Visiting The Little Prince in Japan

By Rowena Mondiwa

 

“All grown-ups were once children…but only few of them remember it.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

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In the little resort town of Hakone, just outside of Tokyo, I visited a part of my literary childhood. The moment I learned that Japan has the only Little Prince Museum in the world, I made a mental note that I had to visit it should I ever visit Japan. That dream came true in June 2017 when I visited Japan for the first time. On hearing my Hakone plans, my friend from Tokyo asked me, “Why are you going to Hakone? Onsen (hotspring)?” Most people do go to Hakone for the hotsprings, to visit  the famous lake, or to see Mount Fuji if the sky is clear. The look of amusement on my friend’s face is one I’ve seen on many non-readers’ faces when I tell them about my literary aspirations, but that has never stopped me from my single-minded bookish pursuits. Fellow bookworms will understand my love of bibliotourism.

A few days after landing in Tokyo I took the Shinkansen to Odawara, and from there I took the bus to Hakone. The lady at the Odawara bus station nodded knowingly when I told her I was going to the Little Prince museum, and with gestures told me to wait until the bus driver calls the stop of Hoshi no Ōjisama Myūjiamu (The Little Prince Museum).

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Bookworms are strange, I’m the first to admit it. I’m compulsive and obsessive when it comes to my literary loves. Having literary experiences ranks higher than a lot of things in my life. With The Little Prince, this book goes back with me a long way; the love runs deep. I was 10 years old when I first encountered it, and I was immediately smitten, probably due to a mixture of the great pictures (to this day I believe that all novels should contain illustrations), the characters, the simple truths. It was also due to being a child, nodding fervently when the prince says, “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.” I totally got that, being a misunderstood child myself. Now as an adult, I believe that book helped me keep my childlike curiosity and heart, and it’s a book that seems to have grown with me, one I have gained a deeper understanding of.

When I stepped off the bus in front of the museum, I realized I had picked the perfect day and season to visit. The sun was shining bright, and the flowers, particularly the roses, were in full bloom. The Little Prince museum was built as a sort of replica of a French village. It was, like I said, a perfect day to visit. The gardens were spectacular. We could explore the book and also the life of de Saint-Exupery

It feels cliché to say this, but I honestly felt like I was walking in the book. Books that really impact us as children, I believe, become a part of our souls. When the mind is still young, naïve and growing, with childlike curiosity and still not fully aware of the world, it is a mind that is malleable and fertile for new ideas and words. The first talking rose you meet you will probably remember, and subsequent talking roses won’t be as strange to you. When you learn that grown-ups only care about numbers, you vow not to be like that. At least I did.

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***

Rowena and I met in the great world of Twitter, brought together perhaps by a shared love for the written word. It was pure serendipity that she feels the same spiritual connection I have with The Little Prince. Perhaps more, because she travelled all the way to experience it!

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When I requested her for an introduction of herself to the readers, she sent me this: “Due to her Third Culture Kid upbringing, Rowena has always been passionate about culture, language, and communication. The arts are her passion and keep her grounded and curious about life. Other hobbies include nature, cooking, travel, and hiking.”

So now I learn that we share much more than a love for the written word! Nature, cooking, travel… And flowers. Isn’t it wonderful that social media enables birds of similar feather to flock together, even when they roost in different ends of the world?

***

Images courtesy Rowena Mondiwa 

Rowena’s blog: https://lesreveriesderowena.wordpress.com

 

 

Grey Hair and Turquoise Nail Polish

 

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The view from my kitchen

 

It’s summer, like I said. It has been for a while. Like forever.

Daylight peeps in through the closed curtains of my bedroom at around 4:30 or so, forces its way in through my eyelids, prising them apart. I remember one of my boys doing that when he was a baby. ‘Mma, are you sleeping? he would ask, peering closely into my eyes. (Who was it? Appu or Adu? Or both? Funny – I can’t recall now. I can only recall the tiny fingers holding my eyelids open.) Of course I’m not, I’d reply, and pretend to listen. As if I wasn’t dying to go back to sleep.

Well, summer days are like that too – persistent, and childishly inconsiderate. I fight it for up to an hour sometimes. And then I give in. Do I have a choice, really?

Standing in front of the mirror with my mouth full of toothpaste foam, I pick off a long(ish), silver hair from my pale purple housecoat. Whose is this now? I frown. And how did it come here? Then I realise it’s mine. Ah well. I’ll get used to it, eventually.

Madam, aren’t you colouring your hair? The young girl in the salon asks me each time I go for a hair cut or a head massage. (The latter is my vice, indulgence, and sin.)

I smile the same smile each time, and reply the same reply. No, thank you.

But Madam, it’s turning white. She lifts a lock of hair from my right temple with the hairbrush and holds it up for me in the mirror. See?

I know. And that’s okay. I continue smiling.

But why? You’ll look old! Her face is a mask of concern.

Because I am old! I reply, without letting the smile falter. At least, old enough for a few grey hairs.

She looks at me sympathetically, even tries to comfort me. For growing old, for having grey hair, and for giving in to both without a fight. You should colour your hair, Madam. Really you should. You’ll look and feel younger.

I don’t want to hurt her feelings. She means well. So I tell her things like how I tend to be sloppy with things. Not very regular, you know what I mean? And white roots would look so bad, no?

That she understands. Hmm. She nods thoughtfully. You should come more regularly, Madam. After forty, it’s important that you look after yourself…. She goes on to suggest a maintenance regime that, if followed properly, is sure to keep me looking at least ten years younger than I am, no matter what my age is. 

I nod earnestly and ask the right questions. And get educated answers.

I’ve learned from experience that I shouldn’t try to tell her that I truly don’t mind. Not my grey hair, not my wrinkles – nothing except the weight that tends to pile up at odd places in my body. That in fact, I consider each passing year an achievement of sorts. See, I’ve lasted. Despite everything. To see my hair turning silver. Yaay!

Roopsha had come home the other day. Auntie, you should try colouring your hair – some blue highlights or something, she suggested. I’ve been telling my mother too. She would, of course. Petite, and exactly half my age, she looks lovely with pink and blue highlights on her short, straight hair.

I have to admit though, I’m not totally averse to the idea. Maybe I’ll live to be old (and bold) enough to try it out. Because growing older is, among other things, liberating. See how I wear turquoise nail polish these days? I wouldn’t have dreamt of it even a year back. And I’ve started sporting an anklet too, for good measure. 

I go to the kitchen and pull out my chair. That’s where my morning writing happens. In my tiny kitchen, sitting on my tiny green wooden chair. The one that Adu outgrew some eleven years ago. With the Mac balanced on the wooden cutting board. All the other rooms, including the living room, have sleeping bodies in them that I don’t have the heart to disturb. But the kitchen, now that’s my sole domain. At that time of the day.

And so I begin. My summer day. 

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Hygge and the Summer

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It’s my twelfth summer here, in the UAE. And just like the eleven earlier ones, this summer too is a living, fire-breathing entity that has me in its vice grip, and doesn’t let go. I have to prise it off finger by finger, and if I slack for a moment in between, those sizzling hands will clamp over my temples again, pressing against my thoughts, choking them. There is no getting used to, I realise, when it comes to summer in the desert.

But I’m being self-indulgent here, talking about I, me and myself yet again. I, who is sitting inside a reasonably comfortable apartment and making a reasonable (though it could have been much better, certainly) living doing what I enjoy doing. There is running water, electricity and all other basic amenities that one could wish for. And more than anything else, I have my family with me. My children, my husband. Some friends and family… Each of which is a luxury, denied to many. Here, in this desert.

I’m grateful. Immensely.

A few months ago, Appu and I were discussing the Danish word Hygge which Christina had sent me when she was in Denmark as an exchange student. I was her English teacher back in 2007-08 when she was a mere eighth grader. Now she is all grown up and travelling between continents, but she still finds it in her to gift me interesting words and flavoured tea. Teachers are, by the very nature of our profession, privileged.

I’m digressing. I was talking about hygge.

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“We should consider something like that for our summers, ‘Mma,” Appu suggested while we were discussing the way Danes prepare themselves for winter. We decided vaguely that we would make our indoors cozy enough to beat the summer-induced depression, listlessness and claustrophobia – those unfortunate traits which both he and Adu, my younger one, have inherited (to a lesser degree) from me.

So this summer, the boys and I have managed to keep a house that we wouldn’t actively want to leave for the great, searing, blinding outdoors. And this summer, the green in our balcony, though dusty and sometimes tinged at the edges with brown, has so far survived the 40+ degree (Celsius, mind you!) temperature. My plants are standing up straight – or however they are supposed to stand.

Pigeons and sparrows still visit, though unlike last year, they have chosen not to build nests among my plants to lay eggs. Procreation must be the last thing on their mind, given the heat. But they are still territorial. Very much so. The other day, an errant mynah came to steal the tender leaves of our equally errant mango sapling, and little miss pigeon mercilessly drove her off, sputtering with rage.

You can’t blame her for getting angry, really. There are times when I wish I could make a huge fuss like she did, and get my point across to whoever it should. And there are so many inhuman beings I would like to bite a chunk off and drive away from my world as she had done.

No, I don’t mean the ones who come to steal a leaf from my balcony. I mean those other faceless people. Like the ones who have printed that ugly (and I use the word with great deliberation here) massage centre card we found on the pavement, while walking to the supermarket. The one with the picture of an innocent looking adolescent girl on it. How can you sell your services using her? She’s just a child! I want to scream. At somebody. 

I shudder at the thought of those other faceless people; the ones who pick up that card and dial those numbers. And I feel angry that those who should feel angry and can do something about it, but don’t. Angry. And impotent.

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Then there is this young man who comes to clean my apartment. The latest in a row of people who have come and gone in the past few months because of some visa-related issue or the other. This young man is polite, minds his own business, and does a fantastic job of cleaning. For the first time, even our fans are sparkling. Well, almost. And then a week ago, Appu told me that he is a graduate, and holds an MBA degree. He is looking for a job, and has so far been unable to find one. So he has taken up the current position until he finds one that will pay him better than this one does.

I feel angry. At a system that is making someone who is better educated than me clean my house. But if I replace him, he will lose even the paltry sum he is currently earning, which is infinitely worse. I tell him to bring his CV so we can update it and send it ahead. He says he has it in his email and will take it out for me tomorrow. We will do it, I assure him, knowing that I’m powerless to do anything much. I feel angry. At myself. Angry and impotent.

The same feeling I have when I read about what’s happening in my country. When I think of how Shobha, Alex and Nazar have become Hindu, Christian and Muslim respectively. How homo sapiens have become disposable commodity based on colour, creed, bank balance and political leanings. Impossibly, impotently angry.

Pause. Take deep breaths. Count till ten. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Screen Shot 2017-07-19 at 8.20.20 PMComing back to hygge – or my version of zen. So I have decluttered my minuscule kitchen and streamlined the cooking process down to a seamless, easy one that I finish before nine in the morning. I have jars full of all kinds of Mini-made curry/spice powders which I whip out proudly at the drop of a hat. I also have time to write, socialise via (the social) media, and have long and utterly pointless conversations with the boys. I even sing aloud despite my complete tonelessness.

I was singing ‘Beat it!’ yesterday evening while we were cooking pasta. “Amma, you know why you don’t drink?” asked Aditya the Wise. He was referring to one of the items on my wish-list that I keep talking about: to get punch drunk one day.

“Why?” I paused to ask him.

“Because you don’t need to. You’re on a high even without it. If your health is fine, and you’re not worrying yourself sick, that is.”

Ah, well.

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Yesterday I saw some lovely green moss in a flower shop. The young Filipino manning the counter told me I could buy it only as a box, for a hundred dirhams. Collected from the mountains of Holland, madam. Very difficult to grow. We don’t sell it loose. Five minutes later, he took pity on my wistfulness (I guess I can do a Puss-in-Boots when push comes to shove) and gave me a handful of them for five dirhams, to try my luck. In return, I have promised to report to him my progress (or not) with growing it.

Google tells me that moss draws moisture from the atmosphere, so I keep spraying water around it every so often. “‘Mma…! Are you trying to choke it death?” asks Appu. I sigh.

Tonight Juhi, Ahmed and Mustafa are coming over for dinner – a mild sort of celebration for something she achieved. Their collective love for my brand of potato stew means that cooking is no sweat. And after that, if there is time, I will have my daily dose of murder and mayhem – in the form of Agatha Christie’s Poirot.

A couple of hours ago, Rachna, who’s on her first vacation from university, gave me Bis gleich, and has promised to come over for tea on Friday. I am planning to serve her something deep-fried and totally unGerman with tea. The joys of teacherhood!

See, summer? I have you all sorted out. The twelfth time round.

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Split Mind

By Srilakshmi Srinivasan

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Mock me not, oh mind mine! 

My feelings are true. 

You are in me and belong to me, 

So why this shaming and why this hunt? 

You know my secrets, my sadness, and my weakness, 

You know my dreams, my joy, and my strengths.

 Then why? Why these obstacles? Why this doubt? 

When all I want is to get up and move on. 

Maybe, just maybe everyone has 

Their own goals, path, and secret doors. 

Maybe, just maybe they are not 

The same as yours (mine) ours anymore. 

Come along dear friend 

Let’s move towards light, 

Cutting through the dark tunnel 

To scale new heights.

Srilakshmi is, in her own words, ‘A doctor passionate about Kannada literature who just happened to translate one poem for you me.’  So it seems only appropriate that I include the original Kannada version of the poem. How I wish I could read it! 

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Though Srilakshmi and I are yet to meet in person, we are connected by a shared love for the written word. So when she generously translated a poem she wrote in her native tongue for me to read, I was more than touched.
Then there is the topic – depression and de-personalisation. My old friend, the dementor, seen through another pair of eyes. A familiar dark world captured in the few lines of a poem. Of course I made my ‘guest blog’ request; some voices have to be heard.
P.S. Srilakshmi’s daughter Srushti is a budding writer, and I had the occasion to publish her lovely little piece ‘Wonderland’ in a blog I have created for my students. (No, she’s not my student – she’s just young enough to be one. Read Wonderland here: https://minismenon.wordpress.com/2017/04/19/wonderland.
***
*The image was chosen by the author from an article on the topic of anxiety and depersonalisation.  (https://healdove.com/mental-health/anxiolytics).

Jottings

By Naveen Kishore
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Collage by Sunandini Banerjee

I

The conversations around you. Brittle and brisk. Without meaning. Words hurriedly strung together. Shoved into a tin can. Shaken. Made to rattle in short bursts. Like gunfire at close quarters. Tweets of fate. And happenstance. Like firing squads. Immediate. Transient. Relentless and vicarious babel. Grab and shoot. Who has the time? To think? Or breathe normally. The normal? Now a different shade of pale. Like running a hundred meter dash in less than 9 seconds. On shards of glass. Breathless. And bleeding. Gladiator sport. The kind that seeks out language only to thrust a sword into it. While the mob brays. For more bloodletting.

Slow everything down. Let your fingers grind to a halt. The forty-five on your turntable. Your skin scraping the grooves. Slurring the song. As if strangling the words. Almost.

Start afresh. Begin a new sentence. A long one. One in which with extreme patience and a strong dose of diligence you once again lay down the ground rules for language with a past history of elegance and a turn of phrase that makes you gasp with admiration for the one who has penned it with such élan and taste and wit and a sense of literary tradition passed on from writer to writer through centuries of fine writing where the meaning of words as they combine and mingle with each other takes precedence over mere ornamentation and where the complexity and density of a thought is chiseled to succinct and purposeful perfection in a heady mixture of fine prose or poetry or drama or whatever be your particular calling.

Now punctuate it. 

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Show them how things work. Or at least strew the air with hints. Let them be razor sharp. The clues. And full of wit. And irony. And the chutzpah that says it like it is. Up in your face. Like truth. So that no one believes it. As the truth. As nature. Both yours. Mine. And Natures. The way things appear to work in Nature. In life. Or on stage. Like the web that the spider weaves. Against the light. Visible. A work of art. Or a trap. Depends on who is admiring the spring like strands that shine and glint in the sunlight or turn invisible as they snare a fly. The strings on stage that create the magic of a floating cloud. An entire flotilla of white that suspends belief even as it is suspended in the air above the stage floor. Look carefully and you will see the nylon threads that like the spider’s web hold the white bags of polyester filled with yesterday’s news. Crushed and torn into different fluffy shapes. Light as the air they are meant to simulate. Be something they are not. Sleight of hand. Or a trick that the eye missed. The ones that do not bear muster close up but in the right kind of light. And colour. Glowing with gold and red and silver white. With spotlights that make no attempt at being hidden. Hung and patched. In full view. On metal battens. With exposed wires. Process. The craft of magic made visible.

The truth is always other than what it appears to be.

***

Naveen Kishore is poet, writer, theatre lighting designer, photographer, publisher – Seagull Books [http://seagullindia.com/]. 

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Image courtesy Naveen Kishore

 

When I thought of inviting some of the writers (and lovers of the written word) I have come to be acquainted with to pen down a few lines for my blog, the first name that came to my mind was of Naveen Kishore – a writer, poet and person I tremendously admire and respect. Not to mention the publisher of some of the most beautiful books in existence today.

I admit I was skeptical – asking the one who publishes Nobel Laureates and their ilks to write for my humble blog sounded preposterous even to myself. But I did, eventually, and Naveen graciously obliged with a casual ‘See if these ‘jottings’ work. Call it whatever you wish to.’

Today is Seagull Books’ 35th anniversary, and I can’t think of a greater honour than to be able to host his words on my blog. And Sunandini Banerjee, whose magnificent collages are the lifeblood of Seagull Books, has allowed me to use ANY collage I’d like! 

Could I have asked for more?

Simple Pleasures of a Summer Morning

f8I can’t begin to tell you how it feels when I resume my morning walk after a break. The moment I put on my trekking boots (yes, trekking boots, no less. I’m ambitious!), I begin to feel slimmer, fitter and positiver, and by the time I’m half way round the park, I’m light of foot and heart, never mind the fact that I have to take shin-nursing breaks every so often.

Now, you might ask why, if my morning walks elate me to this extent, can’t I just do it regularly. I’ve also asked myself the same question, and arrived at a rather humbling set of reasons for not doing so. 

For one thing, I’m by default a not-very-disciplined person. I have to pep-talk myself up to do anything (beyond brushing my teeth) on a regular basis. Come on girl, you’ve four mouths to feed, so up! There there! You’re a decent cook – you know that. Now cook. The sooner you get over with it, the better it is for you. You can go back to living your life… And so on and so forth.

We are talking about a good day here.

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Now add to that a body (and a mind) that is heading towards that inevitable Pause. You know the one I mean: Me-No-Pause. When your body acquires a mind of its own, one that has nothing to do with your real mind. Your real mind as in the one you suspect you’re quietly losing. Because your mind also has now developed its own separate mind, which looks at reason and logic with total disdain.

It’s chaos, I tell you. Ask anyone who’s going through it. 

To cut the long story short, there are days when I give in to the diktats of my body, and then there are days when I triumph over it. Today was the latter kind of day. 

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When I stepped out of our apartment building at 5:51 AM, it was already light. But the roads were thankfully empty; in another 20 minutes, it would be impossible to cross them without dodging at least a dozen yellow buses, among other things. 

I like to keep my songs on ‘shuffle’ when I walk – the sheer unpredictability of what the next song would be is fun. I could be listening to uff teri ada… one moment, and the next minute it could be suttrum vizhi chudar thaan, Kannamma… or anuraagathin velayil… And that’s cool with me. 

I don’t remember if I had discussed this earlier, but in my world, there are three types of songs. There’s the kind you don’t want anywhere near you. If you happen to come across one, you just pluck it out of your sound space and put it away. Switch channels, turn off, run away – whatever it takes. 

Then there’s the second type that just plays in the background without fuss. You don’t mind having it around because it doesn’t move, touch or demand. Nor does it jar your senses to the extent that the earlier type does. It’s there in the background, just letting you be, allowing you to carry on with whatever you are doing, quietly lending rhythm to your steps… The sweet, nice type. 

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It’s the third type you need to watch out for, however. The kind that grabs your arm, laces its fingers through yours, looks you deeply in the eyes… And you’re lost! Try to walk away from lag jaa gale… and you will understand  what I mean. It’s the kind that possesses you. 

Anyway, coming back to the walk, today I decided to go round the park in the clock-wise direction as against the regular anti-clockwise rotation. Not merely out of a sense of adventure (for want of a better term), but also because I was still vaguely wary. Of being accosted by another couple of friendly-looking ladies who would try to talk me into preparing for the Judgment Day (with capital J and D). It’s rather tiring to make them understand that it’s today I’m worried about, not some vague apocalyptic future.

There were also two Gulmohar trees in full bloom that I wanted to take photos of, both more accessible from this route. So I walked my walk to the the songs that were playing, stopping every so often to take pictures of gulmohar, frangipani and neem, reveling in the utter loveliness of an early summer morning.  

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My usual exercise corner was occupied by a serious yoga enthusiast, mat and all, so I quietly did my juvenile drills trying to keep as low a profile as possible. If he did notice me, he was kind enough not to laugh – and that’s something. I took the more meandering route around the park, and then walked out of the gates.  

Past the sleepy children who were waiting for their buses and their sleepy parents waiting with them. Past the groups of office-goers waiting for their staff vans to pick them up, and past the cars waiting for the school buses to pass. Shedding with each stride the accumulated weight of long, long days. 

 The simple, simple pleasures of life. On a summer morning.  

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A Mother’s Day Wish

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*Kalyani, who occasionally comes over to help me with cleaning, always looks as if she is just an inch away from bursting into laughter. And despite having known her for just a few days, we have shared quite a few laughs. 

Like the time when she recounted how, after she cleaned a bathroom, the owner was so overwhelmed that he kept marveling at how she managed to make it sparkle like that. “I told him it’s all about experience – like any other job!” And bursts out laughing. 

Did I say that her laughter is infectious? Well, it is. 

“Twenty-seven years of cleaning experience, madam. No small thing, is it?” I nod in agreement. 

Kalyani is thirty-seven – started working at ten, madam! – and a proud mother to her 21-year-old college-going son. 

“What!?” I must have heard wrong. “How old were you when you had him then?”

“Seventeen, madam. The nurses who attended to my delivery threatened to complain to the police for marrying off a minor,” she laughs again. I can’t.

“So at what age did you get married? Sixteen?” 

She shakes her head slowly. “Fourteen.” To a man twice her age. 

Her father was an alcoholic, and an abusive one at that. The mother had to marry off the daughters early for their own well-being. 

“And your husband? Is he in India?”

“He died. Brain tumor, madam.”

“When?”

“I was twenty-one when he died.”

Married at fourteen, a mother at seventeen, and widowed by twenty-one. 

 “I couldn’t sleep for six months…” She stops smiling.  “Kept thinking about — Things… That affected my health…”

After that, she continued working in houses, earning money to send her son to school. “My husband’s last wish was that. Neither you nor I could study, Kalyani. But you send our son to school. Give him a good education. But when he reached higher classes, I needed more money to pay his fees and all that.”

There were people ready to marry her, of course. One of them asked her how much money her late husband had left her. “I threw him out of the house! And then I thought, it’s better if I just take care of my son, madam. Live my life as Kannayya’s wife, you understand?”

Somebody advised her that working abroad will fetch her more money, so she got herself a passport and entered the country through an agency that provides cleaning staff to companies. 

The agency still takes two-thirds of her salary as their commission, and gives her the rest. 

“But why can’t you request your company to give you a visa? That way you don’t have to pay the agency!”

“They would have given me if I had completed tenth grade, Madam. But I got married when I was in eighth. And did not study after that.” 

Kalyani’s son is now studying to be an aviation mechanical engineer. “He’s very good, madam. Passed his 10th grade with 94% marks! Plays the drums, guitar… O-grades in art, and a state level athlete.” She beams with pride. 

“Two more years for him to complete his studies. I will hold on, somehow. After that, once he has a good job, I will go back. Then I won’t have to work… He will get married… And I will just look after my grandchildren…”

Her wide eyes are dreamy. Mine are moist.

Kalyani, here’s my heartfelt Mother’s Day wishes: May all your dreams come true! Every single one of them. 

***

*Name changed for obvious reasons. 

Image courtesy Google

Dubai Diaries: Day 7 – Long long ago…

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Today is the seventh day of my 7-day marathon writing. As days go, however, today has not been a productive one: words seem to elude me. So I’ll just share what my immensely talented brother-in-law, Mani Menon, had commented when he saw my posts:

Mini, since Dubai is the common thread running in your musings, I thought you might be interested in what I have to post here…

Yes, I am, Manietta. I am a sucker for stories. Especially the ones that start with ‘Long long ago…’

Long long ago, in May 1970 to be precise, my parents, sis and I had gone on a sort of a whistle stop tour of some cities in Europe and New York in the US. As my dad had been employed with Air India, the trip was free! We had flown to Geneva on our first port of call from Santa Cruz Airport in a Boeing 707. Not being a long haul jet airliner, she had to land in two airports along the way.

The first had been a place that appeared to have been established in the middle of an ocean of glistening blinding sand. The airport was a nondescript structure with a few stalls selling magazines, tea, coffee, ice cream etc. After a stop of 30 odd minutes, we were off.

A few seconds into the air, the air hostess—as the cabin attendants were then called—had announced, “Those seated on the right side side of the cabin, can look out and see the township of Dubai.” Yes!! the word used was ‘township’. My mom and I had craned and looked down. Sure enough, there was a road flanked by buildings that had been erected purely to be functional. None of them could be described as a skyscraper!

Even after all these years, when I see or read about yet another dazzling skyscraper coming up in Dubai, my thoughts go back to that sultry May in 1970, when we had ‘visited’ this place…

The township of Dubai! Buried under a trillion giga-tonnes of chrome and glass. All this? Only sand, Madam! Long, long ago…

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Dubai then and now: Images courtesy Google

Dubai Diaries: Day 6 – Taxi Tales

Dubai cabs have some of the most interesting stories behind their steering wheels. Stories young, middle-aged and overdue for retirement. Stories on 12-hour shifts, that try to dodge peak-hour traffic and avoid fines. Stories of hope, despair, nostalgia, regret and everything in between. Lonely stories, waiting to be told.

A man from Afghanistan told me once about his haveli up in the mountains. About the hundred family members who co-exist within its walls in relative harmony, along with cows, goats, horses and hunting dogs. I could not but write about it. I remember how a writer friend of mine had been incredulous – she shared her own story of a rather stressful early morning encounter. But then, personal experiences are just the luck of the draw, ultimately.

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I would get into a cab, and typically, we would reach the second or third roundabout from home, get stuck in the traffic, and then inch our way forward. Either the cabbie or I would mutter something about the traffic, reach the consensus that Dubai traffic (or the driver who unexpectedly changed lanes without warning, as the case may be) is our common enemy. A minute later, he would ask:

Aap India se hain?

Ji.

On more than one occasion, the next response has been ‘India ke log acche hote hain.’ Elsewhere India and Pakistan might be baring teeth and snarling at each other… Biting off large chunks of each other (I’m all for euphemisms) for that matter. But not here, not today.

Aur aap? Peshawar?

Then he would ask me if  I worked. Yes, I do, I would say. I write and teach.  And wait for the warmth level in the taxi to go up. I am an aurat with taleem, and a teacher at that! The finest kind of human being there is, purely by default.

He would then adjust the mirror to catch my eye, and we would begin our conversation.

Aap ke bachhe hain?

I would tell them about my boys. How old they are, what they do. Then he would ask me if I don’t have daughters. I would say no, and he would shake head in pity. 

Betiyaan honee chahiye, Madam. Betiyaan ispecial hote hain.

I would agree with him. Then he would tell me about his daughters and sons back home – either with a smile, or with a sigh. About what they were currently doing, and how much he missed them. And so on and so forth.

When we part ways, it is usually as life-long friends.

Only once had I been told off by a cabbie for being an educated woman who earned a living. None of his three wives back home would dare to do that, nor would his daughters. Hamare yahan auratein ghar sambhalte hain, ji! Because you see, he was a marad who didn’t rely on his women for money.

I did try to convert him to feminism all the way to the airport, but he just sneered at me.

The man who took me to Business Bay Metro Station, on the other hand, was coming back from seeing his daughter off at the airport. In the three decades he had driven a cab here, he had seen a lot.  All this, he pointed at the skyscrapers on Sheikh Zayed Road, only sand, madam. No building. And with his earnings, the proud father had educated his three sons and two daughters. Including the youngest, a medical doctor, who had come to Dubai for an interview. Inshahallah she get job, madam. She too good! Too good!

There was this man from – was it Timbuktu or Sudan, I can’t recall – who loved Tamil songs, and another from Lahore who spoke a few sentences in ‘Keral’. It took me a minute to understand that he was asking me, in my own language, if I had lunch.

The young man who recently drove me home from City Centre told me in a matter-of-fact tone that very often tourists asked him where they could find ‘good women’. Of course he knew where – it was hard not to. But he did not think it was right to do ‘that kind of thing’, so he usually said he did not know. Though that was just his personal point of view – he had nothing against his colleagues who did. Everybody had to live.

Then there was another young man – he was twenty-two at the time I met him, the same age as Appu was back then – who told me about his village in Peshawar where each house was built like a fortress, complete with watchtowers, for safety. They slept with machine guns within arm’s reach because you never knew when you needed to use it.

He also told me about how his village had so many fatherless children and young women who were practically outcasts. The Taliban just took whomever they wanted – and when they were no longer wanted, they were brought back to the village and left there. If they were lucky, that is.

Yes, Dubai cabs have a million stories that sometimes go off to exhausted sleep at the steering wheel. Stories that long to go back home, but can’t – for whatever reason. Instead, they roam the streets, looking for a willing ear.

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*Image courtesy Google.