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Musings

What do Rishi Sunak, Freddy Mercury& Mississippi Masala have in Common?

By Farouk Gulsara

Rishi Sunak. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Rishi Sunak’s appointment to 10 Downing Street has made people aware of the significant presence of Indians in the African Continent. Indian-African cultural and trade exchanges had been ongoing as early as the 7th century BC. Africans are also mentioned to have significantly influenced India’s history of kingdoms, conquests and wars.

The second wave of Indian migration to Africa happened mainly in the 19th century with British imperialism via the indentured labour system, a dignified name for slavery. It is all semantics. What essentially happened at the end day is a large Indian diaspora in countries like South Africa, Mauritius, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and many more. Many of the Indians who made their way there as labourers, over the generations, began to play significant roles in the economy and professional representations in these countries.

A certain famous Indian diva born in Zanzibar to British colonial civil service who kicked a storm in the rock and roll is, of course, Freddy Mercury (1946-1991) as Farrokh Bulsara.

Idi Amin declared himself the President of Uganda after a coup d’état in 1971. The first thing that he did was to expel Indians from Uganda. His reasoning is that the South Asian labourers were brought in to build the railways. Now that the rail network was completed, they had to leave. They had no business controlling all aspects of Ugandan wealth.

In Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala (1991), the protagonists, Jay, Rinnu and young Mina, had to uproot themselves from Kampala overnight when Amin decreed that all Indians were no longer welcome in Uganda. With a single stroke of the pen, they became refugees. 

By 1990, they are shown to have become residents of Mississippi. The 24-year-old Mina is entangled with a local Afro-American man. This creates much friction between the two families. That is the basis of the movie. 

It is interesting to note many Asiatic societies complain that the rest of the world practises discriminatory, racist policies against them. In reality, they are quick to differentiate each other within their community — the high-heeled, the aristocratic ancestors, their professions, the fairness of the colour of their skins, you name it. And they call others’ racists. For that matter, everyone is a racist. The Europeans subclassify their community by economic class. The seemingly homogenous Africans also differentiate themselves by tribes. Remember Rwanda with their Tutsi and Hutu civil war? Even the Taiwanese have subdivisions. China and Russia have varying ethnicities across the vast span of their lands.

Interestingly, the politics of the oppressed is much like what we read in George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and saw in the South Korean 2019 Oscar winner Parasite. Like how some animals are ‘more equal’ than others, the maids of the Parks feel more entitled than the freeloading dwellers of the bunker. Even amongst the oppressed, there is a class consciousness to sub-divide the oppressed.

Photo provided by Farouk Gulsara

Race-based politics is so passè. In the post-WW2 era, when the people of the colonies needed to unite to reclaim their land, it made a lot of sense to join under race. Past that point, it did not make any sense for the dominant ethnicity within the nation to claim the country as theirs. At a time when purebreds are only confirmed to be prized pets, it is laughable that politicians are still using racial cards to get elected. Each nation’s survival depends on its competitiveness, anti-fragility, and ability to withstand a Black Swan event. Race does not fall into the equation. With changing social mingling at school and the workplace, interracial unions are the norm. How is race going to be determined anyway? The fathers? The mothers are not going to take that lying down, of course!

The Afro-Americans were emancipated in 1863 after the Civil War, after generations of living as slaves. The black community, at least, still complained that they had received an uncashable cheque from the Bank of America for insufficient funds. Many Indian (and other races, too) labourers were no longer labourers by the second generation and had managed to springboard themselves out of poverty to occupy important positions in society. What gave? Did the coveted American dream slip them by? 

Coming back home to Malaysia, it appears that we will forever be entangled in race politics. In an era when minions around us who were basket cases decades ago have leap-frogged by leaps and bounds in science and technology, our leaders and people stay inebriated in the intoxicating elixir of race superiority. Imagine starting a political party in the 21st century where only people of a certain race can hold critical positions. In day-to-day dealings, expertise is compromised to maintain racial purity. Intertwined with race these days is religion.

Farouk Gulsara is a daytime healer and a writer by night. After developing his left side of his brain almost half his lifetime, this johnny-come-lately decided to stimulate the non-dominant part of his remaining half. An author of two non-fiction books, ‘Inside the twisted mind of Rifle Range Boy’ and ‘Real Lessons from Reel Life’, he writes regularly in his blog ‘Rifle Range Boy’.

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Disclaimer: All the opinions stated in this article are solely that of the author.

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

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Musings

Tsunami 2004: After 18 years

Sarpreet Kaur revisits the past with the hope of a better future

A vivid memory

A smile escaped my lips looking at the familiar newspaper, still just four pages of content. I can remember all those birthday listings, retirement announcements and situation vacant columns that formed part of this paper — coloured from the front-back and the time-tested black and white print in the inside. A balcony, a cosy chair, a newspaper and a cup of tea– what could be more perfect!

Suddenly a gloom overshadowed the day– it was 26 December 2022. The paper was filled with a long list of ‘Remembrances’ by families for their loved ones who lost their lives on that dreadful day. I could see a glint of sun here and a wrinkled grey of clouds somewhere on the canvas of azure water but my mind was not contemplating the beauty of this sea, it has already flown 18 years back — the cries of women, the heart-wrenching silence of kids, hopeful eyes in search of families, those shrieks to get as less as a glass of water, the echoing wails…

That day I discovered how fickle human life was, how harsh nature was, how devious some humans are and how godly some of our human mates were, all this was demonstrated in mere few hours. Who did this?

This very sea. This very sea did it. I am sure the sea must have had valid reasons. I can still feel the same shiver running down my spine. On that fateful day of 26th December 2004, this sea was furious, not serene as now. It was fuming with anger, ferociously.

Now, the houses on Andaman and Nicobar Islands are all decked up with big stars and shimmering lights, the faraway humming of carols have started accompanying the sea breeze. The winds are not humid anymore. It’s a calm breeze, the thunderous clouds have said goodbye and given way to the clear starry nights. There is an air of general merriment all around but still, there is something– no actually, that one thing which will always bring in the dark shadows no matter how many bright stars are hung over the doors.

That fateful night of the day after Christmas was followed by a heart-wrenching Tsunami. It drilled a big hole in every home on these islands. Someone lost a mother, someone a father, many lost everything and for a few their whole generations got wiped out by the sea. This year on the 18th dreadful anniversary of the Tsunami which we wish had never occurred, we will rewind the horrors. Now one might wonder at the need to do so. Why are we doing it? What’s done is done. However, we must recall because remembering our past is the only way to learn to have a better future.

Revisiting what happened

The first tremors were felt early in the morning. My whole family leapt out of the bed and went straight to the road and then the nearby playground. I could see dozens of people coming out of their houses, all with blank expressions about what was happening. Then after a few minutes of heart-tightening tremors, they stopped and we all smiled our relief to each other.  Then the news started pouring in. How a newly constructed house on a pillar gave up and crumbled like a house of cards. Another one said how the old building in Haddo wharf collapsed to the ground and one could hear the wails of people stuck inside it.

The ships were being sent to the sea to avoid damage. The ropes from the bollards were being ferociously untied. One merchant vessel, in all the clamour and chaos, cast off with one of its ropes still tied to the bollard. This bollard via the rope pulled it back and under the fast swell of the sea it rotated 180 degrees to one side, everyone shouted from the jetty as it was about to crush the smaller wooden ship with people on it. But God does exist because, by the miracle of God, the miracle of brakes or wind or something unknown, the ship stopped and drifted forward just a few inches away from the tumbling boat. The sheer force of the water had moved a Maruti 800 upright with one side towards the trunk; some people hastily tied it to the trunk itself with a rope to stop it from going into the sea. Dinghy boats were floating in the middle of the roads, a few others were already upside down and you could only make out the flat surface. One could see remorseful faces all around. They were not sad; they were looking terrified. Some were curious about what was happening. The Islands had never seen or felt such a thing ever. The Chatham bridge was underwater, the ships were floating to the level of a jetty, and the cars, autos, scooters everything one could see was floating. There was only chaos and chaos around.

Every second everyone was inching closer to the grave and it was said that when we witness something as crude as a Tsunami, humans tend to come together and show their humanity. But the Tsunami proved that it was not true. We, humans, are the worst kind of animals because on that fateful day, just when the Tsunami hit the Islands, a few shopkeepers doubled the rates of paan, tea etc. Some of the elected local representatives went into their burrows and the people who chose them were left off to fend for their own. The next few days saw no electricity, no water and no food.

People cried over the shortages.

Wards were filled with casualties, and the parking lot of GB Pant hospital had turned into a waiting room. These were the condition of the people around Port Blair. We have not yet touched on the other islands. What was happening in Katchal, Nancowry, Champin, Great Nicobar, Campbell Bay and many other small islands in the south was something no one could ever imagine. Whole villages were being swept away, the bodies were being gulped down. The terror of the sea had been unleashed.

In Nicobar, the devastation was unimaginable. Half of the trees had been uprooted. Trinket island was torn in half; Champin island was lost beyond communication and Kamorta was thirsty and hungry. The view was filled with battered houses, hanging roofs, crying infants, stranded grounds, tumbled life and floating bodies. No words or adjectives could ever do justice to what the people of the islands witnessed and suffered because of Tsunami.

We witnessed the humaneness of humankind too. The crew members of MV Sentinel were saviours who brought hope to the people of Nicobar that yet there were some who cared for them. The crew worked tirelessly saving precious lives, dinghy after dinghy was unloaded by the crew, the children and women were the first to come, they boarded and were fed on the ship.

Amidst this full chaos when the administration locked horns with humanism, these very people of MV Sentinel without worrying about their jobs and their own families, negated their orders and continued helping their people. On these islands, many influential people fled first on the crafts of money. However, some leaders outright rejected the ghastly idea of leaving the people behind to go on safer grounds. Till the end, they stayed.

Air force helicopters, coast guards, naval ships, army troops in conjunction with the administration worked together in those trying hours carrying out relief, search and rescue operations to their maximum capacity.  However it must be remembered that this was the first time the local people, administration and the armed forces were witnessing a disaster of such proportions. Many accusations were made on the duties of many in the position of power at that time without understanding the due pressure under which each and every one was. That made it much more pertinent to remember those days so that due precautions and arrangements could be made to revert future tragedies.

Without getting into too much of technical wordplay, we need to look at the reality of Tsunami which was all about behind the scenes. It is a well-known fact that the TV showed only selected pictures, trimmed numbers and blurred ideas to people out there. The tragedy of the Tsunami is imprinted on the heart of that lady who was shouting from the dinghy down below — “Mujhe mera bacha vapis de do. Return my child to me, when her child was taken away by the rescue ship onboard but suddenly the Captain refused to board any more passengers. The real horror is known by that bunch of humans who were waiting in the dinghy in the middle of the sea waiting for their turn. Real heroism was portrayed when the crew members of MV Sentinel said they would ot leave without leaving a single person behind. How slowly time went by when that girl waiting in GB Pant hospital for her parents to arrive. The real shock was sensed by the people on a stranded island listening to the radio: “Rescue teams have reached and all our people have been fed” while those mentioned were in a stranded island peeling the last coconut they had in their tattered bag.

At that time in that place and in that condition, people were looking out towards the shore with keen eyes, not for food, not for clothes, not for water — they were looking for hope, some sign of hope that yes someone was looking out for them, hoping that their existence mattered. Hope was all that they wanted.

Many years later, one could wonder how the sea which is a treasure for the fisherman, a mate for the sailor and home to the maximum of our living organisms could be so cruel. Then the other picture slides over showing the battered down forests, deforestation over acres, those oil spills, poachers, floating garbage, plastic entangled dugongs and almost extinct species. We leave no stone unturned and give plenty of reasons to the sea to be angry with us and once in a while nature understandably loses its cool.

We sure have come a long way since the first Tsunami, we have all the sensors, ships, rules and a detailed mechanism to handle such a situation and everything, but still, ARE WE READY TO BEAR THE NEXT HIT? Have we prepared enough to take head on the sea as the opponent? NO! no matter how technologically advanced we get we will never be ready to take on nature. The only thing that we can do is be respectful towards it. Yes! Development has to go side by side and change is the only constant law of nature but our greed could lead us to dig our own graves. Let the development be sustainable in its true measure not just on paper. This earth is not ours, we are mere tenants. Let us mend our ways before the owner loses his cool again.

(Special thanks to Denis Giles)

Sarpreet Kaur is a teacher, a Ruskin Bond fan and an aspiring writer. Her articles and stories have previously appeared in The Hindu, New Delhi Times, Cafe Dissensus, Muse India and many other magazines. This adapted from an earlier version in Andaman Chronicle.

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Musings

The Scream & Me

 By Prithvijeet Sinha

Scream by Edvard Munch (1863-1944). Courtesy: Creative Commons

Dignity of expression is an underestimated phenomenon; in times like ours where everything has to be blurted out loud from the biggest amplifiers, subtlety has become a jaded mode of creative power. What can be understood in two words and understatement needn’t be stretched to a point of vulgar oversimplification through metaphors and symbolism anyway. The sorry state of affairs obviously then finds an outlet through the arts.  Ideally, painting should capture the world as a beautiful sanctuary, where our place as heavenly creatures endowed with virtues galore and innate innocence, is sanctified. This it does in thousands of visual motifs.  But painting also evinces an ample canvas on which our internal world of chaos finds an adequate representation. That is where ‘art’ finds its footing.

For me, one artwork that will always stand the test of time when it comes to representing our internal implosion affected by socio-cultural, political consequences is Edvard Munch’s ‘Scream’ (1893).

I don’t know when exactly I discovered it because it seems to bear such an omnipresent place in our cultural consciousness. However, to the best of my memory, my tenacious relationship with ‘Scream’ commenced more than a decade ago when I first set sight upon its hollowed out, skeletal figure, a personality who, it seemed, had placed us instantly in his/her shoes. Munch’s work thus has gone on to frame every moment that has blown the lid off societal hypocrisies and depravity, for this writer. It’s a scream that we all innately identify with because so much of our lives is spent repressing our self-expression, our sense of self-esteem and by extension, our rights. As our mental health, a culturally coded reality ignored throughout modern humanity’s materialistic stride, becomes a perennial victim of that repression, we yearn to speak. Recount our potential lost chances. Claim our minds, bodies and souls as our own. Retaliate at the status quo and in fair essence, scream.  Scream at the void, at our preceding generations, at calloused authority.

If you ask me then personally, the painting’s stance of an individual left in the middle of nowhere, imploding with the gesture of putting his hands on his ears and crying out, melting with the weight of the world, is most likely to be identified with my journey till now. That literal and oftentimes implicit scream is attached to parts of my whole being where nothing of prejudice, repression or even plainly documented neglect from our adults and guardians should reside. Yet they do.

I scream when my talents as a writer are taken to be temperamental or above careful analysis, as only an individual feat. I scream when a writer’s sensitivity doesn’t translate to a real vocation in the eyes of the world. I scream when my sustained silences groan and moan for days on end, only to be met with a premise of being ‘physically weak’ on my part; when my insides churn with inflaming pain attributable to chronic stomach troubles and indigestion since that day in 2000 where I was cursed with a bout of jaundice. When the strength to write gets overpowered by my depressive disenchantments; when gender roles are used as a rapier in common discourses, I scream.  I scream. I scream. Never audible enough to be heard. Always observing a kind of bourgeois tact that makes me come undone. I scream when the men tail me in moments of solitude at riverside parks, put hands on my body and refuse to acknowledge that there are asexuals out there who don’t crave the crassness of physical pleasure. Or even verbal grooming and cajoling.

I scream when the river gets dirty, filled with pollutants. The trees fall down. When a peaceful day is brutalised by the ancient prophecies of time; when concrete balls, lances of disease and traffic blasts produce a most grotesque symphony of the nature of the world, a preserve of noise, sound and fury signifying nothing especially as our mental states are poured out into doctors’ tables for consultations and fees, I scream. Gulping the air around me and melting with all the foregrounds and backgrounds this world can assist me with, to no avail, I get hollowed out.

Peace is a luxury to us mere mortals. Chaos is the lightning rod that governs us throughout. Since truth can never be shortchanged, Scream always haunts us with its presence, intimately involved in our implosions through the clogged networks of time and memory. I felt its echoes in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’sMemoria(2021), as Jessica, the protagonist, travelled along a network of vibrations emanating from aural worlds around her, dictated by the stillness of nature holding more than it dares to reveal; or, in that eight-minute unbroken piece de resistance in Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning(2020) where her central figure drowns out the pandemonium of sexual defilement by laying her head on the ground, to keep herself sane and from death’s purview.

That scream is released in the final two minutes of the lyrics of Phoebe Bridgers’ breakout single ‘I Know The End’ (2020) where an apocalypse of the mind finds its literal projections compounded by rock guitars and drums, where the serenity of the preceding passages leads to an honest overflow, where aggression is supplanted by an exhausted sigh in the final coda. But also one, where silence is not an option. To me, Munch’s imprints let me reconcile with the fact that more than the politics of life and death as well as class, we are eternally doomed to imparting a facade of silence and repression to our ethos. It’s the inescapable truth and when bigotry such as the ones we encounter infects discourses, The Scream gags to be left out. It should, must be let out.

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Prithvijeet Sinha, has built a prolific published corpus based on the intersection of poetry, cinema and culture. He hails from the cultural epicentre that is Lucknow, India.

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Musings

A Fine Sunset

By Mike Smith

Camusdarach Beach. Photo courtesy: Mike Smith

Traigh Beach lies on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands, and from it you look out towards the islands of Eigg, Rhum, and Skye; you look out towards sunset.

It’s a beach I know well, for an outsider. I’ve visited it, probably on average more than once a year for the past forty years, and once or twice in the decade before that. I have written poetry on it. But as often as not, I’ve passed it on my way to another beach a couple of miles up the coast, and that beach, forty years ago, was featured in a film that has become something of a cult movie.

I’m talking about Camusdarach beach, and about Bill Forsyth’s movie Local Hero[1], which starred among others, Camusdarach beach.

But there’s another tale, and in fact more than one, that has drawn attention to this little stretch of coastline. Published as a short story a further fifty years into the past, and by a writer who is now almost totally forgotten, L.A.G. Strong’s[2] tale ‘The Seal’ doesn’t name the beach, but one of its minor characters has a dog named Darach, with has no other reason to be there but to give us that clue.

And the beach is described — broom, dunes, the path along the burn leading in, never mind that view of Skye and the other islands – with picture postcard accuracy. It’s a simple but haunting tale of intimacy not quite achieved between the newly married George, clumsy, boisterous and totally obtuse and the contemplative, highly sensitive Rosamund. The first time I read it, I was thinking of Camusdarach long before the dog put in its brief appearance!

It’s a remarkable story, for its subtlety and its insights, but also for the fact that there is not a single word in it that would need to be excised for you to imagine it taking place, and having been written, in the last day or two. Equally, it could have been written, and again word for word, a hundred years before its publication over ninety years ago. That durability, of place as well as the story is astonishing, and both reassuring and daunting. If one of my stories managed such a feat of, well, transcendence, I would be very happy. It would also be possible to transfer Strong’s tale to just about any beach anywhere in the world over all that time by merely adjusting the names of people, places, and that dog, and the nature of the eponymous animal and the plants growing behind the beach. How’s that for universality? And curiously, the fact that you could do that makes it less worthwhile to do it! Strong’s story in its original setting could speak to us all from the day it was written and will continue to do so while people fail to connect.

Yet I’ve found remarkably little written about Strong. He was a prolific writer across several genres – plays, poetry, essays, novels, as well as the short story – but he’s one of those very good writers (based on the thirty-one short stories in this collection), that seems to have dropped out of our consciousness. How could I find out if this was indeed the beach he had in mind, and why did I want to?

I recently took a holiday cottage overlooking Camusdarach and spent most of a week staring at that view. It’s one of those special places that, in its continuous changes and in its unchanging certainties, holds the attention, day into night, night into day. I made sure to take my copy of Strong’s 1931 collection Travellers, in which ‘The Seal’ is included. I thought it would be good to read it, looking out to sea as Rosamund does in the story. And it was.

But I re-read the other stories too, and among them found the names of Arisaig, and Morar, villages a couple of miles to south and north of me respectively. I found also Glenan Cross farm – to which he pins a headless ghost, and which still sits a bare half mile away on the other side of the coast road — and the name of one the little islands lying just beyond the headland to my left as I read.

So, no biographical evidence, but there in the stories, the minutiae of place that tells me he knew it and implicitly, like me, loved it, though he would have been an incomer too.

And as I’m working on this piece, and dipping into the story, I notice with a frisson of recognition two more little details a few lines apart: ‘She crossed the road’, and ‘After the room at the farm’, which makes me think he pictured her walking the path from Glenan Cross, though he doesn’t name it here, and which I too walked only a few weeks ago.

I’m not a great fan of tagging an author’s biographical details to their writings. What a story means to them is their business, and what it means to me is mine, and the two need neither coincide nor influence one another, but to find myself in a place I know, reading a story set in that place and written by an author who knew it too, brought me a little closer, and not only to the story. Might I say that it heightened my sense of a common humanity and the shared experience of a story as timeless as a fine sunset?

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[1] Local Hero, 1983, Scottish movie

[2] Leonard Alfred George Strong (1896 –1958), a popular English novelist, critic, historian, and poet, and published under the name L. A. G. Strong.

Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com 

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Musings

A Taste of Bibimbap & More…

By G Venkatesh

Ulsan, South Korea. Courtesy: Creative Commons

This was long ago. In the summer of 2013. Destiny brought me to South Korea for a week-long conference, the International Society of Industrial Ecology conference. I reached Ulsan, a city south of Seoul. Not having time to convert my USD to South Korean Won, before stepping onto the bus which would take me to the conference venue, and assuming that I could pay for my ticket on the bus, using my credit card, I proferred the latter to the bus driver. He shook his head. I then pulled out some USD notes and looked at him, hoping that I could pay the required amount of money in USD equivalents. He shook his head again. I said, “Okay, sorry,” and was about to turn and alight, when he turned his head and said something in Korean to the passengers on the bus. A young schoolgirl ran down the aisle towards me and said in fluent English, “You do not have to alight. I will but your ticket.”

I looked at the driver, and he smiled and nodded and beckoned me to take a seat. I looked at the girl, thanked her and asked, “Can I repay you in dollars?”

She smiled sweetly and said, “You are our guest. It is our duty to make sure that your stay in South Korea is comfortable. You do not have to repay me. You enjoy your stay here.”

I was lost in thought for the remainder of my journey, not having experienced anything similar to that before.

Bibmbap: Courtesy: Creative commons

The next day, I was guided to a restaurant about 200 metres from the conference venue, where I could eat some good-quality Bibimbap (Korean rice+vegetable dish). Being a non-experimental eater (one from whom gourmands would most certainly wish to stay away), I visited the same place for the very same meal at the very same time every evening for the next four days. Every time the elderly Korean lady who manned the counter, saw me walking in, she would intuitively know what I would be eating, and shout out ‘Bibimbap’ to the cook inside. On the 4th day, she asked me, in her broken English, ‘You here tomorrow also?’

I said, ‘No. I am going to Seoul tomorrow and then I fly to Mumbai.’

‘Oh, so last day dinner here. Then, you no pay today. Today free Bibimbap for you.’

‘But I would like to pay. I cannot eat without paying for it.’

‘No, no, free. I say free! You liked Ulsan?’

‘Okay, thank you so much. I liked the city a lot.’

I noted down the postal address of the restaurant and would send a postcard from Trondheim (Norway) – where I worked at that time in my career.

The next day, I had to take a train from Ulsan to Incheon. Time was at a premium when I reached the station. For some strange reason, my credit card ‘malfunctioned’. I had run out of Won and had foolishly forgotten to equip myself with some, as I assumed that the credit card would surely work at the ticket-vending machine at the station. I was a bit tense and started sweating profusely. I turned back and asked the young Korean boy who was next in the queue if the machine would accept USD or if there was some place nearby where I could quickly trade in my USD for some Won. He smiled, and said, “Do not bother. Where are you headed?”

When I said, Incheon, he stepped up and purchased my ticket for me. I read the price askance, did a  quick mental conversion to USD and requested him to let me repay him in that currency. He smiled again and said, ‘‘You are our guest. It is our duty to make sure that your stay in South Korea is comfortable. You do not have to repay me. Hope you enjoyed your stay here and will visit our country again.” So saying, he hastened towards the escalator on the right of the ticketing machine.

The very same words I had heard on the first day on the bus from the young girl. Perhaps this boy was her brother. Do-gooder siblings. Or perhaps they just represented the South Koreans – hospitable and helpful, doing God’s bidding on earth, smilingly and gallantly, without expecting anything in return…

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G Venkatesh (50) is a Chennai-born, Mumbai-bred ‘global citizen’ who currently serves as Associate Professor at Karlstad University in Sweden. He has published 4 volumes of poetry and 4 e-textbooks, inter alia. 

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Musings

September Nights

By Mike Smith

How beautiful this darkness! The air is still and comfortably warm, which for people of that age is surprising at this time of night. Half an hour and today will be over and night will have tipped into tomorrow’s early morning. The darkness will remain for an hour or two, more in fact now the year is turning too, with another season slipping into place.

Houselights are already off, not that there are many to be seen in any case down here in the valley: only the glimmer of one or two through the trees at each end of the river’s wide curve, and of the farm of course, behind, upon the rising ground. The double pizza-slice of flat grass field is a flood plain for when the river rises after heavy rain miles away upstream on the high fells. It has gathered becks as it falls and flows, and under the strictures of Civil Servants who have environmental boxes to tick no-one now who lives alongside keeps the channel clean, but natural processes clog and choke it for years until some catastrophic surge scours it out, bringing down fallen trees to smash bridges and riverside buildings to smithereens, collapsing banks and gouging the channel clean to bedrock.

The river’s nobody’s friend now; nobody’s resource. But miles away suits in offices can put up on their screens all sorts of proofs that everything is as it should have been since the ice-sheet’s retreat, when no-one lived here.

But tonight, the darkness is so complete that even the black amphitheatre of trees beyond the river’s further edge has merged with the black cloud-lagged starless, moonless sky and all has fallen silent. And people of that certain age, surprised at how pleasant it is to be motionless and silent, as if in a void, and to smell the faint odour of the distant pines and to feel the air warm upon their still warm skin, and to catch the sharp tang of salt upon their lips from tears running down their cheeks, they wait.

Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com

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Musings

Remnants of Time Once Spent Together

By Sayali Korgaonkar

I thought I was never really close to my Aaji (grandmother). She became paralysed and suffered from many illnesses ever since I was too young to remember, so we barely interacted. When she passed away a few years back, I did not cry. I could not grieve as much as my mother did, or as my uncles and aunts did. I guess I am a bit like my father in that sense, not too emotional. A few years earlier when my grandfather had passed away, I remember everyone in my house crying, even those who barely knew him. I remember my father walking in from work, straight-faced, he touched my grandfather’s feet and went in to change. I thought my father wasn’t grieving his own parent’s death, but I have come to realise that everyone has their own way of dealing with grief.

Similarl, I think I still sometimes grieve my Aaji’s passing. I have come to realise I was closer to this woman in my life than I thought. When I was born, my Aaji stitched one of her sarees into a blanket for me. It was violet in colour and the softest fabric you’ll ever touch in your life. I have since grown out of the blanket by many inches, but I still keep it beside me as I sleep. On nights that I find it difficult to sleep, I hold the blanket close to me. I like to think of the immense warmth it gives as the love my Aaji filled it with when she first stitched it. I am 20 years old now, and I still cannot find peaceful slumber without the violet blanket.

My Aaji suffered from memory loss for about ten years. It got worse every day. The one thing I remember most though is that she would even forget her own sons and husband and mistake them for nurses or doctors. But in the twelve years that she was that way, she never forgot me. She always remembered me as her granddaughter, Sayali. I don’t think I appreciated that enough. And I think I still grieve for that to this day.

I have been fortunate enough to not lose too many people close to me yet. I have not experienced grief as much as many near me have, but I think I understand the weight it carries. The loss of a person is beyond anything that can be expressed in words. It is, however, something that is inevitable far too many times in one’s life. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (1926-2004), a pioneering psychiatrist on near-death studies, once said that one will “grieve forever. There is no ‘getting over’ the loss of a loved one. We simply learn to live with it.” That quote has stuck in my head ever since her death. The loss stays with you forever, and it changes you in ways big or small. Just like my Aaji left behind the violet blanket of comfort for me, everyone will leave a part of their life with you to grieve over, the remnants of the time you once spent together. It might feel like a burden, in the beginning, but you come to accept it as part of your life eventually. It makes you strive to be a better person than you were yesterday.

Sayali Korgaonkar is a  writer at heart and an aspiring journalist, who is passionate about telling stories.

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Musings

Istanbul

By G Venkatesh

Istanbul Airport. Courtesy: Creative Commons

The Schengen visa did not help much, being as it was on one of the pages of an Indian passport. I was told I could not get an on-the-spot transit visa to walk out of the airport and see the city of Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, which was one upon a time Byzantium, which in turn was known as Nova Roma when the Romans ruled it. Well, that meant spending 24 hours at the Kemal Ataturk airport – waiting for the Turkish Airlines flight to Oslo the next day in the morning. Memories of Tom Hanks in Terminal flashed past the mind’s inner eye.

Coffee and vegetable burger later, I sat down to test if a free wireless connection was available in the precincts of the airport. It was, and I could check my e-mail; not just that, I could also thereby shoot across some crosswords’ designs that I do for a magazine. Great way to spend time, I thought. Time was, is and will always be money!  My focus on the laptop screen was disturbed when a man walked past on my left, proferred his right hand and asked “Indian?”

“Yes,” said I, accepting the handshake.

“Pakistani, Shakeel,” he responded and sat down on the chair next to mine and immediately asked me if he could use my laptop for 5 minutes. I had heard about instances of threat mails being sent from cyber cafes or from laptops or desktops of totally-innocent, unsuspecting friends or acquaintances. Wariness did creep in instantly, but then I decided that I would not leap before looking… looking at the screen as he was accessing his mail. I did not wish to play into the hands of the ‘enemy’ as a noble do-gooder. There would have been nothing more disconcerting than that!

He spent more than 5 minutes and an edgy yours sincerely had to butt in with, ‘Boss, I have some urgent work to do; if you have finished.’ When I got back ‘possession’, I vowed to work on till the battery ran out, designed a crossword in the process, and then on the pretext of my fear of using unsecured wireless networks for too long, strapped the laptop back in my backpack.

After a long silence, I devised a means of dissociating myself from his company. “Okay then, I think I will just take a walk around the airport. It was nice meeting you.” I held out my hand.

He looked up and said, “I guess I shall also join you. What will I do sitting here all alone?”

I wanted to say, “That is none of my concern.” I did not. I would be saddled with Shakeel for the next 24 hours!

From my side, the ice was not broken. Hence, when he quizzed in Punjabi about what I did for a living, where I worked and how much I earned, I was a bit startled. I recalled being in the situation of the protagonist (played by amnesiac Aamir Khan) in the film Ghajini and wanted to say exactly what he says when a woman tries to get very informal with him – “I do not think I have known you so well as to be obliged to answer those questions.”

I brushed aside the questions however and decided to be as wary as wary could be. Shakeel, it turned out, had been living in Austria for seven years, managing a restaurant with his uncle. He had missed his Austrian flight in the morning, as the Emirates flight which got him into Istanbul from Dubai was delayed by 15 minutes. He had now asked his agent to rebook a seat for him on the flight to Austria next morning.

Shakeel talked of Indo-Pak business partnerships in Europe and lamented at the tension that has gripped the relations between these two neighbouring countries. I had the book, Wings of Fire with me. He pointed at Dr APJ Abdul Kalaam’s picture on the cover and commented that he is a very competent individual and wondered why he could not continue for a second term as President. During the conversation, mostly one-sided, he also said that people in India and Pakistan are more engrossed in producing babies while the rest of the world is pulling up its bootstraps and progressing fast. This statement, coming from a Muslim, took me aback a bit.

I treated him to Turkish coffee, after which he excused himself to go to the in-airport mosque, requesting me to mind his bags. “Risky undertaking,” I thought. What if…

He returned after a while though, and I scolded myself for having succumbed to paranoia and subsequent suspicion.

At around 6.30 pm, Shakeel insisted it was time for dinner and wanted to repay me for the coffee I had treated him to, by buying me dinner. I told him to carry on and said that it would be too early for me to dine. He looked at me and said, “Okay then, we will dine whenever you want to.” This was surprisingly very heartwarming and as we had known each other for just about 12 hours or so, seemed a bit too unreal. Such acts are the prerogatives of brothers and good friends.

As the day petered to a close, we decided not to sleep-starve ourselves anymore. Shakeel, still unsure of whether or not his agent would be able to confirm his booking on the next morning to Austria, dozed off and slept soundly. They say that anyone who can sleep without burdens or worries on his mind, has a clean and pure conscience. I, with a confirmed ticket, could not sleep for more than four hours – unclean and impure conscience?  I was up at 5.00 am, and at 7.30 am when I headed to board my Turkish Airlines flight to Oslo, Shakeel was still sleeping! I did not want to wake him.

Once in Norway, I sent him an e-mail. At the time of writing, it has been quite a while since I did that, and there has been no response, Maybe, he will not respond. Maybe, he is a good person who was upset with my not having the courtesy to bid him a proper ‘Khuda Hafeez’. I would never know.

Strange lessons learnt at the Kemal Ataturk Airport.

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G Venkatesh (50) is a Chennai-born, Mumbai-bred ‘global citizen’ who currently serves as Associate Professor at Karlstad University in Sweden. He has published 4 volumes of poetry and 4 e-textbooks, inter alia. 

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Categories
Musings

The ‘New Kid on the Block’ Celebrates…

Dr Kirpal Singh, an eminent academic and writer, takes a nostalgic journey back in time to recall the start of Singapore as an individual entity.

The years 1964-66 were very interesting– not only because on 9 August 1965 we became the Republic of Singapore but also because of the events (some may even term these as “shenanigans”) surrounding to the lead-up to our final independence. I was a little more than fifteen years old and though not fully in the know or swing of things, it was pretty obvious real changes were afoot. The racial riots of 1964 left a deep impression– some may call it a “scar”—and many of us were truly worried and even frightened at what prospects lay in wait.

Nerves were running high and tension was palpable. Much as our teachers tried to hide hard truths, it was abundantly obvious that major changes were bound to usher a new and different ethos. My late Uncle was in the thick of things and though he did his best not to display anxiety, the various insinuations in the media– coming as they did from a variety of differing personalities with radically different perspectives — did not assure much comfort in what was to come. The hubbub left many wondering and many others questioning what had gone wrong. They demanded the “truth” be revealed.

And so it was. Mr Lee Kuan Yew addressed the nation and in-between wiping his clearly moist eyes told us that we had been kicked out of Malaysia! The shock took minutes even hours to sink home. Neighbours chatted across fences just to confirm what they had heard. But it was too late to do much by way of not accepting our fate: Singapore was now out of Malaysia and had to embrace the future alone, without the larger community that had formed in the two preceding years. It was the start of a new chapter in our short history– and a new beginning.

The new chapter in our history began with a clear glimpse of Lee Kuan Yew wiping his eyes. After all his long-cherished dream of a “Malaysian Malaysia” was now, in a sense, shattered. Whatever the details of that critical meeting that is said to have taken place in Cameron Highlands between the Tengku Abdur Rahman and Lee Kuan Yew one fact emerged: Singapore was on its own — no longer a part or partner of Malaysia.

Thus began the slow and arduous journey of our independent Republic of Singapore. In 1965, I was fifteen and though still a teen it was abundantly evident that a truly historic transition had taken place.

Whether it was Lee Kuan Yew’s oratory or his emotional self that made the impact, it was clear that most Singaporeans rallied behind him and resolved to ensure that we survived. Survival was our prime and major consideration, and all endeavours were directed to realising this goal. Crucial to this was the daily recitation of our National Pledge- “We the citizens of Singapore pledge ourselves as one united people…”. Whatever people may say our National Pledge remains sacred and sacrosanct.

As I look back at the tumultuous tensions and uncertainties we faced in those early years of our Republic’s nationhood, I can never state that we were despondent or unable to push forward. Yes, it will be folly to try and claim that everything was hunky-dory. No, far from it. But one thing was totally clear and universally accepted, as Mr Lee Kuan Yew said, we were now on our own and we had to shape our own destiny. All the doubts and unpredictable consequences notwithstanding Singapore was now the youngest new nation on planet Earth and her citizens were committed to ensure the nation survived.

And she did. Indeed, Singapore gloriously more than survived! She soared and within less than a decade of Independence– by 1975– we were showing ample signs of “earned success”, a reward that even opponents of Lee Kuan Yew had to acknowledge as “ real”.

There’s not much need for me to go into all the many new legislations and policies and rules and regulations that were mooted and passed in Parliament and embraced by all branches of our young Republic. The Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary had to be built on strong and impartial foundations without regard to race or language or religion. It was for the young an exciting and sometimes bewildering phase of history. But Mr Lee kept sharing his vision of a thriving young nation bent upon making a mark in history. Slowly but surely, said Mr Lee, Singapore would build her muscles and demonstrate what is achievable when citizen and together in order not so much to “show off” but essentially to survive. Survival was the foremost goal– all else could come afterwards.

And so we worked hard– very hard — and despite all the trauma and pain, we pushed and pushed and soon began to experience for ourselves the fruits of our determination. More and more nations began to realise that there was indeed a new kid on the block in Southeast Asia and that this kid was unrelenting in its efforts to succeed and succeed with distinction.

And so, today, as we celebrate our 57th year of Independence we can proudly claim to have surpassed all expectations and put to paid any misgivings anyone might have harboured.

Before Mr Lee Kuan Yew passed on, he said, movingly, while strolling through our Gardens By the Bay, that looking around he was glad we did what we did. He felt all his sacrifices were more than worth.

And so here we are celebrating our National Day in joy and even glee.

But we cannot ever forget or ignore the harsh lessons we learned along our journey to full and complete Independence. We live in a world crippled by numerous setbacks — the pandemic just being one.

It remains for others to evaluate the progress and strides our young and tiny island nation has taken. For my generation our Singapore is a miracle — a miracle realised through hard sacrifice and unwavering faith.

Kirpal Singh is a poet and a literary critic from Singapore. An internationally recognised scholar,  Singh has won research awards and grants from local and foreign universities. He was one of the founding members of the Centre for Research in New Literatures, Flinders University, Australia in 1977; the first Asian director for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1993 and 1994, and chairman of the Singapore Writers’ Festival in the 1990s. He retired the Director of the Wee Kim Wee Centre.

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Categories
Musings

Grune Point and an Inkling of Eternity

By Mike Smith

Grune Point. Photo Courtesy: Mike Smith

It’s almost monochrome, the seascape, like a bleak Lowry: a single eye-scarring line across the off-white canvas. But there are other lines too, not quite level, drawn on the sky in soft pencil, Prussian blues among the clouds’ grey, not quite horizontal. And the horizon is not true. Dull green-grey hillsides, the heather not yet in flower, slide to the sea’s edge a mile or two across the inlet.

And the foreground mud’s sprinkled with rocks like chocolate chips scattered on an over-baked cake. Up close, grey-white pebbles, streaked and scored, when you get your eye in, with all the colours of the rainbow; shingle banked up to the low dunes, the sand too coarse and grainy for making castles however well you wet it.

A whimbrel. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Sea-wrack at the tiered tide lines, grey-brown, softens it, and strung out banks of what might make good compost that has been washed out from beneath the grass further up, where the fields fray. Seagulls and oyster catchers, and a solitary whimbrel — its long, curved beak thin as the thin stick legs, give it movement. The sea is too far out for waves to show and islands of mud, tinged green, are settled in pewter grey.

To the west, the peninsulas of Southern Scotland, to the south, where imagination and sight mingle on the true horizon, the Isle of Man is a possibility among clouds. Some days it’s so clear and bright and seeming near, you think you might wade out to it, or even throw a stone. Ancients, they say, believed it moved: drifted, floated, came and went at its own will or that of Gods. Some think of it as Avalon, wither Arthur went after his sword –drawn from stone by the iron-master’s Art perhaps – thrown into the lake, had been caught and drawn to deep water.

Writers of local history – and J.R.R.Tolkien, no less – have seen the name as a link to the Arthurian tale of Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, but others, no less authoritatively have asserted that Grune is a corruption not of green but of groyne[1], signifying a sea-defence. Certainly, if you walk the coastal path along the stepped concrete from Silloth through Skinburness you will pass many groynes, the northern ones with their asymmetric piles of shingle and stone facing the south, four foot of rotting timber showing on the north side. From Skinburness it’s rock armour; stacked boulders the size of armchairs to break the force of the waves, but these are far more recent, by a millennium or more, than the naming of the place.

Look out from your seat on the dunes, a cut log or a fully rooted tree, washed down by the rivers and cast up on the beach, smoothed and softened by the rub of sand and water and weather, heavy as rock when wet, light as papyrus when dry, your collar turned up against the steady breeze up from the south, the gorse behind you too prickly to shelter in just yet, and the emptiness before you is palpable. There is the sense that you could sit here for a week, a decade, a century, a thousand years and nothing would come to pass that would not pass and become the same, but slow forces are at work already that time will not reverse, and this place among those will see those changes first.

Turn around. Face north and see the curving sweep of Scotland’s shore. Look eastwards across the spit. Beyond the billiard-table Solway plain the tips of mountains Hadrian[2] knew and of Northumberland. To the south the lumpy, soft peaked Lakeland fells flanking Skiddaw.

Closer, just off the point, the course of rivers running in and out to sea: Eden, Wampool, Waver, sticky with black dots of foraging birds, slick and sticky with mud in the ten foot channels where water’s only inches deep, but where the mud would grasp you by the ankles and hold you fast as the fast tide, faster than you can walk or even run, rises.

People love or loathe this place. It lies beyond the sounds of traffic. Even on a summer’s day, when it bakes under an unshaded sun, you may have it on your own, perhaps a couple leaving as you arrive, a couple arriving as you depart, a solitary figure, half a mile away across the gravel bank, silhouetted against the sky. Even on a summer’s day when the sky’s so high and wide you think you might fall in, it may have you on your own.

Once, on a midsummer’s eve, the sun touching Criffel, we sat and watched a lone canoeist, soundlessly, the slow paddle barely breaking the water surface, come in, riding the rising tide, a hundred or so yards offshore, the sea carrying them on, perhaps from Skinburness or Silloth, or who knows where? And, reaching the point, where storms gouge and notch the gravel tip, to what rendezvous, we wondered, were they being carried?

Criffel is a hill in south-west Scotland. Courtesy: Creative Commons

You can be alone here, barely a mile from the nearest house nestled in the gorse, from the last of farmland hedges, from the bungalows lined up behind the slight embankment of the coast road, only those with garret windows in the roof catching a glimpse of the water that one day, undoubtedly and perhaps soon, will wash them clean, and this gravel tongue itself, away.

Then it will fade in memory. Eerie. Peaceful. Silent save for bird song and the keen call of the wind. Bleak and beautiful. Magnificent and mysterious. A place where you might be confronted with the awesome sky, and the mountains far and near, and the almost monochrome seascape, or with yourself and nothing else but an inkling of eternity.   


  1. [1] A barrier built out into the sea from a beach to check erosion and drifting.

[2] Hadrian was a Roman who ruled from 117 to 138. He built the Hadrian Wall to define his extent of rule in Britain.

Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com 

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