Monday, August 13, 2018

Nuzhat and Khattu See The World

We were on our way to the airport for that flight back to Muscat. I was in my 20s, a young woman who had been numb for a few years, weakened from the onslaught of womanhood, a shadow of the unrestrained child I used to be, somehow always in a haze, always elegant and struggling to conceal the rest.

The clunky taxi, smelling like petrol and grease like everything else in industrial Lucknow, made a chaotic stop by a dusty gali. My brother, mother and I got out and met a gaunt dusty man at the entrance. Pigs, an unusual sight in the part of Lucknow I knew, snorted and squealed at what I learned was the entrance of the Muslim cemetery. My heart contracted with the indignity – didn’t this bother anyone else? Maybe the world was too tired by now. I didn’t let anyone know. No one would want to hear me.

The caretaker led us through what looked like a large field, dusty and barren with pebbles and stones scattered throughout. Suddenly we stopped, and someone pointed to the ground in front of me. Nuzhat Bua. She lay buried under where I stood. I wouldn’t even have known if the caretaker hadn’t told me. There was some sort of makeshift marker, a piece of wood or stone half sunk in the grass as if left by an ancient child on the grave of a beloved pet long forgotten. My feet tingled, my heart contracted – shouldn’t I not be standing on top of her? I didn’t want to hurt her, even though I knew I couldn’t.

I said nothing. We said a quick prayer. The caretaker hurriedly pointed to a similar spot on the ground where my grandmother, who had died many years earlier, was buried.

We were soon back in the taxi, and my story continued while Nuzhat Bua’s and her mother’s lay at the bottom of the pig-ridden cemetery in some odd corner of Lucknow that I have never visited since and wouldn’t know how to find again.

Many years later, when I had wrestled with womanhood and flung it to the ground, I would think of Nuzhat Bua again and again. She supposedly wasn’t very well-liked. Some people credited her sharp tongue with her never being married. I was too young to understand, but she was the only adult who ever made sense to me. I’ve heard the same things about me too as an adult, although the times are changing and such women are praised.

The last time I saw her, she was championing my journey to America. I don’t remember our last words, but I hadn’t thought that they would be our last. She hadn’t either. She had recently started travelling for leisure – Muscat, Jaipur, and Hong Kong – and was beginning to discover a friend and accomplice in me, a teenager perched on the precipice of childhood, the country of adults and the rest of my life within sight. We had plans to travel together, my functioning as her English-speaking companion as she took me around the world. I couldn't wait. Neither could she. It was so exciting.

Nuzhat Bua would die in six months, and I never saw her again except very suddenly years later at that cemetery where she still lies, possibly some of her genes part of my body as I move forward in life and see the world we were supposed to discover together. Since then I have seen many things. The Grand Canyon, Hollywood, the White House, Native American reservations, and the Ku Klux Klan. I have even been to Jaipur, straining my eyes to catch Nuzhat Bua still amongst the mass of humanity that is Anywhere, India. But I only see her in dreams, always telling her, “you shouldn’t be here, you are supposed to be dead.” I wonder when those dreams will stop and what it all means.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Auto Beauty

a squishy white college student
sat in her car
parked by the curb
outside the school of music
her windows were up
the music was on
it could have been techno or could have been hip-hop
her clothes were stretched against her lumpy body
folding on itself in layers of fat
she was squishy looking
that co-ed
she didn't notice me
she was looking at herself in the mirror
applying mascara

Friday, December 13, 2013

Reverse Culture Shock in Reverse

One year of hard living in Delhi wiped out ten years' worth of social integration in America for me. I was quite Americanised when I used to live here before, but now I feel like I'm in a foreign country. I speak so much Hindustani at home these days that talking to an American in English an effort. I sometimes mistakenly even use a Hindustani word or two in my English! I have been back in the US for more than a year, and I still freeze when people whom I don't know try to make friendly conversation with me. Today it was the bank teller, who startled me when she casually asked me what my plans were for the evening. I froze, then panicked, and then delivered an awkward "...nothing?" Her interacting with me beyond our banking transaction made me feel uneasy. I guess I have become more reserved since Delhi. People don't look each other in the eye in Delhi, and they are deeply suspicious of friendly strangers. India seems to have affected me deep in my subconscious in extreme ways. It makes me feel like Jason Bourne because now I sometimes have strong, instinctive reactions that I can't explain. The face in the mirror is familiar but the personality is someone else's. I'm a slow motion ungreza.

Two Indians Walked Into a Grocery Store

The middle-aged, obese, white man on the mobility scooter had started talking to us in the grocery store after asking my husband for help with a container of milk that had been out of his reach.

"You guys have been married for less than three years," he had announced suddenly. "Be nice to each other, okay? Don't divorce, just don't do it." He looked at us more closely.

"Where are you guys from?" He didn't believe us when we told him we were from India. He got confused and struggled to speak for a second.

"Nooo," he said in slow disbelief. He looked at my husband. "Are you not Jewish?" He looked at me. "You look a little..." he didn't say what, but he turned back to my husband and said, "...but you must be Jewish!" My husband later thought that he almost looked disappointed. The man continued to speak.

"But you must be very Americanised by now? I mean, you must mostly be eating American food now, right?"

I shook my head. "No, we mostly eat Indian food."

"Well, okay, then," he said. "Just don't divorce. It makes a mess of things."

Thursday, June 20, 2013

How To Bloom

My dear potted plant,

I love you. I bought you for cheap at WalMart a few weeks ago, but I loved you before then. I loved you when I was transplanting you into your new pot and packing fresh new soil around your naked roots in your new home, the patio of my apartment. I didn't hurt you when I did that, did I? When I had yanked you by your stems out of the broken little plastic cup you had come in, your roots looked so frightened, like a shivering little kitten that had got wet in the rain. You had looked so settled in the cup you had come in, decrepit as it was, but I knew you needed more space to grow. It must've startled you, having no soil to hold on to for a while. It must've taken your roots time to grasp your new soil and get used to the new watering schedule. Could you feel my love when I patted you down with rich, new soil in your new pot? I love you. All I want is for you to grow, for you to be happy. What else is there?

I know what it feels like to be uprooted. I know what it's like to have to transplant yourself time and time again. Maybe you were like me, a young sapling that had never known the soil its parent tree had come from. Maybe you were always the exotic plant whose foreign name no one could pronounce, the plant that no one knew what to do with. Maybe you won't take to your native soil again the way those who were never uprooted do. But that's okay. One can only be where one is, one place at a time. The best you can really do is give yourself some time to get used to your new home. I can promise you that one day your roots will grip your new soil and that your stems will rise crisp and fresh again. There is no shame in adapting to your new environment, and you will flourish if you let yourself just be where you are. It doesn't matter if people can't pronounce your name - they will come to you themselves when they see how comfortable you are in your own pot.

Your mother in all seasons.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

My Husband and My Son

Sonal and I were walking arm-in-arm outside his parents' home in Delhi. We were still boyfriend and girlfriend in those days. It had been a difficult relationship - he was training to be a neurologist in America, and I had just finished my year-long internship with New Delhi Television. We talked everyday over the phone, but sometimes that wasn't enough. I was so happy that he was visiting Delhi. At the time, he was the only happy thing in my life. I had started noticing then what I know now, that in his presence my mind would quieten and I wouldn't feel anxious anymore. I wouldn't feel like running, running the way I had felt my whole adult life. By then we'd only spent a few weeks in each other's presence. Our long-distance relationship would last for two years.

The sun was setting, it was getting cold. Diwali was only a few days away. Sonal and I were walking around his colony. He was telling me stories about his friends from school, from med school, about his favourite movies, his all-time best jokes. He was making me laugh. I had my arm around his and was smiling at him as he laughed at old memories that he wanted to give to me. I felt so pretty and delicate.

I suddenly felt like time had sped forward. I was still here, a happy bent old woman with white hair and an impish twinkle in her eye. This handsome young man full of promise and potential and goodness and kindness looked a lot like Sonal but was my son. I felt so proud of him. He looked exactly like his father had when we had walked arm-in-arm outside his parents' house in Delhi. We had been young then, the way my lovely son was now.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Blog Test

Last year, I was offered the position of Online Content Editor at a leading daily newspaper in Muscat, Oman. As part of the interview, I had to write (amongst other things) two blogposts each for four articles that had been picked for me from the newspaper. The articles were about the high rate of accidents caused by local cab drivers, an all-female Omani sailing team, the Indian economy, and the disappearing coppersmiths of Pakistan.

Horror Stories from the Middle East
Growing up in Oman meant that stories of ghastly car accidents and the people who died in them were as part of your growing up experience as first lipsticks and first shaves. Maybe you remember them too. I once heard about young international school students – recently graduated seniors – who were drag-racing a few hours before their graduation ceremony. They died. Maybe you also remember the young Indian School Muscat boys who died somewhere along the Qurum highway when their car spun out of control and crashed into a pole? Their car caught on fire, and they weren’t able to get out because their legs were trapped under their collapsed dashboard. All the big papers in Oman carried pictures of their charred bodies still strapped to their seats on their front pages, and they quickly had to apologise for them in the public backlash that followed. I remember I saw that picture in the newspaper an hour before I took my first driving lesson. It had frightened me. My own brother was left paralysed from the chest down after his car fell down a hill on the way to Nizwa. What a way to grow up, hunh?

The Misunderstood Tarmac Monsters of Oman

Orange-and-white honestly scares most regular drivers in Oman even more than the dark-red-and-white of the nervous beginning drivers. Orange and white are the colours of the taxis here. I have been driving in Oman for almost 10 years, and I’ve driven extensively in America and Canada even, but I have noticed how I always seem to keep my car a little bit of a distance away if I can spy an Omani taxi with my own eyes or in any of the mirrors in my car. It’s become a subconscious thing even, like how the puny kid in school learns to make way for the school bully. Turns out though that bullies are often misunderstood and only need to be tackled head-on. Not a recommendation for the road though, but maybe these taxi drivers are not to be feared after all. Maybe they just need to be heard. Maybe they drive too much, maybe they don’t earn enough which is why they have to drive so much. Over 60% of the traffic offences in Oman are caused by taxi drivers. Why? Maybe it is time to really look into the lives of these people and see what is going wrong.

Trailblazers This Side of Arabia

What my family remembers from when they first moved to Oman in the late 70s is wide expanses of dust. A few buildings here and there but really just dust. I grew up not really interacting with any Omanis personally. I had an Omani family as a neighbor for a few years, but I could never really play with their kids beyond head shakes and crude kiddie sign language. It’s just how things were. The only other Omanis most expats ever really interacted with were the men minding the stores and the officers at the airports. People like that. Which is why I feel a funny sense of pride every time I now run into young Omani women working the hypermarket counters, and we can smile and even joke in our own English/Hindi/Arabic mix. My father never fails to remark at how proud he feels whenever he sees young Omani girls so confidently working everywhere he goes. At the shops in the malls, at government offices, even in his own office. The women of Oman are becoming global citizens. They take pride in their personal and professional lives. They have started steering their own ships. They can even sail now.

Stereotype Busters

I spent 10 years in North America. Most of those years came right after 9/11. I was a young Muslim kid then, and the anti-Islam onslaught that often used to dip in and out of anti-Arab and anti-Middle Eastern and often times outright racist sentiments confused me. It still does. Particularly how people used to say that Islam oppresses women. And to be honest, every time I had the opportunity to say something in return, I would bring up Oman. I grew up here and would use its example. I would say, but Oman is an Islamic country. Its ruler has even said that a country that ignores half of its population wastes 50% of its potential. When HM Sultan Qaboos first came to the throne, he established a school for girls where there had been none before. The women of Oman have inheritance rights, and they also get a dowry from their husbands. That is according to Islamic law. Omani women have climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, flown aeroplanes, and raced horses in the desert alongside male competitors. Oman now has its first female sailing instructors. Omani women are everywhere – in the air, in the desert, on the seas. Take that, stereotype!

Fashionable Money

I have an Indian friend. She grew up with me in Muscat and has been living in America for over 10 years now. A couple of years ago she posted something close to this as her Facebook status: “…wants to go for vacation to a place where the dollar is strong and the accents are exotic!” My response was, “Kerala?” My friend had laughed (virtually). She’s part South Indian.

These have been some of the benefits of growing up Indian overseas. We’d earn in stronger foreign currencies and then be able to purchase more in India. What a system, it made us rich(er)!

But maybe this is just how people who are from countries where their currency is weak deal with things. They leave their countries to earn in better values. In dollars, pounds, euros. It’s become a tragic status symbol now to say ‘dollar’ with a pseudo-American accent that one is never able to perfect. It’s even been a stereotype in India for many years now – the arrogant but silly non-resident Indian who looks down upon the Indian rupee. Have I ever been grateful while in India for my family’s foreign currency savings? Yes. I plead guilty.

Creative Accounting

I do not have a background in finance. Sure, I took some accounting and finance courses at university in the United States, but I don’t really have much of an understanding of how these things work in the long run. I taught myself the basics of personal finance from a book when I got my first full-time job in America. I remember how learning to manage my own money had felt – exciting! I also felt appalled at how simple it was to save money and how being smart with finance was more about making changes in one’s lifestyle.

Does that apply to countries? I won’t pretend to understand national level economics, but I do remember how the financial crisis of the United States forced the government and the people to face that maybe they spent too much and saved too little. In the run-up to the 2008 presidential elections, I remember Barack Obama always saying that America’s financial problems could not be cured overnight because they had developed over a period of time. Maybe India needs to follow that approach with the rupee too. But I wouldn’t know really, I am not an expert in these things.

Exploitation Along the Food Chain

Every time I have come across fun items overseas that looked suspiciously Indian, I would locate their tag to confirm where they had been made. If their tag ever said ‘Made in India’ or even ‘Made in Pakistan’, I would drop any ideas of buying that item. Everybody knew that these items from my homeland and related countries were marked up ridiculously high in foreign countries. I can get this 20 dollar piece for like 200 rupees in India, I would tell myself. That’s like 4 dollars. And it’s true. It’s depressing if you think about how that happens. I don’t know if there aren’t any laws in the countries were these artisans live or if existing laws are just not implemented, but these highly skilled workers who work in cottage industries and pass their trade down generations get exploited by everybody. They do all the work by hand and earn almost nothing for the effort that goes into it. Most live hand to mouth and probably don’t even realize how much money middlemen and suppliers and folks along the food chain make at their expense. It’s frightening. Almost makes me want to buy from them directly.

Rage Against the Machine

I often wonder about people who produce art in any form – paintings, drawings, songs, movies, handicrafts, ideas even – and why they are exploited. I don’t know if this is a curse of the Industrial Revolution which changed the way we assess and value the skills of an individual. The Industrial Revolution changed the way industries functioned. Skills that could be measured by numbers and produced instant tangible results were given the most importance. That is why math and science suddenly shot up in importance, and the arts started being looked down upon. One had value if one could fit in somewhere along the production line, if one could take orders and produce products over and over without fail and without question. That brought down the artist who had been valued in the age before the Industrial Revolution whose job it was to ask questions and provide meaning to this rat race that our world has become. You can find these artists in places like Peetal Gali in Karachi whose art is slowly dying because the government doesn’t consider their contribution to society important anymore. It might look like a case of laissez-faire at first, but maybe it’s a symptom of something much worse.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Stepping Out of Old Shadows

Last night I dreamt that I had gone back to school to join my old classmates, except that I was 31 and the rest of them were still teenagers. These dreams usually are panic-ridden for me because I feel like I have missed a lot of classes because I was out living my real life for over 10 years and will now fail my school exams.
It was different this time. I felt very confident and sure of myself. I knew that I could make up the missed lessons by myself. I knew that I did not have a year's worth of notes and that I would have to borrow someone else's and plough through them for my exams. I remember looking at other people's notebooks and wondering how much it would cost to photocopy all of it. Making up in a short period of time would be very difficult, but for the first time I knew that I could do it. No question about it.
I remember a slick young History teacher talking about Italy and showing off to my young and inexperienced classmates, and I wanted to tell him that I had written history books. He did not impress me.
A guy in my class tried to hit on me in a disrespectful way, and I turned back and put him in his place. I would've never known how to do that before.
I remember some parasitic female friends from back then, they were trying to put me down again in my dream, but I didn't feel like I needed them this time. I ignored them. They were children to me and not important at all.
In my dream I had just come from living in Delhi, working with NDTV, and visiting Bombay, and I felt so wise and confident. I had already lived in America and Canada. I had dealt with very difficult situations and had spent most of my 20s alone and in foreign countries.
I decided to leave the classroom early. I carried a huge camper's bag on my back, but it did not feel heavy at all. I was able to carry it very easily, which surprised me because I am quite short. My old parasitic friends tried to follow me but they couldn't. They were even treating me nicely because they realised that I had changed.
But I didn't need them anymore. I was not the same. I would never need to return to this classroom again.
I was smiling because I was free.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Hated One

On October 30, 2011, some young people I had met at the NDTV media institute became one:

""One year," the old man almost growled as he wagged a gnarly finger at his daughter. His son, his younger more menacing version, darkly looked on. "One year, and then you are back."

The young woman stood looking down at the ground with her arms crossed over her chest. She had been leaning against the wall, and if she had had eyes at the back of her head, she would have noticed the chalky whitewash stains that now ran down her back. Her armpits burned, her forehead had been knotted for a few days.

The old man put his finger away and eyed the Sphinx before him. He didn't trust women, particularly silent ones, even if it were his daughter, especially if it were his daughter. She never listened. Well, she'd hear what he'd tell her, she had no choice, but she never listened. She never confided. She always held back. He could tell. It's when those knots would appear above her black eyes, and when a shadow would pass over those eyes, like as if a dark curtain had been drawn between him and her mind. He knew this about his firstborn. He could never break in. She wouldn't let him. She wouldn't let him reach in and touch her thoughts, guide her thoughts. How he hated the woman she was growing up to be, it disgusted him. He didn't like those kind of women. They were ungodly, sickening. They had too much will, they could never be possessed because they'd just lock you out. It didn't matter if you pushed or bought them things. It was like forcing someone to acknowledge that you existed. It was more like pleading. Pleading with someone who was supposed to be obeying you instead. It was insulting. Humiliating. It made him feel like the tempestuous child, it made her the one with the power. She would have the power to deny him an audience. Him. The father. Repeated humiliations from this child since the day she had been born. Her mother, Allah bless her departed spirit, had not been like this. She would listen to him. She would protest but at the end of the day he was the head of the family, and she knew her place. She never questioned his judgment. She did what he told her, what he knew was good for her. She was a good woman. But this daughter of his, how he hated her. If only she would just listen before she ruined herself, ruined herself, and shamed them all. It was only a matter of time before she did, whether she knew it or not.

"If Zafar knew better, he would not permit this. You must keep your honour, or what shame, what shame you shall bring upon yourself."

Shame. Zafar. The things that had been planned for her. The things she wanted to do. All the things she wanted to do, all the thoughts, all the possibilities that were always in her mind. She could never share them, there was no one here to receive them. No one listened to her. No one had ever listened to her. Zafar?  Would he listen to her, would he see her? She remembered the first time she had stopped herself from telling her father the things that had been on her mind. She felt the same about Zafar. And her brother? They were all the same. There was no one here. No, she would have to do this. She would have to step out and see if there were others like her out there."

Dream Tenant

On October 3, 2011, I fictionalised myself because I thought it would help me make sense:

"The short, fat, smelly landlady had never had a stranger tenant. The girl went to work and came back, she paid her rent on time, she was always polite and spoke in an old accent the landlady had only heard in her childhood. Lately the girl had stopped going out. She still paid her rent on time, but sometimes the landlady could hear her crying in her room. In the middle of the day when all the other girls were out at work or at school. The landlady didn't know but the girl would cry at night too, but on the terrace where she wouldn't disturb her roommate. That strange foreign tenant in that room. Not really foreign, the girl was Indian but had never lived in India. Until now. Now she cried, she howled locked up in that room. She talked to herself sometimes. The landlady once thought she heard the girl say, "what is real?" between sobs, but she couldn't be sure. What kind of a person talks like that anyway, it made no sense.

The girl had first started asking that question 5 years ago. "What is real?" she had asked her mother, but her mother had not understood the question. "Amma, tell me what is real?" They were in America then, the girl had been a success - American degrees, an American job, a green card on the way. An American accent, an American attitude, American dollars in the American bank. But lately, it had all started seeming unreal. The popcorn at the theater had started tasting chalky, her mascara had stopped helping her once sparkly eyes pop. She'd started realising that every hot, young, new Hollywood starlet had fake lips and fake breasts. She'd tried so many things, but before long they'd run out. They weren't real. The female role models on TV weren't real, all the makeup she had bought wasn't real, her beautiful apartment that no one visited wasn't real. One day she realised that soon she was going to stop being real too.

What is real, what is real."