Appa

The light bulb has conked. I go to change it and see the date of its installation inscribed on it. In 2009 these bulbs were relatively new and expensive. He was probably assessing his return on investment. For a house that’s aged and not quite shipshape, there are all kinds of technology and tools lying around. Not all of them in use. But all of them, at the time of purchase, would have been considered an indulgence, even wasteful. He could never resist any kind of technology or innovation. Solar heaters, induction stoves, computers, flow chart stencils, power drills, emergency lamps, smartphones, juicers – years before these became household staples – they were tested in our home. And never discarded. They pile up in the strangest of places – under the bed, inside cupboards, in the loft, on the sunshades – years after they’ve ceased to be useful or functional, almost as if he hoped it could be put to use again.

That was also a personal motto, his war cry. Not to acquire wealth. But to be useful and productive. And sometime in the last couple of years, he decided he no longer was.

For a man who loved his technology, he could also be sceptical of conventional medicine, so much so, he refused to get vaccinated during the pandemic.

On 20 January, after two days in the Covid ICU, cared for by his favourite doctor, he passed away.

The next day, his four daughters conducted his last rites. An atheist all his life, it was a bare minimum ceremony – Tamil incantations, a farewell from his immediate family, and the ashes immersed in his favourite Marina beach, floating away in the general direction of where he was born 89 years ago. And just like that the truth of the incantations from merely hours before hit home.

This life you’ve lived is a lie, this death is the only truth.”

Wait, not quite… 

There are after all many truths.

A few we know from our own lives – his daughters, wife, siblings, family, friends, colleagues. Oral histories, and stories recounted by others that gave a glimpse of his life as a boy born in Rangoon, Burma (Yangon, Myanmar), who came to India as a refugee in his teens in the 1940s, already the main carer for his mother and siblings. Stories with too many gaps as he rarely ever shared snippets of his life, though on a holiday to Calcutta he did take me to the house on Rash Behari Avenue he lived in on arriving from Burma. 

Then there are papers – mountains and mountains of them, both personal and professional. 

The birth certificates, wedding invites and wedding certificates of all his daughters; my marriage approval under the special marriages act; a diary from the year I was born with his jottings of books he has read, phrases he liked, quotes he loved, along with his reflections on it; a handwritten will of a dear friend who was like his sister; a diary (in Tamil, in the most elegant handwriting and expressive language) that belonged to his teenaged sister who has been dead for nearly seven decades; meticulously maintained household accounts in the annual diaries from various banks; a glowing letter of recommendation from his professor in 1955… and so much more that we are yet to peruse.

The massive stack of papers that is his life’s work is even more overwhelming. 

There are milestones and markers of careers spanning different vocations and different periods of his life. The many degrees and diplomas he held are a testimony to his almost manic need to keep learning, to be relevant. He enrolled in one of the earliest batches of NIIT in 1990 to study computers (and pushed me to enrol a year later) because he was very curious about this new shiny tech. All this while holding a demanding full-time job, and pursuing his law degree in the evening, in preparation for his career after retirement. He was in his mid to late 50s then. I was studying for my school finals, and the vast difference in how we approached our studies was often a point of contention. I wanted to do well enough to avoid repeating the grade. He wanted to excel.

Manuals on homoeopathy, teak boxes holding empty bottles that once held the tiny white pills he swore by. Loads of books, quite a few very  expensive editions including dictionaries (some of which I remember being allowed to use, very carefully) are from that part of his life that always remained a passion and a hobby. Literature. He could quote from memory most of the works of the Bard of Avon, even made a pilgrimage to his birthplace, fulfilling a lifelong dream. He was the most thrilled when my firstborn chose to study literature – even as many others worried that it may not serve well for a career. But for him, to pursue literature was a luxury and a privilege. 

There are documents, journals and files from his close to four decades as a banker and a union leader. Documents that we did not fully comprehend the value of until the messages started pouring in – the various rights he fought for and managed to win. He retired as a banker in January of 1993 and trotted right into his next career. To practice labour law with the very lawyers who had represented his unions for many decades.

Almost three decades of another meaningful vocation, much of it pro-bono work. There is a musty room (his office) in my childhood home packed with books and case files, with barely room for a person to manoeuvre, and in those mounds of documents are parts of his life we will once again never fully understand. The office started falling into disrepair and neglect in 2020.  He knew little else but work, and until the pandemic hit was still meeting clients, appearing in court, and was rather inflexibly dedicated to his work. When that ended, parts of him did too.

There are many truths to a person’s life, and not all of it is about them alone.

Truths are, after all, the confluence of experiences and facts, emotions and reactions. His best friends were an integral part of his life – friendships spanning 60 years. Only two of the inseparable gang of four now remain. I mourn for them too. They and my mother are probably the only ones who could claim to know him (and almost everything about him) well.

My Appa, like most over-achieving men, was generous (to a fault), complex, flawed, difficult and most strikingly brilliant. He could wax eloquent on a staggering range of subjects – from theology, politics, Dravidian ideology, law, science and human rights to literature, yoga, alternative medicine, technology and rationalism. He read as much to learn as to disagree with cocky confidence. His four daughters imbibed and inherited his best and his worst – a keen sense of right and wrong, an interest in social justice, a fierce independence… and stubbornness that borders on arrogance that sees us through tough times even as it lands us in trouble just as often. Everything about him we bristled against is reflected starkly in each of us, and for that I am forever grateful.

He was a troublemaker (mostly) in the best sense of the word. Eager to fix things that are not always broken, but also to fix things that most of us would turn a blind eye to. He opened up expensive gizmos to see what made it tick, would strip down the electric wiring or the plumbing pipes at home that required repair, hammering nails and trying out all kind of home improvement… many a childhood memory was of him asking one of us to hold the ladder, handover the plier, fix a fuse.

He would take on projects of people with just as much vigour. Pushing the peon to study for his bachelors or asking the nurses, at the hospital he was admitted in some years ago, to stage a strike and demand better wages… unmindful that the doctors may well decide to stop his treatment!

He was contradictory if nothing else – both a man of his time and a man well ahead of it. He took great pleasure in riling up those who were orthodox and religious, never missing an opportunity to shock them in many ways. He had his moments of sexism, but he would take the most forward of stands as well, not stopping us from choices that many of his generation would have objected to – be it inter-caste/religious marriages or our preferred careers. Not all of his children enjoyed the same freedoms. I was a little more privileged than the rest. My sisters are 13, 9 and 6 years older to me… each one challenged him and pushed the limits, and when it was my time to rebel, I didn’t have to.

He and I were opposites in many ways – he would be up before dawn and done with his yoga and walk around day break, and I preferred waking up as late as possible and restrict my exercise to walk to the kitchen or fridge. A difference that was the reason for many bitter fights. However, when it comes to theological and social ideologies, our beliefs were probably closely aligned. 

So it was strange to then be asked to do the rituals for a man who had no belief in them (and to his everlasting credit, never interfered in his wife’s religiosity).

03 January 1933 — 20 January 2022

I circumambulated him three times, lit the karpooram (camphor) before he was assigned to ashes, later gathering his remains by hand placing it in the unfired urn, holding the urn gently in my lap on the drive to the beach from the crematorium and finally dipping the pot with his ashes and bones in the ocean… it hit me then that that’s the closest I’ve been to him in years.

We were too alike to be friends. Fortunately, also so alike that we were wont to hold each other in good esteem. Some months ago, when something I wrote appeared in The Hindu, he kept a copy and showed it to all his friends, as he used to every time a byline appeared in The Indian Express when I was starting my career as a reporter in the 1990s. He never spoke a word of it to me… then or recently. As always, tacit when it came to expressing his emotions.

How do you pay respect to someone you owe much of your personality and beliefs to? How would he have wanted us to grieve him or celebrate him? I did it the only way I knew, and probably the only way he would have understood too.

In the last couple of days of his life, when we knew he was running out of time, and then after he passed, between the tasks and rituals that must be done, I stole blocks of time to study, write, review and complete my MA dissertation (on human rights). Minutes after I submitted it, I was thinking of what next to study and how else I could make myself useful. I guess that’s the only tribute this daughter can think of.

Rest in peace Appa.

What’s worth paying for with your dreams?

I wrote this on 23 April 2014. It was in my drafts and for some reason I did not publish it then… never underestimate the power of manifestation.

Seventy seven pages of heartrending stories. Of physical and emotional abuse. Of women who were not allowed to visit their dying child or parent. Of unkept contracts and dreams that dissipate. Of a government that fails to recognise the distress of the victims. And worst of all, the inhumanity of our kind. The victims maybe known to you. The perpetrators could well be you, your family or friend. It is us.

The report Amnesty released in the wee hours today is not for the faint of heart. But keep in mind, they interviewed just 52 of tens of thousands of workers.

It was a bitter-sweet realisation to find one of my earlier blog posts quoted in the document. As is the wont of the self-obsessed, I managed to find myself in the throes of self-pity – a punch in the gut: “That’s all? That’s what you have to show?”

A lot of small realisations are coming together for me at this point. I am not really doing what I want to do. I am not telling the kind of stories I know best to recount. I am no longer the reporter of human interest stories that I aspired to be 20 years ago. I appease my guilt with an occasional post or a story; but I’ve moved too far from that sense of purpose I held dear.

The girl who sat wide-eyed listening to safe sex advice from mothers at a creche for children of sex workers is now wondering why she is now paralysed by the profitability concerns of her employer.

Where’s that person who spent hours outside a ward in Madras Children’s Hospital to meet two under-aged maids who were beaten and burnt brutally. What happened to the Qatar newbie who sneaked into the paediatric wing of Hamad Hospital to speak to a little boy who fell off a camel at the races? She is now burying her head in matters that she thought was the route to success and wealth.

How wrong I was in thinking that. How wrong. It’s the bloody revenues and budgets that have lost me sleep for months now*.

Regrets are useless. Reflection is useful. Is this who I wanted to be? Conceiving communication strategy for corporates I don’t care about and struggling to keep press releases clear of the one job that gives me some amount of joy and satisfaction?

But bills have to be paid, no? The household has to run, yes? Now, it’s time to choose what’s worth billing. And to learn to run with simplicity. End of the day, what could possibly be worth paying for with your dreams? The shiny red machine I drive? Working in a fancy glass tomb? Measuring up to other people’s standards of good living?

Tough decisions all around. Good ones as well, I hope.

 

*Which I hope to be rid of come May 1.

 

One part of Adel Abdessemed exhibit in Mathaf, in 2013

The long kiss goodbye Qatar… Part I

Last night, in an ill-timed attempt at domesticity, I burnt a hole in O’s choir uniform. It’s 9pm Thursday night. She is flying to Germany with her group on Monday, and I had a flight to catch early this morning.

Disaster. But not quite.

Thank goodness this is Doha. I hailed a taxi and ran out of the house. It was 9.15pm. The Uber guy sensed my frenzy and offered to wait at my many stops. So I hopped from one fabric store to another – Mansoura, Muntazah and finally the souq. And found the fabric I need, and a tailor who was open past 10pm.

This would be practically impossible in most places around the world. I know that these conveniences come at a cost. Overworked salesmen at the souq and tailor shop; but a happy customer means a few riyals more in their savings. This is Qatar. It’s not a flat, homogenous society. It is an intricate weave. Yet, people live in silos with little or no recognition of what lies beyond their immediate living and work space.

I have friends who live and work in West Bay area. But for the Airport, they don’t have any idea of life on the other side of the bay. Over the last couple of months I’ve been tracing memories of my 17 years in Doha (and instagramming it), taking advantage of the great weather, and walking around the city. You see, that’s how I discovered its many nooks and crannies when I first came here in 1999, taking long midnight walks with my new husband.

My very first home has now been swallowed up by Msheireb Downtown.

My second home, once a sparkling new 2-storeyed apartment is rundown. It is still precious, both because it was the first home I ‘set-up’ (and almost burnt down learning to cook), and because of the landlord. A kindly old Qatari man who was so inordinately fond of my husband and me, the second year of contract he reduced our rent from QR1500 to QR1300. Yes, once upon a time rents were that low.

I would spend muggy evenings on the terrace looking into my neighbour’s courtyard. About a dozen ‘single‘ men sharing an open-air communal kitchen and the rooms circling it. There was a rhythm. The pathans would cook later, after prayers; the others from the Indian sub-continent would cook earlier and make something more elaborate. The smell of frying onions and seasonings would hold me in good stead as I ate my own awful culinary experiments. Did they know they had an audience? A kindred homesick spirit, only with a little more privilege? That I noticed their meal got simpler towards the end of the month?

Walking around the city is how I discovered the many lives that it helps build and vice-versa; the lives that remain invisible and in the shadows of the city’s glitzy facade. The neighbourhood grocers and cobblers, the ‘orange taxi’ drivers (some of whom spoke a little too much) and the friendly old Qatari proprietors who sat outside their shops with a sheesha, down Abdulla bin Thani road.

Which makes me wonder, how many of us who live here really see it? Do we mindlessly take for granted or whinge about life here? So I ask you, Qataris and expats…

When you drive past the Corniche or walk through the Pearl boulevards do you pause to think who makes this happen?

And those who grew up here, nationals and rest, how much do you really know of this country? Its history and its topography? How often do you get down from your cars and enjoy a pedestrian view of your home? Do you ever take a dhow ride just to admire the bay?

When you have to give your Qatar id card at every stop, from office towers to residential compounds, do you feel like you are in an Orwellian play? What are they really keeping track of?

When you say Qatar is boring, do you ever wonder it could be just you, not the place?

Have you ever been to the Inland sea and been unmoved by its beauty and by how we trash it?

Do you shed any tears when the few trees around are brought down to be replaced by some concrete monstrosity?

Those of you who chose to move to Qatar, with privilege, is it really such a bad thing that it isn’t  ‘just like back home’?

And how many of you nationals really bother to understand the sub-cultures that the foreigners bring to your land?

Can we learn to criticise without malice? Can we receive criticism as interest and not an attack?

And Qatar, maybe it’s time to press pause on your rebuilding? It’s way too much too soon. Take a deep breath…

Pssst! I will continue the photo tour on instagram

PS: I wrote this post on my phone at the airport, to which I attribute the embarrassing number of misplaced punctuations and typos. I finally read the post, on a phone again, and have attempted to fix it.

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.

Grateful

It is time for another GRATEFUL post.

I don’t know why I don’t do this more often. It puts everything into perspective, and keeps my Drama Queen moments in check.

All that I’ve been grateful for, and listed earlier, are still around… I am really thankful for the wonderful people and experiences that make my life what it is.

Here is what I truly, truly, truly am grateful for.

I can’t remember an instance in the last 15-18 years, where I’ve said “why couldn’t that be me?”

(even when I see really skinny folks gorging on potato wafers and brownies. promise.)

…and maybe just twice in recent memory have I asked, ‘why me?’ and even then only for a fleeting moment.

But ever so frequently, I tell myself: “I am glad and thankful and grateful that it isn’t me or mine,” and even more often I go: “Yeah! How good is my life?”

Knock on wood.