Categories
Essay

Here, There, Nowhere, Everywhere

Did life change or did I change from the events of the last year,’ ponders New Zealander Keith Lyons who was in the southern state of Kerala when the first cases of Covid-19 were detected in India last January.

Everything shifted last year. Priorities. Energies. Focus. 

Well, actually, there wasn’t much focus for me last year. For much of 2020, I felt unfocused, scattered, reactive. I was not achieving peak performance or being proactive going forward, if we were to use business language. I doubt if I was being the best version of myself either. I definitely needed to ‘pivot’, whatever that meant. 

What was initially a short holiday ‘back home’ to catch up with family and friends turned into something without a clear ending, as it dawned on me maybe I wouldn’t be travelling again for years perhaps, why, even ever. 

Usually, by May, I would be like the snowbird and migrate to warmer climes. I would head to my base in Bali’s Ubud, and then later in the year to southwest China and Myanmar, the three locations in Asia where I have caches of cotton shirts, swimming goggles, cycle shorts, hot water kettles, tea strainers and rice cookers. 

By November, I would surely be back in the country termed ‘the land of mystery, mysticism, mythology, miracles, multiculturalism and mightiness’ — India. 

When I left Kerala’s Varkala Beach near Thiruvananthapuram in February last year, after my last dip in the warm breaking waves, I always thought I would be back for chai at one of the cliff top cafes overlooking the gleaming ocean, the lunchtime Rs.90(US$1.25) thali at True Thomas and falling asleep to the whirl of the fan and the shushing of the Arabian Sea. 

But it didn’t happen last Indian winter, and I doubt if it will happen this year or even next. The seasons turn, the tides come and go, the waves roll onto the main Papanasham beach and the less-visited Black Sand beach. True Thomas is ‘temporarily closed’ according to Google. In fact, the Kerala beach destination was already impacted by Covid-19 in March 2020, when an Italian tourist visiting for a fortnight tested positive for the virus. The English boss of Coffee Temple Cafe had got in trouble with authorities for his blackboard offering of ‘Anti-Coronavirus juice’ (150 Rs) made from ginger, lemon, gooseberry. 

I wonder how the Tibetan and Nepalese who work in eateries during the season, November to May, are surviving. 

Mid-2020 I found myself unable to continue my digital semi-nomadic existence of following mild weather and hopping on AirAsia flights I’d booked up to a year earlier. Instead, because of travel restrictions during the pandemic, and my own wish to stay safe, I was lock-downed in my hometown in New Zealand, cohabiting with my parents in the house I’d lived in since aged eight years old.

A friend on Facebook sent me a message saying she couldn’t wait to walk down the aisle, with a photo of an aeroplane aisle. Another sent an image showing the perfect Covid-19 sport which requires masks, gloves and 2m distance: fencing. 

In the post from China, I received a couple of full-face snorkelling masks. In between the time of ordering and the arrival of the goods, on YouTube, there was a video on how to convert to meet the N95 respirator standards, or how to modify for use as an emergency interface with a ventilator. Researchers even had a paper in Nature about using Decathalon snorkelling masks. I wouldn’t believe much else on Youtube. What a shame that many do. 

From Bali last year, there were claims that it was one of the safest places in the world as the recovery rate was high, and mortality rate low, compared to other places. This was attributed to a mix of sunshine, high temperatures, and a better (superior) immune system. 

Sound familiar, my friends in India? Later someone posted a graph showing exponential growth, with the caption ‘Bali, what happened?’ 

New Zealand, as it turns out, has been largely protected from the ravages of Covid-19, thanks to closing the borders, a short lockdown, and citizens acting together as a ‘Team of 5 Million’.

This time last year I went on lots of walks, I gazed at cloud formations, and watched sunsets. I cut down scraggly trees, sorted through books, and gave away many of my parent’s possessions as part of downsizing. Of the bounty of childhood books I distributed, one was the beguiling ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ by Edward Lear, penned 150 years ago, which my father would read to us when we were young:

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note …

I even sold the family silver. 

My parents didn’t get Covid, and just last week, got the first of two Pfizer pricks in the upper arm (so far, only 10% of the population in New Zealand have received their first shot). 

What changed dramatically was their circumstances. An operation in hospital for my 85-year-old father to reverse a previous insertion of a stoma didn’t work out as expected, and in late June last year the one night back home after his surgery proved to be his last night in the house they bought in 1976. He left in the back of an ambulance. He is now in hospital-level care in a rest home, and his wife, my mother, lives nearby in a retirement village. 

Before his surgery, they considered selling the house and moving to the retirement village together, but undetected earthquake damage from 2010-2011 was discovered by the real estate agent, and I had to initiate a claim to have the damage repaired. 

Being back home, many things were familiar, some things had changed, a few things were strange. I had become the parent of my parents. My days revolved around sorting out their problems. Instead of my independent existence and free lifestyle, I found myself taking on family responsibilities. Yet I was glad that in a time of need, I had been there to do the things they couldn’t do easily. 

The year 2020 was unprecedented (and UnPresidented), with so many unknowns, so many surprises. Sharing a birth date with a friend from journalism school, we went for dinner with her family. Little did I anticipate it was the last time I saw her husband, a blood doctor, who died suddenly during a video consult with a patient. 

My side hustle — a small travel agency working with ethnic minorities in southwest China — got its first inquiries in June last year. Several guides urged me to keep it open, as it was their main source of income. Before that, I hadn’t received any inquiries for the first part of 2020.

Several of the publications I usually write for have gone into hibernation, and some projects are on hold indefinitely. Before a job interview last week, I had to reflect on what I have been doing with my life. Or at least, the last 15 years. 

But what do I do these days? I swim most days, some days join a friend at the gym who wants to improve his heart. I drink one cup of coffee a day, recently, made from green coffee beans I’ve roasted in a popcorn machine. At least once I week I go out to have an Indian meal. This week it was a Kerala thali of a dozen delicious parts. Last week my friends ordered a family dosa, which had to be carried to the table by two waiters. 

My parent’s house is now my house, and each day I attend to its restoration and renovation, learning new skills of skim-coating, tiling, and concreting. Each month I get an email reminder that most of my AirAsia BIG Loyalty points are expiring soon.

Spending time with those I love is more important for me these days. We speak more frankly about what really matters. I’ve even started attending Death Cafe events, where anyone can share about their fear of death. 

Through it all, I feel like I am becoming a better friend to myself. I am my own guru. I am my own Jedi Master — it was just that I didn’t realise it before. I’ve learned to better cope with the challenges of life. As Jedi Master Yoda once said: “Named must be your fear before banish it you can”.

All I have to do is breathe. Breathe in. Exhale. Repeat. 

Last year, just a week after traditionally the coldest day of the year (one month after the shortest day), I saw my first golden daffodils, the yellow trumpets signalling that the winter had been mild, and that the warmer days of spring were not far away. 

Today on my way to the swimming pool, weeks before the solstice, I spied a row of daffodils in a neighbour’s garden and had to smile. I don’t know what the future holds, and I acknowledge that things will not return to normal like before. Yet I walk on, carrying in my heart hope, not so much as wishful thinking or expecting a positive outcome, but knowing that whatever the rest of 2021 and beyond throw up, no matter how disruptive, that the only way out is through it. 

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, with a background in psychology and social sciences. Keith was featured as one of the top 10 travel journalists in Roy Stevenson’s ‘Rock Star Travel Writers’ (2018). He has undertaken writer residencies in Antarctica and on an isolated Australian island, and in 2020 plans to finally work out how to add posts to his site Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.

Categories
Poetry

Amour

By Nithya Mariam John

Amour

Search for vacant spaces in your beloved’s eyes.

No, you won’t find those easily.
Like the young ones under a hen’s wings,
she hides her emptiness beneath her eyelids,
which never forgets how you kissed the eyebrows, once upon a time.

If you look deeply into the wells of her resonating laughter,
you can draw waters of bare desires and deferred passions.
You are never blamed for the act, neither is she guilty of it --
 being blank, is not sinful.
It lies like an open wound, gaping at the skies,
eclipsed by the penetrating sun.

Kiss the hollowness gently,
but never try to step in.

Please watch the barrenness from afar,
do not barge inside, nor scar her privacy,
with your sharp tongue.
For if you do,
she may let you in,
but you will always be the unwelcomed thief, 
who’d robbed her of the last inch of the planet,
which she had painfully reserved for herself.

Dr. Nithya Mariam John is a teacher, poet , editor,  translator and critic with three published collections of poetry and an anthology. Her works have appeared in Kendra Sahitya Akademi’s Journal of Indian Literature, Malayalam Literature Survey, Muse India, Indian Ruminations and Samyukta Poetry. She podcast eight episodes titled ‘Torn Pages of a Diary’ during the pandemic year 2020. She blogs at Mizhi (nmjs.in). email : nithyamariam@gmail.com 

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Musings

Notes from Kerala: Running during COVID

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Every day, at 6 p.m., I set out from my home in Kochi for a run. In these coronavirus times, I have marked out a route that runs parallel to the main road. For a few days, the cops, in khaki uniform, were stopping cars and two-wheelers but they left the individuals alone. 

I have started running after a decade. During those years, I was swimming. But the pool, where I swim, is closed. The lifeguard has gone home. The club is shuttered. There is a lone watchman in a blue uniform standing at the gate and saying, “Nobody is here.” 

In my mid-fifties, it takes time for my body to move. The legs are stiff, and movements in the arms are negligible. But around 300 meters into my run, a miracle happens. My body shakes off the lethargy, my legs start moving rhythmically, and soon I am gliding across the road. A younger version has taken over. Or maybe, my muscle memory has asserted itself. 

It is a beautiful route. There are large trees with overhanging branches on either side.

Most houses have lawns in front where red and white roses bloom. In some homes, there are vegetable patches at the back. In the concrete jungle of Mumbai, you may have to pay crores of rupees to enjoy this. But in Kochi, these are the houses of middle-class people. How lucky we are!  

Over the rasping of my breath through my open mouth, I can hear birdsong. No longer are auto and car horns and the groaning exhaust of ill-maintained lorries the dominant sound. When I run, I no longer have to look at the road, as no vehicles are coming from the opposite direction, just a stray white dog who looks at me with mournful eyes as if asking, “Where have all the people gone?” 

But they are there, inside their houses, and outside too. 

I see a woman picking up a large blue bedsheet from a clothesline on the terrace of her house. I see a thirty-something woman, in a white nightgown, standing at the door, holding a sleeping baby, with a white headscarf, in her arms, and looking curiously at me. On another terrace, a woman is watering her plants, placed on the parapet, a row of red pots, using a green hose. “Nice colour contrast,” I think. 

On this hot, April summer day, with more than 95 per cent humidity, perspiration starts to drip down my forehead. My breath is rushing out, like water from a burst pipe, through my open mouth. Incredibly, at this moment, I think of my mother. 

Last night, when I went to meet her, she said she was thinking of her father. She said the entire family had gone to the St. Alphonsa Pilgrim Centre at Bharananganam (75 km from Kochi). “My father was about to fall into a deep pit, which was hidden under a canopy of weeds,” she said. “But at the very last moment, he bent and saw it. He said that St. Alphonsa had saved him.” 

It is a big family — many brothers and sisters. A few are scattered all over the world. Three have passed away. Her parents are both dead. Their house has become a private college. Where my grandfather used to sit in a low armchair, a short, squat man, with silver hair and a bald brown patch at the top of his head, in a large hall, where the tick-tock of a large black clock on the wall could be heard clearly, now college students come and listen, with drooping eyes, to the drone of a teacher, who looks bored and sounds listless. He’s been teaching the same syllabus for decades. 

As my mother spoke, I realized that she is an orphan. She can never meet her parents anymore except in her imagination. And in a matter of years, I will be an orphan too, as my father is now 93 and my mother is 83. What would life be like without parents? A friend, who lost his parents, told me that you think of them more when they have passed away rather than when they are alive. 

I run faster and expectedly I can feel a pain in my lungs, as my body tells me to slow down. And so I do. 

I am depressed. I have lost my job in the print media, and my 38-year career seems to have come to an end. What do I do now? Owing to the virus, the economy is at a standstill. And so am I. 

I have a daughter and a son in college. Early marriage, but late parenthood. Two miscarriages roiled my wife’s equanimity. But finally, after nine years of marriage, and several treatments at various fertility centres, God nodded and the babies came. But now, how do I pay my bills, their bills, our bills? Thankfully, my wife has a good job as a counsellor in a college. So, we won’t starve. 

Unfortunately, we have a bitter-sweet marriage. The pattern is one week of sweetness followed by three weeks of sourness. This routine has continued for a long time. “You are too self-absorbed,” she said. “I can’t handle it.” 

We have been married for 27 years.   

I partly agree with her. All writers go inside themselves all the time. You lose touch with the outside. You lose awareness of people and their emotional needs. Which woman likes that?

Since I have slowed down, my breath, through my wide-open mouth, has begun to go in and out easier. One day, there will be the last breath. Which day, month and year will it be? At what time? How old will I be? Who will be around me? Will I be in a hospital room all alone? Will my children be far away? In another country? Will they have any affection left for me? 

And will my wife be still around? Will she be staring at me, by my bedside, as I get ready to leave the planet; will it be a bittersweet moment for her? Sad that I am dying but happy for some crumbs of freedom after I am buried — free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty I am free at last. 

And nobody will point fingers at her, which might have happened if we had divorced. These accusations could have been shouted at her by relatives or our children. But this is the smoothest way to freedom. The bugger died. Not my fault. 

I feel my legs starting to move smoothly again. I think this is a second wind. If I want, I can stop. But I know I can continue if I keep going in this steady manner. Now my body has become like a machine. Of course, it is an ageing machine. 

It was my friend Sanjay who introduced me to running. I was a frail boy with black-framed spectacles, who liked to read books all the time. A nerd. He lived two buildings away on a street beside a large park in Calcutta. I don’t know how we first met, but we were in our teens. He was 6’ and I was 5’ 5”. And he had a passion for tennis. He played it every day at a club inside the park. And to keep fit, he would go for runs on the perimeter of the park. He urged me to come with him. 

“I have never run before,” I said. There is always a first time, he said. So I asked my parents to buy me a pair of white keds, and they gladly did so. They did not like me staying cooped up inside the house all the time. A shy boy with no friends. 

But when I started running, it was a revelation. I had a smooth style. Always, from the very beginning, I felt that I was gliding over the ground. “Man, you are good,” said Suresh, who showed thumbs up to me. There was a reason for his appreciation. He ran in a heavy lumbering way. Of course, he was 85 kgs and this weight proved a hindrance. It came as no surprise that through the decades, he never liked running. 

But I am sure he likes his present-day life a lot. He is a tennis coach at a millionaires’ club in Florida. Through shrewd real-estate deals and stock investments, Suresh has made a pot of money. He lives in a gated community that has a clear lake, an amber-blue swimming pool, a well-equipped gym and a gleaming black Mercedes Benz in his garage. But he has stayed in touch. Calls me once a month. Has retained his Indian accent and simplicity. When in the mood, both of us speak in Bengali, as a nostalgic tribute to our Calcutta roots. A Rajput and a Malayali speaking in Bengali. That’s the beauty of a syncretic India, now under furious attack by fundamentalists who are unwilling to accept that the people they demonise have a soul just like them. 

I am running steadily now. Three elderly men, in white and multi-coloured lungis, stand around, keeping the social distancing norms (Kerala has the highest literacy rates in India, so they know the rules) and chat about the hot weather. I go past. They pause to look at me. May make comments about me after I have gone some distance away. It does not worry me at all. But what I am worried about is the state of my knees.   

A decade ago, fearful that my knees would take a hit since I was always running on tarred roads, I shifted to swimming. And this turned out to be even better than running. Gliding through the water, every muscle getting a workover, especially the lower back, always a point of weakness for sedentary workers, the sense of rejuvenation I felt when I stepped out of the pool after a 45-minute session. There was nothing to match it. My brain became soaked in dopamine.   

And the moment my head hit the pillow, I was out, like a knockout blow to the chin by a professional boxer. 

But now, in the times of the virus, I have to rely on the good old legs but the dopamine that seeps out is a trickle, like the flow of water in a river during the middle of a drought. Still, something is better than nothing. Be happy.  

In the end, I stop running and take out my handkerchief and wipe my face and neck. And keep wiping it as the sweat continues to flow. I walk and walk, till I finally reach my home….an oasis as well as a battlefront.   

Shevlin Sebastian is a journalist based in Kochi. He has published around 4500 articles over 30 years, most of them feature stories. He has worked in Sportsworld magazine, (ABP Group), The Week magazine (of the Malayala Manorama Group), the Hindustan Times in Mumbai and the New Indian Express in Kochi and in DC Books, Kottayam.