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Forgotten Victims: Spare a thought for India’s Muslims during coronavirus

Victimhood and suffering are relative. India’s Muslim population has been dealt severe blows in recent months. Now they have to reckon with coronavirus as it encroaches upon Indian soil, and a nationwide lockdown.

In December 2019, Modi’s government introduced an amendment to the Citizenship Amendment Bill. Whereas the standard Indian Citizenship law requires a person to have lived in India for 11 years before they are able to apply for citizenship, the amended bill grants exceptions to migrants fleeing Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The catch? It only applies to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians. Notice the yawning absence of Muslims from the list.

Widely criticised as flagrantly anti-Muslim, the change has offended Indians of all faiths. They say faith cannot be made a condition of citizenship, and that the bill violates the secular principles enshrined in the Indian constitution. Quoted by the BBC, historian Mukul Kesavan argues the bill’s “main purpose is the delegitimisation of Muslims’ citizenship” – link

Many see the controversial bill as part of a larger plan by Modi’s right-wing nationalist government to marginalise India’s 200 million Muslims. Senior leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Ram Madhav, has called critics ‘bleeding hearts’.

Why is this relevant during coronavirus?

Widespread mob violence and sectarian carnage have forced Muslims from their homes and communities – in droves. Riots fuelled with iron rods, Molotov cocktails and homemade guns have killed dozens and injured hundreds. Mosques have been raided and torched. Thousands of Muslims have found themselves living in makeshift camps. 

Add a global coronavirus outbreak into the mix, and the next few months look very rocky for many Muslims – and their supporters – living in India’s cities. The ferocious violence that has engulfed parts of Delhi has left families with nothing but the clothes in which they fled their burning homes. 

Now, having introduced unprecedented lockdown measures, Modi’s government has outlawed gatherings of more than 30 people. This obviously threatens the existence of the camps which house hundreds and thousands of India’s Muslims.

“If coronavirus doesn’t kill me, hunger will”

In short, India’s shutdown is catastrophic for its displaced Muslims, who are already marginalised, living day-to-day, and often homeless. 

Drivers, maids, auto-rickshaw drivers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, artisans and street vendors buy lentils or vegetables to feed their families from the day’s earnings. There are no reserves, well-stocked freezers, or anything saved for a rainy day. As one daily wage labourer said: “If the coronavirus doesn’t kill me, hunger will.”

The Guardian

For those uprooted by the rioting, this applies, but worse. Many families are grieving for loved ones who have been beaten to death. Now, they must fend for their own lives in lockdown. How do you ‘stay at home’ when your home has been torched? Families have no choice but to divide themselves among the homes of relatives, and to stretch their measly ration money beyond all reasonable expectation.

It is easy to feel like a victim of coronavirus. Easier still, to think of one’s grandparents, whose nursing homes are without sufficient medical supplies. But think for a minute of those whose homes are non-existent, whose need for medical attention is dwarfed by hunger and fear, and whose plight is not plastered on the front pages of daily newspapers.

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Read more on the subject (or indeed on other subjects) elsewhere on this blog:
Silver Linings Playbook: Is the coronavirus a necessary wake-up call?
What is the most interesting thing about Coronavirus [COVID-19]?
Diarrhoea in India: A Series Of Flatulent Events; or, one account of what it’s like to have diarrhoea in India

An Alternative Tour of India: The truth about Indian culture
Sivananda Yoga Ashram: Review; or, Why We Left

A Most Slippery Man: Amusing notes on the inventor of Vaseline

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Sources:

https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/mar/30/divided-delhi-under-lockdown-if-coronavirus-doesnt-kill-me-hunger-will

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/delhi-riots-forced-thousands-of-muslims-from-their-homes-and-theyre-afraid-to-go-back/

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/new-delhi-riots-leave-35-dead-as-india-balks-at-us-reaction-to-the-religious-violence/

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Silver Linings Playbook: Is the coronavirus a necessary wake-up call?

Coronavirus has struck at an interesting time. These are turbulent days. Commentators speak in seismic proportions of ‘before’ and ‘after’ replacing such indulgencies as past and future. We are living in the midst of an Event, or a The Event, like the event which occurred on the 11th of September, 2001. It is an event that shapes modern history, after which one does not look back in quite the same way. Maybe such an event is inevitable. Maybe coronavirus is necessary for us to change direction.

We’ve got the whole world in our hands – or is it the other way round?

It is bad

Chilling stories are emerging which recommend the most drastic measures for 12–18 months. If not, 2.2 million will die. If we are clever and disciplined and follow orders, only 1.1 million will die. If we alter our lifestyles dramatically, only 20,000 will die.

The only reliable metric we have is death count. Different countries test and report differently. Widespread testing has not yet been rolled out, and the 14-day incubation period means that even if draconian measures are put in place now, we could still see sharp rises in case numbers during the two weeks that follow.

But it has always been bad

It is interesting that, following such cataclysmic climate catastrophes as the Australian bushfires, it is only now that such measures look likely. In 2018, as many as 29 million people were adversely affected by climate disasters. Wildfires ravaged California, hurricanes battered other parts of the US, and 5 million were displaced by flooding in India.

If you look at the numbers, they are staggering in ways the coronavirus isn’t — yet. We live in a time of unprecedented times. We read about giant events resetting the lives of other people all the time. But these are localised, generally speaking, or at least easy to think of as such.

Climate activists the world over called for policy overhauls, and small victories were won. But nothing fundamentally changed. Someone dies by committing suicide every 40 seconds. There were over 6,500 suicides in the UK in 2018 alone. The Yemeni Civil War has led to as many as 100,000 deaths since 2015. But for some reason, these all get swept under the rug. There are ongoing global tragedies that fail to galvanise us as a human population.

We are, or at least should be, better together

Is coronavirus the silver bullet we need?

In the wake of COVID-19, there have been a smattering of quietly beautiful news reports. Beijing, Shanghai and Wuhan are among several Chinese cities to be enjoying uncharacteristically blue skies. Air pollution levels are lower than they have been, in some cases, for decades.

Likewise, in Italy, pollution levels are plummeting. The ban on all but essential travel in swathes of Europe is allowing the continent’s airwaves to breathe, and its waterways to refresh. The canals of Venice are seeing dolphins for the first time in 60 years.

An unexpected side effect of the pandemic: Water’s flowing through the canals of Venice is clear for the first time in forever.
The fish are visible, the swans returned

Europe’s most hated airline, along with several other budget carriers, are grounding the vast majority of their flights. While this is an estimable bummer for pilots and crews, the benefits are clear.

The yet-to-be-realised cherry

Social commentators in the UK, US and elsewhere are noticing the resurgence in favour of socialist policies. Educational institutions, both brick-and-mortar and online, are making pay-to-access materials free for a limited time (read: 12 to 18 months) to help those in quarantine. Visited the NYTThe Journal, and QNS for more detail on those. In the UK, the Co-op has joined legions of others in supporting children forced to stay home during these first months of the pandemic.

Healthcare professionals, among other keyworkers keeping our society relatively intact, are self-deploying on the frontline. Volunteers are jumping out of the woodwork. Community groups abound. Town councils are considering buying and cultivating local land. Teachers are offering their services remotely and for free.

We are seeing glimmers of a socialist utopia through the cracks forming in our crumbling, ultra-consumerist paradigm. Universal Basic Income is being floated with renewed buoyancy — people all over country are recognising that the government’s business-first approach has set us up to fail during a time of global health crisis. Our gutted NHS is understaffed, under-resourced and criminally undervalued.

And lead us not into temptation

It has been said that we will see the best and worst of humanity in the coming weeks and months. It is tempting in such situations to simplify the virus. We might see it as a divine clarion call, or method of holy retribution — punishment for sins uncountable — designed to sweep us out of ideology and into something purer. But do not become unstuck.

From FP:

Anti-misinformation measures from tech companies may help mute these voices, but, as the anti-vaccine movement demonstrates, the task will be Sisyphean unless we understand and address the mechanism by which maladies become mirrors.

Aside from being a killer reference to Sisyphus and delightfully alliterative, this is perceptive. Human populations are weak when shocked. Ideas proliferate, but so do prejudices, misinformation and wanton references to the divine.

Conspirators sit at their computers, or in front of shiny logos, and pontificate about the ever-changing ‘they’ and what ‘they’ stand to gain. Trump calls it a Chinese virus — we are told to ‘wake up and smell the silicon’ — Asian-looking Brits are being beaten in the streets. Heaven only knows what Piers Morgan has to say.

Seek method in madness, and measures of moderation

If you gaze long into the abyss of a disease, your own ideology gazes back at you.

True, and fair enough. The virus is not some pendulous revenge tack swung back at us by Mother Nature herself. We are not living an allegory, lungs besieged by the viral wing of a suffocating Gaia.

Yes, there are somewhat pleasingly poetic connections to be found between our hyper-industrial, anthropocentric activity on this earth, a strangling of the world’s resources, or pummelling of its vital organs, and the ease with which the coronavirus swipes at our respiratory systems — individual and collective.

But the blanket coverage of coronavirus is not a test from a divine power. Nor, probably, was it fabricated with evil intent, or released by Jeff Bezos to increase dependence on Amazon. Disparate micro-patterns emerge but do not necessarily form a larger whole. Those profiting from the virus are simply well placed. Obviously Bezos stands to gain because he is well placed to gain in just about any situation.

If we are going to ride this wave towards a socialist utopia (and please let’s do that), let us do so carefully, with measure, and without crashing.

Remember, always remember:

Ginger:
Ladies, please. Let’s not lose our heads.

Bunty:
Lose our heads? Aaaahh.

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This article also appears on Medium, as part of the Data Driven Investor publication, along with another piece titled:
What is the most interesting thing about Coronavirus [COVID-19]?

Read more on the subject elsewhere on this blog:
What is the most interesting thing about Coronavirus [COVID-19]?
Old China vs New China
Man vs. Land—geo-cultural differences between China and Europe
China: The importance of being sincere

Featured

Milking the issue – arguments about the best milk substitute

Milk substitutes get a lot of flak — they are hypocritical, they are unhealthy, they are bad for the planet, they use too much water, they shouldn’t be called milks, and so on. In trying to sort wheat from chaff, I have found that, largely, these criticisms are unfounded, rooted in misunderstanding and/or peddled by dairy lobbyists. But scare stories stick in the mind, and often require unwedging. The question of ‘what is the best milk substitute’ is buried under mindless prejudices.

Many of the shots fired masquerade as legitimate, informed concerns, be they medical, ecological or nutritional. However, many of them require little research to dislodge.

What is the best milk substitute?

Soy milk

Criticisms of soy include the causation of hormonal misbalance, or a ‘feminising’ effect on men (untrue / incomprehensively tested / tested on animals, rather than humans). There was one guy who reported increased oestrogen levels, and breast tenderness, but he was drinking six pints of soy milk a day: too much, as they say, of a good thing.

Soy is also panned for its monoculturism. Production has increased fifteen-fold since the 1950s, and is mostly limited to the United States, Brazil and Argentina. It is true that soy accounts for the second largest portion of deforestation worldwide — after cattle ranching. Plantations are ploughed into land which, for generations, has been used for subsistence farming. The forest, rugged yet fragile, loses its balance. More than 200 tribes, comprising 650,000 Brazilian Indians, are threatened by the expansion of agricultural and grazing (read: soy and ranching) land. Jaguars are dying.

So, is soy bad? Well, on such grand scales, yes. But 70–75% of soy worldwide is used for livestock feed. 32 million acres of South American soy-growing land feeds Europe’s meat and dairy industries — equivalent to three Switzerlands. So with ranching in the top position, and soy, three quarters of which is converted into animal feed, in second place, any criticism of soy monocultural deforestation is more justly levelled at the meat industry (having been multiplied, by three or more).

Almond milk

Almond milk has come under fire too, for its allegedly astronomical levels of water wastage — a wave of criticism set off by a dietary consultant of the diary industry, albeit a lactose-free arm.

A widely shared graphic, cited by the BBC, shows almond milk water use to be substantially higher than that of oat, soy or rice milks. Almonds are one of the most water-intensive crops in California, requiring approximately 1 gallon per almond. However, dairy milk water use is still nearly twice as high.

The results are derived from a University of Oxford study. Taking into account 38,700 farms and 1,600 processors, the study finds that ‘the impacts of the lowest-impact animal products exceed average impacts of substitute vegetable proteins’, almost across the board. (It shows as much as 105kg of CO2 is produced per 100g of beef protein, compared to 3.5kg of CO2 per 100g of tofu protein) The Guardian’s environment editor talks about this too.

“Save the bees; drink dairy.” During the winter of 2018–19, an estimated 50 billion bees were ‘wiped out’ during the Californian almond harvest. But the news articles and opinion pieces which actually investigate this typically point to industrialised farming methods as the primary culprit, not the fact of almond consumption — nor, indeed, almond milk production.

A typical line runs as follows:

If you’ve given up dairy in a quest to be a little kinder to the planet, we’ve got bad news. Your almond milk latte obsession may be doing more harm than good.

NewsHub

Well, no it’s not, because it’s not dairy, which is doing more harm than good, and more harm than almonds — much more. Waves of bandwagon/shifting-the-blame criticism like this prompt such high-grade opinion-havers as Piers Morgan to tweet things like “the mass slaughter of billions of bees is on YOU vegans [and] vegetarians,” which is super intelligent, because only 1/25 of almonds are actually used to make almond milk (my estimate, calculations below).

[The United States produces 2 million tonnes of almonds per year. Global almond milk sales for 2018 were just under $6 billion. Divide this by a conservatively low retail cost per litre ($1.50) = 4 billion litres, consisting of 98% non-almond ingredients (water, vitamins, salt, oil, etc.). My own shaky maths gives a total of 80 million kg (or 80,000 tonnes) total mass of almonds used to produce almond milk per year (those pesky vegans are so thirsty), out of total almond production of 2 million tonnes (in the US alone), accounting for just 4% of almonds produced.]

“Your ‘animal ethics’ don’t extend to the little guys,” Piers adds. And yours, apparently, don’t extend to one of the most intelligent animal species on the planet.

Drinking the milk of a cow does nothing to salvage the fate of the bees. Plus, if the lives and livelihoods of droves of bees are of value, why then should the mass slaughter of larger mammals be ignored? Per litre, almond milk accounts for a quarter of the carbon emissions of dairy milk. Any criticism aimed at the almond industry, its affiliates and associates, should surely be multiplied and redirected at dairy.

Oat, Cashew, Hazelnut & Rice milks

As far as I can tell, basically no one has beef with oats. The Oatly brand got a bit of stick for selling shares to China Resources, and running an ad campaign tagged with a line reminiscent of a ‘quit drinking’ slogan, but besides that it’s actually hard to find any criticism online. Drink away.

The cashew industry certainly presents an ethical dilemma, but again, it has nothing to do with the fact of cashews being processed into a milk substitute.

In 2011, a Human Rights Watch report exposed the conditions in Vietnamese forced-labour camps, in which cashew nuts were being processed. Fortunately, this particular punitive slavery practice has been put to an end. Still, cashews are harvested and processed manually, which takes several steps. Exposure to the caustic oils contained within layers of cashew shell causes painful burns and lung irritation, and many workers choose not to wear gloves, in favour of unconstrained handiwork.

Turkey produces and exports three quarters of the world’s hazelnuts, 30% of which are sold to Germany. Productivity is affected by disease and climate. No highlighted concerns.

Rice milk substitute is fine, as long as you don’t drink nothing other than rice milk, while also eating nothing other than rice. Criticisms are hard to find. Plus side: if you have a nut allergy, you can still drink this (because it doesn’t contain nuts).

Basically, it seems, cashew, hazelnut and rice milks don’t offend anyone like Piers Morgan because they are not widespread and popular enough to challenge the status quo. People get tizzy and amplify concerns over soy and almond milks because they are disrupting the dairy-ruled equilibrium, and because, as a rule, people click on headlines which are provocative and reactionary.

In an era where environmental consciousness is entering the mainstream, we owe it to ourselves to sit on the right side of the fence. Plant-based milk substitutes are no longer the domain of the hip, nor do they belong to alternative communities. They have firmly wedged themselves into everyday life. Sacrifices no longer have to be made. Pathos, or ‘loving animals’, is no longer required to make the transition. People are starving, or obese, or sick; the world is burning, sinking and melting; vegans, like non-alcoholics, or those who have quit smoking, are often healthier and happier than meat-eaters; Logos wins outright. It is simply more sensible.

What you can do

Make your own milk — the best milk substitute is a homemade milk substitute (that ancient adage). Almond, oat, soy, even cashew and hazelnut (though these last two are costly). Source your products as locally as possible, control the variables, drink at your leisure.

Buy organic, and/or local. No pesticides, less water, less guilt.

Consider the options. Basically any milk is better than cow’s milk. Remember, mammals are only supposed to drink animal milk while they are suckling. From a bunch of perspectives, it makes much more sense to make opaque white protein-filled liquids from plants instead. Try all of them, see which you like best.

In a nutshell, then:
To minimise CO2 emissions, drink almond.
To minimise land use, drink rice.
To minimise water use, drink soy.

On the other hand, if you want to increase the risk of heart diseaseweakened bonesprostate cancer, while contributing more generously to deforestation, habitat loss, global carbon emissions and water usage, while also minimising the number of times you are insulted by Piers Morgan,

…drink cow.

Thank you for reading. Feel free to share.
Pea milk article coming soon.

Let cows live as cows, please.

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This article also appears on Medium, along with several others to do with the environment and politics.

For more vegan/plant-based articles (including itineraries and restaurant recommendations), head over to the Sri Lanka and Philippines archives!

Sources:

https://www.baldwin.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/S.%20130%20DAIRY%20PRIDE%20Act.pdf

https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/article/2017/animal-or-plant-understanding-north-american-protein-preferences/

https://waterfootprint.org/en/water-footprint/product-water-footprint/

https://www.ediblebrooklyn.com/2019/plant-milks-sustainability/

https://health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/eat-run/2014/06/10/non-dairy-milks-once-the-solution-now-part-of-the-problem

https://www.truthordrought.com/almond-milk-myths

https://www.plantbasednews.org/news/piers-morgan-brands-vegans-hypocrites

https://academic.oup.com/humupd/article/15/4/423/733861

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fertnstert.2010.03.002

http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2092004,00.html

https://www.worldwildlife.org/magazine/issues/summer-2018/articles/what-are-the-biggest-drivers-of-tropical-deforestation

http://www.fao.org/3/x4484e/x4484e03.htm

https://www.ishs.org/ishs-article/1226_2

https://www.seeker.com/iq-tests-suggest-pigs-are-smart-as-dogs-chimps-1769934406.html

https://qz.com/1737048/is-your-cashew-milk-latte-an-ethical-choice/

https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/lifestyle/2020/01/bees-doomed-thanks-to-world-s-almond-milk-obsession-report.html

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/07/honeybees-deaths-almonds-hives-aoe

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Sexual harassment in Sri Lanka is ubiquitous. Are women safe?

Shocking statistics abound, yet travel bloggers, tourist boards and travel agencies are ardent in their praise of Sri Lanka’s invariably hospitable locals. We have a duty to inform.

The argument: Basically, it should be possible for a young woman, “modestly” clad or otherwise, to travel independently around a country without exeriencing sexual harassment, be it in the form of physical abuse or verbal assault. In a country known for its pristine beaches, verdant forests and luscious flora–perhaps, above all, its welcoming locals–it is important to note what goes on beneath the surface, and how sexual harassment in Sri Lanka affects all who live there.

Note: Ninety per cent experience sexual harassment in Sri Lanka

It is a shocking statistic, one that many would choose to disbelieve. 90% of Sri Lanka’s women have endured some kind of sexual harassment on public transport, against a global estimate of 1 in 3 women. It is the highest rate in South Asia. Conversely, according to a 2013 UN study just one third of Sri Lankan men admit to having carried out an act of physical or sexual violence against a woman. 3% are arrested.

But statistics often fail where a personal, targeted anecdote will succeed. Statistics are shocking but rarely incite behavioural or ideological changes. The mass incarceration of Muslims in Xinjiang Province is shocking, but persists in part because of deliberate blind-spotting; the number of people reliant on foodbanks in the UK is shocking, but policy changes are not forthcoming.

People become rape apologists when they say things like she should not have worn those clothes, or she was drunk—she was asking for it. These familiar statements are almost never spoken by women, let alone sufferers of abuse. Why? Because shared experience, or, failing that, mutual understanding, leads to solidarity.

A rape apologist changes his tune

We have three levels of kinship: small [intimate—family], medium [associative—community] and large [distant/extensive—race, country, religion]. Statistics appeal to the broadest of social circles, and garner an academic response.

My connection to the UK is vague, so my response to an issue like homelessness in the UK, when presented in terms of statistics, is just so. Narrating isolated incidents is more affective. Localised and personal, a story is more likely to strike an emotional chord; it establishes humanness, but it does not guarantee the element of community. Hearing about the brutal murder of two touring cyclists in Mexico in June last year sent shivers down my spine because I was cycle-touring at the time. If I read about it now, my response would be more distant.

The surest way to generate an emotive reaction is to make something about the inner circle—it is a matter of framing. People care about themselves and their families. Quote stats to Tom, Dick or Harry and you are likely to receive glazed eyes and excuses.

What if was your daughter?
Then I’d kill him.

It happens like this. If a family member is on the line, no counter response is too severe.

Selective offence-taking

Taking something personally (offence) depends on ones investment in an idea. Anyone who has received abuse on the basis of something particular (race, gender, sexuality, disability) shows solidarity with the other members of their clan. They are committed to the idea; it is something integral to their identity. Feminists are committed to the ideal of equality of opportunity among all genders—therefore the abuse of women is offensive. It is an effrontery. Islamophobia offends devout Muslims because they are emotionally committed to the idea of Islam: Allah, Mohammed, the Qu’ran—these are sacrosanct. For trans people, being trans is very important. The oppressed defend each other because of their need for mutual solidarity.

Piquing the interest of straight men in what are perceived to be “women’s issues”—sexual harassment, misogyny, domestic abuse—can be bizarrely challenging. “Causes” like feminism, trans rights, or pro-choice campaigns are of no interest, because they seek to increase representation for members of other clans. Sexual violence statistics are shrugged off because they are just that—statistics. However, ask this man how he would react if it was his sister, or his mother or daughter, and a switch will flick.

Assaults on Sri Lankan women, whether by family members or uniformed officers, are widespread, and should offend us all. Yet somehow they slip off the radar. These women live in a culture which grants immunity to many predatory men. While this is certainly the case in much of the world – rape cases are notoriously unreported, and seldom lead to prosecution – the proportions seem magnified in Sri Lanka.

Infographic containing sexual harassment statistics for Sri Lanka
Image credit: Sri Lanka Brief

Are we really living in paradise?

Sri Lanka is frequently hailed as a slice of heaven, the ‘Wonder of Asia’. This level of praise is to be expected from those who have a vested interest in increasing tourist traffic, i.e., business owners. But bloggers are at it too, lauding Sri Lanka as the perfect destination for young women (and men) to come and reconnect with nature.

But given the statistics regarding sexual harassment in Sri Lanka, should this not come with a caveat? Leafing through articles dealing specifically with whether or not Sri Lanka is a safe place for solo female travellers, it is deeply surprising to find such consistent disparities between point-blank assertions of paradisal safety and the reality I have come to know.

The increasing role, and importance, of social media reportage

On social media, everyone has a voice. There are democratic platforms where perpetrators of sexual violence can be called out directly by their victims. Solidarity can be established. This is where the truth emerges.

A recent post on the subject, in an expat group on Facebook, has received a lot of attention. Dated 10th June 2019, the original post details a series of incidents of harassment experienced by the poster’s partner, and asks how often the (mostly foreign) female members of the group encounter sexual harassment here in Sri Lanka. Responses almost invariably expressed solidarity. Many were vocal with words of support, or offered their own experiences.

To quote a few:

“I don’t trust men here at all”; “I feel her pain”; “Sri Lanka is the first [on my] list of sexual harassment problems”; “Having travelled extensively and lived in several countries I’ve never experienced this as much as in Sri Lanka. Pls don’t put your head in the sand, it’s a known issue here that needs to be addressed”; “Women should not have to be covered completely to avoid this vulgar stupidity”; “This country is the pits […] So tired”; “Every day. I can’t even walk to the shop 50 meters away without getting some”; “It’s a daily struggle”; “I only go out with my husband”; “All. The. Fucking. Time”; “It’s every time I visit Sri Lanka, the amount of sexual advances men make is numerous”

and so on. Let it be noted that there are severer denigrations of the culture here which I have elected to omit—likewise, there are women who have not experienced problems. The quoted passages are, in truth, the modal average. They are in the majority.

I was there for 3 months and experienced this on a regular basis… the landlord’s relative would sneak into the house in broad daylight just to “talk to me” and would follow me everywhere. At first id be polite but when I raised my voice and told him to F off he tried to block me with his bike. Not to mention the time he broke into the gates of the house I was staying at in the middle of the night and tried to steal my things off my windowsill/watch me sleep […] Verbal harassment daily, I couldn’t go to the beach alone…

Reading these drove the point home to me, personally, in a way that an article on a news website does not. It is something to do with being part of an actual, active community. I do not know these people personally, but feel tied to them, experientially. Similarly, hearing the experiences of friends here actualises the problem in a way a statistic does not.

One comment stuck out to me, and resonated with Laura.

After two years there, [I am] living elsewhere now and realizing how much it made an imprint on me. Half a year later and I’m still walking around in a much safer country with my walls up, dressing more conservatively, carrying anger when I don’t need to point it at anyone.

This is a culture which rubs off on people, creating lasting effects on behaviour, openness and personal security. Besides these, I have heard personal accounts of hit-and-run groping, motorbike drivers who swerve towards and grab at someone’s body before speeding off; hotel owners persistently offering massages or requesting to teach the Kama Sutra to a single woman in her bedroom; a jogger being pursued onto the beach by an unknown man; the list goes on.

Selective advertising

Contrary to a position held by many online writers, sexual harassment (from untoward attention to physical assault) is the rule, not the exception. Some argue that ‘dressing modestly helps’, but the evidence also contradicts this. One woman I spoke to has been groped in plain sight, while wearing jeans and a long sleeve top. That modesty helps is a truism, a platitude, and as such is meaningless.

People write with ostensible authority about how safe Sri Lanka is for women after spending a week on the island. It seems pertinent to consider how much one can learn of a country in a week, and how much safety depends on financial insulation. No doubt many of those who can afford to stay in resorts, and pay drivers, have no problems at all. It is those who cannot pay for this treatment who are more vulnerable.

Yes, Sri Lankan bus rides are part of the *authentic experience*, but if that authentic experience involves a man rubbing his groin on your shoulder for two hours, perhaps it is worth foregoing

Reporting sexual harassment

While there are relatively few published accounts, incidents of harassment/abuse concerning foreigners are real, and troubling. What’s more, given their scarcity, it is a duty of those selling the Sri Lankan experience not to gloss over them.

Rarely covered, rarely reported. Why?

Submitting oneself to Sri Lanka’s legal process is an ordeal most tourists and expats (and, I imagine, local women) would rather avoid. The simple act of reporting can be torturous. One woman wrote of her experience reaching out for help from four police officers at the front desk of a police station. They heard her out and laughed, ‘as if I had just told them a joke’. When the tuktuk driver who had attempted to assault her entered the police station demanding she pay him for the journey, the officers told her she would have to ‘stay with them’ if she did not pay her would-be assaulter. ‘This is why the women rarely report incidents to the police.’

Grandiose actions taken by the Sri Lankan authorities do little to solve the real issues. After Dutch tourists were brutally assaulted on Mirissa beach in 2018, the government responded with a sweeping gesture. Much of the beach infrastructure was bulldozed in a morass of short-sighted problem-solving. 100 police officers, 24 Anti-Riot Squad personnel and a water cannon, as well as several teams of Special Task Force personnel, were deployed to oversee the demolition and prevent any protest.

It was like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut: the collateral damage was huge, and unnecessary. Innocent people lost businesses and the town suffered because tourists had nothing to stay for. Such token gestures are big on pomp and circumstance, and little on tackling the cause—a lack of sex education and a society which marginalises (devoices) women.

Why does this continue to happen?

It’s the last thing that this island needs right now is bad press and a few dumb idiots chasing away the few tourists we have.

Sri Lanka is still reeling from a spray of coordinated attacks by religious radicals. As tourist numbers begin, at last, to climb, and business owners put out calls to repopulate their hotels and cafes (“for the good of the country”), it is imperative that the sexual predators of this country do not go unnoticed. For this to happen, duties need to be fulfilled.

Bloggers have a duty to inform incoming tourists of the statistics, as giving out rose tinted glasses to young women on journeys of self-discovery can encourage naivety and feed the opportunism of their would-be antagonists. Residents and tourists alike, male and female, foreign and native, have a duty of care to each other. Foreign offices must acknowledge the prevalence of sexual harassment, as should informative sites like Lonely Planet, Wikitravel and Trip Advisor. These are also truths that should be circulated in expat communities, so that incomers understand the environment they are committing to living in.

But the real onus to change lies with the men who perpetuate a culture which freely oppresses women’s freedoms. This includes the police officers who discredit the testimonies of the women who come to them for support; anyone who witnesses anything and fails to call it out; anyone who does not apply pressure to a brother or friend to change their behaviour. Seen from any angle, the verbal and/or physical harassment of people based on their sex is socially backwards. Quashing it requires a push from all sides.

Tackling the symptoms

Sri Lankan women, at least in the provinces, endure silently, while foreigners lack the wherewithal to penetrate a self-protecting system. Fortunately, the ball is rolling on policymaking, and change is on its way, but campaigns like ‘Not On My Bus’ need nationwide (not just metropolitan) publicity, and legitimacy.

Combating sexual harassment requires a two-pronged approach. Not only is it necessary to give voice to victims—all victims—by inviting claimants to come forward and treating claimants with compassion, not disdain. Perpetrators must be brought to account. Police officers who would rather laugh at victims than help them are guilty and should be reported, because they create an environment in which it is impossible to pursue justice. The man on the bus who, while pretending to be asleep, repeatedly touches the thigh of the woman sitting next to him, is guilty, and should change his behaviour. Colombo’s mayor understands that this is a “national issue”—the country needs to understand this too. Zero tolerance. Don’t be a bystander. #CreateAScene.

Addressing the cause

This is how problems are really solved. Sex education here is basic. A 2013 study by the Family Health Bureau found 50% of young people in Sri Lanka had limited knowledge about sexual reproduction and health. Less than half of girls knew that pregnancy can result from the first sexual intercourse; many across the board failed to answer basic questions about reproductive health. It has been called a ‘sexual emergency’.

According to independent sexual health consultant Peter Gordon, sex(uality) education has a number of clear mutually reinforcing objectives:

  • Increase knowledge and understanding (about sex and the law, the nature of abuse and how to address it);
  • Explore and clarify feelings, values and attitudes (developing self-esteem, pride in one’s body);
  • Develop or reinforce skills (saying “no”, resisting pressure);
  • Promote and sustain risk-reducing behaviour.

Educators are in a position of great power and responsibility when it comes to the development of children’s attitudes to fundamental social issues. Suitably trained, they could make up for lost time, regarding those children who receive no sexual education at home. Furthermore, they can facilitate open and safe discussion spaces, in schools, in which children and young people can come to terms with: a) the attitudes they absorb from the media they subconsciously consume, b) the sexual naivety of their peers, and c) the fact of their own humanness, their history and physiology.

Addressing domestic abuse and sexual violence in a curricular context brings these issues to the surface, and assures would-be victims of the prevalence of the issue—it establishes a nationwide support network. It also informs the would-be perpetrators of the traumas these practices can induce. There is a future in which no part of society is oppressed because of their sex, sexuality or sexual decisions. Informing the national dialogue on these subjects may well be the key to unlocking that future.

Further reading:
Facts and Figures: Ending Violence Against Women
CCD removes 21 illegal structures along Mirissa beach
UN Women: Asia and the Pacific

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This article also appears on Medium, along with several others.
Read more stories from the ground about police harassment in Sri Lanka, a research piece about the same, how to be a responsible tourist in Sri Lanka, or about where to eat vegetarian food on Sri Lanka’s southern coast (originally published on Travelista)

Featured

Why we need to politicise Eurovision

Breaking point has been reached: the Israel-Palestine conflict has spilled over into the domain of mass entertainment.

Hatari display the Palestinian flag during Eurovision 2019

Displaying the Palestinian flag during the recap of the acts, Iceland’s Hatari ruffled more than a few feathers. Indeed, it prompted swathes of online commentators to demand that Eurovision remain apolitical. Should that be so—is it best—is it even possible not to politicise eurovision?

[C]onsider this: many normal values we cherish in Western society today – like same-sex marriage, right to due process, freedom of religion – people at one time had to fight for, through being indefatigable in protesting the establishment and demanding change.

—Laurence Watt, The Richest Magazine

“Don’t politicise Eurovision”? It already has been, it already is

There are those who insist that Eurovision remain simply about entertainment—that it remain apolitical. This position has as its foundation the notion that it is not yet political, that it has been, was—up until the point at which Iceland’s maverick quartet Hatari displayed the Palestinian flag to an audience of 180 million Europop lovers (or, at least, abiders)—not political.

But there is evidence to the contrary, decades of it. Luxembourg’s 1961 entry, about lovers facing prejudice, was about persecution on a personal level; Israel’s trans singer Dana International, who won in 1998, contributed to the discourse surrounding gender identity. Identity is political, whether you are oppressor or oppressed—whether you want it to be or not. In 2014, Conchita Wurst became a gay icon and, following this, Ireland’s 2018 performance featured two male dancers acting out a same-sex love story. This year, France’s trans performer sang about marginalisation. For years, Eurovision has served as a platform for highlighting social and political issues.

More overtly political acts have also featured prominently at Eurovision. In 2016, Ukrainian singer Jamala won with a song about the mass deportation of Crimean Tatars by the Soviet Union in WWII. The following year, Ukraine banned Russia from competing at all—politics, fairly deployed. (Russia’s way of undermining the political act was to dress it up as an amoral one: they sent a woman in a wheelchair to represent them, and spun the story so that Ukraine appeared as the tyrant, refusing access to the disabled) It might be easy to admonish Ukraine on grounds of not trying hard enough to rise above, but if the playground big-kid annexes your peninsula, what are you going to do? Politics is inevitable.

Australia’s induction in 2015 signified “a world where issues and beliefs, rather than borders, are important”—if beliefs and principles are to be the fundaments upon which a Eurovision family is born, is it not important to reaffirm and reform that ethical code? Such were the motives of Dana, Wurst, Jamala and Jean-Claude Pascal. Breaches of the code must be questioned.

The often cited purpose of Eurovision is to connect, transcend borders, subvert the myth that difference = conflict, that adjacent = opposit[e/ng]. It “gives visibility to identities and ways of being that you never see” (Dr Ruddock ,quoted above) – its aim, to harmonise, is a noble one, which it achieves through disruption of the status quo, challenging patchy ethical positions and unifying people by establishing a progressive ethos. It provides a platform for progressive notions and catalyses social change through exposure, focusing the world’s attention on social issues that need progress—LGBT perception and prejudice, body positivity (France 2019), the notion that milkmaids are chaste and prudish (Poland 2014), and so on.

It is my belief that a platform whereon countries, who would otherwise be in conflict with each other (or indeed currently are: Azerbaijan-Armenia, Turkey-Armenia, Georgia-Russia, Ukraine-Russia, etc.), can compete on a level playing field, is inherently political—if only because of the decision to give the combatants a chance to participate. When German and British soldiers played football in no-man’s-land during the World War, that was political. There are some things it is impossible not to politicise. Giving Saudi Arabia a slot on a show defined by its unifying moral codes would be incredibly political. It would be equivalent to saying ‘we, as a community, respect the way you conduct yourselves enough to join our contest’.

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The rest of this article can be found on Medium, along with several others. Read about my experience of being held in Israeli immigration for five hours here.

Read more stories from the ground about police harassment in Sri Lanka, a research piece about the same, how to be a responsible tourist in Sri Lanka, or about where to eat vegetarian food on Sri Lanka’s southern coast (originally published on Travelista)

The Day the Earth Slowed Down: The Three Gorges Dam is damn big, and that’s not all

It is of mythical proportions, impossible to truly grasp. It makes mountains look like molehills and molehills look like very small piles of dust. That’s right, I’m talking about China’s 3 Gorges Dam, astride the Yangtze River in Hubei Province. More than just a mouthful.

Whence came the 3 Gorges Dam?

It is the year 1919 (not really, but in the story). FOMC Sun Yat-sen (that’s FOMC as in father of modern China, not fear of mad cows, or f*ck off mister chicken) sits atop his yak-wool cushion, admiring the earthenware tidbits that adorn his little non-imperial alcove. An idea strikes him, like a bullet to the ear. Holy moly, he thinks: I’ll build a dam. 

He puts pen to paper, humming with ambition. Words are written: big, small, medium, all humming. Soon enough he has written a full article, the like of which has never been seen in all of contemporary China. In English, it is called ‘A Plan to Development Industry’, which is a bit clunky but gets to the point. He publishes it in The International Development of China which, again, clunky, but clear. 

The gist is, he wants to build a great big dam to control the flooding of the Yangtze River and embody the ‘new might’ of China. Brilliant idea, they all said. Well, no they didn’t. Did they get to work on it straight away? Did they fuck. 

Outsiders with bigger dicks

It was actually the Japanese who moved the thing along when, in 1939, they occupied Yichang and surveyed the area. They were so excited about the prospect of owning all of China that they commissioned and completed the Omani plan in anticipation of the big day. 

Then, obviously, the United States weighed in with a my-dick’s-bigger-than-yours in the shape of John L. Savage, who did his own surveys and came up with his own proposals. This, he called the Yangtze River Project. 54 Chinese engineers went to the States for training. Unfortunately, however, the Chinese Civil War had other plans, shittier plans, and the project was put on hold in 1947. 

Mao liked the dam, but wanted to do a different dam first. Then, in 1956, he (Mao Zedong, “Little red cook book, little red cook book!”) wrote a poem about dams and called it ‘Swimming‘…

The mountain goddess if she is still there
Will marvel at a world so changed.

A not so gorge-ous episode

When, soon after, some engineers spoke out against the project (and in so doing pooh-poohed his poem), Mao had them sent to labour camps. The government did not look favourably on those who dissented the dam. Jump forward to the Tiananmen protest of 1989, and journalist Dai Qing publishes ‘Yangtze, Yangtze’, a book of essays opposing the project.

Criticism of the project had as its backdrop a string of disasters that took place in Henan Province during a typhoon in 1975. A series of catastrophic structural failures caused the release of 600 million cubic metres of water – a wall of water 6 metres high and 12km wide. It was the third-largest flood in history, affecting a total population of over 10 million people. 3 million acres were inundated, 6.8 million houses collapsed, and as many as 240,000 people drowned or died in the wreckage. 

Survivors became sick from contaminated water, and were trapped without food for many days. It was a sore point for quite some time. 

But not too long! The idea re-emerged in the 1980s, and was finally approved in 1992. 

It is not visible from space

We have a propensity to mythologise Chinese construction projects. Even the most gargantuan cannot be seen from space. 

But it is motherflippin’ big

When the quantity of concrete is written down, it merits the use of standard form. It is more fun to use objects than measurements. Example: it took 63 Eiffel Towers worth of steel. Fun! 

Clone the longest known animal ever to have lived on the earth (average female blue whale = 25m) and place 93 of them end to end, and you have the length of the dam. Fun! 

The concrete used to construct the dam wall itself weighs approximately 6.5 million tons, which is about one and a half times the weight of the world’s heaviest civilian building.

But it is still less than half the reservoir flooded by the Itaipu Dam. Props, South America. 

How well does it work?

The Three Gorges Dam is not the perfect dam. It is one of those things that arguably serves the greater good, but means a lot of little people get ignored and really pissed off. A third of its budget was spent on relocating 1.2 million people out of its flood zone. 

But it also provides energy to lots of people. The Three Gorges Dam has an estimated power output equivalent to a regular power station burning 25 million tons of crude oil a year. It generates 11 times more power than the Hoover Dam, Nevada. It could power the entirety of New Zealand, Ireland, Iceland, Costa Rica, The Bahamas and Rwanda, combined (which is 1.5% of China’s total energy consumption). 

Well done on that count, but it could also be doing a lot of harm, causing a different kind of pollution. The region surrounding the Three Gorges Dam is home to thousands of plant, insect, fish and terrestrial vertebrate species. Landslides and water pollution threaten (read: throw into disarray) the interrelatedness of a bunch of unique ecosystems. The eco-stability of the region is, in a word, shat on by a heck ton of dirty water, which is good for business, but not so good for maintaining that which is cool. 

So what’s all this about the earth slowing down?

Here’s the rub: when the Dam closes its doors to fill its reservoir, it accumulates a total of 38 trillion kg of water. While this is only a teeny proportion of the total weight of the earth, it is enough to have an effect… on the earth’s rotation. The maths has to do with moments of inertia and angular velocity. If you’re spinning on ice and you tuck your arms in, you’ll spin faster, and vice versa. Collecting such a weight of water in one location on the earth’s surface literally makes the earth spin slower. The crux is, it’s really damn big.

It increases the length of each day by 0.06 microseconds. Can you feel it? If you add up all those microseconds over a human lifetime, you’ll have approximately one and a half seconds to contemplate dams!

Damn.

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This article also appears on Medium, along with several other pieces, which you can find by visiting my writer profile.

Alternatively, read more on the subject (or indeed on other subjects) elsewhere on this blog:
Silver Linings Playbook: Is the coronavirus a necessary wake-up call?
What is the most interesting thing about Coronavirus [COVID-19]?
Old China vs New China
Man vs. Land—geo-cultural differences between China and Europe
China: The importance of being sincere

A Most Slippery Man: Amusing notes on the inventor of Vaseline

Sources:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/longterm/yangtze/yangtze.htm

https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/poems/poems23.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Gorges_Dam#History

https://interestingengineering.com/13-facts-about-the-controversial-massive-chinese-dam-that-slowed-the-earths-rotation

https://www.businessinsider.com/chinas-three-gorges-dam-really-will-slow-the-earths-rotation-2010-6?r=US&IR=T

https://www.kinetica.co.uk/2014/03/27/chinese-dam-slows-down-earths-rotation/

http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/aug1975.htm

A Most Slippery Man: Amusing notes on the inventor of Vaseline

More than just a man, Sir Robert Chesebrough was the inventor of Vaseline. And most slippery he certainly was. 

Though not in the negative sense of the word. On the contrary, much can be said of Chesebrough’s ingenuity, as well as his faith. Indeed, such was his faith in petroleum jelly, he used to eat a spoonful of it every day. Chesebrough lived to be 96 years old and credited his longevity to the simple wizardry of Vaseline.

The beginning of the Vaseline story

Starting out as a cherubic young chemist in the 1850s, Chesebrough showed promise. Born and raised on opposite sides of the Atlantic, his work involved producing kerosene from sperm whale oil. Icky stuff for many reading in 2020, this was surely interesting work. 

When Colonel Edwin Drake drilled the first successful oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859, few had the faintest notion of the change it would effect. Least among the, Chesebrough. However, not to be disheartened, he put his mind to work.

Sperm out, oil in

While America’s oil boom (not boom as in BOOM, but as in period of great prosperity or rapid economic growth, though there were doubtless a few of the other, along the way) just about choked the sperm whale oil business, Chesebrough saw a silver lining. Why kill whales when you can extract kerosene from petroleum oil? So he started to experiment. 

Visiting a drill site in Pennsylvania, he witnessed something most unusual. Oil wells were producing a black, paraffin-like gel the workers called “rod wax”. Rod wax made the rigs malfunction, and was generally a pisser. However, those working the rigs noticed that rubbing it into their cuts and wounds made them heal faster. Chesebrough, in turn, noticed the same.

What is this ‘rod wax’?

Most intrigued, he took barrels of rod wax back to his lab for testing. Once his research was complete, he refined the thick black wax into a thinner, lighter-coloured gel. Impressed by its evident medicinal benefits, and feeling its refinements made it significantly less gross, Chesebrough introduced his ‘Wonder Jelly’ to the public.

Commercial production began in a Brooklyn factory in 1870. By 1872, Chesebrough had patented the process of making petroleum jelly. Fast forward another two years, and 1400 jars of Vaseline were flying off the shelves every day

As J. Mark Powell writes so eruditely on the subject, Chesebrough ‘peddled his product with the zeal of an evangelist’. He used to demonstrate the effectiveness of Vaseline as epidermic cure-all by holding his hand over an open flame. Then, extolling its virtues and trying not to faint, he would apply Vaseline. Presumably, the wounds would heal by the next roadshow. 

When Vaseline evangelism pays off

But Chesebrough was more than a shrewd salesperson. His belief ran strong. During a bout of pleurisy (a condition often caused by the flu virus, in which the tissue ‘twixt lung and chest wall becomes inflamed, causing difficulty breathing), Chesebrough had his nurse cover and rub him, head to foot, in Vaseline. He soon recovered. Obviously, any number of factors could be responsible for his healing. Most people just take pain killers and wait for it to go away. But it’s a nice story, given the context. 

Perhaps his most startling claim was that he would consume a spoonful of Vaseline daily, in order to prevent the onset of ailments. Is there anything he wouldn’t do, for Vaseline? Forget the sugar, Poppins, it’s time to try the kids on petroleum jelly.

Guten Appetit / καλή όρεξη

Underwater Love Pt. 1

This must be underwater love, the way I feel.

I’ve watched every Salad Fingers documentary and now whenever I think about dark green leafy vegetables I feel nauseous. Kev says it’s started to affect my pigmentation. Kev’s full of whack. Don’t listen to him.

Last night, at the crack of dusk, Kev and I erected a totem pole, crafted by Kev’s deft hand from Polish walnut wood, as a tribute to all who lost their lives in the Battle of Loob, 800 years ago. Statistically speaking, more people haven’t heard of it than have. We scented it with musk.

For weeks now I’ve been building a pyre – alone – for a very special purpose. I source the wood from my grandma’s old copse. The bluebells are deliciously delicate. Their floppy little bells hang this way and that, turgid with dreamy expectation. I try not to tread on them but collateral damage is inevitable. Besides, they’re only a bunch of dangly stupid fucks anyway.

Salad Fingers wowed me today. Unsurprisingly, my legs have no skin left on them. No one told me during my single-digit years about the dangers of chafing. At school chafing was like electric. It was wilder than Digimon or skanking. Reminiscence colours all reflection.

À 8 heures this morning I bit the k-cuffing bullet and burnt all my tight underwear. Suzie has been waxing lyrical about the physiological advantages of Loosey Gooseys for getting on for two weeks now. I’d quite had enough, so I did the aforementioned, and great Caesar’s ghost I’m not looking back. Not now, not in a million years.

At my late grandfather’s behest, I polished off the stroganoff. What a sentence, but he only served seven years.

“Let’s talk about sexuality”, Kev urged me yesterday evening, as we nursed each other’s banana-date milkshakes. We had just stood up after tumbling down the gorsey field, and were both prickled like nobody’s business. I replied gruffly; not because I didn’t want to talk about it at all, just because I didn’t feel like talking about it right then and there, with prickles dotting my back like so many dots of luscious black vanilla in a home-made ice cream brew, but in a negative way. He took my reticence the wrong way, and heaved a giant sigh, as if to say, “I know you are, but what am I?” I don’t respond well to amateur dramatics. As if to prove that point, I picked up the first igneous rock I could lay my eyes on and hurled it at him with all that shot-put coaching I’d vicariously undergone by watching videos on the internet in the wee watershed hours, after my midnight masturbations. Private evenings are the best. The boulder struck him bluntly on the side of the head, and knocked him squarely for six. Not the last time he’ll be sorry for saying some shit like that to me, I’ll bet. What’s sexuality, anyway, besides believing that something should usually go one way, and finding that four or five times out of some, it does?

The Uniformity of Haricot Beans

He undid his waistcoat. He took off his shoes and knee-length socks. He was a peculiar fellow. Full to the brim with idiosyncrasies, refreshing to all those who knew him. He unbuttoned his floral shirt and allowed the cooling breeze to breathe coolly over his supple chest. His abdominal hairs thanked him for it. Chiming in, his homeostatic glands heaved a sigh of immense relief. Right on, he thought. Time to get going.

The lawnmower thrummed along in the way a metaphor might if it had been whimsically thrown together by some poet-turned-prose-writer in order to cheaply embellish a benign sequence of events. Thrum thrum thrum. Imagine me reading this to you, in a husky, emotionless voice, devoid of regional accent but plodding along with heavy diction and unwaveringly dull intonation. Just like that. Plod plod plod. Trisyllabic sentences thrill me. Just like lawnmowing / mowing the lawn.
Atop his thistle-guzzling, blandly alliterative throne, the man felt like a god. He listened to its various churns and kthumps with blind glee. The noises gave him an enormous sense of wellbeing, which welled up inside him, thence effusing from his throat in spits, gargles and other gross onomatopoeias.

Across the way, the man’s neighbour, Kevin McCloud, was mowing his lawn. How serendipitous, thought the man. What a charming coincidence that Kevin and I – two men, two gung-ho, strapping men, riding on a wave of exuberant gusto – should be mowing our adjacent lawns simultaneously. I’ll wave, and he’ll wave back, and we’ll each of us erupt into a momentary ecstasy. We’ll break the mould and whack a big two fingers up to the conservative establishment for instilling within us a sense of guardedness and perpetual reservation. We’ll shake off the doleful glare of infinite negation cast onto us by the paranoid and paranoia-inducing shells of former humans, once shimmering with individual phosphorescence, now damned to monochromatic insularity and choking restricti– oh blast I’ve mown right into the hedge.

EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard goes to his first Masturbators’ Anonymous Meeting

Reveries, by Bruno Cooke, is available on Amazon. Read about it on Goodreads, or buy it straight off the bat. Also, read a review here.

The group leader was an officious turd whose name, Ronald, was actually his first middle name. Ronald was two minutes into a tiresome speech about Man and Man’s habits, Man’s desires in conflict with Man’s religion, Man’s Manness in conflict with Man’s Misunderstood Masculinity, and so on. After eight indulgently meandering sentences and 43 iterations of the word ‘Man’, even Richard, whose own gender-specific vernacular was exclusionary and unacceptable, was thinking something along the lines of shut up you arse, we’ve better things to talk about.

Before he could muster the words, Jenny stood up with enough force to knock her blue plastic chair over its hind legs and exclaimed:

‘Listen, Ronald, we’re here because we’re tired of wanking and punishing ourselves for it.’ Richard had never heard this said out loud. ‘At least I am.’ She glanced about the room.

‘Enjoying it and hating it at the same time, myself and it, hating and enjoying and spiralling into depression.’ It was true, all true. ‘I can’t remember what came before, because… Well, Because. But I know that it was in tatters long before I came here and I assume some of my colleagues feel the same way.’

I do! I do!

‘We would like to fix ourselves, women included. Your pontifications about Man and Man’s infernal Manness estrange half your assembly.’

She paused and cleared her throat. Richard danced a little, inside.

‘I am sat between two humans whose status is equal to mine.’ Richard and Jenny’s other neighbour, a weedy gentleman, turned and looked at her. ‘We would like to get started.’

Bravo! Should he applaud? Sitting down, Jenny looked round and winked surreptitiously at Richard, who just sweated.

Ronald grumbled something into his hand before gesturing to Jenny.

‘Well, Jennifer, please start us off.’ Specks of perspiration shone on his temples. He drew a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and dabbed at his forehead.

Richard watched him and shrunk satisfactorily into his seat, then focused on Jenny. She seemed wise beyond her years (mid-thirties at most, but she had a wizened elegance Richard found enchanting). Her hair hung gingerly over slim shoulders. A few wisps clung beneath her large Roman nose and pointed towards a triumvirate of moles on her left cheek, the largest of which boasted a modest fuzz. Hanging about her cat’s frame was a purple cardigan, thick-knit, tied like a dressing gown round her waist. Sandals protruded from beneath a maroon skirt and revealed crudely painted toenails, the smallest of which was barely a dot. Richard suspected the nail to be missing, the paint a diversion to the fact.

Folding his arms, his eyes met hers. He imagined their souls meeting in an ethereal playground, surrounded by swirling winds and eddying astral forces, shaking hands and sealing their mutual fates. He knew her little secret, her little toe secret, and nodded his recognition, with it forgiveness, understanding, admiration, all wrapped in ribbons of something like infatuation.

By now Jenny was midway into an anecdote and Richard had missed the whole first half.‘Without, I think, this element of structure, thoughts of it permeate my everyday. I can’t think straight, I can’t work.’

Gosh, he knew how that felt.‘Like I sit at my desk and, you know the classic, there’s a vibration somewhere nearby – a truck reversing outside, someone’s using the photocopier…’

Was she reading his mind?

‘So, without structure, thoughts of masturbation escape my control. The act itself becomes frantic. I rush it in order to somehow reduce the damage done to my conscience. It’s indulgent but in all the wrong ways.

‘And so this week I’m advocating Structure.’ She enunciated this word with a finality that brought Richard to a standing ovation. On his other side, Lara giggled. Ronald rolled his eyes at the newcomer. Tim, name yet unknown to Richard, weedy Tim, chin resting via hand, lower arm and elbow on bony knee, rent from his own oblivion by an uncontrollable guffaw, lost control of his limbs and slid polygonically into a prostrate mess of angles, jeans and Crocs.

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If you enjoyed this, read more excerpts at the following links:
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard goes to his first Masturbators’ Anonymous Meeting
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard shits in the bath, is upset
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard, Jenny, and a pair of antediluvians
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Josie Haybottom is late

Buy the book here.

EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard shits in the bath, is upset

Reveries, by Bruno Cooke, is available on Amazon. Read about it on Goodreads, or buy it straight off the bat. Also, read a review here.

Richard’s affliction first presented itself on his sixth birthday.

After a wonderful day at the playground with both of his friends, his parents took him home for apple pie. Apple pie was his favourite. Then, it was time for his bath.

Splashing about in the tub with his ducks and battleships, he was completely carefree. He liked to smother his lower face in bubbles and pretend he was Father Christmas, then wipe his chin clean and pretend he was Nietzsche. He had very mature reading habits.

During this bath, as it was his sixth birthday, his mother made it extra special.

“Would you like one last present?” She touched his nose with her finger.

“Oh, yes!” Richard was overjoyed. He loved surprises.

Karen left, leaving the door open behind her. She returned a minute later, and when she did a strange aroma filled the room. She held a round object, covered by a tea towel. Richard marvelled at the strange object.

“Can you guess what it is?”

“Umm…” He couldn’t.

“I thought, because you like apples so much, you might like to try a new fruit.”

“OK!” That did nothing to explain the peculiar whiff which drifted up Richard’s nose.

“This is called a durian. It’s from south-east Asia. Would you like to try it?”

“Mm-hm,” said Richard. He was cautious because of the smell, but nothing could ruin his sixth birthday.

Karen unveiled the fruit. It was a greenish-yellow, and covered in spikes. It had a split down the centre, and emitted an odour incomparable to anything Richard had ever smelled. The smell intensified as the cover was lifted, and grew stronger and stronger. It wafted about the room and tingled in his nostrils. When Karen wrenched the fruit open, the smell became unbearable.

At once he felt his innards contract—he thought he needed to sneeze, then to be sick, then… His bowels reacted in the most formidable way. A rush of gas built up in his colon and burst through his anal canal, carrying with it all the diluted, unprocessed brown fluid which was being held in his intestine.

In an instant, the bathwater turned a murky ochre. Richard squealed as soft pulps of shit floated up to the surface. Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, Karen ushered him out of the bath. Then, when he started to drip the soiled water on the tiled floor, she panicked and pushed him back in.

“Oh, Richard!”

“Sorry, mummy,” Richard said. He didn’t know what else he could say. It was all his fault!

“Oh darling it’s not your fault.” He felt sure that it was. “Stand up and let me hose you down,” Karen stifled a giggle. “That’s it. Now, one foot up.” Masterfully, Karen ensured that no more poo drops made it onto the floor. She wrapped him in a towel and gave him a big hug. He began to cry. Karen drained the tub and rinsed it down while Richard went to the kitchen and stared at the fridge, shaking occasionally with a sob.

A cup of hot chocolate cheered him up, and his sniffles subsided. Karen sat with him and watched him drink it, wondering what had occurred within him to prompt such a violent outburst of faecal matter. Could it have been an allergic reaction? She’d never known that to happen, and so suddenly too. Something to do with bad smells? It was a mystery. She resolved to ask her friend Elisa the next day; he knew lots about these kinds of things! Then, Richard surprised her with a question.

“Mum, why am I called Richard?” 

“What? Oh, your name? That’s a good question. How long have you been thinking about that?”

“Um, a few days. Everyone at school’s been talking about it. Frank was named after a boxer, and Isabelle was named after an explorer.”

“And what do you think you were named after?”

“Well, everyone says I was named after one of the instruments used when I was made,” Richard looked up, and Karen saw that he was puzzled. “But I told them you and dad don’t play any musical instruments.”

“Mmmm.”

“And then they laughed so I went away.”

“Oh, darling!” Karen’s parental urge kicked in, and she squeezed her son’s little cheek.

“But can you tell me who I’m named after, so I can tell them?”

“I’d be glad to. You were named after a man called Richard Sterling. He’s a travel writer! He writes about all kinds of things. He’s how your dad and I found out about durian fruits.” Richard’s stomach lurched at the thought. Seeing his skin turn a shade paler, Karen decided to veer away from the subject.

“His writings will shake the earth, they really will. He leant us some of his notes and they are, well, extraordinary.” Richard swilled the end of the hot chocolate in his mug. Tea, chocolate, Mum and Dad’s coffee. Some of humanity’s favourite beverages are brown, he thought. Why did it have to be so?

“What do you think?”

“Um, so I was named after a writer?”

“Yes. So now you can turn around to your friends and say I wasn’t named after a boxer, or an explorer, I was named after—well, I suppose he is something of an explorer. So, you can say, I was named after an explorer too. That’s much more interesting than someone who fights for a living. Don’t you think? Richard?”

But he was lost, once more, in the dregs of his mug. He put it back on the table and saw the image printed on the side: Winnie the Pooh sitting merrily in a field of orange flowers. Richard didn’t feel so merry, but he did like knowing why he was called Richard.

“Much cooler,” he said. And then he went to bed. Thankfully, he didn’t dream of the durian. It never even crossed his mind, until one October morning, six years later.

*

If you enjoyed this, read more excerpts at the following links:
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard goes to his first Masturbators’ Anonymous Meeting
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard shits in the bath, is upset
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard, Jenny, and a pair of antediluvians
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Josie Haybottom is late

Buy the book here.

EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard, Jenny, and a pair of antediluvians

Reveries, by Bruno Cooke, is available on Amazon. Read about it on Goodreads, or buy it straight off the bat. Also, read a review here.

Eight minutes later, Richard returned. Jenny was etching something pornographic into the tabletop, scratching at the surface with a house key. She looked up, her gaze holding something devilish, almost diabolic. Richard grinned.

“Two Antediluvians, shaken and stirred.”

“Champion. Tell me, what goes into an Antediluvian? Does it require a sprinkling of arched nose and too-thick reading glasses? An artificial grey patch and stupid wizened curl?” She was referring to Ronald.

“Cherimoya, or custard apple. It’s one of the only tropical fruits I can handle,” he said, gleaming, missing the boat.

“What do you mean? You don’t like mangoes, papayas, pineapples?”

“Yes yes, of course they’re fine. But anyway they’ve been normalised. They’re no more tropical than palm trees, which are scattered round Torquay harbour like breadcrumbs, leading nowhere. But there are others, real fruits of the tropics which haven’t been integrated into the British palette.”

“For example?”

“For example,” he leaned back. “Well. I’ll tell you, but first, to your health.”

“To ours.” They clinked, drank, winced. There was an uncomfortable silence during which their eyes met.

“Richard?” Jenny’s face had coiled into a mutated spring, darkening in three areas.

“Oh, dear,” he said, letting the brownish yellow liquid flow back into his glass. “This cherimoya’s rotten. That’s rotten luck.”

“It’s awful, Richard. Awful. Don’t take me back there, I won’t allow it.” Her face was still distorted. He passed her a serviette to mop her chin, then went back to the bar. His thick wrists slid along the top, feeling the rough matte wood for signs of wear.

They were given lime daiquiris, a platter of carbohydrate-based snacks and half a dozen cans of Diet Coke as compensation. Reimbursement was impossible.

“The system doesn’t allow it,” he told her.

“Bloody typical. What do you call these?”

“Mini Cheddars, only they’re not. They’re posher.” He threw two into his mouth, only one making its target. The other collided with his unshapely chin and made him blink.

“They’re pretty good. Crunchy. And these?”

“Thins. Cheese thins, I suppose.”

“Anything that’s called a Thin is bound to be disappointing.”

“You’re right.”

“I know,” she said. “You were going to tell me about tropical fruits.”

“I was. There’s one I can’t handle, though I can’t recall—” He stopped short. Was he about to recall? His mind had been washed clean of childhood remembrances and adult guilt, was untarnished by all the shame of a human life. He thought of tropical fruits.

“Richard?”

“Durian. Oh, my.” His eyes began to trickle. “I remember. I can’t stand it. But how did I know I couldn’t?” Some shred of long-term memory wedged deep in his cranium, jogged by the fact of a dodgy cherimoya? Was it so fundamental, so formative as to survive hibernation, to be roused by the sudden sensory reference?

“Durian?” she said. “I’ve heard of it. I heard a story about a kid.” Richard groaned. “My father used to work at a secondary school, before he died. He’s dead now.”

“Secondary school.” His mouth opened and a spindle of saliva fell, hung an inch long from the corner of his mouth.

“Not far from here. They used to celebrate Ivory Day.” The words made Richard’s stomach twist. “It was really archaic. They all dressed up in robes and hung chandeliers and draped insignias on sheets in the Great Hall, the Ivory Hall. Talk about bloody antediluvian.”

“Elizabeth,” he said.

“That’s it. That was her first name. Christ, to think, all those wars. That’s what constituted a hero. Can you believe it?”

“Unbelievable.”

“Yeah, well, what happened went down in the annals. They split the fruit in some creepy, pseudo-masonic ritual. Elder and a Minor, textbook weird. Poor soul chosen at random, gallumphs onto stage with his tail between his legs, two thousand eyes trained on him begging for a false move. Fucking kids. Kids love failure. So do adults, mind. We’re barbaric. Richard?”

“Barbaric. You’re right.”

“I know. So the kid gets up there and he’s got this problem with his bowels. Nobody knows about it but him, maybe his parents. Actually I bet they do know but they’ve not let on that they know, leave him in the dark, neglect the sucker. Barbaric.” Jenny slurps the last of her daiquiri and instinctively cracks a can of Coke, cruising into the present tense. Her palette dries easily so she likes to have a drink to hand. She sips the fizzy drink, immediately regrets ridding her mouth of lime tang. Picks up the coupe and drains the dregs, craving citrus. Wonders if a daiquiri should even be served in a coupe. She’s sure it isn’t. What an establishment, mouldy fruit and misaligned glass/cocktail combinations. Muses on its origin – glass, not cocktail – remembers a classmate years ago telling her of Marie Antoinette’s breast, sliding into glass in conical perfection. Perfection? She imagines her own breasts being cast into silicone, handled by masters of ergonomics wearing white gloves and marvelling at her body. Artful hands playing her like an instrument. Future generations drinking from her shapely bosom. Indirectly but still. The prissiness of it all. Buxom, delightful.

“Richard? Are you with me?”

“Yes.”

“Good, because it’s just getting to the good bit.”

“The good bit? What happens next?” Richard reclined sideways to nearly horizontal, world spinning about him, his weight propped under one elbow. Drool formed an eel-like bridge between the left corner of his mouth and his forearm, slid like a snail-trail onto the table. Jenny barely noticed, she was thunder and lightning.

“Kid goes up there, knees trembling. He’s heard of the durian, knows how bloody dangerous it is. How fucking stinky it is. And he’s got this problem with his bowel whereby all is let loose if too pongy a pong strikes his nasal cavity. This really is a recipe for disaster, you appreciate.” Jenny slurped at her Coke.

“So the leader, elder, whatever masonic bogus he goes by, slices the fruit in fitting with tradition. Tradition, that’s who’s to blame here.” A car horn carried into the room via the open door. “He cuts it right in half, its scent wafts kidward. Kid balks, freaks, doesn’t know what to do. What can he do? He’s at rock bottom, there’s nowhere he can go.”

“What happens?” Richard almost shouted, somehow counting on Jenny to rewrite this memory for him, as it flashed past his eyes in a foray of fleeting images. Dreadful, haunted images.

“He shits his pants, Richard. The whole room hears it. There’s a deathly silence, you understand. The sound of knife through durian husk is practically amplified by the reverence in the room. It’s a palpable silence broken only or at least first by the sound of knife through husk, then second and louder and more dreadfully by the sound of this kid passing gas, sludge, brown matter filling the space between his behind and the cloth of his pants. It’s pathetic and tremendous and unbelievably tragic. I almost couldn’t believe it.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“It’s true.”

“I don’t believe you. You are telling me this.” His faced drained of all colour and he lost consciousness. He slumped further in the booth, his chin inching closer to the table until it rested grubbily on the off-black lacquer. He was out for a minute, like a light, like a candle.

*

If you enjoyed this, read more excerpts at the following links:
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard goes to his first Masturbators’ Anonymous Meeting
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard shits in the bath, is upset
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard, Jenny, and a pair of antediluvians
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Josie Haybottom is late

Buy the book here.

EXCERPT [Reveries]: Josie Haybottom is late

Reveries, by Bruno Cooke, is available on Amazon. Read about it on Goodreads, or buy it straight off the bat. Also, read a review here.

At 05:01 on that fateful October morning, Josie awoke in a wet bed. Her bed was wet with urine, her own. The sun still slept.

Her brother, it seemed, observed an etiquette vastly transliterated from her own, regarding prank rules. To her, unconscious meant unarmed; to Drew, it meant easy pickings. He had been told the previous day about the trick of soaking your victim’s fingers in warmed vinegar-water during NREM3 (approximately 20% of a sleep cycle, his learned compatriot informed him). Roused by his alarm at 04:45 ante meridiem, he prepared silently while the blood throbbed in his ears. He crept into his sister’s bedroom, taking with him a tub of water estimated by his elbow to be damn near close enough to body temperature.

Needless to say (but hell, let it be said): the prank paid off. He watched on, petrified, feet fastened, shivering with gratified anticipation as the puddle grew. Josie released a soft groan, and stretched out her back. It clicked. The sound jolted Drew back to the immediacy of reality and he scarpered. In his rush he trod with full force on a stray Lego cube – Josie had not forgotten the value of tangible play, regularly creating for herself miniature worlds in which anything at all was possible, as long as it was constructed exclusively from quadrangles and could be connected, top and bottom, in the prescribed way.

Drew yelped to high heaven, quite unable to inhibit his reflexes against such a burst of visceral pain. The bolt shot up his leg and reached his brain before he could suppress it, and his cry rang forth. Josie’s torso snapped up like a spring, frightened into consciousness by her brother’s gasp. She retorted with a breathy AGH! which alerted Drew. Blenching at the thought of her impending revenge, he swung round and flung up his foot, wishing to soothe it for immediate escape. He lost his balance again, semi-somersaulted with a flying scissor-kick into the air, and landed on his bottom, unprotected but for a thin layer of pyjama cotton.

A blunt twinge seared from his left cheek and reverberated like a ripple through his rump. Josie tossed her duvet from her bed in order to reprimand her brother for waking her without permission, only to discover her compromised position. She sat in a pool of her own doing, warm and wet to the hilt. Her blood proceeded to poach. She knew her brother’s dastardly ways and knew in a second that he was the culprit. A ragged, fuming electricity began to pop and bubble in the pit of her stomach. It seethed and blew gales within her, raising her up onto her hind legs. Towering above Drew, she gained vantage, therefore advantage.

Standing now, a lioness in her prime, she roared with hearty rumble, her mane full aflame and plumage lit. She bounced once, twice, and then flew like a falcon onto her brother’s back. Her faithful talons sank in, prompting the blood to flow where it may. Drew’s sharp shriek could be heard from three doors down: Norwegian Ms Jerry in the yellow cottage at number 135 awoke with a start, shot up and knocked her head KATHUMP on the bedside lamp, wherefrom a searing bulge could be seen until a week later; sickly old Reverend Harklestamp, the Dane in the blue house opposite, yelped and defecated where he lay, staring up at the majestic compass which adorned the mantelpiece; down the hall, the fractious pair’s biological mother (their house was red; they didn’t have any fish) opened her weary eyes and, disorientated for a moment, flailed out beside her, thwacking her partner square on the nose.

Josie was in her element. All four limbs wreaked their most vengeful wrath upon her brother, inflicting so great a shock that he lost all consciousness. Drew crumpled under his sister’s bulk and, landing directly cube to cube, suffered comprised potency and generous scarring. Let that be a lesson to brothers all.

Unfazed by the hyperbole of the situation, and dehydrated after the fracas, Josie went downstairs for a cool glass of coconut milk. Coco was unassailable.

The morning’s set-to had, however, taken its toll on Josie’s foot-to-eye coordination. Steps were too much. Her humanness raised its gnarly head – or, more precisely, the minor discrepancy in length between her right and left legs went uncompensated for – she fell, oh how she fell!, with uproarious calamity. On her third step, her foot only narrowly shaved the stairlip, and clumped onto the level below. This knocked her so off course that she came tumbling down, step by step, with a series of percussive thumps which roused the whole household. Her mothers both, biological and nominal, came bounding out of their room, skipped down the staircase to find their daughter (biological, titular) star-fished on the tartan-rugged floor, florid and moaning. Knocked unconscious like her brother, Josie soon awoke to find herself one tooth down, a certified resident of sore-town.

*

If you enjoyed this, read more excerpts at the following links:
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard goes to his first Masturbators’ Anonymous Meeting
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard shits in the bath, is upset
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard, Jenny, and a pair of antediluvians
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Josie Haybottom is late

Buy the book here.