Friday, January 15, 2021

What if.......

What if Covid hadn’t struck 

Far away on the horizon, a golden yellow orb rose slowly towards the dark violet, almost deep purple skies. I could see a smaller one trying to keep pace, but with difficulty. And then suddenly, many followed. One after another, they ascended like multitudes of rising stars, each one blessed and happy. Each one had a fire within, and an aura of peace and tranquility without. They seemed to be emanating from the land, but as far as eye could see, there was no one. I watched, fascinated. 

Ko Myo my cousin, was with me, watching me. “They are lamps, lit and released”, he said softly. It was November 2020, and I was in Myanmar. I seemed to remember that I had travelled here from Singapore. My mother’s family was so glad to welcome me. The house looked just like it had when I used to come here as a child. The people living in the house had changed though, or rather, grown up; some gone away. But then isn’t that the way of the world? Don’t we all do?

Ko Myo’s eyes shone with pride and love for his country and heritage as he told me all about Tazungdaing festival marking the end of rains. “This festival which is always celebrated on the full moon day of the eighth month in Myanmar calendar, also has a tradition of weaving robes and giving them away to monks”, he said. “Legend has it that Buddha’s mother Maya who had already died and been reborn in Tavatimsa heaven, divined that Buddha would soon renounce the world, so she had spent the night weaving yellow robes for him to wear.” I remember having heard that before. Déjà vu. I could see my grandmother with her silver-grey hair braided with a red ribbon, telling me the same stories. Probably, she told Ko Myo too.

The sparkling festival of Thadingyut celebrated on a full moon day in October, marking the end of Buddhist Lent had always fascinated me; and now, this time over, Tazungdaing was like a magic spell, especially the ritual of lighting lamps and releasing them skywards. It was like an anti-depressant for me- an escape route, a kind of path to detachment. Release. Let go. Watching the lamps go, I could sense a strange kind of peace settling in, and making me understand that all else was transitory; the only three universal truths being:

Everything in life is always everchanging and impermanent.

So a life based on possessing things or persons doesn’t make you happy.

There is no eternal unchanging soul; self is just a collection of changing characteristics or attributes.

I understand therefore, that I am on the path to identifying myself with the universe, dispelling permanence. Whenever I die, my energy passes into another form. Seeking the escape from Samsara. Seeking Nirvana. One step closer if I have followed the Eight-fold path. 

I was in Ngapali, on the beach, witnessing magic. The quietly elegant white beach on the Western Coast of Myanmar whispered lovingly and played sensual games with the receding tide, while I avidly took in the vibes from the lanterns on a velvety sky. As if he could read my mind, my cousin got me some lanterns. And as I interpreted the sand patterns in the pristine waters and sent up a lantern or two, I was thinking of Gautama Buddha and his mom weaving robes for him.

I woke up with a start when the alarm rang on my handphone; I had been dreaming! My innermost wish of revisiting Myanmar after all these years had subconsciously materialized, albeit in slumber. Such a vivid dream; I remembered every bit. I drank some water from the thermos and saw the mask and gloves were still there on the bedside table. The camphor burners were running low, a sign that the rosy, illuminating dawn had broken. I could see the masked morning walkers from my window. Back to reality! What a life! Another day of social distancing. Sigh! 

What if Covid 19 had not happened! I sat on the window ledge of my tastefully done and very hospitable prison, my home, and thought…

I could have really gone to Taunggyi for Tazungdaing. Or even Ngapali.

I could have actually gone to Bangkok for Loy Krathong. I just loved to release the turtles in the Chao Phraya and watch them swim away. The krathongs at dusk look unbelievably celestial.

My back was packing up, so maybe I could have gone for some relaxing spa treatment and therapy while in Thailand, and taken my mother with me, just so that I could work on her and explain what Mara, my girlfriend, meant to me.

Delhi beckoned; it always was so irresistible in the winters. I could have gone there. The weddings there always left me wanting more!

Or to the Alps, for a fabulous ski adventure, and thereafter to London to spend time with my sister, my soulmate. And enjoy a white Christmas if lucky.

We were looking forward to Olympics in Tokyo and a busy tourist season in Asia. But Covid 19 came along and then you know what happened!

I could have been teaching at school in a classroom, as usual. My students have been writing in, wondering when we can meet. I think they miss me. I miss them too.

I even wanted to visit the doctor for a routine annual checkup – I am over 30 years of age, you see.

It is fair that I give you a background now. About myself. Just before March 2020, my family had introduced me to a suitable boy and hoped we would fall in love and marry soon. I was just about summoning the courage to tell them I already had Mara who would marry me because she loved me, when Covid 19 took control of our lives, and I couldn’t. All their well laid plans were put on hold; and my anxiety temporarily put to rest. I could play Nametests on my laptop when I wanted to hear nice things about myself, and play Scrabble when feeling all agog and attentive, like a dictionary!

But had Covid 19 not happened, I wouldn’t have had this luxury! Perhaps I would have incurred the wrath of the family for my affairs of the heart. Because me, a girl, going on a honeymoon with Mara, another girl, was not so acceptable, though entirely legal and fashionable. So thank God Covid 19 happened. All explanations and wrath got pushed for later.

Suffice to say, if my mother had had her way, I would have gotten married in June and gone on a honeymoon- with a boy! 

I got off the ledge and walked out on the patio. The daily papers were a stack of dismal broadsheets, full of depressing facts and figures. “We should stop buying newspapers”, I said to my mother. My father cleared his throat noisily and made his displeasure known. Covid or no Covid, he had to have his daily dose of half a dozen newspapers.

Had Covid 19 not happened, maybe the economic activity would not have suffered to such an extent that it hurt when the poor became poorer and the rich stopped spending. With the advent of Covid 19, theories of economics with their ceteris paribus assumptions started defying reality and called for a relook by the experts in the domain. Because nothing really was the same anymore! Certainly, the painstakingly crafted growth and development plans of the world did not deserve this burial? A mere virus? Eh? 

The world would have gone on living recklessly. The glaring disparities in wealth and income and the false sense of well-being would have continued. I would not have believed if someone had told me in February 2020 that a crown shaped virus will rule mercilessly and cause everything to go haywire. To my utter amazement, just two months later, I saw the virus merrily blighting the human race. I saw the confusion and the alarm and realized the world had blinked. If only to say, “Take care. Stay at home.”

I would never have learnt to make bread otherwise. Yes, right! The daily bread that we eat with butter and jam? When Covid 19 struck, we learnt to stay at home. Cooking at home got back in fashion. The videos on food and cooking began receiving record hits. You only had to type bread, and at least 200 or more bread recipes were visible! I used to cook once a week when Covid 19 hadn’t arrived! Now I cook morning and evening.

When under lockdown, I began reading James Joyce with a vengeance- downloaded over 5000 pages of the Complete Works of James Joyce on my Kindle reader and immersed myself in his forbidden thoughts and philosophies. Had Covid 19 not happened, I would never have had known why he lapsed from Catholicism; or why his work Ulysses has often been called a summary of the entire Modernist movement. And all about his so-called pernicious influences, or graphic descriptions of people and characters in Dublin in his novels. Even his famous letters to Nora, his muse for 27 years and then later his wife, which made him sound so gutsy, unique and worthy of criticism. His recognition in the US as one of the most influential writers of the 20th Century seems to me now, a well-deserved acclaim.

Working from home would never have proved so efficient had Covid 19 not happened. The ostentatious office premises seem inconsequential now; at least for the time being. 

Allow me to say that even if Covid 19 had not happened, what had to happen would have happened. Like environmental degradation, violence, political proliferation, crime…the virus was simply an addition to the long list. Over the months, it has proved to be a catalyst for some phenomena like economic slowdown and the ensuing evils. The incompetence and the unpreparedness of the world couldn’t have been gauged without this force majeure.

The media focus also would have been different, I am sure. There is so much happening around the world- elections, invasions, secessions, border disputes, refugee problems, war!  Talking about the woes of the alarming political, economic and social environments, geo- political disappointments, terrorism, drugs, mafia, etc. would have excited media though they would still have missed out on the ‘real discussion on environment and economy’. As always.

Last but not least, but for Covid 19, we would not have witnessed this historic event, that made my childhood fears come alive. As children, we used to read fairy tales and there was a story that my grandma would tell us about a kingdom which was troubled by a cruel ogre. The ogre would come at night and devour whoever he saw. So all the people of the kingdom would stay home with locked doors and shuttered windows. Even the king could not do anything about it. Doesn’t this sound familiar today as well? If Covid had not happened, I wouldn’t have known how the people of that kingdom felt.

On a parting note, I still have a story to tell my grandchildren. A real, real one, laced with “what had to happen, happened.” Something which I could not have imagined, if Covid 19 hadn’t happened.

The Storyteller. Anitas Story

I am the local storyteller. When I sit in my verandah every evening, the children playing in the open lawns in front of my house come running after their game of hop scotch and seven tiles, and look at me with shining eyes, waiting for a story to start. Sometimes they even leave the game halfway and come, if they see my story is about to begin. They also bring their friends to hear a good story. 

There are so many times when their mothers or elder siblings also join in for the storytelling; and then it becomes a big deal for me, because my story has to awaken their interest also and evoke empathy. You see, empathy is important to make my story real. They have to feel my story. 

I have never learnt to tell stories. I have not been to literary seminars and educators’ symposia. I do not know how I became a storyteller- maybe people made me one. All stories are not true- and so sometimes I fabricate on the spur of the moment. If I feel the need to make someone smile, my story just goes in that direction. 

I am surprised I can fabricate because I am not a convincing liar. I have never been able to lie effectively even to save my life- my nervous eyes give me away. In school, whenever I tried, I got caught. But I can imagine; and articulate whatever I imagine. It all started when, once in school, we were given homework to write an essay on “My Pet”. Now, I had no pet! A number of my friends came back with glowing accounts of their pet dogs and cats and even budgies. I drew a total blank- I had no pet! My language teacher gave me grace time, but I had to rustle up an essay on “My Pet”, she insisted. At my wits’ end, I asked an older friend to help out and all the “would have liked” and “could have been” and “wish I had” and “if I had” made me go crazy with confusion. My grammar became so complex that when I had to read it aloud in school, I lost all sense of syntax and the whole thing was a biggish mess.

Hard lessons learnt about writing truthfully and confusing the reader, versus improvising and making it easier to understand. In turn, over the years as I grew up, I helped a few children in the neighborhood with their essays and their grammar texts and assignment write-ups, and presto!  I found myself transported into the role of a storyteller. So now, my mind works overtime to craft delicious stories, my old passion of cooking forgotten in the acquired bliss of a less messy, less cumbersome and totally inexpensive role of a storyteller.

In fact, often I try to weave in an experience with a tweak here and a tweak there just to ensure that it does not expose me. When my audiences are young children who crowd around me after cycling and even tri-cycling around in circles, the experiences have to be drawn out from my childhood. Then when the teenagers come to me after a game of volleyball, I have to narrate stories from my soul- because I have learnt that the soul is open and really amenable in the early teens- the thoughts then shape the destinies of the soul owners.

Once in a while, on a pre determined day, we play “Chinese Stories” akin to Chinese Whispers. We often have a houseful on the verandah and the garden surrounding it is also full of flowers and children. At times there is no place to sit, and the children sprawl on the lawns and have been telling me to get a mike so that they can all hear me. Some of them come with a burning desire to give their inputs- its usually something that has moved them deeply. Some of them come to listen, and glean some truth from the story contributions so that they can tease their buddies about something – some secret girlfriend or heartbreak or even a spanking by their dad or gymnastic instructor at school. Then there are others who come to understand what life is all about, from all the experiences in the story. “It cannot be so bad, after all”, they say. Yet others like to listen and know that what happened to them also happened to somebody else. Same same. Perhaps it gives them solace.

 I start the story speak for a minute, then the person next to me takes the story forward; then the next one builds the next rung, and then the next- the last three have to conclude…. And believe me that’s the toughest job. There have to be no lessons learnt, no preaching, just a soulful musing leading to a better understanding of life. That’s the rule. The other rule is no one can use offensive language- nothing unparliamentary. Just two rules we have. Sometimes on such evenings, a story grows up into something so intense, that I feel worried. And when I am alone, it plays on my nerves. Of late, I have been scared of being alone because the phantoms of my stories haunt me. 

One day not so long ago, in fact three months ago, there were twelve of us, and we all wanted to make a story. A mixed age group made it richer. And the way it panned out it became one of my best, oft repeated in different fora, tweaked accordingly for different impacts.

The excited participants started talking all together as soon as we completed the round. Many iterations and suggestions later, the story session ended and then I got up and walked into my home. “Its so lifeless and lonely in here, it would have been good if the story had gone on for a bit longer,” I thought. 

“Come on, old storyteller, you have your thoughts and words to keep you busy. The pen is mightier than the sword, they say. Why are you worried about being alone?” someone whispered.

I introspect again, today.

I peep out of my window and see clouds tinged with red on the horizon. Its dusk and I hate this part of the day… everything looks so gloomy and so mixed up for a while. Even the red tinge doesn’t help. I think of the story we wove three months ago and wonder what would have transpired had it started raining? Somewhere in the back of my mind, *Child 1 beckons. Why did she select a situation so melancholy? The piquant little voice saying “…..and she is all I have” does not leave me. I must meet her again and maybe talk to her some, to know her sadness. 

I try to escape from my role as storyteller and become a real old man for a while. But I realize I have forgotten how to do that. I only seem to be fabricating for the benefit of everyone and somewhere in the process, creating moments of happiness for myself too. Do I have my own story to tell? Where do I begin, where do I end it? Will anyone understand? Let me try. Think about it tomorrow.  I have to stash away the idea of rain for the next round whenever that happens. Melancholia mixed with rain; my mind has already started spinning a story. Its beginning and I am writing my epitaph: “words never die.” 

Maybe that’s why I am a storyteller. So young at heart, though old in years.


Crowdsourcing is quite the trend. The storyteller uses this technique to create a full story.

* The story appended just in case you would like to read in context.

Here, each new para is added by one of the 12 individuals who were together that day. The entire episode is fiction, written in first person. 

Anita’s Story

Storyteller: A flush spread along the dancing rivulet; dawn was breaking. Soon, the people around would start their mornings with a walk along the riverside, breathing in the clean pure air.  I had come out of my improvised tent, just to study the morning activity - I was there on a Project focusing on Rural Lifestyles. I saw a little girl pushing a big trolley and went up to her. “Little one, what are you doing? Where are you going? That trolley is way too big for you. Why don’t you ask someone older to help you?”

Child 1: “But sir, my mother cannot get up for she is ill and she is all I have,” said Anita, for that was her name. “I need firewood otherwise my mother will feel cold. She has pneumonia and the doctor won’t come because I have no money to give him.”

Teenager 1: As we were talking, two boys just hanging around doing some Yoga, sat up and listened intently.” We are learning to be doctors, so maybe we can help you Anita,” they said. I had noticed they were listening and felt uncomfortable. They had no right to do that. But felt happy when they decided to help. “Let’s go see your mother”, they said. I decided to go along with them.

Child 2: The little girl took us home very reluctantly. She seemed very embarrassed about herself and her mother. The home looked really shabby and neglected. We saw the drinking water stored in very old and moss covered earthen pots with a cracked plate for cover. I did not dare ask for water though I was very thirsty.

Child 3: She called out to her mother as we entered….a little puppy came out wagging her tail. “This is Eena” informed the little girl. “Oh my God, that’s really so cute!”. But there’s so much for you to do and then this puppy also……” Arun, one of the two medical students opined. I turned around as his voice trailed off just in time to see little Anita give him a strange look as if to say, “that’s none of your business.” How impressed I was! But Arun did not like her. “We are here to help her, and she is so rude,” he thought.

Child 4: Arun sulked and wouldn’t speak when his friend wanted to discuss Anita’s mother. He just wanted to go away from this rude little girl. But Bobby, the other boy seemed sincere and he took me outside the room and spoke very seriously. “This lady won’t survive for long if we do not take her to hospital immediately. Her infection is acute and contagious too. So, if I have your support I can ask my college hospital to admit her and treat her. But it’s going to be expensive and I honestly don’t have the heart to ask this little girl for money.” I heard a sound and spun around to see Anita, standing there with tears in her eyes- she had heard our conversation. 

Child 5: She ran in and brought out a little box with a bracelet. “Santa got this for me one Christmas when my father was with us. Actually I had many gifts from my father too, but this is my favorite. I would like to give this to you for treating my mother and making her alright. It will bring you a lot of luck. But I do not have money….” Her voice trailed off and she looked blankly at me.

Young Adult 1: I understood that she was too young to figure out the commercial aspect of even saving a life. Before the boys could say something disparaging I ran across, hugged her and told her she needn’t worry. I took her hand, led her to her mother, and insisted that she put the bracelet on her mother’s wrist as a good luck charm. Then we set out on our way to the college hospital. 

Child 6:  There were no taxis because it was all rural. The bus that brought us had gone on to the next village to pick up the group there doing a project on Contribution of Women to Local Society. We realized our handphones were also not receiving signals. What a fix! We stood by the side of the river, praying; nothing seemed to work. Almost at the end of the day, and also at the end of our hopes, we heard a tractor roar in the far distance. As it came closer we saw it was driven by an old man, and had a huge trailer latched on, full of sugarcane. We waved madly, and when he stopped, we asked him if he would take us to the college hospital, about six and a half miles away. 

Teenager 2: He looked us up and down, at the really ill lady who was unable to even sit up properly and thought for a moment. Then he agreed to take us all there if we paid him. I immediately agreed, and after hauling up our patient on the trailer, we kind of managed to hang on to the sides. Our journey began. The old man driving the tractor seemed in a hurry and the way he drove on the dirt roads gave us all such painful bumps! Arun and Bobby just kept snapping at him rudely. The old man continued to drive, unmindful of the rudeness of the two young men. 

 Child 7: We reached the hospital late at night with this very sick patient and the resident doctor in Emergency spent almost three hours doing critical tests and treatment, nebulization etc. I was pleasantly surprised to see the college hospital capable of handling such a critical case. By early morning, we had done all we could and now it was just a matter of time before we would know if Anita’s mother would live.

Parent 1: A stitch in time saves nine! Had we gotten delayed by another day, it would have been difficult to save Anita’s mom. The college hospital kept her in the recovery ward for almost a week and then we took her home. Another happy moment awaited us- the college hospital offered to send us back to the village in their ambulance. I found a phone booth on the hospital premise and asked my Dean at college to remit some money through Netbanking to the Hospital’s Bank Account in a town nearby. The entire episode is etched on my mind as a glowing tribute to humanity and love- money can never be enough for something so precious. And the experience enriched our project on “Rural Lifestyles” and made it look so complete.

Teenager 3: The warmth in my heart reached out and enveloped the two medical students who had overheard our problems and reached out so spontaneously. My  prayers also touched the old man who rattled our bones in the tractor. The doctors at the hospital deserved much more for their selfless dedication to the Hippocratic oath- so I blessed them with my soul. And Anita still believes that the bracelet given by Santa saved her mother.

Somewhat there.....

Somewhat there…

To the finishing line

I run. 

With every breath 

I live, a thousand lives.


Soft golden embers 

From another day,

Light up again.

Sparks fly;

Rekindling lust.

Or is it love?

My hair! Oh, my hair! They dance!

No, no, not Medusa, 

Not a Maenad either.

But a Bacchanalian at a festival,

The last feast of the season.

The swansong.

My ribs cannot hold my heart anymore.

If it could jump out of my skin, it would.

What if? 


Of a ‘starry night over the Rhone’, 

A rendezvous with Vincent Van Gogh?

Were you there when-

The hot dog man was singing a song,

And love whispered through the jukebox?

Blinking fireflies hugged the moon,

Till Helios came by on his famous chariot,

Horse drawn, breathing fire-

With his gasping steeds and his golden crown?


We laughed; and sang.

Held hands, held breaths.

As we walked on rainbows,

And blew kisses at butterflies.

Rekindling lust.

Or was it love?

Tomorrow is yet another day,

Oft have I heard the people say.

My measure done, I wait.

So tell me,

Have I finished?

Is it the victory line?



# 1. ‘Starry night over the Rhone’ is a famous painting by Vincent Van Gogh

# 2. “Medusa, in Greek mythology, the most famous of the monster figures known as Gorgons. She was usually represented as a winged female creature having a head of hair consisting of snakes; unlike the Gorgons, she was sometimes represented as very beautiful. Medusa was the only Gorgon who was mortal; hence her slayer, Perseus, was able to kill her by cutting off her head. From the blood that spurted from her neck sprang Chrysaor and Pegasus, her two sons by Poseidon. The severed head, which had the power of turning into stone all who looked upon it, was given to Athena, who placed it in her shield; according to another account, Perseus buried it in the marketplace of Argos.”

Source:  Britannica

#3.  “Maenad, female follower of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus. The word maenad comes from the Greek maenades, meaning “mad” or “demented.” During the orgiastic rites of Dionysus, maenads roamed the mountains and forests performing frenzied, ecstatic dances and were believed to be possessed by the god. While under his influence they were supposed to have unusual strength, including the ability to tear animals or people to pieces (the fate met by the mythical hero and poet Orpheus). In Roman religion, Dionysus’s counterpart was Bacchus, and his female followers were called bacchantes.”

Source:  Britannica

#4.  “Bacchanalia, also called Dionysia, in Greco-Roman religion, any of the several festivals of Bacchus (Dionysus), the wine god. They probably originated as rites of fertility gods. The most famous of the Greek Dionysia were in Attica and included the Little, or Rustic, Dionysia, characterized by simple, old-fashioned rites; the Lenaea, which included a festal procession and dramatic performances; the Anthesteria, essentially a drinking feast; the City, or Great, Dionysia, accompanied by dramatic performances in the theatre of Dionysus, which was the most famous of all; and the Oschophoria (“Carrying of the Grape Clusters”).”

Source:  Britannica

New Year Resolution

A short story

Neena swore with irritation. The doorbell wouldn’t stop ringing. She opened the carved teak front door to find the security guard standing outside, tapping his feet impatiently. He seemed agitated.

“What is it? Why can’t you press the button just once and then wait for someone to come open the door?” ruffled, she asked.

“Madam, in the lobby someone is sitting with a gun, wanting to see you or your husband.” He was a big made man but looked so scared and vulnerable just now.

“Gun? Whatever for? You are watching too many movies I think…” Neena’s voice trailed off as she saw the man behind the guard. The guard caught her look and turned. He also looked surprised to find that the man he had seated in the reception lobby at ground level, obviously had followed him and now was standing right behind him in the 8th floor lift lobby. The man looked a perfect gentleman, but for the gash on his forehead giving him that roguish appeal. And a high necked black t shirt which added to the impression.

“Hey! What are you doing here? When did you come to town? How are you? Come on in.” Effused Neena.

“But….bbbbut…. madam, he…he…. gggg.” the security guard couldn’t stop blabbering incoherently.

And then she noticed. The steel was peeping out from under his jacket. Horrified she turned to step in but not before the gentleman whom she seemed to recognize, had planted a firm foot in the door jamb and she could not close it. The point of going inside to be safe was totally lost because with his foot in the main door, the intruder had access to the whole apartment.

“Listen Shaan, stop your drama and come in. Is this some crazy way of saying Happy New Year? Who walks around with guns peeping out from under their jackets?” Neena was disbelieving what she was seeing.

“Who do you call Shaan? I am not Shaan and I don’t know you. Get that husband of yours out of hiding and allow me to deal with him.” The stranger rasped. Strangely, his voice did not go with his persona. And he had this funny habit of touching his throat and adjusting the high neck every few minutes, especially when he spoke. He stood rooted and wouldn’t come in but had his foot in the door.

“Oh, but Shaan, we have met in my husband’s office when you were recovering from larynx surgery. Don’t you remember? You were being discharged and my husband was counselling you about lifestyle changes post the surgery?”

Her mind was whirring. “He looks weak, though it has been over 3 months since his surgery, I remember. There was a lot of discussion around his treatment etc. because he is a Radio Jockey and his voice is his biggest asset. And he surely has another name; but most people and his fans know him as RJ Shaan.”

“Shaan, I love listening to your broadcast everyday. So while I do not know your real name, allow me to introduce myself as Neena Ashwin, wife of Dr. Ashwin, your ENT surgeon.”

“Just tell me where that criminal is, and I will blow his throat into unrecognizable smithereens…” he rasped, gasping for breath. “Then I will advise him about his lifestyle changes.”

“And now he is so angry too. What could be the matter?” Neena wondered. Her mind was working furiously. A practiced clinical psychologist, in addition to a degree in Law, she tried rule number one. Calm him down. 

“So may I ask you to come inside the house while I go fetch my husband? But you must hand over the gun to the security man and collect it from him when you leave my home. I assure you it will be safe.” She tried to sound cold and indifferent, but she was surprised her voice wasn’t steady. She could sense that the man opposite her meant business.

The man she called Shaan smiled cynically as he walked into the sun lit living room and the aroma of fresh Darjeeling tea assailed his olfactories.

“Nice home, great style. Not surprising considering your husband auctions the Hippocratic oath at the drop of a hat, nay hammer?” Long sentences came slowly and somewhat painfully. Neena attributed it to angst and disdain about something she couldn’t understand. “Why should a flourishing ENT Surgeon and Consultant auction the Hippocratic oath? Do oaths get auctioned? Why is he saying this? Is he being sarcastic? Clearly all the anger is directed at my husband? What has Ashwin done?”

“The gun”, she said firmly. “Drop the gun or give it to security guard.”

“No way. You people fooled me once, never again. I am here to get my answers, not to obey your orders. Now is that man coming down or shall I go upstairs?” He cocked his head at the ornate staircase leading up to their private living area and started walking towards it.
Neena almost died. “I have never heard anyone speak like that to me or about my husband. And I won’t have you talking like that. In fact, if you walk one more step towards the stairs, I will call the police.”

The handsome man with the scar on his forehead turned to the guard who was mute till now, a part of the furniture. “Will you go away or shall I shoot you down? Go and do your work, don’t waste your time with these vicarious doctors. They are not worth any loyalty.”
The guard looked beseechingly at Neena. “Go away. Didn’t you hear Shaan telling you to go focus on your duty? I will handle this.” She admonished the poor confused guard.

Shaan looked quizzically at Neena. “I know madam that you are a psychologist. Don’t try your stunts with me. You will be sorry. And my gun stays with me. Know that I can call the police if I decide to.”

“Call me Neena,” she said. “And let’s talk while Ashwin is getting ready. I will ask him to hurry up. Meantime, would you like a cup of tea?”

“You will not tell him that I have come to see him. Just tell him to be quick to come down. And I will not have a drop of water in this house. Who knows what you will do next?” 

Neena was wracking her brains for a clue- “What is he talking about? Ashwin tells me mostly whatever goes on at his hospital. And lots goes on, because Ashwin is a well reputed ENT surgeon running a reasonably big hospital and while he has been caught in controversies once or twice about exorbitant fees and promiscuous interns, there has never been a slur on his competence. His skill at work is well known; impeccable. I am so proud of him. In fact, he has so many young doctors seeking residency in his hospital because of this professionalism and excellence.”

“So then, what is this guy saying? I honestly cannot understand. Wish I could; at least I would try and placate him before Ashwin comes down to meet him.” She had already sent him a message on phone about Shaan being here and was praying hard that he sees it. He did, and sent back a small hurriedly worded text note which gave her some background.

Shaan had come to Ashwin’s hospital with a very mild problem- Vocal cords dysfunction. After Laryngoscopy and other diagnostics, a small surgery was suggested. Small, but critical, especially since the doctors were dealing with the voice box of a Radio Jockey, a profession where voice is money.

She noticed him watching her very intensely and speculatively. Calling out to Ashwin, she went towards the stairs, but with one swift movement, the handsome intruder had blocked her way. “Like I said, don’t try stunts.” He said, his eyes spitting fire. Neena retraced her steps. Just then Ashwin’s steps sounded on the wooden staircase. Oh dear!

Ashwin came down and stood still. Shaan levelled his gun and stood still too. Neena lost her tongue. And then Ashwin started speaking.

“I know it was wrong, all wrong. But what could I do? I was urgently summoned to attend to the VIP in my hospital. It was an emergency but had I been more careful or let’s say, mindful, I could have assigned someone else for VIP attendance. Or I could even have  rescheduled  your operation to a time when I could personally attend to you. Sadly, the Resident who took my place could not be successful, and what happened, happened. Tell me, how can I undo the damage?”

Shaan lunged at him then stopped short, the steel once again gleaming from under his jacket hem. “Undo the damage? Give me your voice box then.” He spat out. Then walked out. Neena ran after him but he was quick to get into the lift and descend. He flung something in the dustbin as he was exiting the lobby. She ran to check and found a toy gun- he had been scaring the daylights out of them all with a look alike! Tears welled up in her eyes. She saw the Security guard was equally shaken. It was as if the selfishness and the opportunism of a supposed care giver had assumed humongous and unpardonable dimensions.

Neena went up to the 8th floor for the last time. Ashwin was rooted to where they had left him. He stood watching her, as she gathered her laptop bag, searched in her drawer for her Lawyers degree, and started walking out. That was one hard decision. A resolution on Jan 01, 2021. Made in a split second but to be followed as long as Neena lived.

“All the best,” whispered Ashwin. 

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Life after Corona

Someone called it a Pandemic. Some others called it an infodemic.

I had only thought of an epidemic but just look at what it has become? The dimensions it has assumed, the lessons it has taught? Whatever it was, my perceptions have suddenly acquired all the five senses, whereas earlier they were subsisting only on the visual and the occular. My understanding has gotten sensitized to things unseen. My mind has branched out to cover uncharted territories and discover precious recesses which had never been visited. Or recognized. Or applauded. And once it gets over, the wings of my consciousness shall yearn to fly and discover the hitherto uncharted world.

There is so much more than I had ever imagined! What was I doing? Being on the wrong side of fifty makes me feel as if I have wasted my time and now its short.

The newspapers at first confused me. “Infodemic” it was, though I don’t think there is a word like that in the dictionary. Yet.The television was screaming caution. And heaping allegations. Everyone looked pale. Ignorant. Scared.  How does novel Corona travel, how does it find a body and enter it, etc etc. How different is it from the earlier Coronas? Many people, many opinions and so many theories! Biases and prejudices. They said the novel Corona virus looks like a crown, hence the name given. That it is like nothing ever born before and has the power to kill. There have been several coronas before, but this is the deadliest. That no vaccine or cure is in sight. As a starter, the virus’ DNA mapping had to be done or was already done as a pre-condition for researching the vaccine that will safeguard us from this novel Corona.

And one day someone said the virus can be airborne too. Oh My God! So its floating around me, unseen! That got my goat. Wasn’t it enough that it could spread through contact? In school, we were always told to delicately sneeze and cough in our handkerchiefs; now this became the norm, nay, rule. And using sanitizers became the eighth vow of hindu marriage. “I shall always have a bottle of sanitizer at the stretch of a hand.”

The virus needed christening- COVID 19, it was called after much deliberation.

A once in hundred years phenomenon. A very humbling experience for all of humanity. Not because I was spared the infection which means I am destined to live a little bit longer, but because of what it implied- we witnessed nature coming back with a vengeance. Powerful as ever, it belittled us humans who had been presumptious enough to defy the tenets of harmonious co-existence.

Social distancing was born. Handshakes and hugs were forbidden. I realize now that a more apt term would have been physical distancing. Because socially we came much closer ( on media that is!) and often we saw hearts and hugs  and high fives floating around in abundance. Social media became a go to place for anyone who could not withstand physical distancing for very long. Relationships forgotten for years together took on a new meaning, propelled by media. Long distance love became the need of the hour. Whether it was sibling love, or love of the amorous kind, it helped us survive.

Talking about daily bread- we stocked up for a month- maybe even six weeks. The daily wage earners couldn’t stock up for a week even. When we shared our largesse with them they yielded with folded hands and bent heads. For food over which they have a birthright. ”If God then so clothes the grasses of the field;
Which today will live, and feed the oven tomorrow?
Will he not be much more ready to clothe you?
Men of little faith?” Did I not read this poem in school?
I felt like a heel robbing them of their birthright.

I grew up reading the world is racist. I now know it is not- we all stood up as one in our efforts to bid adieu to the novel Corona. Even the virus is not racist; neither are the animals and birds that have come out for a walk in the sun because the sun is shining brightly, like it used to, long time ago. Without that film of pollution clouding it. They have just walked out and flown into the “great wide beautiful wonderful world” as described by William Brighty Rands. As if it is their very own. And of course it is! Boundaries? What boundaries?

I have increasingly begun to believe that racism is in the minds of all those humans who have nothing better to do. And the boundaries are our own limiting pettiness and make us behave like ogres.

It is this pettiness that has begun to tell us to mess up other peoples’ worlds; not realizing that in fact, we are messing up our very own too. Do we still believe we can define your world or mine? Or is it simply ours, to preserve and cherish?

I read about the ravages of WW I and WW II because I wasn’t born then. But this I have seen and lived every minute of the struggle. I therefore see raw emotion taking over, superseding reason. It has not been as easy as racing through a text book by an eminent World History professor or a novel by Leon Uris.

A major shift in economic activity is foreseen. A slow and jittery start with many bugs along the way. I see a real feeling of security or lack of it, whatever we decide to choose, as against the bubble that we called our lifestyle just three months ago.

I guess, in the aftermath, we will have learnings facilitating our decisions- not even a small lesson will, hopefully, go unheeded and unnoticed. I see people, more guarded; more conscious of the situation, of each other. I am hoping the warmth continues. Though mostly they have all gone back to discussions on nail biting elections and back biting politics. And a post-mortem of how the COVID-19 could have been better handled. Also to the vital question about whether we can call it W W III. Literally, who won?  Sad end to the virulent flamboyant novel Corona.

There is an increased respect of the curers; the doctors, the researchers, healthcare workers. What would we have done without them? They set forth, like true soldiers with no fear for their lives, to protect the people of a country, not the political boundaries or the disputed territories. They protected lives to the best of their means and ability.

Househelp is asking for a raise. And I just feel like giving them more than they are asking for. They have proved how precious they are by their very absence. And it was me who asked them to stay home; they were willing to come to work amid all the exposure because they had to earn their daily bread.

I need to get back to waking up on time in the mornings! The “stay home” made us all unmindful of timings. All except a few very determined ones lost their routine but did their chores. Whenever, wherever. However.

I might also need to use my alarm on the hand phone for a reminder to unlatch  the front door every morning. These days we don’t step out , you see, so the latch stays in place.

Life after Corona? Very simply put- minimalistic. The needs reduced to bare minimum, because after all, did we not survive? The paraphernalia did not help us combat the virus; the absence of paraphernalia did.

Did I wear my stylish new heels while staying home? So do I need to wear them now when going out? Of course not. The keds are sufficient.

I just manicured my hands and feet this morning in order to feel more beautiful. But during the reign of the Corona, working hands looked most beautiful. I miss them now.

There is a nagging fear of what will happen if the novel Corona comes back. Que sera sera, what will be, will be.

Life will never be the same again. At least for us who met the deadly Corona face to face. Handshake to handshake. Hug to hug, the virus was always intruding for these three months ever since we found it wrecking havoc in China.

For those who will read only the stories later on, this might be a historic once in 100 years phenomenon that nature creates for a clean up long overdue. The muck that builds up is a necessary evil accompanying irresponsible human behavior where selfish humanity gets trampled and compromised because nature is playing up and we do not know how to combat the wrath. In all probability it will enjoy the same status as the Spanish flu. Maybe the SARS and MERS and Ebola come close but COVID-19 takes it away.

I had started getting the feeling that I had arrived; now it is clear that I have a long long way to go. And I don’t even know whether I will reach or not. I am on the wrong side of fifty you see and don’t have much time.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Siblings- blessings

I don’t remember a time when my sister wasn’t there around me. She was always there. Always. So you can say we are more like twins. Fraternal twins. Not defying the myth that twins are very similar, but suffice to say that we are not so same same.

My other sibling, my brother came ten years after I did, so I do remember a time when both of us sisters were like princesses and our parents were bringing us up in the hollow of their palms. When my brother came, it got a bit crowded on the palm so with a sigh of relief we realized that we were being weaned off the royal treatment to live like normal girls.

Now he was the prince and we the regents who were bringing him up. Our newfound status was that of assistants to our mother and we did it to the hilt. In fact, when my brother grew up to be 12, he was tall and thin, lanky is the right word. Often people would ask him, “Why are you so thin and lanky?” And he would reply with a twinkle in his eye, “I have my mother and two sisters around me all the time. So I get no place to grow sideways! I can only grow upwards!” Uff! How thankless could he be, considering that we stepped down from our princess status only to make room for him? The baby to whom we were little mothers? Well to compensate for the unkind jibe, we beat him up when mom wasn’t looking. Blessed with a superb sense of humour, he kept us smiling all the time. In fact, even now, whenever we meet, it is a riot; a treat to talk together and laugh together- gives us the stamina to take life head on.

Those days, his friends would call us bossy too! While it did not hurt us but sometimes we  sisters introspected and then convinced ourselves we were just being good big sisters. “Bah!” I said one day when one of his little boyfriends from the US came home and called us both “bossy girls!” “Wait till I get my hands on you, you little pappu!” And he told them not to meddle with me because I was dangerous!

Life was good and my sister and I were growing up fast! In school we used to braid our long black hair into two neat plaits with black ribbons and wore long john socks with our very practical buckled ballerina shoes. Our mother was very sure that despite our upbringing, we must get into the habit of taking care of our own basic chores like for example, washing socks and handkerchiefs and polishing shoes. She said no one will do it for anyone and knowing how lazy I could get, my sister was specially told that on no account must she wash mine.

The result was that I was always late for school, aggravated by the fact that I was most loathe to get up in the morning and then polish my shoes, hunt for a clean pair of socks, wash my handkerchief and iron it dry, etc.

So going back to the time we were in year two or three at school, we went through the Indo Pak war of 1971 which coincided with the liberation of East Bengal rechristened Bangladesh.  Our dad was summoned to be a part of the Civil Defence Team which would look after the city of Jabalpur during any extraordinary security threats to the people and the town. You see, Jabalpur was an important Cantonment and also had a couple of defence manufacturing establishments- the Gun Carriage Factory and the Ordinance Factory which was a plum target for the Air Raid guys. It was not easy to access by Infantry or any Army Battalion by virtue of its location in the Centre of India right on the Tropic of Cancer 231/2 degrees North.

So, I remember that all the residents of Jabalpur were told to paint their windows and door panes black. The wailing sirens from the Control Room would signal an approaching aircraft suspected of being loaded with a bomb which the enemy would try to drop strategically to destroy the defence establishments. There were no Google maps and no GPS then, so they had to be guided by the lights visible from their fighter planes. And so we had to run and switch off all the lights in the house, the streetlights would go off and then we would see our father off, speeding away on his Royal Enfield with dimmed headlight, to the Control Room. My mother would hold our hands tightly and we would sit huddled together in a corner of our big house waiting for the long siren announcing “all clear.” I remember my sister holding tightly on to my mother and I remember just screwing my eyes shut because I was afraid of the absolute dark. I can never forget the huddle and the touch- it took us through the crisis. We never got bombed and my father received the President’s Medal for Civil Defence Service during war. We were proud daughters and basked in reflected glory. As sisters, we still felt differently about so many things but agreed on this one.

In 1973, the Comet Kohoutek made an appearance after almost 150,000 years and was also seen in India. People would wake up early morning to see the star with a broom like tail which they believed would bring them lots of bad luck. The country was reeling under a depressed economic cycle and superstition was rife. My sibling and I would wish for all good things to happen because now we were growing up and realizing that positivity was necessary for all living things. We were truly growing up and how. By now we had learnt all about the solar system so we would scare our little brother and younger siblings of our friends by telling them fiendish stories about these planets- just cooking up scary bits by telling them how evil Saturn could get or how cruelly hot Mars was. Our storytelling capabilities were perfected by our Elocution teacher in school and we actually made some of the kids scream with fear! Such fun days they were!

In 1975, we had a lot of unrest and conflicting politics. We were still in middle school and my brother had started going to nursery school when the Government of India announced Emergency in the country. There was turmoil and sometimes schools closed down because security prohibited group meetings. Then I spent my time painting on the backs of old calendar pages- those days we used to have big poster size calendars with 12 pages for 12 months and I used my watercolors to express my angst. I don’t know if my sister appreciated what I painted, but she wasn’t rude either and concentrated on her studies.

 We both found our own ways of keeping busy though often I wasn’t able to understand how one could be busy studying when there was so much happening around us. But she was a good student and her report card said it all. I got the rhetorical comment “Dolly can do well but she is so distracted!” By 1977, the emergency was lifted and things got better. But my distractions increased because under the frenzied wave of indigenization Coke was taken off the shelves and Cadbury was threatened- both of which were our sustenance. My sister and I would lament and envied our cousins abroad who had all of this and more. And I continued to be distracted and she continued to score good marks!

Life then was not as hectic as it is now, so my parents had a leisurely social life. Often they would go visit friends. We had very little family in Jabalpur but had very close friends. Then my sister and I would sit together in the drawing room on the wooden sofa with cushions and have coffee and cake. That taste of coffee is precious; I have not come across anything so beautiful and so full of love as that coffee my sister used to make. And that cake which our father baked was and is the best yet. My father has since, passed on to the next life and my sister now dishes out exotic grub, but that coffee still lingers on my taste buds. And I have never been able to bake a cake even half as good.

And when I got married, my siblings made it a perfect occasion. I couldn’t have asked for more. Now both my siblings are married too, happy with their own families while we support each other enriched with the efforts and sensitivities of our spouses. I hope we make our mother proud of us. It is with joy and pride that I belong to my family and wouldn’t have it any other way.