The One in Which I Am Moving, But Not Moving Back.

You are moving back? Are you going back home?

I am not. But that isn’t completely true.

I don’t know how to give an honest answer to these questions.

The place I am moving to is not one I am familiar with any more. It is not home either.

Every time I go ‘back’, it’s a little bit more unfamiliar, a little bit more indecipherable. I seem to fit in a little bit less less with every landing. A little bit more acclimatised with every take-off.

Yet, there’s no conflict in my mind or heart about moving to India after 17 years of living in Qatar. It seems the right thing to do, to expose my daughters, especially the teen, to another way of living. Pleasures and challenges that would be very different from what Qatar offered us.

Doesn’t that make India home? Then why doesn’t it seem so?

I am frequently asked if Qatar is home after 17 years.

Not in the least (this is one reason why). It’s a place I am comfortable in and find myself defending fiercely against ill-informed assumptions. It is not home either. And I don’t think Qatar wants to be the home for it hundreds of thousands of foreign residents. At best it wants to be a  comfortable transit house. At worst…

So then, home?

It is where my children are. And where I have access to MY people. Sometimes it is a messaging app. Home is in that rip-roaring laugh of a friend. A hug so tight it squeezes out all the melancholic thoughts. It’s watching my 7-year-old caress my 76-year-old mum’s wrinkled neck. Home is often in three simple words over an international call: “Are you alright?” Home is in all those moments, in all those memories. It is not a physical space.

Just because I don’t feel at home in any one place, doesn’t mean I feel estranged.

I started writing this post at an airport terminal… The closest to feeling a sense of belonging, I’ve now realised, is in spaces such as this. Departure terminals. Be it at airports or rail stations or bus stops.

When you know you’ve left, but have not arrived yet. In that suspended physical space of myriad possibilities I feel truly at home.

PS: Check out my instagram account @vanishforever for some #LongKissGoodBye posts on Qatar. This is not my good bye post, that will come in due time.

FAQs

1. Where are you moving to?

Bangalore

2. When are you moving?

End April, early May

3. Why are you moving now?

Because O is going into high school, and if not now, then when?

4. That means you are going away for good?

(This question always throws me off a bit) I will still be in and out of Qatar for a few months longer, as the man continues here for a bit and I still have ongoing projects/work here.

5. Will I miss Qatar?

As much as Qatar would miss me.

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The unbearable burden of privilege [MAID ON CALL]

Six months ago our menagerie grew to five. Our life got more comfortable. Waking up to a neat home, beds made, hot meals for the asking, children cared for… and yet, I feel burdened.

Y is an adult who chose to travel thousands of miles to a strange land. What I grapple with daily is that it wasn’t necessarily an educated choice. All she had to go by was one Skype conversation, and a contract that I printed off my home computer.

R & I would forever be haunted by the look on her face as we received her at the airport. He saw her first, as he had to go meet the immigration official at the Maha lounge to ‘claim’ his ward.

She walked five steps behind him, holding onto her black handbag, and approached the group of us waiting for her at Costa’s–me, the kids, friends who travelled to Doha on the same flight.

Wide-eyed after a long flight, transfers included, quite clearly afraid of what and who awaits her.

Over the next six weeks she was trained by our part-time help of seven years and honorary matron of the family, K. We were all getting used to each other. That seems a long time ago.

Now, we are used to having someone at home all the time. We are ever-conscious of how much smoother the functioning of our home is, and are grateful for it.

But it doesn’t escape me that we wield an unfair control over Y.

That’s the nature of her assignment as a migrant domestic worker.

In the absence of a law that protects them, it falls on the presumed goodness of her ‘sponsor’–in her case R & me–to treat her well, and the way we would wish to be treated.

How she lives, what she eats, how she is treated, whom she can speak to, her access to her family, access to help or care, what she can wear… all of this is probably easier to quantify.

What about not being in control of her mobility? Not being in control of with whom and how she socialises? How she chooses to spend her weekends? What about being 30, single and abstinent? What about the freedoms we have to consider deeply and often deny, because of where we live?

So, yes, her life (like the rest of her ilk) in Qatar being a good one hinges on the goodness of her employer. The goodness of people, however, is a fickle thing to depend on; personal motivations will likely trump humanitarian action.

My egalitarian attitude towards Y is at least in part motivated by my need to reduce the burden of guilt–for being a link in this chain of exploitation. To feel better about who I am.

I will continue to make gestures to ease my conscience; find justifications for my actions; and excuses for my inaction.

I We (all of you included) will pull out every logical argument in our heads to say we are not like them (them who exploit, those others)… we will grow used to the comfort, we will learn to set the burden aside, we will secretly hope the status quo remains as our life is easier for it, we will always have ‘those others’ whom we will judge harshly; consequently and conveniently we will judge ourselves kindly.

The surprise that wasn’t, yet was

Be warned! This is a mommy-pride post.

It’s the cutest surprise party I could have asked for. Mainly because, the party itself was no surprise. It’s been in the making for over 3 months, and was held last evening a month after the original schedule.

It was a ‘late’ birthday surprise for me and N (by 1 month and by 4 days respectively).

The party-throwers were O my first born, and her bestie S (who O befriended when they were just 3). Their friend Z was the designated DJ. To do the driving around, R was roped in. My cuz and his wife were the delivery boy/girl.

And so came about the funnest birthday party I’ve had.

It was no surprise because O can’t keep a secret from me; also they needed my help to download songs for which they were to dance, and my permission for the many sleepovers that were required for the practice.

So I did think I knew it all… and that I would pretend to be surprised all the same.

I was banished to the bedroom from 1-5.30 p.m. when the first guests arrived. They even got Nilah ready.

It wouldn’t suffice to say that I was totally stunned by the amazing planning the two 10-year-olds managed. I WAS surprised.

From costumes, the stopgap green room (mismatched sheets over the cupboard), the menu (some of which they made themselves), the decoration for O’s room, that was converted to a stage… and the invite. I wish I could share the invite… Pictures of me, of Nilah, of both of us, and the whole family, with the sweetest post scripts and captions, all put together on smilebox, and sent out to my friends (most of whom did manage to land up).

The dances, the little skit, and how they even managed to ignore the two pesky brats who were getting in their way.

Is this how smoking pot feels? Light, floaty, happy, and at the same time your heart is so heavy and crunched up, you feel you can’t quite breathe?

I didn’t get a chance to hug O (and S) tight enough to thank them, because they managed to use the good mood of all 4 parents on the scene to sneak off to another sleepover.

I am so grateful for the people in my life. So GRATEFUL.

And here are some pics. Not of great quality, as taken on the mobile and the room was ill-lit.

Top tip to prevent wife-beating: DON’T PROVOKE HIM!

I have FOUR stories to tell. And every tragic incident was blamed on alcohol. Every bleeding limp, kicked-on stomach, twisted arm… every single assault was the fault of whisky, beer and arrack.

Oh, ever so often, the blame fell on the woman for provoking him when he was drunk. “Why couldn’t she wait till he was sober to reason with him?”

I was about 11 when my next door neighbour turned from a much-respected teacher in a leading school in Madras, to our colony’s resident drunk and wife-basher. My first exposure the violence against women, and the impotency of society. A well-educated, religious, until-recently delightful father of two turning to bottle and fists? Must be bad company, a wife with a loose tongue, demanding in-laws… anything and anyone but the man himself was to be blamed. The cycle of drinks, violence, apologies continued till the man OD-ed on cheap liquour and dropped dead at the local ‘wine’ shop.

**

Somewhere during those 7-8 years of violence, another neighbour married a well-placed, mild-mannered, youngster who didn’t waste time building up a reputation, and made no bones about his nightcaps. Only thing, nightcaps sometimes started at dawn and continue till he crashed out. Of course, he was not violent by nature. Only when his wife refused to follow him home in the evenings, and insisted on staying with her family.

If only she took him home and settled him in, he wouldn’t turn violent. But who is to speak sense into that woman’s head? His sons are now young adults, he has lost his job, drunk away his pension fund, and worries his wife for spending money–after all, what’s the point of holding down two jobs, if you can’t support your husband?

Whenever I look at him with disgust, at least one person will talk about what a lovely person he is when he is sober. Hopefully in time, he will have a bottle of illegal and lethal arrack, and then this story will end well.

**

Someone in my family recently lost her husband. She was shy of 50, he just over. He had a stroke, was bedridden for a couple of years–during those months when the whole family reminisced about what a humorous friendly fellow he was. It was a mystery though, why he was in debt when he had a well-paying bank job.

The stroke we later realise was the result of stress, high BP, and… shhh… excessive alcohol. But what a wonderful father. He was a friend to his two kids. And even when he was drunk and tended to get aggressive, it was never ever directed at his children, just his wife. He would never lay a finger on his children, no sir. He would sober up, and apologise, and stay up late into the night recounting stories from Indian mythology. Am sure, some of those stories were about patriarchs above reproach. Months after his death, his life as a father, even husband, is still romanticised.

**

Few months ago I got a call late in the evening. “Hello, this is Mrs X,” the caller identified herself. Our maids were friends, and she was trying to get in touch with hers through mine. Hesitantly, I asked her if she needed help, because I knew she was wrapping up her affairs and going back home, having lost her husband. And also because I knew her story, was at one point a ‘friend’, and was very annoyed about the proud stress she placed on being Mrs S.

I met her at an office party about 12 years ago, when I was still new to Doha. Her husband worked at the same place R and I did. She was warm and friendly, and extremely chatty. And in no time, over several phone calls and a few visits, I came to know about her life. That she was expected to stay up well into the night to ‘receive’ her husband in her sunday best when he returned from work (late shift). Or bear the brunt of his wrath.

She came home early one morning with scars on her face and arms, his finger ring had made deep ridges on her cheeks. We tried getting her out of the country, but she decided that she didn’t have enough support back home and continued to stay with him. She miscarried a baby–“I’ve impregnated my wife,” he said, puffed chest and all, by way of announcement; “I will get back at him,” she said, ignoring the doctor’s orders of rest–and then went on to have another. I wished her and her new baby luck, and terminated by the then feeble friendship.

Then last summer we hear that Mr X had booked himself into a hotel room during his visit back home. He was found dead in that room one evening. Alcohol and diabetes make fatal bed partners, apparently.

**

Why isn’t there sustained fury?  How come there is no dearth of advocates for the violent and the drunk? And how come there are people who manage to see something positive and hopeful in the dreariness of domestic violence?

As a society, we’d probably help someone with a flat tyre, a bowl of sugar, even a kitchen fire. But when it comes to being bashed up, we’d rather stand by our window, in our balconies, by the gate, and enjoy a ringside view of what we wish would never happen to us and ours. 

Will we walk up and hold back the angry fist? Will we dial the cops and call for help? Will we walk up to the woman and give her refuge in our homes? 

Could we at least do this, if the girl in question is our daughter or sister or cousin?

Educated, economically secure families will allow their girls to be ‘victims’ of violence, rather than be a ‘failed’ wife. 

Office goods, personal use! THE CORRUPTION CHILDREN GROW UP WITH…

I’ve used the office printer for personal prints,  occasionally stopped at the grocery or babysitter’s while using the company’s car, frequently use the work laptop for blogging or personal mails… but that about sums up the extent to which I abuse official services/stuff.

Then I see all around me people who are so unashamedly sticky fingered with office goods.

Growing up I was constantly angry at my father for making me top up my short pencil stubs with old Reynold’s shells, to make it last longer; this after he has made the pencil last longer than it ideally would have with regular use of sharpener — pencils at home where always sharpened with a special blade/knife. Every piece of paper was recycled, and if I wanted doodle pads it was always on waste typewriter sheets that were blessed enough to escape double-side typing.

Whittled down crayons and colour pencils, sketch pens that were crying to be retired.

Sagging socks that were held up with store-bought rubber bands that cut into your calf, but apparently also ‘built character’.

Really cruel, considering he had unrestricted access to his office stationery that included nylon rubber bands.

On the rarest of times that the office car found its way home, we were never allowed to get into it. Even if he was going the same way as one of us, we never got a lift to the market or the school.

Then there were the privileged kids who had an uninterrupted supply of fresh stationery, which they proudly announced were from their dad’s office; the office drivers that dropped and picked up the kids, and carried lunch for them; the peons who polished the school shoes; the secretaries who helped them with the school projects – it all sounded so dreamlike. A fairytale world I wish I could inhabit, in which my father was a benign being who put all his official apparatuses at my disposal.

I knew we were not rich and I knew we were not poor. I also knew my father was one miserly person who was only willingly to spend money on courses, books, libraries and annual holidays, but never on clothes and other paraphernalia.

I had a slightly less-deprived childhood and teenage than my sisters, because they were all working and married by then, and willing to pamper me.

A good 18 years after I passed out of school, I see the same stories all over.

I’ve heard of people who put chart papers and markers (required for school projects) on company account! Living in the Gulf, you can’t get cheaper than that.

I see spouses who use company services for domestic needs – including drivers, cars, stationery, cleaners and other services.

If you can’t afford the use of these things, then you should learn to live without.

And if you can afford it, then employ paid services, call a cab, get your own car, or whatever; don’t bum off the husband/wife’s company.

I understand when there is an emergency, but not when it’s a matter of routine.

 

This is corruption.

Yes, there is no actual cash changing hands. But all of these services/personnel/goods have a cash value.

Like most things these day, for me everything boils down to a parenting issue.

It’s really of concern, because children grow up without realising the difference between right, wrong and grey.  How will they learn the importance of earning and paying for stuff they use, and being responsible for it?

It will start with erasers from amma’s office, pencils from appa’s, office driver running around for your activities, the peon cleaning your room and then what else?

Am I being hyper or is anyone else bothered?