Monday, January 30, 2006

A lonely little tree in Hawar


I saw this tree in Hawar and I was fascinated by the way it looked so dignified by standing the way it did. However, there was a problem. There were lot of distracting elements around the tree that, somehow, marred the view. But I clicked the picture anyway because of the tree and decided that I had to hire the services of the ever faithful Adobe Photoshop to restore the tree to my perception. So I decided to clone out the distracting elements, convert to black and white, increase the contrast a little bit and voila, I got my tree just the way I wanted it to be.

Those of you who don't know what Hawar is... well, it's a group of islands just off the southern coast of Bahrain and close to Qatar. Bahrain had a long running dispute with Qatar over these islands and the matter was even taken to the International Court of Justice but, a few years ago, after patiently hearing both sides of the argument the wisemen at the ICJ decided Bahrain had the rightful sovereignity over these islands.

Currently, only a small strip of this archipelago is accessible to the general public and it is in this area that the Hawar Resort has been constructed. The Bahrain Defence Force has authority over major parts of the island while a huge stretch of the islands are a no-go area because of environmental and nature conservation reasons.

Hawar might be one of the few unspoilt islands in Bahrain (and even Gulf, for that matter) because of the presence of extensive and rare flora and fauna. I saw gazelles in the wild over there and I am told that numerous migratory birds stop at one of the Hawar islands. I hope the islands stay this way and that some of these animals and birds won't suffer any disturbance in their habitat.

There is already a huge construction boom that is re-drawing the map of the region and creating concrete monsters everywhere. Now these buildings may have their benefits but I hope they do not encroach upon Hawar and spoil its natural wonders.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Chinese fried rice

I’ve just developed a very keen interest in cooking, and that means, I will be posting a lot of recipes now and then. I’ll try and post pictures as well but that’s not going to be a guarantee always. Maybe I could post videos of the cooking process and thereby experiment with ‘video blogging’ (or vblogging, as it is called).

Last week I prepared an authentic “Chinese fried rice” and I say ‘authentic’ because it tasted almost like the fried rice I ate in some restaurants in Hong Kong. Most of the Chinese restaurants the world over try to localise their cuisine and, hence, the “Chinese fried rice”, too, ends up in this makeover. Of course, the food served in Hong Kong is “Cantonese,” which is a lot blander than the somewhat spicier Mandarin or Schezwan cuisine.

Anyway, this just goes to show that Chinese food is not a monolithic entity as people assume it to be but as different ‘types’ like what we have in Indian food, western food and even American. But more on all this, some other time.

Coming back to my Chinese fried rice, here is it…

All you need is a wok, a frying pan, some leftover rice, egg, and an assortment of mixed vegetables, capsicum, shredded chicken, prawns, bacon or whatever. By the way, it has to be leftover rice and not freshly cooked.

Heat the wok and do NOT add oil, just let it heat. While the wok is being heated, fry the assortments in a frying pan and leave aside.

When you realise the wok is really, really hot, then, pour the leftover rice into the wok and add egg to the rice. Mix the egg with the rice very well and then add the fried assortments to it. Keep mixing it till you are somewhat satisfied with the result.

Don’t worry if it looks bland and so unlike all the Chinese fried rice you’ve tasted in many restaurants because this is the real McCoy or, the real Chang!!!

Add chilli or soya sauce to the rice or you can eat it sauce-less. But do try it out and tell me what you think.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Global plug

I received a surprise call the other day.

Mahmood Al-Yousif, the man behind Mahmood’s  Den, one of Bahrain’s most popular and most widely read and commented blogs, informed me that he stumbled upon my blog –  that is, the one you are reading right now – and decided to add a link to it on his site.

He, also, added that he has mentioned my blog in his weekly column for Global Voices, a US based international web-journal that -- to quote its mission statement – ‘is an international effort to diversify the conversation taking place online by involving speakers from around the world, and developing tools, institutions and relationships to help make these voices heard’.  

This is good news and bad news.

Good because it means this blog will have wider readership and make my writing and opinions accessible to a much wider audience. And bad because… I can no longer afford to be lazy and keep procrastinating all the time.

And finally, thanks Mahmood, for giving my blog the global plug!!!

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Lure of the Jebel

Bahrain doesn't have mountains, at least, none in the Himalayan sense of the term. What we have, instead, are hillocks in the southern half of the island that usually provide a pleasant backdrop to camping trips, desert barbecues and family outings. The highest 'peak' is Jabel Al Dukhan and though it isn't very high, nevertheless, it is steep, craggy and provides anyone who climbs it with a feeling of accomplishment. There was a time when one could stand atop this 'peak' and look at miles and miles of desert but, today, modern highways and even more modern buildings mar the landscape.

At the foot of Jebel Al Dukhan is Bahrain's first oil well which is historically significant to those interested in the turbulent world of Middle eastern economics and politics because it was here in 1930 that oil was first discovered not just in Bahrain but also in the entire Arabian Gulf. And it was some fifty years later that my school decided to pick this very location for an excursion.

Dr. Bhatt, our vice-principal and English composition teacher, told us that the trip would be part of an assignment and that we were to keep our eyes, ears and senses open to whatever we experienced. However, some of us were much more keen on exploring the Jebel Al Dukhan and enjoy a bit of the desert instead of staring at an oil well. that looked like a badly mangled see-saw. Besides, the fawning crowd of teachers' pets hovering around the vice-principal, the PR guy from the oil company and the accompanying teachers made staying there even more unbearable.

I took one step in the direction that my friends took but the plaque caught my eye. It was placed next to the oil-well and gave some additional historical data that the PR guy did not include in his explanation. So I did the next best thing. I sat there and jotted down all that was written on the plaque, and my slow handwriting did not help matters one bit.

Meanwhile, my wandering friends received a violent tongue lashing from one of the teachers when it was discovered that a few of them got bruises while trying to climb the peak. One has to carefully negotiate one’s path while tracing its rough and jagged contours or suffer scratches. None of them forgave me for leaving them alone to face the music and I had a lot of explanation to do afterwards. My 'dork' status, however, remained firmly intact because only a dork would find value in copying the plaque down.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Transluscence

You did not tell me those were tear drops
that stained your eyes, you blamed dust
and told me it was normal. I believed
your lie and then joked about things
that made you laugh and forget,
for a moment, the terrible pain
you carried inside so silently.

I nearly guessed the truth once
but your explanations were clever
and so beautifully wrapped in evasions
that I failed to understand things
and did not probe deeper into the hardness
of your self-defence, and instead
remained comfortably gullible.

But if I only knew, would I have acted
differently or even changed the course
of events completely? Maybe or maybe not,
but who knows? Time makes conjectures
such an easy and convenient exercise
like the poetry we read and write to seek
explanations for the inexplicable in life.

But I do know that, if nothing else, the flowers
on this stone would have sung a different song
because you would be sleeping more peacefully.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Cafe Serendipity - behind the scenes

unbelievable aesthetics glanced at me
across the murmuring tables, she seemed
cinnamon to my latte lips
with a hint of sugar that her companion
could not recognise; tumbling dow jones
defined his frame of mind and her silence
a pertinent question that hung in their air
like the in-house jazz tunes
no one else but the lonesome
bother to listen.

like ocean deep her eyes looked, blue
as the crying thought that often wails
like a saxophone and watery translucent
like a thought yearning to express; as if to say
life really needs to be more decaf sometimes,
an idea so alien in this place where we sat
like formless steam that disappears from quenching mugs
into the nether world of casual glances
and the paradise of what-ifs.


I would have been a prodigy but I ended up being lazy. I started writing poems when I was 16 and was relentless in my poetic output for almost ten years. I wrote all manner of poems (even a poetry play) and some even got me awards, and recognition. Teachers, friends, grown-ups thought I had a promising future, and probably I did. But then, I stopped writing all of a sudden. No poetry, no plays, nothing.

This famine lasted almost ten to twelve years during which the only thing I wrote were advertising campaigns, brochures, press releases, corporate film scrips, radio jingles and other forgettable corporate communication materials. However, in the agencies that I worked I had a brief stint as a "Cyranno-for-hire" when colleagues asked me to write 'love-poems' for their girlfriends. I must have written quite a few such poems and I have no idea whether or not those poems achieved their goal. But they did help me exercise my poetry writing skills and for that I am grateful.

Now it wasn't as if I was totally off poetry. I wrote one or two poems but since these were a handful I don't think they really count. There were others that I began writing but didn't finish. In fact, my folder has many such unfinished poems that just lay there because I wasn't satisfied with something or the other in them. And since I wasn't very poetically motivated at the time, I did not work on any of them.

But then, two or three years ago, I began to feel a little guilty about neglecting poetry and creative writing, and felt that I had to be more serious about returning to this old passion. I was at Starbucks with some friends and while drinking coffee and chatting with them, I noticed this couple sitting across at the other end of the hall. They didn't speak a single word to each other but the way they interacted spoke volumes about their relationship. I pointed them out to my friends who thought I was a little crazy to make assumptions. Others agreed with some of my 'conclusions' and added their own assumptions.

Later that night I thought about what I saw and felt compelled to write about it. I knew only a poem could do justice to what I experienced and began the onerous task of writing a poem again. I was so mesmerised by the Starbucks experience and wanted to write a poem that would captivate what I felt that evening. It must have taken me ten to fifteen or more drafts (they usually do anyway), and finally I had a poem that I felt happy about.

I may not have returned to the prolific writing of my earlier years but "Cafe Serendipity" did make me return to writing poetry all over again. Since then I have written quite a few poems and some I haven't finished - and maybe I won't - but it is unlikely that I'll ever return to the famine again.

Moral of the story: going to the mall can actually be very good for your poetry.

By the way... My first title for this poem was "Starbucks" but then I felt I didn't want to use my poetry to publicise some coffee company for free, and so came up with "Cafe Serendipity".

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Magpie

A little urchin comes with three glasses of tea and a few biscuits, and the two men promptly place it on the bare ground. The young girl with the timid smile hands me my glass and whispers, "go on, tell us more, we like to know more."

I look at her and at the two men who now seem rather insistent on knowing as much as possible about me. I begin to wonder about their motives, and at their curiosity that brought them here to me. Maybe they are simply showing kindness to an old man. Maybe they really want to know about past. Or just maybe, this is all a joke for them and that they'll laugh about it afterwards over a drink.

I dip the biscuits in the tea and make a loud slurping sound that unnerves the young girl. She must be very delicate as a princess, I thought, there must be people around her that must be constantly protecting her from the cruelties of the world.

"Uncle?"

My thoughts are broken by this term of endearment that suddenly seems to bring back a past that I thought I had forgotten. My throat goes dry as I remember the last person who called me an 'uncle' so many, many years ago.

"Uncle? Do you want some more tea?"

The young girl reminded me of my niece and, quite instinctively, I reply, "yes, my little magpie, bring me some tea, please."

I used to call her magpie because she would scream and holler whenever she saw one. She used to think that magpies were messengers of the great wizard who lived beyond the river. And that screaming at them somehow reduced their power.

We don't know how she came up with this story but it amused us each time she talked about the evil magpies. Once I even took her to the forest and hunted down a magpie and showed her that it was an ordinary bird. She seemed unconvinced and was only comforted by my presence as she felt the wizard could do her no harm when her uncle was with her.

"Next time you see a magpie, you must a sing song as loud as you possibly can," I told her because she sang really well and thought that this would distract her from her fear.

"Will it thwart the evil designs of the wizard?" she asked with the seriousness of a child on the verge of a major discovery.

"If you sing with your heart and soul, yes, anything is possible," I told her and wondered if this was the right thing to do.

And so, everyday when she saw the magpies she would sing songs day in and day out. She would sing about love, laughter, loss and pain. She would sing songs about kings and queens, prophets and seers, evil courtiers and viziers. She would sing songs that would melt hard hearts and soften them with her melody.

Soon even the magpies disappeared from the village but her singing continued, and everyone who heard her believed it was the voice of an angel. People would flock from far and wide just to hear her and, some even said, that her singing brought peace to their hearts.

But one day, the singing stopped as my niece disappeared from the village. Some said that she was kidnapped by the marauders and others said that she had ran away to the city. Some had stories to share that only made us more miserable but...

"Uncle, aren't you going to tell us a story?'

The three people waited and I wondered if I should just tell them about my missing magpie. Will it help to bring her back? Will it bring back the melody? Will it, at least, bring me the inner peace that I lost so many years ago?

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Dark Woman

I brush the carpet with my open palm off all things vile and plonk gently. looking around, hoping to catch attention, the left hand brings the sheesha cord to my mouth. i take a budbudbud long drag, " go on, please tell me that story of the dark woman you met in your travels to the blue hills. there is so much to learn from the tales you weave."
Arjun


The young man was curious. I could see it in his eyes and in the way he pulled the sheesha cord to his mouth. He was not like the others who
simply drop a coin, pick the bananas from the basket and walk away.

He wanted to know, really know, about the stories of my past, about my unspoken tales of valour and unsung songs of conquest. I wondered, however, whether he'd tire easily with my long-winded tales and return to his sheesha with the effortlessness of a man easily bored.

"But why do you want to know?" I asked him and watched eartnestly as his face twisted into a melange of expressions as he searched for the right reason.

"I don't know," he replied, "I just... don't know"

"Good enough reason," I tell him, "curiosity and certainty can never go together. Bring me the sheesha and I'll tell you everything."

I inhaled it deep and took a long drag from the bubbling cauldron. The rancid air of the marketplace suddenly turned into an explosion of vanilla and strawberry and my mind slowly wandered into the blue hills where I had first met the dark woman.

It was unusually cold that year as I climbed the blue hills and fought the mist that stood before me like an ever receding wall. We were told that the marauders that raided our village hid their plunder in a cave somewhere atop these hills. I volunteered to find out if this was true or just a silly story concocted by frightened men from the nearby village. But the mist made it hard for me to walk any further and so I stopped and sat on a rock.

I waited for almost two to three hours for the mist to clear but nothing seemed to happen. I found myself being slowly swallowed by the fog and, for the first time in my life, I felt a sense of fear come over me.

“Do you want to go up the hill?”

It was a woman’s voice and it came from the direction of a soft light that became brighter and brighter as it approached me. It was a young dark woman with piercing brown eyes that seemed to clutch at me with its hawk like gaze. I felt immobilised as I looked at her. She held a lantern in one hand and with the other wrapped herself in a thick blanket made of animal skin.

"You will not go anywhere if you just sit there on that rock," she muttered, "you better come with me if you want to reach your destination."

"How did you know that I want to go up the hill?" I asked her but instead of answering my question, she simply made me hold the lantern while she wrapped the blanket around me and made me share its warmth with her.

I could not utter a word as we walked together through the mist and negotiated our way through its foggy stillness. I wanted to break the silence and ask her who she was, why and how she stumbled on my path and what she intended to do at the end of our journey. I just wanted to know who this woman could be so that it would somehow satisfy my curiosity and explain why I felt so drawn towards her.

I had heard many stories of phantom women that prowled these hills preying on the vulnerabilities of complacent men. Maybe she was someone like that, I wondered, and maybe, she planned to kill me at the end of our journey.

"You don't need to be afraid," she whispered as if she was reading my thoughts as we walked along, "I am as real as this blanket covering us."

"You seem to have a talent in reading my mind," I told her and saw her smile as she inched closer towards me, making me wonder if she was reading more than I wanted to give away.

"I am taking you back to the bottom of the hill and to the road that will take you back to your village," she said in a matter of fact tone that suggested she was not willing to hear any arguments.

I wasn't ready to give up that easily because, after all, I had come this far and how could I return empty-handed.

"You will tell the villagers that there was no treasure in the hills and that your trip was futile," her body brushed against mine while she said these words and I felt my determination slowly ebb away.

"But I came all the way here," I protested but she stopped me from speaking any further as her mouth came close to mine as she said, "now you need to go back."

We walked in silence as I contemplated my next of plan of action -- if she was a man I would have killed her by now and would have pursued the buried treasure. But this was a woman -- and a very attractive woman at that, too -- and I felt extremely helpless by my inexplicable urge to agree with her.

We walked a little more and finally I saw the road that would lead me back to my village loom ahead of me. She removed the blanket off my back and tells me that it was time for both of us to part ways.

"But who are you?" I asked the question that was raging in my mind from the moment I first saw her but she said nothing and only smiled, "but I need to know who you are."

She simply turned, walked away and disappearred into the mist.

"And did you ever see her again?" The young man asked as he took another long drag of the sheesha.

I could only smile halfheartedly at this young man's question because some questions, like some answers, are not easy to give.