spreads like a stain
that taste of salt
run down the nose
at the pit
of a restless summer day
spreads like a stain
that taste of salt
run down the nose
at the pit
of a restless summer day
fI 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
Dubai then and now: Images courtesy Google
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.
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?
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.
*Image courtesy Google.
Today was going to be my Taxi Tales day. Because, as I was saying, there are so many I’ve collected, and I’m bursting to tell them. But it has been a very long day, and I’m too tired now to string two decent thoughts together. And then there is all the excitement about my newly acquired turquoise nail polish – a gift from Juhi – that is making me look at my fingernails every so often, wondering momentarily whose they are. The fingernails I mean.
You see, I’m usually more conservative with my nail polish. But what the heck – YOLO, as Aditya used to make fun of me, back when he was just a strapping lad. Now he’s almost seventeen, you see.
So I’m cheating. I’m using my turquoise-tipped fingers to copy-paste something I’d jotted down one glum morning a few weeks ago. A morning when the earth and the sky were glum, as were me and my thoughts.
a sky with dark circles
under the eyes
brushing off last night’s dreams
from her clothes
the moon biting her fingernails
for the sun who wandered away
lost in borrowed thoughts
a desert hungry for words
that fall on sand and die
That’s where I’d stopped. On that grey-blue morning in the last leg of winter.
Before stepping out for my walk today, I threw in a notebook and pen to the pile in my green backpack. The idea was that I must write down on paper the 3 kilometers worth of dynamic content that usually runs through my head-screen while walking. Lest I forget most of it by the time I get back and am done with my cooking and bath.
The shuffled playlist on my phone had decided to be partial to Aamir Khan this morning. It was jee le zara… when I started out, a while later it was chand sifaarish jo karta… (Each time I hear that song I wonder if it is from this Urdu word that the Malayalam word ‘shupaarsha’ evolved.) And somewhere along the way, dheemi dheemi… started playing. Not bad as choice of songs so.
I’d vaguely decided that it’s going to be a ‘taxi tales’ day. Because I have a whole lot of stories gathered during my many rides around the city.
So which cabbie was to be my hero of the day? The one from up the mountains of Peshawar who told me about how, back home, they slept with machine guns by their side? Or the one who wore Ray Ban aviators and told me he was a good cook, a skill that fetches him additional income? I am Gujarati, no, Madam? You know us – we can’t just sit idle!
The machine gun man almost won the day, when, as usual, my left shin demanded due diligence. I headed to the nearest bench to massage it. And maybe jot down stuff.
He appeared out of nowhere, the elegant black and white cat. Squeezing his way out from between the bars fencing the pond, he headed straight to where I was sitting. He stopped hardly a foot away, but refused to meet my eye, instead pretending to inspect the shrubbery for neatness.
I sat watching him.
Another minute passed before he turned and looked up, hesitantly. I smiled.
That, I guess, broke the ice. He came closer, brushed against my calf. And then, in one swift move, he sat next to me. I moved slightly to make space, but no – that wasn’t enough. He edged sideways, stretching in such a way that most of his body nestled against mine. He was used to human touch, and very obviously craved it.
“Want me to scratch your ears, baby?” I asked him. In response, he edged closer.
There used to be a black cat earlier, who would follow the walkers. In typical Puss in Boots style, she had melted my heart into buying her milk one evening. Wonder what became of her!
I have never taken a stray pet home – and I’m not proud of it – except once when we were new to Dubai and found an abandoned tortoise. We named him Oliver – Ollie for short – because he was always asking for more. The amount of lettuce he ate was completely disproportionate to his size!
But the next time we went to India, we had to leave him at the Dubai Zoo.
I have not attempted to keep pets since, though we have, over the years, tried to nurse a couple of baby birds who fell into our balcony. One died, and the other flew away. We have had pigeons laying eggs, hatching and eventually flying away.
But no pets.
The sun was becoming warmer, and it was time to leave. As if sensing my thoughts, he pressed closer against me.
Another abandoned pet. One of the many you find at unexpected places in the city. Maybe leaving them in the park is better than— Better than whatever else they do with pets they get tired of.
No, love, I can’t take you with me. Not to my apartment which is hardly large enough for the four human beings that occupy it. Plus I am a coward – I shy away from the pain of inevitable loss. Sorry!
I hitched my bag back onto my shoulders and walked on. He didn’t even attempt to follow me.
So my Dubai Diaries would be a non-starter without introducing you to this phenomenon called Massage Centre Cards. They are small, they are colourful, and they have (a million) stories to tell. Which of course they won’t.
But before I get to that, let me warn you: The contents you are about to see are graphic, and can be highly disturbing. In India, the censor board might have frowned. (Or not. They frown only at things that seduce the intellect. I guess I’m safe.)
Name: Massage Center Card
Scientific Name: Massagus Centerus Cardimicus
Size: Slightly larger than an average visiting card
Colour: Skin, mostly
Function: Informational / proclamatory / invitational / motivational (Take your pick.)
Habitat: Pavements, sidewalks, footbridges, and roadsides [Known to infest windows of parked cars in great numbers.]
Feeds on: Human desperation and depravity
Sub-species: New Girl, Good Girl, Sweet Belly, Ya Ting , Lixin, Love Me, Milk Spa, Angel, Personal Care, Jasmine, Rose King, Rose Spa, Royal Rose, Lucky, Marvellous, Relax, VIP… Or [no name].
Evolution: Started out with more text and smaller graphics, plus a map to the location printed at the back. Soon moved towards minimalism, with more visuals and graphics (read more ‘visually graphic’). Currently tend to be spartan, with just monochrome visuals and phone number/s.
So I was telling you about the lady from Tamil Nadu who showed me the calluses on her knees. And about her lovely smile. I met her the day I went to the women workers’ accommodation (I cringe every time I hear the term labour camp) in Al Quoz with Juhi and a few others.
A different world there. In those dusty, closely built, unremarkable buildings that flanked the dusty, unremarkable roads with no pavements. A very different world inside the buildings too.
in pale neon
pale and watery
and tired lips
“Doesn’t it remind you of our hostel, Mini? All these girls, gathered after an evening bath, walking around, smiling and talking…” Liza had asked me the first time we had gone there.
I met her there the second time I went. Fair skin and long, black, wavy hair. Kohl-lined eyes above smiling lips. In a sky blue T-shirt and a printed skirt. Which she lifted up to show me the calluses her knees.
Later, I wondered how she would look in a Kanjeepuram sari and a large red bindi. Beautiful enough to break a few hearts, I’m sure. Bad knee or not.
Seven evenings, you said, to create a body of work. Adding that it’s a long, slow process.
Well, why not? I have great belief in long, slow processes – being one myself. The fact that there’s more than just me in this process lends a certain level of accountability. (Notice how I’ve already taken your presence for granted?)
I have to clean up my act now. And start on my Dubai Diaries. Or shall I call them Desert Diaries?
All morning I thought about it. How do I begin? Where do I begin? More importantly, where do I stop – draw the line, so to speak?
Begin at the beginning, as the King had told Alice, and go on till you come to the end: then stop?
Ideally. But then, what if this exercise turns out to be like trying to contain a sky-full of small white clouds inside an IKEA glass jar? What if?
My Evening # 1 will have to start with my morning walk. Because I can’t write a text about Dubai without including my morning walks. Because that’s when I do most of my writing. In my head, that is. While treading the oh-so-familiar path to the park – between buildings, past the closed shops, across the road, past the buildings and across the sand, past the mosque, across the zebra crossing, past the gates and onto the jogging track around the pond…
Today is Friday – the Day of Invisible People. Of those who otherwise blend into the background and remain unseen/unheard in this city.
I can see the paper boys stopping by the pavement to chat, the night-shift workers still in reflective gear sitting at the entrance of the park and happily sipping tea, the housemaids enjoying their day off…
I’m vaguely aware of the songs that are playing. I think it was Rahman’s ‘nilaa kaaykirathu…’ when I stepped out of the house, and then somewhere along the way, I remember Jagjit Singh singing ‘din kuch aisa guzaartaa hai koi…’ in my ears.
Spring still prevails, at least in the park – though there are more flowers on the ground than on the trees now.
The other Friday I met a cleaning lady from Tamil Nadu who showed me the calluses on her knees. “No holiday one month, Madam. My body aching…” But it was with a beatific smile that she told me about how she had persisted with her request for a day off until her boss finally agreed. She did win, after all.
It’s not in the park that I met her— But then, that’s another story, better saved for another day.
Friday is also evident in the absence of the usual suspects: the yoga people with their mats and good cheer, the gang of young mothers led by a loud-voiced girl who spoke Gujarati, the tall Egyptian man who looks as if all he does with his days are workouts…
My legs hurt easily these days. I’m not sure if it’s the age, the weight or the desert that is catching up. So my 3-kilometer walk is often punctuated by bouts of sitting and nursing my aching shin.
As I make my way back home, I remind myself to start my walk earlier – the sun has begun to show its true desert colours. I’m sweating profusely, and the increasing brightness hurts my eyes.
It is with relief that I open the door to the air-conditioned darkness inside my apartment. Summer has risen.
The March sky outside is a paler version of the August sky back home. Like it wants to rain, but is too lazy to.
“They’re seeding clouds again, apparently. So the untimely rains.”
Cloud seeding – I like the term. There’s so much potential to it.
There’s this man – dark, old and wise – who has been doing this for centuries, you see. He has an ancient bamboo basket, a triangular one like an inverted pyramid, woven out of bamboo strips, filled to the brim with little cumulonimbus seeds. He hitches it on to his waist, and climbs up the beanstalk, all the way to the pale blue sky. There, he takes handfuls of those blue-grey seeds and scatters them in the wind.
The seeds soak up the sky… and grow and grow… Into little cloudlings…
Or maybe there’s a machine there, which churns out clouds from those seeds. Like cotton candy from sugar granules, you know?
But then, why are they – the cloudlings, I mean – pale? Slightly bilious?
Maybe these seeds come from genetically modified clouds. Well, maybe not genetically modified, but at least lab-grown. One can’t expect them to have the same thunderous blue-grey as the Zeus variety.
I love fairytales too.
“They use chemicals, don’t they?”
“Salt. At least that’s what I heard.”
Not according to Wikipedia. It lists silver iodide, potassium iodide, dry ice (solid carbon dioxide, no less!) and liquid propane as the chemicals commonly used. A whole lot of iodine, and not a trace of sodium chloride.
Hypothyroidism, anyone? Stand in the rain. P.S. Safe for those with hypertension.
“What are they trying to do, yaar? Turn this desert into an effing jungle?”
“That would be so cool!”
“Cool…? Well, maybe. But how would it matter to you and me?”
I look out of the train window at the stadium sprawled beneath us, and imagine a rain forest springing up there. Trees taller than the floodlight posts. Gigantic creepers with huge flowers covering the gallery… Monkeys, birds and butterflies… Maybe giant toadstools, fireflies…
“Imagine what a sight it would be! For as long as we live here, I mean.”
“Hmm. Good for them, at least.”
Them, the desert people. Who inherited the ocean floor from the sea people.
“Good for us too.”
Us, the land-and-coast-and-mountain people. Who co-exist in harmony with the desert people and help them build dreams in exchange for dirhams. Us, who climb up beanstalks, and scatter handfuls of seeds in the wind. Those little multi-coloured seeds that will grow and grow… Into dreamscapes bleached by the desert sun and tasting ever so slightly of salt.
“It’s all good. Good for them, good for us.”
“If you say so.”
*All images courtesy Google.