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.
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.
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.