Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Close Encounter of the Third Kind

I just wanted to sell my TV and get on with my life.

A large-boned super-dark South Indian man in his late 30s came over to my apartment to check the TV out. The first time we talked over the phone, he didn't realise I was Indian until I told him so. When he came over, it's like his eyes popped out as he scanned me from the top of my head to the tips of my toes, ever so often pausing in the vicinty of my chest. Then he developed verbal diarrhea for the next hour which I quietly entertained with my arms crossed over my chest because I really wanted my TV gone. I present to you an itemised list of the highlights of that conversation, quoted in his own words:

1. He had recently moved to the US with his wife and children after having lived in places like Dubai and the Far East.
2. If he had met me before he met his wife, he would have married me.
3. Sex is very important and all problems in life arise from 'the bed'.
4. Women must tell their husbands what they want in bed.
5. Everybody needs sex.
6. The first thing people see in each other when they meet is sexual attraction. He tried to explain this point to me by saying that 'for example, if I meet you, something about you' - at which point his hands were outstretched in the general direction of my chest and so were his eyes as he babbled along as if he had just seen a porn magazine for the first time - 'will have some attraction for me'. Of course he knew all about these things because he had a PhD in Human Studies or something from Malaysia where he studied the basic needs of human beings down to the cellular level.
7. Women must get married early because everybody has needs. Time is running out for me because he thought I was 32. When I corrected him saying that I was 27, he said, that's right, you're almost 30.
8. He said I won't have too much of a problem getting married because my 'skin colour was good'. Somewhere around this point I felt like a prize dog being felt-up at a dog show.
10. After firmly disagreeing with his ignorant views on certain topics, such as how I shouldn't think about taking care of my parents because one day they will die and I will be left alone, he tells me that I need to sound less intelligent otherwise no one will want to marry me.

I was glad when my friend Keyomi came over in the middle of all this. It broke the guy's hour-long rant and relieved me off the tractor beam his attention had firmly placed on me. Keyomi is Black, and in her presence, he suddenly felt comfortable talking about how strange he felt that people in Tulsa thought he was Black too because his skin was so dark. This is a few days after Obama's election to office. While trying to sound hilarious about the dirty looks random people would give him because they thought he was Black too, he let loose the f-word while almost being funny but squarely hitting the awkward and inappropriate mark. I cringed watching Keyomi politely smile through a human personification of a train wreck going at light speed, but was thankful for her distracting him long enough for me to wiggle into a huge sweatshirt that would hide my womanly assets from the strongest of Kryptonian X-ray visions for all time.

But all's well that ends well. I sold my TV, and as a bonus, you now have insight into an encounter that I can only describe as infuriating, unpleasant, and outrageous. And a great dinner table story.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


My dadi's name was Razia Begum, and we didn't know too much about her. There were many myths about her that nobody was really sure of. Some said she was a Pashtun Pathan but we weren't sure how she ended up in Meerut and married my dada. To our knowledge, she never had any family in India, so to most of us, her life before she got married to my dada seemed like a blank piece of paper.

Apparently most of her extended family and their extended families and so on are Pakistani but now mostly live in Toronto. I left the US permanently a month ago and was literally chilling in T-Town until a couple of days ago when I got the chance to do a bit of chilling at the house of a relative of my dadi's. The only relatives of my dadi's that I've ever met were in Lahore 20 years ago at an aunt's wedding, but I was about 7 years old and remember more about the games I played with my cousins than the various adults I was introduced to.

The uncle I visited happened to be my father's first cousin, the son of my dadi's eldest brother. This cousin had never even seen a picture of my father but had heard of him. I got the chance to ask him a lot of questions about my dadi's family. Finally my dadi had a history. She was from Meerut and used to live there with her entire family until the Partition of 1947 when Pakistan was born in the east and west limbs of India. She was a very social child and they used to call her Chhanno. She had so many brothers and sisters, and she mostly spent her days drowning in laughter while playing with her cousins who were all the friends she ever needed. She got married to my dada who was also from Meerut and had a family of her own.

After the creation of Pakistan, however, her entire clan upped and moved to the new country. Her husband decided to stay in India. In the bloody partition aftermath and wars that followed for many years, she got completely cut off from her family. These were the days without phones and obviously email. The borders were sealed off during wartime. She visited a few times but travel was difficult. Mail wasn't allowed to cross the border even, and news from the other side was hard to come by. My dada moved from city to city until they finally moved to Lucknow, but my dadi had been uprooted the day her last relative had left Meerut. She had become lonely, quiet, and none of her children knew her side of the family very much. In Pakistan, her family was vibrant, and it was like life had been in Meerut except they had left behind one of their women. No one of hers was in India anymore. Even her mother, and all her siblings and their families had left. My Pakistani relative told me that growing up they had all heard of an aunt and her children that had stayed behind in India, but they were mostly names without faces. After 1947, Chhanno had ceased to exist.

I felt very unhappy for this quiet grandmother of mine who died in 1992. She used to play with me and buy me roasted peanuts and Dussehri mangoes. Suddenly hearing the human story of the old woman with hair as white as snow made her so relatable to me, I could hardly bear the emotions that came flooding at me after the dam of her anonymity suddenly flew open. I understand what being cutoff and lonely feels like, and how horrible it feels to know that while you're stuck in the middle of nowhere that the rest of your family and friends move on without you. My dadi gave birth to 10 children which probably means 20 constant years of being pregnant and going through those hormonal motions somewhere in India all by herself as she moved from place to place, unable to share her joys and sorrows with her mother, sister, brothers, nieces and nephews. The men hardly involved themselves in such family matters in those days, and I know my grandfather was a man of his times. My dadi had to rely on the women in whatever neighbourhood she lived in at the time because she had no women friends to share her small victories and worries with. I've heard that she was very attached to my father who was her firstborn and relied on him for emotional support, but that she barely had it in her to invest her emotions into the rest of her children. Sometime during middle age she had developed mood swings and would often get overwhelmed. At times like these, she would become extremely cranky and go to a lady friend's across the street for several hours if not for a few days to cool-off. After a certain age, she began to talk less but began to quietly smile more from where she usually sat on her bed. Maybe she'd made peace with her sorrows?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Climbing every mountain

Dear Diary,

I watched Duran Duran live in concert at the Air Canada Center Tuesday this past week, almost a year to the date of when I'd watched the Spice Girls on their reunion tour at the MGM Arena in Las Vegas. Both events were remarkably surreal.

I have dusty memories of watching Duran Duran with my two much older brothers on our squeaky Beltek TV in Lucknow, India. My world was different in those days. I was five years old, had pigtails and knobbly knees. I used to wear frocks then. I didn't know a lot of difficult words in either Urdu or English then, so I'd asked my brother what 'reflex' meant. I also learned other cool words from Duran Duran like 'clover' and 'Rio'. That made me feel quite smart compared to the other five-year-olds. My grandmother didn't know English but seemed to enjoy my song and dance renditions of the Duran Duran videos I'd gobbled up. She thought I was a riot and a complete genius. I also took it upon myself to expose the poor village girls who used to work in our house in India to Duran Duran's music. My three-feet-tall world was our gali in Lucknow and my parent's house in Muscat, Oman. Watching Simon Le Bon sing his heart out while straddling a yacht, bravely sailing against the wind, his hair ruffled, his white suit flapping about, seemed about as real and reachable as My Little Pony - the most incredible thing I'd ever seen. But like the cartoon, Duran Duran felt like they existed far away somewhere, like some kind of fantasy, like a vague promise of paradise. Fantastic but unreal. Nobody rides yachts like that.

Seeing Simon Le Bon singing in front of my eyes over 20 years later made me feel all sorts of introspective. A lot of thoughts were swirling about my mind, dear Diary. These kind of before-after situations always have that effect on me. Life has hardly been like it was in those innocent Indian summers. My grandmother hasn't been around in over a decade to banish my self-doubt away. The village girls who used to believe everything I said as if I were a miniature empress had long gone, some married, some tired, all older. After climbing the craggy mountain of my life so far, I took a break to look around and see how far I'd come, with all my energy gone. So, dear Diary, in the same way that mountaineers feel renewed by the sight they see once they conquer their peak, I felt renewed seeing Duran Duran live. After reaching the top of my mountain and seeing the dreamy figments of a past life suddenly alive before my very eyes, I realised that nothing is unattainable, that everything can become real. I inhaled sharply, amazed at how far I'd come from the tiny skippy child with impossible sources of inspiration. Then I turned to look ahead. What had felt unreal and unattainable before had become real today. So what about anything that I find unrealistic to achieve today? I am not willing to wait another 20 years to find out I was wrong about that as well.

Poked and podded

I am pretty much used to the amped-up safety measures that US airports have been taking since 9/11, but this time on my way permanently out of the US to Canada, Tulsa really outdid itself. I was asked to step into this giant white pod where a green and a yellow vertical scanner whooshed around me. I think they exposed me to Gamma rays so it's probably a good thing I didn't lose my temper or I would've ripped my favourite jeans. It's such a pain finding the perfect pair of pants.

After that, my handbags were swabbed for explosives, toxic chemicals, and other unpleasant inconveniences. I had an English and also the original Arabic copy of the Quran stashed in one of those bags, and as the security officer proceeded to empty out the contents of it, I began to think that maybe carrying not one but two copies of the Quran was not such a great idea. The Arabic copy was wrapped in pretty cloth and the security officer somewhat innocently asked me before unwrapping it if it was a portable DVD player. I said no, that it was a book. Seeing him pause, I added, "a holy book". I felt nervous. The officer unwrapped the Quran and swabbed it also.

Seeing my childhood copy of the Quran get swabbed for...anything really, was kind of surreal. Right next to my getting scanned in a pod. Beam me outta here, Scotty.