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|MY CHOICE TO MAKE

Day ends and darkness sweeps in,
Enveloping the ready and the unready into its blackened folds.
It scuttles into crannies and leaps into fissures,
Blotting out the light for another 8 hours ... or eternity...
Tonight, am I happy to be in its restful, warm embrace
Galvanizing my body and my spirit for tomorrow?
Or am i dreading the walk with Erebus* in the murky corridors of gloom?
The choice is mine to make.

Night ends and daylight marches in
Casting off the monochromatic grey-black silhouettes.
Lingering shadows disappear; the sounds of silence explode into daytime clamor.
Exultant photons ricochet through the air
As Earth waltzes around her own cosmic maypole; one dance done, another begun.
Am I ready to seize the day today?
Or am I dreading the tread of Helios* outside my bedroom window?
The choice is mine to make.

The gods of Myth and the gods of Now
Continue their battle in the sacred space of my heart.
They wrangle with each other, the twain never meeting;
Perpetuating confusion, torment and intrigue;
Shredding my soul as the spoils of their unholy war.
Will I continue to shed blood, lose hope and malinger for the false prophets within?
Or am I ready to make this day, this life, my own?
It is MY choice to make.
*Erebus: The god of Darkness in Greek mythology
*Helios: the god of the Sun in Greek mythology

OPINION| A GRACIOUS FAREWELL

I’ve been meaning to put this hitherto confusing, emotionally wounding mass of thoughts to paper for a while now. So far, through all the varied attempts over the last 10 years, I’ve always choked on the words in my mind; cocooned in a kind of benumbing Writer’s Block if you will.

So here i am today, feeling a little more intrepid, a tad more emotionally sound and spurred on by a medley of bittersweet reminiscences, to finally reflect on the vital importance of End of Life acceptance, dignity and preparedness.

To die is inevitable; to lead a life well-lived is a choice. And yet, we leave so much to providence while we can still exercise our power to choose, and put up formidable bulwarks of resistance when faced with the inevitable. This is a construct and a bullheaded perpetuation of our modern times, urged on by medical advances and their preserving effect on our life expectancy. While we are living longer, we have also developed an almost combative relationship with the End of Life. Even when everything is pointing towards the inevitable final exit, we choose to fight. We push back, we suffer, we agonize and we degrade, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually as we try and keep the “monster” at bay. A lot of times, that militancy is dispensed by the people closest to the terminally ill; and despite their good intentions, end up reducing their already suffering loved ones to little more than vulgarised shadows of their former selves.

In 2008, my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. She lived with the disease for four years with the dignity, grace and courage of the superwoman that she was. Never once did she put on the mantle of the reduced or the afflicted or the invalid. Right to the end, she remained the gracious matriarch of her warm, welcoming home. Towards the end, the final two days to be exact, when she should have been allowed to make that Final Walk with the same beautiful poise with which she had lived her life, we, her family and her medical specialists intervened with all of our might to fight off the inevitable. She was taken to two different hospitals over the span of the last 3 days where the vitally alive battled to avert or at least delay an end, that became heartbreakingly beleaguered.

My final memory of her last day with us, has nothing in the way of any gentleness, love or the deep peace of final goodbyes. It is a memory fraught with fussing, poking, prodding Medical Staff intubating, pulling and pushing her as they, with determined professionalism, executed their Hippocratic oaths. The memory of her looking right at me, confused and exhausted as they inserted the ET tube down her throat is still searingly painful.

For a full two years after that, I thought of that terrible, terrible last scene every single night before i allowed myself to sleep. Perhaps it was my form of emotional self flagellation for being a well meaning party to the inadvertent indignity and torment my mother suffered towards the end.

And then, I’m not sure whether it was a providential helping hand reaching out from my own subconscious to finally pull me out of my emotional abyss, or the tender, cosmic reverberations of the maternal bond that helped me to transition to my current state of mental well being. That said, it was a dream that gave me back some semblance of my peace. So lucid, potent and reassuring was the vision of my mother being well and happy that i woke up with the sheer visceral force of the feeling – the warmth of her touch still lingering on the skin of my hands. (I have written about the dream in another post: https://theroamingdesi.org/2020/03/09/thank-you-for-the-joy/ )

And so, I finally did surface from the viper pit of guilt and grief and i have since, forgiven myself.

All living creatures are the sum total of their experiences and if there’s one thing I’ve learnt from my experience of losing someone close to me is the ability to see death for what it is – unavoidable. While I have lost my fear of the end, i also now understand the profound blessing a quick (relatively painless) exit is. That a departure that is underscored with acceptance, essential conversations, tranquility and quality time spent together becomes the blessed catalyst for more fully celebrating the lives of the loved ones we’ve lost. That the ability to see life and death with more ethereal eyes, to help us to grieve a little less and remember with joy so much more, are the cornerstones of a loving, respectful parting.

These End of Life conversations need to logically start in the hallowed halls of medical science. Medical caregivers need to bring more depth to their oaths taken for preserving the well being of human life, to include the dignity of death. These conversations need to become mainstream; to change the culture of the crusading and contrariness around death. In our current approach, we are left with too little in the way of the love and grace of final farewells.

It will take a consummate change in our emotional and social makeup and temperaments to begin to ennoble death even half as much as we do life. Given the current state of our world, this gracious labour of love around Final Partings may be the panacea for reminding us of both, the wonderful alchemy of the state of being alive and the eternal fragility of life itself.

De Khudai pe aman

OPINION|Enter The Dragon!

Why another 4 years of a Trump administration will be the likely impetus for China to dominate the world

As the 2020 US Presidential election looms largely ahead, I’m feeling increasingly ambivalent about the preferable outcome. Plain old gut-impelled common sense dictates that a Trump/ Pence-less administration is what the country is in dire need of. But a more cogent analysis shows that there is definitely more to it than just extricating the US and even the world from the incessant cringe-worthy mire of Trump gaffes and laughs.

Here’s why.

The Biden/Harris duo may be optically appealing and indeed, stalwart creationists of pithy political sound bites, but on a practical, foreign policy level their ideology brings nothing cohesive or constructive to the Developing World table. The last 60 years have shown a lot of well-intended global alliances and organisations take on barely veiled male fide overtones serving the cause of only a chosen few. The rest of the world has continued to be trapped in abject, desperate poverty or firmly shackled in the ceaseless chains of debt and “corporate debenture”*.

With the Trump administration, we at least know where we stand. His unapologetic Exclusionary Nationalism bordering on an almost totatlitarian inward focus has meant that much less interference in world affairs; and by extension probably that much less devastating employment/ manipulation globally of the US war machinery.

At this juncture in our planetary politics, we can definitely do with a break in the poorly disguised fossil fuel wars and the not so covertly executed ethnic annihilation campaigns – all ruthlessly wrought for the unchallenged endurance of the unipolar world of the 21st century.

Another 4 years of the Trump administration will also most probably mean the invariable rise of the Middle Kingdom given that global political tipping points continue to respond as they have post World War II. Many countries in South Asia (which at almost 2 billion people, accounts for 25% of the world population) are already in various phases of “cooperative economic alliances” with China, mostly through the BRI (Belt and Road Initiaiative). Beijing, many say, wields a finely tailored approach towards each south Asian country to achieve its national interests, whether it is counterterrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan, port access in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, or brewing agitation and discomfiture in and around its primary regional rival, India. The naysayers who are also the beneficiaries of the current unipolar world, have a lot to say about a planet dominated by China. But it is pertinent to note that the last 250 years haven’t exactly been the most favourable for our region either. We have been caught in economically and psychologically devastating proxy wars, become the unwitting co-creators of Islamic militarism/ terrorism and have in fact for most of our independent existence, continued to inextricably slide into the abyss of socioeconomic and ideological regression. This has resulted in punishing repercussions from many formerly friendly countries. So a world where Beijing is at the helm of affairs can only be a step up for the otherwise beleaguered region.

As Wade Davis, writer and anthropologist, has so succinctly put it, “No empire long endures, even if few anticipate their demise. Every kingdom is born to die. The 15th century belonged to the Portuguese, the 16th to Spain, 17th to the Dutch. France dominated the 18th and Britain the 19th. [By the 20th century], the torch had long passed into the hands of America”. And now, in the third decade of the 21st century, it is yet again that epochally perfect inflection point where the real and conceptual Crown of the 7 Continents passes on to a new victor.

And even though I and many more half way contemplative global news watchers may tire of the mindless rhetoric emanating from the White House, higher purposes must take precedence. And so, it is indeed with reluctant ambivalence that I am rooting for the Idiocracy to continue to beat the US drum for the next 4 years too.

A 2020-2024 Trump administration will be the perfect timeline impetus for the Wuhan Spirit to really take root not only in the region, but to also quite solidly infuse the rest of the world with its distinct politics of Courteous Hegemony.

Enter, The Dragon!

De Khudai pe aman.

*Enter The Dragon: Title inspired from a 1973 Robert Clouse movie.

*POTUS: President of the United States

*Corporate Debenture: the vortex of debt and the accompanying debilitating/ coercive actions nations are subjected to by the international funding agencies

POLITICAL FARCE|Gone With the ‘Tind’*

The “Brown Sahib” Aspirations of the 45th POTUS

Until very recently, i thought that the Brown Sahib* state of mind was the social cross borne by certain privileged demographics of the previously colonised and the enslaved. After 500 years of seeing the White Man do his thing, while ruling and owning large swathes of humanity, even the most tenaciously dogmatic among the brown and the black populations learnt to emulate their white coercers to survive, and in fact thrive. Over the ages, this brand of social exposure to both, the colonially enforced ways of the West and the doggedly defiant cultural elements of the East produced a quite unique post colonial urbanity, exclusive to the 1.5 billion indigenous people of the Indian subcontinent.

But turns out, mindsets are fickle things in our current bizarre, beleaguered world. The character and cultural traits that have been the sole tokens of the Brown Man for the past few hundred years, are now raising their sun-kissed heads in the pale white hearts of the colonists and the enslavers. Or at least one. And so, we bear bemused witness to an almost karmically apologetic social course correction, as the 45th POTUS (once the most powerful man on earth – makes the mind reel!) decided to make unwitting amends for his colonial predecessors, through personal example.

The Foreign Bahu*: If you’re a progressive and privileged brown person, you’ll do your Western Hemisphere stint and come back home, armed with not only a foreign degree but possibly a foreign wife too (Caucasian of course). Mixed race children, we believe, are known to better the family prospects in an ethnically and racially divided world. And so, if we give him the benefit of the doubt, the 45th POTUS married an Eastern European woman to even out the playing field for the rest of the world to aspire to greatness by association. And if we go with just our good old gut instinct on this POTUS, because eastern exoticism is a thing.

Misogynistic Ambitions: If you’re a Brown Man anywhere, you’ve been raised to believe that you’re the centre of everyone’s world, especially all the women that wittingly and unwittingly occupy your universe. The gruellingly paternalistic environment (from archaic Panchayat* codes to the gender despotism inherent in the Hudood Ordinance*) has been carefully maintained to consistently fuel that ego. And so, marvelling at the subcontinental man for knowing and showing what a tremendously huge gift from God he is, the 45th POTUS has frequently and passionately tried to “put women in their place”. From sexual misconduct to name calling, he continues to frenziedly negotiate his way through all his political and social interactions with the opposite gender.

Brown skin complex: 500 years of the White Man’s dominion has understandably wrought some social psychosis in its wake. One among them is the Brown man’s continued, thriving quest for white skin – literally. It may have started off as “if you can’t beat them, join them”, but over the ages, this ardour has taken on a life of its own. From the multibillion dollar fairness cream industry, to the “fair bahu*” syndrome, a laundry list of overt and covert skin colour stigmas has taken root and spread like gnarled old ivy over our social fabric. And so, the 45th POTUS, since he can’t get any paler, and deciding that racial irony is the best form of praise, has embodied a bullheaded brownness that is both unprecedented and scary. The resultant orangeness in fact, rivals a fiery tropical sunset during a duststorm.

Hirsute Motivations: We are a race that is (mostly!) endowed with and proud of an abundance of dark luxurious hair. So when we do experience a dearth in the follicular territory, we jump right on to the bandwagon of toupees, transplants and wigs. The resulting downiness ranges from the barely perceptible, all the way to the absurd and the ridiculous. And so the 45th POTUS has with all his heart, embraced the Brown Man’s tenacious hair love affair, and taken it into realms of comb-over inventiveness that no modern day tempest can rip asunder!

Despotic Tendencies: The urge and capacity to rule with an iron hand has traditionally been the way of the South, Central, Pacific and Middle Eastern blocs; with many countries having the dubious honour of martial law as state administration for more than half their independent existence. It is not so great a secret and opinion, that the Eastern and Southern hemispheres just do better with a hybrid democracy/ autocracy approach. And so the 45th POTUS, in his most outstanding tribute to the Brown and Black Man yet, established a unique First World dictatorship that set new global despotic standards. Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and even Kim Jong-un seem lumbering and lethargic in the wake of the autocratic inclinations and machinations of the Trumpian zeal.

To the (predominantly white) American populace at large we say a big Thank you for this peculiar apology in the shape of Donald J. Trump, for all the centuries of Black and Brown skinned subjugation. For providing so much comic relief when the world needed it most. For mortally endangering your nationhood and your political and economic progress built over hundreds of years. For racing, like sporting martyrs, to relinquish your identity as the leaders of the Free World.

But even we, the historically conquered and crushed, feel it’s a bit much. So please feel free to abandon any more such zealous, self defeating presidential level attempts at reparation. We will be happy with anyone sane, reasonable, half way eloquent and racially colour blind. Scratch the last; even the most delusional of us know that’s a big ask.

De Khudai pe aman.

*Brown Sahib: a colloquialism meaning brown master in the nature of his white predecessor. Now used farcically to define people from the subcontinent who behave like white people trapped in brown bodies.

*A wordplay on the 1936 novel by Margaret Mitchell, set amidst the American civil war and reconstruction period, entitled “Gone with the Wind”. (Screen-adapted in 1939).

*Tind: Punjabi/ Urdu colloquialism for ‘noggin’ or head or baldness.

*Bahu: Urdu/ Hindi for Bride.

*Panchayat: A village council of elders

*Hudood Ordinance: Gender-biased laws enacted in Pakistan in 1979 by the military ruler, General Zia ul Haq as part of an overall Islamization process. This was done, with American support as a part of a larger focused Islamic militarisation strategy to help fight the USA’s proxy war against Russia.

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!”

REFLECTION|The New Superhero: Your Inner Voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

De Khudai pe aman.

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

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.

SHORT STORY|Days of Purgatory – (Part 3)

“I have a bit of a secret to tell you”, said Sabeen lounging contentedly on the sofa near the wall.

Dinner had been fabulously satisfying. She’d had two helpings of the fettuccine in all its curried glory and had just finished a not ungenerous slice of hot apple pie. The sprites of Gastronomical Excesses were prancing merrily around in her stomach while the much-worshipped gods of Abstinence were only vague entities in her subconscious for now. The satiated body had further banished discretion and circumspection as the evening wore on. There was no cautionary gut feel nor any protective sixth sense reining in her excitement and her urge to share her joy. She was on the tipping point of divulging the ultimate secret; an affair so close to her heart that she hadn’t breathed a word about it to anyone yet for fear of jinxing the whole business.

Farzana looked up at Sabeen expectantly, her eyes bright, the ice cream laden spoon forgotten mid-air. She loved a good secret and Sabi usually wasn’t very forthcoming with her confidences. Farzana on the other hand, compelled by force of habit and an actual physical discomfort in the company of an unshared secret, happily let loose the flood gates when thus encumbered. This was going to be quite a treat!

“Kya? Batao na…..”(1), Farzana responded tentatively, afraid to disturb the amenability of the moment. One could never tell with Sabi she thought; one moment she was happy and talkative and the next, like a closed up clam with social issues.

Sabi was making her wait it out as always. Farzana felt the hair on her arms prickling in anticipation and also a growing sense of wariness. Uncharitable thoughts began glutting her mind… despite being one of her best friends, Sabi, in Farzana’s mind, had always resented her more “privileged love interest” liaisons. There had been one occasion in fact, where she’d come and stolen her man right from under her nose! She ignored the nagging post script that always followed that thought….the fact that Arsalan had always maintained that he and Farzana were never “going out”, and that he had told her quite early on that he was interested in her friend from Faisalabad. Even so, she thought, he and Farzana had attended two parties together; granted it was together with other friends. But he was Mian Jalaluddin’s grandson and she had exclusive entitlement until he too had seen the light of day and reciprocated. He would have – ultimately, Farzana thought ruefully, had Sabeen not come into the picture. The memory of the day she’d invited Sabi over to meet Arsalan still made her cringe with ardent regret. Her only consolation was that that entanglement hadn’t lasted long!

She caught Sabi looking at her thoughtfully. Farzana was getting visibly agitated at not only the prospect of being secret-deprived at the nth hour of confidence-sharing, but also by the strange look on Sabi’s face.

I’m your best friend yaar. Mujh se kya chupana. I’m like an open book with you. Batao na”(2), Farzana cajoled, moving closer to the still reposing, still contemplating Sabeen.

“I’m getting engaged, Fara; to the Nawab* of Bahawalpur”, came the deadpan response. Delivered with just that air of indifference to make it into a screaming headline.

Sabeen looked at Farzana, a slow smile spreading across her face. She knew her friend enough to expect any of a range of emotions; barely concealed resentment being one of the more realistic predispositions on this occasion. As time had lapsed, their bachelorette banner had determinedly unfurled in Spinster Territory, changing perceptions, prospects, attitudes and with it, notions of self worth. And Farzana was painfully besieged by the change in social status, spawning a wave of desperate love affairs and subsequent unpredictable outbursts. Sabeen was earnestly hoping this wasn’t one such instant; she was really hoping, yearning for a propitious ending to this evening.

Farzana blinked uncertainly, and slowly put the dripping spoon of ice cream into her mouth. She felt hassled and unsure; hassled about whether Sabi was in fact telling the truth, and unsure whether she herself had heard it right.

“Kaunsa nawab?(3) What are you saying? Farzana managed to ask, looking agitatedly at Sabeen. Her feeling of unease grew as the enormity and sensibility of the affirmation dully sank in. She swallowed hard, her mouth suddenly feeling dry even as she sensed the sweet liquid sliding down her throat. She was unaware of the change in her expression or her bearing as she stared unblinkingly at Sabeen while hunched over in an almost foetal position in the chair opposite. She waited for a response; laughter, some reassurance that this was just a really terrible joke.

Sabeen sat up and looked directly at Farzana, taking both of her hands in hers. She suddenly felt an intense desire to have her friend acknowledge her joy, and to be happy for her. She wanted Fara to understand that this was not just another ephemeral burst of scarlet on the romantic horizon. This boded longevity and was replete with not only the rainbow hues of new love, but also the many shades of grey that constituted a real relationship. This was going to be her “happily ever after”.

Farzana looked on in confused fascination; at this point, she was only aware of the maniacal intensity of Sabeen’s hold of her hands and thinking if in fact her friend had finally given in to senility just shy of her 50th birthday. She was talking of Nawabs and horses and knights….had she said horses or princes…? She wasn’t quite sure. But there was music playing, so Farzana did the only thing that seemed lucid to her at the time.

She pulled up a startled Sabeen and said, “let’s dance meri jaan(4)….. all those extra calories you’ve had today are making you sound crazy!”

And she whirled her friend around the room, grinning loonily while humming along to Jenny Young’s quirky love refrain:

“….Here is a heart,

I made it for you so take it.

Battered and braised,

Grilled and sautéed

Just how you like it…”

De Khudai pe aman.

(1): “What? Tell me…”

(2): “What do you have to hide from me…… tell me”

(3): “What prince?”

(4): “my love”

*Nawab: ruler/ prince. (Largely a figurative title now but still respected as incumbents of a privileged lineage).

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