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.

15 years and madly in love

Couple of edits since first posting.

This week 15 years ago I started on a trip that has brought me here, to the life I live. I don’t know where or what or how the destination would turn out to be, but suffice it to say it’s been a rocking, fantastic time –  a hike here, a train ride there, at sea, up in the air, often on cloud nine, even a roller-coaster a few times in between that took me nowhere but gave me a heady, mad high. I am just hoping that I am not even at the midway point, because I want this to go on and on and on.

June 5, 1995 I walked into the Express Estates, situated off Mount Road, on Clubhouse Road. As a student, I had visited the printing press several times as the college mag was printed there free of cost. But that Monday was different – I was going right into the heart of action. As an intern, I was to serve one month on the reporting desk and another with the subs.

On the dark, dingy first floor of the massive structure — that once housed Ramnath Goenka and his journalistic ideals, and had already begun accommodating his heir’s overall ineptitude – were the newsrooms.

The news desk was rather spacious and was right next to the Resident Editor’s cabin. The reporters’ room was sandwiched between those rooms and the Editor’s loo.

If anyone had told me even minutes earlier that I would fall in love with what I saw and felt, and be hooked to it, I would have whacked them on the head.

A single-windowed, cramped room, one corner of which was fashioned into a room of sorts for the Chief of News Bureau. Cheap plywood furniture, squeaky chairs, telephones with cords that were perpetually mangled, a handful of computers, one noisy air-conditioner, a bunch of loud, opinionated, cynical men (24 to 60 years of age — the oldest told me women shouldn’t be reporters, because they would be raped!) . The Chief was the only woman in the domain. In one corner sat P-ji, the department assistant, filing away our bylines and reports in ringbinders – building our portfolios. I didn’t have a file then. The interns’ reports were filed in the binder of the reporter guiding them on the story. P-ji was not to be crossed, at least by interns. Or you would end up covering religious discourses well into the night, days in a row.


I fell in love with all of that; all of them. I wouldn’t change anything about that scenario, that memory – annoying colleagues, random persecutions, biases et al.

Too hooked to reporting, I never interned on the desk. Nearly six months later, I was absorbed as a cub. Six months of 10-14-hour-days, rarely an off, and no pay. I embraced all that, having given up a well-paid internship at a software firm that was willing to take me on fulltime, offering me a pay that at the end of the 5 years at Express, I still wouldn’t earn.

At 21, I didn’t care about being unsalaried. I felt no shame in bumming of my parents, and getting the guys at work to pay for my lunch, coffee and butter biscuits from the tuck shop at the gate. My stomach is lined with steel – drinking gallons of coffee off glasses that were dip-washed in a bucket of water that was changed only nightly; eating biscuits and vadais handed out with ungloved hands by the vendor who used Madras’s water scarcity as a good excuse to do away with personal hygiene.

After the night shift I would sit on the wrought iron spiral staircase off the little bridge that connected the library annex to the rest of the building. From that vantage point, you could peep into the printing press, where sweaty, efficient men brought to life all that we did through the day. Hot off the press… the smell of ink on newsprint, the precision with which the printed sheets were mechanically folded. I would choose that staircase view of the press over watching a late night show of a Clooney film any day.

I entered Indian Express (later The New Indian Express) with no expectations or plans. All that I knew was that I wanted to be a part of IT. For the six years before that – despite courses in computers, languages, commerce etc – I did not even consider another vocation.

I am not ambitious, I had no great ideals, wasn’t out to change the world, I was no Tin Tin – all that I wanted was to be a reporter, and even that had no description in my head.

So work was great; tough, but great all the same.

And then, I got to meet 3 very interesting men on the first day at work – coincidentally all their names begin with S.

S1: As an intern, the goal is to learn. And if you can get the best to be your teacher, can you ask for more?

 

S2: And you need someone to make you laugh. To pull you out of gloom after the Chief has ripped to shreds you, your attitude, your writing and your brains. Even if that someone was biased, caste-conscious and sometimes corruptible. For a good sense of humour, you can forgive almost anything.

 

S3: Whatever the environment, a girl must have a crush-worthy subject around her. Even if he was older and married 🙂


For five years I literally lived in that building, that is now being converted into a fancy mall. And every day and every hour of those years brought so much into my life.

That’s where I met the man who would become my husband.

That’s where I made some of my closest friends.

That’s where I learnt that empathy is far more useful than sympathy.

That’s where I learnt that what you earn is not what defines you.

That’s where smoking almost became a habit.

That’s where I learnt that marriage, motherhood and a career do work well together (thanks Chief), though I saw several examples of it failing as well.

That’s where I learnt that the power of the press comes with immense responsibility.

That’s where I witnessed firsthand the misuse of power.

Though born to a trade unionist, that was where I understood the power of a labour union and how it can be wasted; where I experienced a lock-out; where I saw some of the worst HR practices.

That’s where I developed a thick skin, and learnt to disregard gossip.

That’s where I started enjoying Tamil as a language, after having hated all through school.

That’s the place that spoilt me rotten. I cannot, absolutely cannot, settle for just any job. Not for all the money in the Emir’s kitty.

Mental maths

I never thought much of it till I came to Doha, and I definitely didn’t realise what an amazing ability it is till recently.

The first time it hit me was when I went to an expat-group bazaar, where folks were selling trinkets and snacks from their home countries. Even for the simplest addition and subtraction either the calculator was whipped out, or fingers were pressed into service. 

These were well-educated, well-placed men and women from around the world.

However, those from India and the Far East were doing complicated calculations mentally.

Shall we attribute it to our education system? Or is it **jingoism alert** the brilliance of the race?

How can we explain the ability of otherwise illiterate or semi-literate folks to do complicated mental calculations?

The kaikari-karan (vegetable vendor) on the streets of Madras, the milk lady, the domestic help, the puncture shop assistant, the waiters at the roadside dabbas…

Baalama is about 70 years old now. I’ve known her all my life, and her daughter, Anjalai, is the one who cared for me as a child, and subsequently my kids, and even now is the main support for my ageing parents.

They cannot even sign their names.

Baalama is the milk lady for the colony. She has about 20-30 clients. Milk accounts go into decimals, eg Rs 482.45.

At the beginning of the month she would calculate how much money each household owed her. If on certain days neighbours traded milk bottles (before the day of private milk producers, a common practice. When one household had guests they would borrow milk from another that had excess), she had to deduct and add accordingly. She did it all, to the last decimal point, without ever using pen and paper.

The same with Anjalai. She would go to the market and deal with the vendors who either like her never attended school or had the most basic education. But all her calculations, sometimes toting up purchases over a week, were done mentally.

I can give endless examples…

When I was living amongst these mathematically inclined brains, I hardly ever noticed how fantastic this was. Now I do.

One explanation could be skill driven by need. Because they cannot use pen and paper, do not have access to calculators, they are forced to use what they have?

Mazhai, Baarish, La Pluie, Al Ghayth, RAIN

A pic my nephew GK clicked... cloudy skies, the beach, a hint of rain, sun and all things typically Madras.

Read this post and got all nostalgic about the rain.

The thing is, Madras rains are more a nuisance than anything else.

From what I remember, with just a drizzle the drain pipes broke and the roads choked. When the real deal — blinding rain — set in, diseases abounded; water seeped through the walls; low-lying areas became inaccessible in anything but parisals and makeshift boats; electricity and telephone lines went bust; roads looked like the lunar surface and everyone cursed the corporation and politicians. Even after particularly wet years, where the Red Hills reservoir filled to the brim and over, Madras’s infamous water scarcity never seemed to resolve.

And yet, how much we awaited the rains. How we loved it. Sheets of water washing away the city’s trademark sweat and humidity.

My mind is a whirl of RAIN images, shoo-ing away sleep, and drawing me out of bed to post right away. There are unpleasant memories too, but in the spirit of the post I tag, I will stick mainly to the wonderful ones.

  • Deepavalli. It always rained around Deepavalli. And my resourceful sister, C, would tie the stringed firecrackers to a long stick, dangle it out of the window and put up a show for us.
  • My beautiful, sprawling Convent. We could smell the rain, even before the first drop hit the playground mud.
  • Bajjis and masala tea. Hurricane lamps and candles at the ready.
  • Black umbrellas, repaired many times over. And those flowered, imported ones in the ’90s.
  • Huddling under a cheap plastic raincoat, while staring enviously at those with Duckback overcoats.
  • Ceiling fans regulated at 3 for a change, instead of the max.
  • Parisals. A famous film director’s office used to be in the colony, and one of these was left behind from a film set. Every year, it was taken out to cart people from one end of the colony to the other.
  • Taking long walks up and down the Ooty hillsides with my cousin M. Light drizzle and school girl confidences. Crushes and gossip.
  • My first fall from the Kinetic Honda, while trying to avoid a worn-out, rainwater-filled part of the road.
  • Getting caught on Mount Road on the way to work at Indian Express. My red & green bandini dupatta bought at Alsa Mall, staining and ruining my brand new white chikan-work salwar suit.
  • My first kiss. On Elliot’s Beach, Besant Nagar, after the evening shift, late one rainy night (how dramatic! but true, nonetheless).
  • Beat visits to the Communicable Diseases Hospital in North Madras, to check on Cholera deaths. Then to be pleasantly surprised by how well the hospital was maintained.
  • Sitting on the rocks dotting the Park Guest House beach (owned by the Aurobindo Ashram) in Pondicherry. Dripping wet, and high on LOVE, LUST, VODKA and FORBIDDEN ADVENTURES…
  • Thunderstorms on the eve of my wedding. Then rains during the reception, which did nothing to reduce the huge numbers of people that flocked to the hall (my folks and I had an understanding – the wedding ceremony would be small, simple and at home; the reception would be on their terms).
  • Cycling down the Law College road in Pune, undecided on whether to go back to the Film Institute hostel or join a bunch of my classmates on a very naughty and very interesting evening out. Finally choosing to cycle in the heavy rains towards the University Circle. Wet, confused, tired and stuffing my face with spicy vada pav from the shacks there.
  • My first rains in Doha, within weeks of arriving here. Sitting alone and lonely in my ‘first home’, peering out of the window, missing Madras… And then running to the terrace to get drenched and feel better – to feel ‘at home’.
  • Driving up to the Table Mountain in Cape Town, the rain beating a steady rhythm on the windshield. Then after the nth turn running into a rainbow view. What a sight!
  • Waking up in the middle of the night to feed O (days old), and gazing longingly out of the verandah door, postnatal restrictions holding me back from running out into the rain.
  • Taking a 1-year-old O out to the balcony in Doha to get wet. She looked so puzzled. Again when she was 3, dragged her out of school, to get wet. What joy! So worth skipping school.
  • My first hailstorm, that too in Doha, 2 years ago!
  • Watching an amazing Asian Games opening ceremony, in 2006. Unprecedented and untimely rains notwithstanding, it was an awesome show. Even more pleasant was the memory that I sat in the sheltered VIP arena (perks of being a journo) while my boss and his boss were getting wet in the stand opposite! Cheap thrills…
  • In 2008, driving to the Marina late in the night with my sisters and their kids and witnessing a mesmerising lightning show, far into the ocean. Fierce, angry and powerful, the dark sky was repeatedly ripped apart. It was an electrifying and deeply disturbing scene… what was brewing that far out there?

… I better plug my memory for now. What’s your favourite rain recall?

Today Goofy would have turned 14…

My golden brown cocker spaniel, with beautiful white strategically placed patches.

 

By the end of his life, he was almost completely blind – inoperable cataracts, slower and was slightly hard of hearing. Otherwise, he was his usual lazy, undisciplined and loving/lovable self.

Remember one of the last lines Dumbledore utters to the death eaters, that goes something like  — “it’s old age, if you are lucky you will experience it too.”

It is a ripe old age for a dog – especially a retriever living in Madras.

I am tempted to take a trip down nostalgia lane.

Like when I was late returning home, an angry Goofy would wreck my room – torn scarves, upturned tables and an eyeliner bottle he had chewed (I still have it).

I don’t want to think about the time when my sister, brother-in-law (V), nephew (GK) and Goofy dropped me off at work in (erstwhile) Express Estates, he jumped off to follow me in.

Or of him lying on my old tees, after I left home and moved to Doha.

Every summer, he would gulp down ice cream treats. He was by and large a vegetarian (milk, curd rice, dal, eggs), but for the beef biscuits.

While still living at home I took care of his grooming. Bathing him, trimming his hair, cleaning his ears (very important for his breed), flea picking…

I don’t want to think about the many ways in which he was neglected either… not abusive neglect, just neglect because he was living with two other old beings who were just about managing to keep the machinery of home functional. He definitely deserved more walks, more brushing, more beach trips.

Yet, we all did the very best we could, that’s why he lived long and well…

He was never taught to sit or heel or turn over. He was never taught to fetch. Or rather he refused to learn. Except for my brother-in-law, we were not major dog lovers. We loved Goofy because he was ours. But he broke through all our reservations, and became a constant companion for my parents.

At the beginning, he was my nephew’s pet, but since they lived in an apartment, they moved him to my parents’ slightly more spacious independent house – more specifically into my rooms and the adjoining terrace.

After I left, a kennel was built for him in the coolest part of the compound, shaded by a neighbour’s coconut palms and our papaya and drumstick trees.

V and GK visited him regularly…

V visited him last on Christmas night to console a crying and inexplicably restless Goofy. He wrapped him up in a blanket, tucked him in for the very last time, and went off to attend to my nephew who was very ill and hospitalised at that time.

Well, there I go, I did take that N trip after all…

This post was actually supposed to be about my nephew… I am not religious, but I am kind of superstitious. I do believe that things happen in strange ways, and not everything has or needs an explanation or reason… I believe in genies and vibes. I believe in the power of hope.

I spoke to my distraught sister on 25th December. My 19-year-old nephew’s platelet count was not rising as it should have even after infusion of six units. Dengue was suspected – even confirmed by doctors. That night his platelet count was still under 50,000. They were warned that he just could not afford a relapse. Ever. For the rest of his life.

Early next morning, Goofy died in his sleep. As V and my dad were conducting Goofy’s burial, the most recent test results of GK’s came back. The platelet count was over two lakhs, he tested negative for dengue. My nephew was recovering fabulously and was being discharged.

I thought of it, but didn’t want to voice it… but somewhere, someone had registered a plea bargain. A sacrifice. GK’s very first pet. The very mad, the very loving and the very tame Goofy. Later, more than one person voiced the same idea…

I don’t think I will ever have a pet again, because I am not really cut out to be a caregiver. Cats don’t cut it for me, because they are way too independent. So basically the happy medium between cats and dogs are kids, I guess!

I am not a pet person.

Then again, never say never. After the passing of my mum’s two dachshunds before she got married, she vowed the same – I guess pets have a way of choosing their families.

RIP Goofy.