SHORT STORY| SOILENT GREEN* – Part 1

COLOMBO; SRI LANKA:

September 21st, 2021; 10pm:

I breathed in deeply. I had to reduce my heart rate, get rid of all the disquieting thoughts ricocheting in my head and get my Calm back. I closed my eyes and focused on my chakras….each one visible, glowing, holding me safe….

There was a loud clamour from somewhere in the sprawling Sleeping area. I heard it but I ignored it. I kept my eyes closed and concentrated. Ten minutes later, I lay down and fled, thankfully, into a dreamless sleep.

September 29th, 2021; 8am:

I ate the bread and butter ravenously. Hungry as I’d been, I had skipped last night’s dinner of rice and fish curry. There was still enough food around to enable me to maintain the urban quirks of my palate. That meant no seafood and no pork; not even curries spiced with fish paste. I had been primarily subsisting on carbohydrates and sugar for the past 3 weeks.

We were almost into week 4 of The Turning as it had begun to be called; the Purge as i believed it was. That word; that thought for the ‘greater good’ helped me reason and compartmentalise the entire happening into serene, halcyon boxes in my mind even if it was for short periods of time. It helped me step back into the macrocosm of our very existence and to relieve to some extent, the enormity of our collective helplessness and anguish. And that was important to remain …. normal.

I got up to do the first of my 4 times daily, 20 minute ‘Corridor Walk’. A throw-back to my normal days and one which I held onto with the tenacity of a bulldog.

It had begun very soon after the Covid-19 vaccine went global.

At first, there were unexplained disappearances; mostly of middle aged men and women in the cities. They went to work and simply never came back. Then there were inexplicable instances of whole new patches of vibrant vegetation coming up in the meticulously preserved pristine spaces in and around concrete structures: A shrub appearing overnight, rising from a craggy cleft in the footpath where the earth sat between two imperfect flagstones; a vibrant, young bougainvillea suddenly sharing a fastidiously tamed flowerbed alongside its longtime botanical residents; groves of young Mara/ Rain trees appearing overnight parallel to the railways tracks creating a cool, shadowy pall over the carriages that still chugged back and forth carrying their human burdens.

Then there was the first sighting.

A woman walking along the Galle road had wrapped her arms around one of the Araliya* trees on the walkway and had simply… “melted”. She had disappeared; just ceased to exist anymore – like in a scene out of a real-life time travel thriller. And in the middle of that still tropical afternoon, the leaves on the tree had visibly rustled, almost like a joyous little victory dance after imbibing new life into its ancient architecture. Someone had got the episode on video….mid-disappearance.

It had gone viral with 30 billion views in 3 weeks.

It had also struck horror in the hearts of men.

First, there were slews of wild conjectures ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous; followed by extraterrestrial conspiracy theories; giving way finally to ceaseless terrified anticipation – who was next?

In the rush to get back to ‘normal’ post the Covid 19 outbreak, and under the dubious auspices of the current world leadership, the vaccine had been churned out in record time. But there was something not quite right with the Ac19-nCoV vaccine. It was causing a gross genetic mutation in at least one out of every 3 people who had it. It was metamorphosing them into Green Carbon; devolving complex human biological structures into the simpler compounds that we collectively called Mother Nature. It was terrifying; it was shocking; it was bizarre and it had led to the Great Chain of Being upending itself – Nature was God was Nature. And this Neo-vegetation grew thick around concrete structures, obliterating almost overnight, the greatest industrial revolution triumphs of man.

No Man is an Island.

People realised quite early on that their chances of survival multiplied manifold if they banded together in large numbers as close to the ground as possible. High rise buildings were abandoned, and the built-up ground floor areas were turned into mass shelters.

Endurance was easier in the city than in the thriving green environs of the suburbs. This allowed the Saw and Machete battles against the ever-advancing fury of Nature to be fought with some degree of success. For now.

Our group is tenanted at the local 5 star hotel, for a price. We still have the rare luxury of venturing out into the sunshine. Into the “great outdoors” – (what a morbid oddity that now sounds like!) – where a thick canopy of rustling leaves has not yet taken over every inch of the earth and the sky; always growing, always advancing, always darkening, before ultimately enfolding everything in its suffocating, chlorophyllic embrace.

I walk around the perimeter of our lobby-shelter, completing one 360 degree perambulation in a minute. Twenty such laps undertaken to think… think… make some sense of it all. To wrap my head around yet another new post pandemic Reality…. Ultimatum… Finality. To learn to accept….to ACCEPT. To rationalise and accept.

T + 28 Days Later

I hear the alarm go off. It is my turn to help clear the new vegetation outside. I pick up the machete (it’s a handy, lightweight version that I have become quite proficient at using) and go outside. I look at the luscious palm that has come up in the corner overnight – probably a hapless Covid-Vaxer* who had fled the suburban wilds and been vanquished instead by the insidious city-slicking verdancy. I have this strange urge to wrap my arms around it; to take a deep breath at last; to close my eyes and let what will be, just be….

I take up my machete and hit the stem once, twice, three times, until the sap oozes out thickly, flowing to the ground, feeding the greenness of the earth. I bring my foot down as hard as i can on the spot…the grass flattens momentarily and then bounces up defiantly. I choke back a sob as fury mixes with the hopelessness of it all.

The palm yields on the 5th stroke of my machete and falls to the ground.

It is not over yet.

De Khudai pe aman

*Soilent Green title inspiration from a 1973 American ecological dystopian thriller – “Soylent Green”, starring Charlton Heston.

*Araliya tree: the local name for the Plumeria or Frangipani.

*Covid Vaxer: Any of the 3 billion people who were administered the Covid 19 vaccination

Read SOILENT GREEN – Part 2 here: FICTION|SOILANT GREEN* – Part 2

VERSE|I Am Dystopia!

WHEN NATURE ROARS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

De Khudai pe aman.

*VoA: Visa on Arrival

OPINION|The Consciously Blazing World*

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

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

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

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

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

So where do we go from here?

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

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

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

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

De Khudai pe aman.

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

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

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

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

OPINION|The Reluctant Martyrs

The “ill-fated” Pakistan International Airlines flight of May, 2020

As this pandemic rages on, the truth of things, the bare bones architecture of our flawed sensibilities and ethics are rattling like so many skeletons in our collective closet. It is almost an embarassemnt to be a part of the human species in this, our very own alternate Earth reality. Yes, it helps to believe that there are other universes where our little blue planet is faring copiously better on all human levels!

And so i feel constrained to give my two bits worth on the tragedy that befell scores of families who lost loved ones in the “ill fated” PIA commercial flight en route from Lahore to Karachi on May 23rd, 2020.

“Ill fated” – words full of the promise of a clean getaway; of insidious lies; of crass insensitivity; of cruel heartlessness; of passing the buck. Words that are used as copiously and as mindlessly as are the sacrosanct verses intoned 5 times every day to the Almighty. Somewhere along the way, our inner voice, our conscience- our very humanity was cast off as a burdensome, inconvenient companion, while the optically grandiose rites and rituals have marched stridently along with us through the ages.

Worse than the Covid 19 pandemic, is the ethical and moral pandemic ravaging our humanity, our sense of community and our work ethic. We have become insensible to all manner of injustice, lack of incumbency and the flagrant flouting of any semblance of a civic sense. We have lost not only our capacity for, but also our moral awareness of what it means to be compassionate, dutiful and responsible.

Worse than the tragedy of the event itself is the tragedy that there will be no definitive, resolute consequences to this incidence. It has already been accredited to fate and martyrdom and therein lies the sum total of the analysis, diagnosis and fix of a catastrophe that killed close to a 100 people, leaving families – children, parents, siblings, friends and relatives, bereft and shattered.

I can’t help but compare the almost negligible call to some kind of answerability in this calamitous incidence to the recent case of Dominic Cummings, Chief Advisor to the British PM. The man stepped out during the lockdown to seek childcare for his 4 year old son while both he and his wife were displaying Covid symptoms; an act that’s arguably open to some manner of interpretation as per the country’s Lockdown guidelines. And so, they could have/ might have exposed the public to the infection. There was no actual death or destruction wreaked; but the mere probability of harm embodied in the act of leaving his home during lockdown, was a culpable offence. Cummings was consequently subjected to a harrowing series of brutal questions, loud clamours for accountability and insistent calls for justice and even his dishonourable discharge by the state, the media and the body politic at large. While we, the self proclaimed stalwarts of our faith and of its copious prescripts on “Huqooq-ul-Ibad*”, have summarily dismissed a 100 fatalities as yet another act of God. The God that we are so adept at putting front and centre of all our duplicitous, corrupt and brutish actions.

Maybe if the state institutions, our political overlords and the general powers that be, began to think of this nation, first and foremost, as a Republic of Humankind rather than a bubbling, imploding cauldron of divisions and differences, there would be some hope for our humanity. And since we’re all such champions of liturgy, labels and nomenclature, maybe this change in our national identity would also have a more profound impact on how we conduct ourselves socially and morally. And maybe, just maybe, this vicious cycle of ‘copious cause and no personal consequences’ will break to allow just a little more conscience, answerability and justice to pervade the various “ill-fated” streams of our lives.

De Khudai pe aman.

*Huqooq-ul-Ibad: the responsibility/ duty every Muslim owes to the rest of his fellow beings, regardless of the others’ faith or spiritual leaning.

VERSE|I Sat Alone with Sadness

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

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

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

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

De Khudai pe aman

SHORT STORY|The Fatigue

I was so tired.

I arrived at my grandmother’s house, Z___abad, at a little past 3pm. It was a cool mid-March evening and the slight chill in the air felt soothing. I made my way up the broad walkway towards the main house. The familiar spring foliage in the inner garden was in full, salutary bloom. My favourite shrubbery running the length of the high ceilinged veranda was inflorescent with a myriad shades of green, ranging from the deep dark of the Monstera to the delicate green plumage of the Bougainvillea. The late afternoon light played lazily along the palm-shaded steps leading from the garden to the veranda – each umbrous shape flitting like a gossamer phantom between the real and the shadow worlds.

There was a faint smell of the rose and bergamot incense that my grandmother had liked to burn every so often; usually, when the gastronomic labour of love, undertaken daily through prodigious breakfast and lunch preparations for the family and the contingent of domestic staff, was done for the day. It wafted in barely perceptible undulations like shy little wraiths playing hide and seek.

I stopped for a bit to take it all in….breathe it all in. I was home.

But I was so tired.

I walked into the big, airy lounge, greeted immediately by the portraits of my grandmother and my mother. I looked at the pictures, and waited for the inevitable wrenching tug of heartache. It didn’t come. Instead, I felt a quiet calmness and solace… I was back home.

“You’ve arrived”. P. abai, the old homestead retainer said, looking at me quizzically. I hadn’t heard her come in. I smiled and we embraced. Z__abad and P. abai are intrinsically bound together in all my memories of the place.

“Where were you the last time I came here? You’d been ill and then they said you didn’t come back. I missed you”, I said looking at her gently smiling face.

“I’ve missed all of you too. I had to go away for a while….”. She hesitated, looking at me tenderly and then smiled again.

“I’ll bring you some tea – you must be tired” She said with an affectionate caress on my head.

I smiled at her and watched her go out through the lounge doors, melting into the evening shadows that had descended on the sun-warmed veranda. I shivered a little – the residual late winter chill had further cooled the evening air. I sat on my grandmother’s chair at the familiar old dining table. The edges of the flowery linoleum table cloth fluttered tremulously in the crisp March breeze that wafted in through the open doors.

I could still smell the incense faintly. I glanced around the room, vaguely wondering where it was coming from. It didn’t matter; it was replete with nostalgia and serenity. I looked outside at the garden. The twilight of dusk had succumbed to a tranquillising, soothing darkness.

Exhaustion washed over me.

I put my head back and closed my eyes.

I finally rested.

Khyber News Alert:There was an accident on Highway S-1 near Charsadda this afternoon at 3.15pm. The Nissan Sunny car driver had fallen asleep at the wheel and had plunged head-on into a lorry carrying scaffolding girder beams. The driver has been hospitalised with a broken leg. The passenger, a woman in her 40s, died on the spot”.