Categories
Stories

Flash Fiction: Peregrine

By Brindley Hallam Dennis

Margaret rather embarrassedly explained what Perry was short for, and she went on to explain what it meant, which, of course, a writer should know anyway!

I thought of calling him Odysseus, she said, but people would have called him Oddy, and that would be insulting.

Perry was black all over save for a white bib on his chest, and he had only one eye. Perry was a cat. He’d been re-homed with Margaret. Rescued, she called it. He’d been a feral cat. Nobody’s pet. He’d been living free. He’d lived in woodland, slept under a nearby shed, fed at a back-door saucer left out, until he was caught. The missing eye, luckily, had healed naturally, or at least, the socket had.

Perry had been neutered. He’d been chipped. He’d been well fed to bring him back up to health. He was a chunky cat, with a portly dignity and, despite the lack of a patch, a piratical tilt of the head. He ruled Margaret’s garden with a paw of steel. When he progressed through the flower beds or across the lawn, he was preceded by a fanfare of bird calls: Look sharp! Look sharp! Here comes the king.

She had him years but never as a chattel. Cats are never possession, but at best, guests, VIP ones at that. He deigned to stay and let her feed him. He tolerated her letting him in and letting him out, on demand, of course. Once or twice a year, usually in the spring, he’d take a trip away, simply vanish for a day or three. No warning. No explanations on his return. After a hearty breakfast he’d depart. There might be one sly backward glance before he went, but nothing more. Then, one morning he’d wander back, expecting food, cool as you like, meowing at the door, sauntering into the hall, looking to left and right to make sure everything was as it should be. Cats like to maintain their standards and expect the staff to be ready at any time of day or night to receive them.

At first, of course, Margaret worried about him going like that. She imagined the worst. She checked the local roads and verges. She called his name, both the shortened and the full versions, across the neighbouring fields. She searched the hedgerows. She lived amid farmland, down a gravelled lane, almost overgrown and with a strip of woodland across the tarmac road at the lane end. The nearest not quite village was more than a mile away.

Traffic was intermittent. It was nobody’s through-route. Farm vehicles were huge and thundered through taking up the whole width of the road, but at least you could hear them coming. Private cars came too fast, especially round the bends, and didn’t make much noise, unless they were boy-racers.

Eventually she learned to trust his luck and waited for his return, hoping for the best. I used to worry, she said, but now I know he’ll be back in a day or two.

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But then, one spring, two days turned into three and three into four, and four into five, and into many, many more. He was gone for good. She walked the fields again. She walked the roads. She even went through the strip of woodland, following its winding ribbon of path. She called his name. She left out food. Birds and mice, perhaps squirrels and badgers, even rats, came to eat it, but there was no sign of Perry.

He’d not been well for weeks. He’d been off his food. She’d taken him to the vet, crouched and bad-tempered in his travelling cage, claws out and hissing while they examined him wrapped in a towel for safety’s sake. He been prescribed a tonic, tablets that he wouldn’t swallow, even mashed into his food. Nothing had been diagnosed, and it was hard to know his age, what with that history. I’m sure, she said, he’s gone to find somewhere to die.

Two years passed.

Then one day, at the far end of the lane, she saw a black cat with a bib of white. She called out Perry’s name. It stopped. It turned. It sat down and looked at her. She took a pace towards it, and it was gone.

Next morning, from the corner of her plot, she saw for sure, the same cat stalk the hedgerow on the far side of the farmer’s field, and called again. Again, it stopped and turned, and looked. Could it recall its name?

Next morning earlier than dawn she heard him. It was Perry meowing on the back doorstep. She rose from bed, threw on some clothes, and went down. But he was already moving off, padding up the garden path. He must have heard the door. He stopped. He turned his head, then turned away and trotted on.

And then she thought that perhaps he was living as he used to live before; roaming the fields, foraging the hedgerows and the lane, hunting the woodland strip; taking mice and voles and shrews, perhaps even birds, knowing the back-door saucers for miles around. Circling like a stone on a string the place where he was saved, but nobody’s chattel, nobody’s pet, free again.     

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Brindley Hallam Dennis lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com 

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Categories
Review

Transforming Banking Practices

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Transformational Leadership in Banking

Author: Multiple. Edited by Anil K. Khandelwal

Publisher: SAGE Publications/ New Delhi, 2021

India’s banking system, as it has evolved in the past two hundred years, is a mixed bag. It has cooperative banks, domestic financing institutions, scheduled commercial banks, regional rural banks, pre-reform traditional private sector banks, tech-savvy private banks, and foreign banks. One can add to this protracted list are the newer entities — small finance banks, payments banks, and the large number of mobile applications.

Even as India’s banking sector has expanded tremendously in the past few years, there is a lot to be desired from these financial institutions. Banks have, of late, been the government’s whipping boys, and the so-called reforms have only been half-baked. Bank mergers have taken place but they are yet to show up on their balance sheets.

While Non-Banking Financial Companies (NBFCs) have grabbed the space vacated by commercial banks, financial stability of banks is at crossroads. Monitoring and supervision have fallen drastically, reflecting in the persistent growth in Non-Performing Assets (NPAs). Post -Covid, there is an unfathomable shadow on India’s banks. It is in this scary backdrop that this book carries enormous importance. Transformational Leadership in Banking: Challenges of Governance, Leadership and HR in a Digital and Disruptive World by Anil K. Khandelwal comes in handy for the beleaguered leadership of the banking sector.

A thought leader, author, international speaker on leadership and governance, Anil K. Khandelwal is an acclaimed authority on human resource and leadership in the banking sector. He is a rare transformation leader. Transforming Bank of Baroda from a staid Public Sector Banks (PSB) to one of India’s most valuable international banks won him many awards, including the Asian Banker Singapore’s Lifetime Achievement Award. His brand of human resources leadership and its application in business turnaround also won him the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Human Resource Development Network. He also chaired the government-appointed committee on HR in PSBs and was a member of the first Banks Board Bureau for banking reforms and selection of whole-time directors.

The book, as the blurb says, “offers a roadmap on leadership which is all about converting adversity into an opportunity for transformation. Through an excellent set of articles, case studies and interviews, this book offers a way forward for transformational leadership of the Indian banks.” Despite their many achievements, public sector banks continue to face several challenges, such as increasing non-performing assets, depleting market share and low market capitalization.

The volume is comprehensive because it deals with almost all aspects of Indian banking. With a Foreword by former Comptroller and Auditor General of Inida, Vinod Rai, the book has three parts. In part I there are essays from academics and practitioners. Part II deals with case studies. The last part deliberates on perspectives from experts. With  more than thirty chapters — each chapter contributed by a doyen in the banking sector and the academics — the 500 plus page book is clearly laid out with  sections on governance, leadership, human resources and of course the future of the banking environment

In the introduction, Dr Khandelwal writes: “The book comes at a time when Indian banking is undergoing crisis.” It gives a strong message that banks become robust institutions by addressing governance, leadership, talent and culture. The author’s argument is that the banking sector is likely to remain in a perpetual crisis mode, unless these measures are initiated immediately. 

The book, as the titles suggests, is on leadership in banking. Evidently, it has chapters on changing context of governance and leadership in public sector banks, the digital revolution, future of work in BFSI (Banking, Financial Services, and Insurance) organisations, human capital and ethical bank governance, leadership choices in building better governance in the context of regulation or culture, strategic human capital management and banking governance (unexplored symbiotic relationship in PSBs), honoring legacy while embracing evolution: (the ethics narrative in State Bank of India), leadership experience and fifteen actionable insights from the trenches, organizational transformational and an agenda for Indian banks, coaching and mentoring in the backdrop of the unsung and underutilized warriors of leadership development, grooming leaders in public sector banks, crafting and living in  bank culture et al. 

There are also some illuminating pieces on leadership in times of crisis. For example, lessons from COVID-19. Employer branding to build human capital advantage, trade unions in the digital economy, skilling  a new currency,  a new manifesto for chief human resource officers in the era of digital change, wellness and yoga investment for the bankers,HR as strategic business partner in SBI ,sustainable people processes and leadership development in Bank of Baroda, the human resources story of ICICI Bank, digital transformation of HR at Union Bank of India, fear psychosis in the executives, and  bank directors require training in specific areas of technology are the other chapters which make a value addition to the book.

In the context of competition and digitalization requiring new business models, the book argues for a fundamental shift in the structure and process of governance, including board-level autonomy, CEOs tenure and compensation, people process, talent development and building a leadership pipeline, to make banks resilient and future-proof. 

Transformational Leadership in Banking is both well-timed and edifying. With admirable standpoints on the issues of authority, management and HR in a digital environment, the book is a clear blueprint for makeover and restructuring. The book is, mostly, meant for public sector banks, and will be of immense value to policymakers, regulators, board members, CEOs, researchers and to all those who are  in  the leadership roles and the public on the whole. 

Dr Khandelwal’s book makes an overriding case for crucial and cohesive reforms in India’s banking sector. It offers timely solutions by focusing on several issues. A must-read for anyone interested in the well-being of Indian banking.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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Categories
Independence Day Musings

An Immigrant’s Story

By Candice Louisa Daquin

I have an English accent because I learned English in England. After nearly 20 years in the US this is an accent, I wish I could rid myself of, owing to the assumptions made. I’m neither English nor imperialistic and Independence Day has always been challenging with comments like: “Well your side lost!” shouted my way a few times. I want to say, we’re all universal now, we all come from a multitude of places, accents and skin color aren’t accurate reflections of anything so stop being small minded.

Despite this, Independence Day has grown on me. Why? If I didn’t grow up in America, why would it really relate to me? Neither English nor American, it was hard to relate to. But you know what helped? Getting naturalized. Granted. I didn’t grow up in American schools pledging allegiance to the flag. This does inculcate and cause a great deal of loyalty which has brought 50 states into relative harmony, which is more than the EU could ever achieve in Europe.

Binding together such a melting pot of differing cultures into one ‘American culture’ is what made America, American. This is no small thing. And when you are an immigrant, there is nothing more emotionally rewarding than gaining that foothold, that coveted opportunity, to be part of the American Dream. The only question is, does it still exist, the dream part?

I would argue it does. As much as economically I know we can’t go from cotton picking farmer to CEO quite as readily as once we did, and that there are striations and class divisions in this country, even as we deny them. Though racism and bigotry continues to deny swaths of society, and affirmative action, permits entry, it’s more complicated than a straight shot to success the way we might have once imagined it, in the 1950’s heyday.

As I wasn’t alive in those days, I can’t speak to whether they were mythologized but I can say, America was affluent after World War II in a way Europe couldn’t imagine, being decimated in every respect. As such, there were leaps and bounds made in America that weren’t mirrored in much of the rest of the world. Like anything, this didn’t last, and America is no longer the leader of the world, if ever it was. But the dream is still alive, maybe as much in our imaginations as reality. Maybe it’s the idea of it more than the actuality of it.

That said, people send their kids to American universities to help them succeed, almost against modern wisdom. There are better schools elsewhere but we are still somewhat spellbound by the lure of big recognizable names, just as Hollywood continues to thrive, despite larger industries like Bollywood. We are sentiment to the America of old, and as such, the modern America can benefit from this and it does.

Independence gave America more of her identity than she had when she was being bled dry by the English royalty. America exists because of immigration. Native Americans were slaughtered in droves in order to ‘make way’ for the hordes of then foreigners. Parts of Mexico (Texas, New Mexico, California) were essentially stolen (or rightfully won, if you read some history books) in unfair wars, the French stupidly sold Louisiana and the Russians sold Alaska. These pieces came slowly together, and when the British lost America, the idea of truly being unfettered came into being and painted the American psyche.

So aside the obvious connotations and a holiday for most American’s who might not consider the historical import of Independence Day, what else does it represent? For many immigrants such as myself, it represents a change from what was. I didn’t grow up patriotic to a country, that was a foreign concept, and yet, as I stood in the Naturalization ceremony and put my hand over my chest and sang the songs, and waved the flag, as absurd as it felt on one level, it also felt very meaningful. That surprised me and my friends ‘back home’ might laugh to read this, but that’s what happens when you immigrate, or what should happen, you become something new. To me that’s what Independence Day is all about, a way forward from who you were before. Most of us could learn something from that, as we tend to be stuck in our ways, unable to relate to change and new concepts. There still is something deeply alluring about America and it’s our ability to take in a great variety of different people from all around the world and still retain a sense of what being American is, including transmitting this feeling to those newcomers as they arrive.

For this reason alone, we should all be proud to be American. For all the negatives, such as continuing racism and oppression, poverty and sexism, there are so many positive things about being American and that’s why so many people try to immigrate to American every single year. It’s no coincidence we’re continue to be a highly sought country to live in, it’s not simply our perceived economic opportunities, it’s the whole enchilada and that includes this elusive concept of what ‘being’ American is.

Many of us even from other countries, grew up deeply influenced by Americana. That included the golden years and even what came afterward, because Americans are very self-confident and they really know how to put their best foot forward. Social media may have us believe all is negative because there are those who like to criticize and never say anything positive, but this doesn’t really change things as much as we think. People still envy our freedom throughout the world and it was a hard-won freedom that none of us should forget, no matter where we live and where we intend to live. Freedom is something to never take for granted, and in this sense, Independence Day is a universal theme, freedom from oppression and the right to self-expression.

I hope American’s remember how lucky they are and spend less time fighting and more time appreciating those things we tend to take for granted. I can have an opinion in this country that disagrees with everyone and nobody will come and arrest me and take me away. Even if people don’t like my differences, I am protected by law and allowed to be different. Those are liberties many people don’t have, and I am mindful of this when I think of traveling as a gay woman, or for that matter, as a woman!

That said, we should also be mindful that freedom can vanish almost overnight, unless we make the right decisions in how we vote, and be aware of plans to undermine freedoms. Those who believe immigration is wrong, often point to increased immigration leading to less jobs, more change and an erosion of The American Way. I don’t agree, because the American way is immigration, it always has been. Sometimes bad (killing Native Americans, taking African slaves). Sometimes good (growing a country from people from every part of the world). If it didn’t work to have immigrants, America as we know it, wouldn’t exist.

However, with population increases, come difficulties, not least a lack of jobs, economic opportunity. So, we cannot simply open the gates without due care to the realities of this. The answer lies in being merciful to those who need better lives, and realistic about what we can do versus what won’t work. Equally, we need to be mindful of those who live here now and meet their needs as much as we help others. I feel lucky I have had a chance for a better life but I also miss my culture and the nuances of where I came from. I want others to have the chance I had, and I believe if you work hard and you are an honest person, you should be given that chance. Where that may fall short is when a person from a different culture fails to realize part of immigration is accepting you are coming to a different country and you must respect that country. If say, you are a man who is used to disrespecting women because your home country condones that, you cannot bring those values to a new country and expect that to work. In this sense, immigrants must be as responsible as the host country in their success as an immigrant and respect the host countries values. I feel safer in America as a gay woman and as a woman than so many other countries throughout the world. I don’t want that to change, and I want women from countries that condone gender-based-abuse to feel they can come to America and be unmolested.

We all make America better, when we respect this delicate balance. I for one feel immigrants are the most likely to vote and be active in making change, because they are both grateful and excited to have the chance. When I was naturalized, I was asked if I would vote because it was part of my ‘duty’ as an immigrant to give my input. I have voted in every election and I try not to bury my head in the sand about anything that matters because I feel it’s my duty to have my eyes wide open, that’s how we keep our independence and our freedoms.

The Inscription reads as: GALVESTON WAS THE PORT OF ENTRY FOR THOUSANDS OF IMMIGRANTS WHO SETTLED IN TEXAS AND THE SOUTHWEST. FEDERAL LAYS ENACTED IN 1875 ENDED THE UNRESTRICTED ENTRY OF IMMIGRANTS INTO THE COUNTRY AND LED TO THE ESTABLISHMENT OF THE AREA’S FIRST U.S. IMMIGRATION STATION AT GALVESTON’S PIER 29. THERE U.S. CUSTOMS OFFICIALS CONDUCTED MEDICAL EXAMS, BAGGAGE INSPECTIONS AND FORMAL PROCESSING OF IMMIGRANTS. THOSE FOUND TO BE DISEASED OR INCAPACITATED FACED DEPORTATION. THE U.S. CONGRESS CHOSE GLAVESTON OVER NEW ORLEANS AS THE SITE OF A MAJOR NEW FEDERAL IMMIGRATION STATION IN 1906. PLANS TO BUILD AN IMPRESSIVE IMMIGRANT LANDING STATION ON PELICAN ISLAND COMPARABLE TO NEW YORK’S ELLIS ISLAND FACILITY WERE NEVER FULLY REALIZED. THE SCALED DOWN STATION, FULLY OPERATIONAL BY 1913, WAS DAMAGED BY HURRICANE WINDS IN 1915 ABD CLOSED IN 1916. tHE IMMIGRATION OFFICES WERE SUBSEQUENTLY RELOCATED TO A BUILDING ON GALVESTONS’S 21ST STREET.
A NEW 3-STORY IMMIGRATION STATION CONTAINING IMMIGRATION OFFICES, DORMITORIES, MEDICAL FACILITIES, A KITCHEN, AND DINING AND RECREATIONAL AREAS WAS COMPLETED HERE AT 1700 STRAND IN 1933. IT WAS USED AS AN IMMIGRATION AND DEPORTEE-STAGING FACILITY UNTIL ABOUT 1940 WHEN IT WAS CONVERTED FOR USE AS A U.S. CUSTOMS OFFICE. Photo and inscription courtesy: Creative Commons

Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com

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Categories
Essay Independence Day

The Story of a Bald Eagle & a Turkey

Text by Penny & photographs by Michael B. Wilkes

Photography by Michael B. Wilkes, FAIA

Independence Day, celebrated on July 4, commemorates the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America. In 1774, on June 11, the first Continental Congress (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman) worked on the draft of the Declaration of Independence.

The group designated Thomas Jefferson to write the text because of his superior writing skills and what they called his, “felicity of expression.”

The document declared that the thirteen American colonies would unite as free and independent states. They signed it into action on July 2 in 1776 and broke away from the British government under King George.

Now we celebrate Independence Day on July 4.

Photography by Michael B. Wilkes, FAIA

The Continental Congress gave Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson the job of designing an official seal for America. The idea for the bald eagle proposed in 1782, received acceptance. It included an olive branch with arrows in the talons to symbolize war and peace.

Photography by Michael B. Wilkes, FAIA

When Benjamin Franklin saw the eagle on the Cincinnati medals, he felt it looked like a turkey. He said, “The turk’y is in comparison a much more respectable bird. Though a little vain and silly. The turkey remains a bird of courage who would attack any British grenadier who should presume to invade the farm yard with a red coat on.”  Franklin wanted the turkey as the national bird.

Photography by Michael B. Wilkes, FAIA

Congress adopted the eagle design on June 20, 1782. The bald eagle appeared on official documents, currency, flags, public buildings, and other government-related items. Instead of a turkey, the bald eagle became an American icon.

Photography by Michael B. Wilkes, FAIA

In the late 1800’s, America was home to 100,000 nesting bald eagles, but the number of birds shrank because of habitat destruction and excessive hunting. In 1978 the bald eagle arrived on the endangered species list. Bills passed protecting the elegant bird. In 1995, the bald eagle population had recovered enough for the status of the bald eagle to be changed from, ‘endangered’ to ‘threatened’.

In 2007 the “threatened species” list no longer included the bald eagle.

Photography by Michael B. Wilkes, FAIA

The Bald Eagle soars as America’s national symbol with its fierce beauty and proud independence. It symbolizes the strength and freedom of  The United States of America.

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Penny Wilkes,  served as a science editor, travel and nature writer and columnist. An award-winning writer and poet, she has published a collection of short stories, Seven Smooth Stones. Her published poetry collections include: Whispers from the Land, In Spite of War, and Flying Lessons. Her Blog on The Write Life features life skills, creativity, and writing:  http://penjaminswriteway.blogspot.com/ . My photoblog is @: http://feathersandfigments.blogspot.com/

Michael B Wilkes is an award winning architect and  photographer who has collaborated on three books of poems with his wife Penny Wilkes. On two occasions he has received recognition among the 100 Most Influential peoples in San Diego by the San Diego Daily Transcript. Michael B Wilkes site:  http://mbwilkesphotography.com

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Categories
Poetry

O Mother, O Father!

By Ruchi Acharya

Feeling trapped in the system
And heat from the burning pyres,
Beautiful lives come to an end.
Loss sighs, queued bodies wait for their turn
Like helpless wanderers. Another cries, ‘O Mother, O Father!’

Wading through submerged hearts at the crematorium,
Wet fodder exhausted over gloomy tombs,
Their names will grow obscure and wither away.
We will stay remembering their light -- ours has long gone.

Don’t jest with one’s fresh wounds.
Strip away your pride you filthy leaders,
Take away their crowns! Melt them down!
The Dead won’t return.
And another cries, ‘O Mother, O Father!’
Bloody urns and goblets of ashes,
Agony trapped in inescapable thralldom,

Mourning streaks the silent streets,
Death is dark and final.
‘Bones and muscles may char
but one day the Sun will rise
behind coal-smoked clouds.’

Embrace this life.
Our country still thrives.
We’ve got every reason to be afraid
but we never run from a fight.
‘Hold on -- dandelion,’ the wind is hoarse.
We won’t give up easily.
We will fight until the end.
In shrieking air,
Our lungs will learn to breathe.
Don’t give up -- 
One day the roses of hope will grow
Meeting the horizon,
Roses that, even plucked, will not die
But will bloom and bloom
Every single day that passes by.

Ruchi Acharya is an Indian poet and the founder of an international writing community called Wingless Dreamer. She is obsessed with Victorian literature. She thinks all worries are less with wine.

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Categories
Essay

Here, There, Nowhere, Everywhere

Did life change or did I change from the events of the last year,’ ponders New Zealander Keith Lyons who was in the southern state of Kerala when the first cases of Covid-19 were detected in India last January.

Everything shifted last year. Priorities. Energies. Focus. 

Well, actually, there wasn’t much focus for me last year. For much of 2020, I felt unfocused, scattered, reactive. I was not achieving peak performance or being proactive going forward, if we were to use business language. I doubt if I was being the best version of myself either. I definitely needed to ‘pivot’, whatever that meant. 

What was initially a short holiday ‘back home’ to catch up with family and friends turned into something without a clear ending, as it dawned on me maybe I wouldn’t be travelling again for years perhaps, why, even ever. 

Usually, by May, I would be like the snowbird and migrate to warmer climes. I would head to my base in Bali’s Ubud, and then later in the year to southwest China and Myanmar, the three locations in Asia where I have caches of cotton shirts, swimming goggles, cycle shorts, hot water kettles, tea strainers and rice cookers. 

By November, I would surely be back in the country termed ‘the land of mystery, mysticism, mythology, miracles, multiculturalism and mightiness’ — India. 

When I left Kerala’s Varkala Beach near Thiruvananthapuram in February last year, after my last dip in the warm breaking waves, I always thought I would be back for chai at one of the cliff top cafes overlooking the gleaming ocean, the lunchtime Rs.90(US$1.25) thali at True Thomas and falling asleep to the whirl of the fan and the shushing of the Arabian Sea. 

But it didn’t happen last Indian winter, and I doubt if it will happen this year or even next. The seasons turn, the tides come and go, the waves roll onto the main Papanasham beach and the less-visited Black Sand beach. True Thomas is ‘temporarily closed’ according to Google. In fact, the Kerala beach destination was already impacted by Covid-19 in March 2020, when an Italian tourist visiting for a fortnight tested positive for the virus. The English boss of Coffee Temple Cafe had got in trouble with authorities for his blackboard offering of ‘Anti-Coronavirus juice’ (150 Rs) made from ginger, lemon, gooseberry. 

I wonder how the Tibetan and Nepalese who work in eateries during the season, November to May, are surviving. 

Mid-2020 I found myself unable to continue my digital semi-nomadic existence of following mild weather and hopping on AirAsia flights I’d booked up to a year earlier. Instead, because of travel restrictions during the pandemic, and my own wish to stay safe, I was lock-downed in my hometown in New Zealand, cohabiting with my parents in the house I’d lived in since aged eight years old.

A friend on Facebook sent me a message saying she couldn’t wait to walk down the aisle, with a photo of an aeroplane aisle. Another sent an image showing the perfect Covid-19 sport which requires masks, gloves and 2m distance: fencing. 

In the post from China, I received a couple of full-face snorkelling masks. In between the time of ordering and the arrival of the goods, on YouTube, there was a video on how to convert to meet the N95 respirator standards, or how to modify for use as an emergency interface with a ventilator. Researchers even had a paper in Nature about using Decathalon snorkelling masks. I wouldn’t believe much else on Youtube. What a shame that many do. 

From Bali last year, there were claims that it was one of the safest places in the world as the recovery rate was high, and mortality rate low, compared to other places. This was attributed to a mix of sunshine, high temperatures, and a better (superior) immune system. 

Sound familiar, my friends in India? Later someone posted a graph showing exponential growth, with the caption ‘Bali, what happened?’ 

New Zealand, as it turns out, has been largely protected from the ravages of Covid-19, thanks to closing the borders, a short lockdown, and citizens acting together as a ‘Team of 5 Million’.

This time last year I went on lots of walks, I gazed at cloud formations, and watched sunsets. I cut down scraggly trees, sorted through books, and gave away many of my parent’s possessions as part of downsizing. Of the bounty of childhood books I distributed, one was the beguiling ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ by Edward Lear, penned 150 years ago, which my father would read to us when we were young:

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note …

I even sold the family silver. 

My parents didn’t get Covid, and just last week, got the first of two Pfizer pricks in the upper arm (so far, only 10% of the population in New Zealand have received their first shot). 

What changed dramatically was their circumstances. An operation in hospital for my 85-year-old father to reverse a previous insertion of a stoma didn’t work out as expected, and in late June last year the one night back home after his surgery proved to be his last night in the house they bought in 1976. He left in the back of an ambulance. He is now in hospital-level care in a rest home, and his wife, my mother, lives nearby in a retirement village. 

Before his surgery, they considered selling the house and moving to the retirement village together, but undetected earthquake damage from 2010-2011 was discovered by the real estate agent, and I had to initiate a claim to have the damage repaired. 

Being back home, many things were familiar, some things had changed, a few things were strange. I had become the parent of my parents. My days revolved around sorting out their problems. Instead of my independent existence and free lifestyle, I found myself taking on family responsibilities. Yet I was glad that in a time of need, I had been there to do the things they couldn’t do easily. 

The year 2020 was unprecedented (and UnPresidented), with so many unknowns, so many surprises. Sharing a birth date with a friend from journalism school, we went for dinner with her family. Little did I anticipate it was the last time I saw her husband, a blood doctor, who died suddenly during a video consult with a patient. 

My side hustle — a small travel agency working with ethnic minorities in southwest China — got its first inquiries in June last year. Several guides urged me to keep it open, as it was their main source of income. Before that, I hadn’t received any inquiries for the first part of 2020.

Several of the publications I usually write for have gone into hibernation, and some projects are on hold indefinitely. Before a job interview last week, I had to reflect on what I have been doing with my life. Or at least, the last 15 years. 

But what do I do these days? I swim most days, some days join a friend at the gym who wants to improve his heart. I drink one cup of coffee a day, recently, made from green coffee beans I’ve roasted in a popcorn machine. At least once I week I go out to have an Indian meal. This week it was a Kerala thali of a dozen delicious parts. Last week my friends ordered a family dosa, which had to be carried to the table by two waiters. 

My parent’s house is now my house, and each day I attend to its restoration and renovation, learning new skills of skim-coating, tiling, and concreting. Each month I get an email reminder that most of my AirAsia BIG Loyalty points are expiring soon.

Spending time with those I love is more important for me these days. We speak more frankly about what really matters. I’ve even started attending Death Cafe events, where anyone can share about their fear of death. 

Through it all, I feel like I am becoming a better friend to myself. I am my own guru. I am my own Jedi Master — it was just that I didn’t realise it before. I’ve learned to better cope with the challenges of life. As Jedi Master Yoda once said: “Named must be your fear before banish it you can”.

All I have to do is breathe. Breathe in. Exhale. Repeat. 

Last year, just a week after traditionally the coldest day of the year (one month after the shortest day), I saw my first golden daffodils, the yellow trumpets signalling that the winter had been mild, and that the warmer days of spring were not far away. 

Today on my way to the swimming pool, weeks before the solstice, I spied a row of daffodils in a neighbour’s garden and had to smile. I don’t know what the future holds, and I acknowledge that things will not return to normal like before. Yet I walk on, carrying in my heart hope, not so much as wishful thinking or expecting a positive outcome, but knowing that whatever the rest of 2021 and beyond throw up, no matter how disruptive, that the only way out is through it. 

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, with a background in psychology and social sciences. Keith was featured as one of the top 10 travel journalists in Roy Stevenson’s ‘Rock Star Travel Writers’ (2018). He has undertaken writer residencies in Antarctica and on an isolated Australian island, and in 2020 plans to finally work out how to add posts to his site Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

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Categories
Poetry

A Lament, A Prayer

By Bibek Adhikari

Kathmandu Ring Road during Lockdown. Courtesy: Creative Commons
A Lament, A Prayer


This slow sweltering summer day
the suburb seems to be sleeping,
succumbing to the heavy & humid daytime lull.
 
I walk from room to room 
with a glass of fizzy drink,
losing track of time 
with my multifarious musings.
 
I sit down to work 
amid the late afternoon susurrus sneaking 
in from the latticed windows.
 
I put my pen aside —
and there it rests on the table, 
too tired, too reluctant to write about 
all the paralyzing things happening
in the world.
 
My mushy brain throbs 
in its liquid room,
swimming in endless tragedies 
of faraway places.
 
At home, there’s birdsong
and a willful indifference,
though the heart is not impervious
to losing.
 
Days go by.
Sparrows cheep and flutter,
moths die on window panes,
nothing arrives—
not a single news of the ones 
who left us in these sleepy suburbs,
full of endless waiting.

Bibek Adhikari writes poetry and fiction. He lives in Kathmandu and works as a freelance technical writer and editor.

Categories
Musings

I am a Jalebi

By Arjan Batth

Frying Jalebis

A jalebi, with a name as eccentric as its appearance, is made by a halwai (or a confectionery maker) with skillful etchings of concentric circular shapes of a paste of flour in hot bubbling ghee like a discerning painter with a brush. Oil simmers in unison with Lata Mangeshkar’s filmi voice, price bargaining, and noisy traffic — a distinctly South Asian symphony. The jalebi becomes fully congealed, eventually submerged in syrup and infused with its sweetened spirit. This delicate confection is then put in a basket on the side of a narrow street or in the midst of a chaotic bazaar, appearing as a platter of petite suns, seducing the occasional child like a syrupy siren. There are other mithai or sweets among it — barfis, ladoos, gulab jamun and more besan (gram flour) progenies. But the jalebi, like me, is markedly different from the rest. While it may be quite odd to describe oneself as a confection, I have inevitably come to the realization that I am, quite indubitably, a jalebi.

I am a jalebi not because I am saccharine, nor because of my lingering unpalatable aftertaste, but rather, because I am different, with my intricately eccentric swirls and peculiar oddities — a disorderly collection of twists that spiral infinitely into oblivion. I remain a vibrant enigma that is overtly incongruous, out of place in the world around me, a spectacle that can’t quite be made sense of. Seeing myself as a jalebi seemed the only way to make sense of the various oddities I have exhibited from a young age. It finally offered an explanation for my differences which seemed to have no tangible cause or explicable origin. And while it was a peculiar explanation, it was an explanation nonetheless, one that temporarily ended a search for an answer and brought with it a certain equanimity. Although I may not be appealing in the way a jalebi is, I am indeed the confection — a twisted, swirly, and overly orange one.

It was self-evident from a young age that I was not like most others. It was this feeling of being different that later blossomed into a profound estrangement. Most people are products of their environment and are thus well adapted to their surroundings. However, I seem to be the product of some other, indefinable forces. I feel irrelevant, always having the urge to be somewhere else, where others are more similar to me in a place that would make me feel a little more relevant. I am under the impression that I was born into the wrong life, in the wrong circumstances or context, the subject of a divine blunder and ridiculed by probability. I should be this rather than that. There rather than here. I am frustrated by the immutability of it all, the permanence of the things you are born into — religion, culture, language, and time. While it may seem futile to be frustrated by such things, they didn’t seem to fit in with who I was.

Inevitably, I remain pierced by loneliness. It is a paradoxical loneliness, not one due to physical isolation, but one borne out of my ability to see the world differently than most and my inability to see the world conventionally. One of the most distressing things that I felt knew, or at least believed I knew, that there were others like me, but just that they weren’t where I was, as if they were deliberately staying hidden away from me. While I have had some relationships before, most lack the intimacy and closeness that comes with genuine friendship. Compared to others, my idiosyncrasies and differences seemed magnified to a microscopic level, making me feel that there was something wrong with me clinically. This estrangement created an opaque silence within me, when I could no longer make sense of what was happening around me. I felt completely different, the discomfort and incongruity in the air around me, almost seemingly tangible and graspable, as thick and viscous as sea water. It is this certain “off” feeling, a discomfort, a malaise of some sort, a feeling of deep irrelevance, that I often felt.

My condition seems to be mirrored by the big jalebi in the sky, the Sun, the suraj, who like me, exhibits much jalebi-ness. The Sun’s interstellar solitude reminds me of my own alienation. It is the only star of its kind in the solar system; the next nearest star is 4.25 light years (24.9 trillion miles) away. And quite significantly, both of us are seemingly encumbered by the weight of the universe.

While I may seem outwardly peaceful because of my superficial reticence, I actually remain quiet because of the turmoil within me. I am pensive while my thoughts attempt to make sense of the confusing world around me. My mind is a spiraling jalebi that tightens and tightens, swirls and swirls, twirls and twirls into neurotic rumination. I often feel disordered, like a faulty machine. I am anxious and apprehensive about some things, fastidious about minor aberrations, and often despondent.

Some days, everything seems to be tinged in a certain sadness. A certain understood, yet unspoken hopeless injustice. My melancholy springs from a fusillade of realisations about the world.  Being exposed to the world’s harshness and its lack of hope and reason, my reality seems to have a propensity, an innate tendency, to be brutal. I anachronistically experienced the Romantic ennui that French teenagers felt in the 19th century, trying to find meaning in our capitalistic, success driven world. Like Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby, “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” I am a ghost of sorts, a specter of vicarious and passive living. But beyond my nihilism, I am disturbed by the unfathomability of concepts that govern our universe: the concept of time, the size of the universe, death, the sun’s brightness, human consciousness. But as a single living organism, the universe has no obligation to make sense to me and holds no obligation of any other kind.

I am also a jalebi because of my South Asian background. Even though I have grown up thousands of miles away from India, it infuses itself into my life, an  every day, colouring of a distinct shade of Indianness. It is in the food I swallow. The thoughts I think. The genes that materialize my body. Yet, there is a disconnect to “my homeland” not only due to the seemingly interminable physical distance, but because I have spent my entire life in the West. As such, I perceive India and the world through a unique lens. I see it as a Westerner, yet also as an Indian, making sense of the world through a complicated, paradoxical mosaics. 

The boundaries of a culture are always delineated by an “us” and “them”. But I struggle to define the “us” and the “them”. In India, the borders between ethnic, linguistic, and religious identity all simultaneously converge and diverge. In the modern post-colonial era with the ancient civilization partitioned and shattered, the definition of Indian is constantly questioned and changing. As technically a minority in India’s extremely diverse cultural landscape, I feel like a decimal point, a fraction not a whole, in a country with over a billion people. And in the US, I am not just American, but an Indian American — another “doctor” trying to uphold the coveted model minority status.

I have long felt like an outsider, a conspicuous jalebi, in both places, perpetually stateless and displaced, like a refugee devoid of a nationality. As I don’t know what to think of my culture, I don’t know what to think of myself. There is no dictionary that contains my name as a word entry. No particular space to define me or explain who I am. It is absent. Unwritten. Blank. And so, in an attempt to define the indefinable, I define myself as a jalebi.

Rather than ponder upon my loneliness, I muse on the big jalebi in the sky, my constant companion. I try to find the sun in other things. The suraj meets me. Sometimes in the grass. In a busy city. Or near the ocean. On a windy day. Or on a walk. In my mind. In my dreams. Wherever really — sometimes among the surajmukhis (sunflowers)thatsprout out of the ground, with the grimming expression of the sun. The suraj is in the juicy, citrus fruits hanging off verdant trees. And of course, the sun is in every jalebi. I realize that because of the sun, all colours exist. Because of the sun, I am able to see. And while the sun does illuminate a brutal world, there are some things that my eyes can find worth looking at. I try not to think of the sadness that everything is tinged with, but rather the colours of our world. People wear sunglasses to dim the radiance of the sun, but I fully embrace its blinding light — I find solace in the sol. I sit there, a petite sun myself in the light of a large sun, wistfully wondering.   

And while I may feel quite alone right now, I think that other jalebis in other places are waiting for me. Somewhere on this spinning planet. Under the radiance of the big jalebi in the sky. Somewhere in this jalebi-shaped galaxy.

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Arjan Batth is a student from California. He has recently written a children’s book, ‘Dear Humans’, that tackles the issue of climate change. As a young South Asian-American, he is determined to represent Asians more in the writing field and has a passion for writing and literature. He can be reached at arjanbatth@gmail.com

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Categories
Story Poem

Pirate Blacktarn gets Lost

A strange tale in verse by Jay Nicholls

Pirate Blacktarn, terror of the Lemon Seas 
Shivered in an icy breeze. 
“This is odd,” he muttered crossly,
“Suddenly I’m feeling chilly.”

“This is weird,” the crew agreed.
Big Bob grumbled, “it’s cold indeed.”
Colder it grew as the days went past.
The North Wind blew with an icy blast.
Blacktarn stayed in his cabin by the fire,
Piling the coals up higher and higher.
Poor Tim Parrot could hardly speak,
For a giant icicle hung from his beak. 

“This is dreadful,” groaned all the crew. 
The tips of their noses had turned pale blue. 
Then a monstrous iceberg passed them by
With a jagged tip nearly scraping the sky.
Blacktarn stayed in his cabin, very snug 
Where the roaring fire made a cosy fug.

“What’s happened” wondered the frozen crew,
The Lemon Sea’s turned an icy hue.”

Then Stowaway Fay jumped up suddenly
And emptied out her mug of tea.
She tied it fast to the end of a rope
And dropped it into the sea, in hope.
Back she hauled it and started to drink.
But the taste of the water made her think.
It was chilly and strange and salty to savour,
Not a hint of lemon was in its flavour.

“I knew it,” she cried, though her voice was hoarse
“Our daft Captain’s set the wrong course!
Of navigation he hasn’t a notion,
We’re adrift in the Arctic Ocean!”

At this the crew grew very mad.
“Our daft Captain is really bad.”
Below decks they charged with an angry roar 
And banged on Blacktarn’s cabin door. 
Blacktarn pretended he didn’t hear,
He hid in the cupboard, quaking with fear.

“Silly Captain, you’ve read the chart wrong,
Now take us back where we belong.”
“It’s not my fault,” he squeaked through the door,
“I’ve never read a sea chart before.”
The crew let out a mighty groan.
“Typical, we might have known.”
“Well,” said Fay, “we’ll read the chart.
Hand it over, let’s make a start.”

Blacktarn pushed it under the door
And the crew spread it out across the floor. 
“We go north, no east, no nor’,nor’ west.”
“No,” said Fay, “south is best.”
But which way was south? No one knew
Until through the door Tim Parrot flew.
The fire began melting his frozen beak
And at last poor Tim was able to speak.
“This way’s south, just follow me,
I can guide you back to safety.”

Just ahead of the ship he flew,
Hoping to find the waters they knew. 
At long, long last, they smelled lemon in the air.
“Hurrah, hurrah, we’re nearly there.”

Then out came Blacktarn, onto the deck,
“Just come to give the sea chart a check,
Now that we’re back in the Lemon Seas at large.
Of course with a captain like me in charge
You know you really can’t fare badly,
Come on crew, keep sailing across the Lemon Sea.”


Note: 
The ‘Pirate Blacktarn’ poems were written in the early 1990s but were never submitted anywhere or shown to anyone. By lucky chance they were recently rescued from a floppy disc that had lain in the bottom of a box for almost thirty years. There are eleven poems in the series but no indication as to what order they were written in and the author no longer remembers. However, they seem to work well when read in any order. They all feature the same cast of characters, the eponymous pirate and his crew, including a stowaway and an intelligent parrot. The stories told by the poems are set on a fictional body of water named the Lemon Sea. (Dug up by Rhys Hughes from the bottom of an abandoned treasure chest).

Jay Nicholls was born in England and graduated with a degree in English Literature. She has worked in academia for many years in various student support roles, including counselling and careers. She has written poetry most of her life but has rarely submitted it for publication.

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Categories
Lockdown Musings

Navigating Borders

By Wendy Jones Nakanishi

It’s a commonplace that Covid-19 has shrunk our world. To limit the spread of the disease, the borders of many countries throughout the world were closed in March 2020 to all non-residents, and returning residents were required to spend two weeks on re-entry in supervised quarantine hotels.

Many nations have followed China’s lead in enforcing national lockdowns of varying degrees of stringency, with citizens urged to observe social distancing, avoid public transportation, and refrain from non-essential journeys. In the year and a half that has elapsed since reports of a deadly virus in Wuhan first made news around the world, global passenger air travel soon plunged 90% from pre-pandemic levels.

Mass gatherings have been banned and the use of face masks made mandatory. Meanwhile, as millions across the globe have been confined to their homes, with offices and businesses shut, many economies are on the verge of collapse. Only a few countries have rejected the imposition of lockdowns on its citizens, including Sweden, South Korea, and Tajikistan. The UK, where I have been living since late 2020, chose to adopt severe restrictions to contain the disease, including three lockdowns and the closure of schools, restaurants and bars and non-essential shops. Unfortunately, despite all these precautions and measures, it has one of the highest Covid death rates in the world.

I imagine many people share my longing for a return to the days when we were free: when we could travel where we liked, when we liked, and as we liked, whether by car or train or plane. The adage ‘What once were luxuries now have become necessities’ comes to mind. Perhaps we didn’t sufficiently appreciate our luck as inhabitants of the global society of the twenty-first century.

When I compare the present-day to life in the sixties, seventies and eighties, I think it is as though technological advances have made us like gods. Computers are largely responsible, and the invention of the internet. We have grown accustomed to being able to find any information we might seek or to buy any item we might want just by tapping a few keys on a laptop or by scrolling the screen of a mobile phone. Should I nurture curiosity about the Russian Revolution— seeking its causes, wondering when it began and when it ended, keen for details of the figures who played a significant role in this historic event— I can ‘Google’ the topic and possess all this knowledge literally in a matter of minutes. Should I require furniture, caviar, or a plane ticket to Bali coupled with hotel accommodation, I can buy any of these with ease and speed. Modern-day technology means that the acquisition of information and the means to gratify desires are now literally at our fingertips. Our lives are easy and luxurious in ways I could scarcely have dreamt of when I was young.

I spent my childhood in a tiny town in the American Midwest. The population of Rolling Prairie, Indiana, numbered less than five hundred in the late 1950s—and it isn’t much larger now.

Downtown Rolling Prairie, Indiana Buildings and Architecture. Photograph provided by author

The main street was two blocks long and, ironically, a dead-end, terminating in the entrance to a grain elevator by railway tracks. The town was tiny, yet it held all that we needed. There were two churches and two bars, a post office, a hardware store, a five-and-dime, a barber’s shop, a grocery, a tiny restaurant, and a small clinic. Best of all was a general goods store called Bozek’s. It had a soda fountain, a pinball machine, booths with juke boxes, and a long counter where the town’s farmers congregated to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. We children loved Bozek’s. It’s where we lingered on weekends and met our friends. Walking home from school, we could stop to buy ice cream or candy.

I both loved and hated Rolling Prairie as a child. On the plus side were the long idyllic summer holidays lasting from the end of May till the end of August. One hot bright morning would dawn after another, and we would be free to play outside all day, every day, without supervision or constraint. There were tall trees everywhere, and my friends and I would dare each other to climb those with low-hanging branches. We’d have games of badminton in my front yard and play baseball in a vacant lot next door. I could ride my bike up and down streets so deserted I never needed worry about traffic. Rolling Prairie was a quiet, peaceful place bounded by flat cornfields stretching to a horizon dotted by farmhouses, barns, and silos.

 On the minus side was the fact that our town was so small everyone knew everyone else’s business. Gossiping was a popular pastime. My parents quarreled and divorced, and suddenly I was a child in the only single-parent household in town. I had to get used to being looked at and talked about.

I was also surprised that nobody seemed to share my boredom, my restlessness: feelings that grew stronger as I got older. My friends at school and their parents who were, by and large employed as farmers and factory workers or as the proprietors of the small shops in town, were apparently content to stay put while I dreamed of escape. The tales of adventure I borrowed from the tiny library next to the grocery store— books like Treasure Island and The Count of Monte— fueled an urge to see the wider world. 

Borders in the sense of spaces marked out and enclosed can be geographical and political, but they can also be metaphysical and psychological. That a sense of confinement can be a matter of perspective rather than actual physical limits became apparent to me when I went to university. I enrolled at a campus of Indiana University that was two hundred miles from my hometown and, with its student body of over thirty thousand, was a far more cosmopolitan and diverse environment than anything I had encountered before. I thought I’d left Rolling Prairie but, in retrospect, I realized I carried it with me, that I was confined by my background. I felt intimidated by my new friends. I was the small-town girl consorting with big city types. I was suddenly confronted by the depths of my ignorance of the wider world.

I had a good knowledge of history and geography and especially of American and English literature, but I didn’t know which cutlery to use at a formal dinner or how to pronounce words I’d come across in books but never heard uttered. I lacked the assurance to summon a waiter at a restaurant. I lacked my friends’ confidence and easy fluency in social situations. I’ve struggled ever since to overcome this handicap and, admittedly, whenever I feel weak or vulnerable, I can still be overwhelmed by that old sense of inferiority. I continue to address shop staff as a supplicant rather than as a customer and, even now, can be crushed by a sudden rush of shyness when I find myself in a large group of strangers.

On graduating from Indiana University, I had to decide what to do with my life. Two paths presented themselves: studying to become a lawyer or venturing to Paris to spend a year working as an au pair. I’d taken pre-law classes and enjoyed and excelled at them. On the other hand, I longed for adventure. It was the proverbial fork in the roads. The first was the sensible option, but I decided to take the road less traveled. 

This is where I lived as an au pair in France: L’Etang-la-Ville outside Paris.

I got a job with a wealthy family living in a charming village on the outskirts of Paris. I learned to speak conversational French. My au pair Madame taught me, on our daily morning shopping excursions, how to ‘faire les courses’ – how to choose a perfectly ripe Camembert or the freshest of fruit and vegetables – while Monsieur, from an aristocratic family, owner of his own vineyard, instructed me in how to appreciate the finest of wines. I was required to take French classes every morning at a nearby city and, in the process, acquired the knack of navigating a moped through crowded French city streets.

I was often terrified, sometimes confused, occasionally perplexed. I was both laughed at and encouraged. It wasn’t easy, but I was delighted my horizons were expanding. Growing up in the States meant that I knew life only as an American. The States is so vast, so sufficient unto itself as well as self-regarding that, although it borders Mexico and Canada and is a nation of immigrants, life there can be sheltered, even provincial. I’ve always found, for example, that people living in the American Midwest tend to have little knowledge of and less interest in the outside world.

Groningen, in northern Holland. Photograph by author

In France, on the other hand, I had access to a much wider view of life’s possibilities. The other European countries as well as the UK were within easy striking distance. I tried to take advantage of every opportunity for adventure. I lived in a squat in Holland, hitchhiked through Germany and France, enjoyed a very alcoholic cheese fondue in Zurich, ate pizza on the Spanish steps in Rome, rode on a gondola in Venice, and camped on the pure white sandy beaches of Spain’s Balearic Islands.

I subsequently spent four years doing postgraduate study in the UK. On earning my doctorate in eighteenth-century English literature, I was hired as an English professor by a newly opened university in a sleepy fishing village in western Japan. Shido, in Kagawa prefecture, was reminiscent somehow of Rolling Prairie, but instead of corn and soybean fields cultivated by farmers, it had fishermen cultivating the ocean. Shido faced Sanuki Bay, an inlet of the Seto Inland Sea. I remember my first sight of the sea stretching beyond the hill housing the university campus. Its calm surface was marked out in neat lines of sticks. I learned they demarcated beds for oyster farming: the sticks are used to suspend trays or cages of oysters just beneath the surface for two or even three years as the oysters mature and become fat and tasty. Shido is also a producer of amberjack fish and laver seaweed.

I had intended to stay in Japan for two or three years. I ended up living and working there for thirty-six, having met a Japanese farmer and married him, becoming the mother of three boys. My husband designed a log house that was put up by builders who came over from North Carolina accompanied by all the materials that would be used in its construction, sent from the States to a port in Kobe. Once the building was habitable, my husband went on to plant trees and flowers and bushes in our large yard, and so many I came to feel I was living in an idyllic garden.

Takamatsu, Japan. Photograph by author

It all seemed like home until I reached the mandatory retirement age at my university. With one of my sons in New York City, another in Vienna, the third living in his own apartment thirty miles from our home and my husband occupied with projects and hobbies, I felt I needed to embark on yet one more adventure. I knew I would be lonely and bored and depressed without the structure to my life—and sociable companionship— full-time employment had offered me since I first arrived in Japan in the spring of 1984.

I now live in Lancaster, in the northwest corner of England. I go back to Japan around twice a year to spend a month with family and friends and probably will eventually return there ‘for good’. The old saying goes that ‘a change is as good as a rest,’ and while life in England isn’t particularly restful, I’m glad of a new focus for my energy. I think constant challenges keep us on our toes, keep us young. While my professional life in Japan was devoted to mental activities— teaching university classes, conducting research, attending conferences, publishing academic papers and creative non-fiction— my life in the UK as a retiree is often surprisingly physical. As a volunteer at a nature reserve in Lancaster, I find myself weeding, digging, cutting hedges and planting trees, and I’ve even assisted in the construction of several fences. I swim twice a week and attend yoga classes on Sundays and Thursdays. Lancaster has a wonderful system of cycle paths and foot paths, and I go for long bike rides and long walks in stunning scenery. I also belong to a choir and to a speech club.

The limitations we set on ourselves, or that we unconsciously accept, can and should be challenged. Most borders are surprisingly unstable. This is even true at the most basic level. Most of us tend to think of ourselves as discrete beings, separated from others and from our environment in some significant fashion. Our skin forms the boundary of separation.

But a constant process of give and take exists between us and our environment. We humans breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. We eat and drink and then excrete. We shed cells and hair. We copulate and produce more human beings. We were born of the flesh and blood of our mothers and with a genetic imprint of both our biological parents. We cannot meaningfully maintain the idea of ourselves as entities independent of other humans or our surroundings.

What is true on the personal level is equally true on the national or international, where boundaries are tenuous and easily dissolved or redrawn. The maps of Europe and Africa needed continually to be updated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries because new countries were formed while some old ones simply disappeared—swallowed up by their neighbors. It was a febrile, dangerous time. With colonial expansion, territorial wars, and the rise of nationalism, some countries had their borders altered or were simply obliterated— assimilated by their neighbors. Some new nations also were created. Modern Italy came into being in 1861, while Germany was only unified as a politically and administratively integrated nation state ten years later, in 1871.

National borders are, of course, artificial constructs. They are created rather than natural or pre-ordained; they are man-made for convenience and expediency. Astronauts viewing the Earth from space have remarked on its beauty and fragility, saying that it looks like a blue marble orb with white swirls that is ‘hanging in the void’ or, as Buzz Aldrin described it in July 1969, ‘a brilliant jewel in the black velvet sky’. There are no signs of the terrible warfare that scars our planet and that are only too visible from a nearer perspective: barbed wire and bunkers, battle-ravaged landscapes, cities reduced to smoking ruins, and unexploded ordnance.

The pandemic has made us keenly aware of the existence of borders national and physical. It is not only that many of us have been confined to our own countries with travel to others proscribed. It has also focused our minds on our own personal limitations, both psychological and physical. Being forced to stay in our homes for long periods of time, deprived of the usual distractions offered by the outside world and by other people, we have been unable to escape our own company. I imagine these unprecedented circumstances have led to many of us embarking, often reluctantly, on journeys of self-discovery.  

Britain’s first lockdown was mainly viewed in a positive light. It was a warm and pleasant spring. People were enchanted by the novelty of the situation, relieved not to have to commute to jobs, glad to be allowed to work from home. For many, it inspired a frenzy of creativity. Facebook and Twitter were deluged by individuals boasting of how they’d lost weight by following exercise classes on Zoom or how they’d begun learning German. There were countless postings of photographs of home-made loaves of sour dough bread and immaculately maintained gardens gleaming with flowers. With the weather unusually fine, the national mood was optimistic. When the cases decreased during the summer months, it seemed we had all turned a corner. We’d had an interesting experiment. Now the virus was in remission and normal life beckoned.

Our optimism was premature. There was a resurgence of Covid cases in the autumn. The weather worsened and, to general horror and consternation, a second and then a third lockdown were imposed in the UK. A lockdown became an ordeal to be endured rather than an experience that offered enjoyment. The good intentions we harbored during the first—to acquire a skill, to embark on attempts at self-improvement, to spend quality time with the family— by and large were abandoned. The national mood darkened. We increasingly came to realize that Covid had the Earth’s inhabitants in its tight grip and that we had to simply grin and bear it and hope for the best.

Fortunately, it seems human ingenuity knows no bounds. Contrary to expectations, several vaccinations were developed, and in record time and by various countries: America, Britain, China and Russia. As I write this, in May 2021, more than thirty-seven million people in the UK have received at least one jab of either the Pfizer or the AstraZeneca vaccine. Despite the recent appearance of the so-called Indian variant of the disease, the number of Covid cases and deaths has plunged dramatically.

Life often has been compared to a journey. Some argue that it is the journey itself, not the destination, that matters. It’s been a rough ride for all Earth’s inhabitants since January 2020.

I consider it a mixed blessing that we can never recover our pre-pandemic innocence. On the one hand, it has made us acutely aware of borders and limitations personal and global. A certain insouciance about life’s possibilities has been lost, perhaps forever. We have been confronted by the stark fact of our mortality. We have also become aware of the power of governments to restrict our civil liberties.  On the other hand, perhaps we can take comfort in the opportunity we are granted to appreciate afresh and anew privileges once they are restored to us. It’s a chance for us to reassess our priorities and glory in whatever personal freedoms we are allowed in our post-Covid world.

I, for one, plan to spend the time remaining to me in urgent but joyous exploration both of my own self—through meditation and reflection—and the outside world, through travel. I hope I can preserve my keen sense of gratitude for having been spared Covid infection. I want to relish every opportunity, to jump at any adventure life might offer, knowing how everything can change, how quickly I can lose all the freedoms and pleasures I once thought my birthright.

Wendy Jones Nakanishi, an American by birth, spent thirty-six years in Japan, employed as a professor at a private Japanese university. She has published widely on Japanese and English literature.

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