FEATURE|My Balcony and Other Creatures

Of glimmering balconies, frolicking flora and organized murders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mynah hanging out on my iPad

De Khudai pe aman

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

OPINION|The Covid Stigma

Of Humanity, Dignity and Collectiveness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us start dignifying our humanity.

De Khudai pe aman

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

PANDEMIC 2020|Positivum Cogitandi*

I have waxed eloquent as far as Pandemic Diaries go, on the thrills and the gloom of being “benignly incarcerated”. This piece will dive into the nuts and bolts of the experience as I try and capture a typical curfew-bound day in the tropical environs of the Colombo lockdown.

It all starts at around 9.30am as I have yet again (quite happily) switched my circadian clock to the later morning hours. Less hours to stew a Lockdown Potpie in, being the resounding sanity preserving logic! The regimen that follows is fundamental to helping keep it all together through the interminable weeks upon weeks of government and self imposed confinement.

I make my bed, with the assiduity of a 7-star hotel housekeeping staff. Fitted sheet pulled until the 800 thread-counts crackle at their seams. The duvet laid out just so, followed by the bed cover. I then wash and change into my day-time lounge wear which is different from my nightwear only because I wear it during the day really! It’s the doggedness of routine that is paramount here. I’m still passing the Lipstick Test* as i put on my tinted chapstick and my eyeliner. Thus fortified with the elixir of my morning regimen, I sally forth from my bedroom.

The electric kettle is filled and switched on, almost immediately permeating the kitchen with its hypnotising “double double, toil and trouble” caffeine chant. I busy myself with cutting up a whole host of greens….and reds and yellows as I pull together a big salad. The chopping and the dicing and the slicing are profoundly cathartic, as pent up frustration at Time sliding by in the unchanging surroundings of a limited space…yes, ok, home… is released with every deliberate lancing exploit. The ensuing digital fatigue (of the fingers!) is the sweet pain of yet another daily protocol dutifully delivered.

Then it’s my first mug of coffee in hand and an hour of watching the Pandemic and a host of other bad news unfold on the CNN and the BBC. It’s always bad news or sad news or disturbing news. For good news, people (and I’m thinking, the rest of the animal world too in fact) have learnt to rely on themselves – much better for preserving sanity, dubious and relative as that is too nowadays.

The hunger pangs hit around 1pm. The once rather vague attention to “where’s the next meal coming from”, has during the course of the curfew, morphed into an armageddon-level phobia: I must have a view of where my next 3 meals are coming from or my dreams are suffused with so much biryani and spaghetti bolognaise that i wake up with a heartburn. Mind over matter at disturbing play here….

So while I’m whipping up some Fixed breakfast-component toast with the Variable accompaniment of last night’s leftovers or eggs, I’m also feverishly contemplating the contents of my main meal of the day which is dinner. I have been insidiously photographed by a near and dear one while thus occupied, and i can best sum it up as “there’s a pleasure in being mad which none but madmen (and desperate sustenance seekers) know”! I’m happy to add though, that since the food delivery services have resumed feeding the hordes of the Urban Ravenous, the feelings of deprivation disquietude and lunatic anticipation have much abated.

I am also one of the more fortunate who can, of a torrid locked-down evening, indulge in (suffer through?!) heart-healthy aerobic workouts. The sizeable parking lots of apartment buildings are very effectively doubling as walking tracks for their home-bound residents. And come heat or humidity, or even torrential tropical downpours, my brisk evening walk is another regular ritual that has helped to keep the mental nuts and bolts peacefully in their places.

Even so, the healthful mental effects of a regimen built largely around a 3-room space can last only so long. And some days when the painstakingly cultivated mental tranquility is shattered by the lock-rattling of the inner social beasts that we all still are, I quell the mad urge to scream, rant and even bawl by initiating yet another healthful ritual: I set myself up to write. The iPad is set up, the TV is put on mute and almost instantaneously, the mind collects itself as I immerse myself in the next best thing to a companionable walk at the racecourse/ a trip to the spa/ a belly laugh over a drink/ or just a warm reminiscence over a latte. The world slows down and the frustration fades as the words spill out like a cathartic mist over another clean page. And in that endeavour is also the promise of a new day.

Positivum Cogitandi; Tabula Rasa.

De Khudai pe aman

*Positivum Cogitandi: Positive Thinking

*Tablua Rasa: clean slate

*Lipstick Test: a psychological/ mental wellbeing gauge

*Pandesday: any day in the course of the novel Corona pandemic

PANDEMIC 2020|The Importance of being Gracious

(Quite as Important as being Earnest)

These are strange, even somewhat chilling times as we navigate through a viral storm of unprecedented proportions.

We have all been constrained to significantly modify our lives as we traverse the largely uncharteted waters of interminably extended curfews and lockdowns. Where the regular hustle and bustle of life as we’ve known it, has changed drastically to not only embrace a new kind of solitary social ideology but also how we go about procuring our daily provisions.

For those of us living in curfew-bound localities where we are dependent on the good graces of generally wayward supplies trucks that roll in occasionally, this change has been much more onerous. And that is where our hidden stores of grace, forbearance and compassion come in.

These are difficult times, no doubt, but everyone of us is capable of showing that essential modicum of dignity and consideration for our neighbours and fellow condominium residents as the case may be. So next time when our friendly Covid-era food trucks swing by, it would be a first class gesture of camaraderie and beneficence to fight the urge to amass as much as you can carry and then some. There are other residents who are in a similar nutritionally-deprived state, undergoing the very same Where’s-the-next-decent-meal-coming-from mental trauma and who would therefore mightily appreciate some manner of social solicitude.

So yes, despite the 40,000 year old homo sapien brain sophistication, there are those perplexing few among us who still feel their ancient Neanderthal instincts frantically kicking in when times are uncongenial. But, there is light at the end of that inter-epochal tunnel; a splendid little trick to help you overcome those unbecoming primeval compulsions: Drop down on one knee, or both (depending on your orthopaedic veracity) and pretend to look for some lost little thing (“Decency!” the crowd vociferates! But i digress…) Let the ancient brain, in the astute survival legacy of our Palaeolithic ancestors, urgently scout for the next meal potentially crawling by. That flagrant substratal self-reminder will almost surely help to put you squarely back on the path to Homo sapien self actualisation. And as the blood rushes to your brain while maintaining that perfect primate squat, stark Cro-Magnon man lucidity will hit even more sharply as you quite quickly realise that you’re darned well not going to munch through or cook those 2 Keells* bags full of vegetables you’re eyeing like manna from heaven, or wash your entire wardrobe 7 times over.

Let Grace into your lives- the quality that is; letting the lady in may cause inessential stress and scandal in these already testing times. (Bad joke- courtesy: Corona Fatigue!)

Come on folks, let’s be decent. Let there be kindness and empathy. And the vital awareness that never before has it been more important to unite as a community, a species and an intelligent, aware and perceptive life force across our wounded world.

Start with your neighbourhood. Be mindful. Be courteous. Be kind.

De Khudai pe aman.

*Keells: a prominent grocery chain across the island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

De Khudai pe aman

Mahvash.

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

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

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