2 + 3 = 5 √

The relative smallness of the world in which we lived was a truism oft brought home to me even as a veteran traveller. Shaheem, the manager of the Kaafu Huraa guest house I booked into for the duration of my visit to the Maldives, met me upon my arrival at the airport in Male and was quick to point out his family’s close connection to Australia.

Raheema, his wife, who accompanied him that evening, had obtained her doctorate qualification there, having studied first at the University of Adelaide and then Curtin University in Western Australia. She had lived down under for a total of eleven years, she said. Now that the family were well ensconced back in their homeland she made a living, or at least helped support the family, in her chosen field of preventive medicine.

Shaheem had resided with her in Australia for several of those eleven years. They had two sons. The eldest, Mohammed, spent the greater part of his upbringing in the family’s home away from home. He told me he was just four months old when they upped and left the sunny Maldives for the equally sun-kissed nation far to the south-east. In keeping with his parents’ spirit, he now lived and studied in Sri Lanka. His younger sibling’s connection with the distant land was in a sense stronger. He was born there. Just ten-years-old or thereabouts by birthright he would be entitled to live in Australia were he to elect to do so at any point in the future.

After seeing me on to the Huraa speedboat, Shaheem and Raheema bid me goodnight. As a rule they stayed in Male through the week, journeying to Huraa to check on how things were proceeding at the guest house on the weekends – Fridays and Saturdays in the Sunni Muslim republic.

The rest of the time they entrusted the running of the three-room establishment to a young Bangladeshi by the name of Zaket. He looked a lot like many of the lads I saw waiting in a special line – a prospective workers line – in the Immigration hall at the airport. The Maldives were a popular choice for young Bangladeshis in search of gainful employ outside their borders. A cousin of his was presently working at a resort on one of the more distant atolls.

After breakfast the next morning, with Zaket leading the way, I went on my first reconnoitre of Huraa. Over the phone Shaheem had made a point of asking him to show me the location of the ‘bikini beach’. It was standard practice with their Western guests, who could at the nation’s ‘bikini beaches’ wear what they were normally inclined to wear while swimming, snorkelling and sunbathing. Huraa was small but an inhabited island and on the inhabited islands it was important to adhere to the Muslim norms, in particular those pertaining to alcohol (none), dress (modest) and behaviour (respectable).

The ‘burkini beach’, as Raheema termed it, was elsewhere, a strip of white sand roughly the same length and breadth as the other beach. It faced the Four Seasons Resort, which occupied a plot of its own on neighbouring Kuda Huraa. The ‘burkini beach’ was laden with sun lounges though I never beheld anyone taking the sun there as such and only once did I sight a swimmer making dogged headway with freestyle strokes in the strong current.

On day two of my stay, after providing me a sim card and adding a table and chair to my room, to facilitate any writing I had it in mind to do, Shaheem took me on a complete circumnavigation of the village, pointing out shops where supplies were available, a couple of restaurants, the cream-coloured, pale blue-roofed Huraa mosque, as well as other notables among the buildings, variously coloured light green, pale blue, mauve, orange, yellow and pink. The colours upon window frames, gates, doors and guttering frequently contrasted with those applied to the rest of the houses but never in an outlandish way.

The day before, on my stroll with Zaket, I had noticed an instructive piece of graffiti daubed on the orange wall the guest house side of the E-cafe, another sound employment option for Bangladeshi youths, as I would go on to discover. Blazoned in red it read: 2 + 3 = 5 Someone, clearly, believed it appropriate to bring sound arithmetic to the attention of passers-by.

On the circuit with Shaheem and daily afterwards when I set off alone, I came across the same equation in other places. 2 + 3 = 5 but minus the tick loomed before once in methodically daubed red, white and green, elsewhere completely in red but again without the tick of approval. A big black ‘4’ and beneath it an enormous black tick of approbation provided variety on another walk. There were other parts to this particular picture but in local symbols impenetrable to me. 2 + 2 = 4, perhaps?

Nowhere in the world that I had been could I recall having encountered informative graffiti the likes of this. In fact it was an arithmetical shot in the arm that stood me in good stead on my final day in the country. When it came time for me to settle my account with Shaheem, close scrutiny of the bill he handed over brought up a discrepancy quickly rectified. 2 + 3 = 5 indeed.

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Plátanos and Parasites in Guatemala

Buen provecho! That is, enjoy your meal. Or, more literally, take good advantage of it. So goes the pre-chowing down salutation in Guatemala. Additionally, more often than not, when a person finishes at the table he gathers his utensils and while rising utters muchas gracias to no one in particular. But those still partaking of the meal, if they are on cue, respond with the aforementioned buen provecho. I learnt this Guatemalan ritual before any other. How ironical then that for the first two months of my stay in the country some years ago I did anything but take good advantage of the food I ate!

This period coincided with the course of Spanish language tuition I undertook in the Western Highlands town of Xela, aka Quetzaltenango, during which I resided with a local family. Well did I know from previous travels that one of the delights of voyaging around the world consisted of sampling the variety of local cuisines. Everything I had eaten in foreign lands might not have struck the palate favourably, so to speak, but many things had and continued to do so.

I had read that Guatemala’s food did not comprise anything to write home about especially. I knew that for me it would largely be restricted to the ubiquitous Central American staples of tortillas and beans once I ventured north into the Petén jungle. Until then I guessed I would be served many different things at the table, typical Guatemalan victuals and less typical.

I liked my Xela family – a widowed woman and her three daughters – from the start. On the afternoon I first entered the house the woman made a point of inquiring if there was anything in particular I enjoyed eating. No doubt I mentioned a few items though I believe I made it clear, as well as I could given my limited Spanish, that I would be prepared to tackle whatever she served.

The variety surprised. From time to time I was presented fruit and pasta, both of which I appreciated. The ritual tortillas and beans were okay. Novelties such as mosh and tamales were harder for me to digest but I happily partook of them nonetheless. The story was somewhat different with fried plátanos. I could not rightly understand how anyone could abuse a piece of fruit in that fashion. My dear hostess, always a user of oil, went overboard with its use whenever she fried items. One fried plátano I could more or less handle. A plateful, however, were hard going, made just fractionally less onerous by the possibility of submerging them beneath the vast quantities of cream they usually came served with.

After a couple of weeks in Xela I am sure my family regarded me as some sort of culinary marvel. In stark contrast, they assured me, to some of the foreign students who had resided with them in the past. I received large portions and second helpings as a matter of course. Alas, I did not have the heart to disillusion them.

About six weeks into my stay with the family I began feeling less than wonderful in the stomach. Some days I suffered from an abject lack of appetite. Other days, the main symptoms consisted of diarrhoea, flatulence, and bloatedness so pronounced I would have floated on any pool of water, fresh or salty.

I took my leave of the family shortly after the problems first made themselves manifest, hopeful a return to a less oil saturated diet would do the trick. But the damage had been done. On visiting a doctor in the old colonial capital of Antigua, I discovered not only that parasites had invaded my system but also that I had shed six or more kilograms in weight – a tenth of my normal body weight – in two months.

Still on medication, I made the journey into the jungle for the first time, eager to find out how tortillas and beans (the standard daily fare of the internally displaced refugee group I was about to join) for breakfast, lunch, and dinner would sit. Perhaps I would soon be able to take advantage of the meals after all.

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Not a Weak Link in the Chain

The founders of the Malaysian based literary journal Anak Sastra borrowed a leaf from their own book when it came time for the commemoration of issue number 25 toward the end of 2016. Though it was decided to mark the occasion differently, ie, not with a themed issue as such but rather an anthology of work, the resulting book On the Back of a Motorbike (Literary Concept, 2016) offers the same amalgam of stories, creative non-fiction and poetry that has been one of the journal’s hallmarks since its inception. Another trademark has been the Southeast Asian regional focus.

Aspiring contributors to the anthology were asked to ‘riff’ upon the phrase / concept ‘on the back of a motorbike’, confining their geographical focus as usual to Southeast Asian settings, a part of the world notable for nothing if not the ubiquitousness of the motorbike in everyday life. The authors represented hail from diverse backgrounds, this variety being reflected in the eclectic nature of the series of offerings.

The first story, the cheekily subversive This is My Husband, is followed by a tale of generational conflict, The Truth About Mo. Just Run and Run deals with the stumbling of a friendship, the seams of which fray to breaking point in part literally upon the back of a motorbike. The motorbike is a symbol of status and a right of passage for the ‘A-list’ rebels of Point of Departure, while a little used Harley Davidson serves as a means to begin realising a lifelong dream in Casta Diva.

Arguably, the bike is more akin to an incidental feature, or less omnipresent, in In Between, an astute study of division on both a geographical and personal level, the romantic Didith’s Boyfriend, The Inner Spark, with its touch of the supernatural, the moving and nostalgic Old Soldier, and The Path of the Ghosts, a powerful story of a youthful coming of age of a different kind. They feel perfectly placed as individual takes on the governing construct.

These ten stories share billing with three works of creative non-fiction, the funny and relatable (to any who have sought to batter down the doors of a foreign culture) Down the Rabbit Hole: Snippets of a Saigon Sojourn, the travelogue Me and Kap Chai, and You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda, an in-depth look at the history of the Honda Super Cub 50 bike.

In an anthology of this nature, the poetry, though there are fourteen in all, will inevitably weigh less on the page. But aside from functioning well as a change of pace they are accomplished works in and of themselves. The evocative imagery of the first two poems (which open the book as a whole) is matched here and there throughout.

In summation, a highly readable and enjoyable collection that brings with it the added bonus of affording great insight into the Southeast Asian region.

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The Passenger

My short story The Passenger is featured in Gold Dust Literary Magazine Issue 31. To download a PDF of the issue in its entirety gratis go to: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/golddustmagazine

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The Sound of Water

Eight-year-old Chuyia, the youngest and most petite of the heroines of Deepa Mehta’s Water (2005), the closing film in the director’s Elements trilogy, has a hard road ahead of her on the death of her much older spouse. This child bride newly widowed still preserves her luxuriant long black hair in the opening scenes but it is destined not to last, like much else she has counted on in her desperately short life. With her regretful father by her side, she is conducted to a widow’s ashram in the holy city of Varanasi. The Hindu scripture-prescribed fate laid down for widows is bleak and austere in India in 1938 and Chuyia’s first glimpses of that world bring out her rebellious streak.

The other widows resident at the ashram, much older women for the most part, have long had any glow they might have once possessed completely obliterated, but Madhumati, the forbidding femme in charge, knows right away that she may have a battle on her hands to tame the feisty little girl. Chuyia gains an ally, of sorts, in the hardy Shakuntala and another friend of equal importance to her in the figure of the gentle Kalyani.

Kalyani occupies a position of both privilege and ostracism at the house. She has a room of her own at the top of a flight of stairs, keeps a pet dog and, unlike the other widows, has been allowed to retain long, flowing hair. The reason she has not been ‘de-feminised’ in this fashion is because the ganja smoking Madhumati, with the aid of a friend, prostitutes her out to wealthy Brahmin clients across the river in order to gain enough funds both to meet the household’s rent and bankroll her preferred indulgences.

In due course Kalyani commits the unforgivable ‘sin’ of falling for handsome Narayan, a Gandhi idealist attracted to the great reformer’s liberalism, ideas shocking to both Madhumati and Gulabi, the pimp who rows Kalyani back and forth across the river on the nights when her services are called for. Unbeknownst to Narayan, one of Kalyani’s client is his own father.

When this shattering truth dawns on her, the untenability of her situation leads Kalyani to drastic action. The step she takes serves to remind one of the dual nature of the sacred river Ganges. It is both the washer away of sins and uncleanliness and also the place where the Hindu faithful cremate their dead. Unrepentant, the practical Madhumati, who has been the pivotal decider of Kalyani’s fate since she, like Chuyia, came to the ashram as a widowed child bride, later enacts a plan to begin prostituting Chuyia similarly.

Witness to all these goings on, not unlike a chorus in a Greek tragedy, is Shankuntala (brilliantly depicted by Seema Biswas). What happens when your conscience conflicts with your faith, is the question that gradually takes on more and more resonance in her mind. Devout, dedicated and selfless, on the one hand she desires to embrace the lot of a widow faithful to the traditional code though she knows in her heart of hearts that it is the cruellest of unjust fates for a woman. Furthermore, with respect to Chuyia, the basest abuse, in the name of religion, will be committed if she does not act.

Ms Mehta’s sympathy is with the widows in a society where Hinduism is misinterpreted for fundamentalist, personal ends, specifically in this instance the warped misogynist view that widows somehow cause the deaths of their spouses and must subsequently become renunciants, thereby expiating bad karma. Consigned to dilapidated ashrams, with one meal a day to sustain them, they will be less of a burden on their families and society. Understated, beautiful cinematography occasionally explodes into flashes of lush colour, notably on the rare occasions when the widows are permitted the freedom to celebrate. It is counterpointed by the soundtrack, which features songs and a hauntingly lilting background score. The film is based on the Bapsi Sidwha novel of the same name.

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Walls

My short story Walls can be read at:

Walls

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Cracks in the Earth

Despite the apparent relative ease with which Sweden and Switzerland, as well as a handful of other territories in Europe, walked the tightrope of neutrality during the Second World War this must have been an exceptionally difficult balancing act to manage. On the one hand both were hemmed in by nations committed either to the righteous cause or that of the aggressors. On the other, the neutral stance often reeks of tacit acceptance of the actions of those who would seek to subjugate or, worse, quasi collaboration. Seven decades on from the Second World War, the Swedish nation has not yet had the courage to fully acknowledge the aid she directly, or less directly, offered the Nazis during their pillage of Europe.

The wealthy Parsee family at the centre of Deepa Mehta’s Earth (1998), the second film in her Elements trilogy and adapted from the Bapsi Sidhwa novel Cracking India, is caught in a position not dissimilar to a land that refuses to show its hand when all around it turmoil is raging. Lying by the side of his spouse one night, the bespectacled father of the family Rustom goes so far as to extol the example of Switzerland. They, meaning him and his immediate circle, will be all right provided they embrace that spirit, he tells his uncertain wife Bunty. In their current predicament aloofness is an unwise hem to cling to, as Bunty rightly surmises, but with World War Two having recently wound down her husband could be forgiven for having the Swiss approach fresh in the mind.

It is 1947, the setting the city of Lahore. Rustom and Bunty’s polio afflicted eight-year-old daughter Lenny is narrating the story of the time through her adult self. The innocence and peacefulness of her youth is being threatened in a nation on the brink of self-rule. The tragedy in the making is that India is not in a position to undertake the transition peacefully, a fact the ruling British conveniently sweep aside in their eagerness to depart and have done with what has for far too long been a losing proposition.

Theirs is a typically arrogant colonial power betrayal, epitomised in an early scene when a British policeman expresses views that so rile a Sikh fellow guest at a dinner in the Parsee household that the latter flies at the Englishman with one of his eating utensils. Lenny has a Hindu nanny or Ayah, Shanta, a young Hindu beauty who counts among her friends the Moslems Hassan and Dil. They are in turn part of a larger group of friends that includes Sikh adherents and other Moslems and Hindus, some of whom work for the Parsee family. Their ease with each other, over meals, in public spaces, smacks of tolerance and acceptance long fostered.

But the mutual goodwill is fraying at the seams with independence and the challenges of self-rule literally days away. The once relaxed friends come close to brawling as they contemplate the immediate future and all that the partitioning of their homeland into Hindustan and Pakistan will mean. Barbarous acts occur in their midst. A night train enters the railway station bearing the corpses of countless slain Moslem men. From a rooftop vantage point, Hassan, Dil, Shanta and Lenny witness the drawing and quartering of a Moslem man by a rabid Hindu pack. Shanta shields Lenny’s eyes but the girl has seen more than enough. Later, with the aid of her cousin, she destroys one of her dolls in like fashion.

Lenny’s loyalties are not exclusive. She hero worships both the ‘Ice Candy Man’ Dil and the masseur Hassan, knowing very well both are in love with Shanta. The two endeavour to win her in their individual ways. But Dil is the one who sets greatest store by his efforts. In a last-ditch attempt to gain her hand in marriage he confides to Shanta his awareness that there is a beast in him – he decries it as the same beast lurking in all men, Hindu, Moslem and Sikh alike – an animal he will be unable to tame without her loving understanding and help. But Shanta will not be swayed. She feels more naturally drawn to the gentle Hassan and by this time she has agreed to be his wife.

Dil is a reasonable man but Shanta’s decision rocks him and he unapologetically goes on to fulfil his prophecy for himself. As shattering as this denouement is, Ms Mehta closes the middle film of her assured trilogy with images the equal of any that have preceded it. It quietly speaks volumes about the scars bound to linger forever in the lives of innocent ones for whom sectarian divisions, or any divisions whatsoever, mean nothing, those who would much rather play, as the uncomprehending interned Moslem boy (he has recently witnessed his mother’s rape and murder) asks Lenny and her cousin to play marbles with him at the close of an encounter between the three. This is a story of purity shattered at a time of social and political upheaval.

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