Categories
Review

‘What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves’: The Plague by Albert Camus

Book Review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: The Plague (1947)

Author: Albert Camus

Camus’ La Peste has never been out of print. In the wake of pandemic that now sweeps the entire world, its sale has seen a surge quite unlike at any other time since its publication in 1947. What else can be a greater proof of the relevance of a work that seems to be an ageless parable of human condition.

The novel, most of which he wrote in confinement, away from his family due to his acute illness, is the story of a town suffering from bubonic plague. But this novel can also be seen as an allegory of human crisis brought about by moral contagion.

Camus belonged to a generation which was born either before or during the First World War, reached adolescence during the worldwide economic depression and turned twenty the year of Hitler’s rise to power. Next they saw the civil war in Spain, the Munich Agreements, the start of another World War in 1939, the fall of France in 1940 and four years of enemy occupation and underground struggle.

All of this, in his opinion, resulted in a human crisis where most people, disillusioned by religion or nationalism and wary of the traditional morality imposed upon them, lived in contradiction. They accepted war and violence which was given to them, which they had never wanted but from the consequences of which they could not escape. It was as if the entire generation was plagued by an indifference which led people to accept human suffering as a banal reality.

In one of his lyrical essays, The Almond Trees (1940), Camus wrote:

I do not have enough faith in reason to subscribe to a belief in progress or to any philosophy of history. But I do atleast believe that men have never ceased to grow in the knowledge of their destiny. We have not overcome our condition and yet we know it better. We know that we live in contradiction, but that we must refuse this contradiction and do what is needed to reduce it. Our task as men is to find those few first principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free souls. We must stitch up what has been torn apart, render justice imaginable in a World which is so obviously unjust, make happiness meaningful for nations poisoned by the misery of this century.”

He believed in human kindness and solidarity. He believed that if in the face of a crisis people could rise and act, not out of some heroic courage expected of them, but with reason and optimism, then it would be possible to reduce human suffering.

Written in the given context, the novel quite pertinently, became a tale of a persisting contradiction and subsequent human actions in overcoming the condition.

What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.”

In the novel, after initially rejecting the plague, the people of Oran are forced to go into isolation and quarantine. In fact the whole city is closed down and its borders are sealed. There are people suffering from the disease, people in exile – away from their loved ones, people serving those ridden with disease and also people trying to make more money by smuggling goods. Here the depiction of illness, loneliness and separation is quite vivid – much that we can relate to as well at present?

Dr. Rieux, the one who detects the illness, assumes his responsibility and does what he must. He is an ordinary man doing extraordinary things, not out of a notion of valour but out of simple decency and a sense of moral obligation. His character personifies individual moral responsibility essential to make effective public choices in a society. At one point, he says:

When you see the suffering it brings, you have to be mad, blind or a coward to resign yourself to the Plague.”

Rambert, a young journalist who is exiled in Oran, tries to escape the city initially but later he realises that he shares a common fate with rest of the people and joins in serving those afflicted.

Then one fine day, the plague disappears as mysteriously as it had appeared but not without playing havoc with the lives of people. Later when the people celebrate in the streets of Oran, Dr. Rieux observes:

The plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely, it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing, it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.”

Camus knew that even if a contagion, whether biological or moral, ends – one couldn’t be too sure of its absolute extinction. So in the absence of a clear moral lesson from this book, what is it that makes the book still relevant?

In the face of the present pandemic which lurks in the corners of our cities and stares at us from outside the windows of our isolated homes, this book not only brings to our notice the horrors such plagues can inflict but also the human will, solidarity and collective resistance that remain instrumental in overcoming such disasters. It puts our focus back where it should be – on assuming moral responsibility as individuals — on each act of kindness, on goodness which when collective not only helps combat a pandemic but also rouses our alertness lest our laxity make us miss the signs of an impending darkness. 

Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ . She lives with her husband and a teenage son, who being sports lovers themselves are yet, after all these years, left surprised each time a book finds its way to their home.

Categories
Poetry

And then it begins….!

            By Ali Jan Maqsood

Gestured the mountains of the outlooks

Offered dryly, albeit, wet in nature

The glittering beauty of the flowers

Out in the sun of shadow

Of my territory, nevertheless, the land of my home

I reckon!

I imagine I am a butterfly

Caged by the river, flows up each second and then comes down

In merriness!

For, it owns the feeling

The feeling of sense of belonging

In particular!

The joyful days continued and would have continued

Unless, interrupted by the stormy alarums and excursions

And then chained, indeed, feet by hands

The vociferations would have gone on and on…!

If the stones had not remonstrated

Although they fall, but have learnt to stand back strongly

Accompanied by the rains of the Above Power!

The salvation we made in grievance

The souvenir in future

Entitled with the tears of glory

Of thine…!

Ever since everything sounds so irritating

Wandering on the land of survival

In the streets that are seized entirely

The fighting butterflies, fearlessly, against the burning sun

Shadowed all around, yet in fear

Fear of setting back!

For, the sun has to rise someday

And then begins the journey of thorns and flowers

Of the territorial conflicts of butterflies

Near the mountains, under the sun of shadow

In the land of my home!

And then culminates the mournings

Upon the arrival of the victory

Awaite  desperately

Who knows who dies

“In the battle of life of love and war”

When the journey begins all anew…!

Ali Jan Maqsood is a student of Law at University Law College Quetta and a former guider at Dynamic English Language Teaching Academy (DELTA) in Turbat. He can be reached at alijanmaqsood17@gmail.com and tweets at @Alijanmaqsood12

Categories
Musings

Julie Felix: Singer, star-gazer and child of the universe

By Keith Lyons

There’s some wise advice that you should never meet your heroes in person, for fear of destroying their aura of invincibility. But what happens when you meet a childhood hero, the singer of a song which is still on rotate in the back-catalogue jukebox of your mind? This is a tribute to the great, late Julie Felix, a legend in her lifetime, who was more than just a bohemian folk singer who knew no borders.

Julie Felix

It is not easy to classify Julie Felix, who died the week before last, aged 81. Most of the labels don’t fit. Sure, you could tag her as a folk singer, as she had one of the longest careers in folk music, spanning more than half-a-century. The singer-songwriter was also a humanitarian and human rights activist, having been politicised in the 1960s and was active in peace and environmental movements. But to dismiss her just as a protest singer of yesteryear would be to ignore her much larger contribution.

Californian-born and raised Catholic (as a child she wanted to become a nun), Julie started singing at beach parties and coffee bars, then tripped around Europe, where she had a fateful meeting with Leonard Cohen on a Greek island in 1962. Arriving in the UK with just her guitar and duffel bag, the woman in her mid-twenties known for her strong voice and long black hair rose to prominence in 1960s beatnik England as folk music gained in popularity. She ended up spending much of her time on that side of the Atlantic, including a stint in Norway, dying peacefully in her sleep in a village north of London once rated the happiest places to live in the UK.

With Mexican, Welsh and Native American ancestry and heritage, the American, British-based recording artist was very much a global citizen who defied being placed in a box. Her passion for music was instilled by her father, a Mexican mariachi ensemble musician who played guitar and accordion, while her Welsh American mother liked the mournful ballads of Burl Ives — both her parents had Native American blood.

In 1964, even the British record label Decca Records didn’t know whether to place her debut album in the classical category for folk music or take the risk in marketing her music as ‘pop’ and mainstream. It was eventually decided she was a pop singer. That decision was a key moment in her career. She became a household name, TV star and Top Twenty recording artist. In the late sixties, perhaps oblivious to her Californian origins, The Times newspaper described the musician as ‘Britain’s First Lady of Folk’. She had an engaging voice and a charming manner, but never learned to read music. She put it down to being at the right place at the right time. “Fate whisked me along,” she said in an interview last year. And it was fate that led to me meeting Julie almost 30 years ago.

There’s a wise saying that you should never meet your heroes in person. Obviously, I chose to ignore that advice when I met Julie, my childhood hero of sorts.

I knew of her because she sang a song popular at primary school and on the radio, particularly on the New Zealand Sunday morning children’s hour show Small World where ‘Going to the Zoo’ was a popular request along with Spike Milligan’s fairytale ‘Badjelly the Witch’. ‘Daddy’s taking us to the zoo tomorrow . . . And we can stay all day!’ starts out with the catchy chorus: We’re going to the zoo, zoo, zoo, How about you, you, you? You can come too, too, too, We’re going to the zoo, zoo, zoo.’

The action song, complete with onomatopoeic animal noises, was a big hit at Nayland primary school, and it was a soundtrack on constant loop when we made a school trip to the nearby Tahunanui Zoo (now known as Natureland Wildlife Trust and more into wildlife conservation than a petting zoo), back before zoos became places to avoid because of their treatment and captivity of animals.

So, in 1992 I met up with Julie in the South Island of New Zealand and travelled around the Catlins area near Dunedin for almost a week with the legendary folk singer, hosted by Fergus and Mary Sutherland of Catlins Wildlife Trackers. At the time I was a budding writer, fresh out of post-graduate journalism school. As well as tagging along to write some stories for newspapers and magazines, I was quickly identified as the unofficial local guide, the fixer, and the fetcher. I was tasked with taking photos, opening wine bottles, and carrying her prized guitar. We hiked trails to spectacular waterfalls in the lush forest, visited panoramic coastal viewpoints, ventured into limestone cathedral arches, combed beaches looking for petrified tree fossils, and watched dolphins play in the surf.

At night, with no street lights, if the skies were clear, we’d go outside to admire the Southern Hemisphere stars with the Milky Way and its just-visible breakaway of large Magellanic cloud, and the constellations unfamiliar to Julie, such as the Southern Cross, or ones easily recognisable, such as Orion, which were differently oriented compared to night skies in Europe and North America. “This is where I belong,” she declared after a long session of awed gazing, “I am a child of this wonderful universe.”

On that adventure was the glamorous American health and beauty author, Leslie Kenton, daughter of jazz musician Stan Kenton. There was a little bit of tension on our sightseeing trip, as Leslie, former health and beauty editor at Harpers and Queen, and author of Raw Energy and The X Factor Diet was into raw food for vitality and longevity, while Julie was more into living in moment rather than her appearance, the future or order. She didn’t wear make-up, she dressed in comfortable clothes, and she enjoyed the occasional puff on hand rolled cigarettes. It wasn’t quite a reckless rock n’ roll lifestyle, more of a down-to-earth, unpretentious, good-hearted existence.

Julie’s habits were met with a disapproving look from radiant Leslie, who was three years younger — though it was health freak Leslie who died earlier, in 2016, aged 75, near Christchurch, having been charmed enough by New Zealand from that first visit to decide to move permanently.

The slight clash of personalities, Julie later confided to me, was mainly astrological. Fortunately, we got on well, possibly because I didn’t want to change her in any way, had no expectations, and I also shared Julie’s skepticism, about the virtues of coffee enemas. Though I must admit, I did hope that at some stage she would sing THAT song.

Julie would roll her eyes after another plea from Leslie to try a new-fangled supplement, recently-discovered treatment or life-changing product. “Where are we going to tomorrow?” she once asked me to divert Leslie’s attention, so she could go out for some fresh air and a smoke. “To the zoo,” I replied, hoping to subtly remind her of the song I wanted to hear her sing.

During the trip, Julie didn’t feel the need to impress, even though she had an impressive CV and contact list. She had become the first solo folk performer to sign with a major British record label, and in 1965 she was the first folk singer to fill the Royal Albert Hall – that same year she was the first ‘popular’ singer to perform at Westminster Abbey. She even had her own primetime BBC TV programme (the first colour series produced by the BBC), after being a member of David Frost’s satirical ‘Report’ team.

Her own series ‘Once More With Felix’ included guests The Bee Gees, The Kinks, Fleetwood Mac, The Hollies and Spike Milligan. Julie, with her dark, long hair, was often compared to (and sometimes mistaken for) fellow American and Californian resident Joan Baez. Even though she still had an exotic West Coast accent, a US passport, and sang songs penned by American’s Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Paul Simon, she was once dubbed ‘Britain’s answer to Joan Baez’.

Among her contemporaries and friends were Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie (‘This Land is Your Land’), Dusty Springfield, Paul McCartney, Cat Stevens, Jimmy Page, and Leonard Cohen. She once opened for Dylan at the Isle of Wright Festival, later did a cover of his peace song ‘Masters of War’, and so liked the fellow Gemini’s music, she recorded a double-album of his songs. Julie was one of McCartney’s girlfriends, and it is said he sang ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ to her before it was first performed publicly. She is credited with being the person who taught Cohen how to turn his poems into songs. If you get the chance, there’s a Youtube clip of her singing with Cohen ‘That’s No Way to Say Goodbye’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f1EJ-ITAcEU). It was Cohen’s British TV debut.

Julie was born in Santa Barbara, but couldn’t get her musical career off the ground in the US, so with savings of US$1000 in her pocket, and inspired by Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’, she hitchhiked across Europe (meeting Cohen in Greece on the bohemian island of Hydra and lending him her guitar), and then found a bigger audience in the UK, where she stayed for decades.

She once got arrested at Heathrow airport for possession of cannabis and carrying more than the allowable amount of cash — that was more than 50 years ago.

She first came to New Zealand in 1971, singing to a record-breaking crowd of 27,000 at Western Springs in Auckland, urging Kiwis to reject conscription for the Vietnam War. But she wasn’t just a singer of protest songs, she had a deep concern for the world, the environment, and its people, particularly those less well off. As well as being a singer, social justice, human rights and peace were important to her, and she was involved in many initiatives, charities and humanitarian causes for women’s rights, refugees, and victims of oppression, including projects to end the military use of landmines in Third World countries, and as an ambassador in the Middle East and Africa for Christian Aid.

One of her most requested songs is ‘Deportee (Plane Wreck at Lost Gatos)’, about the mistreatment of migrant farmers, while her top hit was ‘If I Could’, best known as the Simon & Garfunkel version ‘El Condor Pasa’ which starts off with the ‘I’d rather be a sparrow than a snail . . .’ And of course, among a younger audience, she was the voice behind the ‘Going to the Zoo’ song, which featured in her second album released in 1966 (that song was also sung by Peter, Paul & Mary).

At the end of the week, with Julie rejuvenated from the New Zealand natural scenery and serenity, (and with better access to tobacco, alcohol and spicy, ‘well-cooked’ food), she had a concert in Dunedin, and I got to be her temporary road manager, carrying her guitar, the treasured one from her father. After the soundcheck, one of her devoted fans, who had met her two decades earlier during the anti-Vietnam War era, snuck into the green room, and pressed upon her a tinfoil containing marijuana that he’d especially prepared just for her.

There was a surprisingly large turnout, with an older audience of loyal followers eager to hear her voice again, which had gone a little dusky over the years (she was then in her mid-50s), similar to the vocal trajectory of Joni Mitchell, thanks to the nicotine habit. On some of her songs, everyone sang along. After helping her out (‘Keith, where can I get . . . ‘ she would ask), I thought perhaps she’d do ‘Going to the Zoo’ as one of the encore pieces.

So if you haven’t heard it before, or if you did a long, long time ago, you can still hear Julie sing ‘Going to the Zoo’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WgCiE_tiyQo). It is quite a good song if you currently are in coronavirus lockdown with children to entertain or care for. It ends with this:

Well we stayed all day and I’m gettin’ sleepy, Sittin’ in the car gettin’ sleep sleep sleepy, Home already gettin’ sleep sleep sleepy, ’Cause we have stayed all day.

Listening to her sing, as I stood backstage, I realised why I liked her, and it was because her voice reminded me of a simpler time, when I was young, when things seemed more black-and-white. “This world goes round and round, green leaves must turn to brown, what goes up must come down, It all comes back to you,” she sang out Tom Paxton’s ‘World Goes Round and Round’. “People knocking at the golden door, they got plenty but they still want more, don’t know what they’re looking for, the world goes round and round.” She has also sung Paxton’s ‘The Last Thing on My Mind’. It was Paxton who wrote ‘Going to the Zoo’. But did I get to hear her sing that zany song? Nope.

The next day, before Julie headed off on her travels (she wanted to go bungy jumping over the Shotover River in Queenstown), she confided that she did sometimes sing ‘Going to the Zoo’, but the performance was usually reserved for a much younger audience. “Keith, I’ve been singing that damn song for more years than you’ve been on this precious earth.”

She took away a few pebbles and shells we’d found on our shore and estuary ramblings, and I made her a booklet of photos from the trip. After our time together, we kept in touch.

A few years ago, she said that when she sings live, she taps into a great energy, and it was her way of praying. “Music is like breathing to me,” she declared. In one of her most recent interviews, she said she missed her youth and the energy she once had but was grateful at being able to make music and share it with others.

She was still touring, recording and performing into this year, with an album released in 2018 of her own songs, and a schedule of concerts planned for 2020. She had even teamed up Mike D’Abo from Manfred Mann to do songs they’d performed together more than half a century ago, including Bob Dylan’s ‘Fare Thee Well’ with the lines ‘So it’s fare-thee-well, my own true love, We’ll meet an-other day, an-other time’ (see this from 1967 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BsH0xPFbV0g).

She died on Sunday 22nd March, a couple of days after another 81-year old who had made a contribution in expanding the audience for a music style and making it more mainstream, Kenny Rogers, and on the weekend when the UK went into lockdown.

Julie leaves a deep legacy not just musically, but in her ideals, and how she strived to make a difference. She was both a product of her time, and ahead of her time, in wanting to make the world a better place, and being prepared to speak up, particularly for those without a voice. In a divided world, she saw no divisions, only an unrealised global consciousness, that we are all one, all children of the universe.

Keith Lyons is an award-winning writer and creative writing mentor, originally from New Zealand, who has lived in Asia for more than a dozen years. His creative non-fiction, short stories, and poetry have been published in journals, magazines and anthologies around the world, and his work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He edited and co-authored ‘Opening up Hidden Burma: journeys with – and without – author Dr Bob Perival’ (2018, Duwon Books), and is currently working on a book about finding Asia’s last island paradise, the Mergui Archipelago.

Categories
Poetry

Living in the times of Lockdown

By Moinak Dutta

Living in The Times of Lockdown

Living in the times of Lockdown

Is curiously surreal,

For spaces we, the humans leave, are claimed by others,

Like pigeons come in flocks to dance on the chowrasta,

Where before lockdown, cars stood bumper to bumper,

Blaring horns, letting out sooty smoke;

A friend from Gurugram sent me a picture of serious traffic signal violation on a thoroughfare —

A grand peacock slowly, almost leisurely walking across the road, oblivious of the traffic lights turning green;

Dolphins, showed on TV, danced their ways near the Marine Drive at Mumbai,

They looked surprisingly happy —

No fishing boats to chase them;

The sky of my city never looked so clear and blue

Like it does now,

The trees looked greener too,

And the roads, so clutter free.

What Covid19 taught us

Covid 19 outbreak has brought into fore

How in the time of distress and panic

Religion  closes its doors; and even family members become distant;

How even the dead bodies are left behind;

How Fear controls every bit of us;

And how the old ways of enjoying life in rest and repose

Had been the most perfect ways to lead our lives;

And above all, how it is that home is all that matters at the end of the day.

Quarantined

This life is good.

You and I —

Looking at each other

And heaving a sigh.

Moiank Dutta is a teacher by profession and published fiction writer and poet with two literary & romance fictions to his credit. His third fiction is going to be published soon. Many of his poems and short stories have been published in dailies, magazines, journals, ezines.

Categories
Poetry

Pidgin, Pockets & more…

Pidgin

We have no language 
in common, hence, turn
to pidgin. Pitch makeshift 
tents on half-hearted 
ground. Peg raw, jagged

adjectives, broken verbs
on stubborn clotheslines
of need to offer damp
confessions to the watery
sun of our understanding.

Some significations fall
into place like punctuations
well-meant. Others are lost
like winged seeds as they
spin towards uninviting

ground. For the rest, silence
rules; eats its way with acerbic
faith into the hesitation of 
spaces. We meet in pidgin's
transit; part without memory.




Pockets
When it comes to
chests, drawers, pockets,
I can be a nuisance.
Given one to myself
I pile an entire life in it
sans a sense of order.

Staples, clips, buttons, a
watch perhaps will jostle here
with currency notes, pencil shavings,
a chance leaf, an unfinished letter,
some candies for you, a book
I am trying to read. 

Their nature hardly matters
save they each matter to me.
In the way that sharing every
morsel of my hours with you
matters and I thoughtlessly feed you
with pieces of myself the day through.

Putting in guilt, memory, sorrow,
laughter all together, unsorted,
a mosaic of myself, a mess.
Is that why you left?



Granted


We grow up taking
too many things 
for granted - hems,
shores, rivers, knots,
words, locks, walls.
Yesterday, I
felt betrayed when
a door that had
promised to stay shut,
unwarranted, gave way.















Uncritiqued

In teeming landscapes of
punctiliously ordered signifiers,
I strive to break free of grooved
meanings to rebelliously create

my own. I knife through
assumptions, dig into inferences,
plunder synonyms, claw allusions.
But, on diet, it is futile to want

to turn words into salt-shakers
in the concrete hope of sprinkling
salvation. Some texts, perhaps,
are best swallowed, uncritiqued.

By Basudhara Roy

Pidgin

Pockets

Granted

Uncritiqued

Basudhara Roy is the author of two books, a monograph, Migrations of Hope: A Study of the Short Fiction of Three Indian American Writers (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 2019) and a collection of poems, Moon in my Teacup (Kolkata: Writer’s Workshop, 2019). She has been an alumnus of Banaras Hindu University where she was awarded the gold medal for academic excellence at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. She secured the UGC Junior Research Fellowship and has earned her doctoral degree in diaspora women’s writing from Kolhan University, Chaibasa.  Basudhara’s areas of academic interest are diaspora writing, cultural studies, gender studies and postmodern criticism. Her research articles and book reviews have widely appeared in reputed academic journals across the country and as chapters in books. As a creative writer, she has featured in an anthology, Dancing the Light: Poems from Australia and India,  and in magazines like Muse India, Shabdadguchha, Cerebration, Rupkatha, The Challenge, I-mantra, The Volcano, Gnosis, Daath Voyage, Das Literarisch, Reviews, Triveni, Setu, Hans India and on the Zee Literature Festival Blog. She is Assistant Professor of English at Karim City College, Jamshedpur, Jharkhand and can be reached at basudhara.roy@gmail.com.

Categories
Musings

Hope never dies; not even during the times of Corona

By Rituparna Mahapatra

This feels so dystopian. The world today. The television streaming clippings of people, suddenly thrown out of work and asked to leave, to go back to wherever; just leave. Isolation is the keyword, it seems. Lock yourself in your homes, if you don’t have a home somewhere; in a drain pipe, a hole, a box anywhere. Just leave they have been told. They have been let down by the cities of their dreams, the people they worked for, the world collectively. Can we do anything about it? Nothing! And we hang our heads in shame, in our living rooms.

Panic grips as I learn, in Italy the death toll has crossed ten thousand. I don’t want to know, but the WhatsApp forwards, don’t let me be. I have heard great leaders speak that they have everything under control, the fear on their faces, still visible. I don’t believe them. I look for the latest data on a live update on the virus, my finger going touching the names of the places, I had dreams of visiting.

I live in one of the most affluent cities in the world, we have been blessed with abundance. Food, water, electricity, shelter. our city is being sanitized I hear, and I feel protected. But then fear is not far behind, every time I get to know someone, who is not supposed to have stepped out of the home; is irresponsible.

The truth is, none of us is safe anymore, anywhere. Dubai, New Delhi, New York, Madrid, Rome, Paris; all of them vulnerable, and heartachingly weak in the face of this Pandemic. I try and think of something cheerful and look at a picture of our friends on my phone at the last house party.  So, we decide to meet online, the familiar faces smiling back to me from a computer screen. We laugh, chat and raise a toast. It feels like ‘almost normal’.  It will be a while till we get to hug them touch them, till then these smiling faces are good enough. I am thankful for them. This will be over soon. This surreal life that we are living in.

Our kids are attending school from their bedrooms, sometimes huddled in their beds; their identities shrunk to initials. Their beloved teachers are just faces attempting to cheer them up while teaching. They struggle to focus on solving that equation, while the pet dog lying at their feet is vying for attention. Dogs and cats are immune to the virus, I am told. You can hug them as much as you can. That for me seems to be the only silver lining.

I share pictures of my cooking with my friends, a beautiful watermelon and feta cheese salad, tossed with balsamic vinegar. I have stocked up well to cook exotic meals so that my family is not bored. I have planned our meals for days in advance, every meal promises to be a surprise, to bring a twinkle in the eye. While I bask and revel in my culinary and ‘disaster management skills’; a friend shares a picture of an old lady walking alone towards home thousands of miles away, since transport has been shut for the Pandemic. More pictures come in of people swarming, towards a place. A place that will be safe for them. Does such a place exist? What do these people know of social distancing? Social distancing is a privilege, for them.  I cringe, my stomach churns and I feel terribly uneasy. The privileges I have are the reason, I am devasted by them.

This — I am told is grief. Oh, is it?  If this is grief, then it’s good. I am relieved. My greatest fear was that one day I will be sanitized to all these happenings around me. The face of that old woman is going to haunt me. I feel guilty of being blessed with an abundance of food, of shelter, of feeling happy, after chatting with my friends. Since, when has this crept into our lives? Since when has ‘feeling happy’ become loaded with so much of heaviness and helplessness. This is becoming too much, these ramblings in my mind. These are calamities I can do nothing about. I still have to cook, sing, paint, write; do things that make me happy and keep me sane.

Suffering has always been there in this world; even before I was. Every time someone laughed, there has been at least one person somewhere in utter sadness. I grieve for all things lost, for everything that shouldn’t have happened. I have tremendous respect for the health workers, the cleaners, the researchers looking for an antidote. Each one of them, who have risked their lives for mine. And I am not going to just clap, I will do more, I promise.  While most of the things look grim; I have hope. Hope for humanity to bounce back. This is a time for great learning, at every moment. We will do our bit in our way when we are ready.

The world has shrunk, we all have come together. There is no superior nation, no superior power anymore. We all have been battered equally; we stand broken. And we will come out of it collectively, till then we have to hold on to each other. Cherish every happy occasion and shed a tear for every death, in every corner of the earth. Because that is the balance, the fulcrum on which this world will keep going. My family back home, are making bread at home to distribute to the stray dogs. They are making sure that the wages are paid to the employees. These small things; are hope personified. I am sure there are many like this amongst us. We just have to find ways. There is a way. There always is. I smile; this time without feeling guilty. I sigh and cup my face with my hands. Someone shrieks, “no don’t touch your face”. I dash towards the rest room, wash my hands, reach out for the sanitizer bottle, and say a prayer!

Rituparna Mahapatra, is writer based in Dubai. She taught English literature at Sambalpur University, Orissa and Delhi University. She worked briefly with Britannica India, and has contributed to many leading newspapers both regional and national. Currently she is editor-at-large UAE, of Kitaab.org; and teaches creative writing in English.

Categories
Stories

The Savage

By Sunil Sharma

The Common Tiger butterfly (D genutia) lured him into the deep of the scrub jungle. The orange wings with black veins; double row of white spots of a Danaus genus can be as alluring for a camera-n-backpack-laden young birdie from Mumbai, as a call of the sea for a sailor!

Marvellous!

He began clicking the cluster of the butterflies perched on dry twigs as the afternoon advanced rapidly. Like a protective dark drape over a blue canvas, a cloud had partially covered the sky; the shadows had further deepened in the heart of the wilderness.

Hours ceased afterwards!

A time-sensitive honcho from urban Mumbai, Sandeep had deliberately not worn his wristwatch. He wanted a total disconnect with time and civilisation on that ordinary Saturday that was to prove extraordinary.

Life-changing events start with ordinary beginnings and contexts.

His bearded Guru Ananda Swami once told him.

Mighty oak in a tiny seed!

As he quietly clicked the colourful spectacle of the butterflies clinging to twigs in that green patch, Sandeep — Sandy for friends due to dull hair that looked like sand — recalled, in another part of his over-active brain, the last conversation with the Guru, in his expensive ashram.

I have reached the breaking point! I am burnt-out!

The Guru, surrounded by a bevy of the female white devotees, had smiled benignly.

I want to quit the rat race! Sandy had almost screamed in the morning session.

The Guru had turned his hypnotic eyes and fastened them on Sandy’s bulging face.

Calm down! He commanded in a sonorous voice.

Sandy did.

Go and find your inner self—in the jungle.

“In the jungle?” Sandy was incredulous.

“Yes,” the Guru said. In the jungle!

“But how?” Sandy persisted.

“Follow them,” came the order.

“Whom?” Sandy was lost before starting this Paulo Coelho-type quest across the unfamiliar terrain for selfhood and meaning.

“The butterflies!” The Guru said smiling, while the white babes smiled.

Butterflies? In the Jungle? 

Sandy thought an execution warrant was being read out to him in that small audience of the troubled super-rich of the world, in that cool and aesthetically designed mud-room of the ashram.

Yes. Somebody is waiting there for you. Predicted the Guru and then moved on to another disturbed soul in a Savile Row suit.

Although the young and handsome Guru was, few months later, arrested as a suspect in the murder of a sanyasin from Colorado, USA, his words had continued to ring as the guru-mantra.

Then one rainy Sunday, he enrolled for a five-Sunday- afternoon crash course from a freelance naturalist and butterfly-aficionado for a huge sum of money. Subsequently, equipped with a camera and backpack, he started on a solo journey to discover the Other.

That Sunday, indeed, proved to be a life-altering experience for a man who had plotted revenge and mergers on the board-rooms of many corporate houses in his rapid but short career as an e-entrepreneur and head honcho of another successful start-up for a hungry Indian market.

Somewhere, as destiny would have it — his Other was waiting.

The Jungle!

It was a wrong concept!

Rohit Mistry, the naturalist, told him in his studio in south of Mumbai.

“How?” asked Sandy over coffee and sandwich.

“We think of the jungle as a kind of space that is dangerous due to the predators and lack of human laws.” Mistry had taken on the colour and sanguinity of an oriental sage, while meditating on his common topic with his favourite student.

“The truth is,” Mistry continued softly, looking at the Arabian Sea in the background, “the jungle is an independent eco-system, much better than human society and civilization.”

Their denizens do not kill, pillage, destroy, for profit.

Mistry had chuckled. “They do not drop bombs; do not create wars for selling arms or for oil. No innocent gets killed for being the Other.”

“A frightening jungle is our conception, our collective invention. We call it wilderness. It is NOT. We call it dreadful place where we can, urbanites, get lost. No, we can NOT.”

Sandy was speechless by this reversal. This was pure revelation to the MBA from Harvard.

“We have created this strange myth, this urban legend — the Jungle as a killing field full of reptiles and other predators. Fact is — we are the mercenaries marauding that sacred place created by nature!”

Mistry’s tone was low, reverential, eyes far off. A priest speaking to a disciple!

“Jungle is much better than the society!” Mistry had passed his verdict. And left Sandy bewitched.

He wanted to explore that exotic place on his own— just to validate the sanctity of this credo of a post-modern pagan.

An opportunity came his way sooner than expected.

Sandy, after a huge fight with his wife over a trifle, decided to leave home stealthily. Next morning, he slipped out early and took a rickety public bus to this remote jungle and got down at the last stop and then trekked miles inside — on a relentless search for the kind of the Mistry-Jungle.

In fact, he wanted to escape from a screaming wife and kids and colleagues, all tucked inside his brain.

The Jungle! The pathway to Truth.

It is an expedition for inner transformation!

That was the text message to Mistry sent by Sandy; composed, while perched on a boulder.

Do not go with hyper expectations! came the warning from Mistry. In fact, do not go with any expectation. Let the jungle take over.

Follow the butterfly trail— to Truth — Mistry.

That was the last. Then, Sandy had lost the signal to all civilisation.

Butterflies took him to another land; another reality of this overcrowded planet.

And to Truth as well.

In the timeless zone, with a cloudy sky, butterflies hanging together as a happy large family, he lost his way—and found the real one.

Here is the how of it:

By late afternoon, Sandy got startled by an apparition—a semi-naked ghost. A ghost that walked and talked. No, not the masked phantom of Lee Falk but a real one.

A savage!

In his short and unhappy life of 32 years, Sandy never understood folks that survived on low wages and few clothes in a mega-city that constantly thrived on hunger for more. Born into a moderately successful merchant’s family in small-town in India, Sandy had followed the same career trajectory of middle class everywhere: a passion for higher education and hard work. Academic labour gifted him with failing eyesight and a bifocal. But, undeterred, he worked consistently and proved his brightness in chosen fields. Like rest of the working India, he, too, revered money. The very sight and sound of money turned him on. He aspired for obscene salaries and managed to get them. He bought apartments in Delhi and Mumbai. A fleet of cars and army of drivers waited. Naturally, the other India of slums and low-income households was beyond him and often invited derision.

“Their Karma!” Somebody once remarked over drinks.

“Phew!” Sandy spat out. “Their sloth and wanton ways.”

So, anybody with meager salary and a tiny room as a house in a bustling shanty town somewhere up on a degraded hill in Mumbai or Delhi would qualify them as the sub-species for Sandy.

And a semi-clad thin-as-reed-man would not qualify for even that.

Savages! He had observed, while watching a National Geographic documentary on the Aborigines of Australia. The underlying contempt was withering.

A representative of the same hated species was staring at him.

“You are lost!” The man said simply. “You cannot find your way back.”

Now that was too much!

Being led by a savage.

Impossible!

Sandy looked at the creature and did not like what he saw—sunken cheeks, bushy eye brows, matted hair, flat chest and belly, and, rippling arms. He wore old shorts and sandals—the only gesture towards modernity. And carried a catapult in hands. A striking contrast to his counterpart from the city — every inch customized or branded. Perhaps, thought Sandy, the savage does not know what a Ray-Ban Aviator is!

Sandy shrugged off and went on clicking against the light that began fading quickly due to the increased cloud cover. After five minutes, he looked up and saw the ghost. The man was still there — stock still.

“Yes,” he demanded, very much a CEO. His staff resented this particular tone. It was reserved for lower species of the corporate world.

“You are lost!”

“So?”

“You are lost.”

Sandy went through a series of emotions—anger, irritation, helplessness and finally, resignation.

“What to do with this forest sub-species?” he thought.

“Come on,” said the savage. “After evening, it becomes an unsafe place for the city folks.”

Then, as if to reinforce that grim warning, thunder rolled, and clouds raced across the sky.

Sandy, never-led, understood his precarious position: “The savage is right! I am not a jungle-man or the Mowgli-boy!”

Thus, planned by the gods, began an epic journey in a darkening forest for a butterfly-seeking, western-educated corporate tzar, in a most unfamiliar territory full of brooding trees and a gurgling river nearby, while cool shadows hugged him and a chill was experienced by the city slicker, despite the expensive jungle gear worn by him.

The jungle has its own mysteries! Mistry had revealed. It is a great leveler for humans.

As Sandy quietly followed the Other, he felt strangely calm. It was a state that had evaded him for last two decades of his waking existence. Now, being led, he felt free — of his responsibilities and roles and other allied urban burdens.

“I am feeling free!” Sandy exulted.

Then, he experienced a growing rapport with the savage.

As they entered deeper, the jungle revealed its mysteries that, alone, might have frightened him but, in the company of the savage, he felt no panic.

“I am in safe hands!” Sandy thought gleefully. For the first time, I am not guiding but being guided.

The jungle pathways were twisted and dusty; some places were strewn with carpet of leaves and twigs. As the two walked on those ancient trails, one after another, in silence, the citified member of the odd pair heard clearly and distinctly, what he had heard on the plasma TV so far–chatter of monkeys; breath of wind whispering among tree-tops; the bird song mingling with the dulcet notes of a river running nearby, in deep gloom, and the voice of the old jungle in that solitude!

“It is a magical world out here!” Sandy thought.

Birds of various hues were coming to roost. Then the savage shot a fowl with his catapult. After offering a silent prayer, kept it in an old bag strapped to his thin waist — a waist that shot a pang of envy in Sandy right from the beginning of the relationship.

“Why prayers?” He asked.

The man smiled. “Our way. We offer prayers to the departed soul. We never kill for the sake of killing. Just to meet our basic needs.”

Sandy was shaken to the core.

A fresh draft of wind shook the trees and made the leaves fly off, and, kissed their faces with cold hands. Its purity was oxygenating. Sandy felt a strange surge — kind of electrifying energy.

It was, in fact, another world.

“You live here?” Sandy asked and then realized his foolishness.

The savage smiled. “Yes. My home.”

“How many generations?” Sandy asked, as if interviewing him for an entry-level job.

“Many.”

“You do not remember?”

The savage smiled. “Can you give me the name of your great-great grandpa?”

Sandy, of course, could not. He could not even recall the name of his dad and grand dad during stressful situations!

“We are the children of the forest!” The savage declared. “We are the inheritors of the spirit of the jungle.”

“Spirit?” Sandy, the skeptic, asked.

“Yes. The spirit.”

“Can you show me that?” Sandy was the playful civilized man again, teasing the tribal.

“Yes.”

“How?”

“Come on.”

And they both entered the mysterious!

In the heart of the wilderness, stood a cluster of seven huts made of straws and mud. They were bare except for a few baskets, pitchers and a bare minimum of utensils. The savage was greeted with smiles by the rest of the “village” as he called it. The big fowl was handed over to the elders. Two more men had brought fowls and birds for the collective feast.
“We share all things,” said the savage. “It is like a big family.”

 Sandy nodded. Co-operation for him was, so far, a biz buzz only. Here, real-time, it was happening as a daily practice. The women started skinning the birds and some began open-air fires for cooking the meat. The naked kids gamboled in the clearing, while the male elders of the village sat in a circle and chatted.

“Open-air party!” thought Sandy.

“Come!” said the savage as gloom gathered around the huts overlooked by a wooded hill and surrounded by trees of varied sizes.

“Where?” asked the city slicker undergoing a culture shock of different kind.

“To our sacred grove,” said the savage, in the role of a teacher.

“Okay,” agreed the disciple.

The sacred grove!

It was nothing spectacular or Hollywoodian in scale or visual effect. A tiny shrine—crude and humble with a stone tablet smeared with daubs of orange and red—under a tall banyan tree. All around were trees and shrubs. A few meters away sang the river, now sparkling under a full moon.

That was all.

The savage bowed down to the ancient tablet –“our goddess”– in an act of deep reverence and chanted some incantation in a dialect beyond Sandy. As the shadows thickened, and the moon climbed further in a sky now bereft of clouds, a hush fell over that patch, Sandy started feeling sudden but subtle changes inside. Cut off from civilization, in the midst of nowhere, he lost bearings of place and time. The brooding jungle and the solitude never experienced earlier caused a hypotonic spell on his citified imagination. He started retreating to a different dimension. The savage finished his mumbo-jumbo and then waved a hand before sandy’s brown eyes fitted with blue lenses.

And everything altered.

Looking at the surroundings, Sandy felt a change happening within at a breakneck speed. Suddenly, he was hurtling down a tunnel of time — only to emerge a most fantastic scene before his reverential eyes:

In the moon-lit night, he saw, along with an ancient tribe of worshippers, spirits of the trees –dryads, a part of his subconscious rooted in anglicised education recalled, dancing merrily on the grass, while a nymph-like goddess came out of the sparkling river and joined them in this divine play. Trees bent down to kiss her feet and spirits squealed at the sight of the goddess willing to be their companion on earth. Every blade and bough emitted a strange fragrance that overwhelmed Sandy’s senses completely and left him intoxicated.

He was a mute witness to the tribals — mostly elders led by a stern priest — offering flowers and leaves to the goddess and singing hymns in her praise. They then went into frenzy and began swaying wildly, as if possessed. They were whirling around in that scented area, eyes crazed, hair swirling, hands raised in supplication. Sandy clearly saw them communing with the goddess. Everywhere he felt the presence of the sacred. That piece of the jungle had become a vast stage, an arena, for the gods and goddess to make their appearance and intermingle with the adepts and the chosen. The intensity of the spectacle was so intense that he, Sandy of the New Millennium, rational and goal-driven, felt his veins would burst.

Then the vision changed.

He saw, in that heightened state, a river dying a slow death due to poison and trees being cut down by the brute machines. The entire pantheon slowly disappeared, and the goddess died gasping for breath. Afterwards, rains, mudslides and famine followed.

Then, darkness returned.

Badly shaken, Sandy, much chastised and sober, guided by the savage, returned to the tiny village. There they all drank the rice wine and ate the meat roasted on the open fire. The savages then sang a song and danced in a group — for their city guest. The camaraderie was great. He enjoyed their openness, trusting nature and hospitality.

In that closeness, despite a sharp contrast in backgrounds, Sandy found a family.

Family!

Decades ago, it meant growing up in a joint family for Sandeep, in a small north Indian town, off Delhi-Amritsar highway. Three floors of a big house, at least 100 years old. Grandpa, grandma, uncles, aunts, cousins, siblings, guests. A crowded place with joint kitchen. His ma and other aunts took turns to cook meals for a large family. They were always busy. A big shop in the main market kept the family together, despite differences and fights. But it stayed on, like other families.

In the 1990s liberal India, Sandeep Gupta found a new direction and mantra. He earned degrees and combined education with ancestral knowledge to begin ventures in the virtual world for a hungry middle class that had, like Sandeep, changed as well. Feeling restricted in that old township and starved of space in the joint family — they owned only two rooms in the property and four siblings adjusted with mother and father for years — the brilliant Sandeep left the town — and the tearful family — forever, never to look back.

As he rose up the ladder, the contact with family shrunk down to few e-mails, SMSes and occasional calls to ailing parents. His siblings were not that successful, and Sandeep thought they were resentful of his hard-earned success and money and status.

“Jealousy!” His wife would say. For the siblings and parents and the rest of the joint family—it was betrayal, pure and simple!

“I have every right to be happy! To lead my own life! To take my own decisions!” Sandeep would argue, fortified with this new Me-only philosophy, a new cardinal principle of faith for entrepreneurs like him, in a globalised India. Naturally, the two — Sandeep and his family –drifted apart.

“I am on my own,” he declared. “Family means feuds!”

So, he junked them.

While watching the savages dance in harmony, each timing their steps with the other in perfect sync, bodies bending forward and then resuming an erect position, Sandeep, deep down, remembered his aged father and a very frail and ill mother. They had suffered huge losses due to the competition posed by the e-retail and were surviving somehow in that old place and because of the joint kitchen. But Sandeep had hardly bothered about them.

I will call up Ma first thing in the morning! He resolved.

After a long dance, the savage came back to the spot where Sandy was sitting.

“How do you feel?” The forest dweller asked, eyes shining.

Sandy looked into those eyes and found himself reflected as the Other.

“You are my brother!” Sandy blurted.

The savage smiled and held his guest’s hands in warm clasp. “We all are connected.”

“What is your name?” Sandy asked, hands linked.

“Ananta.”

“What does that mean?”

“The Eternal One!”

“Oh!” Sandy said.

“One of its meanings,” Ananta replied.

“You went to school?” Sandy blurted out but regretted instantly.

“The jungle is my only school. Besides, there are no schools for the poor!”

Sandy felt the sadness of the tone.

“You are comfortable?”

“Yes.” Sandy said, “Very relaxed.”

“Does the jungle look dangerous?”

“Not at all now. The one I left behind…well, compared with that, this looks very comfortable.”

Sandy was telling the truth.

“You can sleep here under the stars?” Ananta asked softly.

“Will there be any snakes?”

“No.”

Who was the savage? His mind was debating. Then the wind stirred in the valley and rose.

He felt lulled by the cool wind fanning his face — the man from the mega city and slipped into soundless sleep, after years, without taking any drugs or alcohol…

When he woke up, next morning, there was no camp, no village, no hamlet to be seen around. He was sleeping on the sand, a few feet from the river that was gurgling lazily, as a baby sun peeped out from a bank of clouds.

Sunil Sharma, an academic administrator and author-critic-poet–freelance journalist, is from suburban Mumbai, India. He has published 22 books so far, some solo and some joint, on prose, poetry and criticism. He edits the monthly, bilingual Setu: http://www.setumag.com/p/setu-home.html
For more details of publications, please visit the link below:
http://www.drsunilsharma.blogspot.in/

Categories
Essay

Pandemic and Poetry: How Writers in Pakistan react to COVID-19

By Dr Aftab Husain

There is a proverb in Persian and Urdu that could be roughly translated thus — ‘A collective death has an air of festivity’. The great Urdu poet, Ghalib, however, would have not subscribed to this notion as was made evident from an episode in his personal life. Once afflicted by his financial and existential miseries, he had foretold his own death the following year. There broke out in the given year an epidemic that claimed many lives in the city, but luckily our poet survived. When asked later about his prognostication, Ghalib replied with a tinge of humour that his forecast had been accurate, but it would have degraded him to die a common death, therefore, he held himself back.

This could be seen as a hyper-individualistic thought process of a genius poet which was ultimately reflected in his poetry. But common human beings think differently. The line of wisdom that the proverb at the starting of this essay conveys does not in any way celebrate death, but our collective, gregarious nature. It is a strange fact of human existence that a catastrophe unites people more than a festivity.

World literature, as many of us know, is replete with the examples of writing inspired by or dealing with different catastrophes; draught, floods, different types of epidemic: plague, cholera, influenza etc. The Plague by Albert Camus (French), Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (Spanish) and Blindness by José Saramago (Portuguese) – incidentally all three written by Nobel laureates – immediately come to mind.  

Rabindranath Tagore’s long, descriptive poem: ‘Puratan Bhritya’ (Old servant) – ‘Keshta, old manservant of mine’, stemmed from smallpox.  In a few short stories by Premchand, the founding father of Urdu and Hindi fiction there appears pestilence – albeit as subtext. In ‘Idgah’ (mosque), the child protagonist lost his father to cholera. Similarly, in ‘Doodh Ka Daam’ (price of milk), one character dies of plague. Famous Urdu and English fiction writer Ahmad Ali who is known to the Urdu world as one of the contributors to Angaaree (The Burning Coals) an anthology of mainly short stories that had stirred the somewhat stagnant waters of the then Urdu literature, ventured into this area with his maiden novel in English. Ahmad Ali’s novel, Twilight in Delhi, offers a bleak and pathetic picture of the city in the wake of an epidemic. ‘How deadly this fever is. Everyone is dying of it. The hospitals are gay and bright. But sorry is men’s plight’.

Rebati, a well-known short story by Fakir Mohan Senapati, one of the pioneers of modern Odia literature depicts a village hit by a cholera epidemic. The list is endless, but so far Urdu literature is concerned, ‘Quarantine’, a poignant short story by Rajinder Singh Bedi presents a detailed and exclusive description of the life affected by plague and also of quarantine as the title of the story also indicates.

Human beings in the long span of their history have been going through many different epidemics, but the present one is unique in that it has not only affected different strata of society, it has also had a global outreach. With bated breath, we watch the movement of this pandemic that has paralysed social life. Nevertheless, health-care workers, scientists, politicians, policy makers, psychiatrists, media persons and many other groups are actively working to finding a solution to the problem or at least curb its growth.

People from art and literature too are responding to the disease in different ways. Pakistani writers, especially poets, have profusely responded to the situation.

One interesting fact that one notices is in the word ‘corona’, that is, we know, a noun but when spelt out in Urdu-Hindi it makes a full-fledged meaningful phrase: ‘Don’t do.’ Resultantly, one observes a lot of versifications exploiting this pun – albeit major and established poets have shunned this facile jugglery. Barring this word play, poets who have chosen to write in a lighter vein seemingly have set their comic spirit to work as a defence mechanism to make the grave situation a little less intimidating. For example, a poem entitled as ‘Thanks’ by a senior poet Tahir Sherazi argues that this compulsory restriction that confines us to our home places might provide us an opportunity to repair our broken relationships with our family members. The poems ends on a jubilant note on acquiring the newly-gained leisure in this way: ‘My wife will make a cup of tea for me and I will write poems on roses, lamps, on the earth and the heaven’. Well, the male poet is scheming of enjoying this free time at his will while his spouse will be doomed to carry on with her routine domestic chores. This aspect does make this otherwise light poem somewhat pathetic.

Poets with a religious sensibility see this development as sort divine wrath and put forward their sentiments either in direct prayers or by employing religious terminology. ‘A Dialogue with God in the Days of Epidemic’ by Najma Mansoor, and ‘In the Days of Epidemic’ by Safia Hayat, are both of this vein. But, in major and significant poets you find no direct recourse to divine powers or holy personages, but only a thin, veiled religious consciousness.

‘God Smiles in Their Eyes’, a poem by Ali Muhammad Farshi, a senior poet, pays tribute to the life-saving endeavours of a nurse who had wrenched back a bride from the clutches of death. Quite pertinently, the poet invokes figures of Mary and Christ, the messiah, and despite having no apparent reference to corona the poem provides a penetrating presentation of the present state of affairs. ‘God, Epidemic and Human Beings’ by Jameelur Rahman is also a poem sprinkled with religious diction, but its overall philosophical tone saves the poem from becoming mere-lamentation of a pious soul caught in an unbearable suffering.

However, Maqsood Wafa altogether rejects the role of religion in such a dreadful disease as he puts it in the closing lines of his poem, ‘The Captive Days’: “I will listen to the Prime Minister’s speech/And I won’t be able to make the people of this holy land understand/that when a virus attacks a human being/It doesn’t ask the name of his god”.  Almost similar is the tone in Saqib Nadeem’s poem: “We Don’t Accept (The Poem of A Petty Sentimentality)” where the poet lashes at the shallow and hypocritical religious community. “After every prayer we embrace and congratulate each other on being alive and we trade in kisses, (but) we don’t hear screams of virus in our kisses”.  

Then, there is a group that believes that one can with the power of love conquer this monster. ‘An Innocent Poem’ by Parveen Tahir speaks about the wishes of its female protagonist – a lover – who kisses her lover and dines with him in the naive expectation that the disease will at least spare those who are in love. Seemab Zafar’s ‘One Erects Love with the Bricks of Affliction’ does not offer such optimism but presents a desolate scenario – within and without. ‘On Death Bed’ by Fatima Mehru juxtaposes among the triad of love, disease and death. It is soulful poem that vacillates between life affirming spirit of love and that of despair.  Some poems in this category remind you Márquez’s Love in the Times of Cholera – at least title of the novel which is quite a popular book. Khumar Meerzada’s two short and impressive poems ‘Love in the Days of Epidemic’ and ‘Love and Epidemic’ show how love act in front of such a fatal malady.  Iftekhar Bukhari’s ‘We Descends from One Father’ does not lose touch to the ground reality, yet it rises up to the lofty human bonds. “We will not shake hands/This is time that we united our heart….Without urgent needs we will not leave our house/In order that roads, fields and gardens are again full of life…./If needed, we will go and die in a silent corner/So that the earth might echo with songs, even after our departure.” A powerful poem, indeed!   

Arshad Latif took a different, cynial and somewhat callous stance towards the given grave situation. “We couldn’t control our inhuman impulses/And our negative thoughts took us far away from the life itself…We, you and some others proved a total failure…./Embrace death willingly so that souls of us, yours and some others could bequeath peace”. (‘The World Wants A Cure’).

Whereas Salmat Sarwat’s ‘Quarantine No 1’ portrays the ennui spawned by an ever-spreading leisure and the resultant disinclination to write further, Gulnaz Kausar’s ‘Precaution’ is composed in the poet’s typically soft and feminine style. Her diction and her treatment leave, despite the morbid subject of the poem, a soothing effect on the reader. 

At least two other poems: ‘Quarantine’ by Irfan Sadiq and ‘Seventh Day in the Quarantine’ by Omer Aziz, take not only the term of quarantine in their titles, but they revolve around this trope.  Aziz, a doctor by profession, has quite effectively captured the physical affliction and mental agony of a patient put in quarantine.

Alongside such poems, there is a wide circulation of individual ghazal couplets: the two liners that quite succinctly sum up the general mood about the epidemic. Most of these small pieces, for their overflowing sentimentality or sheer propaganda do not have much appeal. Yet, a few of them not only hit the bull’s eye, but they do not veer away from the aesthetic requirement of a piece of literature.

Afsaos, Ye Wabaa Ke DinoN  Ki MohabbateN

Ik Doosre Se Haath Milaane Se Bhi Gaye

(Sajjad Baloch)

Alas, these love affairs in the days of epidemic!

Even shaking hands with each other is rendered hard

*

Har Taraf Aisii Khamoshii Hay Ki Sar Ghoomta Hay

Log Pahre MeN HaiN Aur GalioN Men Dar Ghoomta Hay

(Seemab Zafar)

A terrible hush rules all over and makes you feel giddy

Human being caught in the custody

While a certain fearfulness prowls in the streets

*

Ajeeb Dard Hay Jis Kii Dawaa Hay Tanhaaii

Baqaa e Shahr Hay Ab Shahr Ke Ujadne MeN

(Mahmood Shaam)

What a weird malady is it whose cure lies in solitude!

Now the survival of the city is in its depopulation.

Thus, we see that an overwhelming response to the pandemic came from our poets. As for prose, though in general there are a plethora of pieces written on the subject, that is,  journalistic writing, but quite rarely one comes across relevant fiction, fictional narrative or imaginative prose. Justifying this comparative absence fiction writer M Hameed Shahid says: “Poetry might be composed in reaction to a happening, for fiction that is not enough. Fiction needs something more to build up its aesthetics,” he adds. Well, our writers writing on the communal riots in the wake of the Partition of India in 1947 did produce literature in reaction to these events, though such literature was, to be sure, not created while the riots were still taking place.  M. Hameed Shahid is therefore in favour of waiting and seeing and letting his experience take a mature form, so he stayed away from offering something half-backed in fiction. Nevertheless, he has come forward with a non-fictional narrative: ‘Epidemic Days, Closed Door & Deserted Street’ – a sort of chronicle-narrative and despite its excessive self‐referentiality, the write up is interesting in the sense that it, at least, introduces us to the disquiet and anxieties of a writer finding himself in the midst of a prison-like claustrophobic confinement.  

Meanwhile, another fiction writer who has given a clarion call to his colleagues and urged them use their pens in dispelling the gloomy atmosphere created by the disease is Amjad Tuhfail. He was, however, snubbed by a senior short story writer declaring that any such move was to yield nothing but slogan-mongering that jump on the bandwagon could bring out only ‘faction’ and in no way any genuine fiction. A Lahore based short story writer, Tufail, did not take this warning seriously and immediately posted a three-page short story in a social-media outlet. Jabir Ali Syed had once called Shamsur Rahman Faruqi known as the  “the impetuous critic”. The gentleman story writer might be no match for Faruqi, but he shares, at least, this quality with his senior contemporary.

As a saving grace to this discouraging deficiency in prose, comes an English write-up, “Something’s not right with the world”, from Farah Zia. The small item that the writer prefers to call “a mood piece” appears like a free stroke by some accomplished painter: laconic, telling and powerful. “It is like waking up every day into a dream: in a place where life imitates fiction” thus begins the write up. Written with profound concern, yet at the same time, with a cold objectivity, it makes a serene and soulful reading. No wonder, the piece was quickly rendered into Urdu and published, but one wonders if such a deeply-felt prose could be translated without losing much of its essential charm and pathos.

Closing the deliberations one can say that each piece that is being written in the name of literature cannot be, quite naturally, up to the literary mark – let alone to be remembered by posterity. Most of these writings fall into the category of pièce d’occasion. But such pieces, occasioned by certain events sometimes transcend the given situation and live on, beyond the time of their creation. Some of the given stuff has remarkable literary value and therefore it might survive longer; the other ones might not be fortune enough, but the fact remains that they too bear a witness to a momentous phenomenon in human history and have transcribed these times on the climate of our minds.

Aftab Husain (Pakistan/Austria) is an eminent name in modern Ghazal poetry from South Asia. In addition to Urdu, he writes in English both poems and literary essays and translates from German to Urdu and vice versa. He earned his doctorate in comparative literature from Vienna University where he teaches South Asian Literature and Culture. He has four collections of poetry and three of books of translations – from German into Urdu – to his credit. He was a fellow of Heinrich-Böll-Haus, Germany as well as the ‘Writer of Exile’ of Vienna City. His poems have been translated into many languages. He is a member of the Austrian PEN and co-edits a bilingual magazine – Words & Worlds –  for migrant literature.

Categories
Poetry

Thread of Life

By Eduard Schmidt-Zorner

I tie the Ariadne’s thread
into my wide-meshed cardial net,
where points of view dissolve
and deep thoughts evolve.

Lead him past the rubble heaps
where longing grows
and stockpiled
are forgotten things.

Bind him where the swallows fly
and fix him near heaven’s dome
where clouds rush by
and seagulls are at home.

Eduard Schmidt-Zorner is a translator and writer of poetry, haibun, haiku and short stories.He writes in four languages: English, French, Spanish and German and holds workshops on Japanese and Chinese style poetry and prose.

Member of four writer groups in Ireland and lives in County Kerry, Ireland, for more than 25 years and is a proud Irish citizen, born in Germany.

Published in 76 anthologies, literary journals and broadsheets in USA, UK, Ireland, Japan, Sweden, Italy, Bangladesh, India, France, Mauritius and Canada. Writes also under his pen name: Eadbhard McGowan

Categories
Essay

Countdown to Lockdown: Fear and Loathing in the Trolley Race at the End of the World

Keith Lyons from Christchurch discovers that the big world seems very small when it comes to stockpiling for the coronavirus.

If I had to choose a place to be to sit out the coronavirus pandemic sweeping over the globe, there are probably few places better than the South Island of New Zealand. A significant number of the world’s super-rich have invested in the Southern Hemisphere nation, some even buying residency through a controversial and secretive ‘Investor Plus’ scheme. Tech startup incubator for Reddit, Dropbox and Airbnb, Sam Altman, Pay Pal’s Peter Thiel, and the co-founder of LinkedIn Reid Hoffman are among those who have invested, buying secluded boltholes and luxury bunkers. One US company has constructed more than three dozen doomsday bunkers in New Zealand. Several of my friends have worked for ‘high net worth individuals’ as staff at remote lodges and on luxury super-yachts.

Kim Dotcom, of Megaupload, is among those who have decided to call New Zealand home. I call New Zealand home because I was born here. And now I’ve returned ‘home’ after more than a decade living in China and spending the last few years in South East Asia.

In February, this year, my route back from India via Myanmar took me through Phuket airport where a taxi driver had already been infected with the coronavirus. Transiting Kuala Lumpur’s KLIA2, after an overnight in Denpasar International Airport in Bali, I discovered no tests had been made to determine if anyone had the virus. Then a short stopover in Melbourne, Australia, where there seemed to be no additional measures to combat the spread of the corona virus. Even on arriving in my hometown Christchurch, there were no temperature checks or questioning to see if I had come from China, Italy or South Korea. In mid-February, the most stringent measures encountered were in Central Phuket Festival mall, where the handful of customers going from one half of the normally teeming mall to the other side were stopped for a temperature check.

If 9/11 meant greater security with screening for knives, box-cutters, and nail files, and having to take out water bottles, mobile phones and laptops, almost two decades on, we are now adding to the security screening with thermal cameras and the symbol of 2020: thermometer guns. After the masked official at the Phuket mall held his gun to my forehead, satisfied that I didn’t have a raised temperature indicating fever, he turned it around so I could see the digital reading: 36.8 C. Now, I am not expert on human health, so assumed it was not too hot and not too cold, as I couldn’t make out if the official was smiling or grimacing behind his mask. At least they aren’t taking the readings the old-fashioned way, rectally.

One of the things about the coronavirus is that is it invisible and faceless. Like an imaginary menace. Its presence is only made more tangible and real when we see on TV the patients in ICU units, doctors and nurses in masks and glove hurrying around with beeping ventilators and tubes, maps showing the spread of the new virus which threatens like a hurricane.

The other thing about the coronavirus is the speed at which it moves, spreads, and intensifies. When I travelled back from Asia to Australasia, coronavirus was primarily a Chinese problem, with some possible spread to Italy. But as February turned into March, it became more apparent that this Wuhan wet market virus was going global big time.

I guess we should have all been ready for something like this to happen. It was corona virus — COVID19 — there was bound to be a pandemic which would sweep the world, infecting millions and killing many. After all, such an event has been predicted by everyone from Nostradamus and Bill Gates to author Dean Koontz (see conspiracy theories) and The Simpsons. There are even some among us who believe one episode of The Simpsons foretold the self-isolation of Tom Hanks.

There are also those among us who having known something like this was going to happen have made preparations for their survival. This is now an ‘I told you so’ occasion for the smug ‘preppers’ who feel vindicated having lined their shelters with emergency rations, first aid kits and firearms, though this coronavirus thing is turning out to be mild compared to the much-anticipated zombie apocalypse scenario. Instead, it seems the ‘always carry’ list for those fighting the hidden enemy includes wet wipes, hand sanitiser, and N95 masks. The US company Preppi at one stage marketed a special US$10,000 prep bag which included gold bars for bartering.

My hometown, Christchurch, has experienced several traumatic events this last decade. A large earthquake in mid-2010 followed by a more devastating quake in early 2011 damaged nearly 100,000 buildings, half the city’s roads, and killed 185. A year ago, a white supremacist gunman shot dead 51 people at two city mosques. New Zealand is geologically young, and prone to natural disasters including earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, so most homes have emergency kits with food and water to last at least three days.

However, the prospect of an infectious pandemic with a lengthy lockdown period has taken most citizens by surprise. When on the second-to-last day of February news broke of the first case of coronavirus in New Zealand, brought by a resident returning from Iran, I was in my local supermarket a few hours after the announcement. There was no flour available, the shelves of the 1.5kg bags and 5kg bags were empty. It was not just the ordinary white flour, it was high-grade flour too, along with self-rising flour and wholemeal flour. On the next aisle of the Countdown supermarket, a Thai woman was posing for a photograph in front of shelves half empty of rice. I mentioned my observations later to friends and family, wondering if there was a shortage or some other reason.

A few days later there was news of a second case, this time arriving from Italy. But even though this virus had arrived on our shores, it seemed like its impact would be insignificant, as it was not spreading, and those returning to New Zealand had mild symptoms, not unlike a cold you pick up during a long haul flight. There were reports that some supermarkets have been swamped by customers buying toilet paper, hand sanitiser and tinned food.

Ten days later, the news was full of events happening far, far away in Italy, Iran and South Korea. The coronavirus had spread to more than 100 countries, and infected more than 100,000 — a few days earlier the World Health Organisation declared it an official pandemic. In New Zealand, the sixth case of the virus is confirmed. This did not deter my parents, who did their regular Saturday morning shopping at their usual supermarket. “Yes, it was quite busy, busier than normal,” my father noted.

During our Sunday dinner, I casually mentioned that maybe this was the last weekend that we would have the freedom to do things as normal, and perhaps from now on, it might be best if I went and did the shopping instead. My parents looked at me as if I have overstepped the line between parent and child. Over-reacting again, they are probably thinking.

An international cricket match between New Zealand and Australia was played in an empty stadium, and then the rest of the tour called off. Cancelled too was the memorial service for the mosque attacks. I visited the neighbours of my parents, bringing them a date and walnut cake I had especially made according to a detailed Iraqi recipe. My visit interrupted an interview with a documentary crew from BBC about their son Hussein who was shot dead trying to stop the gunman.

I felt like I am moving between worlds, from the warmth of the kitchen to the coldness of a massacre, and then outside, there was something sinister and foreboding which was looming bigger than kindness, bigger than tragedy, an acute existential crisis that was unknown in its quantity and impact.

In the following week, I set about sourcing various things from around town, and stocking up on supplies. I got some seeds to plant for autumn and winter harvest. I visited two Indian grocery shops to procure green cardamom seeds, almonds, ready-made chapatis, MTR ready-to-eat meals and dosa flour mix. I loaded the boot and back seat of my parent’s Toyota Ractis until its suspension springs almost snap from 450kg of wooden pellets for their fire. With my mother we did one big shop, making sure we got her favourite brands and the foods preferred by my father who is recuperating from an operation for bowel cancer.

During my daily shopping visits, I noticed that this wasn’t the normal shopping experience anymore. I did not witness any of the stockpiling in the early days of the crisis, though at a store I did overhear a staff member tell his colleague, “We need to bring out the remaining fruit stock we have out back, as it is all selling fast. I am not sure why.”

In early March, there was already a run on particular items, most noticeably and perhaps misguidedly, folks were stocking up on toilet paper. I am not sure the rationale behind this, somehow extrapolating that toilet paper might not be available in the future. It seems many people had the fear reaction triggered, and it was compounded by seeing supermarket shelves already half empty of toilet rolls. Toilet paper is non-perishable and will all eventually be used, so it is not an unnecessary purchase. It also is bulky and takes up space, so its absence in supermarket shelves signals to us ‘shortage’, while having it stocked up at home fulfils some primitive need to be prepared and ready, and also signals that we are smart shoppers, having ample supplies of large 16-roll 4-ply toilet paper, what a bargain and an easy way to relieve worries of not being prepared for the impending doom.

There is a meme doing the rounds with a kid asking his mother, “What is the corona virus?” with the parent replying, “Shut up and eat your dinner” with a picture of a bowl serving a roll of toilet paper. The panic buying of toilet paper was a reaction to the mixed messages about the possible severity of the coronavirus, something of an emotional pacifying purchase to gain control over our hygiene. In other countries where a bidet, bum gun or old-fashioned scoop and water pail is used, there must have been some eye-rolling when stories emerged of Westerners stockpiling toilet paper, price gouging and even scuffles in aisles to secure the rolls of toilet paper.

The government was quick to reinforce the message that was enough to go around, and that essentials would be available. That seemed like the sensible approach. And it was an appeal to people’s sense of community and togetherness in fighting the virus spread. But in times like these, a different mindset kicks in. One of my longtime friends showed me a photo of his partner in the supermarket. After finding the shelves stripped bare of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, they found a whole carton of sanitiser behind other items on another aisle, and much to the shame of my friend, his partner (from South America) loaded the carton into their shopping trolley, later posting on social media of her cache.

That shared image, along with the footage of empty shelves and shopping trolleys piled high with supplies reinforce the panic buying mentality across the world. In Hong Kong, thieves held up a supermarket to steal a delivery of toilet paper. In Australia, a newspaper printed eight extra pages for use as emergency toilet paper in case supplies run out. Now in many supermarkets, there is a limit of two items for these symbolic products along with other essentials, with security guards and supermarket staff patrolling aisles and scrutinising shopping carts.

I noticed during my pre-lockdown shopping excursions quite a range of responses by fellow shoppers. Many were doing big shops, marking off items on a checklist. Some were clearly in unfamiliar territory or were struggling to decipher the list given to them by their partners or friends. “Is tomato puree the same as tomato puree?” one man asked me rather than call his wife again to clarify the differences. In the aisles, it was interesting to observe the interactions of couples, with usually one being ultra-cautious and thorough, while the other (usually a male) being more carefree and unperturbed. “Shouldn’t we get one just in case?” I heard a woman still in her airline uniform ask her husband, who was displaying the typical New Zealand ‘no worries’ attitude. “No, she’ll be right. We can always get it later.”

As well as tension between shoppers, there was also a new dynamic I noticed. Individuals or families were largely in their own bubbles, increasingly aware of the need to stay clear of others who might be contagious. But shoppers were also aware of the goods others had purchased, peering into nearby trolleys, noting what products others were stocking up on, or what items they had secured the last of. On a few occasions, my eyes met others after a mutual trolley check out, and I made a mental note to get a particular item, or even scoffed at other’s purchases.

As well as the hoarding of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, it was the quick sell-out of perishable items which suggested widespread fear of missing out. Bread and milk were coveted items, along with eggs, meat and fresh vegetables.

However, it was the stockpiling of non-perishable items which contributed to the overloaded shopping carts and baskets, and perhaps revealed most about our globalised connected world. Despite the news being full of footage from northern Italy about the horrors of the virus, in New Zealand and Australia, and other countries, shoppers opted for Italian food. Pasta, pasta sauces, tinned tomatoes, risotto rice and olive oil quickly disappear from shelves. On one supermarket run, I found only a few packets of flat lasagna, just the wholemeal and wheat-free varieties, and the following day, nothing except a couple of damaged packets of cannelloni, the pasta meal that requires the most preparation.

But it was not just Italian food we sought for comfort in our emergency supplies and lockdown rations. While most of the fresh produce is still grown locally, increasingly more things are being imported from Asia, in particular China, along with Vietnam and Thailand. Even homegrown brands are sourced from overseas or made of ingredients from as far away as Chile, the USA, Ecuador or Spain. Closely reading the fine print on a bag of mashed potatoes reveals it was made in Belgium, the tuna was canned in Bangkok, while the frozen strawberries hail from Peru. In the dry noodle section, I have to choose between Mamee from Malaysia or Yum Yum out of Thailand. It is a small world after all.

As I shop locally but collect items from around the world, I wonder if it is being sensible or selfish. I wonder about those that can’t afford to stock up, who survive week to week.

As the coronavirus morphed from a foreign plague to a resident contagion, stores imposed limits on some items, increased cleaning and hygiene, and tried tactics to ease consumer’s concerns. My local Countdown placed a pallet of toilet paper just inside the entrance to signal that there was plenty of stock available. Health authorities reinforced the key message that soap and hot water for a 20-second hand wash was better than sanitizer. I started to get emails, some obvious ‘cut and paste’ jobs, from every business about how they were protecting their staff and customers.

Around this time, there was news of a case in Christchurch. The next day, the government announces it was closing its border, to all but citizens and permanent residents. On the following Saturday, 21st March, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on a four-level alert system, raising it to Level 2, then a couple of days later raising it to Level 3 and outlining the move to its highest level 48 hours later. Businesses and schools have been closed, everyone had to stay at home, the only reason to venture outside was to shop at supermarkets for essentials, visit a pharmacy, or doctor. It was a lockdown, though people could go out to exercise as long as they did it in their neighbourhood and did not mix with others.

This pandemic quickly changed the boundaries and borders.

It spread. New hotspots light up the world map.

My own personal geography changed too. Other than my local supermarket, less than a 15 -minute-walk, I also factored into my shopping a fresh vegetable market nearby, and a branch store bakery offering bread, milk, savouries and sweets. I figured that this trio of shops within walking distance could be relied upon for my future shopping, along with the pharmacy.

When I first visited the bakery, it was business as usual, and I was rather surprised to see the staff not wearing any additional protective masks or gloves. Three days later, it was a completely different story. I had to wait outside to be called in. There was a station set up with hand sanitizer and blue gloves to be worn (optional) and customers were reminded to keep their distance from others. At the checkout, items had to be placed on the counter, and the customer was asked to step back behind a line so the clerk could price the purchases. The choreography meant the shop assistant would step back and the customer then approached the counter, to pay by card (no cash was accepted), pack their own bags, and then exit, allowing the next person in the queue to go through the routine. On returning home, I described the new shopping behaviour to my parents, who seemed amused at all the fuss. I was half expecting them to say it was all ‘health and safety gone mad’.

The next day I checked Facebook for the store hours and there was a notice that the outlet was now closed to the public. The greengrocer who had reduced hours to ensure more time for restocking also posted a similar notice, not being able to ensure a safe space, and also deemed by the government to be non-essential.

Yesterday I braved the cold winds and ventured out to Countdown (a New Zealand supermarket). Having to wait outside in a long queue, spaced 2m apart, operating on a one-out/one-in rule that meant when I finally got in and cleaned my basket handles, most aisles only had one or two shoppers nervously avoiding each other, and imploring with dagger eyes ‘keep your distance, buddy’. In the chilled food section, I had a moment when I thought I might sneeze, and I worried that if I did, security guards would bundle me up into a bag to be dispatched the hospital. On my list of items to buy was black pepper, but I skipped that, fearing that a whiff of pepper might induce a sneezing fit.

Back home, gloves discarded, hands washed, items sprayed, I pondered the craziness of it all as I savoured my cup of hot miso soup from Japan. All of my shopping could be in vain if I get the virus. One of the first symptoms noted by doctors in Europe is that those with the coronavirus lose their sense of smell and taste.

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, with a background in psychology and social sciences. He has been published in newspapers, magazines, websites and journals around the world, and his work was nominated for the Pushcart prize. 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).