Hope in 2021

This year has come to an end.

It barely seems to have started — there were no movements. We stayed indoors the whole year. The otters disappeared from the waterfront in front of our home just as the planes seem to have disappeared from the skies. I do not like being sad over anything. 

Much that is good has happened to me and mine though we have not been left unscarred by the deadly virus. The sadness of mankind tinges our existence. We live on an island but we cannot live in a bubble. The world stretches out its grief to us, its terror to us in pandemic proportions. Does the bug of sadness bite us? It does. 

Honestly from my heart it is difficult to celebrate against the misery that seems to have brought many to a halt. The misery of disease, death coupled with the inability to touch physically another human. It is all terrifying. Almost as if Asimov’s vision of Solaria is coming to life. And then there are wars over boundaries, hatred, anguish and anger. A very bleak scenario if we start listing, even if some of the issues have started moving towards  more hopeful outcomes with vaccines and the turn of world events.

Darkness is deepest just before dawn wipes away the blackness with its dappled touch. Maybe the rays of the new sunrise of the first day of the New Year will herald better times. 

I look outside my window at the clear skies, the sunshine and the golden orioles flying; the parakeets chattering and moving in flocks from tree to tree by the quietly flowing river and I feel maybe things will fall into place. Not in the way we knew it but in a new way. 

Maybe it is time for a fresh start, a new world, a new dawn and a new year. With that I wish you all a smoother journey in the New Year towards a happier world. 

Why we need a Bunker Roy in Literature?

First published in Countercurrents.org, December, 2020

With the farmers marching out to demand their rights in India, with more consciousness of the need to close gaps between the privileged and non-privileged worldwide, with climate crisis becoming a major force to redefine our thinking, perhaps the time has come to rethink how literature can be moulded to serve the needs of the masses. That we wake up to the urgency of bridging gaps between different levels of education to create a more evolved world for mankind as a species is fast becoming an unspoken necessity to live with advances that time is unfolding for us. Leaving behind more than one half of the world is not really an alternative. The tiny corona virus has shown us, proven to us, we need to unify as a race.

Recently, I watched a TED talk by a man called Bunker Roy.  He was a squash champion in India for three years, with a privileged education from Doon school (where also had studied the scions of the Indira Gandhi family) and the high-browed St Stephen’s College of Delhi University. He was all set to be a diplomat. Then, he decided to see what a village was like and went to one during the 1965 famine. He came back with all the boxed ideals of a glamorous bureaucratic future replaced by a dream of digging 500 wells. He lived out his dream much to the chagrin of his mother. He started a barefoot college in arid Rajasthan, called Tilonia. This, he claimed in his talk, is the only college in the world where postgraduates and doctorals are not welcome. It has non-collegiates to teach the illiterate. They teach life skills. And now he has a bunch of grandmothers who are laying solar cells and lighting up the world from Afghanistan to India to Africa to Sierra Leone. His work has now spanned 64 countries, beyond all borders. He goes where there is a need to bridge a gap between the ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ worlds.

This is a man who broke out of boxed thinking, reached out to people and made changes in the lives of people. I would love to write of what made him choose as he did, what made him opt to leave a life of glamour and ease and work for developing a village. He did not see if they were bhakts or liberals, Republicans or Democrats or educated or non-educated entities. He just saw them as fellow humans and he touched their lives and work with his unboxed choices.

The reason I write of him is because I would want to use somebody like him as a role model for writing. But he does not write. He works with his hands. How could he be a role model? To me, he is a role model because he could break out from boxed thinking and create a new concept in learning and reach out beyond borders drawn artificially by mankind. Is that not what all great literature should be doing? Breaking out of boxed thinking to create new inroads into human thought, to discover new paradigms for the souls that thirst for succour in these trying times. He lived out Gandhi’s dream as I read it in the Mahatma’s autobiography — My Experiments with Truth. Gandhi was another man who thought beyond his times. He was talking of developing villages the way Roy has done, long before Roy decided to dig wells. And yet his books were not prescribed for any literature classes three decades ago, in my university days in India. We did read translations of Plato and Homer — but not anything that would bring us closer to the people of our own country, to their needs. If Plato can be seen as a part of English literature, then why not Gandhi?

Recently, I read a book called Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, which has been prescribed as compulsory reading for my son’s international Baccalaureate English Literature course. I was happy to see this bridge. For, I would call it a bridge. The book is in the form of black and white cartoons with writing, which has effectively conveyed the plight of Iranians crushed between the Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini regimes. With a few bold strokes, it expressed so much. Though comments behind the book are many, some convey my own sentiments. This, written by Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street, I felt was the most apt to describe my experience: “Part history book, art Scheherzade, astonishing as only true stories can be, Persepolis gave me hope for humanity in these unkind times.” Another by journalist Gloria Steinem, said: “You have never seen anything like Persepolis — Marjane Satrapi may have given us a new genre.”

Value based writing like that of Satrapi is important in educating and bridging gaps between those who have time to indulge in literary cogitations and those who grow food or build roads for us, both of these being the necessary function to survive in this world. Of course, the farmers and road makers may not be able to read in English but that is where translators can help. And if they cannot read in any language at all, literacy and making books about things that concern them so that they can be weaned into reading…

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Bapu in 2020

First Published in SETU, October 2020

The sun streaked an orange-gold across the Himalayan range in Dehradun. There was a chill in the air. Bapu wrapped the shawl closer to his body and looked out sadly. He was dressed in his traditional dhoti and a light wrap. It felt too cold in mid-September to be dressed like that and yet, it was too warm to don a warm shawl. Global warming had truly set in as God had said.
He adjusted his glasses — though they were more cosmetic now. His body was different too — not his own but borrowed from a stripling of twenty-four! 
If you are wondering what was happening, here is the flashback. 
It was 2020. Delhi riots in March had shattered Bapu's dream of a united India — where all religions co-existed. The mishandling of the Citizenship Amendment Act had been a bad blow. But the riots in New Delhi around Holi where there were Hindu- Muslim clashes had Bapu in Heaven weeping and beating his chest. What had happened to his India? 
In Heaven, there is but one rule that is compulsory for all the souls. They need to be happy. If they expressed unhappiness, they were sent back to Earth to serve another lifetime to find peace and happiness. And if it was something that needed emergency handling, God exchanged souls — kept the other in limbo anaesthetised. 
So, when God caught Gandhi weeping, he asked him, "What has happened to you?" Kasturba, Gandhi's wife, was stroking his back with concern written all over her face.
Gandhi, between broken sobs, expressed what had happened, God said, "Fine, you need to fix it now. You had said hate the sin, but not the sinner, and were a friend to the underprivileged. And now, worldwide, there is a spree of envy, hatred — more for the sinners than the sin, widespread violence, intolerance, and no peace anywhere. The world as you knew it is no more. Nature has also unleashed COVID 19 to discipline mankind — so that the planet continues habitable and man ceases to be rapacious in his greed and outlook. You need to get back there al pronto. Let me check with the human resource to see what can be done to have you there."
Kasturba said, "Can I go too...?"
God interrupted, "No Kasturba. Don't complicate matters. Hopefully, this can be fixed fast and Gandhi can return in a few days."


God returned after half-an-hour. "Gandhi, we have found a perfect spot. One 24-year-old boy is in a coma as he has had a motorbike accident. Only his head was injured because he rode without a helmet. So, his soul is already in limbo. You might as well go into his body — do your hunger fast or whatever and get back soon. Then we will awaken his soul and send it back!"


Gandhi had no choice, but to accede to God. He came down on Earth and twenty-four-year-old Abhishek woke up calling himself Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi! 


He was instantly put under psychiatric care. Meanwhile, as lockdown had emptied hospitals off patients, Abhishek or Gandhi was considered safe and non-violent enough to be sent home. He came home. To his mother's distress, he turned vegetarian and took to dressing in a loincloth and wrap! 


When he tried to go on a hunger strike, no one listened. He was back in the hospital with a glucose drip! And force-fed. He did not have the media attention or following that made hunger strikes effective in the twentieth century. The COVID19 lockdown had imposed restrictions on gatherings. He would be in jail if he tried to use Gandhian tools as a lunatic lawbreaker! He had already broken it once speeding on his bike and riding without a helmet.


Gandhi felt distressed. He could do nothing. The hatred raged. The economy was in the doldrums. And the China border skirmish was an ongoing discomfort. No one listened to Abhishek — for that is what the world regarded him as. 
On top of that, there was something called television that raved about the suicide of a Sushant, as if poverty had ceased to be an issue or the collapsing economy or the China conflict... Bollywood, a strange name for talkies makers, hogged all the news! And the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS, organisations to which his killer Godse had belonged, seemed to be in ascendancy along with something called the BJP... it was chaos. 
He felt unvalued. His teachings were ignored despite his title — Father of the Nation. Congress had fallen into weaker hands of those who had distanced themselves from the pain of the poverty-stricken. 


He could see it all from a distance so clearly. Why could not his countrymen?


Social media was a major player — he ...

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Make Mankind Great Again

First published in Countercurrents.org, October 2020

“It has often been said that the only thing that could unite mankind was a threat from space.”

I read this in Arthur C Clarke’s novel, 2061, Odyssey Three. The threat in Clarke’s science fiction was a second star — which mankind renamed Lucifer but was actually Jupiter set ablaze by superior space engineering by an intelligent species far more evolved than Homo Sapiens. The interesting thing here was the statement he made that “mankind could unite”. Arthur C Clarke wrote this novel in 1987 with perhaps a positive hope for the future of our race. At that point, global warming and climate change were not as big a threat as they are today and COVID-19 had not infringed to decimate the human race. I do not know if these issues can be regarded as a threat from space, Nature, Universe or man’s own unwitting movement towards the destruction of his species and his home planet.  I have read that the absorption of solar radiation increases as the white ice sheets thaw to give way to dark waters that trap solar heat and hasten the pace of cyclic melting and global warming.

While climate change and the corona virus have failed to unify us till now, voices are being raised about economic downturns and stock markets. Weapon trade and skirmishes over borders have not halted. Economic activity is said to have been slowed down by lockdowns, an attempt to combat the spread of the virus. I wonder if the world of finance can exist without man. Who created these concepts of economy and money? Can they exist without man?

These questions haunt me, especially, every time I hear people give voice to their yearnings to go back to the life they had before the advent of the pandemic. I cannot say I do not miss my old life. I do. The freedom to move around, the freedom to talk to anyone and most of all the freedom to travel to any place in the world if one has the financial means — are things I miss very much. Sometimes I wonder, is the pandemic a warning for us to mend our ways, a warning from a superior intelligence or maybe just Nature and Earth?  An airplane guzzles lot of fuel —  petroleum (kerosene) based — to ferry us around. Is it all right to spend this much fossil fuel on a regular basis to hop around the world? I do not know. But it does make me question myself. Is it all right to fly off for a holiday at the drop of a hat? I live in a little island. Right now, that seems to be the only sane place to be in the world to me. We have had only 28 COVID deaths here in Singapore though the total number of cases near 60,000. The government is building dykes to prevent losing our homes to rising water levels as a result of climate change. Things seem to work. I feel fortunate to be here during this crisis.

However, when I look out through the window of my television and internet, I find a world torn in despair. A second wave of COVID, world leadership that is unable to manage the situation and some of it, unable to fathom both the seriousness of the pandemic and climate change. They are still finding reasons to draw borders and talk of economy as it was, instead of thinking of alternative lifestyles that will be in harmony with Nature and yet suit mankind. Twenty first century guru, Yuval Noah Harari, has rightly pointed out in a recent interview with British actor, comedian and activist, Russell Brand, that global leadership is not envisioning a future that factors in climate change and COVID but wallowing in the past. Though Arthur C Clarke does not factor in climate change or the pandemic, he does project a future. A future where a united world had colonies in space stations. Clarke writes: “The dismantling of the vast and wholly parasitic armaments industry had given an unprecedented — sometimes, indeed, unhealthy — boost to the world economy. No longer were vital raw materials and brilliant engineering talents swallowed up in a virtual black hole — or, even worse, turned to destruction. Instead, they could be used to repair the ravages and neglect of centuries, by rebuilding the world.”

In his projection, the arms race has halted. And China, USA and USSR are working in harmony. There is some amount of global governance. The world seems to be a more upbeat place. In the prequel to this book, 2010, OdysseyTwo (1982), where the countries have lessons in rising above politics and learning to survive together, you have a fleeting mention of ‘ahimsa’ — the Gandhian concept. An Indian robotics specialist practices it on an autonomous robot which turned rogue and killed its human counterparts in the earliest and most popular, 2001 Space Odyssey (1968), made into a film by Stanley Kubrik, a movie that projected a human colony on moon. When ‘ahimsa’, or non-violence, is practised (by honestly explaining the crisis to the machine) as opposed to violence (pulling the plug out on the robot and technically killing it), the robot complies and the expedition returns safely, in a way reviving Gandhian lore and Gandhi’s philosophy coming to the rescue of science. The humanitarian is woven into the scientific lore.

In Gandhi’s own country, they recently celebrated his one hundred and fifty-first birth anniversary. One would hope, it would serve as a reminder of his values and his principles. Here was a man who believed that developing each sector of a region mattered. He has clearly said in his autobiography (published as a serial in a magazine, 1925-29), Experiments with Truth: “As I gained more experience of Bihar, I became convinced that work of a permanent nature was impossible without proper village education.” That was his solution to growing as a nation — not just freedom from colonialism. He actually lived among the people he served and tried to be a part of the community through his actions, while enforcing his own standards of hygiene and cleanliness on his surroundings.

Though India gained freedom from colonials officially, did it actually grow out of colonial administration? When the British Civil Services were copied, maybe the administrators should have given it a Gandhian touch — even the colonial rulers listened to Bapu. Along with horse riding, the Indian Administrative Services officers should have been trained to open schools; to organise potable water, electricity, roads, food; to teach cleanliness, toilet and kitchen both; to build bathrooms and educate about their maintenance and usage; to get rid of blind beliefs and treat the residents like their own and not as their subjects. And perhaps, they should have been quartered among the people in villages and small tehsils, not in colonial mansions made for the British ruling class. That is pretty much what Gandhi might have done had he continued to live for longer.

To be given the self-respect to work for a living, earn one’s bread, is more important than giving out doles of social security. One has to strike the right balance and generate more jobs, as did Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah in Lucknow when he built the Bada Imambara with its labyrinth of tunnels called Bhool Bhulaiya. The elites in 1784 were commissioned by the Nawab to break the walls built by the workers so that he could continue generating income for all through work, and not charity, through a terrible famine. This went on for eleven years — for as long as the famine lasted. That was long before Gandhi. But, Bapu also said it in black and white in his autobiography: “The grinding poverty and starvation with which our country is afflicted is such that it drives more and more men every year into the ranks of beggars, whose desperate struggle for bread renders them insensible to all feelings of decency and self-respect. And our philanthropist, instead of providing work for them and insisting on their working for bread, give them alms.”

Though Gandhi has been a favourite with many and influenced greats like Martin Luther King JrNelson Mandela and more, is his own country impacted by his teachings beyond the currency notes which bear his imprint and the naming of many roads and parks after him?…

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Durga Puja: Past and present

First published in Different Truths, October 2020

যে দিকে তাকাই সোনার আলোয়

দেখি যে ছুটির ছবি,

পূজার ফুলের বনে ওঠে ওই

পূজার দিনের রবি।

Whichever way I gaze, a golden haze

Mesmerises with dreams of holidays.

The festive floral forest invokes

A glorious gala sunrise.

That is an attempt at translating Tagore’s poem describing the puja season, which is perhaps the biggest festival for Hindu Bengalis all over the world. For us, during our childhood, it heralded a time of celebrations. There would be a cold nip in the air and whiffs of jasmine and madhabilata(Rangoon creeper), and a haze of festivities.

Durga Puja, was quintessentially a time when families got together and celebrated an annual community event, met with friends and relatives and had a whopping good time, which included new clothes for those who could afford. Food, festivities and fun punctuated with fasting before the offering of flowers or pushpanjali every morning. Multiple Durga puja pandals were set up all over town. We patronised one but went pandal hopping to see all the pujas.

Other than appreciating the ornate statues of the Goddess with her family in each pandal, we bought and savoured seasonal delicacies in the temporary stalls that cropped up around the community celebrations.  These celebrations were open to all and sundry without any charges and I have never been able to adjust to the fact that often overseas celebrations outside of India restrict visitors by imposing monetary charges. These overseas festivities to me never quite capture what I found in my childhood. They create only a shadow, but it is never the real thing, I feel.

The reality of those days still stays seeped in my bones and spirit. Every evening, there were drummers who played this huge drum, called dhak, amidst the incense and crowds. In the evenings, people danced to dhak, in front of the goddess with incense, dhoonochi nritya. Then there were entertainment shows in the pandal. Most had fun watching the evening and the late-night programmes that were to an extent performed by amateurs, our friends and neighbours. Some of the performances would be by artistes invited all the way from Bengal.

The other event that happens parallel to the puja is Dussehera. Dussehera is a north Indian celebration of Rama’s killing the evil king Ravana, who with his ten heads ruled the island of Lanka (Sri Lanka). Interestingly Rama also prayed to the Goddess Durga to help him defeat Ravana. Ram Lila, a performance of the story of Rama’s life, were performed all over town adding to the chaos of festivities. Sometimes, followers of Rama would drop in to watch our festivities and occasionally, we would trickle over to watch the fun of amateur Ram Lila productions. These performances of the life of Rama ranged from the elaborate and exclusive hosted by exclusive dance troupes, often based on Indian classical forms, to those performed by amateurs. The puja programmes, I remember were often interrupted in Delhi with loud music from amateur Ram Lila performances within the same park. The Durga puja we attended was held in a huge community park. The two blaring microphones of Ram Lila and Durga Puja coexisted without major outbreaks of intolerance exhibited by any of the parties. When, I think of it, I wonder is it still the same? I have not been to such celebrations for almost the last three decades because we moved out of India.

Durga Puja is an old — very old — tradition. No one is quite clear about the origins of the festivities other than that it started in West Bengal. Some myths link it to Rama’s invocation around this time and to the legend of Mahisasur. It probably started somewhere around the late 1500s.

For us, the advent of the season was heralded a few weeks before the real five-day-long event, on the day of Mahalaya, when we appeased our forefathers with offerings and prayers, much like other cultures do on days like All Souls Day or the Qingming festival. Mahalaya trumpets the start of the Puja season. We children were told Durga started her descent to Earth with her family on this day. This event, in those days, meant listening to the famous rendition of Mahisasur Mardini by Birendra Krishna Bhadra, a legend unto himself. We would wake up at 4 am and sit glued to the radio — I must say I did try to get my forty winks in too but never quite managed. The music was powerful.  The lyrics and the rendition still bring tears to my eyes with its majesty. It strengthens. It heals. It emboldens. To me, Durga was the all-powerful, the ultimate female force. She was given weapons by each God and Goddess, to destroy the demon Mahisasur.

Birendra Bhadra’s rendition ingrained her immensity into our systems. The festivities, which lasted five days for us, gave me an assurance that women were powerful enough to battle all evils and win without losing their femininity. For, the statue that was made was of a ten handed Goddess who not only rode a lion to destroy Mahisasur but also nurtured her children and lived in harmony. For me, this myth was so powerful and impactful that I could not then and still cannot comprehend how women see themselves as helpless. That is more after more than half a century of my Earthly existence. For almost thirty years, I have not heard Birendra Bhadra’s rendition as we live in time zones different from his home. I hear snatches of it in the daytime or evening but never in the way I listened to it as a child.

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“Our Kids Should Have Dreams Bigger Than Ours”

Sara Chats: Interview with Mitali Chakravarty, Founding Editor Of Borderless Journal, September 2020

Bookosmia Spotlight

Hey, Sara here! Read this wonderful piece on how to not only make your kids a good writer, but a good human being, from Singapore based Mitali, an acclaimed writer and a thinking parent. She is the founding editor of the international Borderless Journal, which republishes the writings of young Bookosmians.

Sara Chats: “Our kids should have dreams bigger than ours,” with Mitali Chakravarty, founding editor of Borderless Journal

Sara: A journalist, a teacher, story teller, a writer, parent and so many more –  you have experienced life’s many colours! If there is one thing you would like  to go back and tell your 10-12 year old self, what would it be? 

Mitali: Thank you Ms Sara — I really am a huge fan of yours!I am not as multi faceted as you make me sound but a mother and homemaker who writes and is trying to create a happier world for her children and in the future, her great grandchildren!I would tell my younger self: “Dream — dream big and believe in your dream and yourself and it will happen.” I had that belief and it was instilled further in me by my father and his younger brother as I grew up in a joint family.

Sara: Tell us your objective behind running Sara’s selection- a space  dedicated to young writers. 

Mitali: Sara’s Selections showcases young writers from Bookosmia. I hope to support Bookosmia in its attempt to enhance young writers.I do not look for competitive pieces or pieces with perfect grammar, but original writing, unguided by parents or tutors, what children think and write themselves.I hope this attempt will help develop young minds to think positively and nurture young writers as the future thinkers and dreamers of tomorrow — leading the world towards a more positive mindset — above the rat race and above just monetary considerations or the glitter of fame. They should have the ability to create a better world than the earlier one because mankind only moves forward in time — not backwards. Their dreams should be bigger than ours and Sara’s Selections will hopefully be able to encourage more to have big dreams — real or unreal. After all when Jules Verne wrote about Captain Nemo, did we have submarines?

Sara: Congratulations to you on the success of your ‘Borderless journal’. You deal with diverse writers on a day to day basis. What according to you are the elements that make a piece of writing stand out?

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Cats, Camels and Jar Jar Binks

First published in Countercurrents.org, August 2020

Cats came into Preeti’s life long before camels, around the time cows found a way out of her heart but into her life. She had seen cows ever since she could remember…while riding horse driven tongas in Haridwar in 1970s, creating traffic jams in Delhi, Haridwar, Kolkata, Dehradun, Lucknow and wherever she happened to visit in India. From long before the days they chased her, thinking she was contender for the tempting fare in an open dustbin heap in Delhi, she had tremendous respect for cows and bovine life saviours. So much so that cows were a reason why living out of the country suited her. They were never friends with her. Camels came later because they don’t roam the streets at large, like cows, dogs, monkeys and donkeys…

But before Preeti started narrating the cat and camel story, she confided that she had been craving to have a trip to Egypt on camel back to visit the temple of the feline goddess, Bastet. The reason Preeti referred to her as feline was Bastet had been given the head of a lioness and made into a warrior princess when she started out in the third millennium BCE and ended up as a cat some two thousand years later! Preeti was curious about Bastet.

Why would a warrior goddess adapt and become a cat one? Was she giving some kind of a message to other women as the guardian of mankind? As in a book she read long ago, Volga to Ganga, a historical fiction covering the geographic area mentioned in the title from 6000 BC to 1922, the author, Rahul Sankritayan, claimed that women fought alongside men. Preeti said she had read the translation by Victor Kierman. In that book, the first story set in 6000 BC, depicted women as warriors, leaders, clan chiefs and men obeyed them. Later women as a race subsided. I added that I had seen skeletons of such a civilisation housed in Xian’s Neolithic Banpo museum. The guide had told us the civilisation from 4500 BCE to 3750 BCE was matriarchal. And yet, Chinese women had to bind their feet and go through painful mutilation themselves to make up to standards of beauty till Mao Zedong outlawed the practice! Was that good or bad?

The main thing was why did Bastet from a ruler turn to a hunter of mice?  Why would she metamorphose? Gregor did metamorphose into a giant bug and kick up a ruckus in Kafka’s world, and his manifestation was seen often as an externalisation of his inner self, but was that why Bastet changed to a cat from a lioness? Did she feel catching mice and manning (oops…catting) the caps of funeral urns would be a better deal for her than fighting wars? A question that Preeti felt could find resolution if she made that trip to Egypt on camel back.

Preeti was born a Leo and could never imagine being called a female cat instead of a lioness.  Many females were feline by nature, she felt, but not her. Neither was that a reason to love cats or her own kind. All creatures great and small.

However, like dogs, cats loved Preeti too… not the strays in Delhi or in other places in India but there was one in Holland — expressed her fondness by sitting on Preetis’s lap every time she settled to watch TV — more than three decades ago.

I told Preeti I was lost, and she needed to start her story at the beginning, instead of starting from the middle — a very bad place to start unless you give a flash back. So, she narrated the flashback.

“I was almost eighteen. My cousin and I were traveling in Europe and staying with some Dutch friends in this little town near Amsterdam. These friends had a black cat with green eyes and a tail…

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Imagine

First published in Countercurrents.org, August 2020

Did the caveman laugh?

Did he have a toothache?

The cheering thing for him would have been, he would not have to visit a dentist. Or, is that a cheering thought for me? And he would continue in pain while his tooth rotted and fell! And mine gets pulled out or repaired by a dentist peering into my numb anaesthetised mouth! Which is a better option?

My sons would tell me — the dentist.

I — I am not so sure being at the receiving end of intense dental care!

I remember watching a Bill Nye show on cavemen’s diet, which is what many believe can heal obesity, but do I want to be healed off my layers of adipose built over time with the gentle nurture of gastronomical adventures and delights — all memories of happiness and indulgences beyond the wildest imaginings of many? For those who do want to be scrawny, Bill Nye showed why a caveman diet would not work.

Currently, humanity reels from a feeling of sadness brought by the relentlessness of the tiny virus that evolved mysteriously. It has changed our lives. Why is it we can’t accept that? Just as going back to a cave diet or a world devoid of dentists is a no-go, going back to pre- corona could again be fodder for humour in yet a newly constructed Bill Nye show in a future where the virus would be seen as a turning point in mankind’s history.

Let us dream of this New World and let Abhijit Banerjee and Yuval Noah Harari suggest how to make it a reality — let us put forth our vision. Here I can only dream of mine. But I urge you to dream of your utopia too. Meanwhile, let us have some fun with mine!

I read a verse in which a young writer imagined a world devoid of ugly vegetables. He dreamt of getting our fibres from candyfloss — my dream too! Rainbows and fairies from children’s writings bring a smile to our lips. But like them, imagine… And now, imagine a world devoid of poverty, hunger and of mankind living for each other — beyond artificial boundaries. Some have so much in the current order of things that they develop layers of adipose like me and some have so less that they cannot get enough food to continue living! I ask you to imagine — imagine a world free of Facebook feeds of starving children, no more Syrian refugee kids asking for medicines to kill hunger, no more migrant labourers living in drainpipes, no more deaths due to starvation reports! What could we do to make that a reality? How can we solve poverty and hunger? Banerjee has already shown us how to an extent.

Then there is the thing of travel. I am an intrepid globe trotter and one of the things that depresses me as we drive down the highway in Singapore are the planes waiting — waiting to start operation, to take off. So, I imagine again an empty airport with all the flights in the sky and one aeroplane taxiing on the runway that crosses above the highway to the airport. Can that happen again? Slowly, perhaps if the world unites and develops an open approach to fighting COVID and developing medicines and vaccines. There was a time when there were no medicines for tuberculosis, plague and cholera — all infectious diseases. Perhaps, if instead of looking for conspiracy theories and ways of isolating information, we all worked together, it could happen. So spake the great guru Harari.

Travel brings to mind a major concern of mine when I travel — sanitation and toilets. The New World would have an India where sanitation and toilets would be a norm. Then traveling within the country would be so much easier. I still have recall of toilets or the lack of them in my adventures in India — starting from my experiences in the open fields of Punjab where three decades ago as a young journalist trainee, I spent time in the open fields with village women at 4 am in vain to the water free toilets of Lucknow residency two years ago , Kolkata Botanical garden three years ago, Delhi Children’s Park near India gate more than a decade ago during our holidays in India as a family. There was no water to flush the earlier waste in any of these places and the flies buzzed over heaps — a horror that anyone would want to forget.  Thankfully, the first two were viewed not by me but by others of my family. First-hand other than the Children’s Park, I discovered even the airport at Lucknow did not at that point have proper toileting facilities. There was so much water on the floor in the airport but none in the tap or the flush!

Trains are a no go for me in India because not only are the common toilets antiquated, smelly and stained but also the stewards use a grey dishrag tucked into their pockets to wipe cutlery and utensils — the dishrag every time seems to suffer from the lack of water and soap. With the onset of corona, people will hopefully have to start believing or be educated into belief in soap and water. Even Trump understood the importance when he asked people to consume soap water or inject cleaning fluids into the lungs! So, can people dream of starting to vote for nation builders who along with electricity, roads will think of having sanitation, potable water, toilets in every home and education to villagers on why using toilets are a better option than the open field? Can we educate people on cleaning toilets and clean toilets?

Singapore actually had a clean the toilet campaign starting 1983 — and it made a difference. I dream the same for the country in which I was born. I ask you is it wrong?

I lived in China for eight years, the toilets there improved from 2006 to 2014! The changes were quite remarkable. From doorless toilets in smaller malls in Shanghai, the toilets all developed doors. Most places developed toilets we could use when we travelled towards the end of our stay. Despite its political games, China succeeded in conquering their technology and toilet issues by and large.

Once, I had a housekeeper from Sri Lanka in Singapore, who had faced terror attacks. She had left her country to earn enough to build a toilet in her home. The day she had enough, she wanted to return home to her country! True. So, why can every villager in India too not dream of having a toilet along with a dish antenna the way a billionaire dreams of gold seated toilets and Ferraris? Can we dream of this education? Though I believe some are already working towards realising this, the task is humongous and should be addressed by people as well as the government, who could explain in their agenda how they can connect places with good roadways, waterways and transport, lay pipes for potable water and electricity wires all over the country.

I realise, I spent a huge part on toilets, but that is of essence for a healthier world, just like fruits and vegetables over candy and cakes! There are things many of us do not like, like celery, but we need to take it and tolerate the unsavoury to have a trouble-free existence just as we can make a happier world by accepting all the colours provided by varied languages and cultures.

Language, faith, religion, nations — all these concepts that make for a more divisive world if we become intolerant — could evolve as binding factors to create a borderless and happier Earth if we are tolerant and humane towards our neighbours. Nations can be like economic zones and open to helping each other instead of competing to be the best. Can we make that happen? Build tolerance, humane outlook and patience into our academic curriculum over emphasising the mad race of rats that will be drowned in an ocean of greed, consumerism and hate! Teach our young skill sets that will teach them love, tolerance, kindness and they will be encouraged to develop an ability to laugh at themselves!

That is why I always loved Wodehouse …

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How a Lotus came into being…

First Published in SETU, July 2020

Once there was a girl who fell in love. She fell in love with the green undulating, grass swaying on the riverbank. She fell in love with the ripples that lapped the wet shore, with the lovely golden oriole, with the open blue skies and the soft clouds floating by. She fell in love with the tall Jacaranda tree and the lonely koel that sang its song every morning and evening.
And then came a breeze laden with the moisture of verses that garlanded her very soul. Her being danced to the rhythm of the trees that swayed, to the waves that swished, to the bees that buzzed and to the colourful wings of the butterfly that flit silently past her. She had the magic to weave silence into her words…an amazing gift as words normally destroy quietness.
She spun a world of magic around herself with her simplicity and imagination. She lived dreaming of rainbows and unicorns till a strange steed flew to her from the skies and turned into a young traveller from a distant land where wild blew the golden sands. He had travelled through deserts and snows in search of his soul mate and at long last the lilting songs of the girl had touched his soul and he became again a man from a stallion. He had a story to tell too….
As he travelled through the Arabian sands, he was followed by a beautiful creature, winsome, doe-eyed with pale skin and jet-black hair. She had a perfect figure and a sinuous walk. She followed the young traveller from one caravanserai to another till he, who was still untouched by the wiles of the young damsel, noticed her. When she threw herself on him and declared her undying love, he turned his face away from her. For, in his soul, he did not love her. There was something in her kohl-blackened eyes that seemed to rankle in his pure heart. And he was right, for the beautiful, sensuous creature was a wicked Jinn who had escaped the confines of her bottle when a drunk looking for free wine in a caravanserai uncorked the ancient jar that had been her home for a thousand years. She had been tricked into the bottle by a clever magician when mankind believed in magic and magicians roamed the world. The first man the wily Jinn saw was our young traveller. He was so young, pure and handsome that she fell in love with him and started following him.
She was infuriated with the young traveller for turning her down. She turned him into a winged stallion who was forced to fly till the strains of his soul mate’s melody bought him back to his original form and life…
He had flown for a decade in the clouds, living on dewdrops and rainbows, till he suddenly heard the melody riding on the waves and touching his heart and soul. A strong draft of breeze came and carried him down to the young, innocent girl in love. Her song and innocence reached out to the purer and rare air where magic had led the winged stallion. This time the magic that had been woven by her song was stronger than the magic that imprisoned the traveller in the body of a stallion. As his hooves touched the ground, the winged stallion transformed back to his original self.
The maiden saw the young man and fell in love with him too. The two of them twirled and danced amidst the trees, sipping nectar of flowers, eating fruit and drinking from young springs.
Then came the mists of the night. They whispered through the forest as the young couple slept on the soft grass. The mists of the night were minions of the doe-eyed Jinn. She had cast a spell on them. They spied the young couple and saw that the stallion had turned back to the young man. They whispered the story to the Jinn when they visited the desert sands. The Jinn was furious. She turned herself into a crane and flew to the tropical paradise where dwelt her heart throb. She did not want anyone to have what she aspired and could not get.
She descended to a branch of an Angsana tree.
“Look, a crane!” cried the young girl in surprise. “How beautiful it is! Pure and black. I have never seen anything like it!”
The young traveller started. He had seen the worst of black magic in his travels and he wondered if it could be…the Jinn. As he thought, she transformed herself back into a beautiful woman with cloudy, wavy jet-black hair, red lips, a pale skin. The boy recognized the Jinn as she shouted, “What I cannot possess, neither can she. I will destroy her and you if you do not come away with me.”
The young man, with a downcast face walked over to the Jinn, to save his loved one. The loved one looked on startled and said, “Where do you go?” As she spoke, the Jinn cursed her to turn to ashes and dust and dissolve into the marshes near the river. The spell flew out of her mouth and where the young girl fell sprouted a beautiful flower, so clean and pure that none of the mud or slush from the marsh could stick to it. The boy, astounded and stunned, fell to his death as he ran to catch his beloved. He fell right where the flower was sprouting and he turned into its leaves, which remained as unsullied in the marshes as the flower. As for the Jinn...

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A Tall Tale

First Published in SETU, July 2020

The spider was spinning its web. Sonya watched fascinated. The web grew bigger and bigger and was perfect in shape. Finally, the spider suspended itself from a long thread and Sonya moved towards the fishpond that was the pride of her garden. It had twenty-four coloured koi in it.
Ayi called out to her, “Tai, tai, ni lai.”*
Sonya, who had been living in China for six years, went into the house and into her kitchen to talk to her housekeeper or Ayi. Her Mandarin was not great, but she managed to communicate to the Ayi. Sonya’s kitchen overlooked the patio at the back of her rented home. It was a huge double storied bungalow. She loved to spend springtime in the garden on unpolluted days. On smoggy days, she was forced to stay indoors with air purifiers running.
That was just five years ago but it felt like an era now. Her children, Adi and Anmol, had been small and they went to an international school for the whole day and her husband, Surya, was at work. Sonya had time. Time to think. Time to read. Time to meet people from all over the world for where she stayed in Suzhou, there were people from many countries. It was like a mini United Nations. People had no sense of nationality when they interacted. The only thing that mattered was they were all united in being laowai or foreigners in China. It had been such a wonderful experience for her — such an eye opener. She discovered that people all over the world were united in their common needs for friendship, food, home, education and family.

Now as she looked out at the incessant rain falling outside her home in Singapore, she missed that world and sighed. The rain fell in sheets like a woman’s straight hair and the dark clouds were reflected in the distant sea waves which surrounded the island at a distance. To her, that island was an unnamed mass of land. Her sons and husband were at home. COVID 19 and lockdown had set in.
How different things had been even one year ago when they could travel freely! They had gone and seen the Mount Merapi in Yogyakarta on a family holiday. It had been such an unusual experience and they had said the volcano would not erupt for another four years. But it had erupted again recently, most untimely, in the middle of the pandemic. She had never thought COVID 19 would turn their lives topsy-turvy. Her aunt had declared that God was cursing mankind for all the evil they indulged in. So many dark prophecies. A friend had even predicted the evolution of a new race of sapiens and end of the current race of men! That had made her laugh because he spoke of the evolution taking place in the forest fires of Brazil!
Other than COVID 19, what was a matter of concern was the conflict that had started at the border of India and China. One country had born and nurtured her and her husband. The other had helped them sustain themselves well. They had such wonderful memories of China. And yet, now she wept that her brother battled to secure the border for India on the cold, inhospitable hills that housed the McMahon line drawn by the receding vestiges of the colonial empire more than more than sixty years ago. How dreadful it all was!
***
Ceasefire had been called but some soldiers would continue living at the border. Still it was a relief to know there would be no war, no more deaths hopefully. And then, un-lockdown mode had set in in Singapore. Her sons did well in their exams. Perhaps time to bring in some cheer. Sonya wanted to celebrate.
The whole family went down to the beach to have a picnic that evening. It was a cloudy day, but un-lockdown mode allowed them to visit restaurants and eat out. They picked up burgers and went to the seaside. As they sat on a mat and ate watching the rush of the waves on the sand and the ships in the distance, the brilliant orange-gold dusk gave way to lights dotting the vastness of a mysterious, dark ocean murmuring whispers in an incomprehensible antiquated language. The night should have painted the sky with stars. But it was windy, and clouds blew in.  Now only patches of stars pushed for a view of the Earth hidden from them by a thick cover of slate grey tinged with white and a veiled moon flitted and played hide and seek with mankind.
Despite the growing threat of another downpour, the four of them continued sitting on the jetty made of stones. They enjoyed the strong sea breeze scented with the smell of wetness. They sat listening to the swish of sea waves till Anmol after finishing the last bite of his second burger and milk shake, burped and said, “Hey! Let us make a story.”
Adi also wiped his mouth and sipped the last dregs of his iced-milo and nodded his head. “Yes, let’s play the game we invented on the way to Malaysia…”
Sonya’s sons just for fun had devised a game to make a long story together. They had played it two years ago when they went to Malaysia by road. They had created such a story that all of them collapsed in hysterical laughter. They had not been able to not stop till it reached the point of hilarious absurdity.
Sonya took the lead: “I always believe in strong women. And I will start it rolling because I am the only woman.”
Adi, now 20, laughed: “Of course Mama. So, who is your heroine?”
Surya, and seventeen-year-old Anmol, smiled and waited. Anmol added, “Mama and her passion for women beating up men – I bet it will be like one of those women from Marvel movies.”

Sonya started, “Yes. I love strength in women. My heroine is a strong woman. She is called Gayatri. She is brave and comes riding, riding on a white horse. Do you see that island? That distant misty island —it is called Avalon — the island where Arthur healed. As the moonlight shimmered on the sea, Gayatri came riding on her horse, wearing an armour. She had an appointment with a strange hooded creature who was waiting for her on the island…” And she paused.
Surya started: “Gayatri was late as usual because it took her time to dress…”
And he and his sons started to guffaw.
Sonya made a face. “And now you have spoilt it all!” She made a pouting angry face.
“No mama,” responded Adi. “See nothing is wrong. I will continue with the story — Gayatri rode up to the edge of the sea. The thick forest was silent except for an occasional animal sound. Gayatri got off her horse and a …”
Anmol caught the thread, “A magical boat appeared out of nowhere. Gayatri tied her horse to the tree and stepped into the boat. A strange mystical looking boatman with an ornamented, glittering beard that shone like stars in the night sky rowed Gayatri towards the island.  He was such a bizarre sight that Gayatri stared spell bound. He also had a crown on his head. His hair and beard were dark as midnight and the beads were like diamante stars. And the sea rose in big waves around them.”
Sonya continued: “Strange mists surrounded the island. The island drew closer. The fog grew denser. There was a cloudy opacity around the island — as if a thick dun white curtain had been drawn on the landing. Gayatri realised the boat had reached the island because it rocked to a halt. She carefully rose from the boat and stepped on a brown wet rock.”
Surya continued: “A disembodied hand emerged out of the mist. As Gayatri clasped it for support, it drew her into the clouds. For a second, she felt herself asphyxiated. The cloud seemed to seep into her innards, and she was smothered by excruciating pain, sorrow and angst.”
Adi said: “She emerged as if purged on the other side into a roofless hall with strange glowing fires hovering in the air. It was not a courtyard but really a hall. A hooded figure wearing a cowl and the robes of a monk stood before her. She could only see an empty darkness in place of his face. A pair of reddish lights glinted where his eyes should have been. Could he be an android — one of those organic robots that were being developed?”
Anmol, who shared his family’s passion for classics, said: “Then a deep, loud, masculine voice floated to her from the open skies. ‘Welcome Milady to our world. You are very late. We have waited an eternity… but welcome…’
“And suddenly there was a neigh and knights who materialised out of thin air descended from the skies on horses, dragging a wretched looking man in a tattered robe behind them. His hand and feet were tied, and he was dragged by the horses in the deep of night, bloody, dusty, besmeared. It was a horrific site — but a reality in Camelot as reported by the Yankee in Mark Twain’s tale.
“Following the Arthurian phantasm was an army of some wild men — bloodied, smeared with gore and celebrating with a dead man’s head on a pole! They were shouting strange words. Were they Huns, she thought? They looked like the Attila in the Night at the Museum, a movie she had immensely enjoyed. But this was different. Their shouts and the claustrophobic smells of blood and fire made Gayatri feel faint…”
Anmol paused for breath and the story passed into Sonya’s hands who tried to tone down the gore. “The strange creature in the hood gave her a chair which appeared out of nowhere. She sat down with her eyes shut against the horrors. Her throat felt parched. She was very thirsty — she opened her eyes to look for water or ask for it if she could.”
Surya gave a wink and continued, “Again, the mysterious disembodied hand appeared with a copper tumbler of water. She drank thirstily and felt her insides on fire and fell into a kind of trance.”
Adi started: “Gayatri could hear shouts. She could see — peasants were being pulled out and their homes set on fire. Then there were rustics marching and breaking homes of the rich — the homes looked like the restored ones of the rich she had seen in China, homes that had been destroyed by the mobs of the Red Guards.
“This scene gave way to mobs who were shouting ‘Har Har Mahadev’ and ‘Allah hu Akbar’. They were fighting with each other and killing ruthlessly. Houses were burning. Another mob that grew larger than life had people dressed in modern day clothes. They were beating a young boy with sticks — he was accused of carrying beef. The sounds of weeping and pain were annihilated by the loud clicking of sticks and stones and shouts of rage. Another horde armed with sticks, arrows and stones was attacking statues and burning buildings… ‘Down with white supremist! Down with racists!’ There was a burnt black head of a statue dripping blood and repeating and crying — ‘History cannot change!  Time past is unredeemable! History cannot change! Time past is unredeemable…’”
Anmol continued: “All these strange phantoms invaded her consciousness and Gayatri started screaming in fear. Was she at a ‘futuristic feelie’ envisioned by Huxley in the Brave New World? Where was she? The spectral figures seem to rush in and out of her. She was screaming in agony and fear… holding her head and screaming. They ripped through her with lances and spears and sticks and danced around her. And she was terrified with the sensations of angst and hatred and wounds — the pain of all the world…”
Sonya picked up the thread again: “The hooded figure had disappeared and given way to the Grim Reaper with his medieval axe. Enormous images of fleshy blobs of green and pink Corona virus drifted around the hall. Gayatri was held back and tied to the chair. Confused sounds of mobs, marching, shooting, beating, lynching and the Requeim in D minor, the unfinished symphony by Mozart, invaded her jangled senses. She could not stop seeing or listening. She could not get out. She shouted — shouted oh so loud and so shrill — that the sound cut through the fabric of the time-space continuum and Gayatri was pushed back to Arthurian England.
“There she met the Connecticut Yankee out of Mark Twain’s novel. He was trying to stop King Arthur’s sister from chasing the prisoners he had tricked her into freeing with an axe!  The nineteenth century Yankee, who had also been punched into the past, had asked for a photograph of the innocent wretches who were tottering into light after decades of incarceration in dark dungeons and the uninitiated Milady thought that photography could be done with an axe!”…

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