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!”

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

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”.

PANDEMIC 2020|Why this Kolaveri, Corona-weary, Covid-19?

These are strange times indeed! It’s almost like the human species is being cosmically positioned at the brink of a life-altering crossroad. Like we are being asked, nay, told by the universe to excogitate to the next level mentally, emotionally, spiritually and materially. The time for cosmic requests and gentle omens is probably done.

Each day is unfolding in an alternate macrocosm kind of way – unprecedented and grandly imbibing the nature of all the apocalyptic sci-fi plots the celluloid and literary worlds have regaled us with all these years. Like Aldous Huxley’s “A Brave New World” meeting Orwell’s “1984”; like all the Hollywood and J-horror pestilential and malefic microbe-driven, world decimation plots unraveling in real time! To those able to take an existential (and somewhat empirical) view of the current crisis, we are now residents of a very peculiar, almost alchemistic world. Collaboration, sharing and compassion, rather than geographic, economic and political oneupmanship are the ironic catalysts to see this through; and the inevitable gamut of similar Sui generis global debacles that our planet will face in times to come.

Our current state of affairs, what we call living a successful life, is now more than ever, worth introspection, cogitation and transformation. Our ethical and moral compasses, our belief systems and our very humanity are all up for realignment. We have known this for some time now, but the unrelenting bustle of our “regular” lives has served to make this intuition hazy and peripheral.

Maybe it’s Nature’s way of telling us to re-harmonize ourselves with our world at large, or be subjected to a brutal all-pervading culling, followed by an entirely contradistinct evolution of body and mind. Maybe the virus is the Last Prophet explicated by most organised religions, come to offer a final call via a master plan we are likely to understand- a Doomsday scenario playout- to get our “intelligent species” act together. It is conventionally deistic too, in that it is indiscriminate and all-encompassing in whatever it is doling out (full of brimstone and fire to boot, in an apt salute to the sinister overtones of all self and institutionally appointed custodians of faith these days). Any which way, the Corona will probably quite permanently change the way we interact, assimilate, empathise and connect across social and political divides.

In ending, these old lines come to mind with new pertinence: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way”(A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens).

De khudai pe aman

OPINION|The myth of “Super Luxury” condominiums

Colombo is still a quaint little city with a population of about 2.3 million people*, a small portion of which lives in apartments. And most of this denominator consists of the super privileged (read: professional expats and local landed gentry who have moved with the times, and therefore, out of their sprawling, oftentimes crumbling homes). And the latter is why venue perceptions have frequently begun to border on fantastic delusions of grandeur – a nostalgic attempt at holding onto the vestigial glory of the olden days. These pipe dreams, brought fondly to life by the Management Committees (made up almost entirely of the genteel aristocracy) are believed wholeheartedly by the support staff (administrative, maintenance and security teams) with fires in the belly of their own, becoming unwitting accomplices to the whole morose charade.

In our little city by the sea, the chimera of the super splendrous residential complexes has been in vogue for a number of years now. And given the fact that these apartments are located in the upscale neighbourhoods of the Galle Face area and all environs within a 5 km radius thereof, the illusion is convincingly imperforate. Until one begins to reside at one of these. Yes, i write this affectionate harangue from copious personal experience. And i haven’t yet got to the point; but some cause and effect/ empirical evidence based background was essential i thought!

The ignis fatuus begins with the misconception that the super luxuriousness of the complex is directly proportional to how dazzling the facade is. The myth is further perpetuated by the presence of ancillary but sadly, quite impuissant benefits like a supermarket, a cafeteria, an in-house maintenance team, a laundry service and maybe even a salon. But that is where the high stakes bucking bronco stops. The service levels at these outlets are usually dismal, tardy and over-priced. Add to it the occasional financial tomfoolery (I’m being kind!) and related mendacity brought on no doubt, by a complacent management committee, and you’re living in an Aldous Huxley utopia – A Brave New World where the art of illusion is paramount and short, anaemic memories serve one well.

Unsurprisingly, the solution lies in getting these basic condominium services to function in a robust, effective and equitable manner. It lies in channelling the quite significant financial flexibility gained from the exorbitant monthly maintenance fee (that is another dubiously proud hallmark of the super effulgent residencies), into developing the support structure human capital in terms of skill sets and work ethic. It lies in enabling them to establish their own superior benchmarks in the industry. That, dear ManCom** will be the key driver in capitalising on your brand equity and building longevity into that status, regardless of how many newfangled condominiums streak our horizon.

Oftentimes, the simplest solutions elude us just because they lack the fanfare and perplexity of, say….quantum physics or even Disintermediation (these are purely for sensation; please don’t dwell on either!) The 21st century, with its plethora of advances has also pulled a fast one on our collective psyche. Anything simple just does not ft into the domain of the affluent anymore. A bewildering, complex, almost always self-defeating whitewash of service levels, ethics and of course, high profile apartment facades is where the super luxury buck stops.

To all the developers/ ladies and gents at the top of the luxury condominium food chain: Stop this madness please!

De khudai pe aman.

*Source: world population review.com
**ManCom: Management Committee - an affectionate vestige from my corporate days

OPINION|The perils of being somewhat discerning!

The title does sound somewhat entitled, and snooty even, but please bear with me. I speak from a multitude of recent experiences that has had me picking at my voluminous but sparsely populated noggin (whether of the keratin or grey matter variety, I leave to your gentle conjecture!😁), and gnashing my already well-worn enamel.

Having been a part of the Customer Experience realm for close on 20 years in an exacting industry like the financial services, has honed my BS radar and quite woefully lowered my threshold for plain old bad service of any variety. That’s not to say that I will ruthlessly judge a service provider for delayed service or even providing a pot of tepid tea (the latter though, will depend largely on my then caffeinated state of well being! Tepidophobia is a thing and is quite devoutly and unashamedly a part of my prized anxieties!)

I am speaking of a consistently poor stream of delivery, for instance in the provision of a good or service which, by its nature, is conveyed over a period of time. The caveat is not in the mistakes that can occur – to err is human and all that jazz. Plus, reliable research* has shown that customers tend to remain more loyal to a brand where they have experienced some issues but where the service recovery was substantive, timely and focused. More so than even with places where they have not yet undergone a service breakdown. No, the caveat is not in the faux pas occurring; it is in the dismal failure to even genuinely attempt to fix things. An apathetic attitude is the icing on that poison toffee apple. Too many times, processes are formulated with no attention to service recovery protocols. That is a death blow to repeat business and as we all know, the pie is only so big.

I feel 3 Kgs lighter after that blog post (‘rant’ just sounds guilt-ridden which brings with it its own …. weight (‘burden’ just sounds even weightier!) And since ‘slender body’ and ‘good hair’ days are few and far between after 40, I’m going to go with this being a thoughtful study in the “benefits” of being discerning 🤓

Khudai pe-aman – (may you grow, glow and prosper, or just simply maintain your status quo for now. Until we meet again).

*Reliable research: opinions gleaned not only from the nerdy ramblings of academics or the corporate savvy presentations of management consultants, but from the life experiences of yours truly. That i do promise you with all my heart – to wax (and wane) eloquent with the utmost honesty until death…or just the digital milieu, do us part!

WRITING|The Failure to Launch…

It’s an actual thing! It’s taken me over 2 decades of mental preparation and many self-pep sessions to write this very first piece. Which is also about how it’s taken me 2 decades to start writing my very first piece – an “Inception” type event in my maiden blog! Who’d have thought I’d be able to inject some Sci Fi in the third line of my very first scrawl. Portentous of not-so-far-into-the-future blogs to come methinks!

Right, so back to how it was never easy. Here’s why: I’d built up these enormous fortresses of literary self expectations in my head. It had to be sensationally brilliant or nothing at all. (Modesty is over-rated 😁). That mind-set obviously didn’t work because here I am 20 years hence – the putting pen to paper phase having languorously passed me by – high-teching it during my first (faltering!) steps as a writer. Am I up for it? Hell yeah! …. (Constant underlying self pep: fake it till you make it M 💪🏽😅).

The feel of my first blog is definitely “text-y”. But I’m thinking with my heart more and feeling less with my brain….or something like that. Basically allowing some feel-good (aka, get the hell on with it!) mush to muddle the exacting synaptic connections in my left-leaning brain. I’m cringing and revelling in turn, at the opening of my creative flood gates. You, my dear readers, will henceforth bear irreparable mental scars or if I’m lucky, grin like Cheshire cats. A little more of the latter is the hope in this budding writer’s tender breast 😉🤞🏽

De Khudai pe-aman – (may you grow, glow and prosper, or just simply maintain your status quo for now. Until we meet again).

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