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Growing Up In Gaza

Over the last 10 days an estimated 227 people have lost their lives in Gaza while close to 2000 individuals have been seriously injured. Of the 227 deceased 30% are believed to be below the age of 17.

This is a simple and original short story that voices my personal belief that such brutality will only make matters worse. Tragically, the vicious cycle will continue.

A thick blanket of smoke covers the city. It hasn’t lifted for the past ten days. It just gets worse.

And worse.

He was taught to run and hide every time a siren rings. They live in fear, afraid that the sky might breathe fire again or that the peace of the evening will be shattered and destroyed by the drones that rip through their homes and make rubble of their lives.

The fields that once surrounded his home are ravaged, the green olive trees are charred black and the soil is seeping with chemicals. There’s no place to go, nowhere to hide and more importantly nobody to run to.

But he was prepared for this. His parents had taught him well and his teachers had explained it to him. In Gaza you’re taught to survive, to endure, to bear. But there was no time to luxuriate in rumination now. He needed to get out of the bunker. He needed to find his way to the little shop; to his Hiyam; his sweetheart.

Somewhere in the distance he hears an explosion, the ground reverberates, there’s a shattering of glass. He sees men with red and white scarves trying to escort a group of women to the adjoining street without being seen. The women are hunched over. He knows the sign well; they have infants in the folds of their heavy cloaks.

He chooses his moment, crawls out from behind the rubble and dashes across the road. He’s careful to avoid stepping on the debris. Expertly he zigzags his way down the stretch of land.  Glass pieces and severed limbs litter the thoroughfare but his moves are swift and agile. He has done this before. Too many times. He’s already sixteen.

There’s a group of men huddled together on his left. In their arms lies the body of a comrade. He’s covered in scarlet and is attempting to sip the water they offer him.  But his breath will stop soon. This is the end. In Gaza you can learn to tell such things!

He runs along.

As he reaches the road he stops for a moment. He stands there bewildered. Did he take a wrong turn along the way? Perhaps he ran too far. And then it hits him, his stomach churns; he screams her name as he runs down the street that’s now been razed to rubble. There are no buildings there. No signs of life. No signs of her.

Someone grabs him by his arm, yells something at him in Arabic and drags him off into a makeshift shelter. His body trembles. His head is spinning. His eyes well up. She was all he had left.  He wipes his tears with the back of his sleeve. Growing up in Gaza you’re taught to stay calm and to keep rage locked away inside you.

Growing up in Gaza you learn that your life can be destroyed. Your dreams will be destroyed. You lose the ones you love.

He vows revenge, steels his heart to hate the enemy who did this to him; the Israelis. He’s never met a single one of them but he hates them anyway.

Growing up in Gaza you learn to do that.





Soul Food, Calcutta Style!

Ask any Calcuttan living abroad what they miss most about the city and ‘food’ will be an almost instinctive response. While I’ve often waxed eloquent and sometimes romanticized my city, (I guess that’s allowed when you’re feeling nostalgic) I have never written about the average Calcuttan’s love of food. You’ll probably say that food is a part of our cultural identity and people across the world love their food, and while all of that is true, in Calcutta, food is more than just a passion and that’s putting it mildly.

Growing up in the city, I was lucky to have a wide-range of gastronomical experiences. With a large number of communities calling it home, the city is a melting-pot of cultures and traditions and this has without a doubt led to it becoming a virtual Mecca for Indian food lovers.

One of my fondest childhood memories is waking up at the crack of dawn on winter mornings, along with the rest of the family for a special breakfast treat that visitors to the city might not know of. Let me explain.

You see, Calcutta is not an early waking city. Take an early morning stroll around town and you’ll probably discover a taxi driver or two washing their cars or a number of tea stalls firing up their kerosene oil stoves, but food is difficult to find as the city is gradually coming back to life. That is unless you go to Terreti Bazar, a fascinating street that’s Chinese yet Indian.

momoEnter the little street near the India Exchange Place and you’ll find vendors selling all sorts of Chinese street food. Soup noodles, steamed buns, dumplings in both steamed and deep fried variations and fish ball soup are everyday breakfast options here. Early morning enthusiasts, joggers, call center executives and a host of Chinese breakfast fanatics flock here every morning to get their dose of Chinese goodness. The thoroughfare is lined with little makeshift stalls selling everything from Chinese sausages to prawn wafers and is without a doubt, a foodie’s paradise. This is probably what they mean by soul food. Food that warms your heart.

As a child I would watch in rapt amazement as old Chinese men and women lining the streets would pull out the most delectable of treats from their steaming woks and pans. The older generation would usually sit on the sidelines reading the Chinese newspaper and sipping tea from earthen cups as they yelled instructions to younger companions or workers who had accompanied them. The air was always deliciously smoky and the experience was a treat for the senses.

Breakfast in Terreti Bazaar is definitely not a fine dining experience. The timings are odd as the breakfast literally starts at the crack of dawnpow and ends before the first tram trudges out of the terminal. Everything is served out of make shift stalls and eaten on the pavements and people overly concerned about hygiene should keep away. But in spite of all odds the Chinese Breakfast of Old Chinatown remains one of my favourite things to do whenever I’m back in the city and judging by the satisfied smiles on the faces of all the people downing their dumplings, I am not alone.

But the truth is that like many other Calcuttan’s, my knowledge of the city’s Chinese population was pretty much limited to Indianized Chinese food and the boisterous New Year dragon dances that terrified me. I had several Chinese schoolmates in the city, none of whom are around any longer having migrated to the West years ago. Most people still remain ignorant about the community’s troubles and the dwindling number of Chinese in Calcutta. Today, the issues that threaten this vibrant community are manifold and have led to an exodus of the Calcutta Chinese.

This Sunday we saw four Chinese people in the bazaar. Just four.

I hope the state Government will realize the importance of the Chinese community’s contribution to our economy. Chinese tanneries, restaurants, schools and businesses used to flourish at one point in the city. A walk through China Town today won’t give you that impression anymore.

Thankfully, there are still some Chinese people left in Calcutta and if you want to get a feel of how they live and the scrumptious food they dish out, make a trip down to China Town, eat at one of the city’s many authentic Chinese restaurants or shop for your Chinese condiments at Stella Chen’s Hap Hing and Co. If you do happen to visit that last shop be slightly weary of the woman behind the counter. While she calculates costs on her wooden abacus or shows you the pickled plums and bottles of green chili sauce that line her crowded counter top, she might just convince you that weed is good too and have you leaving her Diagon Alley like store with a little stash of the treats that she keeps hidden away under the counter! ;)




July 11th, 2014
10: 44 AM

So, in the middle of my ‘must complete my assignments’ frenzy I am also attempting the difficult task of constructing an original short story. I actually started writing this story a few months ago but didn’t get past the exposition. Fortunately the twittersphere is replete with tweeps who have similar passions and @pinktaxiblogger was able to coerce me back onto the writing bandwagon.

The problem is, I find that I’m stuck. There are days when the language just comes to me in a spurt of inspiration. On other days (like today) I can stare at a blank computer screen all morning and come up with nothing!

I whimper and whine and before you know it, “I can’t come up with a good idea” becomes “I’ll never come up with a good idea ever again.”

Presently, I have about five Word documents on this laptop that contain the beginnings of new stories. Some are jam-packed with ideas for stories that I thought had brilliant potential. But after they’ve stewed for a night or two, I quickly dismiss them as ‘not good enough’. I try to get it perfect in my head and never do, so I never complete them. The expositions keep adding up, I get busy with my work every day and well, fiction doesn’t stay a priority long enough. So now here I am, stuck again, because sometimes the words just refuse to come out right.

Just Saying.

“…writing about a writer’s block is better than not writing at all…”
Charles Bukowski, The Last Night of the Earth Poems

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Hybrid Learning

Some years ago, I very seriously considered taking a break from working to pursue and complete my Masters degree in literature. Unfortunately, there were two barriers: the fact that I was already earning and the independent life I had, living abroad. Not to mention that fact that I just really love what I do! Did I really want to give that up, albeit temporarily?

Haunted by memories of excessive penny-pinching as a college student (Christabel, Dominic and Denise, you know what I mean) I decided to keep my job and signed up to a distance learning MA. Despite the limitations, the course which is delivered through online resources and a massive supply of very sketchy guides, offers me the best of both worlds. Better still, I get to study anywhere I want and in time slots that best suit me.

I love being able to initiate student mode occasionally during the week or early on a weekend morning. Reading the texts or online resources gives me the thrill of learning new things and increases my love of literature and it goes without saying that this joy comes from being able to ceaselessly study what I love.

Of course, there are limits to learning this way. One major downside to distance learning is that it’s almost impossible to build friendships with classmates when you’re living in different parts of the world. Although we keep in touch through an online portal and get to see one another at our occasional module meetings, nothing creates a sense of camaraderie quite like post-lecture coffee at Lavazza or a jaunt to a local mall as you laugh raucously and discuss that moment your professor spotted you laughing at him and directed a nasty comment your way! (Yes, that happened…long story!)

So, as my first year of hybrid learning draws to an end, what are my thoughts on this distance method? For those with financial concerns about university, or with work and family commitments, it’s a great way to satisfy your thirst for knowledge and broaden your opportunities.

One of the main things I have realized along the way is that education is a lifelong journey and distance learning makes that journey so much more accessible and extremely rewarding. It’s amazing to me when I think of the magic one can do with a will to learn and an easy access to a steady WiFi connection!

On the other hand, I’ve also learned that I procrastinate way too much…like right now while I should be completing the assignments I began a few hours ago. So, enough mental meandering for today, it’s time I got back to analyzing the 21st century relevance of Dr. Faustus and his complex egocentric ways.

Bah! …English teachers…always overanalyzing! ;)


My Mind Wanders…and Wonders…

I began typing this post as the last rays of the sun disappeared behind the imposing sky scrapers that dot the Sharjah skyline. The view from Qasbawhere I’m sitting is breathtaking. In front of me is the lagoon, to my right is a giant Ferris wheel and fountains and over on my left is a parking lot. Ok, maybe not all of it is breathtaking!

So here I am! Almost seven years since I first arrived here and I have not stopped since then— working, meeting people, eating, walking, learning, more eating and meeting more people. And as far as I know, as long as I live in the UAE it is going to be like this.

The sights here are surreal, and that’s the only word I can find to adequately describe this place. As I look out at the restaurants stirring back to life, the Mu’azzin’s full throated voice fills the air as he calls his brothers and sisters to prayer; Maghrib. Soft music begins to play, long tapered candles are being lit in the Turkish café across the wooden bridge and I continue to linger at my table, my fingers circling the rim of my paper-fiber coffee cup. There’s so much to see here, so many things to learn, so much to experience and I don’t think I have the language for a fitting description of it all.

Seven years is a long time to be away from home. But the UAE has grown on me and as clichéd as this might seem, it now feels like home too. Moving here was exciting, scary even – I was only 23 and while I sometime miss the structure, comfortable routine and massive social network one has at home with family, I have gained an exciting, interesting life that keeps me open-minded and on my toes, it encourages me to me make new friends and new memories here and across the globe.

I wonder though if my life turned out as it was meant to. I remember sitting in a friend’s car past midnight a week or two ago and thinking out loud. Is this it? What more does life have in store? Why does it feel like we’re all on the brink of something monumental but we don’t know what it is? Does one’s Raison d’être have to be fixed, static and one-dimensional or do we allow it to evolve, to grown and to unfold?

I know I’m babbling this evening but even this gibberish keying feels cathartic. All I’m saying really is this; I’m still searching. I’m still looking. I’m still figuring out what God has in store for me and why I’m here at this point, at this stage of my life. The questions come in torrents the answers don’t. So I wait. I Work. I plan. I do. I dream. I wonder. I and I love that I get to explore all of those opportunities here in the UAE where it feels like home even if it’s just for now.

Anyway, the city has come back to life and the tranquility of the Qasba has been supplanted with the raucous cacophony of the post- Iftar shoppers. So, time to stop ruminating and get a move on things; back to more writings and more meetings.

Everything will fall in place. It always does.
I need a coffee refill!



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Digital Detox

A little while ago I was sitting on my bed reading my daily quota (3 chapters) of Junot Diaz’s riveting novel ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’. All the while my right hand kept twitching; my mind signaling me to get up and make a grab for my smartphone or my iPad. You see ladies and gentlemen, my name is Sydney Atkins and it’s fair to say I’m a digiholic!

Virtually every hour of my day is spent with some form of technology at arm’s reach. While I am far from the worst offender of this nature, since last night I have been on a self-imposed digital detox; limiting my use of the internet to only e-mails and of course, blogging. Since 11:50 last night this experiment has been underway.

Why am I doing this? For a while I’ve been feeling the urge to try fully disconnecting to free myself from the never-ending obligations and the constant stimuli. I wanted to take a break from it all for a couple of days at least to see what happened. After all, throughout the last few years, I’ve been plugged in 24 X 7, hyperactive to my work e-mail inbox and social media notifications. The PINGS come in torrents and it’s taking me every ounce of will power to press the mute button and ignore them all.

This final push to try going sans internet came yesterday when a colleague advised us on the benefits of disconnecting and doing nothing just for a few minutes in the day. Living in a world where the line between digital and real gets blurred at times I was forced to see the significance of her words and this experiment is step one in my journey to being able to perfect the art of doing ‘nothing’, just for a few moments every day.

As you can tell by this blog post, abstaining is not an easy task! My hands feel restless without something to tap on, and I have begun to imagine my phone sending of subtle PINGS to get my attention. It’s like all the devices in my home are playing mind-games with me. I’m pretty sure this is what withdrawal symptoms must feel like.

Anyhow, in case you’re wondering why my twitter feed is silent or why I haven’t uploaded another selfie on Facebook, well now you know! I’ve got another day to go. I am fully aware that  I’m  not going to be any less of an addict on Friday morning, but I’m learning to handle the craving for my digi-highs and I’m sure it will make me appreciate my time a little more. For my twitter followers, you might want to download tweetdeck and mute my account this Friday. I have a feeling I’m going to be tweeting to make up for the 48 hours spent offline!


P.S This blog post gets shared to my twitter and Facebook feed automatically, I do not cheat.

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Silence is Overrated

‘Silence please’ is a phrase I hear about a thousand times each day. While that may be an exaggeration, you get my drift, right? Lately however I have realized that for me, silence is overrated. I don’t like a silent classroom, I don’t like the silence in the corridors when students are on leave and I most certainly don’t like silence when I’m at home.

To me this feels like a new-age problem, brought on, I believe, because of a culmination of several things. My job, my lifestyle, my friends and to an extent the time I spend online. Whenever I’m under-stimulated, such as in a quiet environment, I become instantly bored or very very lazy.

Luckily there isn’t much quietness in my life. Life is mostly noisy. I’m sitting outside a Starbucks right now there are families walking by, couples laughing and little children enjoying their evening out. I can hear a low hum of freeway traffic in the distance and some industrial moans from the crane across the parking lot as labourers work tirelessly in their evening shifts to add another imposing structure to the Sharjah skyline. Strangely, all of this is just the right amount of noise to keep the quiet away without distracting me.

I find that I am more creative and productive when there’s human background noise, such as in a coffee shop or at work each day. The trick with background noise is that I’m not interested in hearing individual conversations. I just enjoy the muffled hum of activity.

Don’t get me wrong, I love quiet solitude in proper doses too. Too little is stressful. Too much is its own kind of stress. When I need to focus for long periods of time on a solo task, I need some sort of background noise. I often play the same couple of albums over and over at low volume – but coffee shops work best! This is just me, take it for what you will.

OK then time to wrap up, I need to head home before the Barista’s decide to pour me a re-fill. Good night y’all!


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