Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Unfinished and unbalanced

This year, as in all years, I try to tote up balance sheets, the profits and losses, the learning and the opportunities lost, and it seems overall like a hard year to sum.  It has been a hard year, harder than usual, difficult in complicated ways.

I have travelled back and forth, I have moved home, I have battled with my usual, baffling, allergy-related illness and ye olde spirit is finally flagging, I am more uncomfortable in this body and its odd “disability” at this moment than I have ever been in the last five years.  I started learning Arabic and then stopped, I am not sure whether this is going to be a permanent break or if I will be able to pick it up again next year.  I blogged and wrote much, but still couldn’t complete the edits to the novella, and now that I think about it, maybe I should rewrite the whole thing, keep the kernel and scrap the rest.  A bit disappointing either way.  On the other hand, I also wrote a whole bunch of flashes and short stories and poems, some of them felt real good too, I started a new blog where I am less poetry and more me, all me in fact.  A blogpost here won an award. But right now all that doesn’t feel as important, as monumental as the things that didn’t get done. 

When I had come to Bahrain more than eighteen years ago, that was a huge change, from a working woman to a trailing spouse, from a big city, dwarfed in an even vaster country, to an island nation where one fell off the farthest edge after an hour’s drive.    Claustrophobia would have been justified then, but I am feeling it now with a lag of eighteen years.  As it was, I had got on with the job at hand and settled down and made the most of, even revelled at the staying-at-home part then.  I learned to cook and bake, found flexi-time jobs, wrested new computer skills, started a family, learned knitting from scratch, read a lot, made up stories and poems for my infant son, and left myself no time for disgruntlement.   Moving back here from Cairo seems minor in comparison, I already know the territory, both physical and psychological. So it feels a bit weird now, to be hit with this irritable restlessness, this chafing at a way of life that has been long familiar, in fact enriching even, truth be told.  

It is patently obvious that the further I have journeyed from my place of birth, the more time and resources I have had to look at my paths mindfully and critically, to regulate the pace of the travel; to glean, at leisure and unstressed, whatever insights that might have been granted me. I have been lucky in more ways than one, so it feels petty and above all quite baffling to give way to an attack of negativity.  To lose my perspective and let it be coloured by the temporary heartaches of the last half of the year.  Maybe I should revisit all this later this month, leave this blog post unfinished as of now.  The year is not yet over.  I think that is just what I will do.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Forever Indian II

Banners in front of the Tata office, Mokattam, Cairo

What, Indianisation?  Again? Well, yes.  In a previous post, I have put forward a historical perspective on the multifarious ways the world has been Indianised, past and present.  I have dutifully looked at facts and blathered on about figures - populations and diaspora, trade and FDI.  I don’t say facts and numbers are not important, they are. Extremely important. But they are kind of dry.  Lack the thrill sometimes, that sense of amazement on unearthing some tiny miracle tucked into the mundane somewhere, wholly unexpected.  Nope, numbers can never tell the entire story.  For that one has to look beyond them.  

Friday, 17 October 2014

Forever Indian

India has captivated the imagination of the world since ancient times.  Her list of contributions to our collective knowledge base and cultural heritage is formidable.  From small things like buttons (Indus Valley Civilisation, 2800 BCE) to sophisticated concepts like the zero and ahimsa, Indian ideas and discoveries have diffused across the world for millennia and still impact lives today.  A paisley patterned scarf, a dish of kedgeree, a game of Ludo, a peaceful protest rally – these are all more Indian than you think! 

Sunday, 28 September 2014

It wasn't just charity that began at home

Over at the other blog, the "flogged" blog, which incidentally has just celebrated its third anniversary, did you even think we'd survive this long? I know! I even surprise myself sometimes. Anyways, getting back to the point, over at that very respectably-aged blog we have been talking about identity, straddling cultures and alienation and frustration resulting from the diaspora experience. With a British-Nigerian poet who knows a thing or two about straddling.  And identity and alienation. And of course, poetry.

I found that post extremely interesting.  Partly because she happens to be a native of the country where I was a foreigner once, the bakuwa, often called bature, the skinless one, the distinctions between my lighter Asian skin merrily conflated with that of Europeans, to my discomfiture, resentment as well as astonishment.  But as I reflected on my diaspora experience, it kind of appeared that my entire trajectory has been a little different, drawn awry by its own momentum.  

The first cut is the deepest

But first, a couple of actual experiences where I felt unfairly treated because I was a minority, a foreigner/stranger or some way related to my identity.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Toppish and Tennish : A Choice of Short Fiction

Did you see that books-that-stayed-with-me challenge recently making the rounds everywhere?  A couple of friends tagged me, and then I tagged a couple, and before I knew it, my tbr list, which is always a mile or two longer than I like, was raging totally out of control.  

I had at least two books of short stories on my list.  So the other fall out was that I couldn't get rid of the idea of putting together a list of memorable short stories.  Here are some wonderfully rich tales, sad, happy, comic, horrifically thrilling, and deeply satisfying.  No particular order, and many more stashed away in the memory bank, restricting myself to the ones that were TOM when I sat down to write the post.  Except for a couple, most are available online so links included.  And no, none here from Chekhov, don't kill me!  I  do not really like his stories, the fault is entirely of my own taste and character, nothing to do with his brilliance.

The End of the Party  - Graham Greene

Silver Water -  Amy Bloom

The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber - Ernest Hemingway

Lamb to the Slaughter - Roald Dahl

The Necklace - Guy de Maupassant

My Beloved Charioteer - Shashi Deshpande (No links that I could find, part of an anthology called The Inner Courtyard)

The Garden Party - Katherine Mansfield

The Ant and the Grasshopper - W. Somerset Maugham

The Gift of the Magi - O' Henry

Sredni Vastar - Saki

I am actually rubbish at picking favourites.  The minute I put down Sredni Vastar say, I feel conflicted, what about the Reticence of Lady Anne?  And The Last Leaf is surely just as sentimental and satisfying as The Gift of the Magi, isn't it?  What about Alice Munro, she is a favourite contemporary short story writer, where do I fit her in?  Margaret Atwood?  Kazuo  Ishiguro?Salinger? Twain?

And how can I not even mention the richness of Bengali short fiction?  Samapti by Tagore still gives me goosebumps, Banaphool's works, Satyajit Ray's Fritz... And what about the novellas?  Mice and Men, and The Snow Goose and The Small Miracle.  The names come tumbling one after the other and there's no stopping. The nicest thing is of course that  in real life, there is no need to stop at ten or twelve, no need to pick favourites at all. 

Do you like reading short fiction? And if you do, which are the ones that you have liked?

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Heraclitus, melancholia, and summing the summer

I certainly can't remember having heard of Heraclitus till a minute ago, can you?  He was an ancient Greek guy characterised as  a "weeping philosopher" because of his melancholia, which incidentally makes him my kind of guy straight off, because I am all for a good weepfest every now and then. He spoke, my intensive research informs me, obscure truths.  And one of his obscure truths, which is way more familiar to me than his name, was that no-one can step into the same river twice. What he is actually supposed to have said was "everything changes and nothing remains still...and...you cannot step twice into the same stream."  

It was all yonks ago, so who can tell what he theorised accurately?  His words were reported by other philosophers, who in turn were quoted by their pupils and so on.  Rather alarmingly like a game of Chinese whispers gone berserk, only neither in Mandarin nor in Cantonese and nor in whispers. However, be that as it may, the idea has always resonated totally with me, somewhat surprisingly, I have to admit, as I don't possess a single philosophical grey cell anywhere in my brain. But if that stream caper is true, then by that same logic, you can't step onto the same island twice either.  And I have been given the opportunity to verify his obscure truth for my own self as we returned to live in Bahrain for the second stint.  It is not the same island I left almost a decade ago, and neither am I the same woman.  We'll have to settle in afresh, no short cuts, no royal and easy roads to it.

Summing up

The beginning of summer, truth be told, feels such a long time ago now.  Late in April, that's when it's summer in my hometown, the husband received a phone call one Friday morning from the HQ and rushed off to the backyard as there never was a clear signal inside the house.  I thought nothing of it, phone calls from the HQ are not exactly a remarkable feature. He came back and duly dropped the bombshell, which turned out to be okay, I mean I wasn't shattered or anything, though I had imagined I would be.  We had been in Egypt for more than 6 years, I had begun to think of my child sitting his school certs there in another 3-4 years time.  We had settled down, found our grooves in that place and life felt good. Now if this isn't an opportunity to indulge in a couple of sniffles for someone who enjoys a weepfest, I don't know what is. But not a single sniffle.  I was surprised by my own steady reaction.  

Of course, one half of me was devastated at having to wrap my head around the idea of not getting my regular Cairo favourites and fixes.  But the other half? For the week we didn't know the posting, it spent its time happily researching the various possible locations, schools, housing, hospitals, how to connect with the rest of the expat community there, what local ruins and monuments were there to drool over. You know the drill.  But it so turned out that we weren't being sent off on a fresh adventure, but were to return to Bahrain, the place where we had started out in the ME almost 18 years ago. And once known, that too felt right and good.  Shortly after, in early May, we left for India to attend a family wedding. There was another one I was to attend in July as well, after the school holidays began.

In the few days I had before flying off, we established contact with schools in Bahrain (always the first priority) and I called a friend who lived there.  We spoke at length, one of those connections where one can pick up the threads without any effort, and she invited me to put up with her instead of a hotel on arrival.  I said I didn't know when that would be, but I'd let her know as soon as the dates were finalised.  Both of us were mighty glad that we would be seeing each other regularly again, but she quite frankly said that I would find Bahrain "a little boring" after the cultural and historical density of Cairo.  I knew it too, I would have to deal with it.

Two weddings

Three months passed by in a few fast flashes, we enjoyed both the weddings, ate, drank, danced and made merry.  For a time, it was uncertain whether I would have to pack up the house before we left in July, but that thankfully wasn't the way it worked out.  The son sat his admission tests in Cairo for the new schools, and also his regular exams, there was enough going on to keep things lively for all of June.  He and I left for Mumbai for the wedding as soon as the summer holidays started.  That same day his father left for Bahrain on a recce. 

The paperwork should have been through by the time we finished with our month-long holiday in India, and I had expected to come back and wind up and leave for Bahrain by August.  But that is not how it worked out either. We duly packed the house up as scheduled and moved to a hotel, but while the adult visas were through, the child's visa for some obscure reason wasn't forthcoming.  Our tickets were rescheduled and cancelled, once, twice, three times before the visa suddenly plopped out like a rabbit from a hat, and the tickets were yet again rescheduled and rerouted through Jeddah suddenly at a day's notice.  Transit at Jeddah, well, that was an interesting experience too, but that's for some other post.

The hotel had various problems with Net connections, so we would go back to the house, bare of all our stuff except the still working telephone and WiFi, and catch up for an hour or two.  On one of those trips, my trusty five-year-old laptop broke, one hinge of the screen cracked open, though it continued to function still, even if in drunken flickers, hanging on for dear life just by the wires.  

and a faraway funeral

On another, totally different trip, I started my broken machine and idly clicked Facebook open, with the idea of letting my friend know about our plans, or rather frustrating non-plans.  There was no immediate urgency except I didn't know when my laptop would finally break down.  Scrolling down casually I found an update from her daughter explaining the circumstances of her death in my newsfeed.  I know I sat there staring at the screen.  I know I left some sort of garbled messages of condolence.  Thoughts too deep for tears.  I don't know if I had anything that could be called thoughts, just my mind darting off along different tunnels of memory and darting back again like a scared and baffled animal. 

She was my first friend in Bahrain.  She had a smile that could light up a room.  We had swapped recipes and ripe jokes and book recos, we had shared a workplace and good times and some not so good too. She was only marginally older and she was gone, just days before I was supposed to land up.  It felt terribly unfair, she had a lot to live for, a lot more of her children's successes to celebrate, a lot more to give her community.  But then again, a sudden painless death is the best exit, though a terrible shock for family and friends. A rich and happy life and a painless, smiling death, that is a life to celebrate. But as I flew into Bahrain, I knew there was going to be no stepping onto the same island, in more ways than one.  


We have now been here for ten days.  Summer holidays get over soon.  Since the school and flat and the details of living and commuting and all that blah was taken care of earlier in July, we have moved directly into our home here from the airport itself.  A first in my experience of moving country.  Our stuff hasn't arrived yet, naturally, we'll have to wait some weeks for that, but otherwise it's all plug-and-play.  We have been driven around the island, the fridge has been stocked, new school things bought, the last of the paperwork finalised.  I have even managed a trip to a bookstore, which wasn't there when I lived here last.  The traffic is more no doubt, but the congestion that I had heard about has eased up with the addition of new flyovers. Humongous malls and fancy-shaped swank buildings with pointy tops and glass façades have come up.  Over our first weekend we walked the child back to where we lived before, and it is exactly as it was, though he of course has no recollection of it. 

I am enjoying the free availability of all things Indian, food and groceries, signboards written in familiar Indian scripts.  I hear Bengali and Hindi and Malayalam spoken on the roads and the supermarkets, and it is still a thrill to hear your languages so far away from home in a foreign land.  The Khaleeji accent, both of Arabic and English, feels reassuring, and charming.  It is not the same island, but it is familiar still.  A new computer has been magicked out of some new and huge gadget shop, and I am trying to wrap my head around advanced versions of its software. But I am blogging for comfort on my old one, which is manfully working still, much to my amazement. 

I am missing the wide open, expansive feel of the Cairo suburb on the fringes of the Sahara, the silhouette of the pyramids on the horizon - I never tired of them, the austere yet magnificent desert sunsets.  The river.  My god, there are no rivers here, not even a thread of a stream.  Today as I looked through some of my photographs of Tanoura performers to put up on my new desktop, the thought sprang into mind from nowhere that I didn't have enough close-ups, and hard on its heels, "I must click some close-ups next time," before I remembered there is no next time, vaguely panic stricken and disorientated.

Too much seems to have been crammed into one single season, too much dancing, too much revelry, too many goodbyes, too much emotion altogether. Joto hanshi, toto kanna.  That's a Bengali proverb, roughly translating as "there's exactly as much sorrow (to face) as there's laughter." That kind of sounds like another of Heraclitus' famous and obscure beliefs - the unity of opposites.  Another of his sayings goes something like "the road that goes uphill is the same as the one coming downhill." I am not sure how steep the slope is going to be, or whether I should try going up or down, but as long as there's a road, there can be nothing to complain about. I'll find out soon enough.  I just need to stop for a minute and get my breath back.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Declutter. Pack. Detach.

I am not exactly a Pollyanna, but the glad game is not to be scoffed at; the truth is that there’s some take-away in every situation. Incidentally, the packers turned up, the house has been now stripped of our worldly possessions and looks stranger and more sterile by the minute.  I realised afresh that a home is really made out of knick-knacks and photographs, teenager messes of cords and earphones, mismatched socks in laundry baskets, scrunched up throws on sofas.  Talking of laundry baskets, the presence or absence of one itself is crucial to the feel of home, the bathrooms look oddly unfamiliar, like hotel bathrooms without the bins, just the brushes by themselves on the lonely emptiness of the counters.    And definitely the sink looks massively weird without our early morning coffee mugs in it.

Though our stuff is out on the road, hopefully making its slow way to Alex and then onwards, the MIA is still MIA, and our travel plans have had to be postponed a little.  Two more days of living out of suitcases and eating off disposable plates, camping under a concrete roof.  Waiting for that one phone call, that one email to snap shut the bags and stride out of the door.  Never a dull moment!  And the fun continues apace once we reach our new destination too, as the stuff does not arrive for the next 4-6 weeks.  I just hope we manage the trip there before the boxes do!

I have now moved home 19 times, this one will be my 20th.  There are many apparent negatives to this complete uprooting and moving again and again, especially when there are children involved.  I am sure everyone can imagine the potential horror stories for themselves.  But one of the great things about it, when and only when the uprooting happens through active choice of course, is that the whole process is a kind of systematic and ruthless detox of the immediate micro-environment.  One picks and chooses, one prioritises, one can’t take it all, so what’s worth saving? and passing on?  and what shock horror is to be thrown away? Old clothes have been chucked; you know, those I hung onto in the hope I would be able to fit into them again after slimming down a bit.  Any day now.  Toys given away at school charity drives, food and booze passed on, papers sorted out and trashed.

A mini-lesson in detachment and disengaging, and it always surprises me.  How quickly the mind can bear to tear away from a beloved object, amble out of comfort zones, its eyes fixed on what’s coming rather than what’s gone already.  My books are no longer on the shelves here.  My cutlery not in the kitchen drawers, which open silently without a single metallic rattle.  I am now utterly decluttered.

Egypt is a place I’ve enjoyed deeply. I have gained insights into myself here, grown in completely gobsmacking ways travelling this country.  It’s been the setting of many milestones for me and my family.  I have loved living here to bits.  But it is no longer home.  How easy it is to write that down.  And my god, how difficult!

Monday, 4 August 2014

Fresh out of supplies

Serenity.  That's the first prerequisite.  For blogging  I mean.  For any kind of writing to happen really. A nagging restlessness might sound luscious and sophisticated, but it is not an aid to writing. Not for me.  Only when life is kind of boring and routine can imagination run riot, or put its thumb into some completely useless fact and pull out a blogpost from there. Too much uncertainty and it sits cowering at the corner nibbling at comfort food, its fingers greasy, its eyes zoned out.

My summers for the last so many years have been predictable.  School's out by end June, and kiddo and I are back on home leave till the holidays get over.  We move around, meet up with relatives, take trips out as a family sometimes, just the three of us, and in all that, I have found time to write and even blog, if I can coax a net connection out of somewhere.  Going on holiday hasn't affected my writing much.

This year is turning out to be different.  I am blogging less, writing less, I have achieved very little that I set out to do with the novella.  My usual practice to write a verse everyday  even if is only a couplet has been majorly interrupted. And all of it feels beyond my control.

Everything feels a little out of control, to be perfectly honest.  The tickets are booked, the packers come day after.  But the visas are still MI all this A.  At least, one of them is, and till all three are done it is as good as nothing being done. Rather, as bad.  I know things work out, they always do, it is a matter of time.  Time is the solution to every problem, I know this from heaps of personal experience, not from some ghastly pseudo-inspirational gobbledygook posted on social media.  But I am still panicking.  I can't settle to anything, leave alone writing or rhyming or posting.  "Write it as it comes" ha. Well, nothing coming, not a drop.  Panic does not make for writing.  Serenity is the key, but that suddenly seems in terribly short supply.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Top ten : Egypt

My absolute favourites in Egypt:

1.  The pyramids.  Of course.  Start with the biggies at Giza, and the sound and light show is a must see. Then go to the step pyramid of Sakkara, the first and still the best one to understand the minds that dreamed them up as tombs.  Don't miss the small but rather neat museum on-site.  If possible also take in Dahshour.  

Khafre's pyramid at Giza


2.  Take the night train to Luxor and spend a day or two at the Valleys of Kings and Queens.  Karnak Temple requires a couple visits, one by day to wrap your head around its humongousness and another at night for another riveting sound and light show.  

Sunrise through the window on train to Luxor

Luxor Temple

3.  Go into the White Desert and marvel at the limestone shapes sculpted by the winds and sands.  Camp for the night under the stars. Enjoy a vast and unimaginable peace.  Watch the sunrise wash over the desert.  Unforgettable!

Road to Bahariya

Sunset in the White Desert

Campsite at White Desert

4.  Enjoy the Nile's final resting place, go to Damietta where the eastern branch of the Nile meets the Med.  Tranquil and honest and untouristy. Watch the catch come in early morning. And take a felucca and sail the evening waters at Cairo, Luxor and/or Aswan.  Sit by the river and sip a coffee, or smoke shisha if that's your thing.  Enjoy the Nile. Period.

Felucca at Aswan

Fishing boat at Damietta

5.  Spend a day in Islamic Cairo - Sharia Khayameya, Sharia Muizz and the Khan el Khalili.  Several mosques and mausoleums to check out, old merchant residences - the best restored is Beit Suheimy.  Great shopping opportunities too, but be prepared to bargain hard.  Go on to Wikala al Ghuri on Saturdays and Wednesday evenings to watch the Tanoura being performed by whirling dervishes.  Programme starts at 8 pm, but seats fill up by 7-ish.  Mind altering, in the best way possible.

Feel the drums and cymbals 'talking" to each other in this jugalbandi

Colourful, mesmerising, devotional, rhythmic and riveting!

6.  Alexandria - a two thousand year old city with a completely different vibe, Egypt's ex-capital and now her second city and main port. Visit the Graeco-Roman monuments.  The real roots of the revolution have their home in Alex. Khaled Said's home city, also home to many independent bands and musicians and graffiti artists. Museum at Bibliotheca is certainly worth a visit, Fridays it shuts at 12 noon. Eastern harbour and the Corniche at Qaitbey's fort great for people watching.  Best seafood.

Boats in the Eastern Harbour Alex

Qaitbey's Fort stands at the site of the famous lighthouse, a boat in Egyptian colours is moored in the foreground

7.  The monasteries at Wadi Natrun, and Zafaraana.  St Catherine's Monastery in Sinai, where Moses' legends abound.  Each monastery is a reminder of a time when Egypt was profoundly Christian.  Sinai itself is forbidding and utterly fascinating and endlessly wonderful. Sadly, not such a safe place for travel any more.

St Catherine, Sinai

The bell tower inside St Catherine's Monasery

8.  When monument fatigue strikes, Pharonic, Islamic or Coptic, seek relief at Fayoum oasis for a spot of peace and culture-free quiet; or get to the Red Sea resorts.  Sharm al Sheikh is the most famous, the others are quieter.  My personal favourite is Ras Sudr.

Water wheels at Fayoum oasis

Ras Sudr at sunset

9. The Med resorts are not exactly terrible either, El Alamein has the WWII memorials, if you're into that period of history.  Or you can give those a miss and stick to the beach. Mersa Matruh is difficult to get to in terms of the driving distance, but the rewards are truly great.  Beautiful beaches and crystal waters.  

Ageeba beach Mersa Matruh

Father and children at Blue beach Mersa Matruh

10.  Can't get away from Cairo? Not even an hour's drive to Fayoum or Ain Sokhna? Never mind, get to the Azhar Park on Salah Salem Street, an oasis of greenery and peace in the heart of Cairo.  Open air performances by local artists every Friday evening.  Minaret view sunsets come for the price of the admission ticket. 

Azhar Park sunset

Those are my top ten.  What are yours?  In or out of Egypt, wherever you've travelled, and/or lived?

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Leave me out of it, Mister!

Credit Lennart Nilsson 

Lately I have come across a positive deluge of opinionated thinking on several issues related to family life.  An extrapolation of one person’s experiences, prejudices and shortcomings onto a blanket generalisation and thrown around the shoulders of the entire world.  Often this takes the guise of “golden words” or “30 things that you must do before you are 30” or some such. 

Someone writes casually that he hasn’t done this or that particular thing (for his child, for his parents, for his partner) and then goes onto an admonition – “do this now, or you’ll end up regretting it!” Another says women should delay higher education till after their childbearing is done. What? Yet another sermonises about how senior citizens should be cared for, or pontificates on how the family bed and co-sleeping has worked for their family and so should be adopted worldwide.  The carving of one person’s experience onto stone and then a moral drawn, and flogged as some sort of commandment for the world to live its life by.  It is the last bit that I have issues with.

Pick your regrets

I have lived my life as mindfully as I can under my particular circumstances, and I know what I want to do for all of my family members, thank you very much.  In fact, many of my choices have been specifically guided by “if I don’t do it this way, I’ll regret it later.”  Of course every choice comes with its set of residual regrets attached, it is just a matter of choosing which regrets I would rather, or rather not, have.  And we each choose the ones that we can live with individually. 

Ian McEwan, a writer whose books I admire, said some days ago that finding out an unborn baby’s sex is “moral kitsch” and predisposes the child to gender stereotyping, and that’s why his son and his son’s partner have chosen not to find out the sex of the baby they are expecting.  Fair enough, it’s a choice that many would-be-parents make, preferring to draw out the surprise till the last minute.  But to condemn all parents who might want to know the sex in advance seems quite simplistic and frankly, wrong.  There are issues of health and gender related diseases for one thing, and for another - if the parents are the sort of people who would gender stereotype a baby, then how will finding out the sex a few months later morph them into the opposite?

The 11th commandment

In my society, it is illegal for clinics to give out this information anyway, as we haven’t yet managed to overcome the preference for male children and the fact of female foeticide and infanticide and a host of other grave evils resulting from it.  It can be done privately and illegally of course. But for many would-be-parents who would simply like to follow the law of the land and also find out the sex of their unborn child without being into foeticide and all that, it is not an option even. 

I spent most of my pregnancies outside of India, and in the one that actually progressed as far as the 20-week scan, I answered “yes” to the doctor’s question without even having to think about it.  I found out the sex of my child, not because I wanted to gender select/stereotype, but simply because my own experiences made me unsure of how much time I had with this child, and because I wanted to be able to engage as personally, as intimately, as closely as possible with the “foetus”  for as long as possible. For all I knew, this would be the nearest I would get to motherhood, and I wanted to be completely aware who it was that I was carrying and mothering and to call them by name as soon as possible, long before I saw their face.  Or genitals.  Knowing that helped me to be mindful and grateful.  I kept my knowledge private at the time, in fact I have not spoken of it to anyone up until now, and only the father knew all along.  I cannot equate my motives with “moral kitsch” in any way. I don’t think I deserve blanket condemnation either, and neither do many others with different but equally justifiable motives.

There are many high and unrealistic expectations that society places on women, especially mothers; to add another straw to that particular camel’s back seems wholly unnecessary.  Judge not so one-dimensionally that ye be not judged the same.  If an additional commandment were really essential, if would be this, it would be this, it would be this.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014


I sing to use the waiting
my bonnet but to tie
and shut the door unto my house
no more to do have I... ~ Emily Dickinson.

That verse feels so apt today!

The thing with waiting is that - practice doesn't make perfect.  However many millions of times it is done, it is still difficult, and difficult not with the hugeness of an obstacle which at the end gives relief and a sense of achievement that one was able to surmount it; but a fuzzy irritant like a moving pebble in a shoe that one can't wiggle out without either taking the shoe off or feeling absurd about taking so much trouble over such a small thing.  It's a no-win situation like no other.

I have done a lot of waiting - I have waited for the school bell to ring; the holidays to come around; I've waited on platforms and departure lounges and transit halls for trains and planes; for exam results; for editors' answers; for doctors' and lab technicians' reports.  Right now, I am waiting for my Cairo life to end, and to know exactly when I can make a new start in a different place. The problem with that boils down to a lack of control, I can't actively hurry the process, I can't delay it, it happens outside the range of my understanding and knowledge, there is nothing I can do except, well, wait.

I haven't got discernibly better at the waiting over the years.  But what I have learnt is to manage my impatience better. The pebble must take its own time to free itself from my shoe and in the process free my foot too;  I have just learnt to keep on walking, to ignore the discomfort, to focus on a different distraction.  Some days that pebble feels as large as a boulder, some other time I can shrink it to a mere grain. Today isn't a grain day, it's a boulder day, and my feet hurt, so it's a good idea to sit down and read some Emily Dickinson.  Tomorrow I'll be up and walking again.

Monday, 5 May 2014


This week I went back to the Wikala al Ghouri to watch the Tanoura again. Somehow it has so happened that I have been going back to watch those Sufis at pretty regular intervals throughout the past six years that I have been living in Cairo.  With and without guests.  This last time, which is the last time really before I leave for good, it is a goodbye of sorts.  I am touching all the places and things that I have enjoyed about this city in a final gesture of farewell and then it's over, I detach and focus on what is to come rather than what I leave behind and how I wrench myself out, away from all the dear and familiar patterns.

The troupe were their usual mesmerising selves, the performance was crisper, amazingly lively.  Probably each member of the audience feels this - that the performers speak directly to them, yet are actually not performing at all, because this is not a dance, it is an internal spiritual quest.  That something devotional and spiritual can be so exuberant, so joyous, such an audio-visual, sensuous feast! It is almost difficult to reconcile that idea with our usual notions of austere spirituality.  It always makes me feel uncomfortably wet about the eyelashes for all my wishy-washy wavering atheism, and equally it makes me want to get up and start dancing myself.  The energies and the high are just magnificent.  Definitely I wanted to go back and watch it once before I left, and now it's done.  And a sense of huge peace in the doing.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Feelin' groovy? or perhaps not

The book I would write?  Well, it’s not a book, but half a dozen, half-written already! And no, I am not creating a nested metaphor within a metaphor in a cutesy reference to the book of my life or some such.  That’s also been half-written already, only not sure by whose hand, as I am kind of wavering and agonised agnosticklish, and I don’t want to open that whole can at all if I can help it, so forget all that.

The fringe benefits of being a trailing family member are manifold of course, but the most crucial of them is a heightened understanding of the word “random”. In the last eighteen years that I have lived in the Arab world, six of them here in Cairo, this has been brought home to me many times over. An expat is always acutely aware of the transience of relationships, even as the families come in and form friendships, they are aware of the fact that the depth and frequency of contact is directly proportional to the length of the breadwinners' posting there.  There are some friendships, both at an individual and family levels, which persist through stints in different cities all over the world, but those are exceptions rather than the rule.

I am essentially a narrator, whether in poetry or in prose, a story teller of sorts.  The longest story I have written so far, a novella, is about an Indian guy - Abeer, and his relationships, set in post revolutionary Cairo. He is a loner, an amateur artist, and a wannabe indoor gardener; his relationships, both unmarried and married, have failed.  Abeer is the typical expat, detached from the local population and their struggles; but on one of his painting forays into the countryside he comes across a young woman and is inexplicably attracted to her.  Sameer, Abeer's colleague and a family man, feels more rooted in the country as his children are being raised here.  But a crisis in the company where they both work turns everything on its head, a worker is injured accidentally and things get ugly.  Sameer finds that he is not as rooted in Egypt as he had thought after all.  Abeer, who nearly loses his life in the aftermath of the crisis, must come to terms with his own take on the situation, will he take a risk and stay? Resolve his ambivalence towards this young Egyptian woman? Or will he too cut his losses and run away? Like Sameer, like Abeer himself has done in the past.

This story began as most of my stories do - as a flash, but then it just kept getting more and more complex and lengthier, it stands at around 30,000 words now.  I wrote it in 2012, just a year after the revolution happened and almost finished it, only the denouement remains to be written. I left it for sometime to "cool", and it is my plan to go back this year and complete the ending and do the edits and tie up the loose ends.  The reason I have dilly-dallied so much on it is because I will have to rewrite the whole in the past tense.  Since it began as a flash, I started off with present tense, and then it was too much of a disruption to change tracks in the middle.  I never thought it would exceed 10-12000 words, and no problem, I'll change things around when I do the second draft, rather than start off again at the half way mark. Jo kal karein so aaj karlein, such an effective lesson this has taught me! Never procrastinate.

Over the past week, I have come to know that our stay in Egypt is over, we move out in another few weeks, max a couple of months' time. Out of Africa again.  Cairo has got under my skin like no other place, it has grown up my son and his mother in such unimaginable ways that it is mind boggling.  It is going to be a real wrench to start off again in a different place, but of course that is also an opportunity.  I am going to take the remaining time I have here, which is not much as I will be travelling in May and then again in June, but whatever is left to me here will be soundly utilised for the remaining research and revisions.  That is the book I want to write right now. I hope I will be able to finish the story I started in Cairo before I leave this magical, maddening and totally mesmerising city. Wish me luck, universe!

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

A giant leap remade into tiny

I just finished gorging on the radio drama of Chander Pahar a few days ago, a famous staple from my childhood, and my first introduction to Africa. That book is still there in my old room at my mum’s, a spontaneous gift to me from a much older cousin after he’d finished with it. My mother read it to me, chapter by chapter, through the afternoons officially meant for napping.  The only reason for that must have been her love for reading aloud to me, because by then I could read myself.  Very little napping got done, obviously.  She read it to me once, and then I read it on my own again.  I have been reading and rereading it and listening to it all through my life. It’s one of those timeless experiences that one doesn’t tire of, even after childhood is long over.  The book cover (which was designed by Satyajit Ray, no less, only he hadn't the cult status then) has come off and been sellotaped many times, the silverfish have got to it too, I saw one year on home leave, Kolkata is so hard on books.  But unlike my cousin, I have never managed to finish with it.

Right into Chander Pahar country

A year after my mum read it to me, she broke the news in her typical, gentle-lead-ups-are-only-for-sissies way that we were moving from Delhi.  Oh, really? So, we were going back to Kolkata, to my grandparent’s house?  No, to Africa! Immediately the simple but effective illustrations of the open African grasslands, peppered with the acacia and the baobab, the vastness and the majesty, flashed into my brain.  I had no problem identifying the first baobab I saw on landing in Kano. 

Unlike Shankar in Chander Pahar, my father’s job in West Africa did not require him to stay in tents rigged out in the bush, we lived in regular houses with flushing toilets and electric hobs, and I even got to go to school and all. However, the culture shock was severely truncated. Everything was new and different, but nothing was much of a jolt.  I sat in a classroom made out of tin sheets nailed to wooden stakes driven into the sandy ground.  We watched films at the officers club out in the open air, one of the officers doubled up for projector duty, sometimes the screening was interrupted by a viper slithering in between the rows of metal chairs.  I wasn’t very surprised at anything, not at all put out. Hadn’t Shankar, the protagonist of the book, faced down a black mamba, way more evil than vipers?  Hadn’t he been threatened by lions?  This was Africa! Anything was possible! A travel adventure story created by someone who had never set foot in this continent yet captured it accurately and magnificently in polished prose was my guide, buffer and comfort blanket all-in-one.

From a giant leap...

Much later into teenage I heard my mother relate an anecdote from her single days.  That someone had read her palm once at one of those light-hearted gatherings where all unmarried women of a certain age get their fortunes told; she had been given a reading that she will go into the “faraway lands of the rakshasas”, and the political incorrectness apart, had no difficulty in equating Africa with that reading and the accuracy of that long-ago prediction.

Neither of my parents come from lines of intrepid adventurers, the farthest anyone in both their families had settled was Northern India, in places like Chandigarh, Lucknow, Delhi, the really brave in Ahmedabad maybe.  For my mother, growing up and living practically all her life in Kolkata, moving to Delhi must have been daunting.  But at least she knew other family members, distant cousins, friends-of-friends there, people to help settle her in.  Delhi was the capital, it had the best infrastructure, the best prospects, so what if the language was different?  A postcard took only a couple days to reach, you could get on a train one evening and reach home 24 hours later. But Africa? No-one she knew in the whole continent, no-one except the cultural attaché in Delhi to advise her; and an old class-fellow of my father's who was working there already. Moving was a giant leap of faith. 

...to a tiny one

Almost twenty five years later, I watched a plane take off with my husband in it and understood exactly how high that leap was.  We were relocating to Bahrain, a country where we knew not one soul.  Six months earlier, I didn't know its coordinates.  I didn't sleep that night in a haze of diffuse anxiety. I have this hyper-active imagination, I dreamt up a massive range of somewhat negative what if scenarios in a short couple of hours. There was only a fixed telephone line at home, he called that almost a day later to inform about his arrival.  My mum-in-law and I sighed audibly in relief.  

Subsequently things have changed a little. We have relocated a few times since that first move.  From late nineties onwards, there's been internet at home, so that an armchair reconnaissance could be carried out as soon as postings were finalised. I have left messages in expat blogs/forums asking for help on the specifics, and got answers from perfect strangers who were kind enough to respond. Moving has lost that fear factor,  that huge, arching leap into the completely unknown.  It just retains a sense of adventure and anticipation. Expat life has its own downsides of course, but one thing it doesn't do well is boredom.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Does action speak at all?

This morning I got the news of the sudden passing of an old (but young) friend's father.  She and I were together in Bahrain for several years, before we moved away - I to UAE and then to Egypt, and she first to Saudi and then to Canada, the typical trajectories of trailing spouses.  But we all kept in touch albeit intermittently, she and I share the baggage and the privilege if any, of being the only child of our respective parents, and therefore our connect overrides the age difference which is substantial.  

I saw the message from her husband, and I rang her and we spoke for over half an hour, and at the end of the call, I realised I had said nothing of any "comfort value".  I don't have words for these situations, I have never been good with the spoken word, the right ones don't come for me when I need them the most.  What are the right words, even?  I have no idea if the call was of any use to her at all, just that I had an immediate need to make it, I didn't think what I was doing, I rang the number blindly as soon as I finished reading the message, without checking for the time difference or things that I normally would do before making a cross border call, almost like a reflex. 

Was it a self indulgence, then?  Can anybody except the close family and/or people physically close provide comfort at a time like this?  I don't know. I felt better for having spoken to her, whether she felt the same I will never know, but I suspect not. No matter what comfort anyone offers, grief too is something we ultimately must tackle and come to terms with alone, completely unaided. All the hype about being there for each other etc works till the halfway turnstile and stops, the rest is a trip no-one can undertake by proxy.  

Never forgets her first

There is a proverb somewhere in the Mediterranean, Italy? Spain? one of those places with those TDH romantic types, which in sum means that a woman doesn't forget her first love. Maybe.  But I know for certain that she doesn't forget her first brush with sudden death.  I wasn't a woman, I was a girl of 6-7 years, those days we used to live in New Delhi. My father, along with two other friends, was in the process of establishing an architects' firm. We lived on the first floor of a rented house, the front three rooms were the office, the back rooms were home.  The two were connected through a balcony. I sometimes disobeyed strict orders to keep away, and walked across that balcony after school into the office.  The staff there indulged me with gifts of pencils, and showed me those meticulously detailed architect's models with their greensponge trees and little people with briefcases and fascinating bluerippled pools of water in teeny-tiny swimming pools. 

Across the road from us was a three storied house, a large Punjabi family lived there, they had a teenage son, he vroomed in and out of the street on a motorbike. No young children, otherwise I would have remembered going there, and I never stepped into that house. My parents might have known them to say hello on the streets, but nothing more.  The social barriers were more strictly observed then, my parents as young middle class people, still struggling to make ends meet, were unlikely to be on intimate terms with a rich business family which could afford motorcycles for its youngest member.

One evening there was a commotion in that house, a lot of people gathered, a whole line of cars came to be parked there. I saw men with the gravest faces, and saw - for the first time in life - grown women crying with the corners of their pallus pressed over their faces. My father stood by with an equally shocked face on our front patio. I will remember those expressions if I live to be a hundred.

I learnt that young man had died in a road accident, hit by a lorry at the AIIMS junction, no signal there then, just a roundabout.  He was thrown from his bike, and he wasn't wearing a helmet, safety wasn't paramount in those days either, no fines for not wearing one, he took a direct hit on his head and died on the spot.  At that time he seemed grown up to me, but he must have been what? all of 17-18 years, must have just got his licence or maybe he was riding alone on a learners' in a sudden fit of daring, breaking rules has an irresistible attraction at that age. 

I saw his body being brought home late in the dark, and my father remained out on the patio with the lights off most of that night, keeping some sort of vigil with his mourning neighbours' for a young life lost so needlessly, so heart wrenchingly.  He said he was unable to sleep when I asked him why he wasn't going to bed, I remember his cigarette glowing in the dark as he paced. Maybe my mother joined him after I fell asleep, perhaps she went to condole with the women after the cremation was over. Most likely she did, with the appropriate words and a mandatory basket of fruit.

"You hear of somebody in trouble, you go to them and make yourself useful," she said to me once, when I was much older but equally as unwise as I had been at 7.  

"How do you know it's not an intrusion?" I had asked her sassily.

"It's what you make of it," she had replied,"If they feel like talking, you offer your attention, if they feel like tea, you make them some. You help any way you can and then come away and let them get on with it. As simple as that. I can assure you, they won't be thinking of who's gawking and who's come to help.  It's not about the visitors at all, it's not about you."

My mum, unlike me, has always been good with the spoken word.  Apart from being less uncertain, less diffident about things, less self-absorbed with the nitty gritties of her own perspectives. Their entire generation, it seems to me. They know when to observe those barriers, and when to topple them and reach out.   They don't obsess about their degree of usefulness, they know their roles and they play them without wondering if the playwright has got it right and if the script can improved.  Maybe it's their faith, in god, in an afterlife, in following scripts.

Going to the turnstile

Before my friends came to Bahrain, in August 2000 there was a ghastly air accident just off the island of Muharraq. A few hundred feet from the runway, flight GF 072 crashed into the sea.  No-one survived.  The passengers were a medley of nationalities, but most were Bahrainis and Egyptians.  Many were children, returning to school after the summer break. 

Bahrain is a tiny place, everyone knew someone on board that flight.  I checked the passenger list the next day but didn't find any familiar names, big sigh of relief.  But later a friend rang in tears, her nephews were on the flight, returning alone from Cairo after spending their summer holidays with friends. The mother was a wreck, the father had gone that morning to bring back the bodies. My first reaction was a shocked silence, and the second one was just the same, I wanted to drop everything and rush to her house that very minute. 

Better sense prevailed and I went later in the afternoon, when the family were formally receiving condolences, and I had no need for any words, because I didn't know any language that my friend's mother, the bereaved grandmother of those two boys, spoke.  I sat on the floor amongst the women, someone made tea and poured me some in the clear beakers that Arabs serve it in, and the lady sat with the weight of her grief and a dry-eyed dignity that was more heart breaking than free-flowing tears. It turned my brain inside out, the rawness of that mourning and pain in that quiet women's majlis.  From there too, I had come away without knowing if my mostly-unexpressed sympathy, served any purpose. Did it matter who came to share in the mourning? Does it count who comes with you to that halfway turnstile? Do actions speak at all? Forget louder or softer than words.