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.


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


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.