Categories
Musings

Notes from Singapore: Ordinary inspirations

By Ranjani Rao

“Walking is a pastime rather than an avocation.” Rebecca Solnit

In the weeks since social distancing measures were imposed and circuit breaker measures implemented in Singapore, despite having more time on my hands, my writing output has decreased. Have I been afflicted by the dreaded writer’s block?

By working from home, I save almost two hours of commute time every day. Instead of writing more, I find myself in a slump. Is my well of inspiration drying up?

Topics to write (mostly Covid-19 related) still buzz around in my head but I am surprised to discover just how much I depended on the world outside my home to stimulate not just my senses, but also to rouse my muse.

Unexpected encounters on the train, surprising conversations with colleagues at work, casual lunches with friends, all served as triggers for ideas, inspirations, and epiphanies. Without these avenues to spur creativity, I fret about wasting these precious extra hours that have landed into my packed schedule like a much-needed gift.

All that is left of my pre-pandemic life is the ability to step out of my home for a walk, as long as I wear a mask, walk alone, and avoid crowding. Not a bad idea, since walking is my favorite ‘sport’.

Walking has been my savior for as long as I can remember. Walking has rescued me, given me a respite from life, and a reason to continue with it. It has served as an exercise to maintain physical health, a mindful pause to collect myself emotionally, and as a conduit to receive guidance in turbulent times.

The wonder years

As lanky teenage girls, my friend and I walked hand in hand, two pairs of braids swinging around our shoulders, wearing similar if not identical clothes through busy Bombay streets. Some evenings we walked to the temple, on others we did some errands, or stopped for spicy street food when we had money.

Traffic fumes engulfed us as we navigated streets crowded with vendors pushing cartloads of bananas, people queuing up at bus stops, and beggars lining the pavements. We talked as we walked, trying to make sense of growing up, and understand the world of adults while we contemplated our future. We didn’t know then that she would get married young but remain childless, a lingering regret that she is yet to come to terms with. Neither could we have predicted the marital troubles that would plague me for several years before I took action.

Working mother

As a young working woman, I resumed walking in California during my lunch hour. Stuck in a laboratory all day, mothering a baby in the evenings, and catching up on housework on weekends left few options for exercise. I strolled around the one-mile periphery of the triangular campus in the mild sunshine. A gentle breeze blew around my face as I walked in my comfy Easy Spirit pumps, taking in the pleasant greenery of the beautiful site. Walking helped my body lose some of the pregnancy weight and enabled me to make peace with my decision to be a working mother without letting debilitating mommy guilt weigh me down.

It was an era before cell phones became appendages. Getting away from your desk meant truly stepping away from co-workers, computers, and chores. I made a new friend one afternoon, a young woman who had arrived from China. She seemed excited but bewildered by the world around her. Her lack of fluency in English was no barrier to our connection. We spoke about important things, matters that were hard to articulate to others but easier to say aloud to a relative stranger albeit one you met regularly.

An unexpected life trajectory

The terrace of the duplex house in Hyderabad that I moved into when my child was eight served as my walking track for several years. The large L-shaped structure overlooked a frangipani tree in the front yard. Although too big for just the two of us, the spacious house with a private gate shielded me from inquisitive neighbors and well-intentioned strangers curious about my life.

The moon would hang low on some nights, yellow and heavy with promises of better days. On dark moonless nights that reflected my somber mood, I wondered about the string of circumstances that had now made me a single parent. Managing a full-time job and holding complete responsibility for a growing child were clearly not compatible. Nightly walks along the edges of the small terrace gave me clarity and confidence that I could leave my job and still maintain financial independence. It would mean reconfiguring the career path I had planned, but in the long run, it would enable me to create a more balanced work life.

Lockdown blues

These days, instead of a nightly walk after dinner, I sometimes take another one after lunch, especially if the sky is overcast, or if it has just rained. The gently sloping street is lined with condos, many among them bearing some variation of the word ‘hill’ in its name. Not surprising, since I have a clear view of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve from my balcony. 

Each condo has a personality that is not as evident at night. Used to the seasonal lights that adorn the entryways, each condo trying to outdo the other for every major festival, I now observe subtle differences that I had not previously noticed.

One has an impressive two-level waterfall at the entrance that pours into a pool where koi fish and small turtles swim. A newly-constructed condo has terraced spaces in its outer walls where flowering plants bloom. From the opposite side of the road, they look like tulips, reminding me of a missed opportunity for a trip to Keukenhof, Netherlands for the spring tulip season.

The cemented court, a short distance from the community center that served as a gathering point for the gardening club as well as the tai chi class, is taped off. A lone collared kingfisher sits atop a light pole. Mynas chirp loudly and assemble on a small flowering tree and gobble all the seeds that are yet to flower before rushing off to their next halt.

Joys of walking

As we navigate these unprecedented days of the pandemic, I am grateful that I have the freedom to walk. Much more than mere exercise, walking is my moving meditation. Now walking is my catalyst for creativity. 

Through walking, I have once again learnt to zoom in on the things closest to me, the ones with the most significance. I am hyper-aware that time, like breath, simply slips away if we don’t give it our attention.

Even though the days seem interminable, sooner or later, life will return to normal. Before that happens, I want to make sure I observe and imprint the beauty of these ordinary days, and savor the pleasure found in simple activities like walking,

In the words of John Burroughs –

“I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the friends I want to see.”

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Ranjani Rao, a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, and former resident of USA, now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir.  Check out her writing at her website www.ranjanirao.com and receive a free ebook. Connect with her at Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Blog

Categories
Poetry

To Do list & Morna

To-do List:

Today I will fall out of love with you.

I’ll sweep out the motes of dust
that clung to your feet. 
Each speck a single story, 
of your worldly being. 
 
I’ll climb ladders for the distant corners, 
to clear out limp cobwebs of words, 
whispered and strung in secret —
prose patterns of our desire. 

I’ll pick out tea leaves caught in the sieve,
filtering out sweet and twilit memories. 
A steel scrubber for the grimy pits of pots, 
dredging out the darkness of difficult days. 

I’ll dig out from under my nails, 
the memory of your skin. 
Make sure to clean behind my ears,
the salt of your lips.

I’ll iron out the creases of your smile, 
and allow my heart to ache for a while. 
Stretch out my fingers in vain,
and tremble for your touch. 

I’ll cap love off with a shot of whiskey.
A quick fix for the spirit.
A cinder for my belly.
A reminder to never quit it. 
MORNA
The Cape Verdeans call it their national music
A balm for the dis-ease of seafaring journeys.
Destined as they are, these archipelagic folk,
to grow roots in stormy waters.

The lips of waves carry these drawn out sighs,
a thousand and more exhalations.
The ocean laps up these lamentations.
Swayed as she is by their mournful preoccupations.

It is this suadade that breaks upon our calloused feet,
tempting us to wade and wallow deep.
And we dive in —
hungry as we are for borrowed emotion.

By Himani Sood

Himani Sood is a middle-school Humanities teacher currently residing in Mumbai, India. From a young age, Himani has found cathartic relief in writing in a myriad of forms, ranging to the more austere conventions of academic papers (which, she wishes to add, she happily disobeyed) to a number of comedic school productions. These poems mark a return to an art form she long-neglected — it is an attempt to connect with a long-stifled inner voice. 

Categories
Essay

COVID-19: Governance And Scientific Temper In India

By K.P. Fabian

The media, the Indian as well as the international, have  covered the continuing plight of the inter-state migrants resulting from the nation-wide lock-down announced with a calculated abruptness, not uncharacteristic of the Government of India (GOI) judging from the disastrous demonetization and the hurried and thoughtless implementation of GST.

Yet, none in the media has given a proper explanation for the failure of the GOI to anticipate the plight of the millions of inter-state migrants. It has been pointed out that these poor citizens come to the attention of the government only when there is an election. However, there is another explanation which the mainstream media, more or less intimidated by the establishment, do not dare to say: Any such major decision should have been taken based on a cabinet paper as the Rules of Business of GOI mandate. Such a cabinet paper  would have been prepared by the relevant Department/Ministry and submitted by its Secretary to the Cabinet Secretary who would have circulated it to the departments concerned, and even consulted with the states, as they have to implement the decision. That paper would have argued the pros and cons, listed out the actions to be taken before the announcement, and thereafter. It would have listed the anticipable problems such as the plight of inter-state migrants, the supply chain management and more. It certainly would not have recommended an announcement at 8P.M. to be effective at midnight.

Therefore, we conclude that the lock-down decision is not an instance of good governance. The lock-down was necessary. But in government even a good and necessary decision has to be taken and implemented  in the right way. Government procedures are there for a reason. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, the procedure should be respected.

The Finance Minister said that she barely got 36 hours to come out with a financial package. Looking at the half-baked package, her complaint is legitimate.

Let us now look at the strategy of GOI to address the Covid-19 pandemic. The sad truth is that there was no strategy because no attention was paid to the looming disaster though we have a National Disaster Management Act enacted in 2005. On 30th January 2020 the first case in India was detected in the State of Kerala. The patient had returned from Wuhan where she was a student. By 3rd February, two more students who had returned from Wuhan tested positive.

Let us look at the response of the Government of Kerala (GOK) and GOI.  Five days before the first case, the State Health Minister K.K. Shailaja, set up a high-level committee. On 4th February, GOK declared a ‘state disaster’.

The GOI did not take note of what was happening in Kerala. Is there a system of a state government sending an urgent report on such matters to the GOI? Whether it is there or not, the media covered the cases in Kerala, and nothing should have prevented the GOI from asking for an urgent report. Whether such a report was asked for or not, sent or not, the Union Ministry of Health issued an advisory on travel to China only on 17th January. It said that Indians going to China should take care in view of the contagion. On 25th January, a second advisory said that travel to China should be for ‘essential’ purposes only. There was no advisory in February. The third advisory was on 5th March, advising against travel to China.

Question: Why was there such delay? Our Embassy in China would have reported about the raging contagion. Taiwan took prompt action by medically screening arriving passengers from Wuhan, initially informally, and formally after China informed the W.H.O. of the contagion on 31st December.  What is even more important is that Taiwan started making testing kits as a precaution. Surely, our trade office in Taiwan would have reported all this.  By 20th January, the W.H.O.  published the action under way in Thailand, Japan, and South Korea. Our missions in the three countries would have reported on all this.  Our Permanent Mission in Geneva would have reported on all this though the web site of the organization was giving the information.

We conclude that the GOI was not alert.  President Trump and P.M. had a five-hour long session on 25th February. Trump had disallowed flights from China in early February. Did they discuss this contagion?

A related question: Why did Trump come at all, if he had made up his mind to indefinitely postpone a trade deal? Was the sole purpose to get an over-choreographed reception in Ahmedabad to a large gathering who might not have understood what he said as there was no interpretation? What was the raison d’etre of this Wagneraian opera at some cost to the people of India? To show GOI’s support for the candidate Trump? If so, is it wise to pick a side in the election in another country? Good diplomacy advises against such action.

Another instance of the deficit of good governance is that the resourceful military has not been mobilized to assist with the supply chain and the manufacturing of testing kits, PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) and much more.

There is a basic confusion in the mind of the GOI. Lock-down is required only to the extent it produces the conditions necessary for social distancing. Lock-down per se is not desirable.  The imaginary cabinet paper would have had three lists of economic activities:

1) Activities compatible with social distancing with minor modifications.

2) Activities that need more modification to be made compatible with social distancing.

3) Activities not compatible with social distancing.

Talks with the sectors of the economy and its representative bodies would have started on day one of the lock-down if not prior to it.  We see that the corporate sector is finding it difficult to accommodate the workers inside the plant or even to arrange for their transport. Democracy implies dialogue between the government and the rest of the society the initiative for which should be taken by the former. India has an excellent, or potentially excellent bureaucracy and sadly it has not contributed as much as it can into decision-making and implementation. Why is it so?

Above all, we need a scientific temper to successfully deal with such crises. Such temper seems to be absent among a section of the Delhi elite as seen from a WhatsApp message that went around:

The candle flames have temperatures in the range of 400° to 500° Celsius. When so so so many candles will light for 9 minutes, imagine the impact on the environment and the heat so generated will decimate the virus. Why 9 mins, 9 P M and 5th Apr (5+4)?9 in the numerology is an adamant digit, which cannot be destroyed.

It was Jawaharlal Nehru who coined the phrase ‘ the scientific temper’ that he defined in 1946 in The Discovery of India as follows:

“What is needed] is the scientific approach, the adventurous and yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on pre-conceived theory, the hard discipline of the mind—all this is necessary, not merely for the application of science but for life itself and the solution of its many problems.”

It will be most useful if the P.M. in one of his addresses to the nation draws attention to article 51 of the Constitution which requires the citizens to cultivate such a temper.

This is not the time to find fault for the sake of finding fault. But unity of action in a democracy comes only when the government is self-confident enough to listen to criticism and benefit therefrom.

Let us work unitedly under the leadership of the P.M and C.M.s. India is too large a country to be micro-governed from the capital.

K.P Fabian is a former Ambassador

This article was first published in Countercurrents.org