a whole, when I reaffirm this credo. There has to be a reason for why so many believe these tenets. Why we are so many many millions strong. I can’t lose sight of the bigger picture by focusing on the inner, confounding, disquieting workings of my heart and my mind. They are distracting, frustrating and damaging to me, to my wellbeing in the Hereafter.

Damaging to your peace of mind too?

Faith is not about peace of mind. It is about a constant battle inside. An unending war against the voices of excess and those that would try to tempt us from our one, sacred path. Complete peace of mind is an intemperance, an indulgence, a fantasy. I’m sticking to my guns now. You can’t confuse me.

You are not God! With all your postulations about questioning everything, looking for answers, listening to my heart, focusing on the fairytale of my own spirituality, my peace of mind.

You are the devil pretending to be Divine!

(III)

I blocked the other voice. I ended the dialogue. I turned away. I turned away feeling triumphant and blessed. I had vanquished the unsettling, misleading rumbling inside. I had been lured away from the wisdom of centuries and I had found my way back. I basked in my victory.

Even as the muscles of my face celebrated the triumph of my soul, I felt something wrenching in my gut. I resolutely swallowed the acid aftertaste that rose to my mouth.

VERSE | DO YOU REMEMBER?

Do you remember when you felt the blood
Gushing through your body
You felt it etch into your being
All the kindness, courage and love
That you thought you could ever feel
And your heart sang!

Do you remember how your breath
Caught in your throat. The sheer shock
Of those emotions rocking you inside
You felt so overwhelmed that your tear ducts
Felt the strain. You blinked your wet eyes
And your heart sang!

You looked straight ahead
The wave kept rising in your chest
You felt like you were everything
That you were meant to be. Your atoms ricocheted
With those around you. Nature played
A little bit of handball as she caught
Your atoms in her hands and passed her own to you
And your heart sang!

Do you remember feeling like this was
The perfect moment in your time
In your space, in your place
And everything had come together that day to remind you
That your heart was aligned with all
That defined you as the happiest version of yourself
And oh your heart, it sang!

You don’t remember - not really. Neither do I. I mean
I remember the warmth in my being, the love flowing out
In waves, in rivers. A oneness with the essence of the world
But beyond that, I can’t remember; I can’t evoke the feeling
Something has gone awry, something has been lost
Along the way
But I still see its ghost flitting
Vaguely passing before my eyes when I am still
But my heart, it doesn’t sing.

VERSE | SHE WAITS

The mynah came to my window today 
She warbled a happy song
She bobbed her head, waiting to be fed
And her little mate trilled along

The man on the street looked at me
As I plied my usual route
He didn’t beg, but his eyes said
I’d be grateful for some food

The server brought my coffee and smiled
His eyes were big and bright
He had good news, to share with those
Who would talk to him a while

The little child came out to the porch
Holding her favourite doll
There she sat, for her beloved Dad
For when up the path he’d walk

The earth embraces our right and wrong faces
Holding every atom together
For when we’d awake and for our own sake
We would ease her burden a feather

The mynahs were fed and off they went
The man on the street did the same
The server smiled, the atoms danced a while
But Earth, she looks on and waits

SHORT STORY | I REMEMBER

I look at his face. Now lined with deep wrinkles; each one a surly witness to a deed committed a long time ago. Deeds? How many of his perverse thoughts had he acted out since then?

I look at his face as he smiles. The gleam of his sins unhidden, unbidden, pierces the atmosphere like flying shards of broken glass. They fall everywhere – treacherous, menacing and so sly. Of course, no one sees them but me. I see each insidious piece as clearly as I remember what happened so many years ago.

I look at the face of the old family retainer. The man who has spent over twenty five years in my parents’ home. My home. The man I have known since I was seven years old. The man who I now detest. But my hate is private. Painfully private. It roils and screams in the most secret recesses of my mind. And my heart keeps pace. Racing, pounding, pulsing with revulsion and frustration. That combination is such an odd one. It sucks the essence out of you. It saps you of your sense of self and leaves you feeling hollow and wretched. You try and pull yourself together and then you’re knocked down again by a flood of ugly memories. The deed was singular, the one and only. But the memory has multiplied, spread like a fungus around the edges of my hippocampus. After thirty years, most times now it lies quietly, unobtrusively. At other times, it flies at me taking over my being. Like now. Because he’s here. In my home.

He has come to pay his respects to my parents. He has done this periodically since his retirement twelve years ago. I look at his face. I look at the ugly caricature of a smile pasted on it. I look around me at the faces of my mother and my father. They are smiling back. I look away. I pull myself together and while I look back at the scene, pretending to not remember, pretending to play along – I have perfected this dreadful deception over the last three decades – my mind is assaulted, attacked with a force that is visceral and raw. The multiplied, grotesquely teeming memories of that day march in with their battering rams.

I was eleven. My young body was just budding. I became aware of that fact on that day. He said he wanted to show me something. He took me into the kitchen. That kitchen is also embedded in my memory like a gravestone. He squatted on the floor and pulled me close. Then he showed me pictures: Naked men and women entwined with one another in black and white, stared back into my bewildered eyes. He pulled me closer. He was saying something to me.

I suddenly became aware of the weight of his arms around my waist. Just a minute ago, he was the trusted old family retainer, a protector, another father figure in the house, someone who was still watching me grow up. Someone who, in our household was given all the respect one does to an older relative. Even in my all-cloaking innocence, I suddenly felt anxious. Afraid. Even though the figments of my apprehension were like unclear wraiths flitting about in my mind, intuition had kicked in. I knew this was not right. And yet, he was Kabeer chacha*; the man who served as the ward and protector of the children of the house – me and my brother – when my parents were not at home. The man who was the embodiment of paternal care and concern. He was now also the man who had in the last few minutes molested my young mind.

I pulled away. My instinct told me to do so. I also somehow knew that I had to behave normally. I asked him where he had got the photos. I remember, he smiled then. Now when I am assailed by the memory, I can see the ugly perversity under his saccharinus smile as he said he had many more that he would show me. I also remember the one and only thing I managed to say to him then: “I don’t want to see any more. I don’t like them”. And that was it. I’m not sure if my sense of being violated could be any more tormenting or distressing if that initial predatory act had been followed by more. I’m not even sure if I consider myself lucky that that was the extent of the ravagement. The only thing I am sure of is that I still carry the brutalising memory and also the overwhelming burden of keeping it a secret.

I look at his face now. I feel an acid revulsion. But I can’t show it. The whole family treats him like one of their own. I’m repulsed by that realization but I can’t show it. I was too young, too naive, too unprepared to have processed the vile act when it transpired. And now, thirty years after it happened, the burden of tradition, shame and the messiness of an aftermath has further paralysed me.

Such is the double edged sword that is the south Asian equation between the young and the old. The right to speak and to be heard is the absolute privilege of the latter. The dutiful acquiescence, the respectful submission of the young, to the gracious, the bizarre and even the evil inclinations that the respected elder might bring to this equation is also absolute.

He suddenly takes my eight year old niece’s hand and pulls her to him. He is sitting on his haunches just as he had done thirty years ago and he’s holding her close, just as he had gripped me thirty years ago. I freeze. But only for a few seconds. The bile rises to my throat followed by the tightening noose of a sob. I choke back both. I can feel my eyes stinging but I smile at little Sania and tell her it is time to bake our brownies. I take her hand and pull her away. Even as I walk away with her, I feel the hot tears as they spill down my face. I wipe them away as fast as they come. No one should see. No one can know. It is still my private affliction and I will live with it as best as I can. But I also know now that I can protect the rest of the children of the family in our home.

I feel a blaze in my heart – cleansing, renewing and strengthening. I look at Sania’s lovely little face shining with excitement and the pure joy of childhood and I grin at her. I kiss the top of her head and we take over the kitchen.

* Chacha: An Urdu term meaning uncle. Also used as a term of respect for an older man.

VERSE | I’M STUCK

I’m stuck in a rut 
One hand and one foot
The other two grappling
For something to hold

I’m stuck in a hole
Body and soul
The claustrophobia
Is taking its toll

I’m caught in a pickle
Peace of mind is fickle
The lid is closed tight
There’s no room to wiggle

I’m caught in a quandary
Like heaps of soiled laundry
That sits just like Jabba
The Hutt*, gross and tawdry

I’m stuck in a rut
And a hole too it seems
I’m caught in a pickle
And an unhappy quandary

But they still haven’t swallowed
Me whole and then followed
With acid dessert
Like a tree that’s been hollowed

I’m stuck in a hole
But I’m still holding on
In the eye of the storm
To courage and hope

* Jabba the Hutt: A Star Wars character who was slug-like alien and would ultimately fall victim to his own hubris and vengeful ways.

VERSE | ROOTED

The lotus flower blooms in hues
Of lovely pinks and whites
It stands tall in the muddy pond
Resplendent and upright

Even when its watery abode
Goes from murky to bone dry
The lotus flower, it endures
The adversity and stays alive

It blooms in beauty and in grace
While its roots take all the strain
Bravely going from day to day
Through sunshine and through rain

We human beings are quite a lot
Like the stalwart lotus flower
Buffeted by all kinds of winds
We still find our super powers

Our bodies and our spirits may be
Trampled by pain and strife
But we hold on, roots and all
We persist and we survive.

And so it is that even in
Our darkest, joyless hours
The lotus in our throbbing hearts
Renews; continues to flower.

VERSE | PERPETUAL (M)OCEAN

LISTEN TO THE POEM BEING READ HERE: https://vm.tiktok.com/ZSddMfkHV/?k=1
There is a ship that’s out to sea
Her cargo is my dreams
When I feel them slipping away
She drops anchor close to me

There is a ship that’s voyaging on
She carries bushels of hope
When life throws curve balls one too many
She drops anchor somewhere close

There is a ship out in the swells
She carries stores of peace
When chaos threatens my inner calm
She glides in gracious and serene

There is a ship, she’s the harbinger
Of all that’s tender and true
When my day is sunless, hollow and sad
She sails in out of azure blues

That ship she is my spirit
My soul is in her sails
As she journeys through life’s fickle tides
She’s my alchemist within

VERSE | THE IMPERMANENCE OF BEING

I wake up, my mind numb, my legs feeling
Like 10 kg bags of wet cement
Have been tied to my ankles; weighting
Me down, ripping a dent
With my name in the fabric of the universe.
I think briefly of yesterday, it was the reverse
Of the state of my mind, as it ties and it binds
Me today as if to remind
Me that nothing ever is permanent - No.
Nothing stays forever, it isn’t meant to.
Charmed luck, joy, good health and peace
Hardship, tragedy, anxiety and disease
They come, they take their turns at the wheel
Some lasting longer, some just touch you and flee.
I wake up, my mind numb, my body feeling like lead
But tomorrow I’m hoping I won’t feel so dead.

VERSE | THE ANATOMY OF HOPE

It is feeling like the world has overcome 
You body and soul and then some
It’s like drowning in a bottomless sea
Gasping, gasping, trying to breathe
Sputtering, choking reaching for air
Crashing, thrashing limbs everywhere;
It’s feeling the whole world closing in
Vision blurring, darkness descending.
It’s being sure that many endings are near:
Of wanting, of living and even of fear;
It’s feeling the numbness spread like a pall
Binding you, blinding you even as you fall
Into the swirling, whirling abyss
Of dead emotions; of nothingness.

It’s finally seeing the smallest of gleams
Picking the darkness at its hoary seams
Little by little the flicker grows bright
Ever so slowly it pierces the night.
Your leaden heart too warms in the heat
Resuming its vital, pulsating beat;
You rise to the surface on a rip tide
You’re thawing and warming on the inside.
You break the surface of your despair
As your throttled lungs fill up with air;
Gasping, gasping you take in a breath
Sputtering and choking you hold on to the thread
Of the world coming back within reach;
Hope on strong wings, has ended the siege

She gathers you up in her healing arms
Anointing you with her soothing balms
Freeing you, steeling you so that you may walk
Another day with strength and love in your heart.

VERSE | THE PERFECT LATTE

She bubbles and she froths
She spills over on the table cloth
She frolics and she plays
My steaming mug of latte

Voluminous creamy lace
Hiding her caffeinated face
Her heart swells in youthful glee
On the table in front of me.

I read; wait a while; turn a page
In latte time, it’s already middle age
The lace is tattered, burnt skin showing through
The passionate heat has left the brew

Mindful of its waning charm, I grip
My mug of latte to take a sip.
I grimace, the perfect moment has passed
I get a mouthful of tepid coffee, alas!
She’d sat before me, in gracious state
I ignored the moment, realized too late.

And so it is with so much in our lives
Rich with serendipity, with do-overs rife
But We sit back ignoring the universe
Rueing our luck - ‘Our fate is cursed!’
Opportunities come and pass us by
‘It’s just God’s will’ we blame it on high.

But here’s the truth, simple and clear
The passivity, the stupor is unfounded fear.
So as each opportubity bubbles and froths
Onto your life’s pristine table cloth
Know this is your moment to make your own
Reach out to receive it before it has flown.
Featured

OPINION | FAITH

Faith: more and more, a tenuous ideology as it has traditionally existed. Increasingly, we are seeing how conventional belief systems are becoming less and less able to minister to the spiritual needs of believers at large.

As our spheres of existence evolve, leaping and bounding into the digital age; as we progressively become part of a smaller and smaller global village, we are also increasingly being faced with unprecedented challenges in terms of how we interact with the communities we live in, and others around the world. More and more we see how intolerance, hate and suffering are being directly perpetrated in the dubious paths of organized belief systems. The way I see it, we have slowly but surely lost our humanity to the relentless machinations of modern day religious powerhouses.

What is Faith then, in the current times? What does it mean to be devout and devoted? Is it a copious measure of ritual practice while the heart continues to race in fear and the mind is a cacophony of discord in times of trial? Is it the demonstration of exalted acts performed in the way of glorifying one’s particular belief system which, at its very core, is selfish and ungenerous? Where every “good deed” is performed on a quid pro quo basis: you are charitable primarily so YOU can go to heaven, and not because someone is needy – (that’s just a circumstantially advantageous outcome). You go to church and to the mosque so YOU can get into the Almighty’s good books so YOU can skip into Eden, not because you have the well- being of your community at heart. All, spiritually depleting ideologies of faith practised solely from a fear of consequences, rather than the simple desire to embody and celebrate our humanity.

What is it then, to truly believe? Could it be simply, the genuine attempt to be the best version of oneself spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically? To be able to look within to become a force for good without? To be able to think for oneself more and to rely less on the divisive narrative of neo-evangelists? Is it to finally pay fit tribute to our innate “God-given” spiritual and mental prowess? To finally breaking through the webs of intrigue and confusion woven by self serving belief systems and sifting through the spiritual antimatter for ourselves.

Look around you. Nature itself has manifested how irrelevant caste, creed and racial differences are. How even more insignificant religiously wrought community and political boundaries are: The recent Corona virus pandemic didn’t pick political or religious sides. No one was beyond the reach of its pestilential nature. Why then are we not heeding what we instinctively know to be true: That our shared humanity is bigger than any individual religion. That our communal joys and sorrows are more spiritually potent than any Sunday service or Friday ‘Khutba’*. That together we are a stronger, better, more spiritually evolved species than we are when projecting our differences of Faith. At the end of the day, the very essence of all religions is entrenched not only in equality, kindness and charity among “our own flock”, but in thoughtfully and inclusively channeling these attributes to ensure one becomes a more universal force for good.

It is time. Time to break through the inertia and the paralysis of our different religions; of the illogical but deeply ingrained ways we are taught to hate one another. It is time to start having the difficult but essential discussions on renewing and revitalising our counter intuitive belief systems. It is time to take back our hijacked/ distorted ideologies of belief and once again breathe the essence of universal humanity into them.

* Khutba: publicly held formal sermon, especially delivered after the communal Friday prayers in the Islamic religion.