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‘What can money do?’

At 13 years, this was the title of my first piece of original writing, if one were to mark down the horribly drafted compositions that I wrote in school. It was a rhyming verse that paraphrased the futility of wealth, which in hindsight is too heavy a theme for someone who hadn’t yet been thrust into the rabbit hole of life. Yet, I was proud of what my peanut brain could produce at the time, especially after it was featured in the school magazine and a few biased relatives hailed it as a masterpiece.

The only other accomplishments worthy of mention in the early years were winning a prize at 15 in a school versification contest and later, getting my first ‘Letters to the Editor’ published in The Hindu at 19.

The former didn’t have any perceivable impact on me, probably because writing poems was only something one did occasionally for contests and school magazines. However, getting the letter published in The Hindu, which at that time was considered the embodiment of quality journalism and impeccable writing was something that I celebrated with some fanfare. I took the paper to college, had it read in the class by my teacher, and I took in the little gasps, jaw-drops and rolling eyes with great relish.

I didn’t have any inkling of my literary propensities then nor did I think it would become my life force in the years to come. But I started writing more seriously after that letter made me some sort of celebrity in the class.

At that time, I had nothing but a pen and some long sheets (sheaves of dull, grey paper called newsprint that dad got me on the cheap for my writing) for tools, and a dictionary and a thesaurus for resources. My writing retreat was the wind-swept shade in the backyard of my house that echoed a cacophony of crows and random droppings under a mango tree. Writing was a solitary act, awfully more private than it is now; much like soliloquys that aren’t very significant in the main script of life’s drama.

I must have been in my late teens when I wrote my first article for a newspaper. It was a middle piece for the op-ed page of Deccan Herald, which had a designated space for slice of life narratives. I vividly remember the crushing pain I felt when the regret slip arrived a few weeks later, and the deep despair I sank into after many more regrets duly trooped in as if on a cue. At that point, I should have ideally switched to a more utilitarian hobby like embroidery or tailoring. Instead, I persisted like a lunatic, continuing to write and making it a habit to wait for the postman to hand me an envelope with my address neatly written in a distinguishable hand. Mine.

‘Stamped, self-addressed envelope’ became the zeitgeist of that season of unpublished jottings that traipsed around opinion and personal essays. I wonder what I wrote so feverishly in those impressionable years when my world view was constricted, and my experiences were limited.

Back then, there were no reference points nor the faintest idea of what makes for an interesting read. Heck! I didn’t even know there was a method to the madness of writing. Despite all these, I wrote, without rhyme or reason. Tagging one sentence to another, sewing up thoughts and creating tapestries that often didn’t pass muster at the editor’s desk.

It was around that time that the seed of a dream was sown in a fledgeling writer's soul, like an idea of love in the heart of a sailor lost at sea. The dream to be a columnist. I had no clue what it took to be one, nor did I have a road map to the destination. All I knew was, no matter what I became or didn’t become, I had to keep writing. Keep writing. Keep writing. While reading, reading, reading.

A journalism degree that I earned midway should have spurred my dreams, but I didn’t latch on to a newsroom opportunity for some inexplicable reason, while many of my classmates took to it like duck takes to water. I took up corporate communications, instead, for a few years before life elbowed me out of that track. A relocation to Muscat post-wedding put paid to any possibility of a late detour to journalism and, in fact, to all career prospects.

The world was a different place in 1998. There wasn’t even a pc at home until 2001, which again was a second-hand piece left behind for a pittance by a migrating expat. When people spoke about Y2K, I squinted at them suspiciously, trying to determine who was the alien between us. When friends in the know discussed new versions of Windows, I looked out of the window weaving stories on the vast desert loom. There were so many out there, I realised, as I peered through the raconteur’s kaleidoscope.

Physical writing graduated from scrawls on newsprint paper to neatly stacked lines on the pc, and along with it, my desire to craft human narratives also ballooned. I wrote a few random stuffs for Gulf News as a contributor to the community page and a feature on Indian migrants for KT wknd way back in the early 2000s. I also regularly wrote articles for another publication the name of which I now forget. Vaguely around that time, the word ‘author’ appeared on the distant shore, and it became my first port of inner calling. After a long gestation, and many relocations and disruptions later, Sandstorms, Summer Rains was born. In 2009.

I was a novice and a new mother, and I struggled to nurse my baby.

Facebook was in its infancy, and I wasn’t part of it until many years later owing to its strangeness and my lack of understanding. I had to let the world know about my book and I didn’t know how. A couple of old journalist friends back home helped with some news coverage there, but the book was largely unknown to people in the UAE.

One day, I made a cold call to the newsroom at KT following some advice by a friend in Muscat.

“I am an Indian author living in Fujairah,” I introduced myself (with the greatest confidence I could exude) to a young lady called Raziqueh Hussain. “I have just published my debut novel about Indian migrants in the Gulf.”

Indian authors in the Gulf were a rare breed then. Raziqueh was keen to pick up the lead and offered to do a story in the weekend edition of the newspaper. That tryst with Khaleej Times as an author changed my fate forever.

After a few months, buoyed by the exposure I got for my novel in KT and backed by a couple of old writings I had done for wknd. in 2001, I decided to give my old ambition to write for the Op-Ed a shot and pitched an article to the then Editor, Patrick Michael. My stars were aligned and for once, my shot cleared the park. The editor took a liking to my writing, and wrote to me, ‘you have a way with words’. Truth be told, I didn’t even know I would get paid for my article and was pleasantly surprised when I was asked to go and collect my cheque.

Following that, I sent him pieces week after week, punching my thoughts and opinion in the most chaste and authentic manner, and he kept publishing them. And just like that, before I realised it, I had become an Opinion page columnist.

Apart from setting me up as a writer, the new opportunity made me believe in the remotest dreams one could entertain; and in perseverance and consistency that has no substitute. It made me believe in people and above all, in the power of words.

Since I began my journey with KT, the Opinion page has passed through many editorial hands, but I have, by Grace, survived the changes and the challenges that came with it. I deem this as the greatest accomplishment and blessing in my writing career.

My deepest gratitude to all the erudite gentlemen who found value in my writing and gave me the column space through the years. Patrick Michael, Allan Jacob and Suresh Pattali. And to Anamika Chatterjee, for giving me the privilege of writing for wknd., especially, the cover story today. It is certainly a step up in my climb to wherever my writing takes me in the future.

13 years is a long period in the life of a freelance writer with no frills; time enough to either perform or peter out, and I am thrilled to have made it this far. No marketing stunt, hype or hoopla could have helped me grow and flourish as a writer as this journey has. No synthetic endorsement would have given me a sense of success that the effort to build this edifice has. Each article I write is a brick on my wall. And each reader is the mortar.

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(Khaleej Times, 28 June)

The world was rattled by two sea incidents recently. One in the Black Sea and the other in the North Atlantic. Although I am speaking about them together, the two tragedies are incomparable, in terms of magnitude and even the global attention they received.

There is nothing common between the Greek migrant disaster and the Titan submersible catastrophe other than the fact that all those who were involved knew reasonably well what they were undertaking. Even before they set out, they knew that they were embarking on a voyage that not many people in the world would venture.

While one group, buoyed by their wealth and spirit, did it for the adrenaline rush that adventure trips provided, the other multitude made an informed choice forced by dire life circumstances. Although the motivations are stark and stinging by contrast, they all knew the risks that came with their expeditions, and yet, they were unflinching in their intention.

They embraced the risk, not only because they didn’t expect things to go so frightfully wrong, but also because, to them, wagering their lives probably seemed like a worthy cause for whatever return it would bring if they succeeded in it. A sense of accomplishment to the adventure tourists, and a chance at a better life for the migrants; these were sufficient reasons for them to disregard the dangers that lurked in the way.

It prompts me to consider how much risk-taking we are all capable of in our lives. For the most part, the conservative among us will bat for certainty and the peace of mind that comes with it. A steady job in the government that lasts till superannuation is a preferred career choice over a taxing corporate streak. A salaried existence is considered a safer bet than an entrepreneurial leap, and term deposits are a more preferred place to park one’s wealth than the stock market. These are typical of people who will not trade their comfort zone for a freak challenge.

But there are those to whom life assumes a monotonous character if they don’t push the boundaries, test their limits and show their mettle to the world. What spurs them to undertake journeys that will require a profusion of grit and resilience that sometimes have fatal consequences is still a mystery. But according to psychologists, it is the adrenalin effect that drives most people to accept high-risk dares. It makes them feel alive and validates their existence. The thrill and excitement it brings can be addictive and hard to refrain from.

Perhaps, there is more to their pursuits than meets the eye. I imagine that the daredevils delight in defying death and defeat. I cannot say for certain if it gives them an exaggerated sense of supremacy over life, but it sure makes them feel invincible when they triumph over dangerous conditions that can even result in death. I am even tempted to liken their spirit to the fearlessness of soldiers on the frontline or firefighters walking into a blaze.

It is also possible that they believe in the maxim of seizing the moment and infusing it with the entirety of their body and mind. Or maybe, indulging in acts of danger and coming out unscathed makes them euphoric and puts them ahead of others in the race. The brag factor in such acts cannot be overlooked either.

People’s appetite for risk and their endurance quotient depends on their personality. Yet the level of tenacity some intrepid souls often display cross all regular lines, and it makes them oblivious to the potential casualties and sometimes even fatalities that might ensue.

Over 310 people are estimated to have died trying to scale the Everest since early 1900s, but that hasn’t stopped the mountain maniacs from planning their next big trip to the peak. No bad precedence will stop enthusiasts from seeking their share of the thrill from life. On the other side, it wasn’t the first time that migrants had lost their lives trying to escape hardship in their native lands. The exodus will continue despite the recent disaster.

Nobody wants to die, but no one considers death as a serious probability when they plan to take the unconventional path. There is a certain defiance that they exhibit, or a desperation as in the case of the migrants, but anyone who has heard of Murphy’s Law will know, ‘if anything can go wrong, it will’. Especially if luck is not in their favour.

Things went horrifically wrong twice in the past fortnight, and one can safely presume that it will not be the last time that we will hear of such tragedies. The human spirit is indomitable, and it will not capitulate to the obstinacy of fate. It will take chances at the Roulette wheel as may times as it can. Such is life.

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(Khaleej Times, 12 June, 2023)

An occasion in the family recently required us to throw a dinner treat. Not inclined to lavish jamborees, I looked for smaller options with only one rider. No buffet.

Every time I have attended parties people graciously invited us to, I have come back feeling distressed about the huge quantities of food that lay simmering, waiting to be scraped at the bottom. More often than not, at the time of leaving, I see most of what was laid out lined up to be dumped when the crowd dispersed.

For hours after I return home, I fret at the prospect of all the uneaten food going into landfills. All these, when, as per the WFP estimates, roughly ‘828 million people are unsure of where their next meal is coming from’ and according to FAO, nearly 29% of the global population faces serious levels of food insecurity. These are statistics we are either not conscious of or we deliberately gloss over for the discomfort it causes when we plan our next big gathering.

Food wastage is a casualty that happens at three levels – farm, retail and consumer. While the first two may not directly be in our individual ambit of action and will require higher level intervention and participation to resolve, the last one is within our means to control.

We may not know the exact count of hungry people in the world, but I suspect none of us will be unaware of the unpalatable truth that we are incognito partners in this humongous crime of throwing away food when millions sleep on an empty stomach every night. These are platitudes we serve our children when they leave their plates unfinished, but we conveniently tend to forget them when we organize fiestas in the name of festivity. We have made satiety seem ugly with our casual attitude to consumption and wastage.

Hence, I was categorical that no food served at our party will go to waste. There will be limited food, considering how people have turned into fitness freaks for the most part and preferred to eat little. A big spread might look good on the table, but it reflects poorly on our character and attitude towards the afflictions of the less-privileged fractions of society. Wastage cannot be justified by any means, no matter what stature we hold in the society and how much we need to look affluent and generous in its eyes.

There is no denying the fact that buffets have been a hugely favoured feasting norm for a long time now, giving guests a sense of privilege and choice to satisfy their palates, and the tradition will not peter out anytime soon. Truth be told, there is nothing more enjoyable about a stay in a star-rated hotel than the extravagant breakfast buffet that we overindulge in. Even those who are habituated to frugal daily breakfasts gorge on the spread indiscriminately. Nothing wrong with it, but if we paused for a moment and considered what our proclivity to such excesses does to the planet, to the chunks of suffering mankind and to our own moral standards, we may probably desist from doing it another time with such relish. Take this extra bit for a deterrence – about 50% of food wastage comes from buffets that go uneaten.

Often what contributes to such whopping levels of frittering is an improper estimation of food needs both in terms of preparation and portioning. I recently came across an exemplary announcement by a local restaurant that offered dishes in three different portions, like pizzas. It seemed like a conscientious effort to let the consumer make an informed order based on his appetite and not end up staring at over-sized portions that he cannot polish off.

Similarly, when we sit to dine or we plan to throw a bash, let us step back a little and look at the bigger picture and get rational and realistic about our needs. Being well-heeled does not mean we are privileged to toss away what probably could feed others. Restaurants managers often don’t have the liberty to give away leftovers to charity owing to food safety regulations and health concerns, and they will in all probability be cringing every day to see kilograms of food going in the dumps. It is a professional hazard they must face. But we, as consumers, have a choice.

We can celebrate our special days with gaiety but let us not make it look vulgar in the context of a world spiraling into a major food crisis. In the above-mentioned minimalist party I arranged, all that was left was a quarter portion of biriyani which we duly brought home. The guests were sated, and I was vindicated. A Buffet is rewarding only when it preceded by Warren, not when it is followed by wastage.

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