Friday, December 24, 2010

Ag-47

steel in me
a core of steel
north to south
east to west
a core of steel
strong as death
like blood but steel
silver and ice
it shatters not
high boiling point
soul skeleton
a core of steel

Scaring Indian Muslims

The short, stout Indian policewoman grimaced as she looked down at my boarding pass. Ugly mustard-yellow curtains separated the two of us from the rest of Terminal 3 at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. The woman's skin was dark, thick, and shiny, and the tight bun on her head had the dried out look of old hair oil. Her head was round, and her body seriously plump. She didn't look like the police type of woman. Who had brought her here anyway? She should've been buying vegetables somewhere in a bright yellow sari and thin gold bangles that clanged as her too-tight blouse developed sweat stains around her armpits. I was pretty sure her khakhi uniform had pungent sweat stains too. The uniform looked uncomfortable - it was bunching up in all the wrong places in the most unflattering of ways. Am I the only one that ever notices how obscene some government uniforms look on female employees?

"Are you a Muslim?" she suddenly questioned in a flat, restrained tone. She was still looking down at my boarding pass, not making eye contact. From what I could see, her face was tight and bore no real expression. Or maybe concealed another?

Oh God, why did I have to run into this policewoman of all personnel? Why did I have to come back to India? Everyone had warned me about these things. My stomach tightened, and I felt small and powerless. This was India, and the two of us were alone in the fast-becoming claustrophobic security compartment. She was the one with the uniform (ugly as it was) - what was she going to do? Why did I have to end up with the closeted Hindu right-winger government official? I hated being a Muslim in India already.

"Uh, yes, I am a Muslim...?"

The dark oily face looked up at me and startled me with the smile of a small child. "Me also, I am also a Muslim!" it squealed excitedly.

I remembered to breathe. "Masha Allah then!" I said, as she handed me back my boarding pass with an eagerly expectant gaze. She was still smiling, and I had begun to as well.

NDTV Journal, weeks 12-17

I’m 29. I should have had a husband by now. A well-groomed, kind, and ambitious husband who hugs me and tells me I’m pretty and buys me small, meaningful presents. I should have had a baby by now. The other day I saw a small, fat baby wrapped up in winter wear in the arms of his young mother, rubbing his face into hers, and I honestly felt like someone was stabbing me in the heart. It was all I could do to hold myself up and not crumple like the paper a half-written poem was abandoned on. By now I should have had a house of my own with a kitchen of my own where I could exercise my culinary talents and then invite all my yuppie friends over to parties where I would wear nice clothes and look like a real woman, all made-up and perfumed. I do look great when I’m made up. I am a great cook too. I can make roti and even pizza from scratch. I bake like it’s nobody’s business. You should try my Chicken Biryani, my Karhai Chicken, and my Chicken Sweet Corn Soup.

But you can’t. Because I live as a paying guest where the kitchen is hardly equipped for anything more than boiling eggs. You can’t see how great I look in makeup and nice clothes because I don’t wear any, because the smog that hits me when I ride an auto rickshaw would ruin my face and my clothes. I’m having to relive my student years, right back down to the ghhisi piti jeans, cheap sweatshirt, sports shoes, and baseball cap – attire that is an insult to a woman’s body. One of the bathrooms in my PG has a resident lizard. The sink only runs boiling hot water, and the sink in the other bathroom only runs icy cold water. Someone stole my favourite hoodie from the clothesline up on the terrace. It’s not fun washing my own clothes anymore. My hair is falling out. I thought I’d paid my dues – I lived like a pauper at university, had my heart broken a number of times, and got used to eating meals and going to the movies alone. I’ve worn donated clothes from a church, skipped on personal grooming until I looked like a cavewoman (and then some), and had tears burn my eyes because the winter wind was going through my bones. Later I had a beautiful apartment with a soft cream carpet, huge beach-house windows, a vaulted ceiling, and a shower curtain with butterflies on it. I wore smoky-eye makeup and sexy heels because my new car could protect my makeup and my clothes from the elements. I turned heads in my bouncy skirts. I even used to live next to a Hope Hill. Hope Hill! Could anything sound more meadow-like. And you know what – I gave it all up. Because even the corpses at the local funeral home could be made-up to look alive!

Now I live in one of the most unsafe cities in the world for women. I’m the oldest in a class where ¾ of the folks are in their early 20s and have never had to file their taxes. Most have never even left the subcontinent. I have no handsome husband, no gurgling baby. I used to think that I’d have all those things by 24. All my old school friends on Facebook now suddenly have spouses in their display pictures. I am still listed as in an ‘open relationship’ with my female best friend who’s getting married on Christmas Day. I’m sure most people think I’m really a boy. Every Corolla – heck, every sedan - that passes me by taunts me like a rejected lover, reminding me that I gave it up for this, for standing by the road covered in traffic exhaust and dust, trying to catch an auto rickshaw. That perfumed woman I see in the driver’s seat, the one with the sunglasses and winter boots and lip gloss – she used to have my face once upon a time.

And insha Allah, she will again.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Set to stun

"Charlie X", the first episode of Star Trek I ever saw:

Kirk: Charlie, there are a million things in this universe you can have and there are a million things you can't have. It's no fun facing that, but that's the way things are.
Charlie: What am I going to do?
Kirk: Hang on tight and survive. Everybody does.
Charlie: You don't!
Kirk: Everybody, Charlie. Me too.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Monday, November 15, 2010

NDTV Journal: weeks 7-11

Dr. Prannoy Roy wasn’t always the man with the famous beard. Once upon a time he was 18 years old and working at a London grocery store. He admitted to my NDTV batch that he wasn’t very good at his job. He said that he knew, for example, where the can of mushrooms were, but whenever a customer would ask him for it, all the cans up on the shelves would start to look the same to him. His boss helped him out the first few times, but then fired him with the grand declaration that the young Roy would never amount to anything ever in his life. Dr. Roy acknowledged that, as an 18-year-old, he was crushed. I’m not sure but at that moment, I think I saw that 18-year-old resurface on the face of the 61-year-old man sitting across the desk in front of me, but that was for just a second.

Dr. Prannoy Roy is now my boss; he is the founder and Executive Chairperson of NDTV. Wikipedia calls him a ‘media baron’, and I wouldn’t hesitate to say that the whole of India probably knows who he is. That really means something in a country of over 1 billion people, a nation where approximately 1/6th of the world’s population resides. Dr. Roy’s got a whole lot of other complicated entries on his resume – Economics graduate from the University of London's Queen Mary College, PhD in Economics from the Delhi School of Economics, Chartered Accountant, Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. He has also taught at the Delhi School of Economics and has served as Economic Advisor to the Government of India. He’s been involved in the media world since the early 80s and has made a name for himself as a journalist, election analyst, and anchorperson. He told me that he too had worked with Deloitte for a while but had got bored.

Back in school, an English teacher had once told me that I had terrible style and that I thought too much of myself on two separate occasions respectively. The latter comment was made in reference to a poem I had come up with in a moment of complete angst. It was called ‘I’ll Reach the Top’. I was 14 years old then.

One day I’ll be,
Up there, you’ll see,
I’ll be the best one day.
I’ll be so big,
That all you pigs,
Will have nothing left to say.
I will, just wait,
Be so, so great,
I’ll outshine all of you.
I’ll be the CREAM,
Just let me dream,
I’ll make my dreams come true.

As a college student in the United States, I dreaded one photo editor at the university newspaper where I worked as a writer and photographer. The guy was White American, younger than me, a journalism student, and not only was he the most hated person in the newsroom, but on one incident he insisted that an English word I said existed did not exist. I hated how he assumed that he had the final word on that for some vague predestined reason.

As a foreign IT professional in the United States, I was struggling to carve time for what I really wanted to do – have a book published. I was desperate. I had once promised myself that I would be published by 24, and here I was pushing 26. So I forsook my feeble social life for daily writing time and socializing with a local writing club which was mostly white and over 50. For the first year, most people there didn’t even know my name, but they eventually learned how to pronounce it and ended up teaching me many things about the writing business. A number of them were published many times over.

One year I attended a writer’s conference in Oklahoma City. I remember how when I told a Deloitte coworker about the conference, he raised his fingers in the shape of quotation marks and said, “you mean, “writer’s” conference”. He then laughed in my face.

At the conference, I was terrified. Here were more old white people from the Bible Belt of America. The angry black woman I was set up to room with at the hotel spent the weekend telling me how no one wanted to buy her tome of a novel because it was about a black woman. I had finished my first book by then and was looking for a publisher. I’d pitched it to an editor who was interested at first but politely declined a couple of months later over email. Another editor wasn’t so nice – he said my work was so boring that it put him to sleep in the first few pages, but that he’d try and fish out the rest of manuscript if he could ever muster the bother. Over the next few months I sent letters to about a hundred publishers across America, and only got back 25 rejections. The others never replied. There were a handful of publishers who were interested, but they too turned me down in time. That manuscript has since been put on the backburner.

While I retreated to lick my wounds, a random publisher from Delaware that I’d never heard of got wind of me somehow and asked me to write some books for them. I am now working on my 4th book, and I’m still not sure how the folks at Mitchell Lane Publishers got to know of me in the first place. I need to investigate that one of these days. Or maybe I’ll just let the mystery be for when someone makes a movie about me.

Dr. Roy did go back to find that grocery shop in London. He saw that it had shut down a long time ago.

I didn’t get a book published by 24, but by the time I turned 28, I had had two books published. The first one happened to be released one day after my birthday.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

You Can Say That Again

"Somehow this village of roses was not so foreign to him. His intuition told him that he belonged here, if only for a short period. This would be the place where he would rekindle the fire for living that he had known before the legal profession stole his soul, a sanctuary where his broken spirit would slowly start to heal. And so began Julian's life among the Sages of Sivana, a life of simplicity, serenity and harmony. The best was soon to come."

- Robin S. Sharma, 'The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari'

Sunday, October 10, 2010

NDTV Journal: weeks 5 and 6

A number of my NDTV batch mates had crowded around the TV - the Ayodhya land dispute verdict was going to be announced any minute. Some of my batch mates were seated, some remained standing, and some were ferociously switching between TV channels. I was seated on a chair at a table directly in front of the TV. The longer the verdict went unannounced past its deadline, the closer the crowd began to move in, crushing me into the table until I was closed in from all sides.

I felt self-conscious about being the only Muslim in the group. Was anyone watching me, ready to challenge me about what I dared want the outcome of the verdict to be? In the flux of identities in my inner world – non-smoker, woman, friend, Sunni Hanafi, daughter, author, NRI -, I felt my Muslim identity being forced into the foreground. I didn’t want to be a Muslim that day, but it was like in 1992 and in the years that followed - you were either a Hindu or a Muslim, even if you just ‘looked like one’.

Someone placed their chin on my shoulder. I don’t have a sister but it felt like something a sister would do. I felt comforted, like I had not been abandoned just yet. Was it Apoorva, the Hindu girl from my hometown of Lucknow?

In 1992, our old Muslim moholla in Lucknow shut its black iron gates for the first time in decades. My mamoo and mumaani hid their children, a 5-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl, in an empty water tank on the terrace. The rifle they used to scare monkeys away with was kept ready to protect themselves from a different kind of intruder this time. The voices out on Victoria Street were loud – the old chowk area had gone mad.

I was 11, in Muscat, Oman, and very angry. For the first time, my family would not let me spend the day at my best friend’s house. Her last name was Kothary.

Things felt strained between the adults in the Indian community in Oman. The Muslims felt afraid of the Indian Embassy, so they withdrew to themselves. They prayed hard for peace at milaads and for someone’s son who had gone missing in India. There was no Indian cable TV in Oman in those days; my mother had only found out about the demolition through the BBC News’s Urdu Service on her radio. Cell phones didn’t exist. People still yelled over international phone lines, if they were able to get a connection at all. India felt far away, like a fortress we couldn’t get into, like a madhouse the people we knew couldn’t get out of. I saw a number of grown Muslims cry and say, “there is no place for us in India anymore”.

I don’t have many relatives left in India. Many families were split in 1947, and many began to leave India during the wars with Pakistan. That’s the first time some strange boys mocked my mother on her university bus and asked her whom she’d cheer for during an IndoPak cricket match. Many more of my relatives left India during the 90s. Why did I, after having lived my whole life overseas in safety, choose to come back to this legacy, these echoes? The India of innocent summer vacations in Firangi Mahal in old Lucknow never will be again. But for now, the Hindu girl’s chin on my shoulder makes me feel like it could.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Blue Collar

My autorickshaw driver this morning was a Muslim. I'd guessed as much from the Arabic inscriptions on the shiny decorative CDs that were hanging above his steering wheel, but I wanted to be sure, so I asked him. "Bhaiyya, aap Musalmaan hain?" I said as we reached the NDTV office and I began to fish around my wallet for 40 rupees. I could only see the back of his dark head as he nodded and said yes. A red-and-white keffiyeh was tied around his neck like a piece of thick rope.

I asked him if he thought any riots would break out in Delhi after the Ayodhya verdict was announced today. He didn't think so. He said that the people of Delhi lived together in so much diversity. People don't get communal in places like that.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

After Dark

Two minutes into my nightly ritual of putting my clothes out to dry on the clothesline did I realise that something was different. It was dark, almost one in the morning. I was on the terrace of my paying guest accommodation. My ears pricked. Was it the moonlight? I looked up at the half moon. I looked down at the dark green tiled floor and stepped into a spot of moonlight. I stood there for a minute. No, that wasn't it.

I climbed further atop the terrace, up the dozen or so black iron steps to the place where the water tanks are kept, carefully hidden from view. Some of the girls in the PG often come up here to smoke at night when the weather is good. They play songs up here in the dark on their cell phones and talk about boyfriends and unhappy family lives.

There was no one here now. There was the horizon - the tops of sluggish houses and tall neon-lit hotels in the east, and dark treetops in the west. The new metro train sped along the eastern horizon. A solitary plane swam in the inky sky. A dog howled.

Then there was silence. For the first time since I'd arrived in Delhi, the city was quiet. The great monster was asleep. Delhi was at peace.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

My Big Picture

It's been a month since I've entered the 'scary' world of the media, and I've been thinking: is the ideal journalist pushy, aggressive, maybe even disrespectful? Is that what is required? Is that what it's all about, the bottom line, and nothing else? Somehow I don't believe it.

The Wind And The Sun, an Aesop's fable

A dispute once arose between the Wind and the Sun, which was the stronger of the two, and they agreed to settle the point upon the issue - that whichever of the two soonest made a traveler take off his cloak, should be accounted the more powerful.

The Wind began, and blew with all his might and main a blast, cold and fierce as a Thracian storm; but the stronger he blew, the closer the traveler wrapped his cloak around him, and the tighter he grasped it with his hands.

Then broke out the Sun. With his welcome beams he dispersed the vapor and the cold; the traveler felt the genial warmth, and as the Sun shone brighter and brighter, he sat down, quite overcome with the heat, and taking off his cloak, cast it on the ground.

Thus the Sun was declared the conqueror; and it has ever been deemed the persuasion is better than force; and that the sunshine of a kind and gentle manner will sooner lay open a poor man's heart than all the threatenings and force of blustering authority.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Breakfast Fruit

The poor little dark boy with the shy smile and bright eyes was serving breakfast as usual at the NDTV cafeteria. He probably didn't know any English, so I asked him in Urdu for the fruit of the day, did they have any bananas? He shook his head and gave me a pear. It was of an odd shape so I asked him in Urdu again, was it a pear, a naashpaati? He nodded, his eyes uncertain for a second, as he replied, "pine.ap.pil". I said okay and left him to savour the triumph - he'd used a new English word today.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

NDTV Journal: weeks 3 and 4

It’s official: the firangs have declared the Games Village unfit for human beings (unfit for human beings!). Their Indian peers, though, shake their heads and shrug with a smile: it’s okay, this is India. Apparently that’s all one can expect here.

It’s like the time I got harassed in public by a large group of Indian boys, in Toronto no less. When I complained to the Indian uncles and aunties nearby, they too shrugged and smiled. Boys will be boys, they’d told me, I was probably just not used to it. I’d been raised overseas after all.

What?

Why should I have to get used to it? Why should I have to get used to perverts? Why should I have to get used to streets that look as if they’ve been bombed? Why should I have to get used to the presence of diseases like malaria and dengue in India’s capital? From what angle is any of this even remotely acceptable? Who put a cap on our quality of life, who taught us to say ‘it’s okay’ when it’s not? I don’t want to have to get used to anything. Lo ho gayee chhutti, I may as well just stay at home then and wait for the sky to fall on my head.

But I don’t want to settle. I want to stay hungry. I am not okay with the way basic facilities are managed in India. I am not okay with how Indian people behave outside or inside of India. I will never be okay with anyone who not only gets used to mediocrity but who actually defends it. I will never be okay with Indians who, instead of sharing the outrage, treat their Indian critics as whistleblowers and just plain ignore their foreign critics. This is India, I’m told, this is the real world. And I’m what, supposed to feel proud of that? Is this what our patriotism is tied to? Lo ho gayee chhutti.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Chicken Little

I don't want to punch the rooster next door in the face anymore. I'm told that the little guy has problems - whenever he wakes up, he scuttles out of his coop (or wherever he lives, I've yet to meet him nose to beak) and crows his heart out with his eyes tightly shut. He never knows what time it is or even if the sun is out or not, he just keeps crowing out of some sense of pride, obligation, or maybe even confusion. Poor little man.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

NDTV Journal: week 2

Mr. Ajmal Jami liked Rajiv Gandhi the very first time he met him. He thought the young Indian Prime Minister came off as an all round good guy. At one point, Rajiv Gandhi even grabbed the veteran cameraperson’s arm when Mr. Jami, trying to film the PM while walking backwards with his video camera, tripped and almost fell.

Mr. Jami also remembers other things. He remembers rushing to the site where Rajiv Gandhi was blown to bits by a suicide bomber some years later. He remembers the piece of red carpet that had been cut out to take away the remains of the man who in another time maybe could’ve been his buddy. He also remembers almost stepping onto a disembodied arm whose fingernails were painted bright red. He remembers how it had just lain there.

Took me back to ‘Stiff’, a collection of dark but humorous essays I’d once read about the contributions of cadavers to science. I remember the author, Mary Roach, describing a visit to a lab where plastic surgery students would practice their skills. Each student would be given the head of a cadaver to practice a number of cosmetic and reconstructive procedures on. Each was also given one pair of cadaver hands that were severed a little above the wrist. The author described how one particular student’s ‘hands’ had beautiful shapely fingers whose nails were painted bright red. This bit of personality startled the student who touched the hands and wondered about the body - the person - they once used to be attached to.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Elsewhere

I've been having strange out-of-body experiences since I left Oman for Delhi:

Working on my laptop transports me back to the Qurum City Center where I am stroking the keyboard for the very first time, already knowing that yes, this is the one. I can hear the young Balochi Omani salesman telling me in his heavily accented Hindi that he had spent some years at a boarding school in Dehradun and that it reminded him of his favourite place in Oman, Salalah. I can feel the shoppers around me - brown, black, and white - strolling about the wide aisles of Carrefour that are sharply lit with bright white light. The floors are swept to a sparkle, everyone is well-dressed. It's still the first week of Ramadhan, and the stores are going to be open extra late all month.

I think of my tailor everytime I pull out a set of clothes. The print reminds me of the shopping trip I went on with my mother, the store we bought it from, the Indian shopkeepers who've seen me grow from knobbly knees and pigtails to make-up and heels. Our tailor is Pakistani. His name is Tariq, and he's been making my clothes in Oman with his brother, Rizwan, since I was 7 or 8. I still remember the first grown-up style shalwar qameez he made for me. I had finished my first reading of the Quran in Arabic, and we were going to have a party. For the first time, I got to pick an inky red and dark blue shiny synthetic material for myself, different from the usual flowery cotton stuff my mom would make me wear. For the first time, I got to pick a design for my dress from one of the tailor's grown-up fashion books all by myself. I was under 10, and that outfit made me feel like Sridevi. I've worn many wonderful dresses since, but none that ever gave me that kick.

Everytime I see a young person driving their own car while I'm waiting to find an autorickshaw driver who won't give me attitude, I think about how well I knew the smooth, clean roads of Muscat. I remember gesticulating to Cliff Richard's 'Devil Woman' as it played in my dad's Corolla as I took it out for a spin to the Darsait LuLu, to the Qurum McDonald's, to my beloved alma mater Indian School Muscat, or drove past a 400-year-old fort by the sea. I wonder if there is any other city in the world where I know the roads by landmarks and don't need streetnames.

As I put my contact lenses away at the end of the day, I see the Sudanese optician's handwriting on the lenses container. He'd tested my eyes for the first time when I was 10 years old, and he's been testing my eyes ever since. I'm never sure what he's saying as he keeps switching midsentence between Arabic and English, but he always sends greetings to my father at the end of the transaction.

I remember my Sudanese dentist in his tiny shop in Ruwi whenever I try to floss in the dull light of the shared bathroom where I rent a room. I'd only been going to him for a year, but I've never seen him without his mask, so I don't even know what he really looks like. He's a really nice dentist though, and he doesn't yell at me when a tear or whimper or two escape me when I'm in the chair. Apparently he was educated in Egypt.

As I begin to worry about where to find a good salon in Delhi, I think of the convenience of having the Excellent Beauty Corner a one-minute walk from our apartment in Muscat. It's hard finding an intuitive beautician who can understand your temperament and is skilled at the same time. I remember feeling a sense of separation anxiety the last time I visited the ladies at the salon before I left for Delhi. How am I going to find another salon where the women call me 'dear' and speak to me kindly?

The thought of wanting to rent a movie and not knowing where to go takes me back to Samara Video, which one can reach from our apartment in the MBD area in 5 minutes by car. The guy who works at the counter is an Arab from Bahrain. I don't know his name, but he's distinctively effeminate. His eyebrows are tweezed, and he has a long beautiful ponytail that reaches the middle of his back like a piece of thick rope. He often wears fitted tees, and his speech and laughter are soft. All the women like him. I don't feel as restrained around him as I do with other men. I once entered the store with a bag of popcorn in my hand and offered him some as I exchanged a joke or two with him. He once mentioned to me that he would like to live in Oman for good because it is a peaceful and clean place. One of the last places like that left in the world, I expect.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

NDTV Journal: week 1

This is the first in a series of posts that will chronicle my time as an apprentice at NDTV in New Delhi:

I knew I was back in India when I glanced out the window of the sweaty cab and was met by the bored stare of a cow. I felt greasy, slimy, and I was sticking to the cab’s upholstery. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t. For the first time since I had applied for NDTV’s Broadcast Training Program did I encounter doubt and even some dread. Maybe this was a bad idea. Maybe everybody had been right. I am unrealistic, and now I and the money from my savings that I had used to pay for the program were stuck. What business did an IT professional have attending journalism training anyway? So what if I used to play around as a kid with our old tape deck, making my own radio news shows? So what if I’d nurtured my interest in filmmaking alongside my day job? So what if I was already a published author three times over? This sort of a thing, this sort of a drift, was just not done. What made me think that I could pull it off? They were right. I had set myself up for disaster. I was going to ruin my future. What had I been thinking? And now it was too late. The evening traffic mirrored my predicament – it didn’t seem like we were moving ahead, and we certainly could not go backwards. These things don’t work that way.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Where are they now?

I've met many people in this life of mine that I've spent trotting around the globe, recently on my own. I wonder about the ones whom I shared moments with for a while or even just a few minutes and then went our separate ways, never to meet again. Some of them made me happy when I needed to be made happy, and they never even knew it. I wonder where they are now and if they remember me as I remember them:

Florence worked with security in the building across from the Empire State Building that housed the office of Guideposts magazine. She was a middle-aged black woman from Trinidad & Tobago whom I chatted with when I visited the staff at Guideposts on my magical 2007 New York trip. I never saw her again.

The black UPS mailman rode around the Oklahoma State University campus every day in his black truck and brown uniform. I met him as a desk clerk in my residence call where he would drop by everyday on his rounds delivering mail. It was one of my duties as a desk clerk to receive and distribute mail in the mailboxes of the buildings' residents. I can't remember the mailman's name - was it Robert? He was a gentleman and would great me with a compliment and a smile every time. Even after I stopped working at the residence hall, we'd wave and greet each other everytime his truck passed me by anywhere, on-campus or off. He made me feel like a pretty lady. I left OSU in 2005. I never saw him again.

A dusky and statuesque waitress was serving me that late night at the no-name Los Angeles diner. She wore a stereotypical turquoise waitress outfit that went down to her knees, complete with a white apron and white wrap cloth tiara on her crown. She looked Hispanic. Her hair was long, black, and thick, and her skin was the colour of hot chocolate. Her lipstick was a soft dark brown. She asked me where I was from. I said India. Her eyes lit up and she smiled. She was from Bangladesh, she said. She told me her name and I told her mine. We were both Muslims. I looked around the dimly lit diner with its plastic covered seats and plastic-covered menus. What was this beautiful woman doing here, so far away from home, in this town full of freaks and perverts? I never saw her again.

The old woman who looked like she was made of wet white paper was looking at me expectantly, her eyes shining. I told her I liked her gold pendant and that she looked pretty. She clasped her hands and her voice shook. "Oh, honey..." she said as she smiled, her eyes never away from my face. The other university kids who were part of my volunteer group in Stillwater stood a few feet away from us, nervous and uncomfortable in the old folk's home. They were all young, all under 20, and the smell of death, decay, and napthalene made them uneasy. Maybe it's because they were American, or maybe I was used to being around old people, but I felt more comfortable at the home than with them. We didn't stay at the home for more than 10 minutes. I met that old woman in 2000. I never saw her again.

My friend and I were buying movie tickets for the new Mr. Bean movie at the AMC near Times Square. I noticed that the counter had the new Master Card smart card reader installed. I got excited and began to hum the tune of the commercial, a funny little ad that had had the card reader beeping to the tune of Strauss's 'Blue Danube'. The young black fellow working at the counter sang with me. We all laughed. I never saw him again.

When I was in kindergarten in Muscat in the early 80s, our school had hired elderly Omani women to help the teachers take care of the little children. I spent many hours sitting in the lap of the old Omani woman in my class. She was short, strongly built, dark, and had a wide nose. Sh wore colourful cotton Omani clothes. I remember her in a dark green and black outfit. A long scarf covered her hair, and the only parts of her body that were visible were her chubby hands and feet and her face. She didn't speak much. She didn't know any English or much Hindi or Urdu, and the Indian children, most of them South Indian, didn't know any Arabic but only smatterings of English and mostly Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam, Telegu, Tamil, Kannada, etc. I never saw her again.

The tall strawberry-blonde young Irish fellow at the Navy Pier in Chicago was selling t-shirts and bags that changed colour in sunlight. I didn't want to buy anything, but he stopped my mother and I and laughed and joked as he kept talking about how he was a terrible salesperson and wasn't able to sell anything. He kept saying that he was just visiting his uncle from Ireland. He wouldn't stop talking and smiling, telling me that I probably wore t-shirts sized small. After 10 minutes, we had spent 40 dollars at that stall. The young Irishman gave me strawberry candy and thanked me for making him feel better about his selling skills, even though he was a terrible salesman. I kept that candy, wrapped in its strawberry designed wrapper, for many years after that. I never saw him again.

The middle-aged professor burst into the Microform Media Room where I worked at the university library in Stillwater and exclaimed at me, "Hello there, young person!!!" I leapt from my chair, all the sluggishness and frustration of my life instantly banished as an unknown optimism burst into existence in my chest. The clouds suddenly cleared and the sun shone on me as I realised I wanted to smile and didn't want to sit anymore. I asked the professor how I could help him. I never saw him again.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Once upon a 9/11

I first moved to the US in 1999. I had just turned 18 and had come to the Oklahoma State University for undergraduate studies. My campus was in Stillwater, a town 80 miles into the country away from the two largest cities of the state. Stillwater would've qualified as rural if it had not been for the university that brought along with it a dynamic and diverse group of people every semester from every corner of the world, students, professors, staff, and their families. Most people on campus were American and a large majority were white, but aside from the usual adjustment and alienation issues that one faces in a new country, it was possible to make new friends rather quickly. If not with the Americans, many of whom were from small towns in Oklahoma or surrounding states in the Bible Belt of America, then with any of the hundreds of foreign students who were all in the same boat as yourself.

In 1999, President Clinton was still in office. Cell phones still charged long-distance fees, not that many people had cell phones in the first place. Most foreign countries did not even use email. Napster was just beginning to get popular with college students across the nation, but many had not even heard of it or knew what it was. ICQ was the number one chat program, and Hotmail had just launched its own version. I remember using it for the first time a few months before and excitedly calling my family to see the alert at the bottom of the chat window that indicated in realtime that the other party was typing from halfway across the world. Most companies did not have websites or include them in advertising. Hardly anyone bought anything online. A home-use PC cost around $1,200, and laptops were only for the jetset. The job market was fantastic. Companies would woo fresh graduates with no experience by the dozens, they were picking people up right, left, and center from all over the country. Giants like Microsoft and IBM were a fixture on every college campus, including ours. A computer science graduate with absolutely no experience was practically guaranteed a job that paid $60,000 annually. Everything was great. In those days, America was on autopilot.

Hardly anybody knew about Islam at that time, and no one seemed to care either. There was no reason for anyone to ask "What is Islam?", people just didn't seem to be thinking on those lines. I was happy to meet Muslims from parts of the world I had never been too - Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Kazakhistan, Lebanon - but I was equally delighted when non-Muslims would approach me with a smile and inquire about my ethnic background. In fact, I preferred interacting with non-Muslims because I found it hard to fit in with the Muslim community in Stillwater. Most of the Muslims were foreigners, and their religious identity came bundled with nationalist, regionalist, linguistic, and cultural ideas that, as foreigners in a completely differently environment, they tried to hold on to extra hard. Even the Arab Muslims were being extra Arab! I enthusiastically attended a few Muslim gatherings that first year, but I always ended up feeling awkward, sometimes unwelcome, and often invisible. Before this I had been wholly raised in the Middle East in a Muslim country and had been around Muslim gatherings all the time, and this new feeling of alienation and sometimes rejection startled me. It never got easier as the years went by. In fact, it became a regular occurrence. From then on I began to shy away from attending Islamic gatherings and kept my religious observances to myself. This would make me the subject of criticism from various quarters over the years and cause me much internal anguish, but my solitude turned out to be the best thing for my spirituality.

I remember when a White American classmate once asked me in freshman year if it was true that the Muslims determined their time of prayer according to the position of the sun. When I confirmed that fact, he nodded and smiled, "Cool!" He asked me if it was true that the Muslims abstained from eating pork. I confirmed that too. He then smiled and added, "actually I'm Jewish; did you know that the Jews and Christians are not supposed to eat pork either?" I had not known that and was excited at this new bit of knowledge. But I'd known many Christians all my life, and they had never had any qualms about eating pork. My bright-blonde short-spikey-haired pasty-white classmate then told me that he ate pork too but technically the Jews and Christians weren't supposed to be eating it. This was exciting. Not only would I have never guessed that my classmate was Jewish, but he was the first Jewish person I had ever met (that I knew of). It was wonderful to be able to exchange stories with other people, it gave you a sort of respectful feeling at the end of it. If this was any indication of what my American collegiate experience would entail, then this was going to be the best phase of my life.

Those days hardly seem real now. 9/11 happened 2 years after I began college. The minute I heard the word 'Muslim' on TV, I panicked. I locked my dorm room door, afraid to even use the common bathroom to brush my teeth. I'd grown up watching the politically motivated communal riots between Hindus and Muslims in India, and I was terrified. The Muslim tag had followed me to America. Pretty soon a bloodthirsty mob would plow down my dorm room door and set me on fire. Many people knew I was Muslim, they would want my blood. I was cornered. How would I go to my classes if I couldn't even go out to brush my teeth?

None of that happened of course. After about 30 minutes, I managed to slip out of my room. I spent the whole day looking over my shoulder as I slipped quietly from class to class. A deathly silence had taken over the usual cheer of the campus. My teachers were having a hard time focussing on their lectures. The president of the university later called an emergency meeting of the International Student Organisation, of which I was a part of, and advised us on safety precautions for all foreign students. For the next many months, security personnel patrolled the campus, available to escort any nervous people anywhere on the campus.

On the whole, I was very impressed with the way America had reacted to 9/11. The government regularly called for public sanity and cautioned against citizen vigilantism. I had never seen morale like this before. If this had been India, the whole Muslim community would have gone into hiding (and this is before the Godhra riots that were to follow some time later). Sure I had less reason to be afraid - I did not look like what most people thought Muslims looked like. Many people still thought I was a Hindu because I looked distinctly Indian. I was a petite girl, I did not have a straggly beard, I did not look Arab, I did not have an Arabic accent. I'm not going to pretend that I wasn't grateful for that disguise. But I loved America and the Americans for the way they were taking the moral high ground. It was incredible. This is why America was the greatest country in the world.

I often reflect on those days. I don't know exactly when it started, but a few years after 9/11, paranoid whispers about Islam/Muslims began to circulate amongst the masses. After a while, I left OSU with a graduate degree and moved to Tulsa. These whispers had never been directed at me, so I'd never taken them seriously, until the day a good American friend forwarded me an email which cautioned all readers to abstain from voting against Obama because, amongst other things, he was a secret Muslim and would destroy the country under his presidency (I've underlined and boldfaced the email as it was in the version I'd received):

"This information needs to be spread EVERYWHERE.......

BARAK HUSSEIN OBAMA'S CHURCH

Obama mentioned his church during his appearance with Oprah. It's the Trinity Church of Christ. I found this interesting.

Obama's church:
Please read and go to this church's website www.tucc.org/about.htm and read what is written there. It is very alarming.

Barack Obama is a member of this church and is running for President of the U.S. If you look at the first page of their website, you will learn that this congregation has a non-negotiable commitment to Africa. No where is AMERICA even mentioned. Notice too, what color you will need to be if you should want to join Obama's church... B-L-A-C-K!!! Doesn't look like his choice of religion has improved much over his (former?) Muslim upbringing.

Strip away his nice looks, the big smile and smooth talk and what do you get? Certainly a racist, as plainly defined by the stated position of his church! And possibly a covert worshiper of the Muslim faith, even today. This guy desires to rule over America while his loyalty is totally vested in a Black Africa!

I cannot believe this has not been all over the TV and newspapers. This is why it is so important to pass this message along to all of our family & friends.

To think that Obama has even the slightest
chance in the run for the presidency, is really scary.

Click on the link below:
This is the web page for the church Barack Obama belongs to:

www.tucc.org/about.htm

We are a congregation which is Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian... Our roots in the Black religious experience and tradition are deep, lasting and permanent. We are an African people, and remain 'true to our native land,' the mother continent, the cradle of civilization. God has superintended our pilgrimage through the days of slavery, the days of segregation, and the long night of racism. It is God who gives us the strength and courage to continuously address injustice as a people, and as a congregation. We constantly affirm our trust in God through cultural expression of a Black worship service and ministries which address the Black Community. The Pastor as well as the membership of Trinity United Church of Christ is committed to a 10-point Vision:

1. A congregation committed to ADORATION.
2. A congregation preaching SALVATION.
3. A congregation actively seeking RECONCILIATION.
4. A congregation with a non-negotiable COMMITMENT TO AFRICA.
5. A congregation committed to BIBLICAL EDUCATION.
6. A congregation committed to CULTURAL EDUCATION.
7. A congregation committed to the HISTORICAL EDUCATION OF AFRICAN PEOPLE IN DIASPORA.
8. A congregation committed to LIBERATION.
9. A congregation committed to RESTORATION.
10. A congregation working towards ECONOMIC PARITY."

I did not know how to take this. Had my friend, who had been so kind to me as a foreign student, forgotten that I was a Muslim? Or had it not registered to her because I was Indian and she assumed Hindu? I then ran into an OSU professor I had known who had always been very supportive and encouraging of me, and he told me a lot of frightening things about Islam and Muslims that were inaccurate. When I told him that I had never come across these concepts in Islam, even while being raised in a Muslim Arab country, he said I was probably a good kind of Muslim. I was completely alarmed.

Around this time things got pretty vicious all around in a very short period of time. Seriously hurtful anti-Islamic websites and images sprouted by the hundreds. The 2008 presidential campaign was underway. Educated influential people were saying insane things about Islam on TV and other media. I read a whole feature in a Tulsa magazine about Islam, including statements from some people who left it. People were getting so hostile just with words, it was frightening. I wasn't sure where to draw the line between free speech and hate speech. By the last few years of my stay in America, this hostility towards Islam got overwhelming. I wanted to counter it and scream, "Stop! Don't believe them! That's complete lies! I'm telling you so!", but I was just one voice, and nobody was listening to me. I had an audience of maybe 5 or 10, while these people on TV with their websites had worldwide followers. I just wanted them to stop saturating the air with hurtful lies.

I don't live in America anymore. I still keep my religious observances to myself yet I grieve over how Islamophobia (I hate how that word gives the phenomenon a permanent identity) is now an actual word. I see debates about Islam on every TV channel. Everyone's writing about it (even me!). Draw Mohammed Day, Burn a Quran Day, Islam-is-coming doomsday prophets, Cordoba House, mistrust of an American president over religious identity (he is not a Muslim for sure, I'm sure no Muslim thinks he is either). It upsets me how people unite across borders over their dislike for Muslims. I would've never believed you if you'd told me 10 years ago that in a few years every continent would be dissecting the details of Islam to the extent that most Muslims aren't even aware of. But today, in this world where every Muslim feels hyperalert all the time about having to answer back to accusations about Islam being flung at them from every direction, I wonder if a time will ever come again when a discussion about Islam will end with a simple 'cool'.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Shab-e-Baraat

The cemetery is about 20 minutes into the craggy Hajar mountains of northern Oman. To reach it, you have to turn away from the shiny, perfumed, soft life of the coast and face the unforgiving interior. One quick turn from the highway of life and the world falls away as you drive further and further into the Oman that encircles the mirage of your safe city life, the Oman that always was and forever will be - silent, sparsely populated, immortal, ever vigilant. God speaks to Man here.

The cemetery lies in the middle of the mountains in a vast flat valley of rock and stone that is now neatly organised into plots and graves. They also have a registration office, a small mosque, and baths for the ablution of the dead. I wonder if my grandfather, in the greater part of his 87 years on the fertile Indo-Gangetic Plains of North India - where he lived through World Wars, the Indian Freedom Movement, the creation/separation of India and Pakistan, Indo-Pak wars, Hindu-Muslim communal riots, the loss of a spouse and some children - had ever imagined that this is where his final destination lay, here, in this secluded maidaan on the Arabian Peninsula. I've wondered about that for 10 years now.

I should've worn flat footwear today. I kept my eyes to the ground as I walked in between graves - some just marked with numbers on short wooden posts - trying to catch up with my father ahead. The ground was covered with small stones, dry patches of desert grass, and cracked caked pieces of soil. I could already feel the hot ground heating up my JCPenney shoes and the soles of my feet. Sunset was probably a couple of hours away.

I looked up from the ground to see where I was going. Beside me was a grave with my name on it. She had died 10 years ago in the month of Sha'baan at the age of 30. I am 29. Today is also Sha'baan. Tonight is the Night of Emancipation.

Translation of the inscription on the tombstone:

In the name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful;
There is no god but Allah, and Mohammad is His messenger;
The late Khadija;

Surely we belong to Allah and to Him shall we return;*
The late Khadija daughter of Abdu'Rahmaan Khan Mohammad;
Tribe of al-Zadjali, died on a Wednesday;
Date 3 month Sha'baan year 1421;**
Equivalent to 1-11-2000;***
Age 30 years;

* Quran (2:156)
** Islamic Hijri calendar
*** November 1, 2000

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Crisis

An excerpt from 'The Nature and Structure of the Islamic World'...

"The problem faced internally by the Muslim world appear to be overwhelming. Muslims perceive their values to be increasingly dissonant from those of western liberalism, which seems to have lost its moorings in piety, morality and ethics. Islamic polities must be perceived as part of a total epistemology, hence must be judged by their own internally generated criteria. Yet the criteria are subjected to internal conflict as to their meaning and their relationship to the non-Muslim world.

Every great issue of human existence: liberty, justice, welfare, security, dignity, respect, enlightenment, rectitude, death, affection, divine will and divine message has its own scriptural inspiration and internal consistency. It is especially difficult for the West to understand the tacit, indwelling nature of the Muslim psyche. There is no agreed-upon technique for analyzing the salience of the non-verbal, intuitive dimension of man's being: a dimension, which forms an important part of Muslim identity. Only when Spengler's metaphor of the "world cavern" and his use of the term "soul" are understood can the perennial dialectic of the ummah and the modern nation-state have meaning."

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Higher Altitude

"To be affronted by solitude without decadence or a single material thing to prostitute, it elevates you to a spiritual plane, where I felt the presence of God. Now, there is the God they taught me about at school. And there is the God that's hidden by what surrounds us in this civilisation. That's the God I met on the mountain."

- 'Alive'

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Desert God

Beautiful paragraph from Pauline Searle's 'Dawn Over Oman'...

Almost as dramatic in a quieter, less aggressive but more ominous way is the desert. From the Umm as Samiim, the Salt Flats, in the west of Oman, the silent wastes of the Rub al Khali, the Empty Quarter, creep up upon one like the mists of time - nothing, nothing and yet more nothing as far as the eye can see. The silence is so deep here that ears ache from the very pressure of silence. One is alone with one's God now - this is what life is all about and there is nothing between Him and you. This is the type of country where Islam was born: simple enough for a man to find his God and where he can easily believe that God can find him.

Image from Martin Hartley Photography

Time Travelling on Empathy

When I came upon these paragraphs in Pauline Searle's 'Dawn Over Oman', I felt so sad for the monarch of Oman of the past 40 years. It took me back to America, my silent dead phase, when I'd longingly look at other people's families and friends who'd express emotional support and understanding every step of the way - for bad semesters, burnouts, and moments of madness.

First let us go back to 1962 and to Sandhurst in England, where the young Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the only son of Sultan Said, was passing out as a second lieutenant in the Cameronians. Watching the new officers on their big day were members of their families and close friends as well as military dignitaries, but for the young man from Arabia there was no family present, only a middle-aged British major and his wife who had been detailed by his father to keep an eye on him and who were to exert such a tremendous influence on both father and son in the years to come. Major F. C. L. Chauncey, who had originally come to Muscat as British Consul in 1949, had retired in 1958 from the Foreign Service but, owing to his close friendship with Sultan Said, had returned almost immediately to Oman as the Sultan's personal adviser. Cast in the old colonial mould, for better and for worse, Major Chauncey, ex-Indian Army, took his job very seriously. He and Sultan Said were very much akin in character - autocratic, obstinate, but with great integrity and even greater determination that Oman should progress only in their way and in their time.

With surprising forethought, Sultan Said decided to send his son round the world for three months to broaden his horizons. Accompanying the young man were the Chaunceys to guide the young Qaboos and to restrain any youthful enthusiasm which the Sultan himself so distrusted. But this broad-minded action towards his only son was to be the last.

...

The young Qaboos personified to the Sultan the dangers of the future. At all costs he was not to be contaminated by the modern world. There was only one way to prevent this: to keep him isolated. Qaboos, who by this time was living near the palace in Salalah, little realised that this would be his home for the next eight years.

Within

Nighttime once more
Thank God
For silence
For dark
For stillness
For deep blue and black
That drown the details of the world outside
That lull the ugly voices that shout over mine
At night I win
I hear
Memories that live
Filmroll
Some screams
Some smiles
Relive an admirer
Or a suprise
The memory is mine
The memory is alive
Revisit and heal
Woman and child
My own sister am I.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Light from a Supernova

I used to feel so stupid in America.

I was a super-confident well-adjusted 18-year-old when I moved to America by myself in 1999 for university. Until then, I had had the reputation of being very talkative, charming, pretty, extroverted, artistic, and a quick learner - I was a go-getter, my English was solid, and I was a star! That is what I had learned of myself, a delicate jigsaw puzzle that I had carefully put together piece by piece over the years with feedback from the people in my world - my family, my teachers, my friends, oh my darling friends. I was all over the place. I would win contests, I would get selected for special programs, I knew what I was good at, and I was so, so confident. I just knew I would conquer America - they would love me!

I continued on my super enthusiastic streak for about a year after having moved to the US. I didn't make many friends. A girl in my dorm told me that someone had told her that I was a phony. I didn't know what that meant, but it hurt a lot. Why would someone say that when I was nice to everyone?

I felt stupid having to ask people to repeat what they were saying because I'd miss words in their strong southern accent. I'd feel so stupid when they'd slow down and stress every word as if I was testing their patience.

The first part-time job I applied for (university catering), the interviewer/manager, an overweight white woman with short grey hair, grimaced and tossed my handwritten application aside and said she couldn't read my writing (but my teachers had always recruited me to work on special handwritten documents in school). She did hire me though, and I quit 2 weeks later. No one had told me that it was the worst job on campus.

I couldn't believe that I didn't get hired for the next job I applied for, one that I really, really wanted, the one that I would be so good at. Even after the interview. When I had been typing up the application on a computer at the computer lab, a Pakistani student had ridiculed my answers, saying that the manager didn't care if I was proud of the DNA model I had presented so well at my high school science exhibition (but the application had asked me to talk about something I was proud of).

I distinctly remember developing tunnel vision and having the bottom of my stomach fall out when I received a rejection letter for the first scholarship I applied for as a university student.

I felt so stupid around American students. They knew so much about computers and American pop culture. They didn't know any of the English songs I knew, and many said I was weird or exotic. Everytime I'd have to ask "what is (insert random American cultural reference here)?", I wouldn't know what to say when they responded with "you don't know??".

Most American students did not return my friendliness, many did not even know I was there. Some did. Most of my friends ended up being international students. One overweight grumpy white American girl in my dorm hardly ever responded to my greetings, and I felt distressed at the stoic glances she would give me in return. Eight years later when I ran into her in another city in America at a pet store she was working in, I greeted her once again, and she was startled but still didn't look happy to see me. She didn't look anything to see me. Another white boy in my dorm, who was friends with this girl, looked a lot like one of the members of the Irish boy-band Westlife, and I'd happily tell him so, but he'd only reply in monosyllables and never talk to me himself.

I wasn't in on a lot of the lingo in America. I felt so stupid being misunderstood and having someone think it was humourous to make fun of Indian accents in front of me.

I felt so stupid misunderstanding social cues in America. I didn't know what dating entailed, how to respond to boys here, what being gay was, what a condom looked like, and why dancing always had to be dirty. I felt so lost.

I felt so stupid when I didn't know as much about computers as the American students, even though I was a Computer Science major. I didn't know what ethernet was (we'd only got dial-up in Oman in 1998), and in 2000, I felt so stupid when someone introduced me to copy/cut-and-paste. Before that, I used to manually type information that I wanted to extract from websites. Most people didn't even have computers, forget the internet (or ethernet?), in Oman at that time. I was the only person in my class in Oman that knew advanced MS Word features, but here, I didn't know what most people were talking about. Everyone was so tech-savvy, I felt so stupid. If I ever asked a question, they'd say, "you don't know??".

I felt really angry when a white American student tried to argue with me about an English word he said didn't exist. Of course it did, but he didn't accept it.

I felt really hurt by comments about how ugly, fat, mis-shapen, and probably retarded I was following me from college and after to my workplace. Someone once sent me hate-mail saying I was ugly and had chink-eyes like a Mongol. I heard at work once that I had a huge head and that I was so fat that I looked pregnant.

I felt really stupid in America, but one day I stopped trying to play catch-up. Maybe one day I will once again begin to feel like the superstar I used to be.

Star light,
Star bright,
The first star I see tonight,
I wish I may,
I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight.

Restoration

Something that has been bothering me for 15 years has finally been resolved today.

In 8th or 9th grade, I had come across a poem a girl in my batch had written. This poem, along with creative work by other students, had been displayed for a while on a public chartboard for all to see. The chartboard would be updated regularly, like once a month or once a week, I can't remember exactly how often. I do remember when I was asked to update this chartboard by the teachers who were in charge of it, to take down its old collection and put up newer student submissions in its place. Regarding the work that had just been taken down, not every student had come back to claim their work, and the teachers certainly didn't want to keep unnecessary papers, so the leftover stuff remained with me. The poem in question was part of the leftovers.

The poem was wonderful, and I was stunned that that girl had come up with something like that. Everytime I came across that bunch of papers over the years, the same thought would occur to me. I felt terrible for feeling that way - was I jealous? No, I know what jealousy feels like, this wasn't it. Maybe I was resentful that it wasn't something I could come up with? I felt so guilty for thinking this way, I hated myself. I went over the poem so many times that day in that sweaty corridor - I could not keep my eyes off that page - that I'd committed it to memory. How could anyone not? It was so fluid, so run-a-long, so perfect, how could that girl have written that poem? How could I have not?? I was the lauded writer of my class, my batch, of the world!

These feelings bothered me for many years. They would crop up at odd moments in those spaces between my thoughts, the spaces where your real self lurks in the shadows of the daytime sun, the nighttime spaces that yawn into wakefulness and swallow the pretenses of civilised, safe, monitored thoughts. I hated myself for feeling this way, and I hated myself for not having written that poem first.

Until today, when Amitabh Bachchan, whom I follow on Twitter, tweeted a line from that poem. I balked. I googled. Turns out the poem is a famous one of anonymous origins.

The Cautious Man

There was a very cautious man
Who never laughed or played.
He never risked, he never tried,
He never sang or prayed.

And when he one day passed away,
His insurance was denied.
For since he never really lived,
They claimed he never died.


The disembodied whispers that had tormented me in moments unlived by all but myself have found their peace. The sun and the moon are divorced no more, the sky is one.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Echo

When mommy stays in bed
When daddy stays at work
When children want to play
When children want to please
Their parents
Unhappy parents
People unhappy
With themselves
With the world
Who can't see their children
Blurry phantoms on the edge of their rage
Asking for permission
To get in
Dying
Just dy-ing
For a smile
Little pups
Wag wag wag
Thump my restless tail
Stand on my head
So you can think I'm smart
"That's my kid!"
Crush me not

Who tells these children
That their parents
Are too wounded
To notice
To nurture
Anything
Outside
Chasms with so much noise inside
That the voice outside
The plea outside
Could never
Cannot
Get in
Be heard

?

.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Shattered Faith

One last carton had remained unopened for months. I finally opened it. Out of the objects from what seemed like a previous life, one item emerged, perfectly representing the last chapter of my life, hidden from view for over a year in 15 lumpy tired-looking boxes that had travelled across the world. The gist of a whole decade, a chunk of my life, I now held in my hand.

Be careful - it can cut you.

Regarding intolerance

An excerpt from one of my favourite books, 'The Land of Far-Beyond' by Enid Blyton. The travellers from the City of Turmoil carry the burdens of their misdeeds along the narrow and difficult path to the City of Happiness, the Land of Far-Beyond, where they have been told they will lose their crushing burdens. The book is based on 'The Pilgrim's Progress' by John Bunyan.

They went on for a good way, and then met a man who called upon them to stop.

"You can't pass by here unless you tell me what is in your luggage!" he said, looking at the burdens on the backs of Mr. Scornful and the children. "Nobody takes luggage to the City of Happiness. So you must be carrying something you shouldn't!"

"It isn't luggage," said Mr. Scornful, not at all liking the look of the man, who had rather wild eyes, and a hard mouth. "It's - well, I hardly know how to describe it - it's just a burden we can't get rid of till we reach the Land of Far-Beyond. So pray let us pass."

"What's in the burdens?" asked the man, his eyes flashing. "You must tell me!"

"Oh, don't be silly," said Mr. Scornful, getting tired of the wild-eyed fellow. "Let us pass - or I'll knock you down. Who are you, any way?"

"I am called Intolerance," said the man. "I live here, not far from the path. I see travellers going by on their way to the City of Happiness. But a lot of them don't deserve to get there, and I try to stop them."

"What right have you to stop anyone!" cried Peter. "You've no right at all! Let us pass."

"Tell me what's in your burdens first," said the man. Then, as nobody answered, he looked with his mad eyes at the loads on the traveller's shoulders. "Ah - I can see what is inside them! I can see!"

"You can't!" said Anna.

"I can see selfishness - and unkindness - and spite - and greed - oh, what terrible burdens! No one carrying those deserves to go to the City of Happiness!"

"I dare say, we don't deserve to go - but we are going all the same!" said Mr. Scornful. "The Stranger told us that we might go there, and he should know because he came from there. You've no right to try to stop us."

"I detest the things you carry in your burdens," said Intolerance. "I hate sinners! I hate people who do not think exactly as I do."

"It is right to hate sin, but it's all wrong to hate the sinner," said Mr. Scornful, impatiently. "You're a sinner too because you hate people who don't think as you do! Now get away or I'll push you over!"

"If you dare to lay a finger on me I will open the gates of my dam over there, and flood the path!" shouted Intolerance, quite beside himself with rage. The others looked and saw that the gurgling stream beside which they had walked for a mile or two, had now swollen into a rapid river that almost overflowed its banks. Near them was a stone dam which kept the river away from the path. In it was a sliding iron gate. Intolerance ran to open the gate of the dam.

"I'll flood you! I'll sweep you away!" he shouted. "You dare to threaten me - well, I'll show you what I can do. This is my River of Hate. I will let is overflow the Banks of Persecution, and sweep you off your feet. Then maybe you will crawl back to me and beg my pardon. You will say I am right, and will think as I do, and believe what I believe!"

"Stop!" yelled Mr. Scornful, as he saw the man turning a handle that lifted up the iron gate from the opening in the dam. "You're mad, fellow! Why try to drown people just because they are not what you think they should be! Stop!"

But Intolerance was half-mad, and he opened the gate in his stone dam. With a rush the water poured out, sickly yellow in colour, and swirled around the feet of the four travellers at once. They yelled, and tried to run from it, going forward on the path as fast as they could. But the water followed them, licking round their knees now, pouring over the banks and down to the path.

"I hope it doesn't get any deeper," cried Anna, trying to keep her balance. "Mr. Scornful, yell to him to shut the dam."

But all the yelling in the world would not make Intolerance do anything he didn't want to! He stood beside the dam, shouting.

"I'll rescue you if you'll say you're sorry, and will agree with me!"

"Silly fellow," said Peter. The boy had found a firm place on the path, and had dug his feet hard into it to withstand the force of the water. "Anna, Patience! Come here to me and hold on to my arms. I'm steady here."

The two girls were almost bowled over now by the water, which had reached up to their waists. With Mr. Scornful's help they reached their brother, and held on to his arms.

"You're as steady as a rock, Peter," gasped Anna. "I was almost in the water just then! And goodness knows where it would have taken me! It is pouring away into the field over there. Oh, how horrid of Intolerance to treat us like this."

The water rose higher still. It reached to the children's shoulders, and up to Mr. Scornful's chest.

"We shall drown soon," said Anna. "Oh, Peter - don't you think we'd better yell to Intolerance to stop the river overflowing - we can easily say we're sorry, and that we agree with everything he says - even if we don't."

"Well, I'm not going to do that!" said Peter, holding his sisters very firmly indeed. "We've a right to think as we like, and to do what we think is best. Why, Intolerance would be a real tyrant, if he had his way - trying to make everyone think as he does! And see how wicked he is really, for all he pretends to hate evil things! He has nearly drowned us in his River of Hate!"

"The water's up to my chin!" groaned poor Patience. "I'm holding on to you, Peter - but the river is very strong."

"Look! There's a raft!" suddenly cried Mr. Scornful, and he nodded over the water, which was now a raging torrent. The children could just see the raft bobbing on the surface. On it was a sturdy youth, who was holding a rope in his hand, ready to throw it to anyone caught in the flood.

"Hie!" yelled Mr. Scornful. "Hie! Can you save us?"

The youth heard his shout and threw the rope at once. Mr. Scornful gave it to the two girls, and the youth pulled them to safety on his raft. Peter swam up to it and Mr. Scornful waded over and pulled himself up.

"Goodness!" said Peter, shivering. "That was a most unpleasant adventure. Does Intolerance do this kind of thing often?"

"Whenever he can," said the youth, paddling the raft over the water. "But as soon as I see the water rushing over the path I get out my raft of Independence. It has saved many a traveller from Intolerance's River of Hate! My name is Charitable, and I'm quite the opposite of Intolerance!"

"I am glad you came when you did," said Anna, trying to squeeze the water from her clothes. "I should have been swept away the very next minute. I simply can't imagine how it was that Peter stood so steady!"

"Oh - your brother's name is Peter, is it?" said Charitable, his grey, wide-set eyes looking directly at the boy. "Well, you know what the name Peter means, don't you? It means a rock. So Peter is like his name, is he - steady as a rock when trouble comes along! That's good."

After some time the youth reached the end of the flooding water. His raft scraped on the ground and he jumped off. He helped the girls to the dry ground, and then waved his hand to where a big bonfire burned nearby.

"I always light that when I see the river flooding over the path," he said. "Then travellers can dry themselves."

The children and Mr. Scornful dried themselves gratefully by Charitable's big fire. It was a curious fire for it seemed to dry them completely in no time. Even their clothes underneath soon became dry. Charitable piled on more twigs when the fire died down.

"Why doesn't somebody punish Intolerance?" asked Peter, holding his steaming coat out to the flames. "He has no right to treat people like that."

"Oh, sooner or later he will be swept away in his own river," said Charitable. "And I don't mind telling you that I will not be out on my raft that day! He is the one person in the world I won't help, for he has persecuted others so often!"

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Maya

Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.
- The Holy Bible, James 4:14


My parents have reached that stage in their life where their friends have started passing away. Over the past year, at least two families that we've known have lost their husbands and fathers. These were the adults that seemed immutable to me, fixtures that the tent of my life was pegged to in the sandstorm of the desert of life, people that remained the same as I progressed from kindergarten to high school to grad school to respectable fulltime employment to quarterlife crisis.

Yesterday my mom caught up with a friend she had gone to school with in a faraway time in Lucknow, India. My mother remembered the schoolgirl version of her, and now, decades later, she discovered a widow in her 60s who had 4 grown children living in various countries in the Eastern hemisphere. In the process of catching up with her friend, my mom discovered a few more girls she used to know who had passed away. One of these was a good friend from her schooldays whom she had lost touch with.

This comes at a time when I'm immersed in the history of Oman as part of my research for a book. During such periods, I may be physically present in the current time, but my mind and soul are suspended in that realm where I'm outside the dimension of time, looking in at all the ages that have come and gone and are yet to occur. Cities forgotten except when discovered buried intact under our feet, lives that were lived, and faces that once had strange names. Echoes of trials, sorrows, betrayals, and joy. Powerful kings and queens, bloody battles, great civilisations and cultures, youth and life, noble ideals. The wind stole them all, and the earth bears silent witness to their shadows even as we unknowingly build lives over their remains.

While my mother contemplates the meaning of the quiet end of the lives of the girls she once giggled with, the image of a novel whose last sentence has been neatly written and the book closed continuously runs in my mind. A dull sense of loss suspends itself within my stomach. I am feeling the absence of people that once were, even though I've never met any of them, none of the schoolgirls, widows, kings and queens, travellers, godmen, warriors, healers, dreamers, fathers, mothers, and children. I mourn them. I miss them all in the quiet place where there is no Time, where even I have no name, no face, and no voice. I never did.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Rebirth


It's been a long time since I've drawn anything, so I thought the first thing I should try is my face. I've never drawn myself before. Seems somewhat appropriate to reclaim my skill with myself.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Circle of Life (version India)

Repost from an online support group for Nirupama Pathak, a young Delhi-based journalist who was murdered in an alleged honour killing.

Indian parents are torturing and killing their own sons and daughters
by Kv Gautam

This is just to put the things (about overrated Indian parents and family) in the right perspective. Of course, it applies to most of Indians, not all. There is need to make parents understand what they have been doing to their wards without consciously realizing it. Most of young people in India are at greater risk of getting tortured and killed in a family than outside.

See how:

Risks for boys:

Your birth will be celebrated but soon you will be a soft target for venting out of personal frustrations by your parents. It is common for Indians to be beaten at will by parents. There is no rule (at least I do not know about one) that can protect you against physical punishment by parents. As a boy you receive a lot of physical beating by teacher also, which is now (due to more awareness) illegal. There are new rules against teacher giving students physical punishment after some serious physical damages to students were reported by media.

As a student high level of pressure will be put on by parents on you to perform excellently in textbook studies, even if your natural talent lies not in roting learning books but thinking originally, or some other skill. Suicide level is alarmingly high due to extreme pressure by parents. More children die in India due to suicides than diseases during their student days.

Many parents (mostly poor) take their sons out of school and send for earning money at tender age. It takes away their entire childhood and right to be a better citizen and a person by getting educated.

In adult age, relationships with the opposite sex is not accepted by majority of parents, resulting in you becoming sexual frustrated.

When you become adult you are at a high risk to be put under intense pressure during marriage matters. Arranged marriages are most popular in the country. According to my estimates around one fourth must be forced marriages. Adult sons are at the receiving end of some intense emotional blackmailing.

Honour killings and social boycott are frequent in many parts of the country, if boys marry without consent of parents. You are just a pawn in the little silly game of family honor being played by your parents.

When you become father you repeat the same treatment to your son that your parents did to you as accept that behavior normal and a done thing. So, the tradition of torture continues generations after generations.

Risks for girls:

Many parents will not let you be born and will kill you in fetus itself.

In many parts of the country, girls are killed just after birth

If you survive, you will be at the receiving end of a systematic exploitation by the whole family structure. You will be discriminated against at every step of life.

Your parents can any time stop your education and make you learn a basic thing – cooking. It stops you from becoming a well-informed and independent minded person. Your brainwashing for making you submissive to men and suffer everything silently starts now. This prepares girls for further exploitation, discrimination and torture that they suffer later in life.

In adult age, relationships with the opposite sex is not accepted by majority of parents, resulting in you becoming sexual frustrated.

Thousands of girls are killed every year if they become pregnant due to some affair.
You do not have right on your own body and life. Parents think they own you and you are their property.

Due to brainwashing many girls do not value their own life and commit suicide if something goes wrong (getting pregnant for example) in their affair with boys. Lack of sex education further puts you at risk in relationships with the opposite sex.

You are likely to be forced into a marriage with a boy of your parents' choice, not yours. Most of girls are not even consulted in the whole affair.

Thousand of girls are killed every year in India when they marry without consent of parents. Most of the cases are not reported by media and are never known by general people. Or shown as accidental death or suicide.

Most of the times, you get no support from parents if you are tortured or killed by in-laws due to dowry demands after you are married.

Domestic violence is common for you after marriage. According to data with the Indian government, one third of women are victims of domestic violence. Do not expect any support from parents as they condone these.

If you are lucky enough to survive these all, then you unconsciously take revenge with your own daughter and mete out the same treatment to her that your suffered at the hands of your own parents.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

My deja vu

Within these gates, I am never grown. Within this perimeter, the world cannot follow me. This is the only place where I can visit the past, for nomatter how the people within its hallways come and go, the hallways themselves remain the same. They say that people leave a part of themselves in every place they have ever been. The air here is thick with mirages from the past, and walking through the grounds can sometimes feel like walking under water, with layers and layers of old livings blanketing you into slow motion. If you touched the walls, looked out a window, you'd see all that had happened there before you, all of it at once, like video that's been exposed many times over.

Some people believe that time doesn't exist in a linear fashion, like a single train track that the carriage of one's life can only move forward on just once, never to find that track again. Some believe that time is like a TV set, a single location where all channels, with each channel being a thread of time, are streaming through at the same time, all happening at the same time. All one has to do is choose the channel, the reality, that one wants to be a part of.

As I stood in my old school's senior library, handing over an autographed copy of my very first book to the librarian who used to be in-charge of the middle school library when I was a student, the library became the TV set, and I began to feel dizzy as the channel I was in, the present time, began to fade in and out of other channels. Each blink of my eyes put me into a different channel. But who was changing the channel? Why was I existing across channels? Was I not a part of any one channel? Blink, the librarian was flipping through my new book. Blink, I was waiting for the librarian to issue me my book before the bell rang for my next period. Blink, the librarian was congratulating me on getting my first book published. Blink, my classmates were trying their best to keep their voices down and not annoy the librarian. Blink, all the students around me looked like all the classmates I'd ever had.

Blink, I smiled as the librarian finally issued the book to me. Blink, I smiled as the librarian told me he'd keep my book out on display.

"For men may come and men may go, but I go on for ever." - Alfred Lord Tennyson

Top of the Poll

These are the top trending topics on Twitter. David Cameron just got announced as the new Prime Minister of the UK, and poor Gordon Brown is already at the bottom of the list.


What's really sad is that even Justin Bieber is doing better than Gordon Brown.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Oscar speech

I would like to thank the following for helping me become the person I am today:
  • India for teaching me about sanctity and diversity
  • Oman for showing me the difference between religion and culture
  • America for making me bold and inquisitive

Monday, May 3, 2010

Was a time


(Click on the image below to enlarge it.)

The Dancing Cavalier

One of my favourite songs from the 1985 movie, Alice in Wonderland. The White Knight saves Alice from the Red Knight and then sings a beautiful song to her.



"We are dancing.

We didn't need a cue,
Yet with a girl like you,
It seems the thing to do,
Don't you agree?

I hear the strings,
My poor heart sings,
And we are dancing.

We share a smile,
And for a while,
We two are dancing.

If ever time should bring another year,
Another spring,
They'll be compared,
To what I've shared,
With you.

I hear the strings,
My poor heart sings,
And we are dancing.

We share a smile,
And for a while,
We two are dancing.

If ever time should bring another year,
Another spring,
They'll be compared,
To what I've shared,
With you."

Where have all the knights gone?

What a beautiful song, what a beautiful performance. This song bored me when I was really young but it brings me to tears now. It's sweet, in a sad way, how one thing can appear different to a person at different times in that person's life.


Watch the whole movie!

Alice in Wonderland



Through the Looking Glass

Gypsy Song

In my life, I've travelled quite a bit and lived amongst peoples that were not my own. As a consequence, I don't feel like I wholly belong to any one community anywhere in the world, that nowhere is home for too long, a thought that is devastating to one's physical body. During one phase of my life that lasted 10 years, my only constant companion were the thoughts in my head, and in that time, I lived in and visited various towns and cities, and wondered about a great many things. I have never quite been able to explain the workings of this sort of a life and how its mute visages never cease to beckon in dreams until I came across the following paragraphs from Lafcadio Hearn's short story, 'A Ghost'. Seeing my thoughts exactly reflected in the words of a writer who died a hundred years ago set my mind at ease and, for the first time, granted me the comfort of finally belonging, even if it be somewhere beyond the physical world.

"...Oh! the first vague charm, the first sunny illusion of some fair city - when vistas of unknown streets all seem leading to the realisation of a hope you dare not even whisper; when even the shadows look beautiful, and strange facades appear to smile good omen through lights of gold! And those first winning relations with men, while you are still a stranger, and only the better and the brighter side of their nature is turned to you!...All is yet a delightful, luminous indefiniteness - sensation of streets and of men - like some beautifully tinted photograph slightly out of focus...

Then the slow solid sharpening of details all about you thrusting through illusion and dispelling it, growing keener and harder day by day, through long dull seasons, while your feet learn to remember all asperities of pavements, and your eyes all physiognomy of buildings and of persons, failures of masonry, furrowed lines of pain. Thereafter only the aching of monotony intolerable, and the hatred of sameness grown dismal, and dread of the merciless, inevitable, daily and hourly repetition of things while those impulses of unrest, which are Nature's urgings through that ancestral experience which lives in each one of us - outcries of sea and peak and sky to man - ever make wider appeal....Strong friendships may have been formed but there finally comes a day when even those can give no consolation for the pain of monotony, and you feel that in order to live you must decide, regardless of result, to shake for ever from your feet the familiar dust of that place....

And, nevertheless, in the hour of departure you feel a pang. As train or steamer bears you away from the city and its myriad associations, the old illusive impression will quiver back about you for a moment - not as if to mock the expectation of the past, but softly, touchingly, as if pleading to you to stay; and such a sadness, such a tenderness may come to you, as one knows after reconciliation with a friend misapprehended and unjustly judged....But you will never more see those streets - except in dreams.

Through sleep only they will open again before you; steeped in the illusive vagueness of the first long-past day; peopled only by friends outreaching to you. Soundlessly you will tread those shadowy pavements many times, to knock in thought, perhaps, at doors which the dead will open to you....But with the passing of years all becomes dim - so dim that even asleep you know 'tis only a ghost-city, with streets going to nowhere. And finally whatever is left of it becomes confused and blended with cloudy memories of other cities - one endless bewilderment of filmy architecture in which nothing is distinctly recognisable, though the whole gives the sensation of having been seen before...ever so long ago.

Meantime, in the course of wanderings more or less aimless, there has slowly grown upon you a suspicion of being haunted - so frequently does a certain hazy presence intrude itself upon the visual memory. This, however, appears to gain rather than to lose in definiteness: with each return its visibility seems to increase....And the suspicion that you may be haunted gradually develops into a certainty."