Thursday, January 28, 2010

Muscat this week

If you click on the image and look real hard, you might see the Omani flag badge and the HM Sultan Qaboos badge on my collar.

Brought to you by the local weekly paper that didn't want to hire my writing services last year.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

About colonial hangovers

What does it mean to be Indian? What does it mean to be Western? Only 100 years ago, non-English people the world over had a chip on their shoulders about not being English; they were forever trying to compensate for their lack of Englishness. Today people can't get enough of the American accent (or is that too changing as we speak?). Only recently did a very good friend of mine pose the question, "why is India becoming a slutty version of America?"

This week, with the Indian constitution celebrating its 60th birthday, every Indian is pondering how far India has come and where it's going in the future, and more than a few people seem to be voicing their concerns about the Indian identity...even Mark Tully. Their observation, like my good friend's, is that the Indian youth is chucking its roots to mindlessly ape what it thinks the West is from what it sees of it in the media. Young Indian people have started mutating into apna versions of 'Sex in the City', cosmos and all. Even the Indian entertainment industry hasn't been immune to it, but that isn't saying much.

The West isn't really what you see on TV. Assuming that Hollywood represents real America is just as laughable (and the laughs keep coming) as assuming that Bollywood represents real India. Rather, the essence of America, the real juice that the Indian youth should passionately be gulping down instead of imported Bud Lights, is its discipline, confidence, and love of efficiency. America isn't the greatest country in the world because of its discos and Happy Hours. Real Americans, the one that have kept America's cogs running straight into superpower-ness, are greatly turned off by tardiness, and unprofessionalism. Real Americans start working in their teens and try to honestly earn their way to the American dream. Real Americans reward initiative and encourage effort. Real Americans consider plagiarism the ultimate crime. That is not the America you see on TV. Heck, even the Americans don't like what they see on their own TVs.

Young people in India and around the world think that being Western, i.e. being advanced and cool, is about wearing Western clothing, eating Western food, speaking Western languages, and especially drinking & partying like the gora people. My wish is for these young people to realise that the people who make the West what it is party only in direct proportion to the constructive work they sincerely put into the system. The real cool people are always too busy for hangovers.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Astabal

My father and I snuck into the stables of the Aligarh Horse Riding Club. It was all part of my father's attempt to sell me onto the idea of studying at the Aligarh Muslim University in India. I loved horses - I had my own horse colouring book, a prized copy of Black Beauty, and very happy memories of attending a horse show hosted by the Sultan of Oman who shared this passion with me - hence the cleverly planned detour from the usual campus visit.

Not a soul was to be seen on the riding grounds that summer afternoon. Even the gatekeeper had left for the afternoon siesta. Nothing moved except for the stiff swaying of summer-dried plants. There was no sound except for the dull hum of insects lazily buzzing about the dusty flora. I was 15 years old, and had never seen a horse so up close before. His name was Rustam. My father and I stepped into his stable, cool and shaded from the sleepy sun. What a beautiful creature he was. Gigantic, statuesque, tall and strong, his deep black coat thick on his rocky muscles, but a face so unassuming, an eye so gentle, you knew his soul had remained uncorrupted. I approached him slowly, never having been so close to a horse before, suddenly aware of some primal connection between us all, dimly conscious of origins that they try their hardest to make us forget.

He was so much bigger than me. I had never seen anything so large have a life of its own. I looked at his strong hooves, much bigger and tougher-looking than my fists, and worried that he might step onto my smaller sandaled feet. A machine of muscle and bone and breath that I'd only seen pictures of, yet here it was, a whole other creature, just as alive as me, maybe even better than me.

I touched his large neck, afraid that he might flinch and crush my fragile feet with his rocky ones. But he didn't. He knew in the silence that I was only here to appreciate him. I felt his life under my palm, a living being, a whole other existence different from my own. I slowly touched the flat of his face, startled at the hardness of it, aware of his acknowledgment of me. Rustam the Arabian horse, Rustam the hero of Shahnameh, Rustam the creature of God I met for a few minutes and have remembered since.

Did He smile His work to see? Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

River reed

A woman woke up near water

The grass was tall and swaying
The breeze was mint through leaves
The sky was blue as summer
The sun was felt unseen

Her eyes were loved and dreamy
Her clothes were loose and soft
Her feet were bare and healthy
Her skin was silk and free

"My skin feels silk and free?"
She thought
"I feel like I can breathe?"
She wondered where she was right now
And why she'd been asleep

"Where had I been before?"
She thought
No memories had she
But for a sense of misery
Before this place of peace

The breeze perfumed her untied hair
With bits of buds and grass
She touched her arms, a new delight
A thrill unknown before

The water of the lake nearby
It smiled
It chose
To remain still.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Dire Wraith

A finger crooks itself at me
In moments numb it beckons me
"Come to relief," it smiles and I
See fangs and glinting eyes that lie
"Remember me?" it smiles but I
Now see the spider tempt the fly
To nights of sleep and days of night
That once I pined with all my might
In depths of agony, despair
To rescue me, take me from there
The place where I could see no light
With eyes that endless tears would bite
In moments black it called my name
In echoes from what is insane
It whispered when I was awake
"Some pills, a cut, is all it takes"
The shadow lurks behind me still
I sense it waiting for a kill
Waiting, watching the very one
That fought, that lived, the one that won.

Papa kehte hain

Was his name Imran? The boy was a year ahead of me in school, and I really only heard about him in death. I don't even know what he looked like. Imran was an 11th standard science student, and, from what was revealed after his death, was having a hard time keeping his grades up. He didn't like science, but his family, especially his father, had insisted that he pick the science stream over commerce or arts in high school. These things were non-negotiable. You became a doctor or an engineer. You'd like it, and you'd like it good.

That day Imran had come home early. It was Ramadhan, and all the schools and offices in Oman had had their hours reduced by law. Imran's father wasn't home yet, which was just as well - Imran had received a graded test paper back that day. He hadn't scored well despite the hardest effort and was afraid to get his father to sign the paper before having to return it to his teacher. His mother and sister were on holiday in India.

There was construction going on in the building where Imran lived. When his father came home that day, he found his son hanging from the ceiling from a noose made from rope that had been lying around the construction site.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Our Ward

My brother had been in Khoula hospital's general surgery ward for weeks, recovering from a procedure whose recovery time seemed more unbearable than the actual procedure itself. He was already paralysed below his chest, but now he couldn't even turn on his side on his own lest he disturb his dressings and had to lie for hours on one side until a nurse came to help him change. So for weeks he lay in bed, never leaving it, staring at the grey ceiling or the vomit-coloured curtains he preferred to keep drawn around him. We'd visit him every evening for the permitted 2 hours, but that only increased his feelings of being left behind when it was time for us to go home without him.

To make things worse, my brother couldn't sleep. Two of the other patients in his ward were noisy, even while drifting in and out of sleep/consciousness. The old man across the aisle from my brother was in for yet another lower limb amputation. His leg had gangrened again. He was a diabetic and also a heart patient. But he was a tough old Omani, like an old seadog. His tan leathery skin made his greasy white stubble and chest hair stand out, and he enjoyed talking at other's patients' visitors in his rustic Arabic dialect. I would try to hide behind the curtains around my brother's bed; it was odd to have the old man with the broken grin looking at me and constantly saying things I wasn't sure he was saying to me or himself. It was a bit silly but strange at the same time. The old man would always speak in Arabic, nomatter if the nurse or doctor or passerby was replying in some other language. That's how his conversations would go, both sides speaking in different languages, no side understanding the other, but the most lively conversation you'd ever heard. He never seemed scared on uncomfortable or homesick. He sat perched on his bed like a king, observing his kingdom and subjects with a proud all-knowing alert eye. His face always looked like he knew the unspoken secrets of men and women, and that he very much enjoyed that knowledge. That's what the unageing twinkle in his eye told me.

The man at the other end of the ward in my brother's aisle was in his 30s. A dark South Indian man who'd only come in after my brother. He had been the victim of a hit-and-run, as in a car had hit him, the pedestrian, and driven off, leaving him with a brain injury. He was an expatriate and a bachelor and had no family or friends in Oman; he'd only recently moved to the country for employment. The only people that ever came to visit him were his friends from Church. Dark-skinned men and women would visit him everyday without fail, but all they could do was look at him and talk to each other because their friend's brain injury confined him to bed and bouts of incoherent howling. We couldn't make out what South Indian state he was from from the random words he used, mangled as they were. All day and all night he'd lay there, shaking his head from side to side, crying and gasping and talking and calling out in turns in an unnatural guttural voice that reminded me of the possessed girl from 'The Exorcist'. There was only one word I could make out from all his ramblings - "Amma".

My brother couldn't sleep. The South Indian man never stopped talking to unseen visitors in a very normal tone, asking questions, complaining, discussing problems in a garbled language. It was like hearing one side of a telephonic conversation. Sometimes he'd laugh at a joke only audible to his ears, sometimes he'd rage about an unheard insult. Sometimes he was loud, and sometimes he spoke softly to himself. As the weeks went by, he began to seem familiar. We wanted to know his name. Even the old grinning Omani began talking back loudly to him in Arabic from his bed, clearly enjoying himself no end. And the South Indian man would talk back to him from his bed on the other end of the ward, making no sense at all but to himself. And they'd carry on. To outsiders, it was like being in a monkey cage at the zoo - sweet and somewhat crazy. After a while it felt normal, and I began to feel like I knew these people that I didn't know at all. And that was comforting.

That one particular evening had been unusually quiet and calm. The visiting hours were drawing to an end, and my parents were not yet back from their trip the hospital canteen. I was sitting on a chair at the edge of my brother's bed, reading a magazine as my brother lay napping, taking advantage of the rare quiet day. But it was too good to be true. Suddenly the South Indian man began talking. "Amma? Amma." He giggled a grating giggle at something he found unbearably funny. "Amma?"

The old Omani couldn't resist. "Meow!" he chuckled from his bed. The South Indian replied.

"Aaaaaaa Amma."

The Omani played along. It was their personal game. "Meow, meow!"

The South Indian laughed. The Omani laughed. I smiled and shook my head at their inside joke as I turned the page of my magazine. How had we all ever ended up here?