Friday, September 29, 2006

Letter from Juffair - 4

The weather is a lot better today. In fact, the last two weeks have seen a remarkable turnaround in the weather. This makes it easier to not only step outdoors but, also, to undertake some of my legendary 'long walks'. Sauna like climate and long treks in the urban jungle somehow don't go together. A little light breeze and a gentle caress of the wind on one's face makes all the difference. It certainly does.

It's quite likely that it'll take, at least, a month for all traces of summer to vanish, and winter to slowly set in as the shamal (or north wind from Iran) makes its presence felt all over the country.

My Muslim friends, in particular, are quite relieved by the general coolness all around. It's already a week since the start of the holy month of Ramadan, and it would have been terrible if the weather had persisted in remaining hot and humid. Muslims are expected to fast from sunrise to sunset everyday during this month, and undergo a period of inner cleansing and spiritual pondering. Just thought I'd add this little bit of info., for those of you (living outside the Gulf) who may not know what Ramadan is).

As Bahrain is an Islamic country and majority of its residents are Muslim, its natural that Ramadan has an impact on general life, work patterns and lifestyles. For one, eating and drinking in public is not allowed, and most non-Muslims follow it not only because it's a law but out of respect for their Muslim friends. The other thing is, there are shorter working hours as it leaves Muslim workers enough time to go home and prepare for iftar (breaking of fast at sunset) as well as spend some time in prayer. And lastly, there are numerous Ramadan tents open in different hotels and clubs offering special Ramadan buffet and these are popular with Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Many companies use this month to organise special ghabgas (post-iftar meal) as a means to forge greater cohesiveness with their employees as well as develop better ties with their clients and business associates.

Far from being a month of austerity, Ramadan is, in fact, one of the most pleasant months in the year. Lots of get-togethers, fun time for children and families, closer interactions with neighbours and relatives are some of the main highlights of the month. Shops and malls, also, offer special discounts for those wishing to go shopping this month.

Just like the end of Lent is Easter so, also, Muslims look forward to Eid Al Fitr that marks the end of Ramadan. We get three days holiday and if a weekend falls in between, then, obviously, we get five days altogether.

I am quite glad that Ramadan this year is a lot cooler because for the low wage workers outside who toil day in and day out, it is something of a relief. Their life is, in anyway, an abstinence from all the simple pleasures of life, and for them to fast in boiling temperatures would have been a real pain.

But seriously, if anyone deserves heartfelt respect then it is these workers who fast during this month despite the harshness of weather, living conditions as well as miserably low wages. To remain committed to one's religious tenets and to be devoted to one's faith irrespective of life's circumstances is something worth emulating... and worth thinking about.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Born into brothels

Is it possible to review a film that one was unable to watch till the end? Ideally, one cannot, but suppose, if one wants to review the film anyway because one found the film very gripping. What does one do? Of course, it raises the obvious question - in that case, why did you not watch it till the end?

"Born into Brothels" is an uneasy film to watch, and when Showtime's Movie Channel broadcast it on 8th September as part of their World Cinema series I was pleasantly surprised that the network had chosen this Oscar winning documentary as part of their weekend special.

The film is, basically, about a project, undertaken by two film makers Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, to teach photography to the children of prostitutes 'working' in Sonagachi, Calcutta's red light district. This background information immediately puts a dampener because it suddenly becomes hard to imagine them as any other kids. One's perception gets clouded by a sense of the tragic that one, rightly assumes, to be the defining factor of these children's day to day existence in Sonagachi.

Most of the children show great enthusiasm in learning photography, and the way they squeal with delight when they examine the pictures they've shot is a pleasure to watch. And when they tease each other and boisterously pull each other's legs they come across as regular kids, and this becomes - at least, to me - somewhat unbearable.

It's not that I don't want them to be happy but the impression one gets is that these images of 'happiness' are temporary, and that in just few years time, each of these children, especially the little girls, will be introduced to the world of prostitution and all the sordid reality associated with it.

What comes across clearly - and the filmmakers have captured this fact beautifully and sensitively - is that these children are like any other kids anywhere in the world. It's only their background that makes all the difference almost like hamartia or 'tragic flaw' that one notices in Shakesepeare's tragic heroes.

One of the most moving bits in the film - and it was here that I felt I could watch the film no more - was when Zana Briski hunts for a suitable boarding school for these children but meets with no success. Most schools are reluctant to have children of prostitutes in their roster and have no qualms saying so. Zana's disappointment is obvious and one is left with rage at a ridiculous value system that would allow such cute little children's lives to be destroyed simply on the basis of that cowardly principle of 'what will people say.'

I wish I could have watched the entire film but it was hard for me to do so. I was drawn by the excited faces of the little children and, at the same time, repulsed by the life these kids could get sucked into, and which would, permanently, wipe off any traces of joy from their faces and their lives. In a sense, I felt, I was watching what was, perhaps - and I hope not - the last time that they would ever behave like children.

The terrible thing about movies like "Born into Brothels" or even Mira Nair's critically acclaimed "Salaam Bombay" is that they do a fantastic job in 'exposing' the miserable life of people living below the poverty line, but one is left with that nagging question - what next? Somehow, I feel, such films provide armchair causeratis with an excuse to rail against the system without having to get their hands dirty. Perhaps it's because film as a medium for entertainment and raising social consciousness seems a little odd to go with it. I am not saying that it shouldn't be, but fact remains that it's rarely done and so, I'm not sure, how many people do get affected by such images and want to do something about it.

But let me not complain and act fussy... it's good that such initiatives are made, and even if one person is motivated to upset the applecart after watching a film, then, it's all worth it. Because, after all, it takes only one person to start something... and history has proved this to be true.

Will I be that man, or will I pass the buck?

Monday, September 11, 2006

'The new normal'

I switched on Fox News last night, and the anchor referred to life in the post 9/11 world as the 'new normal'. I thought it was, rather, insensitive on their part to use such a phrase because it implied that one has to accept the current climate of war hysteria and collective madness as something that borders on the 'normal'. In a sense, I felt, use of such a phrase was an insult to the memory of all those people who lost their lives in the terrorist attack.

However, in the five years since those traumatic events quite a lot has changed, and I suppose, what we've always thought as the idealistic 'normal' may, in fact, be out of touch with current reality. Of course, I like to question this idea because, for some reason, I don't like to assume that this is how my world is going to be, and that this would be the legacy my generation will be leaving behind.

Obviously, this is an idealistic ranting because a good hard look at reality will reveal that things are going progressively worse, and assuming that things would and should get better is like living in a fool's paradise.

But why shouldn't we dream for things to get better? Why do we have to succumb to the cynicism fed into our minds by ruthless politicians and even more ruthless terrorists? Why do we have to accept their paradigm as our reality? Why do we have to even call it 'normal'?

The trouble with 9/11 is that it's going to end up as another anniversary - a day for war mongers to justify their battle cry, a day for pacifists to prove how right they are, a day for fundamentalists of every hue to talk about divine retribution, a day for historians to use it as a benchmark for future events, a day for the media to milk every ounce of human emotion into high TRP ratings, a day for the families and friends of the victims to weep alone, a day for silence to take a backseat.

In another twenty-thirty years time, those of us who are still able to answer 'what we were doing on 9/11' will grow old, and perhaps, be already dead. By then, the date will have lost its emotional urgency, and would be just another historic date like Pearl Harbour, the sinking of the Titanic and the atomic explosion over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Maybe by then, some of the conspiracy theories would have been proved wrong, or you never know, future historians would have uncovered some uncomfortable truths our present generation wouldn't have been able to digest.

All these are mere speculations, but one thing is certain... the more we accept the 'reality' forced upon us by politicians and terrorists that much more closer we are to our own spiritual, emotional and physical destruction.

We need to say that we are not going to allow ourselves to be pawns in some gigantic political game of one upmanship. We need to declare our autonomy from this vicious cycle of attacks and revenge. We need to separate ourselves from this madness.

We need to just say, enough of this bloody nonsense.

For heavens sake, enough!


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Teachers Day

Yesterday was Teachers Day, or so a friend who keeps track of such things told me. I'm not really into these kind of 'days' because my cynical side tends to think that such days are just a ploy by companies like Hallmarks to induce people into buying cards, flowers and chocolates.

Alright. That's way too cynical, I know; but somehow one can't help thinking along these lines especially with the kind of crass commercialisation that seems to define the greeting card industry. I mean, every relationship is fair game to these people, and I won't be surprised if they'll pull no stops in turning even a simple 'hello' into a major event.

But going back to Teachers Day, one of the reasons why I didn't know about it was because it didn't register even a squeak in my school calendar because in those days Indian School Bahrain's summer vacation used to end on 16th September. That's right. It was full two and half months of rest, recreation, and lots of household chores. Only once, that is, in 1979 that our vacation lasted three months because our school moved to Isa Town that year. I'm digressing.

Some teachers, most notably, Mr. Akshay Kumar (no likeness to the Bollywood hero) usually dropped hints about Teachers Day and how schools in India treated it as a very important event. We would simply nod our heads and say, wow, but showed no inclination of coming to school in the middle of our vacation just to celebrate Teachers Day.

Now it's not that we were an ungrateful lot (of course, that's open to debate but we won't get into that, shall we?), but it's just that we used to get annoyed by some of these teachers who would insist that life in India was a lot better for school kids, and that we were, somehow, missing out on things. It was a load of baloney as far as we were concerned mainly because we didn't like anyone telling us that we were a deprived lot.

But I have to admit that not all of our teachers came from the outer reaches of the solar system. There were others whose presence made some difference to our lives. They were the ones who gave us lessons in life without deviating from the curriculum, and contributed not only to our intellectual growth but also to our emotional development. And now as I look back to those days long gone, I can't help but think that much of what I am today is, partly, due to some of these teachers. Gosh. I didn't intend to sound so mushy all of a sudden. It has to be that pathetic music com

Mrs Swamy (my class-teacher in fourth grade) -- for discovering my interest in writing and encouraging me to keep at it.

Mrs. Sequiera -- for being strict when it was necessary, for being loving at all times, and for remembering us even after twenty-odd years.

Mrs. Shankuni -- for encouraging my interest in poetry by her kind and thoughtful words.

Mr. Susai -- for showing us that wit and dry humour can be useful tools while teaching physics.

Mr. Nair -- for his tireless and futile attempts in making me recognise the wonders of trignometry and quadratic equations.

Mrs. Karai (Head of English Department, Wilson College, Bombay) -- for insisting that I major in English literature instead of political science or psychology.

Dr. Reuben (English Department, Wilson College) -- for showing us how to discover literary 'truths' on our own and enjoying the process.

Ms. Kalavade (warden of the girls hostel, Wilson College) -- for just being there for me whenever I was (which was always) homesick.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Sunday morning blues

It's quite likely that very few people in Bahrain or the UAE will be singing "Sunday morning, happy a day" from today onwards. The reasons are due to a law passed by the ministerial cabinet in both Bahrain and UAE to change the weekend from Thursday-Friday to Friday-Saturday.

In essence it means that Saturday, which occupied the distinction of being the most hated day in the week, will now pass that honour to Sunday. Those in the outside world, that is, anyone outside the Middle East will find it quite puzzling to see Sunday land in the same boat as Monday, but this is something we will be getting used to as well.

On the other hand, we've been so used to Thursday-Friday being our weekend that, it's likely that it'll take sometime for us to make a clean break and start accepting the new scheme of things. So till then, we'll continue thinking of Thursday as a rest day and Wednesday as the precursor to that much loved rest day, and as a result, there are less chances of large scale crankiness in the office because everyone would be more relaxed. Obviouslly, I'm being horribly idealistic because human nature usually finds a way to express its cranky side. But I shall remain hopeful, and till then, we'll have to sing the Sunday morning blues in unison.