Categories
Musings

Harvest your Patches

By Aditi Jain

Gradual is the foundation of a bountiful harvest.

Pandemic? Lockdown? 2020… so immured? Must have run to New Year 2021 jubilation with a hope of cudgel of change? Sorry, not even a change, a ‘transformation’ !

A pandemic is not merely a biomedical phenomenon, but a social and cultural phenomenon as well. And healing from pandemic takes place gradually. It’s not the first time in history, that there has been an outbreak of pandemic, though agreed it has deeply ravaged the humanity and society. Black Death ( 1346-1353) and Spanish Flu (1918-1920) are some of the gruesome reminders when history had been attacked by pandemics. The end of 2020 saw goodbye notes with loathsome memes and cold messages that expected COVID 19 to disappear at the start of the New Year. Wearing the shroud of negativity and animosity, such an outlook impeded our spiritual development and realisation that nature has spirit!

Do you think if we can ‘patch’  the immured 2020 with warmness? Possibly yes. Since the vocation last year and even till date ( though it’s your exalted 2021), is mostly carried as WFH (Work from home), let’s configure the patches. 

An online meet opens in a gallery view where you are welcomed by the host with a coy or may be a wry smile. That gallery view reminds me of ‘patches’ …beautiful patches of a quilt; where each speaker/participant/patch presents his/her views or shares a story. 

In a journey of a beautifully crafted patchwork quilt, the nuance of stories and emotions communicated by each patch can be felt. Each patch communicates and adds to the composition, which can be a trope for ‘ topic of discussion ‘ of an online meet. 

Each patch of a quilt is sewn with a thread, whereas each speaker/patch of an online meet is sewn with internet connectivity. A patch loosely stitched in a quilt would blemish the entire composition. A technical glitch in connectivity also would blemish that online meet. 

Not all patches of the quilt are embellished. So are we shrewd enough to cater to our favourite ones and pin them up to adorn the whole quilt? Imagine, the various quilting patterns resonating with the conversation patterns of the online meet. Candid conversations in plain and corny mood, resonating with straight line quilting. While framed narratives with lots of “so yaa” resonating with log cabin or concentric patterns of quilting. At times, a particular patch is quilted heavily to accentuate the look, but often creates a ‘yuck’ factor in that design. This reminds me of a speaker/patch, who has the audacity to blabber ceaselessly, being a stimulus for a bored yawn. 

Quilting bee, a social event for learning new skills and techniques, were popularly known as ‘work parties’. But deep down, we may admit.. our ‘zoom bee’, ‘Teams bee’  or ‘ Meet bee’, have left us like zombies attending an online meet. 

A quilt stitched part by part, with isolated yet beautiful patches is a treasure to hold. It gives profuse warmth and love in our life. Since they are  sourced from different places, each patch or fragment carries a story of the place it belongs to. 

So why not cherish 2020 as a quilt, rather than discarding it as a rag. 2020 had been an opportunity for self-reflection,  self-acceptance , our communion with nature and the experience has played a critical role in nurturing our faculties. 

The notion of transformation from the pandemic to the post-pandemic realm with merely the onset of 2021 was a fallacy, but we preferred to believe in illusions beautifully crafted by designer media. Antithesis of illusion, ‘reality’ says, healing from pandemic and recovery from this digression will happen gradually. Growth and recovery are always gradual and should be made with more informed and prudent choices. 

So, let’s harvest our quilt!

The surface of the quilt is almost ready. Patches have been joined, each patch reminiscent of a new and different experience. Since every patch is reminiscent of a new and different experience, I sincerely hope and yearn, that the patches are not only cut in ‘squares’. Not only ‘squares’, as it might make your quilt a cold memory, or cast a sharp glare at you. I hope there will be ‘circles’ and ‘triangles’ too to inculcate warmness, flexibility, positivity and a path to subjective choices and emotions. Perhaps, you could be that ‘circle’ or ‘triangle’ in someone else’s quilt. 

Quilting patterns have been explored intensively (you may choose candid talks, framed narratives or introspection). This time, I wouldn’t hope but surely suggest, to select ‘introspection’ for the above. An introspective quilting pattern would contain a series of intertwined quilting lines, gleaming with the rays of optimism and self-reflection. In those intertwined quilted lines, some would be prominently embroidered with thick threads; as some reflections and thoughts are too deep to be mulled over and to be taken into consideration. The negative thoughts would be slightly visible, since some would be nuanced threads. In spite of being negative, it would be part of your intertwined quilting, because the quilting pattern needs to be balanced, so your thoughts and actions as well; which would otherwise be impetuous, if not pondered critically. 

Quilt batting would be consolidated layers of hopes, wishes and prayers. Backing could be our faith, our faith in gradual yet impactful recovery. 

Bind the quilt with optimism, a binding which is not solipsistic. A border which resonates with holistic sustainability and growth, seeking inspiration from our indigenous wisdom.

It is heartening that the vaccine drive is kicking off at a steady rate, hopefully the drive will be a success and gradually we will be emancipated from the realm of the pandemic. But that emancipation will be gradual, not each of us would be vaccinated at the initial stages. The drive would be delineated in gradual steps.

The vaccination plan released, has certain limitations, which would take time for complete acceptance and achievement of the target. No doubt, vaccination apps would be launched soon, but to augment them to their best potential and efficiency would be a gradual process. 

Assuming that you are that ‘lucky bee’ of our quilting bee, to be vaccinated, since you belong to those categories that will be catered at the initial stages; you would still have to take all the precautionary measures, till you get the second shot. Even after getting the second shot, you would be expected to adhere to social distancing  and masks would still be your mandatory accessory.

Let’s fast-forward a little. Let’s assume the vaccination plan succeeds and it is available ‘easily’ to the masses and we have renounced the reign of the pandemic. So now what’s the need to harvest the quilt? 

A quilt is used seasonally, so will be your ‘ ‘harvested quilt’, which would be stored in bed trunks and would be pulled out to protect from harsh chilly frosts. The ‘harvested quilt’ doesn’t resonate only to the pandemic, it’s a quilt of endurance , memories, experiences and an inspiring lesson for the future, if any such pandemic occurs again.

Basking in the sun, gather the quilt and snuggle in its warmness with faith and endurance. Store it in your trunks or bed storage with real happiness, real realisation, real endurance; you would be ‘real’ to yourself, if the ‘growth’ that has taken place in you is real. 

You may end up with an imperceptible nod as epiphany will sound only when the quilt is finally harvested! 

Aditi Jain is a Gurugram-based Textile designer and researcher, graduated from NIFT. She envisions textiles as media of expressions. The ‘expressions’ – that convey ideas and beliefs, imbibed in Indian cultural roots, with a contemporary blend to express them with a fresh and modern outlook. Currently, she is working on a research project on responsive fashion and sensory design.

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Categories
Musings

The Magic Spell of Scheherazade’s Nights

Reflections of Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016), translated by Ratnottama Sengupta

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Courtesy: Wikicommons

Chiching Phank! “Open Sesame!” Two cock-n-bull words. But the spell of these two magical words released the rocky gates of a secret cave hidden by thorny bushes in the folds of a mountain, in front of Alibaba’s dazed eyes… 

The hideout was as mysterious as it was cavernous. With a pounding heart the impoverished woodcutter entered the cave — and froze. Diamonds and rubies, gold and silver filled every corner of the cave; silk and velvet and Persian carpets and God knows what else were stored there! He had never set eyes on so much glitter nor had he heard about such riches. This was the secret locker for the goods ill-begotten by the forty dacoits who had just galloped away on horseback.

By this time even the youngest reader of 1001 Arabian Nights would be wonderstruck by the astounding description of diamonds, rubies and gold coins. “Will Alibaba succeed in loading all these riches on the back of his three donkeys he has left hidden in the bushes and safely take off for his home?”  the reader would wonder, afraid to even imagine the consequences in case Alibaba failed.

If he was captured alive by those dacoits, they would bury Alibaba alive in that very cave and not even a crow would get to know of it. Such anxious moments! Each moment would weigh down the breath of the reader, until Alibaba emerged out of that zone of enchantment — all goods intact — and reached his shelter at sundown.

The spell binding excitement about ‘What Happens Next?’ in the Arabian Nights was planted in us readers by unknown storytellers — and the unreal harvest of curiosity has continued to cast its magic over centuries and across continents. The identity of the original creator of these stories is lost in the womb of time. What lived on were the characters which the author fleshed with dexterous imagination. It has been only three hundred years since the West got a taste of these adventures and became curious about the romance that is the Orient. Truth is these tales come out of the Arabian Nights but why ‘Nights’? The adventures are happening in broad daylight too. Ask, and the answer will lead you to a chatur nari — a very clever woman — and her hoshiyari — her quick thinking, alert mind. 

Scheherazade, painted in the 19th century by Sophie Andersen: Courtesy: Wiki

So, there was this very powerful Persian Badshah who found out that his Begum was carrying on an illicit affair. He not only snuffed out her life, he developed such immense hatred for the gender that every night he would procure a beauty to warm his bed and send her off to be beheaded at the break of daylight.

This went on for a while. The ministers were at their wit’s end: Who knew when their daughters would be sent for? One night, of her own free will, the prime minister’s daughter, the clever Scheherazade stepped forward and entered the Badshah’s bedroom, despite being well aware that the night ends in the certainty of death. The trusted matronly nurse of ample years was entrusted with the job of waking her up in the wee hours of the night. Thus, in the fading darkness, Scheherazade started narrating a bewitching story to the Badshah. Spellbound he listened, until the first ray of the sun interrupted the action at such a critical point in the story that the curiosity to know what happens next compelled the Badshah to postpone the beheading by one night.

By the sheer genius of her sharp wit, that young lady with the sword of death hanging over her head, went on with her storytelling for one thousand and one nights. So what if he was a brutal devil? The pulsating heart of a flesh and blood human entrapped him too:  after birthing three adorable babies Scheherazade became his Begum. And her head stayed firmly between her shoulders.

Centuries have passed since thirst-driven caravans on sandy roads immersed themselves in these stories as they sat around shallow wells to gather their breath or to warm themselves around fires under chilly starlit skies. By word of mouth, from one caravan to another, from one town to another, from a port to another land, these literary gems counted centuries before they were stilled in sentences and paragraphs.  Some parts of this literature, penned down in Arabic script during the 1st century after Christ, have been unearthed in Cairo as recently as the 20th century. These appear to be attempts to recount and record those captivating tales.

Many interpolations must have happened in the process of their journey from one narrator to another. Doubtless these are ancient treasures of the East that were presented to the world at the onset of the 19th century by French archaeologist Antoine Galland. He translated the stories from the Arabic manuscript unearthed in Aleppo and from the stories recounted to him by a Syrian. Not one or two but in twelve volumes he published his version of the tales and stormed the bastion of literary West between 1704 and 1717. Subsequently, it is believed that his work exerted significant influence on later European literature and attitudes towards the Islamic world. 

Since French was widespread then, England and the rest of Europe too could savour the romance embedded in these tales of adventure. But more than another hundred years passed before they were transcreated in English. It was Edward William Lane’s English version, Arabian Nights Entertainment, that amazed English readers globally.

It is logical to ask, from where were such captivating tales strung together? These tales do not belong to any particular tribe, nor are they rooted in any one soil. They have grown out of multifarious dialects and a multitude of emotions. They have been watered by inventiveness and mysticism. Man’s creative soul springs from them like an unchequered waterfall. The essence of India, Persia, Israel and Greece enrich this lexicon of mankind. Hence they unhesitatingly bear the robustness of an archaic tongue and of obscenity too. To ease the pain of a long day’s journey through unrelenting desert, or the rigours of relentless chores, the wayfarers would let loose the fertility of their mind in unimagined colours. Their panache would sketch even impossibly enchanted worlds. Perhaps it did not happen exactly so — but surely it could too! And if by chance or deus ex machina it did? Oh, what thrill that would spell!

Thus the tales crossed the boundaries of nature and politics. Thus they were nourished by the traditions of alien lands. Thus they came to flow as one river, fed by streams brown and blue and white. Since its origin, the human mind has seen little change in its dreams and desires, hopes and heartbreaks, greed and ambition, jealousy and suspicion, envy and enmity, doubts and fears. These make him oscillate from peaks of delight to the depths of despondency. Consequently, these stories have not faced wear and tear.

Magic lamp from Aladdin

The worthless, good-for-nothing son of a poverty stricken tailor, Aladdin spends his days imagining the impossible. It so happens that a magician takes a shine to him, and he arrives at a garden where trees are laden with rubies and emeralds. There he picks up a rusty little lamp. He rubs it, and a genie materialises out of thin air to fulfill every command of his. With his services and generosity, Aladdin gets the world in his fist. Soon as he becomes wealthy, he finds the Sultan’s daughter to be his wife. Then one day, through the machinations of the evil magician, womanly wisdom prompts her to trade off the rusty old lamp for the radiance of a brand new brass lamp. And in a jiffy his luxurious world evaporates before his very eyes. His wife is imprisoned by the trickster and he is tossed into the throes of endless suffering – until the clever Aladdin uses his wit, destroys the magician and retrieves his magic lamp. And when his father-in-law passes away, Aladdin wears the crown of the Sultan! How many minds and men are inspired by this little story to dream of the impossible coming true in their lives!

At the other end, simpleton Alibaba reaches home with the three donkeys laden with sacks full of gold coins. But how will he quieten his hyper-excited wife, Hasina Bibi? The destitute family did not own even a weighing scale. There was no other way but to borrow one from the haughty wife of his brother Cassem living on the other side of their partition wall.

“The family scrapes together barely two meals a day – now what has he brought home that compels him to borrow a scale at midnight?” – Cassem’s wife is not only curious, she is quick witted enough to paste some soft dough on the underside of the scale. A shining gold coin sticks to that and arrives in Cassem’s house, to declare what Alibaba and Hasina had come to own.

Spurred by greed, Cassem discreetly follows his brother at daybreak and unravels the mystery of the cave. And as soon as Alibaba exits the cave, Cassem utters “Open Sesame!” and enters the treasure trove. Things go wrong once he sees the riches stored inside. He goes berserk stuffing sack after sack and in the process totally forgets the two magic words. When he senses that he ought to leave, he realises the enormity of that one little mistake. He tears his hair in despair and keeps uttering “Open Potatoes!” “Open Brinjal!” “Open Cinnamon!” “Open World!”  Alas! The stone wall does not sway a hair’s breadth.

Fear of losing one’s life is so overwhelming that Cassem lost all desire for an iota of the wealth he had so lustily filled in his bags. How desperate he was to see the stone wall budge! And when it actually creaked open, Cassem’s eyes shone at the thought that now he could live to see the world outside. But the shine in his eyes lasted a mere second: the very next moment he was lying in a heap, his body chopped to pieces by the dacoit’s sword. They hung the severed body parts outside the cave and set off again.

Is there a moral lesson to be learnt from this story? The non-confronting, peaceable Alibaba could leave the cave in good time as he did not lose his equanimity, while the wily Cassem was so overcome by greed that he forgot the two magic words ‘Open Sesame’, lost his sense of time and consequently, his life too.

The thrill plays on in the heart and mind of those who watched Alibaba (1937), directed by Modhu Bose and featuring his danseuse wife Sadhana Bose. One of the songs went thus:

Aay bandi tui Begum hobi khwaab dekhechhi

(Hey slave girl! You’ll be a queen, I know that from my dreams)

Aami Badshah banechhi

(I have become the Badshah)

Ami begum banechhi

(I have become your Begum)

Badshah Begum jham jhama jham bajiye chalechhi

(Badshah Begum creating the jingle of coins wherever we go)

Oh, who can forget that fun sequence of song and dance!

Herding camels and goats was the culture of Bedouins, the nomadic Arab tribes who historically inhabited the desert regions of North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Upper Mesopotamia and Levant. They were neither burdened by heritage, nor did they boast a wealth of literature. Generation after generation, these startling stories became their oral co-travellers. That nomadic lot of humanity with behaviour and actions peculiar to their regions, their atheism and agnosticism, their songs and liturgy became one single flow. Almost 1250 years ago, when the cornerstone of Arab civilization was laid, gathering strength from the various languages, strifes and skills, these incomparable tales became a bulk of Arab literature — and effortlessly got dyed in the Islamic colours of the devotees of Allah. Friendship and affection, wisdom and respect for seniority, belief in destiny, surrender to Allah regardless of personal wealth or poverty — these are the keynotes of all the stories. The action could well be taking place in China or Persia, but the characters are all bound by the discipline of Prophet Muhammad. It is an astonishing harvest of Islam’s golden age.

However, Haroun Al Rashid, who is the protagonist of quite a few novellas, is not an imaginary character. Renowned in history as the fifth Abbasid Caliph who was the sole lord of every life and property in sweeping Mesopotamia — and owner of consequential wealth and splendid palaces, stately homes, chateaux and alquazar (al-qasr) – his rule between 786 and 809 AD saw Baghdad become Asia’s most chronicled trading post. 

The city would bustle with transactions in the most exquisite crafts. Gifted artistes and intuitive minds assembled here at a time when European civilization had yet to scale heights.  Haroun’s Baghdad can then verily be described as the poetic nursery of Arabian literature, a champion of architectural beauty, love, and other emotions of the human heart.

1001 Arabian Nights have gained recognition by learned critics as a truthful record of Islamic civilization at the turn of the 8th century. And not just that: Even today adventurers are amazed to find the wealth of traders being transported through the difficult terrain of the desert on the back of slow-moving camels — exactly as described in the Arabian Nights. It appears to be a breathtaking oral history whose contribution to the social science of the lettered world is immense.

It is impossible to classify this piece of literature as the product of sheer fantasy. The story of ace seafarer Sindbad is a hair-raising description of a new world that can be tallied with reality. None can doubt it as drug-induced hallucination.

During the glorious days of the Caliph, Arab seamen set out on courageous courses across the waters. The lush foliage and dense forests of the Far East repeatedly drew the desert dwellers — and they did not return empty handed. The heady fragrance of the tasty spices, the silk at South Indian ports, pearls — pink and purple, grey and milky; emeralds of the Lankan island and rubies of Burma along India’s east coast — they filled their bags with all this, and their memories with experiences galore. Had they not witnessed these with their very own eyes, the actions and gestures of cannibalistic tribes; the extraction of pearls from the shells wrested from the bottom of the ocean, and the enticing iridescence of gems– it would not be possible for sheer artistry to measure up to all these tasks.

Personable and prudent Sindbad had gone around the ocean full seven times. Then comes the mishap: monstrous roc birds attack and destroy his ship. When she sinks, Sindbad stays afloat by hanging on to a plank of wood and using it like a raft, he arrives at an island. Here, an emaciated old man perches on his shoulder and with his dangling skinny legs he grasps his neck in a pincer-like hold.  The exhausted Sindbad has no choice but to eat and sleep carrying on his back the old man (perhaps like the men who followed the African custom of riding on slaves).

This makes me think of the Indian Panchatantra Tales, which in 550 AD, are said to have been extremely popular in Persian translations. Did the Arabian storyteller adorn the Betaal Panchavimsati tales with further fictional details to create this particular old man of the sea?

A flying carpet

Metaphorically speaking, endless greed and lust can get the better of man and ride him, slave like. Men in those days had to walk for days to their destinations. The Arabian tales are woven from a zillion life situations, narratives and religious beliefs — an effortless journey undertaken on a daily basis. In the garb of fantasy many a historical fact has been jotted down by the fanciful chronicler — a timeless tapestry of fact and fiction. The experiences and realisations of everyman have orally arrived at the horizons of many an imaginary land and have been disbursed to untrod shores. Who on earth can suppress the desire to scour the globe and the heavens too, astride an Uran Khatola — a flying carpet? In practical terms it may not be possible but where is the harm in dreaming of the impossible?

Sir Richard Burton had visited Mecca to witness for himself the glory of the Haj. On this journey full of hardships, he heard the thousand and one incredible stories spun out by Scheherazade, just before dawn. He translated the tales word for word, and published them in English in the first half of Queen Victoria’s rule. The recording of experiences of human head and heart, unadulterated by any critical or moral judgment, opened possibilities of altering the prudish values then prevailing in England. That a vision stretching out into the horizon, the romance of adventure and the thrill of luxuriating in untold wealth can captivate all, is best exemplified by Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels — tales of adventure that have immortalised Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift.

Literature of no land can ever become popular unless it correlates the head with the heart. Unbeknownst to himself Shahryar, that wrathful Sultan who hated every woman, has enshrined his Scheherazade. He may have got a scribe to put into script the tales he had heard in the melting darkness of his bedroom. It added a glorious chapter to the literature of the world. The opportunity to dive deep into the ocean of fantasy, and experience unadulterated joy and thrill became everlasting for generations of readers all over the world.

Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016) resumed studies 17 years after marriage, completed her Masters in English, embarked on a teaching career and retired as a senior English teacher from a women’s college.Many of her articles were published in the magazine of the Bangiya Sahitya Samaj in Lucknow, of which Sucheta Kripalani was a founder member. At the age of 75, she embarked on a career of authorship, having successfully played the roles of a mother, a social worker, mentor, community leader and spiritual aspirant.

Ratnottama Senguptaformerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

(Published with permission of family)

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Categories
Musings

The Resolution

By Kritika Mehta

The world was dipped in swirling, glittering celebrations with friends, family and unknown to embrace a new year. And this time it seemed to be more about desire and dreams to turn into flowers and butterflies. Because everyone needed that more than ever. Is that why they were out? To conceal from themselves the reality this year unleashed upon us — as if, it wasn’t our own doing. Humans.

And here I was, at home rolled up in a black-feathered blanket reading Love Story by Erich Segal. The perfect woody-scented book I have had for years but never read. Maybe I wasn’t ready before. Somewhere I had this prenotion — though I never read about the book or the plot — that it would go to a place that was desolate. I checked the time, thirty-five minutes to midnight, to the new year and I already knew the ending would be sad. I am talking about the book.

I was already wafting into the next year and how I wanted it to be. People make new year’s resolutions. I never did that. But I do long for something more, something different. Not small routine alterations, or self-improvement goals. Something real, something solid. Because that is where it is tough, the unknown. That toughness, even if I don’t think about it, exists. All through the day and night. Something’s sticking in my heart from inside — every second of my life.

My thoughts were interrupted by some party music outside. So, I returned back to the book. It was almost the end. With a tear resting on the top of my lower eyelid, I ended it at 10 minutes to midnight. Was this how I wanted to start new year, crying over a book I didn’t even bother to read in years, engulfed by deep sensation of unfair endings to great love? Then this thought came to my mind: If I don’t have to tell anyone about it, then yes. That was what I wanted to do. Dig deep into a story that was so perfect right from start that it had to be flawed, broken into pieces and spread all over my heart. I needed that rush of tears in my veins and the gushy feelings filling my being. But trust me, the tear didn’t flow.

There were ten minutes remaining. With my eyes closed, I let my thoughts, the uncomfortable ones return. I opened my heart and asked my soul: What is it that you want? And I don’t know exactly from where these words came flooding into my mind. I don’t know. No that’s true, I have really never known. And whatever it is that is outside is all fake. At least for me it is. And, I don’t get it. What do I think of those people partying outside?  In this pandemic year, what is it that this year leaves behind? People are bothered more about partying instead of caring more about their friends, family and keeping them safe at home. Is being at home, happy — talking with your people and starting a new year that bad? It isn’t, right? Or, is it?

In those last few minutes, it struck me. Like that sound of the rumbling thunder that drags me deep into a feeling of fear and engulfs me so tightly that my mind, body and soul all belong to it. Yes, it struck me like that.

I am not real.

The life of posts and updates and deep poetic lines to justify the perfection of one’s journey – it’s not mine. The job, the money, the responsibilities of the family, doing things the right way and following laid-out plans, all this is making me blind.

There is a twitch in my little finger at least once every night. Just when I am about to sleep, it gives me a sensation that it’s not comfortable. My little finger is not comfortable in this body of lies. Thirty-one years of my life, thirty-one years of thoughts and opportunities to understand but my mind has been so beautifully organised that I fail to see; I fail to see that for me this perfectly programmed life is not right.

Drop the charade and face the reality. What matters to me? What really matters to me?

I don’t know. Then figure it out. This life you are leading is not mine and its eating me inside. So, figure it out now. It’s time.

Why hide behind conventions? What will happen when I cease to be this person? Will I miss her? Will I want to return to being her? Can I walk away from her?

This is one life, and it is too important to let it all just slide as I try to convince other people on how it is similar it is to theirs because it’s not. And, I don’t want it to be.

So, that is what I’ll do starting this year. Find. Find that me who I really want to be. I’ll find her and I’ll let her flow in my blood with pride. Will that be easy?

No.

I don’t even know where to start or how to even try. It won’t be easy to change. But it will be worth all my life. Yes, worth all my life.

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Kritika Mehta is a Sr. Technical Analyst. Working in IT, her heart lies everywhere and her soul wants to write everything down. So, the bread-winner and writer parts are now locked in a struggle.

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Categories
Musings

Mango Trees and Mangoes, with a Pinch of Salt & Chillie

A nostalgic journey to a village in Assam, fragmented memories of childhood, presented by Pronoti Baglary

My grandparent’s house had a giant mango tree. It stood right next to the entrance gate, on the edge of the dirt road that led up to the house, breaking off from the bigger dirt road that ran through the heart of the village. The gate was made of bamboo, faded yellow with time and sun. Two bamboos were planted perpendicular at the two ends of the path, with three hollowed out holes in each, and three long bamboos slid horizontally through these holes, across the path. They could be slid away to make way for people to enter. Or if you are dexterous enough, you could just bend and slide your body in through the spaces between the perpendicular bamboos. The bamboos came from the backyard of my grandparent’s house, from the thick foliage of bamboos that ran on the edge and signaled where the compound of their home ended. My sister and I were convinced that spirits lived there. Our grandma believed that too.

The mango tree was very tall. If you asked me now how tall, I couldn’t tell you. It was enormous. All I remember is that when I would try to embrace its giant trunk, I felt its width as insurmountable: my childish arms could not contend with it even when stretched fully to its extreme limits. And when I would crane my neck to look up at its branches laden with yellow mangoes, I could never stretch long enough to be able to fully take it all in. How old was I then? 6 or 7? Or could be 8 years old?

My sister and I loved summers. The school vacation meant we would visit the village and have the kind of unbridled freedom that only a village could provide for children. We had so many friends in the village, who we met every summer vacation. With them, we would be free to run from one end of the village to another. At the end of summer, we would depart with no way of knowing if we would see each other again. It was the kind of friendships only children can have: to be present so completely in those moments and enjoy them without feeling the need for the assurance of some form of continuance. In fact, they were special precisely because of their fleeting nature. I don’t remember their names anymore. In fact, I don’t even know if I knew their names then.

We would sit flat on the grass underneath the mango tree on summer afternoons and wait for the periodic “thuds” on the ground, of falling mangoes from the giant mango tree. There were afternoons of incessant thud-thud-thuds, and then there were long afternoons when we would sit and wait for something, anything to fall. You see, the mango tree was so tall that it was easier for us to wait for falling mangoes than to try and pluck them ourselves. We would gather below the tree, and splay under its shade, to talk and play or just doze. There were mangoes in all stages of development. The ripe ones could be eaten as they were. The ones which were unripe or at the initial stages of ripening, would need a little more help.

“I want it with some salt and a pinch of chillie.” Someone would exclaim. “It’s good only with salt and chillies.”

And then as if by magic, salt and chillies plied on wild leaves would be conjured out of thin air. Short stout country knives would be used. Once sliced we would eat the mangoes. The fastest food in the shortest time. Between mouthfuls of salt and spice and sourness, we would listen to our friends’ gossip: who was the dumbest at school, and who gave the slickest answers to the teachers; how the headmaster, who was also my grandparent’s neighbour, would sometimes doze off in the middle of teaching during harvest season; which theatre company would be performing in the neighbouring village or when we could go eat sugarcanes in the fields. Since my sister and I were from town, our friends always took it upon themselves to show us the best of whatever exciting was happening in the village at that time. Sometimes these conversations could go on till the depths of dusk when the conversations would naturally transition to the realm of country ghosts and demons. It had been firmly attested by many present that there was a lazy ghost in the thicket of bamboo behind my grandma’s house. Lazy, because it didn’t make an appearance often enough to be deemed active. Apparently, one only needed to piss out of fear for the ghost to be so disgusted that it would leave the living alone.

After summer storms, the ground below the tree would be dotted with mangoes. The whole village would pay a visit to take their share of the mangoes. It was not just a tree, but it also formed a nucleus where the villagers gathered.

One year, my sister and I spent our last glorious summer in the village and left — not to return for a long time. The next year, we didn’t come back. And then we didn’t come the year after and the one after that. There was no precise reason I can think of for not returning, except for the usual ones that most people would have: we grew out of it perhaps, got busy with school or perhaps my parents decided to not visit. And when I went back many years later, the tree was gone and so were my grandparents, the thicket of bamboos behind the house was gone too.

I wish I could recall the last summer in the village. I can’t. I did not even know it would be my last summer and what “last summers” entail till more than two decades later. We can never know when we would be doing something for the very last time. If we knew, would we be doing it any different?

My family and I moved around a bit from one rented house to another, till my parents built a house of our own in a small quiet town with a river running through it. In time, I left it too for the big city. I would return home every summer and sometimes in the winters, if it was a good year.

Coming back home this summer was different: it was the year of the pandemic. There was the time to reflect in the months I spent alone: like the world paused and all I had was this ringing in my ear like blank noise. It was borne of silence perhaps. Once I could fly back home, my usual three-hour journey from the airport to my home was intercepted by a variety of events which arose due to the new normal of the pandemic. I had to spend time in a quarantine facility, then get admitted to a hospital isolation ward. After a week at the hospital, I was sent home to self-isolate. Sequestered on the first floor of my home, the first afternoon after my hospital visit, I had the unfamiliar experience of being a stranger in my own house, the one I grew up in. I was home and yet I met no one.

For lunch, my mother left me a whole assortment of food outside the door: mutton with potatoes the way I like, a small piece of fish with mustard, a side of sticky rice that smelled like heaven, a crispy brinjal, lentils and lemon. And then a bit disjointed from the overall theme of the meal, was a bowl of raw mangoes grated fine and tempered with salt and chillies. Was it in lieu of dessert? It smelled of childhood memories.

“Did you like the mangoes?”, she asked me on the phone. She, on the ground floor and me, alone on the first floor of my house. “This year, there are a lot of monkeys coming. They eat everything. Your dad has to stand outside every morning when they come to drive them away. There are also insects this year. God knows how. And all the morning walkers steal the mangoes towards the road. There is nothing left on that side.” The tiny mango tree in my parent’s house was planted a couple of year ago. It was hugely popular with the neighbouring children, their tiny frames tried to extend themselves to reach out to the mangoes: so near, yet so far. Even the adults would place their yearly request to be sent mangoes — even the ones who would pick off mangoes during their morning walks: two birds with one stone. But there was always too much, much more than we could eat.

Once my quarantine was over, I re-emerged from my exile, into society. Sitting on the floor of my mother’s bedroom, my sister and I reminisced over our childhood over a plate of steaming lucchi (Bengali fried bread) and mango chutney. Sour and sweet, with ten different spices tempering the sucrose from the molasses; sticky with the aftertaste of the cinnamon and bay leaves. Both of us were in our thirties. We talked a lot about our childhoods now. Often these conversations were tinged with the self-realisation that retrospection sometimes brings. We could see ourselves completely as a person with detachment. I feared I would forget it all soon. Already I found gaping holes in stories, entire years missing from my childhood. I tried to string the missing details from photographs. My sister would fill in the gaps in my memory sometimes, but then, we never knew what we might be leaving out.

I wanted to talk about the mango tree.

“Do you remember the benches? And the rice mill in grandma’s house?” My sister asked.

Indeed, I forgot about the benches laid below the mango tree. I did not want to admit it. So, I said, “Yes. But they took apart the mill and put in somewhere else.”

When we talked of those times, it was always “we”, our identities melded into each other and so did our memories. That was my unchallenged version of our history for a long time. But lately we have been having more conversations about the rifts within these shared histories too: that sometimes we live the same events, but within, they live and occupy space in such different ways.

I call over my mother and ask her, “The giant mango tree in grandma’s house — the one next to the gate. It was so huge right!”

“It wasn’t that big,” my mother says, “It was still young. Hardly planted a couple of years before your sister was born.”

“But wasn’t it so tall? So tall that none of us could reach for its mangoes ourselves?”

“It was not so big. It wasn’t even that old. It was quite young. When I was pregnant with your sister, I couldn’t eat anything so I would just eat the mangoes, salted with a pinch of chillies. That’s all I could eat with rice”.

“But we couldn’t reach them by ourselves. It was so tall”.

“No, you don’t just eat mangoes falling on the ground. They are too ripe to eat by then and they get bruised.”

“I remember it being so big!”. I have this flashback of a giant mango falling from high up on the tree with an enormous thud on the ground. The yellow ripe mango splits open, right next to my feet. “But the mangoes were huge right? I remember them being so big.”

“Yes, they were like your usual mangoes. Not too sweet, not too sour. But it wasn’t so big. The one in your other grandma’s house though. We had one on the back of the house, next to the well. It was many decades old, with a stump so big.” She stretches her arms and shoulders to visibly demonstrate the girth of the tree as being larger than her outstretched arms. “Both of you were very young. You must not remember but when….”

“But when was the mango tree from grandma’s house cut then? Why?” Impatient with my mother’s digression to her own childhood’s mango tree, I swiftly interject to make her stay on course with the history of mine.

“I don’t remember why. Perhaps it was too much of a nuisance for them to have people gather for mangoes all the time.” She leaves mumbling something about milk boiling on the stove.

“But I used to think it’s the largest tree ever!” I turn to my sister and exclaim.

“It was huge. I remember it. It was so big. But we were so young. Who knows anyway?”

The rain lashed on. It was monsoon in all its glory. That was what I missed the most: the sound of rain. With my bowl of raw mangoes, I sat on the balcony chair and looked out at the tiny mango tree in my parent’s house. I took a bite out of my bowl of salty and spicy mangoes. As I watched the mango tree in my house, it dawned on me for the first time in many years: like searching for a piece of important paper for hours only to find it on the coffee table. There it stood: short and strong, with its strong branches laden with mangoes, right next to the entrance gate of my parent’s home. I see it clearly for the first time in years. I take a mouthful: the sweet and salty and sour mangoes tasted like childhood.

Things stay the same and we change. Sometimes if we are lucky, we can find the things we thought we lost within the things we didn’t realise we had. Or maybe it’s merely a consolation, a getting older thing, something about forgetting and misremembering maybe. Maybe it’s the mind teaching us to contend with loss and regret, to lay memories and losses and gains on top of each other until these become a pastiche of a million loves and losses. Lately, every time I try to unpeel a layer, I seem to affect the whole arrangement of the composite and how it lay in my mind. But this has to do I guess, there is no other way to memorise memories.

 Pronoti Baglary is a lifelong student of Sociology, and interested in identity, technology and culture. She is currently based in Paris.

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Categories
Musings

The Magical Nana Banana Cake

By Michelle Hanley

I wish I could remember why we were all in Dallas. My family likes to celebrate as many holidays together as we can: Thanksgiving, the weekend before Christmas, Texas/Oklahoma football weekend. You know, the usual. I know it was at Edgestone 1, the house Nana and Papa lived in before moving to the single-story house next door.

A group of us sat around the kitchen island. Or on the sofas in the living room. Wait. Maybe we were eating at the dining table. Nana would have been in the kitchen, doing whatever it was she did in the kitchen. Usually, she hummed and opened cabinets and moved from one end to the other as though pulled by some invisible force. Then, voila, she’d drift away to reveal a conjured pan of something delicious cooling on the counter.

We must have been eating, because my aunt mentioned cake. “My favorite was when Mom made sheet cake. Remember that? You’d know it was cool enough to eat because she’d open that can of frosting, stick a knife in it, and set it on the counter beside the pan.”

My aunts remembered that, but we grandchildren did not. Someone asked about the cake flavor.

My aunt frowned. “You know, I don’t remember that. Hey, Mom! What was that sheet cake you used to make when we were kids?”

The humming stopped. “Banana.”

“That’s right.” My aunt snapped her fingers. “God that was good.”

The conversation fragmented, as it always did. People got up, drifted away, their places taken by someone else who eased effortlessly into the flow.

Papa wandered by. Stopped and looked at his brood. He ticked off numbers on his fingers. “…Seven, eight, nine. Nine people and you’re all talking at the same time.” The mock disgusted wag of his head accompanied him back to his room. Maybe he didn’t do that then, but it wouldn’t have been unusual.

I don’t remember my aunt leaving the group, but on her return, she held a square of cake in her hand. No plate, just a small piece of cake with a smear of cream cheese icing on top. She popped it into her mouth and said around it, “Nana made cake.”

I can only imagine that we looked like a video of Black Friday shoppers. Elbows flew and we jockeyed for position even before we reached the cake. No one used plates. That was the beauty of the icing can. You cut a small hunk, then shifted over to smear icing on it before giving way for the next in line.

Someone probably said something about loving “Nana’s banana cake”, but with the loud voices crying “don’t eat it all” and “save some for everyone else”, the possessive was drowned out. For the next day or so, anyone who entered the front door was greeted with, “Nana Banana Cake is in the kitchen”.

The weekend ebbed and flowed, as those weekends did. Friends and friends-who-might-as-well-be-family dropped by. Some sport or other played constantly on a television. Far too many people crammed into a small sitting room to drink coffee in the morning. An aunt mentioned, incredulously, that there was still a piece of Nana Banana Cake left after two days.

Late that evening, Papa wandered through the kitchen. He shot a furtive glance over his shoulder but somehow didn’t see us. He hunched over the pan. A knife scraped against plastic. When he walked away, an aunt went to the kitchen to investigate. She held up the pan to show us that Papa had left only a tiny sliver of cake behind. Laughing, she yelled, “Dad! Why didn’t you just take the whole piece?”

His voice drifted down the hall. “Someone else might have wanted some.”

I don’t remember when that was, but Nana has made her cake many times since then. Or so she says. It may just be that last bit of cake refilling the pan over and over again. No one has ever admitted to eating the last bite.

Michelle Hanley loves paddleboarding, fly fishing, and looking for odd stories that can’t possibly be true. Look for her other work in Dread Naught but Time, MOJO, and at http://www.ftpdblog.wordpress.com.

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Categories
Musings

Core Values

A discussion by Candice Louisa Daquin based on reading Candace Owens’ book Blackout: How Black America Can Make Its Second Escape from the Democrat Plantation

According to the author, Candace Owens:

Hilaría Baldwin is NOT Spanish.
Rachel Dolezal will NEVER be black.
A biological man is NOT a woman.
A biological female will never be a man.

These people are just ‘playing pretend’ and as such, it’s not real. Obviously, her rhetoric has caused a mixed response. Many would agree with the first two examples, and be offended by the last two. Yet in some ways, the same argument is being used. Let’s pick this apart some.

Candace Owens in her book Blackout: How Black America Can Make Its Second Escape from the Democrat Plantation makes some points that really question what we assume. She’s not politically correct and maybe that’s not such a bad thing in some regards, although how far we can take this, is still up for debate.

When white people (identified as people with white skin) appropriate ‘white guilt’ they can be argued to be patronizing the experiences of the non-white on behalf of whom they experience guilt. It is worth pointing out, few of us come from one racial lineage, few, aside ironically the Nazis, have ever put a ‘number’ on the quota of DNA we need to possess to ‘belong’ to a single group (Native Americans and Jews define based on blood quota but they also accept people into their groups who do not possess this specific blood quota, through marriage and religious conversion). As much as we may want to quantify ‘belonging’ using race, it’s immediately challenging when we get clear exceptions to the stereotype of what we ‘perceive’ as solid racial identifiers, and that’s happening more and more as we become more homogenized and universal.

It used to be we argued a man’s propensity for violence, criminality, lunacy, based on his physiognomy and that perspective of ‘telling what someone is by how they look’ hasn’t left us as much as it should have. Whilst we may have stopped assuming men with big noses are Jewish, we continue to judge when we say someone is black because their skin is not white, or white, because their skin is not black. It leaves too many in-betweens out.

It can be argued that the guilt associated with past historic colonialism or racism is owning one’s ancestors’ ‘mistakes’ or, contextualizing based on the past culture and the time-period by stating that such practices are not longer socially acceptable and were never acceptable morally. Surely that is a very good thing?

The reverse argument looks unapologetically at things in their time period and context only. If a former President used a racist word, it may have been the usage in a racist society, and we are not in that context any longer. Nonetheless racism is racism. So, was it the President who was racist? Was the use of the word racist? Or was it par for the course and if so, is that acceptable in historical context? Should we eradicate any mention of that President, should we give reparation? What should we do to ensure we’re inclusive today about something we feel is intolerable?

For example, when we tear down ‘heroes’ of the past for being racist, we demolish role models who have been beloved for centuries. This causes very strong feelings from both sides. Winston Churchill was apparently quite the racist, but he also saved a continent in WW2, do we eliminate his statue and eliminate him or do we forgive him (and can we ever condone forgiveness for an atrocity, and what constitutes an atrocity versus ignorance) for his racism in context or do we put it in its social milieu? Those are all questions that have many aspects to them.

Take a President who has mixed-race children in a consensual relationship with a black woman, and who loves all his children, but still uses the ‘N-Word’ and has slaves? What about the black men who had black slaves? What of the child who is of mixed-race but passes as white? How about the woman who chooses to be with the President even though she’s at a disadvantage? Where do we quantify the level of disadvantage to understand the inequity and thus, discover the guilty party and misjustice committed? Why would we use this calculation for some scenarios but not others? Why do we pick and choose our outrages?

Imagine you are a woman who was raped, can you understand people like Steven Spielberg saying that Roman Polanski should be ‘forgiven’ because he’s paid his dues (by being exiled, which was really him on the run for decades, in relative luxury) for his child-abuse and other sexual assault charges (which he absconded to Europe from, instead of facing justice). Do you condemn Spielberg et al as being ‘male heterodoxy’ or patriarchy gone wild? Same with Woody Allen. Same with Bukowski. We pick and choose our villains. We could even argue, if we changed the colour of the villain would our response be different and if so, why?

The argument in the artworld, given how many ‘creatives’ commit atrocious acts, has always been ‘try to separate the artist from the act’ but when do you stop doing that? If you found out Woody Allen called black people the “N Word’ would you say that’s enough I can’t support him? What if he called gays, “fags and degenerates” — would that be enough? When David Bowie died and it came out, he wasn’t the paragon of virtue, people said; Oh, but he was so talented, he is my hero, I can’t give him up. When Michael Jackson was revealed to be a paedophile, people said; But he had a hard childhood it wasn’t his fault. When we excuse one and not the other, what message are we sending? Same with Bill Cosby and those ‘father’s we adored on TV growing up.

When Larry King died, the dialogue focused on his positive impact in society and little was said about the accusations of sexual misconduct that caused him to step down from his late-night show. Is that because ‘now is not the time to mention those things?’ When did that rule get applied? What if we changed the gender, would men be as forgiving of not mentioning it? Look at the discrepancies given in sentencing between those with money and influence versus those without and men versus women. Had Aileen Wuornos more money, maybe she wouldn’t have got the death penalty? How much of why she was punished that harshly was to do with not understanding the body politic and the survivor? Just as we dismiss those without celebrity attorneys. We know ‘justice’ isn’t blind or fair, but what about us? Do we analyze and judge fairly?

Is it right of us as a society and as an individual to ever pick and choose ‘what is enough’ and if we do, what are we saying about those things we decide are ‘not’ enough? In other words, if we argue that we like Bukowski because we divorce who he was in his personal life from his life as an incredibly talented writer, then we’re saying those acts were ‘not enough’ but if we find out he used the “N Word” how many of us would then agree it ‘was enough’ to condemn him and divorce him from his artistic-license?

In other words, is it ever acceptable to pick and choose without diminishing what we ‘choose’ not to condemn a person for?

I suspect, if any large name white artist of any kind were to go around saying the “N Word” and “fags and degenerates” many people would stop supporting them. But if that same artist were to go around saying “I’m anti-Muslim” or “I’m anti-Jewish” or we found out they were implicated in a #metoo outcry, we might say, “I’m going to separate the artist from the act.”

If the same artist were black, they would be socially permitted to use the “N-Word” because it’s acceptable in society to reappropriate a racial word and use it on your own race. We have some strange tolerances and rules as a society don’t, we? The same is true with friendships. How many people do we know say things like: “If you support Trump unfriend me now”, whereas if someone supported ‘Pro-Life’ even all their friends were ‘Pro-Choice’ they may not cut them off. Why do we have a notion of what is a breaking-point and what is not? Is it entirely our own breaking-point or deeply influenced by cultural perceptions of the moment?

Only fifteen years ago, people didn’t defend or talk of LGBTQX anywhere like they do now. Nobody thinks fifteen years is a long time. Social media makes ‘trends’ come and go; we change without realizing how much we are changing. What we applaud, stand for, condemn, all shift according to the whim of a mass which is greater than our singular sum. Fifteen years ago, when I told friends it ‘hurt’ me to see signs saying ‘marriage equals a man and a woman’ all over my town, they nodded and said nothing. Now it would be a march and a hash-tag. Then there’s the nuance behind the nuance, like ‘pretend acceptance’ but you’re still not invited over to their house, so it’s superficial at best. That’s rampant. Do we talk about that kind of pretense too?

Some of this is about what is perceived and what is the breaking point, or the socially perceived intolerance. Ask yourself, are you doing this because of inflamed momentum or are you being hypocritical? In theory, if you don’t have the same responses to all the things you believe are wrong, should you have any at all? Likewise, there are critical themes to most people’s personal sense of morality, that they rarely shift from. This explains why a Latino could vote for a politician who is blatantly being racist toward Latinos. They are not voting because of that; they are voting because that politician represents a party who is Pro-Life and Pro-guns and maybe that’s what their core values are.

It’s never as simple as we like to think it is. In an ideal world we’d all have a shared moral compass but we really don’t. For some, the freedom to bear arms far outweighs climate change, or women’s rights or immigrants’ rights, and we may condemn them for that, but we should consider for a moment if we are just as rigid. We may defend a Pro-Choice candidate who is against Israel even as we are Jewish. It’s never about one thing. It’s often not about what you think it is.

One might argue, this is black and white thinking and it is. But that’s where we get into trouble, by thinking dogmatically about complicated things. It’s simply not that simple and that’s part of Owens’ over-arching point in her book Blackout: How Black America Can Make Its Second Escape from the Democrat Plantation.

Some non-black people will be offended or angry that they are not being ‘included’ in the right to be outraged about racism. After all weren’t most of the protesters in Portland, Oregon white? And didn’t they protest for #BLM for weeks? Why doesn’t that count?

It does count. But every time a non-black person stands up for a black person, Owen says, it discounts the black person’s response by appropriation. And this well meaning ‘white guilt’ overlays the natural response of black people to oppression and prejudice and racism. It’s just another way of keeping (the black person) on the plantation, according to Owen.

Owen is brave to write this, because it’s poking the bear. Another example would be the women’s movement in the 60/70s and how ultimately the black women’s movement divorced from the white women’s movement for that exact reason. Appropriation. But is Owens’ right about all of it? Some cases are more easily dissected than others. Let’s look at her examples:

Hilaría Baldwin is NOT Spanish. Rachel Dolezal will NEVER be black. Those are accurate. Rachel Dolezal has gone on to ‘identify’ as Black, the argument being, whilst she knows she is not biologically black she identifies as black. Owen’s points out, whilst this may be the case, she cannot know what it is like to be prejudiced against for the color of her skin because she was born white and remains biologically white.

The argument is similarly applied to Baldwin. But there’s another side to this. Many of us know black people who don’t look black but are biologically black (take Wentworth Miller from Prison Break). We know people who look black but are not nearly as black as others who don’t, and we know people who are Spanish but don’t speak Spanish or relate to it. It’s simply not as easy as that … or is it?

Dolezal was born white, she inherited ‘white privilege’ and now identifies as black and has black biological kids. She may have had no more white privilege than some black women who do not look black and ‘pass’ as white just as she tried to ‘pass’ as black. The difference being, Dolezal was NOT black. Where do we draw the line? Are we angry at what she did more than the reality of her experience? Are we punishing her or really trying to define something that isn’t always as simple as it seems?

Just as much as there is a black and white set-in stone, there is not. Twins can be born one black and one white, does the white one says ‘I am white’ and the black one says ‘I am black’ and that’s all there is to it? They can say mixed-race but what do people see? Do we need disclaimers? Or are things based on snap-judgement of perception. I would say the later, and as such, we are all prejudiced because black people make snap judgements about black and white faces as much as white people do.

The difference here is the power in society and what you can do with it. Historically white oppression meant if a white person WAS prejudiced because of a person’s skin colour they would be racist; whereas if a black person was prejudiced because of a person’s skin colour, it would be seen as a response to the racism inherent in society.

But how do we know this?

Within all cultures there have been casteism and racism and prejudice among similar groups, based on skin colour and other aspects. If a black person says to a darker skinned black person, they are inferior, they are technically not being racist, they are thought to be appropriating racial bigotry. But isn’t that patronizing and assumptive?

In India because they were a colonial country, they inherited casteism that came with prizing fair skin over dark, and it is argued, the white man bequeathed this. But many Indians have since said, this predated the white man, just as slavery predated the white man in Africa. Whilst nobody is taking away the damage and harm done BY the white man, it’s never as cut and dry as it seems.

What we can use as an ultimate determinant is our biological status. I am biologically mixed-race; nobody can change that. But what of a biological gender?

Owen’s says; A biological man is NOT a woman. And a biological female will never be a man. So, all the arguments earlier, are moot. If your biology is NOT black you are not black. If your biology is not Spanish heritage you are NOT biologically Spanish, even if you identify as such, bad luck. How does this work when looking at transgender folk?

The very nature of being transgender is you are biologically born as one gender and you may wish to physically alter that gender, but you ‘identify’ as either no gender (androgynous) or another gender than your biological one. In recent years, identification has soared in terms of youth especially, identifying as non-binary or not wishing to label themselves with a gender. But ‘trans’ is different to someone who wishes not to identify as a gender, it also means they may wish to physically change their inherent biological gender.

If someone born female undergoes gender reassignment surgery, they are F2M. If they identify as male and do not undergo gender reassignment surgery, they will still call themselves male even if they continue to have the biology of a woman, because they ‘identify’ as male. Thus, it is ‘identity’ that is the key here, NOT the absolutism of biology which no matter what you do, you cannot completely alter.

Owens’ argues that using this logic, a woman who ‘identifies’ as black cannot be black because identity doesn’t trump biology. And therefore, transgenders are not what they ‘identify as,’ they continue to belong to the gender of their birth. She uses this as partial argument for why she does not believe transgender should be permitted into the military in the USA.

It’s quite a bold argument and she’s received a huge amount of backlash from it, although the LGBTQX community has been quieter than had Owens’ herself not been black because of course, if you are calling a black person out for calling you out, that’s another hornet’s nest. The cardinal rule book has been thrown out because it really depends whom you are accusing of what and when. One person will be forgiven if they apologise, because we like them, the next person will be vilified because we do not like them so much. Our double standards dictate our sense of truth as much as truth does.

Ultimately a liberal might say: Where is the HARM in identifying as anything as long as it doesn’t hurt someone? But Liberals were especially mortified at the two cases of women identifying as a different race/culture, because they thought it was offensive. Again, we have a group of people ‘defending’ another group by being offended on their behalf. Ironically most people of colour laughed it off and thought it was madness. Some pointed to the unfairness of Dolezal getting a job on the basis of being considered black as she was seen to benefit from a falsity. Some thought it smacked of white appropriation at its worst.

People who have an issue with trans, typically feel they are pretending to be another gender and they take issue with that because they don’t want them in the ‘wrong toilet’ or ‘peeing next to my son’ – the thought there being: there’s something dangerous or wrong or threatening.

Let’s look at that. Are trans more likely to commit a crime? No. Are they more likely to be paedophiles? No. So the ‘fear’ is more the fear of the unknown, something they do not understand. Can the same be said of white people appropriating the black culture, or a non-Spanish person pretending to be Spanish? Is it more a case of cultural/racial disrespect? In which case what is disrespectful about a man identifying as a woman or vice versa? Where is the harm?

It is about harm? A biological man can rape a biological woman. Harm and its myriad definitions, is as much about a deep-rooted sense of fear. What Roman Polanski did to kids was ‘harm’ but some say ‘let sleeping dogs lie, he’s paid for it.’ Does harm have an expiry date or a forgiveness quota? One thing I notice is, when it comes to women being sexually assaulted, it’s relatively diminished by society if you look at how many convictions occur. When it comes to famous people committing crimes, more people defend them. When it comes to talented people committing crimes, more people say, ‘separate the artist from the act’.

If brick layer Barry down the road, slept with a 12-year-old I’m not sure people would be saying ‘separate the art from the act’. So, are we giving talented people we admire, an out?

When we talk of harm, we can consider Economist Dierdre McClusky, who M2F claims she can understand the oppression of women now that she is one. Some Feminists argue a M2F is the ultimate appropriation of gender and men dictating the female. Just as it can be argued a man cannot truly understand a woman’s experience any more than a non-black can be black. Conversely, Theorist Kamla Bhasin believes: “Feminism is not biological. Feminism is an ideology.” Can being black be an ideology? No. So why can being female be an ideology?  Can you experience by proxy or is it the lack of ‘born into it’ experience that denies true understanding rather than chosen experience? What of those within a group who don’t understand their own racial or gendered experience?

Likewise, are we too quick to condemn say, someone we do not understand, just because it makes us feel uncomfortable? How much is influenced by those factors we don’t even consider, but colour our sense of how far we go on any given subject? How much is natural bias versus appropriated outrage, versus subject du jour? Owens’ points out that white protests were as much about whites as about blacks and as such, they defeated the purpose and were patronizing and insulting to blacks. She believes blacks need to do their own things, and not get re-appropriated by white groups seeking to ‘defend’ them. Is there any merit to that?

When I grew up it was de riguer to say things like: “Your mum’s a lezzie”. And no way was I going to come out during those days and admit to being queer. Nowadays we can come out to things far more easily, and some argue, it’s a slippery slope, what’s next? Where will it end?

As much as you want tolerance and acceptance and an end to prejudice, racism, bigotry, you are also opening a flood gate. Some think, next it will be polyamory, just as it went from marriage to divorce — living together unmarried — gays living together — gays marrying/adopting — more than two people living together in a sexual relationship. If we apply the ‘if it’s not hurting anyone’ rule, then so what? But what about possible next steps? Already organisations of paedophiles, including under-age children, have been lobbying for recognition.

Paedophiles believe, if it is consensual then there is no harm, and their kind of love should be accepted. BDSM groups are doing the same. Whilst in theory we should be able to deal with this by applying the ‘do no harm’ rule, it begins to get more cloudy, as more complicated elements are under consideration. After all, human beings are perverse folk at best.

One might argue, there is a black and white. A wrong and right. A good and bad. A woman and a man. And there is a comfort in reverting back to those old tropes because they’re immutable. Until they’re not. And what we say in polite company as we all know, is quite different to what we say behind closed doors. How often do my LGBTQX friendly neighbors call me ‘the next-door lezzie’ even now? What would they say if I had a non-binary child? How often do my friends roll their eyes at ‘another Jewish post’ and how many times do black people get sick of white people talking about black issues?

On the other hand, if we do nothing and are true armchair liberals/conservatives, then ‘nothing comes from nothing.’ How do we give people the respect they deserve in how they identify, as we continually evolve a sense of what is permanent, biological, social, emotional, psychological? Where does that end? When an eight-year-old decides they are trans and wants an operation at thirteen, do the parents respect their right? Or worry about if they’ll change their mind in adulthood? How can you accomplish both? None of these subjects are easy. Many believe they are overly pathologized, but there remains some value in seeking therapy if nothing else, to work through the myriad considerations of any life-altering change.

Questioning these things leaves most of us really perplexed and possibly frustrated. Not questioning them is worse. We should not condemn those who have the courage to question them, even if we disagree. We have often learnt more from contention than from agreement. Whilst I may not agree with Owens’ in many ways, I appreciate her willingness to engage.

Candice Louisa Daquin is a Sephardi immigrant from France who lives in the American Southwest. Formerly in publishing, Daquin is now a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the writer.

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Musings

In the Winter Sun

A special for the Republic Day of India by Nishi Pulugurtha, what will it be like this year with social distancing and the global pandemic

The Republic Day of India being observed by school students wearing traditional clothes. Photo courtesy: Wiki

Christmas this year was a quiet affair like most other festive days for the past nine months of 2020. The pandemic has changed much of life as it was for all and for me. I have been indoors mostly.  Work and reading has kept me busy for much of the time. Online classes and examinations tire me but then reading and writing keeps me pleasantly occupied. And yes, cooking too. As the sun mellowed and temperatures dropped a little, I began to spend some time in the afternoon sun in the backyard. The water tank is my seat and a few plants around add to the ambience. A few colourful butterflies flitter around, the neighbour’s cat mews as it moved around.

I sat in the afternoon sun catching up on a novel that arrived a few days ago when I heard a voice. The two little girls in the red building just beside my apartment building were back again. They were at their mamar bari (maternal uncle’s house). The little one, the younger of the two, asked me what I was doing. The last time she was here, she was mostly quiet, following her sister around. It was the older one who did most of the talking. This time, the older one played a more protective role – that of the elder sister. When I expressed my surprise, she told me that the little one talks a lot nowadays. She, for one, still had online classes to attend to, she made it a point to tell me that. The mother looked out from the window with a warning — the little one asks too many questions and that they will keep coming. She added that if I was doing something important, I would be constantly disturbed. I smiled at them. 

I answered her question, told her that I was reading a book. She then wanted to know what the book was about. I told her it was a story book. She then asked me my name. When I told her, she repeated it after me. Then again, she asked me why I was sitting outside. And she went on and on. The questions kept coming. She had a small doll and she showed it to me. She wanted to see what I had in my hand. I show her the book. I know she could not see it clearly as she was on the second floor. But then, she was happy to see it. I guess, she was happy that I responded to her. A little later, she was joined by her older sister who smiled and told me they were going for lunch, reassuring me they would be back soon.

I smiled at the two at that window and as the questions stopped and the two disappeared, went back to the novel. The sun was on my back, a little kitty on the wall under the neem tree. As it got warmer, I moved indoors. I could hear their goings on. It was time for my classes too.

Today, I heard that familiar voice again. We have been talking almost every day now. She told me she has a book too. She told me she is reading. She even had a pencil in her hand. I asked her about her book, and she began a tale – a tale of a princess imprisoned in a big house. She tries showing me the pictures in her book. “Can you see the pictures?” she asks. I smiled at her and listened to the bits and pieces of her story. The older one appeared at the window bars, smiled at me and said that she had been reading that story to her sister. The little one wanted to read, everyone else around was doing so.

It is nice to see the book in her hand, her interest in them and in stories. It was also sad to note that they are, like most of us, stuck in small spaces. I hear the voices of these two girls ‘playing’ with the two young boys on the opposite terrace. Their play was verbal, they could not meet, run about or fight. One of the best childhood memories that I have is playing on the street just in front of our home. In winters we played badminton, our racquets would be out and dusted and shuttlecocks bought and kept ready. We lost many of the shuttlecocks. They would fall into the open drain, get completely wet and dirty, would land up on trees, would get damaged too soon. We took turns to buy them. There were plastic ones available too, and though they lasted longer we didn’t like them. We played singles and doubles as well – pushing and jostling on that road in the para (colony). We would stop for a passing vehicle and then get back to it, all over again. 

It is not just because of the times we are in, running around and playing on the streets is almost a thing of the past these days. There are other things that keep children more occupied and other activities too. Times change and so do norms. I just hope that these little ones get a nicer space to live in. As I go on with work, the headphones plugged in, cutting me from sounds excepting the ones that emanate from the laptop, I move, for some time, into another world, a world that most of us have got used to in these COVID-worn times. In one of my classes, one student says that since Republic Day was approaching and that we would still be online connected virtually, maybe in one class we could just talk about how our lives have been affected by the pandemic. “There would be the flag hoisted at college,” someone else chipped in.

“Yes,” said another, “but we wouldn’t be there. So, it would be interesting to talk about the scenario now.”

“I saw flags being made in a house nearby,” said another. I agreed to the idea immediately. I would surely like to hear about what young minds feel and think about things happening around us.

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Nishi Pulugurtha’s works include a monograph Derozio, travel essays Out in the Open, edited volume of travel essays Across and Beyond, and The Real and the Unreal and Other Poems

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Musings

Pandemic Tales: The Diary of a Hypochondriac

 By Mayuresh V. Belsare

Everyone we know has been fighting in their own ways in these uncertain times. My own conflicts have spanned from being highly emotional to confused and anxious. A lot of it would have remained buried in the pages of my diary had it not been for this urge to share my personal experiences from the COVID timelines. Here’s a peek into my personal journey from such times that I hope will entertain you no less, provided you believe in divine intervention.

In the past few weeks and months, we have understood the importance of focusing only on the meaningful aspects of our day to day life. I have always believed that in mitigating hurdles of existence, the universe comes to your rescue in the form of divine intervention. My everyday travel companion and faculty colleague, Apurva Bhilare, cackled unapologetically with unbridled joy upon hearing this. She agreed with me when I explained that I have coined this phrase to describe how much relaxed one feels to be unexpectedly relieved of some mundane, tedious and boring tasks, which if not done wouldn’t have made significant impact on many lives. At this, she too wished such divine interventions would come to her rescue as she planned to take leave and get married by the year end.

This divine intervention has helped us all to take a pause and take a relook at our lives. In my case the first six months proved to be peaceful. However, in the month of September, I got my first jolt. My wife had contracted an infection from the Corona virus. She resides in Mumbai and it was difficult for me to be by her side as I am based out of Pune.  Some did try to urge me to her side saying work should not be a hindrance in fulfilling my duties towards my family. Staying true to my nature and relying upon my wisdom, I did eventually ignore their conventional advice. But it got me thinking — am I slave to work or love? Or is my work my love? Turns out I am as ruthless as this system that compels an individual to beat machines at giving uninterrupted output.

A self-confessed hypochondriac, I was getting restless by this time. And I didn’t have to wait for long before I experienced the symptoms myself. The stage was set for an action packed sequence. The frequency of ayurvedic concoctions also known as kadhas* was increased to thrice a day. Other immunity boosting tablets cropped up on my workstation. Breathing exercises became my constant companion. Consulting a physician was the last resort on the action plan. Frantic calls were made to my scientist brother in the US and his advice sought. And yes, spirituality suddenly invaded my otherwise predictable life with all of its aura and myriad charm.

By this time my wife had conquered the initial fear and she had become stable. She said one need not panic and should try to stay calm. Surprisingly, she asked me to get tested if I continued to feel uncomfortable. On the other hand, my brother had asked me to wait and watch since he was well aware of my hypochondriac self. Genetically blessed with acute acidity that acts up in mysterious ways, I had experienced many of its scary manifestations in the past few months — from racy heartbeats to bouts of uneasiness.

Yes, I realised that in the past few months of the pandemic-imposed social isolation, I had valiantly braved innumerable onslaughts of this multi-headed demon, which included enduring unmanageable headaches to unexplained erratic heartbeats and what not. Add to this the unending and irrational work pressures day in and out. As a result, I had started contemplating an untimely termination of the drive to go ahead at all. Looking back, I can fearlessly confess to a severe depression without any inhibition. Once again I realised the need for family support. I have always believed that seeking any outside help is not only unscientific but also a sheer waste of hard earned money.

So, here I was popping homeopathy and ayurvedic tablets in the hope of driving away that familiar yet detestable throat infection that typically began as a sore throat and grew scarier with every passing hour. The unnerving news of my dear friend and another senior office colleague having fallen prey to the pandemic and being in hospital added to my anxiety.

However, it was not going to be easy for me to take any tests since it would mean pulling my septuagenarian parents into the melee. To make matters worse, a severe bout of cough had seized my mother. So, for a while I forgot my discomfort and, instead, took over her role. I made the poor creature swallow and ingest everything I could lay my hands on from her vast repertory of ayurvedic and homeopathy medicines. A diabetic patient, taking her out for any more tests would have jeopardised her health. The same went for my father. Though non-diabetic and healthy, his chronic cough coupled with exposed risk would have made matters worse.So, here I was, concealing my anxiety and putting on a brave face.

Then I could take it no longer. I called up my family physician. In the first call itself, he advised me to observe home isolation and immediately do a couple of tests including a chest x-ray. At the same time, he prescribed the medicines which are administered to COVID patients. From that moment, the pulse oximeter, thermometer and the blood-pressure measuring kit became my constant companion. For the next few days, the meticulousness with which I tabulated my hour-by-hour progress would have found a mention in any medical journal though it now remains reduced to pretty memorabilia.  Also, I wish I could explain to my physician how irrational his idea of self-isolation at this stage was as my parents and I had already shared our collective biota many times over within this period. Also, logic said that we would have to consume the same medicines irrespective of the infection.

Needless to say, when the physician called up the next day, as they had to keep records of patients with symptoms, he was furious as I had not done any tests. In desperation he asked me to report immediately should I experience further discomfort. By this time, my mother was back to her enthusiastic self and immersed in the preparation for hosting the annual ritual of the Navratri Puja* at home.

In retrospect, all of this looks a bit weird. But that’s how life is — it’s never all that simple, or is it for you? Fortunately, with divine intervention all was well and continues to be well. Apurva, I now hear has embarked on her journey of marital bliss too.

But hey, wait! What’s that with the second wave–I am feeling some soreness in my throat again.

*khadas: A homemade preparation using easily available spices and condiments

* Navaratri Puja: A ten-day long worshiping ritual of the goddess Durga

Mayuresh Belsare is a faculty at the Department of Journalism & Mass Communication, Vishwakarma University, Pune. His love for writing includes copywriting and writing for the audio-visual medium.

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Musings

From the Pages of a Soldier’s Diary…

By Mike Smith

My adoptive father was too old for military service when war broke out in 1939, but young enough by 1941 to be sent to India with the RAF (Royal Air Force), where he stayed until after that war’s end.

I’ve served, but not in an army, for five years under difficult circumstances, though nowhere near as difficult, and not half a world away from everything I knew about and had been led to believe. So, I have only an inkling of the stress he must have been under.

I have a couple of tiny diaries that he kept. Diaries were illegal for soldiers, I believe, which might explain their size. But they were sufficient for what he had to record, which by the second volume had reduced mostly to the chiselled capitals, day after day, of no mail.

I had, and to my regret, lost, a small pamphlet of Hindustani, issued to him by the Wild Woodbines cigarette brand. I can still count to ten – ek, doe, teen* and some more but probably not with good inflection. And phrases, the meanings of which have faded, can be brought to mind and tongue like fragments of old tunes. For a short time during my childhood, my father employed a man from the sub-continent, and he taught me a little more. I suspect he was badly treated, perhaps unknowingly, probably without conscious malice, by the other workers and left under circumstances that smacked, even to my child’s eye and ear, of dogs going to live on a farm.

His very presence, I think, must have owed something to my father’s experience of India. It had pervaded his consciousness and never left him. Neither did the malaria he had caught there. Throughout my childhood in the fifties, I was a chota wallah*, and slept in a charpoy, and was exhorted to jaldi jao*, not, I suspect, the politest way to summon or dismiss someone.

Quite co-incidentally I encountered an ‘old soldier’ of doubtful veracity, who plied me with British Army issue ration blocks dated to the 1940s, among which were ‘curry’, probably of the lamb or goat variety. To these, water was added, and the mush boiled. The smell was nice. I liked curry. But father would light a cigar, just as he did when our dog farted, and he’d reminisce about India, not fondly. The poverty and dirt had appalled him. He had misunderstood, or at least not become aware of the taboos on which hand did what. Yet he’d taken part in a failed distribution of tinned beef raided from the quartermaster’s stores, equally appalled at people literally dying in the streets of starvation, while the cinema reassured British troops of the vast food supplies kept for emergencies.

The Hindus had refused the meat, with a hostility that he never understood, but their refusal in the face of death both amazed him, and, I believe, destroyed his faith in the religion of his own country — he had a pious sister who, he told me, could never have made such a sacrifice for her faith. He had a brother-in-law too, who was a conscientious objector, and would never hear a word said against him. I think the Indian experience might have contributed to that. He told me also of a hut full of his comrades being ‘rescued’, from a harmless snake that was occupying the threshold, by one of the punka wallahs*, a man who never by word or smirk, he said, ever betrayed their moment of terror.

Sadly, my father died before I was old enough to have a really grown-up conversation with him about it.

So, India, though I’ve never been there, and though I’ve never talked to more than a handful of people who have lived there, has always been on the periphery of my life. My father had a camera with him and was far more of a photographer than he was a diarist. The black and white contact prints — from a Leica 35mm I believe — show jungles and deserts and temples and street scenes, even those streets with the dying upon them. They show servicemen in shorts and tropical kit, mostly standing in front of vehicles or planes. They show local workers on government service, which may or may not be the source of an acronym used in pay-books that has become tainted with misuse.

Since a short trip to China in the 1980s where a man dressed in military uniform welcomed us at Beijing airport with a smile (the smile seeming more fundamental than the uniform, I recognised he was just like me), I’ve believed we are all closer than we are distant, though we often stand or crouch on different sides of barricades erected in error and folly and for the benefit of those who would control us.

Recently I’ve had the good fortune to be rewarded with commendations and prizes in a series of flash fiction competitions run out of India, and to have the occasional piece taken for use in journals. For the years that I ran my BHDandMe blog, the 3rd largest group of readers was from India. Perhaps that drew me to reading writers whose names I don’t know how to pronounce and whose landscapes I have never seen except on a screen. And that’s been good for me, and in a strange way has brought me closer not only to them, but to the memory of my father.

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*ek, do, teen…: 1, 2,3… counting in Hindustani

*chota wallah: small man

*jaldi jao: Go fast

*punkah wallah: manual fan operators.

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

Hope comes in strange shapes

Keith Lyons looks back at the challenges of 2020, and explores the expectation that lessons learnt will translate into action in 2021.

‘Hope comes in strange shapes, when you don’t expect it’

Ray by The Muttonbirds

There are two things we all need going into the new year 2021, one is the temporary painful prick of a needle where your arm meets your shoulder, the other is an optimistic state of mind expecting and wanting things to change for the better.

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, the year 2020 seemed far away. 

Yet it held so much promise.

That future date, boosted by science and technology, would usher in a high-tech world of chatty robot servants, human jetpack suits and anti-gravity flying cars. By 2020, I had somehow come to believe the notion that telepathy would be the main form of communication, and that books and newspapers would be a thing of the past. I might even get bored by the slowness of personal jetpacks, so would (naturally) prefer teleportation. 

By the year 2020, nobody would have to work, everyone would have so much leisure time, and life expectancy would be over 100, I surmised from young adult sci-fi books from the library and Popular Science magazines. 

So how did 2020 work out for me? 

Probably pretty much the same way it worked out for you. 

The year 2020 proved to be a big year, or as President Trump said ‘bigly’ — or was it is really ‘big league’.

Either ways, the year brought together the world’s 7.6 billion human inhabitants and also kept us apart. Not since the Second World War has the entire globe’s population been so affected by a global event: a pandemic.

The actual coronavirus, also variously known as ‘the China Virus’, ‘the ‘Rona’, ‘the boomer remover’ so tiny and small it can’t be seen with the naked eye. It is way smaller than a single red or white blood cell. But like a mosquito in a room with an elephant, coronavirus has been the main irritant as it has spread beyond Wuhan to our communities, aged-care facilities, hospitals, and loved ones. Only a few remote spots on Earth have so far evaded COVID. 

The virus, which is new on the scene having probably come from bats in a Yunnan cave via the Chinese live animal trade network, is not just extremely infectious and contagious in its transmission from human-to-human, but its fatality rate is much, much higher than influenza, possibly as high as 3%.

With only 13 months of study into the impact and quirks of this new virus, it is still too early to know the extent of the havoc coronavirus causes, but already we are seeing not just many deaths (coming up to 2 million worldwide), but also far-reaching consequences for those that get it and those working to treat the afflicted. Already there’s talk of ‘Long COVID’, with the effects of the virus lingering for months beyond the initial illness. While in late 2020 several fast-tracked vaccines were released for general use, there is still no cure with no drugs proven to treat or prevent coronavirus. 

You don’t need me to tell you this, but for most people, the universal experience of the pandemic has meant 2020 has been dubbed ‘a roller coaster’  by many, others preferring the oft-used ‘unprecedented’, while some call it like it is — ‘dumpster fire’. Amid the fear and the losses, we have all asked ourselves some serious questions about our life and the meaning of life itself.

“Most of all, perhaps, it is the year of not knowing,” wrote J.M. Berger in The Atlantic. These were the questions he brought up. Is it safe to send my kids to school? Can I go to the store? Do I still have to wipe down the mail?  The quandary for many in 2020 included ‘is it safe to go to work’ (do I still have a job?), ‘is it safe to exercise’, and ‘can I trust the government/public health officials’? 

I’ve got to confess, even though at the start of 2020 I was travelling in India, Thailand, Myanmar and Indonesia, by mid-February, I arrived in my homeland of New Zealand. The following month we were put under lockdown which lasted five to seven weeks, effectively ‘flattening the curve’ and eliminating the virus from community transmission. I am one of the few people to watch the movie Tenet in a movie theatre surrounded by other audience members. Over 2020, and into the first week of 2021 with the attempted coup by Trump, watching the news has been surreal and disturbing. 

As we tend to do, the year-end is a time for reflection on the past 12 months, and a looking forward to the new year. But it is safe to say that few people have had a stellar 2020, with most wanting to get it over with and welcome in 2021. There’s been an interesting reaction I have noticed among some, who somehow thought that if we just make it to 31 December 2020, everything will be alright. As if the bad things from 2020 will not carry over. Yet it did.

We go into the new year with rising infection rates from the pandemic, many countries clocking up record days for infections and deaths. Let’s not forget the backdrop of economic crisis and of course, climate change. And on top of that the technical problems for the first-time users of Zoom. 

There are two important ideas that many are carrying into the New Year. The first is a technical solution to our problem, a vaccine which will not only possibly prevent individuals from getting the infection, but also lead to more immunity in our communities.

Actually, there’s more than one vaccine, with around 50 vaccines currently in trails, and some have already rolled out since December. The aim is for 70% of populations to be vaccinated to stop the pandemic. Already some 24 million shots have been given across 41 countries, according to the Bloomberg tracker. That’s quite impressive in a short time. Think of all the bodies now building up their natural immunity to be able to prevent contracting the illness and also passing it on to others. However, in the last year nearly four times as many people — 90 million — have caught COVID. 

As well as the prick in the arm of the vaccine, there’s another associated concept many expectantly have carried from 2020 into 2021, and that’s hope. While for some it is the belief that surely this year can’t be any worse than last year, for many there is some light at the end of the tunnel, and the prospects of 2021 being a re-set year when we move towards a world that is more equitable, sustainable and just. After a year of postponement, suffering, hardship and despair, there’s some momentum going forward, a cautious optimism, an empowered sense of resilience, and a belief that together we’re not going to be defeated by a deadly virus. 

Looking back on the last year, which saw some questions raised on whether lockdowns infringed on freedoms, and was the wearing of masks a political statement, there seems to be a very ugly side of humanity and human nature which has been exposed.

Before, conspiracy theories tended to be the domain of weirdo uncles and ‘know-it-alls’, but now this minority is more vocal and manipulative in spreading outlandish falsehoods using social media, in particular Facebook and YouTube, linking Hollywood elites, child sex trafficking, 5G causing coronavirus, deep state, compulsory vaccinations and microchips. As we have learnt in the last twelve months, those gullible enough to believe these wacky theories can’t be swayed by rational arguments, evidence, or myth-busting. Often these made-up stories, fake new hoaxes and ‘alternative facts’ can be used to fuel violence, terror or racism. 

But as well as some unsavoury aspects of human behaviour clearly evident in 2020, we have also seen the other side; the respecting of public-health guidelines, the revelation that some low-paid jobs are actually the most essential, a sense of community unity and shared responsibility. My wish is that through the ‘life and death’ wake-up call we’ve had in 2020 with coronavirus, that we reflect on what we have learnt and make small steps in making the changes real in our lives. After all, the events of 2020 have impacted not just on how we live, work and play, but on our health, wealth and global security. 

There are other stories that have come out of 2020, a new resolve, an awareness of things previously taken for granted, and the discernment that the most important things in life can’t be bought online. These more personal learnings are shared among many, with the realisation that what you thought you once wanted isn’t necessarily what you need.

As well as sorting out what’s important, a number of my friends have grown to value the importance of self-care, or at least the need to stop doom-scrolling to avoid getting easily triggered and upset.

Lockdown and time alone have heightened the importance of relationships, the choice to slow down, and what benefit there is in appreciating the small things. Connection with the natural world has been a green cure for many too, as demonstrated in numerous studies including one titled: less screen time and more green time. And if there is an idea that has come out of the harrowing times of 2020, it might be the desire for a kinder world, starting from loving oneself, and extending out to all. 

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor who has been based in Asia for most of the 21st century writing about people and places. Find him at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

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