Poetry by Allison Grayhurst

Allison Grayhurst

When will it be?
The white bird says now,
the backyard sleepers, eaters,
say now
and the souls that left
and the souls that arrived
are deep in the immediacy
of an overpowering change
that will guide the current into the sea,
a coral reef barrier prosperity
a summer like a summer never
before -- blessed, pulsing with an infant
eternal song, glorifying the dissolving shapes,
the empty spaces now made complimentary,
now made into a rippling harmony singing.
When will it be?
It is, says the voice. 
Close your eyes. Open them
and see.


The end is almost here,
rises like a blessing 
like a storm, demanding
my commitment,
to go inside, hide and pray.

The end overthrows
the engrained pattern, arrests
the spread of illness and holds
the future like a tiny turtle in an egg,
struggling out of its shell.

The end is an escape route, a mind
losing consciousness, asking to be caught
before the body lands on unpolished
concrete floors, deprived of a buffer, asking
for a soft act of grace, holding, a reminder
that love exists even under the executioner’s hood.

The end is happening like forgiveness happens,
a miracle stronger than duty and grief, 
strongest of all efforts -- 
a clean slate, consolidating 
each action, blanketing over 
every direction 
to and away from home.


I am tackling my circumstances
void of myth or the fallacy
of wishes.
I am trying to see straight even
if I must murder my own liberty,
harpoon my freedom and go under.

I am not sure what capacity I am asked
to carry. I see the escape road but I cannot
take the road if it leaves my loved ones
in jeopardy -- parachute strings cut, plane
door open at high altitude.
So I must go back, bend over, pick up sticks, stones,
ache all over, unable to sleep or find a resting position
without pain. Unless

the gift of mercy comes, soon, today,
supplies unload, compassion arrives and strips me
of this brutal incremental starvation and I can
stand as I stand today,
unencumbered by the load, unashamed
of my joy -- no void of debt and doom 
slicing through my budding strength. 
If the gift comes it will come as grace,
undeserved but a fact of God’s great glory,
my house will be furnished and the way forward
will be cleared, blessed, at last and finally

Allison Grayhurst has more than 1300 poems published in over 500 journals, and 25 poetry books. She lives in Toronto.




Re-deciphering the Human

Book Review By Basudhara Roy

Title: Burn the Library and Other Fictions

Author: Sunil Sharma

To embark on a relationship with a meaningful collection of short fiction is to hone one’s awareness of the world that shapes us and is, in its turn, shaped by us. A well-conceived short story is a sharp ray of light that undertakes to illuminate a particular plane of the compound and poly-faceted experience that reality will always be. Urging us to concentrate on that angle alone,  the short story crucially assists in peeling off our familiarity with life at that point of being and invites us to locate new meaning in what we might have long known.

In the company of Sunil Sharma’s Burn the Library and Other Fictions, a collection of twenty dense pieces of short fiction, one is on a riveting journey into the physical and psychological entrails of a society that is blissfully absorbed in plotting the architecture of its own doom. Sunil Sharma is an academic from Mumbai who has relocated to Toronto post-retirement. Acutely conscious of the subtle but definite ways in which social life, interaction and communication are being endangered by stereotypes, prejudices, capitalist strategies, ICT, artificial intelligence, eroding faith, self-doubt and the surrender to myopia, Sunil Sharma attempts, in these tales, to not merely draw our attention to what ails us as a society but also offers valuable possibilities of grace and redemption.

Ranging in form from flash fiction to full-length short stories, the themes in this collection are eclectic. Dreams, conjugal relationships, diasporic intimacy, the plight of migrants, women and elderly people, the breakdown of the family, the disruption of social cohesiveness and harmony, the threat of being transformed from consumers to victims of hyper-functional gadgets, and the consistent search for meaning amidst life’s ruins contour this collection through angst, satire, tenderness and hope. 

What immediately draws one towards Sharma’s style is his capacity for intricate observation and his incisive, almost brutal honesty in his descriptions. Here is a writer who does not hesitate to call a spade a spade without resort to satire, irony or humour to dilute the effect of his statements. In fiction where it is easy to camouflage and refract ideas, Sharma impresses and inspires by keeping critique frank and unencumbered by location, ideology or craft.

In ‘Love: Beyond Words’, the reflective narrator-husband observes:

“Our worlds, exclusive, were held together by an arranged marriage and later on, by the kids only…like rest of the middleclass Indians. Two perfect strangers brought together by common practices who discovered each other in initial years of marriage and then lost by the pressures of work and antiromance conditions of our living in an Indian metro…like others of our ilk.”

In the poignant flash fiction ‘Skeleton in the Attic’, once the skeleton has been identified as that of the paternal grandmother whom the family forgot to unlock from the attic when it left for its vacation in a hurry, the omniscient narrator quietly points out, “Once the shock was over, food was ordered and video of the visit played out and they forgot the skeleton.” In ‘Beware! Migrants are Coming!’, the interrogator minces no words in establishing the migrant’s statistical invisibility and thereby his ontological dispensability:

“You are a scum. A bloody scum. You come first to our holy land. Then you bring your entire hungry village that sucks us dry. We will no longer tolerate this N-O-W. The thieves are disposable. None cries for a thief. You are not human. You are not us, your death will not affect us, or anybody here, or anywhere.”

Concern for the margins remains central to Sharma’s intellectual, emotional and moral vision of a sane and progressive society. In story after story, it is these interstices that he examines, emphasizing their structural importance to the well-being of the centre. The malady, as the writer establishes, is rampant and global. Whether it is women, the poor, the elderly, the disabled or the migrant, the health of the margins directly determines the health of the centre. In ‘Two Black Stones and an Old God’, for instance, faith in divine reward and punishment becomes a device of empowerment for the grandmother and granddaughter both of whom are victims of the family’s neglect. In ‘The Street’, the narrator maps the entire cultural change that has taken place in his native town of Ghaziabad by observing the difference in the metrics of spatial arrangement and communication. The transformation of the public space that once symbolised community, shared concern and active empathy into a space of inequality, indifference and social apathy marks, for the narrator, the apotheosis of postmodernist social fragmentation and alienation.

However, the most stringent and memorable critique of postmodern and posthuman culture is perhaps put forward through the eponymous story ‘Burn the Library’. Though the setting of the story is 2071, around fifty years into the future, the conflict that it explores between information and knowledge, between programmed intelligence and creative thinking and between human growth and entropy is vital to the fabric of contemporary intellectual debate. What is the future that we are enthusiastically chasing, the writer seems to ask. Does it promise an unfolding of our rational and emotive powers or does it seek to arrest and freeze them unconditionally? For Sharma, the possibility of resistance to the omnivorous challenges of technology usurping humanity lies only in and through the circulation of ideas via writing. Ideas alone, for Sharma, are indestructible and even if all libraries were to be burnt and all sources of information were to be destroyed or corrupted, new knowledge could be founded and resurrected in the world through the strength of individual creative thinking alone. The Advanced Homer (AH) virus that seeks to alter “consciousness about culture” says, “Wake up! Find out authenticity. Life. Real life beyond the wired universe. Think – alternatively. Subdue the dominant of technology. It is not our master anyway. Go human. Re-think culture.”

‘Go Human’ is a powerful slogan, lethal in its simplicity as it indicates how far we have strayed from what we were meant to be. For me, it richly encapsulates the vision of the entire collection since it is only by the reclamation of our own humanity and that of others around us that we can battle the evils of discrimination, prejudice, violence and self-destruction.

Basudhara Roy teaches English at Karim City College affiliated to Kolhan University, Chaibasa. Author of three collections of poems, her latest work has been featured in EPW, The Pine Cone Review, Live Wire, Lucy Writers Platform, Setu and The Aleph Review among others.




As History Unfolds

By Tehmina Khan

It started on Saturday, or perhaps even earlier on Friday, twenty-eight days ago, with tiredness and an odd tenseness in my body, which I attributed to stress. My husband returned to our home in Toronto from Pakistan on Monday afternoon and went into quarantine in our guestroom. Our COVID-19 days had begun.

By Tuesday morning, I had a sore throat, a dry cough, severe body pain, diarrhea, nausea and stomach cramps. I felt feverish though the thermometer gave a below average body temperature reading. My fever spells were followed by chills which set me shivering under a mountain of blankets. I made the terrible decision to get medical help.

I was worried because of COVID. The secretary at my doctor’s office asked me not to come in. My symptoms sounded too much like COVID and no one wanted to risk infection by seeing me.

 I called Telehealth and got bounced around until a nurse finally told me to get tested. Our closest assessment centre was North York General Hospital. This is where I gave birth to my son. This is where I had an uterine embolization and two surgeries a few years back. I associate kindness with this hospital. I am familiar with its corridors.

My husband was busy with a work-related call in the basement when I decided to walk the five kilometres to the hospital. I didn’t want to expose him or anyone else to my germs. The walk was slow and exhausting and the hospital I arrived at was not the place I was familiar with. They were construction workers erecting a pavilion of sorts outside the emergency department. The inside of the department looked like a scene from a war zone.

The doctor who finally saw me, spoke to me for a long while. He told me that while I was exhibiting all the symptoms other than fever (I had taken Tylenol before embarking on my walk), I did not meet their testing criteria. I was not over 65, immune compromised, or an essential worker. He was honest and told me that they do not have enough kits and therefore are conserving them for those most at risk. His last sentence to me before walking out was: “You are witnessing history unfold.”

I returned home and my condition continued to worsen. My husband and I swapped rooms. I was quarantined in the guestroom from my husband and two teenage kids. I was not bored. The trials my body was putting me through were relentless and left no scope for boredom. Around the two-week mark of my sickness, I had two days of feeling much better. I heaved a sigh of relief and announced my return to the land of the living.

But I was wrong, and I rapidly grew weaker. I became confused. I began spending much of my time crying from sheer weakness. As I felt my strength ebbing, I became convinced that I would not survive. At times, despite the layering of Advil and Tylenol, my pain was such that I almost wished for death.

My mental health lay in shambles. I could no longer read or write. I stared blankly at the same paragraphs trying to decipher the meanings behind the words. I felt I was a burden. I was unable to care for myself. People called to commiserate with my husband for being stuck taking care of me. I wanted to somehow magically return to my parents’ home in Karachi, Pakistan, and my mother’s care where no one would consider me a burden.

It is a strange thing to become dangerous to your own loved ones. My husband and I sleep in separate rooms. My children and husband use one bathroom, while I use the other. My family maintains physical distance from me. The last time I experienced human touch was more than three weeks ago. For the first two weeks of my husband’s return from Pakistan, our children did the groceries because both my husband and myself were under quarantine. I suffered guilt pangs knowing that we were placing our children in harm’s way in order to keep us fed.

Now, that my husband’s quarantine is over, he does the weekly grocery run. He and our kids also do all of the housework because I am unable to do more than take the few steps it takes to make it to the washroom.  People constantly call to tell me to thank God for His blessings. I wonder if they are simply trying to take advantage of my weakened state. They seem more interested in scoring brownie points with their God than in my well being because why else would you use this opportunity to intone God to a non-believer?

I eventually made a second trip to the Emergency department. It was a mistake caused by the burning in my chest. My family doctor the day before had prescribed an antibiotic and assured me that I should go to Emergency to get help if feeling worse. This time, I could barely manage the few steps into our car. I dissolved into tears at the hospital. I had trouble following the nurses’ instructions. They tested me for COVID. I was put on a drip and told that I was severely dehydrated. They did an EKG and a chest x-ray. Both were clear.

 By the time I left, it seemed that the attending doctor was just annoyed by my presence. She seemed to have decided on her own that my dehydration was caused by ongoing diarrhoea though I had informed her right in the beginning that my diarrhoea only lasted the first two days of my sickness. She lectured me on staying hydrated and sent me home where my symptoms continue till the present moment. My throat is still sore. My neck still hurts. The skin on my face and chest is red and splotchy. I still have bouts of nausea and dry heaving. My energy level is a bit better to the point where I was able to do a light housekeeping this morning, but even that bit of effort cost me, and so I am back to lying in bed. As for what is wrong with me? Who knows? But more importantly, who cares? We have all gone from being humans to just being statistics. Do you match these criteria? If not, please step aside.

This pandemic is the moment when we will reveal our humanity. Will we choose to overlook the ones who are easy to overlook? I don’t mean myself. I will be back to health soon enough.

I mean the ones who we have grown accustomed to overlooking; the people who were already struggling to exist. The ones who work multiple odd jobs and still barely manged to feed themselves. The ones who live in slums and have no access to clean water, decent food, education or health facilities. Others too, the elderly and the mentally and physically disabled who are not able to advocate for themselves. When we start to prioritize, as this pandemic will force us to do, who all will we choose to overlook?

 In our single-minded focus on COVID, we are neglecting all other illnesses and casting aside all other concerns. COVID is not the only health problem on the planet at the moment though it may be the only one on our television screens and while COVID is exacting its death tolls, shutting down the planet for a prolonged period will also exact a toll which we have not even gotten around to imagining as yet.

Tehmina Khan has her home in Toronto, where she lives with her husband, two children, and their dog, Luna. Mawenzi House published her collection of short stories, ‘Things She Could Never Have’, in the fall of 2017. She is currently working on retelling seven stories from ‘1001 Nights’. Her writing has appeared in the The Blue Minaret, ShedoestheCity, and The /temz/ Review.