Slices from Life

Kissed on Kangaroo Island

Narrative and photographs by Meredith Stephens

We are regular visitors to Kangaroo Island, a nature-lovers’ delight that lies 14 kilometres off the South Australian coast. Much of our time there is spent trying to atone for the environmental damage caused by our European forebears. Swathes of the vegetation have been cleared due to almost two centuries of European farming. Thousands of sheep have grazed on this cleared land for much of that time, and European crops have replaced much of the original flora. The crops have been fertilized for years, and now that we allow the land to remain fallow, noxious weeds take over, fueled by the remnant fertilizer in the soil. Our mission is revegetation, trying to reverse some of the damage from farming.

On our most recent visit, one of my jobs was to uproot the weeds. The task was impossible given that they sprawled across the land as far as the horizon, so we focused on a small fenced-off area. We dared not poison the weeds because they could be consumed by endangered bird species, such as the white-bellied sea eagles that nest nearby. For the same reason we never use rodent poison, but instead trap mice in buckets of water.

White-bellied sea eagle soaring above us

I donned my gardening gloves and grabbed the weeds by their roots, pitted my body weight against the plants, and uprooted them and before discarding them onto the weed pile.

Meanwhile my partner Alex was busying himself planting yet more trees. He was somewhat disgruntled because his boat was being repaired in Yaringa, near Melbourne, after being dismasted in Bass Strait. He gazed longingly out to sea, but seemed to regain a sense of contentment when he was planting trees. For him, planting trees was not a chore, but rather a consuming passion. He made deep holes in the rocky ground with his fencing crowbar, delicately coaxed the seedlings out of their containers, pushed the roots into the hole, pressed the soil back around the seedling, and made a berm around each plant to trap water. Then he drove stakes into the ground around each plant, and encircled them with either a corflute tree guard, or a wire cage, or both. These measures were necessary to protect them from marauding possums and kangaroos, which would otherwise devour the plants overnight.

The fenced-off orchard where we weeded, flanked by Investigator Strait.

There is only so much revegetation you can do without hankering for some relief. Alex was content to plant trees from dawn to dusk but I pressed him to take me on a day excursion. Besides, coming to Kangaroo Island was not just about our earnest efforts at revegetation; it was also meant to be a romantic getaway. Our first outing was to Seal Bay, where the attraction was not in fact seals but rather Australian sea lions. We drove there, now an official tourist destination, and entered through the park office. We walked along the boardwalk with the other tourists, many being international visitors, and gazed down at the sea lions enjoying lying in the sand in the sunshine.

Sea lions under the boardwalk at Seal Bay, Kangaroo Island

Back at the revegetation site, we resumed our routine of weed-whacking and planting for the next few days, by which time we felt we deserved another outing. This time we chose to visit American River (named after visiting American sealers in 1803) known for its picturesque harbour and fresh seafood. But for me, American River was less about the view and the seafood than spotting sea lions. I had spied one on a previous visit and was hoping to see some again. I walked onto the boat ramp near the shed where the reconstruction of the Independence schooner was taking place. (The Independence was the first ship constructed in South Australia, in 1803, commissioned by a visiting American shipmaster and sealer, Isaac Pendleton.) I walked past the door to the boat shed, because as much as I would like to claim interest in the history of local shipbuilding, my real interest was in finding a sea lion.

I was not disappointed. Behind a ‘Resting Seal’ sign explaining that you were required to keep a thirty metre distance from the sea lion, we found what we were looking for.

Sea lion in American River, Kangaroo Island

I glanced into the lagoon, and spied the sea lion’s mate, proudly flipping his body around in the water, before he scrambled onto the shore to demonstrate his supremacy in this territory.

An American tourist next to us asked Alex, “How far is thirty meters?”

He replied, “About one hundred feet, which is twice the distance we are now!”

We all walked backwards trying to preserve the thirty-metre distance between the sea lion and ourselves.

It was mid-afternoon and there were still hours of daylight left, so we decided to visit the nearby eucalyptus distillery. Before entering the building our attention was arrested by young kangaroos, known as joeys, hopping freely around the outside of the building. We entered the premises and purchased some eucalyptus products, and as we left, approached one of the joeys.

Kangaroo Island, like many parts of Australia, has dead wallabies and kangaroos alongside its roads, victims of road-kill. Because kangaroos are marsupials, some of their young may be found alive inside their pouch, even after the mother has been killed. Those finding the road-kill may drag it safely away from the road, after ensuring that no approaching cars are in sight, and then remove the joey from its mother’s pouch. The joeys we came across had been rescued in this way, and hand reared. Unlike most kangaroos, they had no fear of humans. I knelt to pat one of the joeys, and then he gently raised his pointy face to my ear and whispered in it. Then he raised his lips to mine and brushed them against me.

“Don’t let him!” urged Alex. “You’ll get germs from a wild animal.”

I let the joey tickle my lips for a few more seconds, before heeding his urgings. I had been kissed by a kangaroo!

Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist from South Australia. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Muse, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ Magazine, Reading in a Foreign Language, and in chapters in anthologies published by Demeter Press, Canada.


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Slices from Life

A Towering Inferno, A Girl-next-door & the Big City

Ratnottama Sengupta time travels fifty years back as famed actress Jaya Bachchan recounts her first day on the sets of Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar

In this event, Jaya Bachchan recounts her days while acting in Satyajit Ray’s award-winning film Mahanagar or The Big City. Photo provided by Ratnottama Sengupta

When Shanti Di, my eldest aunt’s eldest daughter, had got married in 1964, she was already working. So she did not have to face the resistance Arati, the pivotal character of Mahanagar had to face from her in-laws and son. But prejudices and cryptic comments she did face — from her male colleagues. “Women in workplace? They only deprive deserving men of a livelihood,” they would say. “Because, men have to run entire households on their earnings while women work only for the ‘sauce’ — jewellery and saris!”

Mahanagar poster designed by Satyajit Ray. Photo provided by Ratnottama Sengupta

I remembered this at the screening of a restored print of Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963) at Nandan, the West Bengal Film Centre, to mark the 102nd birth anniversary of Satyajit Ray. Based on Narendra Mitra[1]‘s novel, Abataranika (Staircase), the film followed the trials and triumph of Arati, a housewife who steps out of the narrow domestic walls when she finds her husband Subrato bending under the weight of fending for a superannuated father, an aged mother, a school going sister, and their little boy along with themselves. 

But once she starts working, she enjoys her new role of conversing with and convincing women with deep pockets to buy her products — and soon her confidence in her work grows along with her empathy with other women who are yet to be empowered like her sister-in-law, Bani, her mother-in-law, Sarojini, her Anglo Indian colleague, Edith Simmons…  When her husband loses his job, Arati firmly negotiates a raise. And when Edith is fired for absence due to ill health she takes up cudgel for the ‘insult’. 

The remarkable sensitivity and the eye for details with which Satyajit Ray etched the ordinary lives of a middle class family earned him the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival 1964. The director’s son, Sandip Ray, remembers attending the ceremony with his parents. “Why were you not there?”  a voice from the audience asked Jaya Bachchan, who was in conversation with the maestro’s son, now a renowned director in his own right. “Why would they invite me, who was just a ‘cameo artiste’ as someone mentioned this evening?”

Jaya Bachchan and Sandipt Ray conversing at the event on May 1, 2023.

Jaya Di[2] — as I am privileged to address her, much like Sandip ‘Babu’ Ray — was much more than a cameo artiste in Mahanagar. Her ‘Bani’ was a flesh and blood character as she brought to life a marriageable sister who, in my childhood and not just in Bengal, was a part and parcel of any Indian household. Bubbly, sincere, attached to her Boudi as much as to her little nephew whom she mothers when the housewife is earning the family its bread, she is pampered by her brother even as she is being trained by her mother to pick up the haata-khunti…spatula-spoon…in the kitchen!

“I distinctly remember the first day of shooting in Indrapuri Studios. It marked my debut in films. Madhabi Di and Anil Kaku were in that shot which is reproduced whenever something is written about Mahanagar. I am at the study table, trying to write something. Those days I used to wear specs when I was reading.  Manik[3] Kaku must have made a mental note of that, he said, ‘Don’t take off your specs, keep them on for the shot.’ I didn’t have any dialogue for the scene. So, although I had not even been on stage before this, I didn’t feel that I was acting. The camera in front of me with Subrata Mitra behind it was not daunting. I was comfortable, just my usual self…”

Little did Jaya Bhaduri know, then, that this ‘girl-next-door’ identity would become her calling card in the years to come, storming even the glamorous boulevards of tinsel town Bollywood.


How did Jaya reach the sets of Mahanagar? She didn’t: Ray had sent for the girl in her teens. In all probability, she was recommended by Robi Ghosh and Sharmila Tagore. “They were shooting for Tapan Sinha’s Nirjan Saikatey (1963) when I had gone to Puri with my father, Tarun Bhaduri,” Jaya Di recounts. “We met them and on their return to Kolkata both Robi Kaku[4] and Rinku[5] Di told Manik Kaku that ‘the girl for that role (of sister) has been found at last!'” 

The first time she met Ray he did not ask her anything special. Nor did he ask her to do anything particular on the set. Young Jaya was told to read her lessons aloud, which she did, just as any school going child in Bengal did half a century ago. “I remember that Baba told Jaya Di to continue reading after the camera had moved on because he wanted an audio track of her reading in the background,” Sandip recalled in the course of the conversation. “She continued to read, but suddenly there was a sound of coughing. What happened?? In reply to everyone’s anxious query she coolly replied, ‘Why? Can’t a fly wing its way into my mouth while I’m reading?'”

Jaya Di herself has no recollection of this prank, but she vividly remembers that she would pester people on the set, incessantly asking questions. She especially questioned Subrato Mitra for taking time to light up! “It was as if we were out on a picnic,” she smiles. “The entire unit indulged me like a little girl. I was very comfortable because I had no burden to carry. In the presence of major actors I was required to do very little!”  


Jaya Bhaduri was not given any express direction — neither about how to speak her lines nor about action or emotion. She had full freedom to interpret the scene and react to the other characters. “Manik Kaku used to call all the artistes and read out all the dialogues to us. His intonation would give us an idea of what he wanted from us. We interpreted the scene according to our capacity and gave our best shot. He went about canning it, he never had any problem with my delivery.” 

But lessons in acting she did learn on the sets of Mahanagar — by observing how the director groomed the lead actress. “I have seen Manik Kaku directing Madhabi Di to grow into the role of Arati. He literally groomed her in acting. ‘Look this way, through the corner of your eyes. Turn your head like this. Say it like this. Wear the sari in this manner…’ The fact is that Satyajit Ray had a strong visual sense. He envisaged how the character would look and behave at the outset, how she would change, how she would resolve her dilemmas.” 

In other words, his actors were not puppets: he allowed the spontaneity of some, like Jaya; he moulded the emotive action of some, like Madhabi Mukherjee who would soon storm the silver screen as Charulata (1964).


Mahanagar was a very modern film, and not just at the time it was made,” Jaya Bachchan observes. Her critique of Ray’s first urban development film gains greater weight from the fact that, in the intervening years, she has ‘grown up’.  From a school girl to a trained actor. From the heartthrob of every Indian family in 1970s to the heartthrob of her ‘Lambuji[6]‘ — Amitabh Bachchan — whose charisma straddles two centuries, three generations, five continents. From a reclusive personal life to a vibrant political presence in the upper house of India’s Parliament. 

Young Jaya Bhaduri (now Jaya Bachchan) in between lead actress Madhabi Mukherjee and Anil Chatterjee. Photo provided by Ratnottama Sengupta

So let me elaborate on her observation, taking off from a scene between her and Subroto, her elder brother in Mahanagar, enacted by Anil Chatterjee.

Subrato has come home from work and his sister asks him for his pen as hers has run out of ink. He enquires when her exams are to commence, then he comments, “What use is this reading and writing? Sei toh henshel thelte hobey, you’ll end up dealing with only pots and pans!” 

Sekhaay toh,” Bani is quick to revert. “They teach us that too – it’s Domestic Science.”

That statement portrayed Ray’s attitude towards housewife. It was and still is a commentary on the identity — role — of a contemporary wife. It is in fact every woman’s attitude in contemporary India, 

Jaya Di has observed: “Today every woman also has to and does work. Not only for economic reasons but for identity, purpose in life. Those who have had higher education, certainly do. Those who have not studied much, who help with housework also have such dignity. I see their confidence in the way they carry themselves. They know their mind and they don’t hesitate to say up front what work they will do and what they won’t; how much time they will apportion to a household and when they will leave. And like urban working women, they too save a little from their earnings, use some of it and keep some for emergencies.”


Ray’s masterstroke is seen in the way he sketched the nuances of the bank clerk husband, complete with his angst and jealousy. He is proud of his wife’s charming appearance, he is confident she can steer herself through the career of a salesgirl, he is happy when the second income flows in. Yet — and especially when he loses his job — he suffers from insecurity, jealousy, suspicion. To the extent that the man who wrote her application letters, goads her to write a resignation letter. He is redeemed by the stand he takes at the very end when she gives up her much-needed job to protest a wrong against a colleague.  

Critics have found Ray to be more kind to the protagonist than Narendra Nath Mitra,  the Bengali author who also penned Ras[7] (made into the Hindi film Saudagar (Trader, 1973) which again builds upon how economic realities can make or mar a marriage. About a decade later Jaya Bachchan co-starred with husband Amitabh Bachchan in Abhimaan[8] (1973). In it Hrishikesh Mukherjee takes to an extreme the consequences of a husband’s ego trip when his wife fares better than him, professionally and financially.


Earlier Hrishikesh Mukherjee had, in Guddi (1971), given the young sister of Mahanagar a full canvas to come into her own as an actor. The same bubbly girl matures into a woman who can differentiate between love and infatuation. “After Mahanagar I was very selective. I chose to work only with directors who had a ‘Bengali’ sensibility,” Jaya Di says without a hint of hesitation. 

And the rapport she struck with Ray? It lasted a lifetime. When she joined the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) she asked her Manik Kaku for a letter of commendation to go with her biodata. He wrote back saying that she doesn’t need an institute but join it, “it is the place for you”. 

She went thinking she would not last beyond a few months but with batchmates like Anil Dhawan, her co-star in Piya Ka Ghar (1972), and Danny Denzongpa, she stayed the full course. “And when Manik Kaku came with the print of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969), I felt so proud! I went to the airport to pick him up!”

That bonding would show every time they were in each other’s vicinity, Sandip Ray reiterates. “Once we were in Bombay and Baba stepped out of the Taj Mahal Hotel to leaf through books in the stall just outside. Suddenly a shrill voice screamed, ‘Manik Kakuuu!’ Jaya Di was passing by in her car and had spotted him!” “And I hugged him!” Jaya Di adds, “I took liberties others would hesitate to.” 

So why was she was not seen in his films again? “There were talks of casting me in Pratidwandi (1970) opposite Dhritiman Chatterjee,” Jaya recalls, “but I was in FTII then. Later I accosted him for not giving me a thought (for the role) – ‘You could have at least called me!’ His reply? ‘It was not necessary.’ That’s all!

“As if to add insult to injury, Manik Kaku got Amitji to do the voice over for Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players, 1977)  but a role for me? No! I was so angry I went and met him in Rajkamal Studio. His reply? ‘ Ha ha ha…’ Not a word more.”

Amitabh Bachchan doing the voice over for Satyajit Ray in Shatranj Ke Khilari. Picture from Bachchan’s FB, provided by Ratnottama Sengupta.

That did not stop Jaya Bachchan from going to Bishop Lefroy Road every time she happened to be in Kolkata. She had, after all, seen the films the ‘Towering Inferno’ made even before Mahanagar. “Every time I watched a film by Ray I felt this is his best. Until the next one came along…” So, when Charulata came, Mahanagar paled. But wait, to this day Debi (The Goddess, 1960) continues to haunt Jaya Bachchan.

And to think that, when Ray had sent for her, the young girl growing up in Bhopal was beset with doubt and hesitation. “I was studying in a convent school, and I feared that the nuns would disapprove of my acting in a film. But my father said, ‘It’s the opportunity of a lifetime — don’t let go of it.'”

Cut to the convent when she went back after Mahanagar. The same austere nuns came and said, ” ‘You have acted in a Satyajit Ray film?! You are so lucky!!’ That is when I first realised, even before he was crowned in Berlin, what a major director my Manik Kaku was!”

Jaya Bachchan on 1/5/2023. Photo provided by Ratnottama Sengupta

[1] Bengali writer (1916-1975)

[2] An honorific for elder sister

[3] Satyajit Ray was Manik to his friends.

[4] Uncle, father’s younger brother

[5] Sharmila Tagore

[6] Tall man

[7] Juice

[8] Pride


Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly 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. 



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

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Paean To Peace Slices from Life

Magic of the Mahatma & Nabendu

Ratnottama Sengupta shows the impact of Gandhi and his call for non-violence on her father, Nabendu Ghosh as she continues to emote over his message of Ahimsa and call for peace amidst rioting

The ferocity and senselessness of riots — Nabendu Ghosh had personal experience of both. In his autobiography, Eka Naukar Jatri (Dey’s Publication, 2008, Journey of a Lonesome Boat), he writes at length about grappling with the riots that had rocked Calcutta, Bengal — nay, the entire Subcontinent on 16th August 1946. 

The Direct Action Day call was given out by Mohammad Ali Jinnah to press the demand for a separate Muslim State, Pakistan. The epicentre was Calcutta, a flourishing centre of business and education, that had Suhrawardy of Muslim League as its chief minister. On that black Friday, they unleashed unprecedented bloodletting along communal lines. At least 4000 deaths were reported on the very first day of the ‘Great Calcutta Killing’ that continued for more than four days. Many women were raped, many were kidnapped, many killed and hung naked in public areas… Dismemberment, forced conversion, bustees set on fire… Violence spread to Khulna in East Bengal, and Bihar. Within a year the hatred ignited on religious grounds culminated in the Partition of India.

The savagery of the mindless bloodbath had left such a deep dent on the yet-to-be-thirty writer, that he wrote a number of stories and novels on the theme: Phears Lane, Dweep, Trankarta, Ulukhar, ‘Chaaka’(Full Circle), and ‘Gandhiji.

 Gandhiji builds majorly on the author’s own memories of a darshan[1] of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi while he was passing through Patna, sometime in early 1931. This is how he records his ‘encounter’ with the Saint of Sabarmati who worked magic on the masses with the mantra of Ahimsa, non-violence.

“By 1930 all of India and its British rulers too were uttering one name with awe: Gandhi. One evening it came to my ears that the Mahatma would reach Patna at 7 am the next morning, spend the day in the city and leave by the Punjab Mail at night. 

“I did not sleep well that night. I was up at the crack of dawn and left home at 5 am on the pretext of getting a book from a friend. But I could not get anywhere near the Patna railway station, which was teeming with people who had arrived before sunrise. It was no different along the path he would be driven down. I hung around at one end of the platform, eyes glued to the exit gate. 

“Policemen on horseback trotted past me. A police van was parked close by. Those patrolling the platform carried bayonets and batons. Because of my green years and my small built, I was allowed to inch ahead. From time to time the sky was rent with the cry of ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki jai! Long live the Mahatma!’

“All of a sudden, perhaps to steel myself, I started to whisper: ‘Vande Mataram!  I salute you, my Motherland!’ As if on a cue, the man next to me cried out aloud: ‘Vande Mataram!’ The crowd roared in an echo: ‘Vande Mataram! Vande Mataram!!’

“Suddenly a train rolled in with a long whistle. And people all around me broke into the cries of ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!’ ‘Bharat Mata ki jai!’ ‘Vande Mataram!’ I found myself matching their voice…

“Soon people started saying, ‘There he goes…’ Some cars came forward with Gandhi-topi clad volunteers. And then, there was the face so familiar from the newspapers, peering out of a hood-open Ford. Mahatma Gandhi, clad in a knee-length khadi dhoti, a chadar draped over his bare torso, a volunteer on either side, was greeting everyone with folded hands. What an inspiring image!

“I also broke into the cry of ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!’‘ The crowd had started running behind the moving car. I joined them, without a pause in the slogan. A few paces later, I bumped into someone and fell down by the wayside. As an elderly gentleman lifted me up and soothingly dusted me off. I felt a resolve surface in my thoughts: ‘Freedom must be won!'”


Nabendu Ghosh may or may not have had another prototype for the protagonist Ratan in Gandhiji. But it is said there actually lived close to College Street — where Nabendu lived at the time — a person named Gopal Mukherjee who owned a meat shop. He was a devotee of Subhash Chandra Bose and a critique of Gandhi. Reportedly this ‘paatha‘ — butcher — was funded by some Marwari businessmen and he led his team to retaliate from the fourth day of riots. After Independence, when he was urged to surrender his guns, knives and sword to Gandhiji, he apparently refused, saying, “I would willingly lay down my arms for Netaji, but not for Gandhiji. Why didn’t he stop the killings in Noakhali?”

The author may have woven in some traits of Gopal Paatha but, like a mirror image that is identical yet opposite, his protagonist Ratan is transformed by the iconic personality so that he surrenders his weapons — expressed symbol of violence — at the feet of the Mahatma.


As I watched Kamal Hasan’s Hey! Ram (2000), I was reminded of this story, ‘Gandhiji’ that was published in the collection Raater Gaadi (The Night Train) in 1964. Perhaps unknowingly the character played in the film by Om Puri reflects the protagonist Ratan. 

In Hey! Ram, A rioteer who has snuffed out scores of lives walks up to the fasting Gandhi in Beliaghata, throws a roti towards him and says, “I have bloodied my hands with many lives but I will not have your death on my conscience.” He resonates Ratan, the butcher who finds his biggest high in draining out human blood but once he rests his eyes on the frail sage, something happens deep inside him. He who wondered why his taking a life should matter to ‘Gendo’, stakes his own life to protect a Muslim.


Nabendu Ghosh experienced the magic of the Mahatma at age fourteen, long years before he became my father. 

I felt the magic of the man whom Rabindranath Tagore gave the name of Mahatma when I was well into my forties, and was doing a Fellowship in Oxford, on a Charles Wallace award, on John Ruskin and his Influence on Gandhi and Tagore. 

Then, almost 20 years later, we were at the critical juncture in time when we were completing 70 years of Gandhi’s passing and approaching his Sesquicentennial Birth Anniversary. That is when I started wondering: “What does Mohandas Karamchand mean to those acquiring voting rights in India now? Is he only the face on every Indian currency note? Is he only ‘M G Road’ — the high street of every city in India? Is he a boring memory who forces every one of his countrymen to shun drinking on his birthday?” 

Or, is there any valid reason to recall what he said — in Natal and Transvaal and Pietermaritzburg; in Kolkata and Noakhali, Chowri Chowra and Dandi, Bombay and Delhi? Is there anything in his actions that can change the lives of not only Indians but everywhere in the world where people are tired of terror strikes and gunshots and discrimination in the name of caste or creed or colour?

For, influence he certainly did, the lives of so many personalities… Not for nothing was Mohandas of Porbandar to become Gandhiji, Mahatma, Bapu, Father of the Nation

[1] To go to view a great or holy man


Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly 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. 



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

Click here to access Monalisa No Longer Smiles on Kindle Amazon International

Slices from Life

Kindred Spirits

By Anjali V Raj

“Two birds balance on the top branches of a tree. Together they fly into the sky”
--Snow flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
Courtesy: Creative Commons

Friendship is a perennial river of comfort where we can dive and swim throughout our life. Growing up, I was a silent student at school with not many friends and definitely no close companions. I was neither amicable nor bright and made little effort to change this attitude. I spent my teenage years trying to be inconspicuous to my classmates like they were some predatory animals. I didn’t own a personal phone until my undergrad years hence even if I made friends I couldn’t keep in touch with them, which I rarely did even after acquiring a phone. Communication technology especially mobile phones and social media plays a vital role in connecting people and maintaining friendships. At some point in one’s life, everyone finds someone who knows them better than the rest of the world, with whom they share a bit of everything from their life.

I remember the first time I met her; she was sitting across from me — two seats ahead in the institutional shuttle. I could only see a part of her little face, but I could make out the charming smile she wore. It was the second day at my first job. I was still intimidated by the new place and faces. Later that day, she came into our lab, a short affable girl and had the same charming smile. Apparently, she was also working on the same project as me but in a different team. She spoke to my colleague in English. However, I noticed the Malayalamaccent lingering in her words. I wondered why they spoke in English when they were both Malayalis; given that Malayalis have an inherent tendency to communicate with each other in Malayalam wherever they go. I observed her a little longer; definitely bold and smart, I concluded. Who knew then that this smart young woman was to be my north star?

With few joint project meetings, our acquaintance grew from colleagueship to friendship. She often visited our lab. Whenever she came, the gloomy chemical mood of our lab would transform into a jovial garden of fragrant flowers. She would laugh at almost anything and believe me her laughter was very contagious. The silent lab except for the perfunctorily grumbling instruments would suddenly mimic a rackety town hall. Her laughter made me wonder if it was hidden for a long time and finally finding its freedom made up for the lost time. I could see my stoic and altruistic friend find solace in the smile and laughter of others. After a few field trips together, I found a close companion in her. I didn’t know all of her. One can never know the whole of a person however close they are but I felt proud that I knew more of her each day. She was a popular smart friendly face at our institution and now, my friend. There was a sense of happiness and pride in finally finding someone who could bring warmth to your heart and to whom you were more than just a random person.

We had our differences and similarities, arguments and opinions, mischief and complaint — all as the part and parcel of our friendship. We never shared our deep secrets or fears, yet we knew the existence of such buried inside us. Importantly, we knew, if need be, we had each other’s shoulders to lean on and could confide in each other. She made a continuous effort to make me smile by sharing pictures of beautiful flowers, landscapes, hilarious memes, cute animal videos and such. She had inspired the scared timid mind inside me to come into the light. She encouraged me to discover the unmolded writer in me, inspired me to write and share my silly poems. Moreover, she educated me on certain domains of knowledge I lacked and she continued to inspire me every day. She encouraged me to fly with her into the unfathomable spread of the sky. I owe it to her for all my accomplishments in the past three years while all I could be was a listener.  She was and is my laotong, the sister of my heart.

We are not perfect people in the perfect world and yet sometimes, our shortcomings drew us closer together. We are two overthinkers with our disconcerting opinions, who can never put a firm foot on the ground. Sometimes when she consults me for my opinion on certain matter,s all I provide her is obscure suggestions making the matter more ambiguous.  But my dear friend is always pleased and content with whatever outlook I provide. Even with the continents separating us now we are still the ‘old sames’ close within our hearts.

I have only countable friends, of which there are very few that I still maintain communication. A strange sense of detachment grows in me when the common grounds of friendship alter and are separated by large physical distance. The connection through electronic devices usually wouldn’t suffice to regain my earlier attachment. Hence, I avoid any communication at all. However, I hold them, dear, within my heart even if I constantly fail to express this in person. Strangely with her, I have been able to communicate freely with no detachment as if no distance separated us, mostly due to her persistent efforts rather than mine. And still, she continues to inspire me, spread joy and bring laughter to my face. Like the two birds that return to the same tree branch to share the stories of their daily adventure, we share our daily bits through the electronic branch connecting us. I hope our friendship grows and travels beyond the grasp of time.

Anjali V Raj is a natural science researcher from Kerala, India. She currently works as a researcher at Azim Premji University. Her poems and short essays based on thoughts cultivated from observation of surrounding, lifestyle and society. She has published few of her works in the Down to Earth, The Wire, Café Dissensus Everyday, Borderless Journal and Times of India Reader’s Blog.


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

Click here to access Monalisa No Longer Smiles on Kindle Amazon International

Slices from Life

Colorado Comes to Eden

Photographs & Narrative by Meredith Stephens

We had safely completed our voyage back across the Coral Sea from New Caledonia to Australia. The next leg was south, from Shellharbour to Eden, hugging the New South Wales coast. Unlike our outbound voyage, the whales were no longer in sight. They must have returned to Antarctica after having come north for calving. I was encouraged by the sight of dolphins accompanying us for spurts of the voyage.

We had hoped to reach Eden by midnight but somehow the trip dragged on until 3.30 am. I wanted to pull my weight during the night sail but was overwhelmed by fatigue and fell into a deep sleep on the sofa. Meanwhile, Alex directed the vessel to a safe point in the bay and dropped anchor.

The next morning in the security of daylight we moved the boat closer to shore, and spied a cruise ship at the docks. It was such a surprise to see a vessel with a capacity of thousands at the wharf of a township of only around three thousand two hundred people.

We made our way to shore in the dinghy, then climbed the steep hills into Eden to provision our boat for the next few days. We noticed tandem cyclists in bright lycra outfits making their way up the hill from the wharf into the town. We greeted them and their accents told us that most of them were from America. Each cyclist had a place name emblazoned on the back of their shirt. Some read California, others the Netherlands. We walked up the main street towards the supermarket, making way for passing cyclists on the footpath.

After we emerged from the supermarket laden with shopping bags, the last of the tandem cyclists, an older couple, were struggling up the hill. Curious, we couldn’t help asking that tedious question that tourists are asked worldwide.

“Where are you from?”


“Wow!” I exclaimed. I had never met anyone from Colorado in Australia. Now that the borders were open after pandemic closures tourists must be eager to resume roaming the globe.

A workman in an orange, fluorescent jacket approached the tourists from Colorado.

“Are you with the cruise ship?” he enquired.

I assumed it was an innocent question, or at least a polite enquiry.

“Yes,” they confirmed.

“Can you please tell the cruise ship company to tell these cyclists how to mind their manners? Some of them are cycling on the wrong side of the road. Others are cycling through bitumen that we have just laid,” complained the workman.

“What did he say?” enquired the Colorado tourist of his wife,

She was better able to understand his accent than her husband, so she interpreted it for him.

“We are the last off the boat so there won’t be any more problems,” she reassured the workman, as they resumed their cycle.

“Enjoy the rest of your trip!” I urged them, trying to counter the rudeness of the workman.

“Thank you!” she replied, turning back and beaming at me.

I was surprised that the workman had chosen to berate the tourists. Perhaps he could have contacted the cruise ship managers. I hope the tourists received more civility at their next port of call. When you are a tourist and have no friends in the country you are visiting, it’s those unanticipated encounters with locals that form the lasting impressions.

Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist from South Australia. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Muse, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ Magazine, Reading in a Foreign Language, and in chapters in anthologies published by Demeter Press, Canada.


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

Click here to access Monalisa No Longer Smiles on Kindle Amazon International

Slices from Life

The Night Shift to Nouméa

Sailing Adventures by Meredith Stephens

The moonlit sail

It was my turn to do the shift from midnight to two o’clock in the morning. I hastily arose and donned a thick coat.

“Put the personal location beacon (PLB) in your pocket,” Alex instructed me.

He retrieved the PLB and zipped it into my right coat pocket. I wondered what I would do if I were thrust into the sea as the boat lurched to the side. Would I recall the instructions and be able to hold onto it, unfasten it, push the alert button, and hold its antenna above the water until help came?

“Put your life jacket on too,” urged Alex.

I fiddled around with the life jacket and worked out where to put my arms through. I clinched the buckle across my chest and passed the strap though my legs, attaching it underneath the buckle.

“You need to tether too,” Alex added.

Tethered to the helm

I was so sleepy I was afraid the lurching of the boat might hurl me into the ocean. Alex attached one end of the bright yellow tether to my life jacket and the other to a clasp under the helm.

Alex sat next to me at the helm to check the instruments, and then retreated to bed. I had two hours to monitor the Automatic Identification System and radar for obstacles, and to scan the horizon for lights of other vessels. I couldn’t tell where the sea ended and where the sky started, but I tried to peer through the blackness around the gennaker[1] immediately in front of me while I periodically glanced down to the instruments.

I let my mind wander to reflect on my past in a dreamlike state. Gradually, I got used to holding my posture erect at the helm, as the vessel rocked across the waves. Because the motion reminded me of riding a horse, I sat deep in the saddle, as I had been taught in my youth. Eventually two hours passed, and I was glad it was not three, as it had been during our night sailing on a previous trip. Fellow crew member Luke appeared to relieve me, and I returned to bed, only to find slumber elusive as the boat crashed through the waves. Eventually the seas calmed, and the boat resumed to a slow canter, and I fell into a pleasurable sleep, like a child in a cradle.

The next morning, I was the last to rise, and languished reading a book in my bed as I heard the banter of my fellow sailors — Alex, Luke and Leo — in the saloon above. I eventually roused myself and greeted the others. The conversation turned to night sailing.

“It was so dark at four am this morning that I couldn’t see the horizon,” observed Leo.

“The boat was sluggish last night because the speed dropped to one knot at times,” Luke informed me.

Oh no! Had I sacrificed those two hours for nothing?  Alex assured me that we’d averaged 5.8 knots (11 km/h).

Then Luke looked up.

“There’s a hole in the gennaker!” he exclaimed.

Alex searched for sail tape and then the three of them moved to the deck to attend to the hole. The tape seemed to hold up and the sail was deftly repaired.

Luke attending to the gennaker

“We’re now ten degrees off our desired course,” observed Alex.

“I think that’s fine,” affirmed Luke. “We still have lots of ocean to cover.”

Over the next two days, our boat speed averaged 6.8 knots and we covered 326 nautical miles (604 km). Alex and Luke scrutinised the satellite weather forecasts several times a day, adjusting our course to take advantage of wind changes.

On our fourth day, Alex announced, “At this rate, we’ll arrive at Nouméa in the middle of the night. I think we should slow down.”

Slow down? Surely not! Five days is quite long enough, I mused.

The days and nights blurred, but we persevered sailing over the Coral Sea to reach Nouméa. I was assigned to speak in French to announce our arrival to the port. The last time I’d stayed in a Francophone country was as an au pair in Paris thirty-six years ago, so I was nervous to use my rusty French, particularly in front of the crew. I took hold of the VHF radio and announced the name of our vessel, Arriba, using the phrases from the French sailing handbook to no avail. Every few minutes I repeated the phrases but was met with silence. Was my French incomprehensible?

We arrived in the evening of day six, five days and ten hours after departing from Australia. Having failed to contact the port earlier in the day, we anchored at a suitable distance from the shore in Baie de L’Orphelinat. As a foreign vessel, we flew our bright yellow quarantine flag above the flag of our host country, France. Flying the host country’s flag, far from being a nicety, is a centuries-old maritime tradition that indicates that sailors come in peace.

Quarantine flag above the host country’s flag

After so many days and nights at sea I was excited and relieved to see land. I looked to the shoreline and noticed fireworks erupting from the hills. Was this a special welcome for our Australian vessel? After safely anchoring, Alex retrieved the sparkling Tasmanian wine we had saved for the celebration of arriving at port. He stood at the bow, exultant, and made a speech, as he uncorked the bubbly wine. It made a large popping sound and then splashed into the ocean. Alex filled our glasses, and we toasted our arrival in Nouméa.

Fireworks over Nouméa.

The next day we made our way to the marina to complete the customs and immigration formalities. Stepping onto the pontoon, I was greeted by a fellow boatie walking back through the gates with a baguette under his arm. Instead of it being excessively wrapped in plastic or even a paper bag, it was wrapped in a slim piece of wrapping paper just where it was designed to be held. Of course, Francophones require their morning baguette, even if they are staying in a marina.

We made our way along the pontoon to the dock. The only trouble was that we could not open the pontoon gate from the inside. Some local children playing on the rocks lining the marina noticed our trouble and called out to us, directing us to the button to open the gates. We followed their instructions and stepped on to New Caledonian soil for the first time. After sailing for five days and nights we would not be deterred by a mere button to a gate. We soon found the marina office and were treated with utmost politeness and warmth by the officers we came into contact with. We were perturbed as to why our attempts to announce our arrival the previous day had been ignored, and then we realised. We had arrived on the 14th of July, Bastille Day, France’s national holiday, and the office must have been closed.

[1] The gennaker, or screecher, is a large flying headsail, i.e., a sail flown in front of the mast.

Alex & Meredith in Nouméa

(Photographs provided by Meredith Stephens)

Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist from South Australia. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Muse, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ Magazine, Reading in a Foreign Language, and in chapters in anthologies published by Demeter Press, Canada.


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

Slices from Life

From Gatwick to Kangaroo Island

Phtographs & Narrative by Meredith Stephens

When I recently flew from Australia into Gatwick Airport, London, I was struck by the ease of passing through customs and immigration. Once I exited the plane, I was ushered to an empty lane and directed to a machine to present my passport. As I had nothing to declare I walked through the green lane. A group of four customs officers were engaged in conversation and did not notice me. I had entered the UK seamlessly in about five minutes without making eye contact with a single person.

Not so when travelling within my home state of South Australia. Alex, Verity and I were on our way from Adelaide to Kangaroo Island, situated across Investigator Strait off the southern coast of South Australia. We would have preferred to sail there, but Alex’s boat was high and dry, awaiting repairs to the mast and windows in Yaringa, eight hundred kilometres away in the state of Victoria. We had made a booking for the three o’clock ferry from Cape Jervis to Penneshaw, on Kangaroo Island. We left Adelaide at 1 pm, allowing ninety minutes for the drive and thirty minutes to board, as we always do.

Half an hour into our trip, we were stuck in a traffic jam along the arterial roadway heading south. We had never been trapped in a traffic jam in this direction before, because it was leading away from Adelaide towards sparsely populated farmland.

“Oh no! It’s the Tour Down Under! The road is closed for the cycling race,” lamented Alex.

He did a U-turn and headed west to the side streets in the hope of finding an alternative route along the Esplanade. After winding through the coastal suburbs, we arrived at a T junction facing the Esplanade, and were greeted by a woman in a bright orange vest holding a prominent sign saying ‘Stop!’

Onlookers lined the streets holding their cameras ready to snap the cyclists. We waited, all the while nervously checking the time on our phones, wondering whether we would miss our ferry. A few minutes later we heard an excited murmur run through the crowd, and sure enough, a group of cyclists whizzed past.

We glanced at the woman in the orange vest, hoping she would let us pass. She was on her walkie talkie and shook her head at us. Soon another group of cyclists raced past. Then the woman let us on to the Esplanade and we headed south. Soon after we were stopped by a police officer on a bicycle, who directed us away from the Esplanade. We turned east to weave our way back to our original route.

“We won’t make it to the ferry on time!” complained Alex, pressing heavily on the accelerator.

We arrived back on the highway that we had originally departed from and tried to turn right so that we could head south to Cape Jervis. A line of cars from the north were trying to turn right into our street.

“We’ll be here for hours. Best turn left and then do a U-turn,” announced Alex.

Alex turned left, accelerated, and braked when he found a gap in the oncoming traffic. He quickly did a U-turn and then headed south, passing the line of cars waiting to turn right onto the road where we had been waiting.

Would all of this be in vain? Would we get to Cape Jervis just after 3 pm to watch the ferry departing, on its way to Penneshaw? I held my phone to check the distance to Cape Jervis and noted that the estimated time of arrival was 2.54 pm. Alex tried to make up time by driving to the speed limit. A truck was labouring up the hill in front of us. Alex waited until we reached a passing lane, and then floored the accelerator. The estimated time of arrival was now 2.52 pm. Sitting next to Alex as he sped along the highway was more exciting than rides on a fairground had been when I was a child. I trusted his judgment and felt safe all the while enjoying the exhilarating speed. Next, there was a red car dawdling in front of us. Again, Alex waited until we reached a passing lane, and overtook them. The estimated time of arrival was still 2.52 pm. At least we had not been losing time as we were delayed by the slow coaches ahead of us. We entered the township of Cape Jervis, rounded the hill, and then descended to the ferry port, arriving as predicted at 2.52 pm. We expected boarding to be well underway. Instead, four lanes of cars were waiting in the line-up to board the empty ferry, which was running late. We slid into the shortest lane and turned off the engine. A biosecurity officer approached Alex’ window, his curly auburn ponytail blowing in the wind. Alex wound down the car window.

“Do you live on Kangaroo Island or are you just visiting?” he asked.

“We’re just visiting.”

“Oh, lovely! Do you have any honey?”

“No honey.”

“Do you have any bee-keeping equipment?”

“No, definitely not.”

“How about fruit?”

“We have some apples.”

“Are they from the supermarket?”


“Where did you buy them?”

“In Adelaide.”

“How about potatoes?”


“Do you have any plants?”

“We have some caper plants in the back.”

He looked at the back of our vehicle in acknowledgement.

“Oh capers! They look nice. Where did you get them?”

“From a business in Port Adelaide.”

The biosecurity officer seemed satisfied and waved us on.

“Have a lovely trip!”

Shortly after we boarded the 45-minute ferry for Penneshaw. We had been asked more biosecurity questions than at any other place on our travels, and we hadn’t even left our home state. I yearned for the ease of passing through immigration at Gatwick Airport. I had felt perversely miffed at Gatwick for having been ignored by immigration and customs officials.

No sooner had we arrived at our destination though, did we spot a marvellous mob of kangaroos bounding across the property.

Then the following day we had a charming encounter with a Rosenberg’s Monitor looking for a drink of water – a species that is endangered on the mainland.

Rosenberg’s monitor lizard

Verity later came across an elusive short-beaked echidna.

Short-beaked echidna

At last I could appreciate that protecting the fauna and flora of Kangaroo Island was important and necessary, and well worth the interrogations of a biosecurity officer.

Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist from South Australia. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Muse, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ Magazine, Reading in a Foreign Language, and in chapters in anthologies published by Demeter Press, Canada.


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

Slices from Life

Sails, Whales, and Whimsical Winds

Photographs & Narrative by Meredith Stephens

It was June, and we were sailing north along the coast of New South Wales. We arrived at Hacking Bay to weigh anchor at sunset, and later fell asleep to the gently rocking motion of the boat. The following day, Alex made an early start up the coast before I roused. In anticipation of rough waters, he brought me an anti-seasickness pill and a glass of water. After lying there in my cabin for half an hour, I heard Alex uncharacteristically utter an expletive. I knew I couldn’t stay in bed any longer.

“There’s a tear in my mainsail!”

“What now?”

“We can’t get to Pittwater today. We have to find a sailmaker as soon as we can.”

Alex rang his sailor friend Luke who put him on to a competent sailmaker. We had just passed Botany Bay near where the sailmaker worked, so had to turn around in rough waters and motor upwind back to the bay.

Soon after entering the bay into the St George Estuary we spotted the Captain Cook Bridge looming ahead of us. Would the mast clear the underside of the bridge? We gently and carefully started moving under the bridge. As we passed under it, we noticed the VHF antenna on top of the mast bending while scraping the underside of the bridge, so we reversed as quickly as we could and decided to wait nearby until low tide. After finding out the precise time of low tide we tentatively approached the bridge again, Alex all the while craning his head upwards and to the side of the helm to find the high point of the bridge. The VHF barely tickled the bridge, and we made it to the other side.

Then we navigated the boats dotted around the harbour while we made our way to the wharf. Shipwrights working there approached the berth and greeted us warmly. We threw them the docking lines and they expertly tied them to the cleats. The sailmaker arrived soon after to take the sail away for repair. We entreated him to have it ready before low tide the following day so we could pass back under the bridge and avoid being trapped another day.

We had twenty-four hours to pass in the Sans Souci neighbourhood and spent most of our time strolling along the pedestrian path by Botany Bay. Upon our return to the boatyard, the gates were locked, and we could not access the boat. Alex spied a metal ladder lying in the boat yard. He pulled it under a gap in the base of the fence and laid it against it. We climbed up and stepped onto one of the boats on the other side, and then lowered ourselves onto the ground. I ruefully thought that this was something only teenagers would do, but here we were in our sixties, using a ladder to enter a locked property.

The next morning the sailmaker arrived in good time and we heaved the sail back onto the boat. Alex raised the sail and looked pleased with the neat patch.

We waited until low tide, and then wove our way once more through the moored boats, even passing a sunken boat with its mast protruding through the surface of the water.

We precisely timed our passing under the bridge to low tide. As before, Alex proceeded under the highest point of the bridge.

We were exhilarated to have timed the low tide accurately and to have passed under the bridge with only the tip of the VHF antenna having gently grazed its underbelly. We exited the bay in relief and headed back to the Tasman Sea, turning back north to resume our trip up the coast.

Over the next few days, we enjoyed fair conditions for winter sailing. Sailing downwind was like floating in space. The boat cantered across the surface of the water but we had the sensation of being gently propelled through the air.

“This wind is a bit whimsical,” complained Alex, as he moved to the helm to turn on the engine.

“We are approaching Ballina so I have to keep an eye out for…”

“Whales?” I interrupted.

“No, craypots. There might be whales too, though.”

Alex scrutinized the horizon, shivering in his wet weather gear, searching for unforeseen objects.

The name of the town, Ballina, reminded me of the word for ‘whale’ in French:  une baleine. In fact, the name has nothing to do with whales. Rather it was probably named after the Irish town of the same name.

Whale sightings were the highlight of our voyage as we sailed north up the coast of New South Wales. They had migrated from the Antarctica for calving. These were my reward when it was my stint at the helm. Sitting still and observing did not come easily to me. Usually, I liked to busy myself with errands, reading, writing or socialising. I gradually became used to sitting at the helm for hours at a time trying to remain vigilant to spot obstacles to our path. One such day I was sitting there, sensing the swell of the ocean gently rocking beneath me as I held my posture erect, listening to the swishing of the water against the hull, when I was suddenly shocked out of my trance by a spout of water erupting from the ocean surface. Waves do not erupt horizontally so it held my attention. Then I saw a whale throw herself into the air to somersault, and then reveal her fluke as she dived back in again.

“Alex!” I screamed, uncharacteristically, surprising even myself.

It was like being transported to a film set. Alex sensed my excitement and came out with his phone camera, moving to the bow to get as close as he could.

“They’re only a hundred metres away,” he observed.

They performed another flip for us, and flashed their flukes as they dived down. We kept scanning the patch of ocean where they had given their performance, but they did not reappear. I retreated to the helm and then turned around as I heard another splash behind me. The boat had moved on, and the whales were making a reappearance in their original spot.

The trials of seasickness, straining to keep alert while on duty, and sail damage were more than compensated for in the unanticipated sight of a whale breaching before my eyes. All the hardships dimmed in those moments of awe.

Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist from South Australia. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Muse, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ Magazine, Reading in a Foreign Language, and in chapters in anthologies published by Demeter Press, Canada.


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

Slices from Life

‘I am in a New York state of mind’

Narrative and photographs by Ravi Shankar

New York Skyline from a ferry

The new Oculus transportation hub was spectacular! Spacious, roomy, bright, and inviting. A vision in white. The building was designed by the Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava and consists of interlocking ribs that meet high above the ground. I was visiting the One World Trade Center and had taken the New York metro to the station.

One World Trade Centre

Built on the site of the twin towers, it is the tallest building in the western hemisphere. The height is 1776 feet, a reference to the year of American independence. The One World observatory is right at the top (100 to 102nd floors). The elevator ride to the observatory was fast. The history of New York is shown on the elevator panels during the 47-second ride to the hundred and second floor. The view of the New York skyline from the observatory was spectacular. The observatory has a lot to offer but most extra attractions are charged.

New York is infamous for even charging passengers to use the baggage trolleys at JFK airport. This is a service that is free in most of the world and something I could never get used to. The 22-story Flatiron building was the first skyscraper completed in 1903. Many iconic New York skyscrapers were seen, and their history was explained. The view down to the street level projected to the floor in the Skyportal was scary. City Pulse provided an opportunity to interact with the city ambassadors (locals with an intimate knowledge of the city). The collection of high-definition monitors provided me with an intriguing view of New York.  

I enjoyed taking the New York (NY) buses. There are different types of buses; most allow for easy wheelchair access. The next bus stop is displayed on the screen of the bus. Bus stops also have screens showing when the next bus is expected. Jamaica, where I was staying, had articulated buses. I did go on some long walks in the city. The weather was getting colder but was still tolerable. Cold is something you must factor in when visiting New York in the winter. The trees become bare ghosts stripped off their leaves. With the advent of spring, the dormant trees wake up. Coming from tropical climes a tree totally devoid of leaves, fruits, and flowers was a unique sight. 

The Baisley Pond Park was very near where I was staying. The 109-acre park includes the 30-acre Baisley Pond in the centre. Most trees were already bare. The park is a popular venue for sporting events and get-togethers in the summer. The weather greatly influences people’s lives in the northern climes. I enjoyed taking long walks in the park. Jamaica had people from all regions. There were African Americans, Hispanics, South Asians, East Asians, Africans, and others. I was staying in an AirBnB (a house owned by an African American gentleman named Kevin). The room was in the basement of Kevin’s house. We eventually became good friends. There were a few eating places located around Kevin’s house.

I decided to spend a few days in the quietest borough in New York, Staten Island. NY has five boroughs – the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island. Staten Island is the southernmost and for a long time was predominantly agricultural. Staten Island is not commonly visited by tourists. I took the bright, orange-coloured Staten Island ferry. The travel time is about twenty minutes. The ferry travels close to the Statue of Liberty, a gift from

Statue of Liberty from the ferry

the French people to the people of the United States. I took a bus from the ferry terminal to the house where I would be staying. The area had a large Hispanic population and I enjoyed food from the Dominican Republic and Mexico. The room was nice and warm, and the bay windows provided a good view of the street.

The Staten Island Zoo is an eight-acre urban zoo open throughout the year. The zoo is also called Barrett Park and is located on the estate grounds of a US war hero, Colonel Harden. The zoo is run by the Staten Island zoological society founded in 1933. The zoo holds frequent educational sessions. Winter was starting and many animals had been shifted to warmer enclosures. A lot of effort had been expended on recreating the native environment of most animals. Zoologists now know a lot about different animals and their habitats. I had seen similar effort being put in at the zoos in Taiping.

One of the highlights of my visit was the afternoon spent at Richmond Old Town. The site was for more than two centuries the seat of the Staten Island government. The government was shifted to the northern part of the island after the island became one of the boroughs of New York. The former county clerk’s office serves as a historic museum. I enjoyed stepping back in time. The visitor’s centre is in the third county courthouse. There are several historic structures.

There were individuals dressed as historical characters enacting different roles and speaking the lingua of the past. One of the highlights of the afternoon was the guided tour of different properties led by the museum curator. New York was originally settled by the Dutch and called New Amsterdam. The houses were built in the old Dutch style. People lived much more simply in those days and closer to the land. I saw straw beddings that attracted vermin easily and had to be disposed of periodically. I was reminded of a night spent sleeping on a straw mattress in a Nepalese trekking lodge when I was devoured alive by bed bugs. Bed bugs are a resilient species and I read they were making a comeback even in upmarket hotels in developed nations. The massive brick ovens used to bake bread were intriguing as was the old, solid furniture.

The afternoon was getting cloudy and windy as I took the bus back to my room. The next morning, I took the ferry back to Queens. Soon it was time for me to fly back. Terminal 4 at JFK airport can be very crowded. Luckily due to my frequent flier status with Kuwait airways, I had access to the Etihad lounge. Dusk was slowly settling on the airport and the sleek modern control tower was being lit in various fluorescent colours. This was an interesting visit to the Big Apple. NY is sprawling, rough, busy, rushed, kind, and individualistic.

People come to chase their dreams from all over the world. I was reminded of the famous song by Billy Joel and Tony Bennett titled ‘Í am in a New York state of mind’ as the plane gathered height and slowly left the lights of the big apple far, far below!     


Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.



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

Slices from Life

Near-Life Experiences: Hiking in New Zealand

Sometimes all it takes is a short break to get away from the stresses of your life to realise you have been too busy to be truly living the life you really desire. Sometimes all you need are some near-life experiences to bring you back to Earth. Keith Lyons escapes city life to find his happy place. 

Abel Tasman National Park. Courtesy: Creative Commons

It was almost midday when I finally started to relax and instinctively know that everything was going to be alright. But before then, things had been a little bit rushed. With just 15 minutes before the flight boarding call, the taxi was still spinning a few blocks away on the Uber app tracker. I counted down the minutes, worried not so much about the high fare but about missing the flight. 

Still half asleep, I kept a lookout from my window seat at the snow on the ridges of the Alps, finding amid the peaks and valleys an emerald alpine lake, impossible to reach. Half-an-hour later after the plane touched down, I walked from the airport to the neighbourhood where I grew up, locating the supermarket, and assembling my late breakfast with provisions I’d bought for the journey: half a dozen multi-grain bread rolls, a bag of salad greens, and a small block of extra tasty mature cheese. Suitably fortified, I found camping gas sold in the hunting and fishing shop, though when I walked out of Gun City having purchased one canister, I got a nasty look from the mother with her young child, as if I had just bought a semi-automatic rifle to run riot in a primary school. Seeking the best cafe in town to enjoy a cup of coffee, I found it further along the street, a man in a wheelchair mobility scooter leaving with a broad grin as if he had been given a new lease on life a good enough sign for me. The owner gave me a friendly welcome and a cafe latte in a real cup. With blood sugar and caffeine levels now elevated, it was time to hit the road, to hitchhike to the trailhead, but some primitive drive kicked in when I went past the pizza parlour, so I gave in and commenced carbo-loading on a 12-inch pizza, justifying to myself that I’d be walking it off. 

And I did walk. First, out of town to the crossroads where I only had to wait a few minutes until a science teacher on her way to pick up her children stopped. She told me about their financial struggles and how a generous government allowance kept their family afloat. She dropped me in the next town, and I ducked into the last supermarket just to cram one more packet of crackers into my day pack. 

It was now early afternoon, and the logical part of my brain was asking why I hadn’t started on the hike, which would take four hours. The other part of my brain reassured me that it didn’t really matter what’s ahead, what was here and now was more important. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the sun felt hot on my skin. I walked to the edge of town, but with not so much traffic I was tempted to have a handmade ice cream with local frozen berries. By the time I cleaned my sticky hands with sanitiser, I looked up to see another car had stopped for me. A man with no legs. I moved the wheels of his chair further over in the back seat; later I worried he might not be able to reach them when he arrived at his destination. I was almost at mine. 

One final ride, with a former real estate agent who imparted some wisdom: Live your life to the full while you can, don’t wait till you are old, for then it might be too late, and health problems might blight your life. 

Inside, I felt that I needed this. To be on the road. To be travelling again after Covid lockdowns and fears about venturing out. I needed this to look beyond my day job, my family concerns, and my dilemmas with what to do to secure a long-term future. It seems ages ago, but when I woke up in the morning, the first email I had seen through bleary eyes was a quote from George Addair: “Everything you’ve ever wanted is sitting on the other side of fear.”

I felt buoyed by the interactions, the sharing of truths, and the lifelong lessons. I almost wanted to continue this hitchhiking, this random experiment, at the mercy of the road and its drivers. But I had a reservation for a bunk bed in a park hut, and the holiday I’d planned at the start of the year was now taking shape. 

The trail, the Abel Tasman National Park ‘Great Walk’ (in New Zealand’s South Island) was familiar enough that I felt like I was coming home. I recalled walking part of this track as a child and in recent years I’d hiked sections, including the first four hours. Despite its familiarity, I saw new things, noticed details, and lingered to take it all in. I was in no hurry. So much depended on your mood, your pace, and your company. I took detours down to sandy beaches. I got breathless climbing and climbing and climbing to viewpoints. I stopped to drink the water still cold in my bottle. I sat at strategically placed seats to marvel at the panorama of sea, sand, forest and the horizon. From dazzling sunlight, the route drops into the gloom of forest cover, where I could smell the earthy sweetness of honey-dew on the breeze. The landscape was scenic, but there was more it was doing for my soul. Moving through it was to be immersed in it, to be nourished by the sight, the colours of life, the contrasts, and the abundance of nature. In my head, my soundtrack had songs on repeat, repeat, repeat. Then it skipped to another, to repeat a few times. I needed to upgrade my internal Spotify. I noticed my breathing, and how it deepened. I still had some tension, but slowly it was seeping away, dissipating. Yes, I would like some more of this. Yes, please. 

Every few minutes walkers heading out from day trips or longer multi-day hikes passed by, with ‘hellos’. The Europeans and North Americans invariably walked on the ‘wrong’ side of the trail. Some were seeking suitable places for Instagram pictures. Others clutched the cardboard containers that once held their packed lunch from the ferry operator, looking for a trash bin, despite the notices that everyone must take out whatever they bring in. 

At the hut, most had larger packs than mine, apart from an American who seemed to be staying overnight without any food. We watched him sitting outside using the free wifi, as if he was Googling ‘nearest store’ or finding out if any delivery services worked there. They don’t. The wood fire was lit in the main dining area, and exhausted souls sat around eating camp food and sipping hot drinks. And laughing. It was only just 9.30pm but already half the 30 or so guests had retired to their bunk rooms. There was talk about the need to rise early to take advantage of the low tide crossing, saving an hour or so of extra slog. 

I was woken by the rustling of plastic bags, the clomping of hiking boots on the deck outside, and the hiss of gas cookers preparing porridge and tea. I rolled over and tried to sleep, as I was still tired, a tiredness residual from late nights, long hours working, and the demands of modern life. 

When I finally got out of my sleeping bag and squinted my eyes out at the day, the last of the overnighters were getting ready to leave. I found myself alone. And here I found it. Peace. Stillness. Calm. It is in that place. And it was inside me. 

Framed by the gable roof of the dining hall, through the trees, it was misty across the sheltered bay. The water was still and flat, but I could hear the distant breaking on the shore like a lullaby. I slowly sipped a cup of Lady Grey tea to add clarity. I heard just the twitter of birdsong and saw two tiny birds flit here and there. From a treetop, came the chimes and whirls and clicks of a native bird. Light rain was soft on the tin roof. I was content just to sit and gaze out at the scene, reduced to flat grey tones. I was happy enough just to be breathing the air, which was moist and life-giving. My warm scarf wrapped around my neck gave the embodiment of love, while the woollen hat on my heat topped it off. I was complete.

I felt the need to move, but not to go out in the rain which was getting heavier. Instead, I remembered some Qi Gong exercises, my arms flailing out, torso twisting, rotating. I pulled up energy from the earth below. And with that movement, and in that space, there was nothing I wanted. Just being fully present was enough. It was all I could be at that moment. 

And you. How about you? When will you stop over-thinking, obsessing, and worrying? Just breathe and believe that everything will work out.

Keith Lyons ( is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (


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