Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Goodbye Present

"The Queen [Elizabeth II] insisted on this protocol to recognise the work of the staff who made her life run smoothly. Once, when she was asked how many servants she had, she replied: "Acually, I have none. I have many members of staff, but no servants.""

- excerpt from 'A Royal Duty' by Paul Burrell, butler to the late Lady Diana, Princess of Wales

The moving men were making me nervous. I'd never had to rely on movers before, and I had no idea if I was forgetting any crucial steps in this new process. What made things worse is that I was shipping my belongings not just around the block or even to another state - this was an international move that made things way complicated. I tried to contain my anxious paranoia in front of the two moving men. I was on my own, hundreds of miles away from any family or friends who could've helped me or in the least given me an outlet for the stress I'd had no choice but to bottle up inside my weary body for the past few months. I badly needed the moral support, another set of wise eyes to tell me that I was doing alright.

As the two sweaty men lumbered in and out of my apartment that unusually warm November afternoon in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I strained to maintain an appearance of being perfectly in control. It wouldn't do to appear like an underconfident tearful silly in front of these intimidating strangers. They scared me with their rough edges and wife-beaters. Their ruddy complexion and unkempt appearance told tales of living on the wrong side of life. Both looked to be in their late twenties. The shorter one with dark brown hair spoke better English than his mostly silent taller companion whose stringy dirty blonde hair fell lifelessly into his expressionless eyes and past his shoulders. They were from the Caucasus, but by their thick accents I would've guessed they were Russian. No, I wouldn't show these men how vulnerable I was. They wouldn't think twice before taking advantage of my being alone and quite helpless at the first sign of a kink in my armour. Especially the silent one. I watched them from the corner of my eye as I pretended to survey my fast-emptying apartment. The ease with which they lugged the heaviest of boxes on their bare muscled shoulders frightened me. They were much stronger than me, and even the shorter one was bigger than I was. It wouldn't take them much to harm me.

The brunette was putting his English skills to use in his truck with the paperwork while the lanky Sanjay Dutt type continued to lug my belongings out of my apartment. It was just me and him in my soon to be ex-apartment. I approached him with two cans of Pepsi and 40 dollars. "Uh, excuse me?" I said. My voice was meek. I cursed myself. He turned to look at me, his greasy hair not matching the dark stubble on his face. His eyes were quite red and sleepy looking, his mouth wasn't quite shut. I extended the drinks and money towards him. I didn't know if he knew any English at all, I had only heard him talk to his friend in something that sounded like Russian.

"For you and your friend. Buy something to eat?"

I'd always seen my mother treat workers at our house in Oman to soft drinks. I hear that that her mother used to do the same with the craftsmen that used to work in her home almost a hundred years ago in India. That was why I always did the same for the electricians, plumbers, and other workers that helped me in America. I know I could never do the work they did, and besides, I felt bad for how hard they had to work. Even with these intimidating Caucasians. I just hoped they didn't pounce on me thinking that there was more where the money in my hand came from. My heart skipped a few beats as the silent Russian's eyes fluidly dropped to the drinks and money in my hands. His gaze lingered for a moment too long before he raised them to look at me in a new but mute curiosity. He silently extended his long boney hands towards me and accepted the offering. "Thank. You," he said slowly in his strong accent. Then he turned and exited my apartment. Probably to split the tip with his friend, I thought.

I checked the bare corners of my now-empty apartment for the hundreth time over the next few minutes. I couldn't afford to make any mistakes with this move. What if I left something behind by mistake? I was leaving the country permanently in the next few days. There was no room for mistakes.

The silent Russian entered my apartment alone, but I was too caught up in the never-ending loop of worries that played on and on in my mind like a recurring nightmare. He was probably going to do a last check to make sure he'd removed all my things. Instead, he began coming towards me. I looked up at him as he came closer, wondering what he could possibly have to say to me. He hadn't spoken a word to me for the past half hour, had hardly even looked up at me, except when he had wanted to use my bathroom. I was surprised at how he had left it spotless. I hadn't expected that.

He came close to me. I noticed the alert look in his eyes.

"You.Are.Nice.Per.Son," he said, pronouncing every word slowly as if it were a matter of life and death that I understood how serious he was. His index finger was pointed at me, slowly rocking up and down, stressing every word as he spoke them. The force in his eyes was holding my face captive. He didn't blink as he made a final firm but desperate attempt, "Nice.Per.Son. No.One.Give.Us.Be.Fore." His tone sounded more like, "You'd better realise that you are a nice person." He concluded. "You. Nice. You. Good."

* * * * *

I still have nightmares where I've failed to pack all my belongings before the deadline to leave a country. Sometimes the stuff that I'd packed magically unpacks itself and sometimes, things that I never knew I owned quietly appear on the day I'm supposed to leave. Many times large items that I thought I'd sold off, mostly electronic items like my big TV, seem to reappear on my last day. It's usually after these dreams that I am reminded of those two Russians. Or sometimes I just think of them anyway. I don't know their names or if they even were Russian, just that they were from the Caucasus. I wonder if they remember me.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Power of an Isolated Act of Goodness in a Jaded World

The world has always been a violent place.

In those days after the Persian Gulf War, the USSR had collapsed, Divya Bharti had fallen to her death, and the Babri Masjid had been demolished. The adults around me were always discussing these issues quite literally over my head, but the grownups and the children lived in two separate worlds, two different realities. I was a happy-go-lucky middle-school student living in a protected environment far, far away from the mess of the world, at least in my head. From the safe bubble of my home and school, all the monsters were confined to the newspapers and radio broadcasts. They never gatecrashed my friends' birthday parties or told me that I couldn't have burgers and fries when I wanted to.

That random schoolday, my friends in my 6th grade class had been acting shady all morning. During recess, however, they approached me as a group, all smiles as they eagerly presented me a handmade Eid card.

I was one of a tiny handful of Muslim students in my class of forty-something Indian students. My friends were from all over India, they were Christians, Hindus, and a Jain. In a school where most of the students were Hindu and where Muslims formed a tiny minority, we got along. One's religion was never a reason for discrimination or debate but more like one of innumerable personal traits like having curly or straight hair.

The Eid holidays were approaching where we lived in Muscat, Oman. My friends had painstakingly got together to make me an Eid card. The carefully executed surprise was top-secret. Without my knowledge, my friends had decided to do something genuinely nice for me.

It's been almost twenty years since that happy day. The world is still a violent place, and somedays I can't bear the ugliness of it. When I now look at the card, I see its careful pencil outlines and think about how meticulously a bunch of 11-year-olds traced it over with felt pens and colour pencils. They didn't have to do it. They didn't get anything from it. I don't even know how they came up with the idea. I do know that it was a big deal to them and that they spent all morning fairly dividing the art work and logistics amongst themselves, making sure I didn't get a whiff of the secret project. I do remember their beaming faces as they gave me the card during recess. Now I realise that nomatter how many times the world hurts my feelings and walks all over me, there are people out there who don't see me unidimensionally for my religion, race, or nationality. And if there are some of those, there's gotta be more. I believe in that.

Monday, October 12, 2009

He made me an offer I couldn't accept

I was trudging along to the library around the corner from my uncle's house where I was staying in Toronto, Canada. I felt right in my well-worn black t-shirt and jeans, my sports shoes keeping my feet comfortable on the hard pavement. It was a bright and breezy late afternoon, the summer was giving way to the fall, and I was having a good-hair-day. My long dark layers were freshly shampooed and bouncing with each carefree step all the way to the middle of my back. My bookbag was heavy with the weight of the books I was going to return to the library.

The suburban lakeside neighbourhood that had been uncharacteristically sleepy all summer was once again scattered with young people - it had been the first day of the new school year. Teenagers were hanging around the neighbourhood video store and meeting up with their friends at the pizza shop around the bend. Life was back in business.

The parking lot in front of the library sprawled alongside a major intersection, and people were strolling beside it on the concrete sidewalk. As I made my way across the parking lot, I heard someone call out to me from somewhere behind me.

"Excuse me? Excuse me!"

I slowed down and looked over my shoulder to see a young Indian-looking man in his 20s waving at me. He was wearing a typical Abercrombie-and-Fitch style green t-shirt and faded blue jeans. He looked like he was coming from the strip mall I had just cut across. Was he following me? What did he want? I stopped so he could catch up. As he shuffled up to me, I eyed his grin suspiciously. "Yes?" I demanded in a slightly hostile tone.

His grin didn't budge. His eyes made me feel slimey.

"So...where are you going?" he asked casually.

I snapped back. I didn't know why I felt like I needed to.

"Did you need something?"

I didn't like his expression.

He started slightly but then regained his composure. He ignored my question and smiled some more.

" you go to school around here?"

He thinks I'm a schoolgirl?

Something made me feel more defensive.

"I'm sorry, did you need something?" I locked a stern gaze on his face.

His sweaty eyes that had been focused on me suddenly broke away. He looked around, his eyes blinking, and he began to stammer. He was trying to look everywhere except at me. The rehearsed confidence in his voice, gone.

"Um, wow, you are really direct. Are you, is that what you're like, I mean, um, is that what you, you know, like? I mean, I could be stopping to ask you for directions and you, um, you just ask me what I want like that."

My gaze remained fixed on the beads of sweat on his face.

"Yes, so what is it that you need?"

His grin waned as he looked around at the ground. I adjusted the weight of the heavy bag on my back.

"See, I've got someplace I need to be so if you don't need help with something, then I'm gonna have to get going." I began to move towards the library in front of me. He suddenly looked up at me and his body tensed up with desperation.

"No, wait!"

I shot him an impatient look. He began to stammer again but faster.

"No, I mean, do you live around here?"

I lied. "No, I'm visiting from the US."

"Okay, so can I have your number and...and call you we can talk? Hang out??"

He didn't give me a chance to respond.

"We can meet up and...and...and..." I turned my head away from him and began to walk towards the library. I turned to look at him over my shoulder, following me.

"...and you can have a good time before you go back to America! Don't you want a good time in Canada??"

I turned my head back towards the library and began to pick up speed. He gave up his pursuit. I waved my hand up in the air as I left him behind. "No thanks," I called out without looking back,"I appreciate the offer though!"

Pondering over what better parting comment I could've come up with, I entered the sanctuary of the library and decided to stay an hour longer than I'd originally intended so as to throw off the initiator of one of the stranger encounters I'd had in a while. I wonder what he would've done if I'd informed him that I wasn't a naive schoolgoing teenager but a 28-year-old firebrand who'd been having a bad decade. I mean, there are other ways of giving a girl a compliment...aren't there?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Oliver Twist and Optimism

Welcome to post-independence India!

Some say that art is a snapshot in time of a particular society. See if you can decipher the socialist dreams in this timeless number!