Sunday, August 30, 2009

Glitter of the souk

It was my first girl’s day out in Muscat although it has been two months since I came here. Of course, there have been the mandatory trips to hypermarkets and malls to purchase the essentials. But a girl’s day out — that’s different, and more fun, as anyone who has had the experience knows.

So there we were, four of us from the office, trooping into the office car on a bright Monday morning. “Muttrah souk,” the driver was told. Mohan, our office driver, looked askance. “All of you have official work there?” he asked, disapprovingly. “Oh c’mon, Mohan, just an hour or two,” we cajoled.

Although a driver, he’s senior to all of us, both in terms of age and the number of years he has worked here. Well, it’s not fully unofficial, too. A colleague does have a lifestyle story on Omani gold jewellery slated for the next issue. While in Muttrah souk, the famous traditional market in Muscat, she could get inputs for her story. And the rest of us, of course, can shop and help her — in that order.

Since all of us were comparatively new to Muscat, we coaxed Zeinab, our Omani colleague, to come along. Burqa-clad, she’s the typical Omani girl, vivacious, boisterous and bold behind that burqa. She was our passport to an incident-free outing. We wondered whether we were properly attired for a souk visit, except Zeinab, all of us were in trousers, but we concluded that everything should be fine with burqa-clad Zeinab.

As we reached the souk, there was a sense of deja vu. This could be a smaller version of Chandni Chowk or, for that matter, a market in any of our old city areas in India. The only difference was that the Muttrah souk was an enclosed one, with a skylight canopy covering the lanes and by-lanes flanked by tiny shops. We got busy with shopping — frankincense (the Dhofar region in Oman produces the best in the world), bokhur (an exotic scent), attar and the intricate attar bottles which come in a myriad of colours and shapes, found their way into our shopping baskets. Some bargaining and we were getting stuff really cheap.

We were in a gold shop checking out rings when we heard Zeinab say something angrily in Arabic. We looked up from our shopping to find a rather red-faced man in a dishdasha trying hard to look inconspicuous. Soon he left in a hurry. That’s when Zeinab decided to enlighten us. The man had been following her for sometime whispering his mobile number and seeking hers. She tried to ignore him, but when he followed her into the gold shop pushing a chit with his number, she just lost it.

I was stunned, to say the least. Brought up on a diet of culture vultures telling us women that we invite trouble by the way we dress, this was just a bit too much. I would have thought a burqa would ward off any undesirable attention. But then, as they say, bikini or burqa, it’s all in the mind.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Not so God's own country

"Wow, it's really God's own country," gushed a friend who was just back from a vacation in Kerala. "I just don't understand you Mallus," she continued, "how can you leave such a beautiful place and be in all these impossible places?" This was not the first time I had come across such remarks from people who have just returned from a vacation in Kerala.

They come back gushing about the greenery, the kettuvallam ride on the backwaters, the beaches, the hills, the Ayurvedic massages, the capsule kathakali performance lasting less than two hours tailor-made for tourists in lieu of the night-long traditional performance, the list goes on.

It has never ceased to amaze me how most of the tourists who go to Kerala come back missing some of the most obvious. They never seem to see the pothole-ridden roads, they most definitely miss the long hours of power cut in this land of waterfalls and hydroelectricity.

Kerala is a typical example that things need not be always what it appears to be. To all appearances Kerala is a state which has it all - hundred per cent literacy, lowest population growth and picture postcard landscape as an added bonus. It has been a laboratory of social transformation with ready to read high quality of life index which adorned the central theme of many a book on Development Economics worthy of earning plaudits from pundits.

Kerala is the land of ultimate paradoxes. It has the highest literacy rate in the country just as it has the dubious distinction of having the highest unemployment rate. Where can this small beautiful state find jobs for its thousands of post graduates
and tens of thousands of graduates? Even with this high level of unemployment there is a near irrational rush for the white collared jobs. Not having a job could be passable but a blue collared job is a big no. The state with the lowest infant mortality rate in the country also happens to record the highest suicide rate. And while the rest of the country is witnessing a baby boom despite government efforts, Kerala is the only state, which has recorded negative population growth.

But then with fewer children and higher life expectancy, the green state is fast turning into a grey state. The number of elderly left to fend for themselves - emotionally, not financially - is on the rise. A situation also necessitated by the fact that the high rate of unemployment has forced the young generation to move out in search of jobs.

And of course, a tourist is not expected to know that he should actually thank the militant trade unionism in the state, which has left the state with the highest unemployment rate in the country, for the very beauty they are raving about. But for the trade unions, industries would have dotted the state instead of greenery.

Then of course Kerala wouldn't have made it to the 50 must see destinations in the National Geographic list, but there would have been fewer suicides, lesser unemployment rate and fewer parents spending the autumn of their lives alone in huge mansions built for them by their expatriate children.

Paradoxes of this kind are rare to find and rarely so pronounced. The swing of the pendulum of paradox has been so wide in Kerala that it takes inexorably long time to reach a range, within which the society can manage such contradictions. Today, the swing of the pendulum seems to be gearing towards more manageable levels. There is a dawning realization among the
elite, the political class and the enlightened common man that a change is needed. A change that would not result in an upheaval but would manage the paradoxes of this unique state better.

And it would be then that Kerala would truly become the God's own country

Friday, April 25, 2008

To be or not to be

Time management has never been my forte. Now, shackled by the triple roles of working woman, wife and mother - not to mention the unfruitful attempts to meet the impossible standards set by the super women of the TV commercials - I learned one fact. That life is not exactly blissful if it is a trail of missed school buses, quick-fix meals and being late for work.

Time management appeared the panacea. And believe me, time management is big business; there is no dearth of books offering ways to manage our time efficiently. Most of the books detail techniques which promise to enable us gain control over our lives and time. Time not allocated is considered time wasted. One of the authors suggested that whenever I have a free minute, I must ask myself the question: "What is the best use of my time right now?" Close my eyes and relax, perhaps? Unfortunately, he wanted my spare minute to be put to use in a more "constructive" way like reviewing the tasks ahead and assessing the ones already done. That one minute is not the time for relaxation. There is another time allocated in my 24 hours for relaxing.

As I read more and more on the subject, another realisation dawned upon me. Time management must be a wonderful tool, but that will make one's life a lot less spontaneous. When you are encouraged to try and account for each minute, filling it with activities to make best use of the 24 hours you have in hand in a day, doesn't life become a bit straight-jacketed? Discretionary time - the time which we can spend at our discretion - becomes a luxury as we try out time-management techniques. One doesn't have much scope for flexibility when even the time one relaxes, even the time one spends with the loved ones is according to a time table.

As such I seem to be surrounded by people afflicted by the so-called hurry sickness. In the urge to pack in as many activities as possible in a day many hurry with everything - they hurry off to work, hurry back home, hurry through meals and finally hurry off to bed. We are a generation clamouring for fast foods, faster service, faster computers, faster modems, faster cars, faster trains and faster planes. Whatever happened to the wonderful Zen philosophy of "Sitting quietly, doing nothing, Spring comes and the grass grows by itself."

We haven't even spared our children. All of us are in a hurry to make super kids out of our children. Being good in one activity is no longer considered enough, only all-rounders would do. Children are shunted between school, tuition classes (for the brain), tennis and roller-skating classes (for the brawn), yoga (for the spirit) and painting and music classes (for the sake of creativity). The pressure to perform sits heavily on these youngsters now that we, as parents, are "providing them all the opportunities." Studies have shown that stress levels among young children are alarmingly high. This way, are we not raising a generation who would need head shrinks every now and then to set them right? Is that the future we envisage for our children?

Though many may not subscribe to my personal view on time management, I seem to be in august company. Thomas Moore, in his Care of the Soul rues that modern life has no time for something as simple as pausing for a thought or for letting impressions of the day sink in.

If our life is so hectic that we don't have time to pause and watch a beautiful sunset, what promise of gaining control over one's time can these time management gurus offer? If discretionary time is at a premium, if we don't have scope for changing our plans to be able to do something on the spur of the moment, what is the control over life they are talking about? W H Davies did have a point when he wrote, " What is this life, full of care, if we have no time to stand and stare."

The red brick house

In my childhood, a red brick house near my house held a great fascination to me. Its inhabitants _ father, mother, a son and two daughters _ were all that my family and I were not. They were the kind of parents I wished mine were: sophisticated, suave and very demonstrative. The children in that house, unlike my brothers and me, were allowed to do whatever they wanted. I had wished _ in vain _ that my parents would take a leaf from our neighbours, and stopped being the disciplinarians that they were. My secret wish was to trade places with the elder daughter of the red brick house who was my age.

She had always been an object of envy for most of us kids in the neighbourhood as she was the only one who was blessed with such progressive parents in the uninspiring mofussil town where we lived. Not only that, she was being trained in vocal and instrumental music, which made her a favourite with the nuns of the convent school where we studied together. The fact that she did not fare too well in studies was never a consolation, as it never stood against her in the school.

Rani _ let’s call the object of my envy that _ was not the only one in her family who held my fascination. Both her brother and sister were also being trained in instrumental music and dance. As evening descends, sound of music and dance will waft across from the red brick house. At that time, my brothers and I would be sitting at our study table doing our day’s work under the ever so watchful eye of our mother.

Of course there were occasional sniggers at Rani in the school. With the unkindness so characteristic of children, students used to target her whenever possible. If I refrained from joining them, it was was purely out of fear of my parents and not out of any neighbourly consideration.

A few years later we shifted residence to another town, and soon the red brick house and its inhabitants were forgotten. Twenty years later, on a visit to Kerala, I was passing through the same old town where my brothers and I used to be so envious of the children of the red brick house.

On an impulse _ probably spurred by a faint hope that I may be faring better than my childhood bete noire _ I decided to visit our one-time neighbours. Yes, the red brick house was there, but bereft of the old charm it had held for me. The bricks were moss-laden and no longer bright red; the compound was strewn with dry leaves and litter. It was obvious that no one lived there anymore. Unable to contain my curiosity, I walked into the neighbouring house _ the house where we had lived for many years _ and asked about the inhabitants of the red brick house.

What I heard was like a tale from the macabre. It was as if the collective envy of the children of a whole neighbourhood had brought the family misfortune. Or was it the unconstrained existence the children of that house seemed to have enjoyed? The elder son had taken to drugs while in college. Some years back, following a showdown between him and his father, the latter died of heart attack. The son shifted residence to their rubber estate in the mountains, and never came back though he regularly sent money to the family. Rani, who was very close to her father, refused to live in the house where he died. For the last so many years, she was staying in a convent which looked after mentally challenged children. The mother had turned to some cult figure, apparently went overboard, and ended up in a sanatorium. The youngest girl appeared the only one who escaped the curse that seemed to have befallen the family and was well placed in the US.

I wished I had not stopped to inquire. I felt ashamed at my own pettiness which had prompted the stopover. The red brick house should have continued as the blissful, idealistic place in my mind. I wished it had remained as the happy home of my dreams on which I wanted to model my own family when I started one.

Shaken, I drove back home to my parents. As I hugged my bewildered parents tight, I promised myself that never again would I make unfair comparisons and would accept people as they are.

Wonder years

The tiny face that peered into mine was full of concern. "Oh Mamma," she hugged me tearfully, "It's because of me that you fell ill." Even as I held her close and wondered how she could have taken over the responsibility for my bout of fever, came words tumbling out, "Today in school, I said a lie and said 'mother promise' and now see what happened." By then tears were streaming down her chubby cheeks and her little chest was heaving under the weight of this imaginary guilt. I had to eschew the temptation to use this opportunity to wean her away from the habit of swearing even as I consoled her that her lie had nothing to do with my ailment.

As she promptly brightened up and ran out to join her friends for play, I realised how precious these first few years of her life are to me as a parent. Because, a few years down the line, she won't be pulling me down to the bed every morning as I wake her up just to curl up warmly in my lap. A few more years and she will stop making me pretty little cards on scraps of paper saying, "I love you Mamma". I won't be loved "as high as the sky, and a hundred thousand times the size of a blue whale". There will come a day when she no longer wants to climb into my arms each time she sees me to give me a hug or kiss, when she no longer brings me half-eaten candies and chocolates carefully re-wrapped in their covers.

Once into her teens, she will be busy with her peers where I'll have little or no place. She may even be embarrassed if I ever mention some of the wonderful things we did together _ such as painting each other's face in a riot of water colours and prancing about the house or punching a pillow after sticking the name of our hate object of the moment on it.

As years go by, no matter how hard I may try to keep things as they are, I know my daughter will eventually wake up to the fact I'm not as perfect as she now perceives me to be. She will be old enough to see the flaws in me; she will find much more interesting things than me to occupy her time and attention.

It is this realisation, buttressed by the twists and turns in a few unhappy lives I have come across, that makes me wish that no parent ever misses out on the first few years of his/her child. I've seen parents who had been too busy when the kids were young. Sadly, by the time they were ready to provide the quality time after ensuring a quality house and a quality bank balance, the children were too old to reciprocate.

I remember being secretly amused when, soon after my marriage, my mother-in-law opened a jewellery box and laid out all those nostalgic letters my husband had written to her from the boarding school as if they were the most precious possession she had. I could never really understand the propensity of my own parents to hang on to those tattered old storybooks, which they used to read out to my brothers and I when we were kids.

Now, as I stash away all those 'love letters' scrawled by my daughter, when each bedtime story read out to her has a fond memory attached to it by way of her comments or questions, I think I can understand them better. It was their own way of not letting go, where each letter, each story was associated with a loving child they missed as we grew up. It is as if they have preserved our childhood in those letters and books, long after we left home pursuing our own lives.

The first ten years or so of a child are the few precious years that will proffer memories every parent will cherish for life. It is important for us to realise that these moments and memories are here for the taking now, and will be on offer for just a few years. It's up to each of us young parent to recognize this and take full advantage of our child's wonder years before it is too late, no matter how busy our schedules are.

The rock

I sat on the rock, perched right on top of a hill, staring at my grandfather's house. It was the house where I had spent several happy vacations with my parents, cousins, grandparents, uncles and aunts as a child. It was also the house where I had not gone for years, but still was unable to forget _ there were many a happy memory associated with it. The view from the rock was not a new experience for me. For the past few years, a trip to the rock had almost become a part of my itinerary whenever I was in Kerala on vacation.

The rock has always been a special place for me. It was the favourite haunt of us 28 cousins _ my grandfather had nine children _ when we were all one big happy family. Though the hill was a few kilometres from my grandfather's house and the climb to the elephant-shaped rock a steep one, I had been to the rock several times as a child. The view from the rock was fascinating. Down below, the road looked like an ageing creeper with a grey stalk _ it would have done a Mussorie proud. We could see buses and other vehicles winding up the road leading to the Idukki dam. We could also have a panoramic view of the thick forests and waterfalls far away. We had fun comparing the silhouettes of our parents and the farm workers going about their chores in my grandfather's house through the lines of fresh rubber sheets hung in the courtyard for drying.

Evenings used to be fun too. After the long evening prayer my grandfather used to take out his harmonium and all of us used to sing together even as our mothers laid out the dinner and fathers had a 'session' at the backyard. That time, it had looked as if those days were for ever. I had thought that I would be going there year after year to see my cousins who would also be coming from their places.

But how wrong I was. For the first time I knew how fickle relationships where in front of money when my grandfather decided to divide the property. Relationships soured, and everyone seemed unhappy with their own share. My grandfather no longer looked the strong man he once was. My uncle who inherited the ancestral house no longer seemed eager to have all of us for the vacations. Though as a child my only concern was the decrease in the number of days spent at my grandfather's house, as I grew older I developed bitterness that my father had been shortchanged in the property division. My visits became fewer and came to a standstill after the death of my grandfather.

Now, as I sat on the rock, I strained my eyes to detect any movement at my grandfather's place. The house looked the same as ever. The lines of fresh rubber sheets hung out for drying looked golden yellow in the evening light. I could see someone moving about on the verandah. May be it's my uncle. May be my aunt. No one else lived there. My cousins all were married and settled at various other places and came only for vacations.

As I continued sitting on the rock, staring at my grandfather's house, suddenly it dawned on me that all I wanted was the restoration of the good old times. What is the point harbouring resentment over something, which definitely cannot be undone, to feel bitter about not having a few more acres of my grandfather's estate, which in any case, my brothers or I don't need desperately? As I walked down the hill to the waiting car, I wondered whether I would be welcome in my grandfather's house.

May be I needn't have worried. The warmth, which I thought would be missing, was very much in evidence. Nothing had changed in the house. Even the reclining chair my grandfather used to occupy when he was alive was still where it used to be. Only, my uncle has taken the place of my grandfather in the reclining chair. It was as if I was never away. I was home at last.

A doll for my daughter

When my daughter was born, like most emancipated modern mothers, I too decided that I would not let her be constrained by gender stereotyping. I resolved not to be a part of that group which believed that dolls and kitchen sets are for girls, and cars and guns for boys.

The new-age child psychology books I turned to for advice pronounced that toys like dolls and kitchen sets subconsciously instill in young girls the belief that their prime role is that of a nurturer. Any other role would be relegated to a secondary place thanks to this kind of conditioning in the childhood the books warned. To ward off any such eventuality, I decided not to buy her dolls and kitchen sets. That many of my colleagues had already started bringing up their daughters on a no-doll regimen added more credibility to the theories.

Soon she had a reasonable collection of toys, but one which did not include a single doll. She seemed quite satisfied with her collection and I was proud of being the intelligent mother who managed to avert role stereotyping of her daughter. It did not matter she was too young to understand anything.

In the flat situated across ours stayed an upper middle class family from Uttar Pradesh. It was a family comprising an old couple, their two sons and daughters-in-law and two grand children _ a boy and a girl. The sight of the daughters-in-law hurriedly covering their head with duppatta on seeing a male member of the family had never ceased to amaze me. I pitied their grand daughter who was more often than not seen with a doll in her hand. Perfect recipe for a doormat existence in later life, I mused.

My relationship with our neighbours never went beyond a few casual encounters. But the same could not be said for my daughter who befriended Chinky, their grand daughter, and started visiting them.

One day, the bombshell dropped. Sruti, my daughter, insisted she wanted a doll, and a kitchen set to boot! The reason: Chinky has them and they are more fun to play with than cars and puzzles. I was aghast. Here I am, trying to mould her into a woman of substance, and there she is, insisting to play with a kitchen set. My husband was equally indignant and declared that his darling would not have a doll. Our daughter that night cried to sleep.

The next day, I checked with my colleagues whether this was a behavioural aberration. To my relief, I was told their daughters too had made several unsuccessful demands for dolls and kitchen sets. Repeatedly turning down such unacceptable requests worked over a period of time, I was told. One of them had bought a doll and a kitchen set for her son to promote gender sensitisation, but had turned down the request of her daughter for the same.

But my daughter turned out to be the more persistent type. Every day as I was back from office she would want to know when she would get her doll. On my daughter’s birthday, to my horror, Chinky gifted her a Nonie (a life-like one-foot doll) and a kitchen set. But, for my daughter, no other gift seemed to matter. My husband and I could not do anything about the presence of the doll and the kitchen set under the circumstances. None of our friends would have made this faux pas. But what could we say to our neighbours?

A few days later, as I was getting ready for office my daughter sat on the bed playing with her doll, by then fondly named ‘Googoo’. She was leaning on the headboard with her legs extended with Googoo on her lap. She was lovingly talking to the ‘baby’ all the time brushing its hair. I was startled. Have I not heard the same words she was telling Googoo? Is not the action very familiar _ something which I do every morning for my daughter? Yes, she was playing mama-Sruti.

On the way to office I kept wondering whether I was doing the right thing by depriving her a toy she loved to have. Is not the act of refusing a girl dolls just because she is a girl as odious as refusing to let her have a car because of her gender? What does she know at this tender age about gender bias and equality of sexes?

Is not the act of her father who always gets up first and makes tea for her mother and serves it on the bed a better education on gender equality for her? Is not the sight of both her parents working together in the kitchen whipping up dinner after coming back from office an image she is going to carry to her adulthood? Will she ever forget these? Aren’t these the best education on gender equality we can ever provide her as compared to the superficial acts of refusing to buy a kitchen set or a doll?

That day I decided I did not want to be part of that group which denied their daughters a doll because of their gender. And that evening my daughter received her first doll from her mama.