Monday, December 05, 2005

In (extended) Absentia

A blog friend recently mailed me – "Blog silence usually means a hectic offline life… yes?"

Right on target. It's been unimaginably hectic catching up with family, meeting old friends, shopping, trying to unwind, plugging a leaky nose and remembering to check the wrong side of the road before crossing. I was in Mumbai for a couple of weeks on a trip that was as unexpected as it was welcome. The timing was exquisite – close family from abroad was visiting, as were old friends from College who I hadn't met in years. Going back this time had happier reasons, and all I could do was count days and hours until I touched down in Bombay

The days zipped by, as they're wont to do when you're having fun. But there were moments which stood out; the kind you want to store and replay at a later date. Some of them were funny, some poignant, and some others which made me smile and think, 'Only in India…'

A day after I returned, I was walking back home, up the narrow slope leading to my lane, when I heard a symphony of blaring horns. An empty autorickshaw stood in the middle of the road. The driver was standing beside the vehicle, insulting the women folk of the driver in the green Santro, and also trying to assess the damage to his shattered taillights. He seemed in no hurry to stop either of the two activities, despite the fact that the BEST bus behind the Santro seemed ready to steamroll both vehicles and their respective drivers. The four autorickshaws, one motorbike and two cars behind the bus had no idea what was holding things up, but they hoped their strident horns would create a clearing in the snarl ahead. The spectacle was amusing and comfortingly familiar. I walked home with a smile.

There was nostalgia of another kind when I took the 5-year old 'bess friend' for a movie she wanted to see - Hanuman. The last movie we'd gone for - Polar Express at the IMAX Dome Theatre - had been a bit of a washout. Ten minutes into the movie and she was thoroughly bored, and kept looking longingly at the exit. Hanuman turned out to be a surprise package. The animation was excellent; the soundtrack, delightfully peppy and the narration, engrossing. I was relieved to see Alison dancing in her seat. When war was declared on Lanka, I was hooked. The arrows flying thick and fast reminded me of Sunday mornings many many years ago, when we used to run home from Church to watch 'Ramayana'. (The irony hadn't sunk in then.) It reminded me of those entire episodes devoted to those incredible, flying arrows - the single-arrow-mutating-into-many arrow, the lightning-head arrow, the midair-shape changing arrow... It all came back vividly, right down to the dismayed expression on the face of the archer whose arrow was annihilated. I was enjoying myself thoroughly, when a plaintive voice rung out, loud enough for the whole theatre to hear, "Leela, when does the movie get over!" Goldfish and Alison have a lot in common.

A pilgrimage to the Strand Bookstore was mandatory. Books, when one can find them in Dubai, are prohibitively expensive. Besides, there's only one incredible Mr. Shanbag. I can't remember a single time when I haven't been treated like a VIP customer, even if I've only gone there to browse. This time, I came away with a sizeable haul, but without the slightest twinge of guilt. Dirhams be praised! The ever-courteous staff not only weighed the books to ensure I wasn't going to ground the aircraft, but also reminded me that they could ship me me consignments of up to 5 kgs. for just Rs. 500. I spotted another VFM (or value for money, in ad lingo) offer on a poster in the shop window. This should explain why friends will receive, 'Love poems by Love Poets' in lieu of a Christmas card this year.

Five months is too short a time to make statements like, 'Nothing's changed back home', but I was surprised at how easily I slipped back into old routines. Like sipping my mother's strong tea in the afternoon, cornering the PC at home and wearing down the remote with my frenzied channel-surfing. Old allergies returned to torment me as well, and I spent many a precious day sniffling and clutching a heavy head. But there were huge departures from my prior experience as well. Like the time I handed over a Rs. 100 note to the person at the Borivli Station ticket window. My eyebrows shot right off my forehead when the teller first apologised, and then, very politely, requested me to check if I had a smaller note tucked somewhere in my purse. I managed to locate the requisite change, when the teller from Mars continued, "Actually, I shouldn't be asking you for change. But I feel helpless right now. Thank you for helping me out." I looked around for hidden cameras or for Cyrus Broacha to jump out from a corner with the funny cap. This certainly wasn't the Western Railway I'd known for years!

There was another interesting episode at the ticket window at Churchgate Station. The queue, made up mostly of men, was inching
forward, when a woman of formidable girth jumped the queue. The men hissed disapprovingly, but intimidated by her size, said nothing. Until one braveheart called out from behind, "Excuse me Ma'am, we are in queue. This is not fair."Ma'am coolly replied, "It's fair. If you want, I'll buy your ticket as well."The braveheart sputtered at this unanticipated offer, "That's not the point..." But by then she'd collected her ticket and walked away, delivering a gem of parting shot, "What's your problem? Don't you know how to respect a lady!"The braveheart hasn't recovered, I suspect.

My 'Priceless Pictures' collection grew a bit in Bombay, thanks to gems like these.

Spotted above a ticket window at Borivli Station.

Spotted outside a building complex at Bandra. Canine literacy must be especially high in this area...

There are still some places in Bombay where you can avoid the rush hour completely, where crowds are conspicuous by their absence and where the only sounds you hear are the lapping of the waves and the rustle of the wind in the tall grass. One such place is Manori. Not the popular beach area, but a little way ahead where the craggy rocks end in the sea. I had the good-fortune of going rock-climbing here with a friend, who regularly organises getaways of this nature. (His website if you're interested.) It had been almost two years since I'd done any climbing, but it still felt as good. The muscles protested fiercely the next day, but the vacation felt complete.

Ambivalence ruled when it was time to leave. It had been a wonderful trip, but I was also looking forward to getting back to the Muddle East, which was slowly beginning to get a little un-muddled. The official at the check-in counter frowned when I offered my bags to be weighed. I'll never shop at Strand again, I swore fervently. I got away with an injunction to "Carry less than 8 kilos in hand baggage next time."Whew!

Stepping aboard the Indian Airlines flight, I was confronted by a sizeable, pot-bellied Steward who greeted me with a gap-toothed smile. It took me a few moments to recover, but I told myself I wasn't going to be judgemental about the national carrier. Still, I was reminded of Rhyncus's experience a few months ago, and wondered what else was in store. I didn't have to wait long.

I was engrossed in one of the new books when they announced that the film 'No Entry' would be shown. I was curious to know what had made it such a hit, so I plugged in the earphones, and looked at the single screen in front of the middle aisle. The opening soundtrack began. The screen was blank. The dpening dialogues began; Anil Kapoor, I could tell. The screen was blank. I looked around, wondering if I was the only one who had a problem seeing anything on the screen. Nobody else looked nonplussed. I leaned as much to the right as I could without giving the person in the next seat any wrong ideas. Finally, it sunk in. No Entry was a no-show; the entire film was going to be played only on the headphones. No one else was complaining. Indian Airlines regulars, I thought and went back to the book.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Of cat eaters and the sexy Bill Gates

"Do you eat cats?" my Indian colleague asked the Filipino Art Director, R. We were traveling home together after work; I was nodding off in the front seat of the car, but the grisly vision of a mewling, skinned cat jerked me awake.

The usually genial and now, nonplussed R, queried, “Cats?? You mean catfish?”

“No, I mean cats,” persisted my Indian colleague with the subtlety of a marauding rhino. “I’ve heard you Filipinos eat cats.”

Torn between being affronted and laughing at his ignorance, R settled for a snort and a dismissive wave of hand.

“What about dogs then? Do you’ll eat dogs?” The Indian colleague was unstoppable. We might have gone through the entire animal kingdom, but fortunately for R, he’d reached his destination.

The exchange was amusing, no doubt, but to me, it also underlined the appealing aspect of a multicultural workplace. Apart from Indians, there are Pakistanis, Indonesians, Filipinos, Syrians, an Iraqi and a couple of Bangladeshis – just a handful of the 180 different nationalities that Dubai touts with pride. But add to this clutch, our clients and suppliers, and you have Lebanese, Japanese, Emiratis, Brits, French, Moroccans, Koreans, Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians and more. A small effort at international integration.

Each interaction offers a tiny glimpse of a distant land and helps chip away at a few preconceived notions. There’s so much to learn and marvel at. Not only have my Hindi conversational skills improved a great deal, I’m told I do a mean Urdu as well – thanks to the influence of a Pakistani colleague and close friend, H. Our conversation lately revolves a lot around recipes – with me being the recipient mostly – and Pakistani cuisine. H, a firm believer in my latent cooking skills, generously plies me with recipes and cooked samples.

My Syrian colleague, Z, on the other hand, provides the much-needed humour. He was delighted when my desk was moved next to his, because he would finally be able to write love letters to his sweetheart in Syria, with correct spellings. All through the day I’m interrupted with, “How do you spell daily?” or “…appreciate” or “…impossible”. Finally, I told him in exasperation that I’d charge him 5 dirhams per spelling. I’ve lost count, but he easily owes me a few hundred bucks.

Z’s conversational English is much better though, and on occasion he comes up with a sparkling witticism. Sometimes, unintentionally as well. Like the time he told me, “You know, the Europeans are very sexyful.” I kept a stony face, silently groaning and thinking, spare me your conquests. He took my impassivity to mean incomprehension and launched forth with gesticulations, “You know sexyful… like Bill Gates?” Stone face gave way to shock face. You Syrians have strange ideas of sex appeal, I thought, until it hit me like a sledgehammer – he meant successful.

I’ve gotten pretty good at Syrian-English now. A week ago when he said, "I have to go to the quarter office,” I promptly corrected him, saying, “It’s called headquarters.” Or when he recently expressed his desire to see India, exclaiming, “I’ve heard it’s very beautiful. I want to see that… that… big house!” Without batting an eyelid I told him, “It’s called the Taj Mahal.” He smiled broadly and nodded.

R, the Filipino colleague, is similarly fascinated with India. “What’s tikke?” he asked me recently. For once, I was stumped. “You’ll keep saying it after every sentence…” he prompted. A bit of cranium scratching and the lightbulb shone. “Ohhhh…. You mean theek hai! It means ok.”

“Like sige in Tagalog,” (the Filipino language) he mused.

Now, all mails to me are signed off with tikke. Interestingly, I discovered that R is a Born Again Christian who’s also ‘been a Hindu’. Apparently, he joined the Hare Rama Hare Krishna movement in Manila, until he decided that the life of a monk didn’t suit him. Being a Born Again however hasn’t stopped him from fasting during Ramadan, ‘just to see what it feels like.’

If you thought mentally converting foreign currency to rupees was an irksome Indian trait only, think anew. The Germans do it too. “Getting a driving license is so cheap out here,” boomed T, my German flatmate, when we got chatting in the kitchen one evening. My eyes widened. Just signing up for the initial tests cost me an elbow and a knee. In Indian currency, of course. “In Germany, I paid…” he paused, punching the invisible calculator, “Yes, I paid 6000 dirhams*.” No meeting of the East and West on this issue.

We soon got talking about Bombay, and for a brief moment, I was tongue-tied when they asked me, “Is Bombay very crowded?” Loyalty battled with honesty and in the end, tact won. I just shot off the population figures and they both looked at me with awe. “In our town, there are only 80,000 people,” T exclaimed. They were equally surprised when I told them I didn’t understand or speak the language of the other Indian flatmates.

“So the only language you use to communicate with each other is English?” asked A. It did sound odd and funny when put that way.

On a personal level, I’ve enjoyed and felt enriched by my interactions with people from different cultures and countries. However, it’s not a common attitude, I’ve noticed. It’s bizarre how some people do their best to recreate the country they’ve left behind, and shut out all people and experiences that don’t fit in with that notion. I’ve met Indians who are prejudiced towards other Indians from a different state. The Letters to the Editor column of a well-known daily are filled with Emiratis denouncing expats and vice versa. Friends have cited racist experiences at some of the trendy nightclubs and hotels. When I was house-hunting recently, I was asked more than a couple of times which country I was from, and if it was an Indian landlord, I even had to specify which state and city; twice I was asked to state my religion.

It's such a pity. Such attitudes only cause ungainly lumps in the melting pot. People get richer without ever getting enriched. And some might just spend their entire lives not knowing that an ex-Hindu, Born Again, roza-upholding Filipino would never make a meal of cats.

(*1 dirham = approx. Rs. 12)

Monday, October 24, 2005

Musings on moving in

1. Real estate in Dubai is a myth. A few days of house hunting and one begins to conclude that all that’s available is unreal estate – take it or leave.

1.1 The place that you fall in love with at first glance will be hopelessly over your budget. It will take a truckload of rationalizations before the emaciated wallet looks at you less accusingly.

1.2 You may have crossed out an apartment from the list, but you will not be able to forget the sight of that family of 4, holed up in one cramped room, and letting out the other room. You will also be told that it’s the least of all the horrific stories others have heard and encountered. And you will feel grateful and guilty.

2. Sharing a flat with a German couple and two Indians from Kerala can prove mildly entertaining. You soon notice quirks which leave you chuckling, such as the German guy brushing his teeth after he’s dressed for work, or one of the Indian guys powdering his face. (Yes, I’m still the wicked girl-next-door.)

3. A rug in the middle of the room can make the room friendlier. But nothing quite like a bookshelf to make it feel like home.

4. You may long to throw open your curtains with a flourish and let the brilliant sunlight in, but you cannot eject the thought of a binocular-toting weirdo in the opposite building, from your mind.

5. You can make polite conversation with one of the Indian flatmates for a few seconds, before he assumes it’s ok to ask why are you’re living alone and not married, and if you don’t have plans to ‘settle down’. Sigh. You can take the Indian out of India but…

6. Hitchcock slipped up on his research. There is, verifiably, something more sinister and spine-chilling than getting murdered in the shower. And that is discovering a cockroach – a huge, menacing flying cockroach – on the shower curtain. It’s possible that your shriek could have weakened the building’s foundation. If there’s a choice between never stepping into the shower again and enduring the flatmates’ snickering for asking them to kill the creature for you, the latter is preferable. You at least have the satisfaction of knowing you’ve rid the world of one evil terrorist.

7. Women are from Venus; front-loading washing machines are from Jupiter. Perhaps you’ve misunderstood the German flatmates’ instructions – but one doesn’t start out spin drying the clothes and then washing them. (Or is that the vay it’s dun in Germany, eh Parmanu?)

8. When the friendly restaurant owner calls you up three times after you’ve placed a dinner order and gives you four missed calls the next day, you know it’s time to find a new takeaway.

9. A walk along the creek-side promenade (which you discover is within walking distance of your place) is the best prescription for a restless mind. Watching the plain wooden abras (water taxis) and the showy dhows bobbing lazily on the blue-black waters, hearing the adhaan in the distance and feeling the cool, salty breeze on your skin, can weave a magical spell around you. The magic will fade a few moments later when two women will plonk themselves on your bench and make perfunctory conversation. You beat a hasty exit, suspicious and confused by their over-friendliness, but you decide ‘better safe than sorry’ is the way to go.

10. You can try, but you will not be able to repay the kindness of the aunt who checks up on you twice a day, takes you grocery shopping every weekend, lends you pots, pans and a willing shoulder, and doesn’t interfere with how you live your life. You can only hope to pay it forward.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Take a bow, Fairy!

Twilight Fairy, posting from Finland, proves that she has only one thing on her mind.

Take a look, folks, and take a bow, Fairy. :)

Monday, October 17, 2005

Priceless Pictures # 4: Here comes the bride, bride, bride...

An offer for a) triplets getting married together? or b) A smart woman who's already begun work on the pre-nup? Any other guesses?

Also see: Priceless Pictures # 1, # 2, # 3

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Count your chickens… they’re coming home to roost!*

The first time I took notice of Arindam Chaudhuri, ‘management guru’ and author, was when it was reported that he was making a movie. Nothing unusual about that, except when he mentioned that the movie was definitely going to be a hit because it was based on ‘sound management principles’. The pre-release publicity of the film (I forget the name) painstakingly detailed the focussed group interviews, the tracking of each ad and article for impact, the collation of data on a daily basis etc. Despite my lukewarm interest in Bollywood, I was curious. Would Chaudhuri succeed where the Ghais, Chopras and Akhtars had failed? Apparently not. Economic theories notwithstanding, the film bombed spectacularly, and that was the last I heard of Chaudhuri…

… until a few days ago. Two bloggers, Gaurav Sabnis and Rashmi Bansal, have been the victims of a particularly malicious attack for taking a closer look at Chaudhuri’s exaggerated CV and the tall claims made by his institution, IIPM. No sound management principles are needed to gauge the extent of IIPM’s desperation. The abusive, lewd comments ostensibly by ‘IIPM students’ on Rashmi’s blog and the threats to burn IBM laptops outside Gaurav Sabnis’s office (IBM being his employer) are proof that the bloggers’ investigations have struck a chord somewhere. In an incredibly brave move, Gaurav has chosen to quit IBM rather than delete his posts on IIPM.

In a way, this episode is reminiscent of the ‘Mediaah!’ controversy a few months ago. It’s commendable that Gaurav and Rashmi have dug in their heels and chosen to fight it out. Desipundit has done a great job of drumming up support for Rashmi and Gaurav, and even for allowing space for dissenting voices. Let’s show them how it’s done!

While on the subject of freedom of expression, there’s one bit of heartening news from the UAE as well.

Two journalists from the Arabic dailies Al Ittihad and Al Bayan were , for their articles incriminating the Sharjah Macquitted by the Sharjah Court of Appealunicipality in 1999. (Coincidentally, it’s known as the ‘chicken politics’ case.) The journalists lost the appeal in the Primary Court but the Federal High Court stepped in and ordered a retrial, which resulted in the journalists being acquitted.

What’s more, the lead stories in both Gulf News and Khaleej Times today are of General Sheikh Mohammed’s (Dubai Crown Prince and Defence Minister) address to the media urging them ‘to be bold, transparent and unbiased.’

Perhaps it’s spin, perhaps it isn’t. I’d like to believe it’s the latter. In the meanwhile, here’s another voice in support of Gaurav Sabnis and Rashmi Bansal. IIPM, it’s time to start counting your chickens…

* For those not in the know, 'Count your chickens before the hatch' is the, ahem, ‘best-selling’ management book by Arindam Chaudhuri.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Absolute Lee 3.0

I’d have liked to mark my 2nd blogversary with a little more elegance. There were many plans – a new look, a nostalgia-tinged post, some funny observations of life in the Muddle East. But not only have all plans been thwarted by a grueling offline schedule, even my existing template seems to have upped and left. I have to admit; the present look is pretty much what life looks like right now. A BIG thank you to all of you who visit and leave comments, even though I’m unable to reciprocate at the moment.

Now that I’ve begun, I thought I’d write a little about the unique experience of Ramadan. For reasons unknown to most out here, it’s ‘Ramadan’ and not ‘Ramzan’. A trifling disparity in pronunciation, but a huge departure from my experience of it in India. I had a close Muslim friend, who fasted sporadically. But I’d rarely come across anyone who kept up the arduous schedule of fasting and prayers.

I’m in awe of the way things work out here to assist people in maintaining the austerity required at Ramadan. From sunrise to sunset, life alters irrevocably for everyone – Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The most welcome change has to be the reduced working hours. All companies are required by law to alter office timings, with the result that offices everywhere start at 9.30 or 10 a.m. and end by 3 or 4 p.m. My driving classes have come to a halt because instead of 8 a.m. classes are only authorized to begin at 9.30 a.m. Even with the reduced work hours, little gets accomplished. It’s a well-accepted norm that any major business decisions, or even recruitments will happen only post-Ramadan.

Yesterday morning I inadvertently broke a Ramadan rule. I was waiting for the office car and overcome by thirst, I started sipping an orange juice. I almost choked when I remembered that eating or drinking in a public place is prohibited during Ramadan. No beady-eyed policeman was bearing down on me, but that didn’t stop my heart from thudding a little faster. Most restaurants are shut until sunset and those that stay open have to enclose the dining area. Even the 24-7 store in my office complex, which has all of 3 tiny tables, now has a cane partition demarcating the eating area.

Apart from fasting, the emphasis is on prayer. One of the first things I found fascinating in my office building was a Prayer Room on every floor with the prayer timings marked out. Perhaps anticipating an increased number of worshippers, the management has recently added a shoe rack outside the Prayer Room. One of my colleagues has set an adhan (call for prayer) alarm on his laptop. So every few hours, we’re treated to the plaintive call.

At sunset, the transformation is dramatic. The starving countenances are lit up with smiles in anticipation of Iftar (fast-breaking meal). Shuttered restaurants now throw open their doors, advertising lavish Iftar spreads. The messy traffic situation gets messier as families decide to go a-visiting.

There’s a distinct change in the weather as well. The days are shorter and somewhat cooler. The promised ‘good weather’ seems to be upon us, finally. The piety followed by gaiety adds to this pleasant mood. Far from treating the fasting and change in schedule as an obligation, most people seem to welcome it. My colleagues avidly discuss their experiences, what they eat at Sohour (dawn meal) and Iftar, their techniques for coping with hunger. I almost feel a wee twinge of guilt, stealing away behind the cane partition to have my lunch.

‘Ramadan Kareem’ is how people greet each other during this time. So, to all of you who drop by and leave comments, Ramadan Kareem.

P.S. The 1st post and the 1st blog-versary post.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Pic courtesy: Gulf News

There couldn’t be a better picture to capture the poignant contrast that is Dubai. Lofty skyscrapers, mammoth billboards touting beautiful properties for beautiful people, and below it all, a jarring intrusion of almost-humans into a lovely fantasy.

Two days ago, almost a thousand of these almost-humans marched onto Sheikh Zayed Road and with unbelievable audacity squatted on it.

The road-watch RJ sounded surprised as she alerted commuters about this phenomenon. She wasn’t the only one. Even after the police arrived and herded the labourers to the side of the road, traffic continued to crawl, as drivers unaccustomed to the sight of protesting labourers, stopped to take in the spectacle. Traffic in the opposite lane slowed down for a similar reason.

A strike in Dubai? It sounded as abnormal as, well, rains in the desert. It turned out that the workers had taken to the streets to protest non-payment of wages for months. They couldn’t have chosen a better time (7.30 a.m to 9.30 a.m.) or a better place (the arterial Sheikh Zayed Road) to draw attention to their plight. Ripples were felt all the way down to Makhtoum Bridge, which was choked with cars and irate drivers.

The Labour Ministry came down heavily on the employers, Abu Dhabi-based Al Hamed Company for Development. They were ordered to pay salaries within 24-hours, faced a fine for delaying salaries and also a recruitment ban for 6 months.

Suddenly, the invisible almost-humans became celebrities. Photographers rushed to their camps; sound bites were recorded, their sorry lives and living conditions were documented.

Even the company’s administration manager was spoken to, who said,

"The reason why the workers succeeded in their protest is because they were large in number. Otherwise they would never have dared to do anything like this."

So true.

I mean, who in their right mind, would dare to demand clean drinking water or water to have a shower after a hard day's work in the sun. Or ask for facilities to cut fruits and vegetables. Or even require proper sewage facilities and, goodness, modern toilets. Why would almost-humans require all this, eh? And, on top of it all, demand salaries?

Following the 24-hour ultimatum, Al Hamed started paying out salaries but also managed to wrangle out extra time complaining that they could not pay all workers in one day.

How do you expect us to pay 6,000 people’s salaries in ONE day, they pouted. “We have to pay more than Dh5 million in salaries. There's no way we could have done that in 24 hours.”
Another erudite comment was made by a professor of political science of the UAE University.

"The stature of the UAE is superior to any other factor. Unfortunately, there are national companies… who harm the image of the country by abusing rights of workers.

That’s right, you awful national companies. Pay up your workers’ wages to uphold the stature of the UAE. Not because the almost-humans have worked for it.

No workers were arrested during the protest, Gulf News informs us.

An article in the Khaleej Times today elaborates a bit on the psyche of UAE labourers.

Interestingly, all these men believe that fate has brought them here and they have never considered the fact that they can ever be allowed to bring their families here and lead a happy life…

…The fatalism also helps them psychologically, makes it easier on them. "This is how we are meant to spend the rest of our life," they say.

Quick, bring back the lovely fantasy, the lofty skyscrapers…

Update: Surprise, surprise. The Indian government has blacklisted the construction company, Al Hamed.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Rain, almost

“So this is how much people miss the rain,” murmured my bemused Filipino colleague.

We were looking at a mass of twenty-somethings waving their limbs wildly; their faces upturned to catch the teeny droplets of water that burst out of the sprinklers. We were at Dubai Rain 2005, the most eagerly awaited event of the year, if radio spots and full-page ads are to be believed.

The event was scheduled for 11 p.m. but we were warned that traffic and parking would be nightmare. So three of my colleagues and I headed off early, but even as we reached the 5th interchange on Sheikh Zayed road, we knew we were too late. There was a long line of cars headed for the Le Meridien, Mina Siyahi.

As we inched forward in traffic, I wondered just what I was doing headed for a concert which featured names I’d never heard of: Dr. Zeus, DJ Nasha, Aman Hayer, Jazzy B etc. This Bhangra/Garage/Rap couldn’t be further from my usual Western Classical/Jazz leanings. But when you’ve spent most mornings listening to ‘Do me a favour, let’s play Holi’ and ‘Bachke rehna re baba’ on the car radio, you become quite accommodating. Secondly, the concert beat wandering around malls or trying out restaurants – two of the perpetual pastimes in Dubai. Besides there was the promise of ‘rain’…

My colleague managed to nudge the car into a sliver of a parking slot just opposite the Le Meridien, and we all congratulated ourselves, not realizing at that time, that we’d painted ourselves into a corner.

Three stringent security checks later, we were inside the venue. It was a muggy night with just a hint of breeze. And a mighty lot of breezers! I was surprised to find stalls selling beer and breezers. I was so used to concerts where people sneaked in hip flasks or mineral water bottles with pale spirits, that this came as a surprise.

I looked out for the promised ‘rain’. In the middle of the venue, a square-shaped scaffolding had been erected, with sprinklers attached all across the perimeter. Below the scaffolding, a throng of drenched, gyrating bodies kept time with the pulsating beat. The remixes were trotted out one after the other, much to the delight of the crowd. We stood and watched from the sidelines, not sure if it was a good idea to join the hyper-kinetic dancers. My Filipino colleague was quite taken in by the vigorous Bhangra movements.

Although I had made noises initially about not wanting to wet my leather shoes, it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. So we went into the ‘rain zone’. The first drops of ‘rain’ on skin felt uncommonly good. Memories of enjoyable rainy days flooded the mind. Hair got plastered, water dripped down one’s chin, clothes got heavy, home felt a little closer.

Expectedly, the crowd consisted mainly of Indians and Pakistanis. But there was a small group of Brits who seemed to be having a whale of a time. I was surprised to spot an Arab girl, headscarf and all. A few guys took the opportunity to do a ‘Salman’, whipping off their shirts to bare un-rippling musles and flab abs. The ratio of guys to girls might have been 15:1. So, few girls went under the sprinklers and fewer still looked comfortable coming away from them.

Each artiste was introduced with much fanfare, but it seemed to me that apart from one superhit song, there wasn’t much else in his repertoire. Realising it, a couple of them tried to work up the crowds with some Punjabi colloquialisms, and it usually worked. The artiste of the evening was, undoubtedly, Raghav. He leaped onto the stage with a bevy of bootylicious dancers and was an instant hit with the crowd. “I don’t need to tell you this,” he exclaimed breathlessly, “but your city is very hot!” He followed that observation with the very catchy ‘Angel Eyes’, so we forgave him for reminding us about the heat.

After a while the ‘nachana-vichana-kudiya’ got a bit repetitive, so we decided to call it a night. It was 1.30 a.m. The sprinklers were still in a profligate mood when we left.

We reached the car and found our exit blocked on all sides. We muttered unkind things about the thoughtless drivers, threw up inventive but impossible solutions, snarled at the inert cars, even. But there was no way out. We piled into the car, exhausted, turned on the radio and listened to the rest of the concert ‘live’.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Just call me Mo!

VHC (Very Helpful Colleague) and I walked into the Belhasa Driving Center today. It was a beehive of activity. People were rushing to and fro clutching papers, passport and paraphernalia.

We headed to the Reception. VHC took charge. Given my last experience, I was relieved.

VHC, a successful alumnus of the same driving institute, inquired about the fees, pick-up facility and instructors. He insisted that I opt for a male instructor. Reception said that wasn’t permitted. But female instructors talk too much, VHC said belligerently. Reception smothered a smile and told us to complain to the technical department. They’re constantly on the phone fighting with their husbands or discussing recipes, and you won’t learn anything, VHC persisted. But there was no relenting. Oh well, I thought, I could use a few recipes…

VHC filled the form while I supplied the details. We headed from counter to counter. File opening. Cashier. Eye test. Cashier. File opening. Reception. VHC grabbed hold of papers that escaped my grasp at each counter. Reception beckoned to me to collect my passport. We’ll call you within 10 days, he said. I nodded, thrust all papers in my bag and we made off.

The car was fiendishly hot. It felt like needles were piercing my skin. The air-conditioner offered no relief. I caught sight of myself in the vanity mirror and almost leaped out of my skin. What was that? It wasn’t a speck on the mirror as I hoped. I was beginning to sport a beard! Not a 5 o’clock shadow, but a distinct strokeable beard.

This cannot be happening to me, I prayed. Maybe this was like the bumblebee dream, which had woken me up the previous morning. I dreamed I was being chased by a bumblebee and woke up, arms flailing, tangled in the covers and with the drone of the bee still very ‘audible’. I checked again. The hirsute sight in the vanity mirror hadn’t changed. I was beginning to get worried.

My phone rang.

“Madam, can you please come back to the institute,” said Reception. “I think I’ve given you the wrong passport.”

“Wha…” I said, relieved to hear my voice hadn’t broken yet.

I flipped open the passport I was carrying. For a split second, I thought I saw a familiar face. Then, a wave of relief washed over me. I’d just escaped being Mohammad Jamil, resident of Saudi Arabia.

I made haste in returning the passport. And then it struck me, that I’d saved face, but perhaps also lost the opportunity to be part of the record books, forever.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The strain of being a Resident

Misplaced forms, expired visas, a little red tape and some curious experiences later, I’m finally a resident of the United Arab Emirates. I have an identity card, which oddly enough classifies me as a Press Editor. I see their point. Copy Head sounds more like a directive than a designation.

As a Resident, I can now officially:

Get a cell phone connection
Open a bank account
Rent an apartment
Take a loan
Get a driving license
Wear a long-suffering expression while complaining about the traffic, heat and soaring price of real estate.

Coming back to the curious experience mentioned above. One of the pre-requisites for acquiring a Resident visa is the medical test. I was dropped off at the clinic nearest to our office, by the affable driver who told me, “First x-ray, then blood, then finish.”

Simple enough, I thought. I headed to the X-ray section and was handed an innocuous looking form at the Reception. My eyes flew open. I blinked a few times and shook my head just in case I had misread the questions.

Q2: I am not pregnant because:

a) I am single or widowed
b) I am on contraceptives
c) I am staying away from my husband
d) Others (specify)

Now, I understand it’s not advisable to undergo an X-ray when pregnant. (In fact, there were a few posters around which cautioned pregnant women about X-rays.) But did I have to give explicit reasons as to why I didn’t fall in that category?

I was still recovering from that bout of bizarreness, when I handed the form to the man at Reception. He glanced at the form and leveled me with a look that said, ‘Are-you-sure?’

Are pregnant women thronging the X-ray clinics around here? Is this some weird sort of protest which authorities feel compelled to curb? Was I exuding the soft glow of motherhood??

I stepped into the changing room in the X-ray section and another protruding belly poster sounded a warning.

I was beginning to get nervous.


The blood test went off much better. The guard escorted me ahead of the long line of sun-browned labourers, into an open room where a couple of male technicians were at work, labeling blood samples. For some reason, I assumed there would be female staff in attendance as well. I was beginning to feel a tad uncomfortable with the overwhelming male presence, all of them conversing in Arabic.

I was directed to a seat, and one of them asked me to hold out my hand, as he readied the syringe. I quickly averted my eyes from the needle. The technician noted my sudden head movement and assumed I was trying to get a better look at his nametag.

<“Syria,” he said, even before I thought of asking.

I nodded politely.

“Have you ever been to Syria?”

I said.

“Anyone from your family has been to Syria?”

I shook my head.

“So I am the first Syrian you’ve met?” he asked delightedly.

No, I said, my colleague is Syrian.

“Aww… I wanted to be the first,” he said, pulling a face.

I shrugged my shoulders.

“Why am I not the first?” he persisted.

Huh. Was this Tricky Questions Day?? Or was this part of the Residence Visa eligibility test?

“First or second doesn’t make a difference. Syrians are nice people,” I muttered, in a cheesy attempt at diplomacy.

I’d passed the ‘test’ with flying colours judging from his expression.


I wonder what’s in store for me next week. I’m signing up for the driving license...

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Speak up, Mumbai – II

When I wrote this post a few weeks ago, a few had commented that nothing would ever change in Mumbai. Once the hubbub had settled down, all the issues that it raised about disaster management, responsibility etc. would also recede.

But there are some who are not going to stand by and wait for the next cloudburst, to swing into action. Citizens who aren’t waiting for the government to get their act together, but who’ve decided to be part of the solution.

One of them is my pal, Zigzackly. And he needs YOUR help for his project.

Tell us your cloudburst stories
Here's a chance to tell your story, and make a difference. Do help him out.

Friday, August 19, 2005


I still remember the colour of your cheeks on the day you were born. Not translucent white, not baby pink - but a spectacular crimson. Two bright red blotches on either side of your tiny, twitching nose. It almost seemed painted on; like some nurse in the back room had decided to prettify you before presenting you to the public. Will her cheeks always be like this, I asked my mum softly. You’d save a packet on make-up if that were the case. No, my mum shushed, some newborns have that colour; it will fade in a couple of days. I was relieved, but I must add, those cherry-red cheeks were so inviting...

Your first birthday called for a big celebration. Your mother told me, “You’ve got to be the ‘Mistress of Ceremonies’ and conduct the games.” Didn’t she know how uncomfortable I was in crowds? But it was you, and her… how could I refuse? I was awkward, and affected; but I got through the afternoon. You looked adorable in your frilly dress. Your hair had finally begun to grow and there were soft tendrils around your ears. One memory stands out: your mother was trying to maneuver you, and the cake knife, with the same hand. For a few anxious moments, I thought she would slice the wrong goodie. But you escaped unscathed and went on to…

… your second birthday. I had just returned from a trip abroad, and you were so excited about the booty I’d got you, although it would be a while before you could actually use some of it. Pencils with your name inscribed on them, magnets, a magenta dinosaur which I insisted you call ‘Capuccino’, just so I’d enjoy your efforts to pronounce it. (Remember the doll, 'Enchilada'.) You were so excited, you kept repeating my name over and over again because you didn't know too many other words to express your delight. We dressed you in a ghagra-choli that your mother and I got you after much searching. I even got a fancy matching bindi. How you preened! You clearly were in control, even though the four other children were much older than you. What a clamor we made with the ‘Simple Simon’ game. The children didn’t want to leave.

It was a struggle to hold up three fingers the next year. It took a few moments of intense concentration, and with the fingers of one hand helping the other, you succeeded in telling us how old you were. It was a low-key birthday; just close family. I remember allowing you to take pictures with my camera, because I’d come across an article in the papers of a 3-year old who’d just held his first photo exhibition. For some reason, I thought I might discover a similar spark of talent in you. I was proved wrong when I developed the roll: you’d cut off our heads. But then, when it came to you, we’d lost our heads long ago.

I promised you four gifts on your fourth birthday. My mother wanted to know if I would keep up the gifts-corresponding-to-age for life. I knew about your notorious attention span, so I was insured against any magnanimous promises I made. Among the books and colours was the ‘magu-fine glass’. You’d been so fascinated by the one we had at home – the way the world suddenly seemed larger through it. When my mother asked what you were doing with a magnifying glass, you knowledgably corrected her, ‘It’s a magu-fine glass.’ And that was that. From then on, we only knew it as the magu-fine glass.

The much-wanted Barbie, along with her wardrobe, is on the way this year. I had fun shopping for it at the toy store. The array that passes for ‘kidstuff’ is quite simply amazing. A feather boa? An 8-foot doll? Barbie string bikinis? For a few minutes, your tickled aunt and grand-aunt could have passed off as your classmates. But that’s it. There will be no first-hand memories of the party this year. I know I will hear all the details, and will piece them together to imagine your day. It’s been a hard year for you, and I know everyone will pull all the stops to make it a memorable day. I’m only sorry that I cannot be there. Sorry for myself, that I won’t be a part of the memories. But enough about me, this is your day to celebrate. So without any more ado…

Happy Birthday to the sweetest niece and, of course, ‘bess friend’.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

A few bloggers more

Rhyncus's post on Dubai in his new blog, reminded me of a half-finished post buried under a steadily growing heap of posts, patiently waiting to be written. This one’s an continuation of the ‘Bloggers I’ve Met’ series.

Rhyncus: Travels with a centipede

(First, a little background: Rhyncus, the milk-selling blogger from Nigeria, was returning to Mumbai, with a 2-day stopover in Dubai. A blogger meet was planned.)

The opening conversation went like this:

Leela: Welcome to Dubai, Rhyncus.
Rhyncus: Shukran.
Leela: A-ha! I see you know Arabic.
Rhyncus: Not really. I only know two words.
Leela: Really, which is the other word?
Rhyncus: Sharmoota. It means ‘bitch’.

Despite that early indication that here was a don’t-mess-with-me-I-know-two-Arabic-words guy, I went ahead and fixed a time and venue. There were some questions that were begging to be answered. For instance: what did ‘Rhyncus’ mean? Why was he selling milk in Nigeria? And why on earth was he traveling with a centipede?

Since it was a Saturday-night (not to be mistaken for the weekend; actually, first day of the week) I decided to take him to a pub not too far from where I lived – Beyond El Rancho’s at the Marco Polo Hotel. The same place where my friends used to conduct a quiz not so long ago.

“I’ve heard Dubai has a happening nightlife,” said Rhyncus.

Yes it does, I agreed heartily, as we walked into a near-empty pub. Rhyncus turned on the Russian accent in an attempt to impress the Russian waitress, and maybe it worked, because she came and placed a complimentary lemon tart with the words ‘You are special’ on it – in front of me. Over Bloody Mary’s and Screwdrivers, and among other topics discussed, I finally got the answers to the burning questions. a) Rhyncus means nose. b) Because the Nigerians bought the white stuff, duh. c) Because most two- and four-legged creatures were taken.

Ok, I made up the last one; I can’t remember Rhyncus’s answer.

Shantesh: Fikar Nako

When Shantesh introduces himself as a ‘shooting star’, you’ve got to take it literally. Each time we made plans to meet, he’d excuse himself, mumbling, “Got a shoot coming up tomorrow”, or “Shoot delayed, won’t be able to make it.”

Of course, I should know better than to expect copywriters to deliver to a deadline. I should also know that copywriters sometimes come up with scintillating stuff when least expected (erh-em). So, one evening without too much planning and co-ordinating of schedules, two copywriters met up at the Cricketer’s Pub at the Ramada Continental Hotel.

Shantesh has been in Dubai for a few months only. But he’s well informed about the nightlife in the city (unlike the other copywriter). He regaled me with stories about the seamy side of the city, until I noticed quite a bit of interesting action going on around the pub itself.

A trio of pretty Russian girls in pink minis, and their accompanist trooped in, and Shantesh groaned loudly. I couldn’t imagine why, until they started singing old country songs. ‘Done brek my aart, my ekky brekky aart’, had me in splits.

Wiping my tears, I said, “Now I’ve heard it all: Russians singing country western!”

“Hah!” he retorted promptly, “you haven’t heard Filipinos singing Bhangra yet.”

True, there’s no arguing that.

Pixel 8: Pixel 8
Neha: Dreams & Reality
Amit: Amit’s Musings
Manu: Georgie’s Jungle

Tearing oneself away from the cosy confines of home on a lazy Friday afternoon for a blogger meet requires a good deal of will power. I thumbed the Book of Excuses, but none sounded like they would cut any ice. As a last resort I tried sending a text message asking if the meet was on. Turned out everyone was waiting for me. There was no getting away and I plodded over to the Pizza Hut opposite the Bur Juman Mall.

It turned out to be an interesting afternoon, and I was glad I came along. I’d met Manu and Amit previously, but was meeting Pixel8 and Neha for the first time. I’d expected Pixel8 to be there with her camera, clicking at everything in sight. She maintains a neat photoblog, and has put her web designing skills to good use on her blog. She’s also the only one I know who has immutable faith in Rediffblogs, while I haven’t missed an opportunity to gripe about it.

While all of us placed our orders, Neha announced that she was fasting. My jaw plunged a bit when she said she’d been fasting for a couple of months, subsisting only on bananas and milk. The jaw’s downward slide continued when she mentioned she was doing a 3-year course in Gaming Technology from the US, which required her to attend virtual classes at 2.30 a.m. daily. I discovered she works quite close to my office, so one of these days when we meet for coffee I’m going to figure out the secret of her energy, and, possibly, bottle it. It’s hard enough keeping my eyes open until 11 p.m. on a regular day!

Thanks all of you, it’s been a pleasure.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Priceless Pictures # 1: Spotted at Spinneys

I’m starting an occasional photo series called ‘Priceless Pictures’ to document the interesting (read, quirky) sights I’ve come across. The quality might be a bit iffy because it’s my phone camera.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

In a similar vein...

A blog post in reply to an email?!

I enjoy the way you experiment with your writing. Here I am, following your lead.

You’ll find this funny, but I didn’t realize I was pining for the city when I wrote that post. I was not unhappy to get away when I did, because I longed for a change. I couldn’t imagine why I stayed in the same city for so many years when I enjoy, no, crave new experiences. I actually envied your trajectory of life in so many cities. And it turns out, you long for an obsession with a single place. The grass is never green enough in our garden, is it?

Yes, my Suffering has finally come to an End. 10 pages in a day is all that I could average in a speeding car, with the radio turned up max. I detest the car pool, but it seems like the only time I can get any reading done is on the way to work. 1 month and 11 days for 1 book! (Yes, I’ve been keeping track.) All my co-passengers, including the driver, noticed when I started a new book.

But I have to say, An End to Suffering is amazing. It filled in many gaps in my understanding of The Enlightened One after I was properly introduced to him last year. I think you mentioned it briefly sometime ago, didn’t you? I must go back and check it out.

I’m halfway through a quick-read now, after which I will begin on the book I mentioned before. Thanks for that brief glimpse into the author’s other work. I’m intrigued enough.

On another note, I’ve been trying to persuade the girl from Chicago to pass through here on her way to India in November. Is there a chance you can do a trip as well? An International Meet would be cool, wouldn’t it?

Monday, August 01, 2005

Speak up, Mumbai!

Everyone has a story about the Great Deluge. My mum wrote a long missive about the two narrow escapes she had – once when an electricity pole crashed in front of her, and another, when a tree slammed the earth a few feet away from her. My usually taciturn brother wrote a detailed account of being accommodated in the Hyatt by his office – 20 to a room – and of sheepishly traveling by the ladies first class in order to get home. A hyper busy ex-boss wrote a long email updating me on her escape from Tedious Tuesday and Wet Wednesday - ‘It’s not a normal working day,’ she wrote on a usually furious Friday.

Mumbai can’t stop talking about the rains. Stories, like the damp laundry, are refusing to dry up. Stories of survival and courage; of indignation and outrage; of silent Samaritans and quick-thinking messiahs. Bloggers have, figuratively speaking, taken to the streets. Collablogs like Cloudburst and MumbaiHelp have sprung up. has gritty, unedited testimonies from scores of stranded travelers (which make for more interesting reading than dry articles with two-line sound-bites.) People have become very vocal, indeed.

Which is really the best thing to happen to Mumbai.

For far too long, people have either bitten their lip and suffered, or else whined helplessly, knowing fully well that they were only shouting in the wind. Now, there’s an ominous mood building up. People who’ve spent days in darkness and damp rooms aren’t willing to swallow excuses. The huge loss of life cannot be explained away as the hand of God. What’s the government doing, people are asking hands on hips, looking belligerent. A schoolboy on a debate on NDTV yesterday asked the same question. People are looking up from their daily struggles to demand accountability from a sluggish administration. Nobody is buying it just because the Chief Minister grandly claims, “We are working on it; we are a responsible government.”

It appears that Mumbai has reached the end of its tether and its denizens are ready to holler, ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.’

Sitting miles and miles away, I feel for Mumbai like never before. I want to believe that Mumbai will come out stronger from this near-death by drowning. I want to believe that all the questions that this calamity has raised about lack of infrastructure, non-existent disaster management and sheer negligence will be answered comprehensively. I want to believe that the voices raised in protest will not run out of steam once the sun comes out.

We don’t need any more proof of Mumbai’s indomitable spirit. What we need is change, visible change. If, without prompting, direction or even expectation of material gain, Mumbai’s citizens turned up in full force to save the city from going under, what’s stopping us from rallying together and demanding a better way of living, for all? If residents can stay awake all night watching over the marooned passengers in a sunken double-decker bus, why can’t they also give their local representative sleepless nights by demanding accountability?

So speak up, Mumbai. Tell your story, get mad as hell and don’t take it anymore.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

I love you too?

I was thumbing through the menu of my new phone and familiarizing myself with all the lovely features that I was convinced I couldn’t do without (1 hour video recording, 512 MB removable memory, visual radio etc.) but which I knew I would seldom use. That’s when I spotted the little gem tucked away in the Message template.

Among the ready-to-use messages such as I’m in a meeting, call later and I am late, I will be arriving at _ , was this one – I love you too.

Right. Now we need technology to prompt our instinctive responses, personal responses. As if it isn’t enough that the cell phone has become an appendage of the human body, that we now need it to preprogram our feelings and have them ready-to-use when the need arises.

Apart from I love you too, there are other common expressions that ought to come pre-programmed into phones to save our thumbs the needless wear and tear. For instance:

‘You’re fired’

‘We need to talk’

‘I do’
(Didn’t a couple recently exchange vows on the cell phone because the groom was stuck in traffic?)

‘Let’s just be friends.’

‘What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?’

In effect, pre-programming takes over from where text messages left off.

When I left my previous phone back home for my parents, I thought happily that we could stay in touch more often through text messages. It’s more immediate than email and less expensive than phone calls, I told myself. Despite exchanging text messages almost daily, my mum writes plaintively, ‘Why are you quiet? Keep in touch more often.’

There’s something reassuring about the fact that I am connected to all my friends back in Bombay, even those across the world, through a quick text message. In less than 160 characters, I can get a quick update on a close friend’s life – ‘Hey so nice 2 hear frm you. Life’s good, work hectic, love life almost non-existent. Hw r u’. A leisurely half-hour conversation now in a bite-size morsel, that fails to satiate.

There’s a faux sense of connectedness, of conversation, and in some cases of a language even (m gr8, hw r u). The convenience aspect of text message quickly crosses over into the area usually reserved for the real effort required in maintaining relationships.

Why bother to call and wish someone when you can type out a ‘Happy birthday’ (Hapy bday 2 u!) or ‘Happy anniversary’ message (Hapy nvrsy 2 u!) Does that sound a tad impersonal? No problem, ‘Insert Smiley’ and you have infused your message with warmth and emotion :-D

Having ranted that, let me clarify I’m not anti-text messages myself. (The calluses on my thumb will testify to that.) They’re a quick and expedient way to touch base with people but no substitute for conversation. They’re also an effective antidote for boredom especially during one of those interminable meetings. And in some cases, they’re an unintentional source of mirth.

My parents had a tough time figuring out the features of their ‘new cell phone’, but it seemed like they had managed to befriend technology after all. Or so I thought. I used my uncle’s old phone for a few days until I bought a new handset. The first thing I did was to send a text message to my parents, ‘Finally bought my new phone!’

Prompt came the reply, ‘So what’s your new number?’

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Icewoman Cometh – II

Continued from The Icewoman Cometh

The helpful suggestions came in thick and fast…

'Lean forward', suggested Cousin 1. I tried and fell flat.

'Keep the blades at an angle,' said Cousin 2. Same result.

'Stand still,' said K. Ditto.

Ice-skating isn't for the faint hearted. Or the flat-bottomed, for that matter. There's probably an easier way to learn it, understanding the technique or some such, but I was woefully clueless. It was embarrassing to be at the receiving end of sympathetic looks – especially, from children.

Still, I was determined to make some headway. With K on the left, Cousin 1 on the right and Cousin 2 behind, I managed to walk one entire round of the rink without falling. Then another.

Bolstered a bit, I tried a bit of that carefree gliding that everyone around me seemed to affect. The problem with that was I suddenly gained a momentum I wasn't ready to handle yet. My outstretched arms made frenzied clockwise circles in the air. I instinctively lurched forward, hands making anti-clockwise circles. Backwards. Forwards. And, alas, downwards.

"ARE YOU OK?", Cousins 1 & 2 shrieked in unison. I was inured to the horizontal position by now, so I was a little puzzled by their concern.

"You actually bounced off the ice!" they exclaimed. The tender areas were now numb because of the ice, so I was beyond feeling anything but ignominy.

I took a moment to catch my breath, and saw a sight to warm my heart. The Show Off, who had been putting Olympic figure skaters to shame with his pirouettes and dizzying spins, came crashing down. Kids gathered around him to commiserate, and he slunk away thereafter. I would have jumped into the air and clicked my skating shoes, if I wasn't laid out on the ice myself.

It was a good time to throw in the towel. The boots were rubbing my ankles raw, my clothes were wet and the bruises were smarting. But I was loath to give in. I was actually enjoying the challenge. There’s got to be a way to stay upright, I decided. I lifted my eyes off the shoes and looked straight ahead (that old cycling trick!). It was slow progress, and there was a bit of teetering, but I must have been doing something right because K murmured, 'You know, I think you are skating.'

The closing bell went off at the rink. I staggered to the exit, relieved. My bones creaked audibly, and the throbbing at the base of the spine didn’t augur well. My worried aunt handed me a hot water bottle and came to check on me in the night. (‘You didn’t change your position all night. I thought you had died.’).

All’s well that ends well, and all that. But it might be a while before I think about ice skating again. On the other hand, there’s the 3rd largest indoor ski resort coming up in September...

Monday, July 11, 2005

The Icewoman Cometh

Blisters on both ankles
Purple bruise on left elbow and palm
Throbbing arms and legs
Sore backside
Battered tailbone
Shattered pride

These are some of the things that happen when the searing heat and super-efficient a/c’s addle ones brains, so that without a second thought about ability or experience, one ventures forth to ice skate.

Ice-skating in the desert isn’t as incongruous as it sounds. For starters, this is Dubai – city of dreams. Second, if you can come up with the 3rd largest indoor ski resort in the world, organizing a spot of ice-skating is, as they say back home, left hand’s play . So when K suggested ice-skating on the weekend, all I asked was ‘where’.

There are two ice skating rinks in Dubai; we settled for the one at the Hyatt Regency. My teenage cousins had come along as well. There were a few skaters gliding gracefully on the shopping gallery enclosed skating rink. Most of them were kids, I noticed with surprise. There were also a few girls in tunics and headscarves skating as demurely as they could.

A mild alarm bell went off when we were handed the skating shoes and I saw just how slim the blade was. The idiocy of the enterprise began to slowly sink in. Sensing my hesitation, K and my cousins insisted on escorting me to the rink.

‘It’s really easy. Just like rollerblading,’ said Cousin 1.

My eyes widened.

‘You’ve never rollerbladed?!’ exclaimed Cousin 2, giving me a look usually reserved for dinosaurs.

Embarrassed perhaps, to be stuck with a fossil, Cousins 1 & 2 whizzed away, leaving me clutching the handrail. K seemed comfortable on the skates as well. My feet struggled to find a foothold on the slippery ice. The likelihood of spending an hour or more perched on the handrail seemed a distinct possibility.

‘Come on, Lee’, said K, grabbing hold of my elbow. I took one step. And then another. Arms outstretched, body swaying unsteadily. Many many years ago my parents would have noted such movements with pride and gushed, ‘She’s learned to walk, our baby.’

Even with K’s helping hand, it was impossible to walk evenly, forget glide. Kids darted around me insouciantly. One little girl who couldn’t have been more than five years old pirouetted gaily while her parents beamed approvingly. The galling injustice of it all swept me off my feet. ThUD!

When the stars and tweety birds had cleared, I saw my cousins and K, looking down at me.

‘Why do we fall?’, murmured Cousin 2.

‘So we can pick ourselves up again,’ continued Cousin 1, helpfully, harking back to the crummy dialogue in ‘Batman’, a movie they’d dragged me to the previous Thursday.

If falling down was graceless, picking oneself up was equally ungainly. I almost tossed K over my head when I tried to pull myself up the first time. So I tried going on all fours, and after a bit of trial and error, figured a way to hoist myself up. A few shoppers stopped to observe the spectacle. I brushed off the ice crystals from my jeans, wore my nonchalant face and set off again, arms outstretched.

To be continued

Egad - II

Can someone explain these blank comments that pop up every day on all posts on the front page of my blog? And how does one turn it off?


Frustrated Lee

Thursday, July 07, 2005

That question, again

Male: So, how come you aren’t married yet?

Female: Are you proposing?

Male: NO! Hey, I didn’t mean that!

Female: So what was the question again?

Male: Er.. never mind.

Female (sotto voce): Yesss! 1 down, 555 million to go.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Summer Whine…

The heavens opened up the day after I left Bombay for Dubai. So no ‘first rains’ for me this year. No smell of fresh earth, no roasted bhutta, no wrinkled toes in rubber shoes. Just second hand accounts from news sites, mails, blogs, and photographs, like this one…

(Art Partner’s 1-year old doing the raindance.)

One tends to get all choked up about the rains especially when one is stuck in the desert. You can never complain about the heat without some killjoy clucking, “Oh, just you wait, it gets worse in July and August.”

I find it hard to imagine going through only two seasons in a year. On the other hand, colleagues find it hard to imagine why I carry a shawl. That’s the only way I can get through a day in the icebox, I tell them. People are so determined to obliterate every memory of summer, that air-conditioners are cranked up to max – in offices, homes, cars, corridors. I’m one of those who need two blankets to weather the ‘Bombay winters’. So, one can understand my abhorrence for super-efficient air-conditioners.

Out of the icebox, into the sauna – that’s the feeling of getting out into the open. Dry heat is a myth out here. It’s humid and cruel, especially to one’s lungs. No matter how deeply I inhale, the lungs never fill up. And I end up in a gasping heap in the car, croaking for the a/c to be turned up. Just so I can breathe.

I’ve always scoffed at those who follow the weather bulletin like the cricket score. But I dutifully note the temperature with awe each day. It was 49 degrees yesterday.

“Oh just you wait, it gets worse in July and August.”


Look on the bright side, they say. I shield my eyes and squint; yes, summer has some redeeming features, after all. The most welcome one being the easing up of traffic. Most people are shocked when I tell them Dubai has a massive traffic problem. A 25 minute ride takes 1 hour and 10 minutes, and that’s only if there are no accidents en route. With most people away on vacation, it only takes 45 minutes these days.

And then there’s this ditty on the radio station City 101.6, which puts me in a ridiculously good mood every single time I hear it. It goes something like this:

A chorus of female Brit voices starts off with a shooby-doo-bop 50s style melody:

Never seen a sky so blue
Bluebirds singing a song or two…
Hey hey
It’s a sunny day

Suddenly a Munnabhai-soundalike interjects:

Ae ye ladki log kya bol raheli hai?!

Garmi itni bad raheli hai
Public poori pagal ho raheli hai
Nal se boiled water aa rahela hai..
Tu kya bol rahela hai
It ends with a tapori, ‘Ae Pakya, A/c idhar ghuma!’

And finally: City 101.6. City on heat.

Ha! (insert goofy grin here)

The heat is getting to me, I think.


An issue that’s been raging just as fiercely as the summer sun is the latest Ministry of Labour ban on field work between 12:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. during July and August. According to one report, 700 workers had been hospitalized last year on account of heat stroke. And those were only the reported cases. So it’s a little surprising that none of the higher ups thought of this ban until a fortnight ago. In any case, it would seem like a welcome move for thousands of labourers who toil in the blistering sun (while some others whine about the heat and a/c’s.)

Except that it’s not. Construction groups are bitter about the fact that projects will get delayed and costs will rise. Some companies have willingly offered to pay the fines up to Dhs 600,000 rather than giving workers the four-hour break.

The Labour Inspections Department itself has been caught on the backfoot. There’s an acute shortage of inspectors to ensure the implementation of the ban.

The labour ministry source said: "Dubai has three inspectors and one unit head. We can't do 10 per cent of what's required."

Interestingly, most labourers are blissfully unaware about the new law that’s purported to be for their benefit.

"Our foreman didn't tell us. I am not sure if the foreman knows," said Nur Al Ameen, a labourer.

Perhaps, the most poignant quote of all, was this one:

Said one worker, Lalji Roy. “It’s a real struggle to work in the sun, but we do it for the money. As long as it won’t affect our finances, this is one of the best things that could have happened.”

Contrast it with the views of some of Dubai residents.

"No way. I do not think it is a very good idea for workers to work after sunset. Just imagine you coming home after a hard day's work and not being able to rest because of the noise made by work at a nearby construction site," said Tim Hunt a British resident of Dubai.

"I come home for lunch and try to catch a nap, but with all that hammering and noise it is impossible," said Khalid Yousuf Sharif, a Pakistani sales executive.

When will these cold hearts melt, I wonder.

Meanwhile, here’s an issue to take my mind off the heat. And the a/c’s. Stay tuned for more information. This is the city on heat.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Search Me!

Jabberwock posted some time ago about the longest Google search that led to his site.

"I just want to play a hindi song kal ho na ho in my piano and i am having 31 keys please show me the number keys to play"

'Cho chweet!' said Jabberwock.

'Tho fruthrating', the poor seeker must have said, because none of the 5 search pages that Google threw up - yes, I had to check - yielded any number keys for Kal ho na ho for pianos with 31 keys.

Google is God. Or at least that's what seekers out there believe, who beseech Google for a mind-boggling array of requests from 'tupperware' to 'accepting unfairness'. For some time now, I've been checking my Sitemeter account not so much for the hits (which have been curiously and boringly unvarying, week after week) but for the Google searches that lead to my blog. Any time I'm in need of entertainment, I only have to refer to the word document where I've stashed away some of the cute and quirky key words and phrases.

Not all are as riotous as Jabberwock's piano player, but there's a certain absurd thrill in finding out that someone's looking for
'tickled feet' or 'Prince Williams horoscope predictions' or 'inches bubblegum her she' (!).

Here's a sampling of some of the others:

The 'Most-Wanted' Type

Healthy tiffins in mumbai (there are some serious health fanatics out there!)

Brand Equity quiz questions (the event was over months ago, but the queries haven't stopped.)

Burmese Khau Suey (this is one popular dish)

The 'Ego-Massage' Type:

Absolute lee

Leela alvares blog

Leela Day
(Splendid idea, I say)

Leela copywriter

The 'What-on-earth-did-you-want-that-for' Type

nose bubblegum

gum bubble bigger than her head
(is there a kinky bubblegum fetish club?)

stuck in the washroom

The 'You naughty-thing-you' type

wearing tight underwear

my aunt aroused me

hacking the yahoo

sexy ads

free goodbye letters to office colleagues

sweaty woman

The 'Tell-me-why/what' type

why do eyes twitch

obituary writer what do

What is a paperless office

What happened to the idea of a paperless office?
(My ex-office had a paperless loo if it helps)

Salaries of copywriters (inflated, just like their egos :)

Selling price of Souk Madinat Jumeirah (has got to be one of those rich Arabs. 'Ah very nice this 'otel. Must get me one of them.')

The 'Huh-what-was-that-again' type


looked up azad

"starts with a ends with b"

michael slater india mentally weak

humor statistics bow low

fat guy singing mila he mila ho

The 'Careful-with-that' type

lip accidents with dental drills (owwwwch!)

open beer teeth

bone sticking out of my gum bone surgery why (I get nightmares about this one, especially after I've been through this!)

The 'Fans-are-dying-to-know' Type

how tall is aishwarya?

ayesha takia worst pictures
(must be the ex!))

aditya chopra gay (is that a question or statement?)

The 'One-that-has-me-stumped' Type

preeti+leela+monkey (is that my brother you're referring to??)

To all those whom Google has (mis)led here, a warm welcome. And thanks for all the entertainment.


Rediffblogs has finally gone about making the long-overdue changes in the template - especially in the Blog Editor. But things haven't been ironed and nailed down yet. My
latest post refused to show up on screen. And bloglines revealed a brutally mangled version. Will try posting it later with crossed fingers.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005


You’ve never met them but you almost know what they look like. You’ve never spoken to them but you know where they went for dinner last night. You don’t even know their name but you know some of their darkest secrets.

20 months of blogging later, I'm still enamored by the paradoxes inherent in blogging. And although I’ve met a dozen or so bloggers, I’m still a cocktail of elation, anticipation and nerves each time I meet a new one.

So you can imagine my state last week when I met three bloggers – two of them, for the first time. I met them individually, of course. For some reason, the idea of meeting a group of bloggers (group of anything, in fact) unsettles me. There tends to be a bunch of knots where my tongue usually is. And things go downhill from there.

Not so, when I met…

…Josephine Fernandes

Josephine’s been a frequent a visitor to my blog, and she emailed me in response to the posts about my sister. Her friends were surprised when she announced that she was attending the funeral of someone she’d never known. I knew I had to meet her. She seemed quite a fascinating lady – an export manager, an aerobics instructor, and best of all, a grandmother!

I was expecting to be surprised, and Josephine didn’t disappoint. Dressed in a Nike sweatshirt and trousers, she was the most ‘with-it’ grandmother I’d ever seen. But beneath the trendy exterior, I discovered an extraordinary woman. Jo, as her friends call her, has had a bumpy ride through life, but each time, she’s proved she’s tougher. I was impressed with her self-awareness and poise, and her disarmingly immodest views on aging gracefully. Jo is proof that it’s never too late to live out your dreams. In fact, one of Jo’s newest ambitions is to work in a fast food chain (I forget the name!) in the US. Why, I asked, astounded. Because I just like the idea of serving people breakfast, she replied. Oh Josephine!

Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta
I’ve been following (or rather, doing my best to keep up with) her blog, for a few months now. I think it was Amit Varma who once described her as the blogger who ‘writes like an angel and updates like a demon’. (It strikes me that Uma and I have diametrically opposite blogging styles – 10 posts per day v/s 1 post in 10 days!) I enjoy her pithy comments on the articles she links to, sometimes, more than the article itself. Uma, apparently, reads like a demon as well. Quite fast, she said, modestly, when I asked half-enviously.

Like Jo, Uma, too, responded to the posts on my sister. And with an ailing mother, knew exactly what the ‘waiting-game’ was like. She’s been extremely supportive and I looked forward to meeting her. Like with Jo, there were no awkward pauses when we met at the Tea Centre in Churchgate. We whizzed from blogging to books, advertising to bloggers and traveling to, well, blogging. Apart from Indian Writing, she also pitches in at Animal Rights India, loves travelling, reviews books and movies, and somewhere in between it all, also has a full time job! Uma was rather generous in praising my humble blog, and insisted I give that ‘book’ a shot. Gee, Uma, that’s a scary prospect, but one of these days… :)

Kahini Roy

Kahini is an old new-blogger (just coined that one) and, in fact, one of my early ‘blog friends’. I used to be in awe of the seamless prose she hammered out day after day until she decided she’d had enough. Fortunately, she’s back to doing what she does best. Check out her ode to Toast and Porridge.

Kahini is back in the city she loves after a long (TOO long, she’ll say) hiatus. And we had a lot of catching up to do. A meeting with Kahini is always preceded with a flurry of text messages. ‘Hey, are we meeting today?’ ‘Then you know where. Grin’ ‘In case you’ve forgotten what I look like, I’m the intellectual with the book and cig.’ Actually, there’s no forgetting Kahini. At Toto’s, her favourite watering hole, neither the manager nor the waiters, nor even the cigarette vendor outside, has difficulty in recalling the girl with OODLES of attitude. The last time we met, we got free drinks in another pub where an ex-waiter from Toto’s recognized her! We chatted about books, bloggers, Bombay and other random topics, which didn’t necessarily begin with the letter B.

Jo, Uma, Kahini… it was a pleasure!


Surprisingly, for a person who loves lists, I haven’t made up too many on this blog. So starting with:

Bloggers we’ve met:

Aekta– Angel on Fire

Amit L – Amit’s Musings

Carpe Diem - Good Times, Sad Times, Changing Times

Josephine - Happenings of the Heart

Joshua Newton - Reportage

Kahini – Here We Go Again

Manu George – Georgie’s Jungle

Smiley – Joie de Vivre

Spaceman – Residual Self Image

Uma – Indian Writing

Prashanth - Unratiosenatic


Uptowngirl (ex-blogger)

Bloggers we’ve had lengthy conversations with and made promises to meet up ‘soon’

Rash – Good Days Bad Times

Alpha– Pieces of the Puzzle

Parmanu - Parmanu

Colours - Vibgyor

(and just for lists’ sake)
Faymbus Blogger we met at a job interview aeons ago (erm.. who did the interviewing)

Peter Griffin - Zigzackly

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Preeti's Journey: Complete Series

Spare a prayer for Preeti

What is best for Preeti

Reality Checked

The ties that bind and choke

50 days later

Farewell, Preeti

Life after Preeti

Life after Preeti

There’s something remarkable about condolences. People come to share your pain, to commiserate, to listen to you. And invariably, sometimes without realising it, they start talking about their own brush with grief and loss. Suddenly, your own tragedy isn’t the biggest in the world. Pain, you realise, is omnipresent, tucked away behind smiles, soft sighs and the occasional bitter word. Sometimes, your own load almost seems a flyweight as compared to someone else’s. The galling unfairness becomes easier to accept; likewise, the grief. You observe the dignity and detachment with which they accept their crosses. And rather than wallow in sadness, you begin to take your first steps away from it. There's truly something remarkable about condolences.


A few months ago, I had posted about a fire at my workplace and the prospect of ‘losing everything’. At that time I wrote,

“The reality and inevitability of loss never hit me harder.”

I mentioned how a man’s acceptance of losing his entire family to the tsunami disturbed me more than the images of devastation.

“Everything included three children and all seven grandchildren. He spoke in a sad yet calm voice… ‘The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. It is the cycle of life.’”

At that time, I could not fathom his grief, nor how he and others would cope. Now I can. Anicca, (or impermanence) as I experienced it in Vipassana last year, has a much deeper meaning. As the old man said, the cycle of life trundles on.


P.S. Thank you all who've kept us in your thoughts and prayers. Thanks for your lovely messages and for being with us through this time. We truly appreciate it.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Farewell, Preeti

Preeti’s struggle came to an end yesterday morning. With odds as great as the ones she faced, she still held her own for 57 days. We believed that she had turned the corner. We hoped that she would come through; we hoped that her struggle wouldn’t be in vain.

But hope is no match for fear and prejudice and the uncertainty of waiting.

A crisis doesn’t necessarily bring people together. And try as you might, you cannot make people see what they don’t want to see or what they’re afraid to see.

We did our best for Preeti, but doing your best doesn’t mean you will get the results you want. Our little consolation is that we never had to ‘make a decision’ for Preeti. She chose her own moment of passing on.

Someday we will accept the unfairness of it. Someday we’ll see the perfection in this.

Until then we will accept that this is what is best for Preeti.

Rest in peace, Preeti. We love you.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

The ties that bind… and choke

“We’re praying, there will be a miracle,” I’m told, each day, by relatives, friends, well wishers, even the lift operator in the hospital.

I smile at them gratefully, not wanting to contradict them. The truth is we’re witnessing miracles each moment, each day. We’ve lost count of the ‘magic moments’ we’ve experienced in the last 49 days.

* Countless people writing in to say they’re praying fervently - for a girl they’ve never even met.

* Family and friends rallying around with financial assistance.

* Superlative doctors, nurses and hospital staff, who’ve taken to Preeti like their own.

* Preeti’s awesome defiance of all predictions, diagnoses and statistics.

And in the middle of it all, there’s one more miracle which still has me blinking in disbelief – the ‘blog’ has entered my family vocabulary!

Circa 2003: sample conversation

“Leela!! Unplug yourself from that blessed computer!!!”

“Leela!! What ARE you writing? Block?? What’s a block??

May 2005: sample conversation

“Leela!! When are you going to update your blog?”

“Leave her alone, she’s writing her blog.”

At first I read out each comment on the Preeti posts to all at home. Now, I don’t need to. My blog is checked; each comment is read and marvelled at. “Such wonderful people, these bloggers!”

My blog has been shared with the extended family as well. And from there, it has found its way into yahoo groups, mailboxes and newsletters. I was pleasantly surprised to receive a mail from someone in Pakistan who said he and his family were praying for Preeti.

The spike in traffic has Spaceman Spiff working overtime to ensure that it doesn’t blow a hole through his precious programming.

I can’t help marvelling at the unlikely blog evangelism. My aunt, a school teacher has only recently acquired a computer and is still familiarising herself with MS Word. That hasn’t stopped her from reeling off the blog url to the Principal of her school. My mum cheerfully shares my blog with anyone who cares to listen and has recently discovered the thrill of commenting. Better still, of receiving replies to comments.

A couple of days ago, my mum called up an elderly pastor who runs a prayer group. In between the discussions about Preeti, my mum couldn’t help bringing up her favourite topic…

Mum: Did you know my other daughter has a blog?

Elderly pastor: A block?? Oh dear. Not to worry, we’ll pray for her too…

A special welcome to the family in Dubai, Toronto, Calgary, Mumbai and Delhi… this one’s for you

50 days later...

In my last update, I shared that Preeti was out of ICU. But even before we could start breathing easy, we had a ‘situation’. Preeti BP & heart rate shot up and she stopped breathing. She had to be rushed back to the ICU. The doctors sounded grim, “It could be a sign of further brain damage.”

Oblivious to these predictions, Preeti stabilised in the ICU. As if to prove the trip to the ICU was nothing more than a whim. Three days later, we were back in the room; better than before.

Now, her head moves slightly, she reacts sharply when we massage her still swollen ankles. And her toes twitch when we tickle her soles. (Pleomorphous, tickle stimuli works for adults as well…) But the most promising sign has been the eye contact. We hold up a picture of Alison and move it from one side of her visual field to the other. Her eyes follow every movement of the picture. “This is definitely not an involuntary movement,” says Dr. Thomas, amazed.

We eagerly look forward to more.