Saturday, September 27, 2008

"Where are you from " ??

You can be asked this question anywhere. In Dubai, this rather innocent question can have several layers - sometimes with hidden meaning. It can become an existential one too, determining your fate in more ways than one. One can pop this question to you anywhere : In a taxi, at the super market, barber's shop, at your work place, at a restaurant - well virtually anywhere. Dubai offers one the opportunity to indulge in asking such personal questions as " Where are you from" rather easily. Simply because most of the residents are not from UAE and are expats.

There are various shades of this question though. One may ask this question to :
1) Genuinely know where you are from, in which case it is an innocent enquiry
2) "Place you " so that he/she knows where you are from - in case you are negotiating for a salary etc..
3) Judge you ( or rather Pre-judge you)

This question can be one of the most important questions that can decide a lot of things for you, including :
a) Your salary - Yes, you guessed it right. For the same job and qualifications, two people can be paid totally different salaries simply depending on where they are from. Call it what you want, but this "differential" exists in the Gulf, not only in UAE.
b) What your friends circle will look like
c) Whether you will be considered " cool" ( some nationalities are naturally "cooler" than others.

While there are many ways to tackle this often loaded question, the simplest strategy often is to make a joke of it and say that you are really an Arab wearing a mask. I have tried this a few times - with a good comic effect and if the other person has any sense of humour, he/she would appreciate the reply and perhaps join you in the laughter that will follow.

The power of saying thank you

Thursday, September 18, 2008

on books..

Books talk to us. They are the voices of the authors, sometimes dead and gone. They are the best chance we have of conversing with some of the most wonderful minds of our times without ever meeting them. Wouldn’t we like to converse with our heroes, our role models and those we look upto ? Isn’t it great to take part in their adventures, journeys without “moving an inch” as Gogol said. Books offer this chance at no great cost and in the comfort of our home. But one thing that really irks me is what to do with books that one has finished reading ? Does one keep them, and attempt building a library or give them away or just junk them ?? The answer is not simple as I found out - while I changed residence 5 times in the last 3 years. And with each move, I shed more books; like a snake changing its skin, and discovered the really important ones in my collection - the ones that may stay with me till the end of my life.
Books are a monologue. A one way conversation which we can cannot control. There is no chance of disagreeing, debating and arguing, because the author is not present before us to refute us and defend his/her point of view. Sometimes I wonder which are my favourite books ? Clearly, it has to be the non-fiction ones - give me essays, commentaries, analysis anyday and I will devour it and only of late have I developed a liking for certain novelists ( Orhan Pamuk, Rushdie, Turgenev) among others and have taken to reading their works seriously. Among middle eastern writers, Naguib Mahfouz clearly stands out as a giant among writers. His “Arabian days and nights” caught my attention and I could not put it down till I finished it, in about three sittings.
There are books we love, books we hate and books that we don’t bother even finishing. Quite a few books catch our attention because of the cover or what the blurb says and at times because one is impressed by the author and assumes that he has something interesting to share; while this time he may not impress us as much as the last book. The ones we love, we treasure jealously, like a lover we do not want to lose. I remember guarding my “Jack and the beanstalk” illustrated book when I was about 6 or 7 years old that my uncle from the US had sent me. I would not let anyone borrow it ( it was ok to read it at my home). Then this obsession grew and as I started buying and collecting more books; it almost became a passion. Seeing my books ( a few hundred) neatly lined up in my book shelf at my parents home gave me a pleasure I had not known earlier. It was my treasure, my possession that I was proud of. “Thou shalt not lend” was my first rule . I learnt this from my very good friend Azeem, who had let me photo-copy his “Tao of Jeet Kune do” by Bruce Lee ( both of us were into martial arts then and Bruce Lee was a role model in many ways). I remember reading this book several times and making sure that even though I did not have the original, the copy was neatly kept and no one got to borrow it.
As I graduated out of Engineering school ( and I had accumulated about 50 odd Engineering books apart from the text books), apart from all the other books ; books on philosophy of science, Management, Business books, marketing related books etc.. I decided to give this chunk away to my juniors at college. The logic was this : These books are expensive and should be passed on to those who cant afford them and if they make good use of it; then it would be great. If not, they would sit on my book-shelf and serve no purpose anyway.
Then came the move from my parents home. My first shock. As I moved homes, I realized that about half the books that I had went missing during the move. They were either lost or not brought to the new apartment. I took some time to recover from this, and realized that it is ok to lose books. Nothing stays with us for ever, so if one lost a few hundred books; it was ok .
Subsequently, due to various reasons; I moved three times more in less than two years. I had become a nomad of sorts within my own city - shifting homes and shedding my belongings. I gave away many of my old clothes, belongings, and of course books. My strategy was simple : Instead of moving around with the baggage ( I like to travel light ) and even when moving homes, this habit sort of rubbed off on my attitude towards belongings. I told myself that I will not have more than what I really need. The rest went to my friends ( some of them were very very happy ) about the stuff I gave them. A computer table, Couple of chairs, an expensive Teak dining set ( was I crazy ?? ) , several books ( lost count of them) , all of them were gifted to well-wishers and friends. I realized I did not need these and could live with out any of these comfortably. I had made good use of them and now it was time to give them to others.
During my most recent move to Dubai, the decision was simple - I again reminded myself that I don’t need more than 10 books on me, ( also practical considerations came into picture) . The ten most important ones - that would stay, and I would build myself a collection in Dubai. I stuck with this decision and landed with fewer than 12 books on me. I gifted several of them and some of the favorites, I kept at my parents home; just in case…

So, what is the best strategy to deal with books one has finished reading ?? Pass them on, I would say. Pass them on only if you have enjoyed it. Let others share in the joy and exhilaration of a good conversation with the author. Pass on some goodness because sooner or later; it will come back to you - in one way or another.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Cherishing ones parents

Cherishing ones parents while they are alive
My parents are divorced. They separated about four years ago, in one of the most dramatic ways possible. My mother suffered a lot after the separation, and almost died in the process, but by gods grace recovered. As a diabetic, she developed a chest infection and related cardio-vascular complications and was in the ICU for a long time before she recovered totally. And my father re-married in the meanwhile.
I could not forgive my father for a long time, and refused to speak to him for many months. The anger I felt for him during that period was real and justified. How could he walk away from my mother, who had spent the best 35 years of her life with him, given him two sons ( who turned out pretty ok) and stood by him in times of trouble ? How could this man be so ungrateful and run after a younger woman ? I simply couldn’t understand what the hell he was thinking ? Had he lost his mind ?
My elder brother, who is a good five years older than I am to this day does not speak with my father. He is bitter, angry and upset with the way my father dealt with my mother. It wasnot just the way in which we had to leave our home - in which both of us grew up; lived for more than 20 years, but also the way in which my father constructed arguments about how he was “tired” of life with my mother and wanted some freedom.
Ramadhan reminds me of one particular year ( a few months before they separated) when we would all sit down for our pre-dawn meal ( suhoor) around 4 in the morning, with dad waking us all up; mom following him into the kitchen sleepily and us preparing for the meal. Not much was said, but we could all sense that this Ramadhan was different. Earlier, there would be some jokes, conversations during the meal. But this year, it was tense. The atmosphere in the dining room itself was quite tense and one could feel it in the air throughout the month. I sensed that something was wrong. And one of the days during Suhoor, my dad announced that he wanted a divorce. My mother started to cry inconsolably and my brother took charge of the situation, trying to mediate between my parents; trying to make sense of the madness that was going on.

It is strange when one is asked to judge one’s parents. And also stranger when one is asked to choose between them. No matter how grown up we feel we are, no matter what age - the affection that we feel for our parents remains the same. With age, we may be able to rationalise a bit more, we may be able to put things in perspective- but the fact remains that we still love and care for them as much - if our relationship with them has been good.
I was in Chennai in April of 2004 when my brother called to inform me that my mom had to be admitted to the hospital, followed by prolonged fever. The doctors kept her in the ICU for a week, before shifting her to the general ward. They informed us that she had developed acute Cardio-vascular problems and had to be kept under observation. I was in Chennai promoting a friends work. It was the year of the Tsumani and we were there organizing a charity show for victims of the terrible tragedy - with my friend Akumal Ramachander playing the good Samaritan. He had invited me to be part of the show, and though I did not really have much of a role there, I invited a few friends from Chennai to come and visit the exhibition and partake in the “live painting” that Milind Nayak, the artist did. Milind produced an amazing work of abstract art, a 8 feet by 6 feet in just under two hours, live in front of us. Using un-conventional tools such as toothbrush, a Saw and many other implements which have nothing to do with painting, he produced a breath-taking piece of art which was auctioned for over Rs.100,000 immediately after the show. It was bought by a New Zealand based Psychologist.
Ravi Candadai, the Consul General for Public Affairs, US Embassy who was our host ( and a friend of Akumal) invited us home later for lunch ( and the painting exhibition moved to his bungalow later on ). Ravi, a career bureaucrat and a multi-linguist ( he spoke over seven languages with ease), and I can definitely vouch for his Urdu ( much better than mine). While having lunch, he shared a few interesting anecdotes about his life and work in the US. When I got the call from Bangalore and informed him that my mother was sick, he insisted that I go home, despite my commitment to stay in Chennai till the end of the show and see it through.
He insisted that I leave as soon as possible and said “ You must cherish your parents while they are alive, because once they are gone; you will never have the opportunity to do anything for them”.
I thought this through all along my journey to Bangalore and finally got home to Bangalore and went straight to the hospital. My mother was doing better, though she was sick.
The next day I went to meet my father. The silence was broken, and I spoke to him after nearly six months of ignoring his existence. Ravi’s words had had their effect.