VERSE| IN NATURE’S EMBRACE

The green of the earth 
And the blue of the sky;
The cool, mellow breeze
That caressingly passes by.

The trilling of the birds
The humming of the bees;
The rustling of the leaves
In their verdant canopies.

The well-loved paths
Fringed with emerald grass;
The spring-born butterflies
Delicately flitting past.

That one beloved companion
Who matches steps with mine,
Our hearts and minds in harmony
In this precious time.

This surely is my heaven
My earthly paradise,
Where Nature gently embraces me
And I kiss her with my eyes.

OPINION|THE BIG BANG OF SMALL KINDNESSES

As the pandemic marches on, this is more true than ever. I have felt impelled to write this piece mostly because we have all now, as a planet, lived through a year of the Covid-19 blight. All 7 billion lives have, in some measure, been affected, afflicted or completely upended. And the sobering truth is that there is no real end in sight yet. These past 8 months have also seen families not only devastated by the virus in many parts of the world, but crippled also by the general economic slowdown/ shutdown.

We in the South Asian belt have been relatively more fortunate with regard to our pandemic mortality rates. The conjectures and theories on how the delevloping world is coping so peculiarly well with the disease are varied and many. Call it providential or karmic or the universe finally lining up all the fortuitous constellations in our Asian skies – that is how it is and for that we are grateful. Grateful while still being aware of the economic ravages wrought on the healthy but the vulnerable; the uninfected but the reduced; the vigorous but the poor. Which brings me to the mission of this piece – the importance of being kind. Of engaging in little everyday gestures of generosity to alleviate in some part the struggles of the less fortunate members of our communities.

Start with your neighbourhoods.

Give just a little bit extra to the tuk tuk driver who’s been whisking you about town (or running errands for you) through blazing hot days and even the errant tropical storm. Even if you don’t get into his carriage much or at all these days, tip him for all his gracious service and for persevering still, to earn a decent living despite bleak business.

Patronise your local fruit and vegetable sellers and your standalone neighbourhood grocery stores rather than the larger franchised establishments. The balance sheets of the latter will survive a year or so of beleagured business; the former, however, will be forced to shut down their doors permanently, changing the fortunes of entire nuclear and extended families forever.

⁃ Even if you’re of the genteel old school of thought, for whom the hawkers of malodorous incenses, oddball children’s story books and car cleaning paraphernalia are persona non grata in the general milieu of roadside traffic, be kind. At the traffic lights, despite yourself, roll down and buy some incense, buy a book or buy a cleaning product. Be gracious with your privilege.

⁃ With restaurants and bars in operational flux, if you do go out, tip generously. For most of the kitchen and serving staff, your service gratuity makes all the difference between being able to send a child to school or not.

⁃ For those that are now enjoying, in the safety of their homes, the gastronomic pleasures of Italy, Pakistan or the entire junk food spectrum of the Americas, tip the delivery staff openheartedly. For many of them, their endless google mapped excursions around the city are second and third jobs taken on to supplement incomes made ever more meagre by the pandemic.

Be kinder to your domestic staff, those consummate companions one can’t do without in keeping the household engine well-oiled and chugging along immaculately, peaceably. It’s also no secret that a lot of domestic bliss is owed to their inimitable roles in our daily lives!

⁃ And last but not least, our usually bustling towns and cities are also home to a multitude of scavenging animals. These urban-bred packs of stray felines, canines and even a sizeable number of the avian population depend on the scraps and oddments of the teeming human millions going about their usual day. That food source has become unreliable at best. Do your bit by putting out some water for our creature cohabitants, and food if you’re blessed with an outdoors.

These neigbbouhood civics, in my mind, are fundamental and therefore incumbent on all of us. They are the very basic protocols of social decency and community living, but have over time, and as i look around me, lost their place in our intuitive DNA. And hence, as with so many other virtuous but faded/ lapsed communal interactions in our lives, the need to recall, restore and revitalise is important.

And so, this petition is meant as just a little scratching of the surface to that human part that is intrinsic to all of us bad eggs, good eggs, tough eggs, quirky eggs and all.

I’ll leave you with a cheeky little refrain as a gentle reminder of the compassionate beings we really are, and for when we lose that thread now and then in the frenzied rush of life.

I was a hard boiled egg
Less sugar, more spice
It’s taken a pandemic
To remind me to be nice!

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.