Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The irony soup

Irony can be a cruel thing, and a little twisted, too. Like Alfred's vacation album that he showed me so proudly when I spotted him sitting all by himself in the food court. It was a trip to Thailand, and Alfred being a photography buff had loads and loads of pictures of Bangkok, Phuket, Koh Samui, Phi Phi island and Maya Bay. One look at those pictures, and I regretted that my summer travel plans this year didn't have a Thai flavour.

But that's not what made me think of irony. It was something else. It was that look of pride on his face when he showed me pictures of his Thai mistress or, to be precise, his vacation squeeze. Under normal circumstances, pictures of my friends' girlfriends don't really bother me, but Alfred happens to be a married man, and supposedly, a happily married man. Or, at least, that's what he says. Hence, the pictures and the flaunting of them just seemed to border on poor taste, that's all.

Now I don't know whether or not it was my conservative side acting up, or some other forces were at work here. But I couldn't help laugh at the irony of the whole thing. On one hand, there was Alfred, a guilt-free married man proud to have a new mistress every vacation, and on the other side, there was yours truly, single out of choice because of this conviction that marriage is sacred and involves a life-long commitment to only one person.

The troubling factor is, it's people like Alfred that end up defining how men are, and go about wreaking countless women's hearts without even a slight degree of concern. It's the Alfreds of the world who live under the assumption that their machismo is measured either by the number of women they've bonked or the number of women's hearts they've won and then broken. It's a cruel game they play, and it's left to the other type of men to pick up the shattered fragments of broken hearts and look for ways to heal them.

Sometimes it's a little too late because the damage has already been done, and some women find it hard to trust again or to believe they are capable of being loved. It seems like a cruel piece of irony that the wrong types of men end up becoming the definition, while the rest of us who want to love and respect and care have to try just harder... just seems a little crazy, don't you think?

Friday, August 25, 2006

Letter from Juffair - 3

I did something really strange today. I went for a long walk. Alright I needed to think over a couple of issues, and I've discovered walking helps jog the brain cells a little. Don't ask me how or why, but I know it does. However, it was, also, very hot and humid today and that made the long walk a little bit on the unbearable side, and yet I walked.

I started off from my house in old Juffair, crossed the Al Fateh highway, walked towards Palace Inn and then went turned towards Adliya. I stopped by at Leena Pharmacy and picked a few things from there and then followed the road that took me past Al Jazeera Supermarket, KFC and then headed towards the British Club... and at exactly THAT moment I received a call from a friend in Manama, who wondered if I could stop by and I did just that by stopping a taxi.

Obviously, those of you who are not from Bahrain will have no idea what I was talking about, but let's put it this way, the distance I covered was quite a bit especially during the height of summer. Now those of you from Europe or North America might wonder what's the big deal about summer anyway but that's because you guys don't know what Bahrain's summer is all about.

To understand a typical Bahraini summer is to consider a sauna and then multiply it three or four times with the yuckiest feeling you can ever conceive. Summer lasts for, at least, four to five months from May to September or thereabouts, and the peak months are, usually, July and August. Average temperature during these months touches 45 degree Celsius and above (that's roughly 113 Farenheit), and humidity hovers around 95%, and, naturally, it reduces the comfort level considerably prompting majority of residents to leave Bahrain for cooler shores.

One good thing though is that the entire country is air-conditioned, and so going indoors anywhere means enjoying a little bit of coolness and escape from the harshness of the heat and humidity. Obviously, this means that all outdoor activity is severely limited during summer, and people end up haunting malls, cinemas, and restaurants for all rest and recreation activity, while others opt to stay home.

Of course, we are talking about people like 'us' who are privileged enough to work indoors and live in comfortable homes where we are less likely to experience the unpleasant blast of summer. The biggest sufferers during this season, on the other hand, are the construction workers and low wage labourers who have to toil day and night in the outdoors. Most of them are paid pittance, if at all, they do get paid, and their living conditions are, at best, miserable.

And as the construction boom continues its momentum in Juffair, it is these construction workers who suffer the most while working hard to build these fancy apartments for people like 'us' to live in, and to make some landlords a lot richer. Am sure most of us hardly think of the blood, sweat and toil that has gone behind those apartments and villas we live in, but then again, we won't think on those lines because we'd dismiss it off as 'it's their job, after all.'

And that's true... it's their job after all... but the sad thing is, for us to get even a tiny glimpse of what these people have to go through on a daily basis, all we have to do is wear our jogging shoes and step outdoors. Of course, the difference is, we CAN always manage to return to the comforts of our homes, but these people do not possess the same privilege.

That's the difference between us and them, and as differences go, that's a real biggie.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Letter from Juffair - 2

I was thinking of posting a picture of Juffair. I figured it would be a great idea to show you how this little corner of Bahrain that I call 'home' actually looks like. However, there are two problems that make this task a little harder than one can imagine.

One, I'm not exactly sure what's the status of Google Earth here in Bahrain because newspaper reports have been saying that the site has been blocked by the powers that be. And since, I can't think of any other solution other than Google Earth for this purpose, I guess, I'll have to wait a little bit longer till some definite answer trickles in my way. The second problem is, somewhat, technical and has to do with Batelco, our dear monopoly ISP provider. Since we no longer have unlimited Internet access - thanks to Batelco's clever marketing 'logic' (for want of better words), I was told by some friends to avoid Google Earth altogether because the program is bandwidth hungry. So that's where things stand as far as the present situation is concerned, but if the fog clears and some favourable answer comes my way... yes, pictures will be posted.

Till then, all you have are words, words, and more words. Gosh. I'm beginning to sound like F. R. David now. Speaking of whom, I wonder where he is now... haven't even spotted him on VH1 Classics. Hopefully Limewire would help?

So what has Juffair been upto in the last one week?

Well, someone wrote in today's paper that while he (has to be a 'he') was in Juffair somewhere, he saw a green light zipping across the sky in a zig zag sort of way that suggested it was no ordinary rock, but a genuine dyed-in-the-wool Unidentified Flying Object. No one else has corroborated this man's story as yet, unless they've been abducted by the little green men for biology practicals! Note to myself: visit the terrace more often, and take your camera with you. Now if this story is true, it would be the second UFO sighting in Bahrain because just a week or so earlier, two separate groups of people reported UFO sightings.

Now I have an open mind as far as UFOs and intelligent life in outer space is concerned because, to begin with, I have serious doubts about intelligent life HERE on Earth itself. The recent war in Lebanon aka the Israeli bulldozing operation is a case in point. But, as usual, I digress. I'm sure some of the stars and planets may be teeming with life but the real question is, why, on earth, have they chosen to visit our dear little island twice in a week? Have they found Bahrain to be far more appealing than all the tourist hot-spots in the Andromeda galaxy or wherever? Is there some secret alien conference taking place somewhere in Bahrain that we know nothing of?

Well, your answer is as good as mine, but as far as I'm concerned... the one thing that has made me a little more relaxed these days is not this extra-terrestrial attention but the early morning peace and quiet in my neighbourhood. Let me explain. Close to my compound, we have five schools, yes, five schools that cause tremendous traffic bottleneck. It would be great if all the kids were all packed in school buses, but no, some parents want to drop them to school in their SUVs, 4WDs and what have you. Calculate five schools, substantial number of parents, one small road that has to be shared by those working in the US naval base, BANZ (a meat processing company), couple of other companies that have offices in and around Juffair... and you can imagine the kind of mess we face in the mornings.

But, hey, it's still summer, and schools will open only in September, and till then, I don't think I should think of the approaching problem. However, it wouldn't hurt if each of the schools decide to meet, discuss this problem and look for a solution... at least, that way, some peace will be restored and chances of road rage are minimised.

I'm waiting.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Independence Salute

It was 1975. Or, I think, it was. Memory can, sometimes, play tricks with things like dates and such. But yes, it was a long time ago and I was very young. Maybe not too young to have sketchy memory but not too old either to manage vivid recollections of what happened.

But one thing I do remember is that I didn't like the idea of waking up early in the morning and going for the flag hoisting ceremonies. Yes, ceremonies. We had to go to the Indian Embassy first, and then follow it up with another ceremony at the Indian Association premises. And these had to take place in the morning before the grown-ups had to go to their respective offices.

If it was any other month, perhaps, I wouldn't have complained so much. But it was the middle of August, and the peak of summer in Bahrain. Extreme heat and high humidity together conspire to make life not just unbearable but yucky as well. So it was with great reluctance I followed my dad and my brothers to both the flag hoisting ceremonies.

The Embassy event followed a standard routine - the Ambassador read the President's speech, hoisted the flag, everyone sang the National Anthem, some of the school kids sang a patriotic song, and then, the grown ups greeted each other, and went their respective ways.

The Indian Association event was a little low key. Only the committee members were present for the flag hoisting and the singing of the National Anthem, and that's all was done, nothing else. The main event was, always, in the evening -- a variety show followed by a Bollywood movie, specially ordered for the occasion. Everyone looked forward to it, and for much of the 70's, the Indian Independence and Republic days were celebrated with the same formula.

But I digress.

On that particular morning, however, I saw something that forever changed the way I understood concepts like patriotism and nationalism. But I have to, first, explain the Indian Association's then location because it will enable you to understand my story a little better.

The Indian Association is now defunct and its original premises on Government Avenue have long been demolished to make way for the swanky Bank of Bahrain and Kuwait building. But it stood directly opposite the Secretariat and was diagonally opposite the Manama Centre, which can be easily described as one of the earliest very-modern looking buildings in Bahrain.

The Manama Centre was still under construction that morning when the 'something' took place, and from the terrace of the Indian Association we could easily see the construction labourers hard at work. My father, as the president of the Indian Association, hoisted the flag and soon all those gathered stood in attention and sang the National Anthem. And then, as we were singing the Anthem we noticed it.

Two of the construction labourers immediately stopped what they were doing, and stood in attention when they saw us singing the National Anthem. They were atop the Manama Centre's unfinished terrace, but it was their spontaneous gesture that caught everyone's attention. It was a moving sight, and one that has often humbled me whenever I considered concepts like patriotism. Those two men just stood up out of respect for their nation, to them the flag represented all their hopes and aspirations, and perhaps, memories of better days.

And, maybe, in their pathetic existence, that moment was the only time when they could raise their heads and be proud of something that was bigger than themselves and their little world.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

UN Resolution

So the UN has finally spoken and has asked both Israel and Hizbollah to stop this madness once and for all. It was amusing to see both US and France making these big statements that they have accomplished something, and that we must raise loud cheers on their behalf. Ofcourse, it was no simple task because they had to produce a statement to demonstrate their concern at the loss of lives.

Alright. I'm being mean once again.

Actually, it was great on their part to actually say something and come up with a concrete proposal of some kind. Somebody had to it because the silence was getting on everyone's nerves. The UN Resolution that they have jointly authored may not be THE answer, but it just could be part of the solution. However, I still have a problem with it because it's just US and France coming up with the draft, and the Security Council giving its unanimous okay. That's all fine, but it still makes one ask: why can't the warring parties be involved in this draft resolution? Isn't it possible that the resolution will lack teeth because neither Israel nor the Hizbollah are involved in it?

You might say I'm over-reacting because Daniel Ayalon, Israel's ambassador to the United States has already stated that the Israeli Security Cabinet was likely to sign off on the resolution at its Sunday meeting. And on the other end of the spectrum, Hassan Nazrallah, the Hizbollah chief said that his organisation will agree to the UN call for a ceasefire.

Now these two statements should make us all feel a little relaxed and sleep easy at night, but, somehow, it is not possible to do so. While the above statements are encouraging, we do hear other news that makes any prospects for peace rather doubtful. The Israeli cabinet's plan to push deeper into Lebanon and increase the ground offensive suggests that the cycle of violence and revenge will continue.

More killings on the way, more buildings destroyed, more revenge seeking mob on a rampage... weather forecast looks rather grim.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Letter from Juffair - 1

It is Friday morning, and I'm sitting here in my villa in Juffair wondering what I should write about in this new weekly column that I plan to include in this blog. The idea to have a weekly column was not really my idea, but was part of a writing exercise in Shakespeare and Company, an online writing forum, part of the Ryze Business Network.

There are a couple of things I could write about -- maybe offer my own perspective on the war in Lebanon (or rather the bulldozing of Beirut, to be precise) or express my outrage at the latest Al Qaeda plot to bomb airlines in London (don't these bearded dudes have anything else to do in life?) or I could talk about the latest celebrity shenanigans and give them the same importance that I would to any half-baked policy doctrine concocted at a UN congress.

Instead I'll talk about villas in Juffair. This is not exactly a topic that will shake the earth from its axis, but important enough if one is into architecture, heritage and that kind of thing. Now how did heritage creep into a concrete jungle like Juffair, I hear the murmuring voices ask. Obviously the answer to that question is not as simple as one would think, and would require a trip to the past but I'll take a detour from my compound.

"Cunningham Garden" is, probably, the last old-style compound in Juffair ever since the nearby Dawani Compound (where we lived before) was demolished to make way for... not sure what, but rumours suggest an apartment block. There are, roughly, twelve villas in our compound and each one has a large garden area. The villas have a little bit of art deco look with a bit of 60's architecture style thrown in, making these villas, probably, relics of a bygone era.

Prior to 1971 when Bahrain gained independence from the British government, Juffair was, primarily, known to be the base for the British Royal Navy. It was from here that the naval warlords ran the show and even stayed within its vicinity. Hence, numerous such villas dotted Juffair's landscape because they were occupied by naval officers and their families. With the departure of the British navy, the Americans quickly followed and though they did not occupy the whole of Juffair as the British did, nevertheless, they did occupy a significant portion of Juffair to render the whole area a bit exclusive.

Juffair maintained this idyllic situation for good many years, but not for long. 1990 was a watershed year because Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and changed the face of the Arab world, but nearer home, it also changed Juffair completely. With the invasion and post-invasion monitoring activities, it necessitated a large number of American naval personnel to be permanently stationed in Bahrain.

Juffair was nearer the base, and so, it was logical that accommodation had to be managed somewhere nearby. Some basic problems had to be sorted out first. Sea was reclaimed and soon a large number of fancy buildings began dotting Juffair as the sea began to recede further and more apartment blocks began to make their appearance. Naval personnel had lot of money in their hands, and the US Government was generous with paying house rents. Naturally, a lot of people began to smell money, and every Tom, Dick and Harry got into real-estate and hoped to make a quick buck. Villas and compounds became unviable, and apartment blocks gave many a landlord the ka-ching experience.

These days most people recognise Juffair for these apartment blocks and fail to understand that Juffair was once a villa dotted idyllic suburb. Greed has been the driving force behind the growth of New Juffair (that is, buildings constructed over the reclaimed area) because it is clear that no planning or foresight has gone into the construction spree that one sees in this area. It is, also, probably, the only upmarket residential area where roads are constructed after the buildings have come up, and there is a total absence of parks, groceries and other basic necessities. The rationale goes: have land will build.

The sad thing is, Juffair is losing its character and is now recognised more for these concrete monstrosities than for what it once was. Change is a fact of life, and Juffair, too, has to undergo change if we subscribe to this logic. But my contention is -- why can't change be accompanied by a little planning?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The morality of weasels

I am a mean guy. I shouldn't have quoted scripture the other day in my blog post. I should have just said that governments must do something to stop the ongoing carnage in Lebanon. Simple. Direct. Uncomplicated, and would have sounded more appropriate.

Why, on earth, do I have to bring God into the picture? Gosh. It would only super-spiritualise what is essentially a political matter. Besides, governments are already saddled with huge responsibilities of their own and bludgeoning them with spiritual guilt would be most insensitive on my part. How could I even think along such lines, uh?

But there's a war going on, and lots of people are being killed - including little children - and it's hard to stay mum any longer. I mean, there's a limit to how long one can remain a 'nice guy'. There are times - and this is one of them - when one has to get off the fence and take a stand. Ofcourse, there is the argument that war is politics by other means, but it sounds weak and hollow when we are faced with images of a once beautiful country being bulldozed and flattened by bombs and missiles.

Let's cut the bullshit, for a second, and understand some facts. War involves killing. Pure and simple. And killing, as we know, is a moral issue with spiritual implications. In God's eyes, death of innocent civilians is not collateral damage, it is an act of destruction of something he has created so lovingly. And to make another simplistic comment. Killing is, also, a violation of one of his commandments.

Having said all this, it is reasonable to assume that those political leaders who quote "God" at the drop of a hat would be the first in line to say something about what's going on. But their silence and their inability to call a spade a spade is, rather, disturbing. Their behaviour reminds me of how a puny weasel might adopt a moral stance rather than how a snarling lion might respond to danger at hand.

Until today, the 2nd of August, 850 Lebanese including 290 children have been killed and 9,00,000 Lebanese refugees have been displaced in response to the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah 22 days ago. The number of Israeli dead in the conflict thus far is 55, including 19 civilians, as Hezbollah continues to target Israel with rockets.

When I read this statistic in the protest statement issued by a group of Indian writers, I realised, it was time to stick one's neck out and make a stand. One cannot remain neutral when people are being killed because, in such situations, silence is not golden, it is wickedly amoral.

Lives are being killed, homes are being levelled, basic infrastructure is being destroyed, cities are being hurled back to the stone age... and the rage we experience at all this wanton destruction has to be de-secularised. We need to bring back the 'fear of God' because we need to recognise that there does exist a higher power in this universe.

Political leaders may have their own reasons for their silence, and perhaps, they feel that they are scoring brownie points with some big money-bags, or that they are practising realpolitik, or that they are following some strategic objective, or... they are just playing shrewd and smart. Who knows?

Thankfully, there is a day of judgement and a day of reckoning, and I hope, there are answers because, to the best of my knowledge, you can't bullshit with God.