Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year

I can't believe that 2008 is round the corner. It just seems like only yesterday when I celebrated 2007's arrival. If I'm not mistaken, I remember expressing the same thoughts last year, the year before and the one before that. It appears that each year passes so quickly that even before we are able to catch our breath... another new year celebration is round the corner.

So a very happy new year to all of you who read my blog, and many blessings to all of you in the coming year.

May the year ahead be filled with peace on earth, happiness at a deeper level, desires fulfilled, goals achieved and dreams realised... may you have wonderful relationships with people you interact with, and may you find time to be a blessing to those you meet.

And let me end my new year greeting with these words of St.Paul that helped and inspired me in the year that has gone by. These words provided me with an incentive to love people like I've never loved before, and to do so with a different set of paradigm that proved to be life affirming and empowering experience. Besides with the kind of terrorism rampant in the world today, insane war mongering that goes on and senseless assasinations of political leaders, I felt that this passage is that much more relevant and necessary in the context of current news and events.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails

Not sure if love is the answer for 2008, but hey, it could be the necessary first step.

Chewing the couch potato

Back to my series of India essays. Just three-four more to go.

My five-year old nephew made a profound statement.

I was watching this news channel that will not be named because I'm in a good mood but let me just drop a hint: it is part of a global media conglomerate. How foxy can I get?

I had the remote in my hands and was busy zapping away, and then stopped at this particular news channel that I'm talking about and was watching it for a while. There was some totally insignificant event that was receiving the 'breaking news' treatment and I was aghast at this celebration of the trivial, so to speak. I shouldn't have been surprised because this channel is available in the Gulf through the Pehla platform and I've never had the kindest words to say about it.

My complaint has been that this news channel never tackles anything serious or substantive, and instead, gives importance to news events that are of tabloid-y nature. And just as I was watching one such insignificant 'news' (for want of a better word) and chuckling at the serious expression on the anchor's face that my nephew suddenly blurted out, 'they show cartoons on this news channel.'

I burst out laughing at my nephew's statement because, unknowingly, the youngster managed to get to the very heart of this issue. Of course, his interest was in the fact that he 'discovered' another channel that shows cartoons and was excited about telling me that, but I realised there was much more to what he said than just that whopeee comment.

Now why am I making such a big deal out of this?

Well, while in India, I've been watching a few of the news channels as well as some of the other entertainment channels, and one of my favourite presumptions have been shattered. Let me rewind a little. Back in the 80s when I was in Bombay for my higher studies, there was only Doordarshan, the government owned and managed television channel that broadcast entertainment programmes at a specific time in the evening, showed news that always favoured the political party in power and had a whole load of public service programmes that were badly produced. The channel was so boring that almost everyone that I knew hoped that television would one day pass into private hands so that the audience would, at least, be spared propaganda masquerading as news.

Now that was my presumption, too. I always thought that - and in a sense I still do - governments should not be involved in being gatekeepers to 'information'. There is a decidedly totalitarian ring to it that should have died with the Soviet Union but somehow still lingers in various guises even today. Alright. I'm going off tangent here and, maybe, I need to cover this topic in a separate post altogether. But that's the point. Like many others, even I felt that competition and diversity in channels might be the answer everyone is looking for.

In fact, at the recently held Arab Strategies for the Global Era - Fikr6 Conference, organised by the Arab Thought Foundation at the Ritz Carlton Bahrain from 1st to 3rd December 2007, most of the panelists at the media seminar were quite clear about the need to abolish the ministry of information in Arab countries. The reasoning was that such a ministry was irrelevant in this day and age, and that it should be revamped to serve today's needs.

However, a cursory glance at some of the Indian news channels made me wonder if this is really the answer to the problem. I'm not sure if detaching the ministry of information's hold on television in general and news, in particular, is really the sole solution. Apparently, if available evidence is any indicator, then, privatising the news hasn't really addressed the core issues as it should have. The solution, as it were, isn't really in who owns the news channels but rather in uncovering what really drives the editorial department of these news channels. It is in understanding these drivers will we manage to make sense of the situation, and provide the necessary explanation, as it were.

It is quite vital that we understand this focus especially in the context of India's possible emergence as an economic superpower in the 21st Century and to understand why major global media players are making a beeline to the country. Context is an apt word to consider in such a discussion because it helps in comparing the former scenario where only one government owned network ruled the roost and to see it in line with today's television scenario where multiple players are involved in seducing the viewer's eyeballs.

If we rewind a little, then, we'll see that not much has really changed. If in the earlier dispensation the government owned network pandered to the whims and fancies of the political party in power, then, today's private networks pander to the dubious monster of the market forces. In short, both pander and both do so to an amorphous entity whose chief duty in life is to be the network's prime source of financing.

The trivial approach to news that existed when television was Doordarshan revolved around the need to preserve an avenue for propaganda and ensure that a more agreeable and party-friendly perspective was broadcast to helpless viewers. Of course, truth was, often, a casualty in this kind of editorial approach and viewers missed out on views from the opposition benches as well as debates on really uncomfortable issues like poverty, inequality and injustice. These were not touched upon because such views would show the political party in power to be a weak and ineffective force, and hence only a rosy world view was shown as news.

The same approach is followed by the news channels that I talked about... their compulsions are different from that of the government media because their raison d'etre lies in ensuring that the channel remains advertiser friendly and manages to secure maximum viewers possible. Hence, the trivial news that left me exasperated was just another step in ensuring that the channel's TRP ratings remain high. It is assumed that sensationalism, dumbing down, sting journalism and celebrity worship are the easiest tickets to maximise viewers and, most importantly, maximise revenue as well.

So in a sense, not much has really changed if one goes only by what is avoided and not merely by what is tackled. Hard news that tackles uncomfortable realities are not given the platform they deserve because they raise questions that no one wants to answer. And in the unlikely scenario that these realities do get a platform, then, it is done so with a dose of sensationalism, sound bites, visual bites and all the razzmatazz possible.

At the end of the day, it is all about preserving myths. If the government owned Doordarshan managed - rather clumsily - to preserve the myth of the ruling party's success, then, the private networks that survive on the advertiser's purse strings adopt slick methods to preserve what constitutes their own favourite myths. Hence, issues like farmer suicides, rich-poor divide, dalit problems, ill-effects of consumerism in rural India (and for that matter in urban India as well) are not given the importance they deserve because undue focus on these issues would simply sully the myth of an economically resurgent India.

Now let me add that when I'm using the word 'myth' I'm not using it as a 'fairy-tale' or some such thing, but in its other definition of being 'an exaggerated or idealised conception of a person or a thing.' In this context, it is necessary to clarify that I'm not casting any doubts on the Indian economic success story but raising concern that in the rush to praise this success, other realities are not seriously looked into. It is important that they are examined because not doing so - or doing so half heartedly - will have negative repercusions in years to come.

It is rather sad that private news channels that possess the means to do something about it are not doing enough. There are talented journalists who can do the necessary reporting, and there are scoop worthy stories waiting to be written and broadcast... so why the hesitancy?

I've already answered that question, and so I won't bother repeating myself. It's just tragic that even someone as young as my nephew managed to discover that there is no news in these news channels.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The late Benazir Bhutto

Benazir Bhutto is dead. A suicide bomber decided to blow himself up, and in the process, kill this young and dynamic political leader and weaken the democratic movement in Pakistan. It is a tragedy at many levels. On a more basic level, a wife, a mother, a daughter has lost her life but on a more broader scale, it has added a degree of uncertainty not just to the elections but, also, to the possibility of democracy returning to the country.

It is still not sure who the assassins were, and it could be anyone at all. Some have placed the blame on President Musharaff and his supporters in the military, but I find that hard to believe. I don't think anyone in an official position would be so brazen about his distaste for an opposition leader and come up with a 'final solution'. Of course, this is not always the case because Benazir's own father was 'hanged' by the legal courts of the late Zia ul Haq and though I was a youngster back then I do remember reading in the papers that no one quite believed in the verdict.

But all said and done, Benazir's death seems far more tragic than that of her father's. At least, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto lived longer, made mistakes, had time to reflect on them and even pass on his legacy to someone else. Benazir was not given this opportunity. Perhaps her years in exile gave her enough time to reflect on the corruption charges and other mistakes that she made, but now we wouldn't know. If she was elected, she could have been a much better and more effective prime minister and maybe, even toned down her stridency and softened her shrill rhetoric but that, again, is left to conjecture.

This is, exactly, why suicide bombers and assassins irritate me the most. They rob a person's potential to be what they could be, and instead punish them for deeds that may or may not have been repented of, and even, deliberately erased from the person's moral landscape. These assassinations operate on a premise that the assassin exists on a high moral ground and has the sole prerogative to decide that the targeted person is unworthy of second chances.

Benazir Bhutto was young. If she had lived longer, she could have been a better politician than before and, maybe, even a more successful prime minister. But we'll never know, and that's the real tragedy. And till then, it is Pakistan that will suffer the most and the assassination will provide greater incentive for the military to remain in power and delay any possibilities of real democracy being firmly established in the political landscape. Emergency might be re-imposed for the greater good, and who knows, even martial law might be introduced to preserve peace and harmony or some such thing.

It's just that it is so easy to expect the worst, and let's pray that it won't be so. After all, when such crisis occurs, it is not the ruling elite who suffer the most, but it is always the ordinary people who battle each day to make ends meet. These Pakistanis deserve better, and let's pray that they do.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas... and some peace, too

Let me give a Christmas break to my India essays because, well, it is Christmas after all... and soulful pondering over larger issues that matter can wait for a day or two.

Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, a city that was occupied back then as it is now even two thousand years later. More things change more they remain the same? It is amazing that Christ - the Prince of Peace - was born in a place that was torn by violence, and the current history of his place of birth is no different. Violence seems to have taken over the narrative and peace-mongers are deemed unfashionable by numerous people.

It is in this context that Christmas seems so relevant - and yet strangely out of sync with current trends. Christ's message of love, peace, forgiveness, mercy find no takers and those with the loudest voices seem to be screaming words of hate, revenge and war in the highest decibel possible. In many ways, their message appears to make sense because they appeal to those whose world-view is limited to the immediate. However, we need to question this premise and ask... is this all there is to it?

Christ has said, 'those who live by the sword die by the sword', and our news provides ample evidence of this to be true. Those who initiate war and terrorism may appear strong and fierce, but it's a hollow triumph they celebrate because they are caught up in a vicious cycle of violence. And they do not even seem eager to think differently because they are victims of their own lopsided and violent paradigms.

Now just to give you some context as to why this war mongering makes no sense, let me just list some statistics here and you can make your decision.

The global military expenditure has been $1,100 billion (rest of the world: $500 billion, US: 623 billion, China: $65 billion, Russia: $50 billion, France: $45 billion, UK: $ 42.8).

Now I'm not interested in finger-pointing at individual countries and asking why they are so obsessed with their military expenditure because I'm sure strategic compulsions are the driving force behind this budget. However, let's try and look at other statistics, too, and see if money could have been spent better elsewhere.

Here are some facts on hunger that should make interesting reading:
+ 854 million people across the world are hungry, up from 852 million a year ago.
+ Every day, almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes--one child every five seconds
+ Today our world houses 6.55 billion people.
+ In 2004, almost 1 billion people lived below the international poverty line, earning less than $1 per day.
+ In the developing world, 27 percent of children under 5 are moderately to severely underweight. 10 percent are severely underweight. 10 percent of children under 5 are moderately to severely wasted, or seriously below weight for one’s height, and an overwhelming 31 percent are moderately to severely stunted, or seriously below normal height for one’s age.
+ In 2006, 4.3 million people become infected with HIV and 2.9 million people died of AIDS.

Now we are often told that poverty breeds terrorism, or rather, those who live deprived lives find it easier to resort to terrorism of any kind... just to better their lives. Obviously, I don't agree with this premise, but I do feel that if $1,001 billion are available for military expenses... suppose even a fraction of that amount was diverted towards health care, education, food production and distribution and other poverty eradication methods... would it make any difference?

On that note, let me wish you all a very merry Christmas... and may the Prince of Peace rule the hearts of policy makers and decision makers so that we can, together with the angels sing: peace on earth and goodwill to all

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Cafe Déjà vu

One of my favourite spots in Bahrain is the little corner at The Coffee Bean in Juffair where I take my little Macbook, browse the net, do some work, read some magazines, meet friends or... simply sit back and enjoy their wide selection of tea, coffee and muffins or biscoti. It has to be either of the two because, well, dunked biscotis taste yum, and muffins are muffins after all.

Costas in the new Seef mall extension or the one in Adliya are other favourites and Starbucks in Juffair comes a close third, but since the place is usually very noisy I don't mind giving it a miss whenever I can. But all said and done, I enjoy these places for the sanctuary they provide in the midst of the hurly burly of life aka the average working week.

Hence, during my trip to Bombay and Poona, I had to seek out some of the local variations since none of my favourites have opened their outlets in India as yet. There is a talk of Starbucks making a presence in the near future but I've no idea as to when it will be, or if at all. In any case, I'll be curious to know if Starbucks' entry manages to upset the coffee-shop applecart, which seems to be currently dominated by either Barista or Cafe Coffee Day.

And so, one Sunday night, when I realised that a particularly urgent assignment required my attention, I decided that the Cafe Coffee Day outlet near Ferguson College in Poona would provide the necessary ambience. After all, the previous night that I was in Bombay I had gone to Barista for a late night cuppa with a friend and I wasn't disappointed. There is nothing more comforting than sinking into a plush coffee shop type sofa and get absorbed in one's work.

And it was then that it occurred to me. Just like that. Right there in the coffee-shop while I was sipping my Assam tea and typing away my assignment. My eureka moment without the need to streak.

I realised that the reason why I felt a familiar tug while sitting in Cafe Coffee Day, or for that matter, in Barista, was because these outlets reminded me of Coffee Day, Costas and Starbucks. This sense of déjà vu was made possible because there was the same manufactured comfortable ambience, same type of desserts and drinks, same type of attendants with their well rehearsed glee, and even the same type of fashionable looking crowd sitting around as if they own the place.

Of course, this was not an original epiphany.

It was in Edinburgh, while sitting in a mall not far from Princes Street, that the idea first occurred to me. The mall had the same design elements that one sees in malls the world over, and even the retail outlets included the usual suspects one finds in high end malls anywhere at all. I realised that I could be in a mall in Bahrain, Dubai, Hong Kong, US or even... Bombay or Poona, and not necessarily, in Edinburgh itself.

Delhi based writer and consultant Anita Vasudeva described this phenomenon quite accurately when she called it a 'global samedom' in an article posted on Caferati. This sameness, one must agree, provides a template for the sense of déjà vu one experiences while dining, shopping and travelling anywhere in the world. For some people, it is a good thing because it introduces the familiar in strange lands. But on the other hand, despite the merits of retaining a homogeneous sheen to the urban landscape, it also takes away a sense of individuality and uniqueness that would, otherwise, characterise any city.

Maybe I'm being unnecessarily critical of these 'sameness-es' because, after all, there is a marketing rationale behind it, and this 'sameness' helps in maintaining a singular message in corporate communication vehicles and, also, in strengthening brand properties globally. Consumers benefit from this approach because it helps them identify their favoured brand and speed up their purchasing decision. So far so good. But does it really happen that way? Are people actually given more choices? Or are they limited by a few brands that simply possess the resources to have that massive reach? What about smaller brands that might be high on quality but lack the means to go global? Should they die on the altar of sameness while we explain their demise on the old Darwinian dictum: 'survival of the fittest'?

I'm not sure what would be the most convenient answers to these questions, but I couldn't help having mixed feelings while travelling around Bombay and Poona. An Indian in Bahrain had told me a few months ago, 'oh you could everything there now', and everything meant all the big brands that we are familiar with. My first reaction was, does that mean there is progress? It is true that Indians in India have embraced consumerism in a big way, and their shopping basket includes much of the same brands that people the world over purchase. I suppose the Indian in me would love to see more Indian brands making a huge splash and possessing the same popular appeal like, say, Toyota, Sony or even Coke? Perhaps that day will have its moment of glory and, maybe, Tata's deal with Land Rover and Jaguar might pave the way for Indian companies to go global more aggressively... who knows?

However, all said and done, will it be possible to retain some individuality in the process, at least, in customer service? Why should attendants in Cafe Coffee Day resemble their counterparts in Starbucks or Coffee Bean? Why should diversity create more of the same?

Only time will tell, and till then, let's enjoy the latte.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Bombay goes dark

Just when one got overwhelmed by all the noise, grime and the frenetic pace of life here in Bombay, here's a ray of hope that somehow restores faith in humanity.

Tonight, from 7:30 pm to 8:30 pm, a group of people have initiated a 'movement' to increase awareness on global warming. What they have planned to do or, rather, what they hope to achieve is to get all the Bombayites to switch off their lights for one hour.

Apparently, HBO and Channel [V] have, also, agreed to go off air during the entire duration of this hour. Let me just copy paste some information from the website because it would explain things a lot better than I can.

Batti Bandh is an entirely voluntary event taking place on the 15th of December between 7:30 & 8:30 p.m. This event is aimed at requesting all of Mumbai to stand up for a cause that is greater than all of us. All you need to do is switch off lights and appliances in your home, shop, office, school, college or anywhere you are for 1 hour to take a stand against global warming. Just 1 hour.

What will this 1 hour do? This 1 hour for just 1 day is not our only aim. This 1 hour is to set an example to the world, to every person who witnesses it, to show that together we can make a difference. This 1 hour will save a lot of electricity as well as pollution and if done regularly can go a long way in reducing pollution that is released by electricity plants as well.

We were inspired by a similar event recently held in Sydney, Australia, called Earth Hour. In Sydney, 2.2 million people participated. Their one hour of lights out meant that 24.86 tons of carbon dioxide were not released into the air - the equivalent of taking 48,613 cars off the road. We are a city of more than 20 million people. Let this number be motivation enough to show that we can make a difference. Unplug Mumbai. Do this for every child who otherwise will never have the opportunity to witness snow capped Himalayas or the glorious tigers and lions or the sun kissed beaches of Goa. Because if we dont unplug from our ways now, nothing will remain the same. Batti Bandh.


For those who are unfamiliar with Hindi, batti bandh means 'lights off' (batti: bulb, bandh: close)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Indian impressions

I am visiting India after three years, but it seems like a completely different place than what I remember in 2004. There is an enormous energy resonating all across, and the enthusiasm is almost palpable wherever you go. Alright, now that sounds like a superlative but so far I've only been to Bombay and Poona and I've felt the same excitement in both the places.

Obviously, it doesn't make sense to draw conclusions about a country by a mere visit to two cities, but these cities did give me a peek into what the country is all about these days, and its future direction as well.

My last visit to Poona was in 1990 or thereabouts, and though it was a big city back then, it still had a somewhat laidback look about it. Lot of bicycles, motorcycles, few cars, lots of greenery, but now there were very few bicycles and so many cars jostling for space and traffic jams that were causing bottlenecks almost at every major traffic signal.

Bombay is no different to this situation as it has been a big and prominent city for a far longer duration, and most Indian cities appear to hold 'Bombay' as their benchmark. Whether or not that is a wise thing to do is a matter of conjecture for urban development professionals because, for better or for worse, most cities seem to imbibe the worst of Bombay and forget to imitate the city's positive aspects, namely, the self reliance and the entrepreneur zeal that does not seek government patronage for anything.

Another interesting thing I have learned is that salaries have shot up sky high in the past few years, and there is a lot of wealth and purchasing power in the hands of the middle-class. The prevalence of major brands and swanky malls is another clear indicator that the new religion of consumerism has managed to set up its massive temples here as well.

As a lifelong expat Indian, these observations make one think twice about a lot of things. It is clear that India is headed towards greater economic strength, and when that happens, where does that place us -- that is, Indians who have lived in the Gulf all their lives -- in this present scenario.

Do we still stay here in Bahrain and other countries in the Gulf with meagre salaries, and watch our compatriots earn lot more in India? Do we miss out on the excitement that's surely ours in an economy that is headed towards the ionosphere? Do we sacrifice promised vibrancy for safety, however, dubious it may seem?

I have found myself asking these questions while wandering the streets of both the cities, and I have to admit that it has made me question many of my favourite rationales. Many of my friends have reached heights of success and carved out names for themselves in ways that wouldnt have been possible if they were in Bahrain. Yes. That is certainly an enviable situation and one that would make anyone question everything.

However, when all the points and counter-points are considered and re-considered, one thing is clear. If making money was the only reason why we were here in Bahrain and the Gulf, then, surely, we would take the first flight to India like many US based professionals are doing at the moment.

But for us who have lived in Bahrain and the Gulf our entire lives, the Gulf is not just a place where we earn our bread and butter, it is 'home' in a very vague sense of the term. I dare say 'vague' because the countries where we reside in can never be 'home' in the true sense of the term because we are not nationals. And on the other hand, India can not be truly 'home' because we havent lived there our entire lives, and hence, the emotional bonding we have is a feeling acquired from our parents and from the cultural underpinnings that have defined our mental makeup all these years.

Obviously, the sense of belonging we feel towards Bahrain and other Gulf countries we have grown up in, is partly because, we have seen these countries transform into modern metropolises right before our very eyes. We do feel a sense of pride when we look at these changes, and it is, without doubt, a very natural response.

But is this sense of pride the same thing as calling something 'home'?

I still dont have the answer to that question because, even today, I'm still wrestling with it. I do have a 'hometown' listed in my passport, a hometown that I left when I was four years old, a hometown where most of the people I was close to are now in the cemetry, a hometown that only gives me a sense of identity and nothing else.

But is that the same as 'home'?

Home is where the 'heart' belongs, or so the cliche goes... and where does the expat's heart resonate? Does the expat have a heart in the first place, as some people here ponder derisively. Or are there layers in the heart that the expat - or for that matter, the human mind - has still not able to clearly fathom?

Obviously, I haven't cracked the code as far as these questions are concerned, and am not sure if I ever will or even would want to. Somehow I'm satisfied with this vague sense of belonging I've been accustomed to since childhood. If I'm suddenly thrust into making a choice would be really hard because I'd finally have to decide on something or the other.

But one thing I do know, and that is, Miraj (my official hometown) will definitely have a place in my heart because this is where my parents and grandparents lived, However, Bahrain will always be 'home' even if I leave the country and settle somewhere else in the future. Miraj might be the town where I was born, but Bahrain was the place where I grew up, did my schooling, had my first crush, suffered my first heartbreak, learned to appreciate art and writing, made lifelong friends, acquired a sense of identity and purpose, and became a man.

So where do I belong? Do I need to belong anywhere? Is there any need to?

Questions that do not have easy answers, however, hard we may try to analyse them.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Waiting Room

There was a time – not so long ago – when a waiting room was meant to be just that, a place where one waits. It was never made clear as to what one is waiting for or how long one must wait. All one had to do was to park oneself on any of the uncomfortable benches arranged symmetrically in the room, pick some outdated magazines and read them if one is bored, or stare at a TV screen tuned to a channel that no one ever watches.

In such a situation, waiting seemed to be the most sensible thing to do, or rather, the only thing to do.

It was a situation that, undoubtedly and I’m sure accidentally, produced scholars and philosophers who would never have found their life’s purpose if it wasn’t for these waiting rooms.

Imagine being confined to a room that demands nothing from you except that you wait… for whatever it is you are supposed to wait for. I’m sure it summoned up strengths that one never imagined one possessed because, well, what else can one do? Ideas, thoughts, theories were just darting across the room like flies and all one had to do was tap into them, that’s all.

Of course, no one likes to wait because human nature wants quick and easy resolution. Or rather, that’s what we imagine human nature wants since that is how our world-view is shaped by the sultans of the rat race.

The persistently impatient, however, have no time for philosophising on the merits of the waiting game. This group, of which I happen to be a member, believes that point A must leap-frog to point B, point C, point D and so on and so forth. There has to be logic and symmetry to ever cause and reaction.

Things have to move in a progressive order, and preferably, in a linear fashion. Lateral progressions, or even ones that take a circuitous route are cute, and worth talking about over cups of coffee any day. But to see that approach bulldoze its way into our life-decisions is something most of us like to avoid. It is not comfortable. It is not easy. It is just beyond the paradigms we are familiar with. It just demands us to sit and… think.

Now that’s a road most of us pay lip service to because we don’t like to imagine what might transpire when we actually sit down and think. Suppose we come eyeball to eyeball with our worst fears? Suppose we are forced to deal with issues that have scarred our mental make-up? Suppose we are made to remember the things we like to forget?

Questions that somehow make their presence felt, and it takes either nerves of steel or mustard-seed type of faith to stare into this whirlwind and emerge with some answers, of sorts. It’s hard, but necessary, and like all things essential… crucial to our eventual growth.

But for that to happen, one has to wait, wait and wait.

It is not a coincidence that this piece was written in Sharjah International Airport where I was waiting six hours for my connecting flight to Mumbai. I have to add that this philosophical pondering were forced upon because there is no proper seating arrangement and absolutely no Internet facility in this ‘international’ airport… none whatsoever. I will rant about this in some other post, but let me say this on record: “Sharjah Airport, please get serious.” That feels a whole lot better.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Vantage Points

I am sitting here in this coffee shop like I always do these days. I could be here for the ambience, but that would seem grossly exagerrated. Coffee shops dont thrive on ambience alone. They are frightfully homogenous and that includes the comfortable chair I am sitting on and the pretty picture I'm staring at.

Or could it be the hot chocolate and Earl Grey that I like to order along with a biscotti and a chocolate chip cookie. But there is nothing fundamentally different about these drinks and the goodies I eat. I could be in Starbucks or Costas or Coffee Bean, and eating/ drinking the same darn thing. The hard work they put in to make it seem 'home-made' is laughable if one was generally cynical, but one ignores these minor flaws.

We just eat and drink and appreciate the not so perfectly round cookies because they seem homely, and the baristas appear cheerful whenever they see us. Of course, we like to think that its because of 'us' and not because of what we bring to the establishment.

However, of late, I've developed a wicked interest in these coffee shops. And no, it has nothing to do with fondness for coffee, and true as it may be, it has nothing to do with the faulty Internet service I've been receiving from my erstwhile ISP.

Of course, the poor service is my 'official' reason for being here, but that's not really true. I am here, also, because I want to be here. I like being here. I enjoy being here because of the shameless 'people-watching' that I can do here. I kid you not... it's an anthropological goldmine!

Just the other day, I saw a gigolo-ish kind of man being wooed by three attractive middle-aged and, rather, wealthy Filipinas. It was a sad sight. Here was this smart dude trying to comment on these women's looks and making some silly jokes. And these ladies were laughing at these jokes as if they had just heard the funniest joke of the century.

Then there was this couple who were engrossed in their own world even though they were sitting together. It's amazing how a space of few inches can seem a mile apart when lack of affection forces a distance.

And that day when I went to this obscure coffee shop in a mall located downtown, I couldn't understand what was going on between this young teenaged boy and a middle aged man who seemed to be doting on him. There was something decidedly unnatural about their interaction and though I suspected the worst, I was alarmed at my own sense of imagining it to be so.

But what I like most are families. They are always such a wonderful sight. Parents and children joking and teasing each other. Father and mother exchanging appreciative glances, and the sense of belonging that all of them share with each other. One cant help smiling when the little ones are let loose and they come and tap a chair near where I am. The parents expect me to smile at their little one's antics, and I dont like to disappoint them.

I imagine there is a story that is waiting to emerge from these observations. I can almost feel the inspiration pushing me to do something 'creative'. I imagine a series of short stories that could come out of these inspirations because every living being that I see here appears to be in a universe of his/ her own.

If coffee is the thread that binds them together, it is the epic nature of their existence (or so I believe), which gives them their power and sense of uniqueness. It gives me this vast canvas on which I see stories unfolding and tales just waiting to be told.

Question is, will I follow the muse or will I just sip my Earl Grey and continue doing nothing about it?

Sunday, October 07, 2007

It took a junta...

It's not like I had stopped blogging altogether but life intervened and there was nothing I could do about it. Priorities came in different shapes and sizes and lay claim on my time and made urgent demands. And on top of that, some major life changes had a somewhat seismic effect forcing me to go blog-less for more than two months.

It wasn't a conscious decision to disappear altogether from the blog scene because during this period I must have scored quite a record in coming up with nmerous 'unfinished posts.' I would start on a topic, stop for a while, and then forget all about it. Well, almost and not completely. The ideas would still hover like some uncontrollable itch and I'd ponder long and hard over all the underlying issues and sub-issues. So much for ideas. So much for the love of writing. So much for... well, the urge to speak out, as I keep telling people all the time whenever they ask me about the raison d'etre of blogging.

But then as it so happens, life (in the bigger sense of the word) has a way of pshing away even this convenient lethargy, and I found myself back to the drawing board and back to blog land. I guess sometimes one has to understand that there are bigger concerns out there in the world, and there are issues that are much bigger than the oyster we call 'our' life.

And yes it took a bunch of stupid, arrogant and obstinate military officials in Burma to make me realise that 'silence' is not, necessarily, the best option at all times. Sometimes we need to use the power of our words to express not only our resentment but also our opposition to their despotic rule. As a pacifist, I strongly believe that words have power and possess a degree of purity that guns and bombs do not, and hence writers and bloggers must use this alphabetic weapon to bring about change where it's required.

It's heartening to see that not just bloggers but activists and politicians world wide have finally woken up to the situation in Burma. Let's hope that this is not just another 'trend' that will die out till the next big politically cataclysmic event makes a huge splash. The Burmese people have suffered long enough and do not deserve to be treated as a trend. They need to experience freedom like everyone else. They need to go through the democratic circus like all other countries. They just need to live lives like everyone else because... well, why not?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

A certain something between lovers

I saw them again last night. They were pushing a trolley near the frozen food section at Megamart in Juffair. She had an animated expression on her face as her fingers scrutinised the ice-cream containers while he looked on at her with sunken eyes and a wide grin that spoke volumes about his intentions than anything else.

Two days ago, I had spotted them walking near Pizza Hut, his hand resting on her buttocks while she clasped his belt and made feeble attempts to pull him closer. I was struck by how oblivious she was to the world around as her gaze remained fixed lovingly on his impassive eyes that scanned the road for potential voyeurs he could glare at.

It was the way they interacted that intrigued me, and so when I saw them again last night I was amused to see that not much had changed. He still had that detached look about him, which she didn't seem to notice or even care. It was, as if, her entire world was standing next to her, and nothing else mattered as long as she was held by this man who, she believed, would care for her till she was old and decrepit.

There was that particular glow on her face which I've seen in countless women who are absolutely sure about the man they are deeply in love with. A glow that in the company of a right man has the potential of making a woman feel really alive. But the same glow in the company of an uncaring and insensitive man often leaves a woman shattered to the very core of who she is, and crippling her natural instincts to love.

But looking at him, I couldn't see the same level of interest or even passion. He seemed delighted in her company, and this was quite clear with the way he squeezed her arms, played with her hair and pinched her nose and ears now and then. But his self-consciousness was, also, evident since he couldn't help himself from checking out if anyone was watching them. I just couldn't figure out why he was acting so wary, and giving his woman his undivided attention didn't seem as important as checking the reaction of people in the vicinity.

I'm sure there was more to this couple than meets the eye. One can never really know. The life of strangers is a story we can only assume and concoct with impunity. A story in whose outcome we have absolutely no emotional stakes, and therein lies the freedom to weave the plot in whatever direction. Be that as it may, I would still, nevertheless, be interested to know how this particular 'love story' eventually develops.

I'd be curious to know if the girl still retains her wide-eyed adulation for her man in the months to come, and ALSO, for men and relationships, in general, in the years to come. On the face of it, there are already so many clear indicators of a possible heart-break in the future, and yet it appears painfully clear that the only person who would be most devastated by a break-up has actually chosen to take that risk.

Of course, if one goes, once again, merely by face value, most people will have ready explanations as to why the two of them are together. Perhaps it's not love but a sense of resignation that pulls them together. Perhaps both of them thought of each other as the best possible 'catch' they could ever get in their lives and that it would be stupidity to allow something like common sense to ruin the formation of this match.

Perhaps it was the first time her heart was stirred by a man who was the very image of what, she thought, real men ought to be and was thrilled that such a man would choose to be with her. Perhaps he was relieved that he could still make someone so young and so nubile want to wake up with him each morning. Perhaps it was something as simple as an impulsive gesture where no thought was given to consequences but only satisfaction.

And by the way, did I mention that she was in her early 20s, oriental looking, very casually dressed, and if she was employed, didn't appear to be white collar? And him? He was a white caucasian male in his fifties, still handsome though slightly fading in that department, and yes, he was very much white-collar all the way.

Definitely a cliche couple. Definitely a couple with a sad ending just waiting to happen. An ending with potential of turning into a tragedy if she loses trust in love altogether -- even when someone sincere comes along, and is willing to shatter himself just to piece together her brokenness.

But will the story end that way?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Weird Tag

In all my years of blogging (which is not that long anyway but it's great to begin a paragraph this way), I've never been tagged by anyone before, and neither have I tried tagging any unsuspecting soul. But then, it finally happened and the person responsible was none other than Manju, my good friend and fellow batchmate from Indian School Bahrain. She was doing science while I was in the Commerce section, and it was in 1984 that we said goodbye to school-life. It was partly her initiative that brought the old gang together she and Jayant, her classmate in the science section, created a YahooGroup for our batch and we all began to re-connect once again. All of us scattered all over the world, and yet united by memories of wonderful times shared in school.

Coming back to the tag, for some strange reason, Manju, wants me to list six of the weirdest things about me. I find this a very difficult exercise because I'm sure there are more than six weird things, and am positive my friends can come up with many more.

Anyway, Manju, just for you, here are the six of the weirdest things (not in any particular order, ok)

1. If I'm drinking Pepsi, I like to use a red straw and if I'm drinking Coke I prefer a blue straw because I like a little bit of colour co-ordination.

2. I enjoy crushing dead leaves and enjoy the crunchy sound that follows.

3. Sometimes I like to mute the audio while watching news on television and play western classical music on the radio or wherever. Effect is usually cinematic.

4. I love to check all the free-to-air channels one by one... usually when I'm alone, obviously.

5. I don't throw plastic bags for environmental reasons, but have no clue what to do with them now that I've collected stacks of 'em.

6. And finally, as some friends would agree I tend to over-do certain things... won't elaborate more, but that will do on a public forum like this one ;)

There you go. Those are my Top Six (and not in any particular order), and yes, there are a lot more but I just don't remember them at the moment. And so, I guess, they aren't important enough... or weird enough.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Aesthetics of loneliness


I can't find the article on the web, and so I can't post the hyperlink here. It is a very inspiring article on 'The Spectacles of American Isolation' written by Mark Feeney and was reprinted in the Gulf News' Weekend Review. It's not included in the Review's web edition, and I guess, it could be partly because it's a syndicated article from the New York Times News Service.

The main focus of the article is an examination of Edward Hopper's paintings, and how he could be considered to be the Great American Artist. Fenney writes, 'the sources of his popular appeal are obvious enough: immediate accessibility; a subtle yet vivid colour sense; familiar, but not too familiar, subject matter; a fondness for picturesque settings such as New York, Maine and Cape Cod; even a whiff of prurience.'

However, he goes on to describe what he feels to be a "Hoppersque" quality, and calls it loneliness.

"That loneliness is both what is most and least American about Hopper. It is least so because loneliness is not exactly a selling word. In a society that proclaims all men are created equal, the individual's apartness indicts society. "America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy," John Updike once wrote. Loneliness foils the conspiracy.

"Of course, a nation that prides itself on rugged individualism has to keep a place of honour for solitude... what Hopper reflects is something quite different, the unheroic loneliness of everyday people, people like you and me: ushers, secretaries and apartment dwellers. The Hemingway hero, another paragon of American individualism, is in control of his apartness. Hopper's people are not. It is imposed on them by the circumstances of life. Their plight reminds us that individualism without ruggedness simply means being alone -- alone even when, as in Hopper's Room in New York someone else is there."


It would be easy to dismiss Fenney's observation and Hopper's paintings of lonely people as a purely American phenomenon, and Fenney does make his point rather persuasively especially when he states that "always, he locates his people in space (an unmistakably American space)... His friend, the artist Guy Pene du Bois, described Hopper's New York as "a noiseless architectural world." Rather than teem and roar, his city seems on the verge of evacuation."

From a purely Asian or even Middle-eastern perspective, such descriptions would lend credence to the more popular indictments we have about the west as a place that lacks familial relationships, and where individuals are left to fend for themselves without parental or any other support. Isolation as a cultural motif and not an exception to the general rule of social decorum.

However, Fenney's article made me wonder if this loneliness that he talks about -- so evident in Hopper's paintings -- is it purely an American (or western) phenomenon or is it global in anyway. Or to be precise, does it touch a familiar chord to those of us here?

It would be almost blasphemous to suggest that loneliness is a familiar pattern in our societies because we've been trained to acknowledge the supportive presence of family, tribe and community. Togetherness is, what we believe, to be the natural state of people in our communities, and individuals, if there be any, exist only in relation to someone else. Individuals cannot exist on their own, and if they do, then, there is something decidedly wrong with them. Wrong as in, morally wrong.

But the fact of the matter is, lonely people do exist in our societies, and their loneliness is made even more acute because no one expects them to be. Perhaps parallel could be drawn between Hopper's portraits because just like the supposed incongruity of those images neither does anyone expects painful isolation to be part of our social landscape.

I am not familiar with any artist from South Asia or Middle East who has managed to capture the loneliness that some people experience in our societies. I suppose, if examples are to be drawn, then, perhaps, Amitabh Bachchan's 'angry young man' could be one such character -- a loner whose isolation is a result of flaws in a supposedly paternalistic social structure, and who vents against a system that is supposed to protect but, instead, shuns the likes of him. It would be an interesting study to see why such a persona has achieved immense popularity throughout Asia, and why it has spawned countless poor imitations. Is it because we like to see him as an exception and comfort ourselves into thinking that such characters exist only in fiction? Is it because we find an emotional connection with the character because he expresses the frustrations that we find hard to verbalise? I am just guessing.

I wonder to what degree has present day consumerist culture and information technology has played a role in shaping a lonely landscape. Consumerism empowers individuals with the ability to acquire 'things', and these 'things', in turn, feed an assumption that one's self worth requires gadgets and goods for its justification. It is often a lonely road as the individual struggles to acquire these 'things', and I wonder, if this quest isolates him from his neighbour and friends.

Technology, too, has made social interaction redundant for those who choose not to meet any human beings. Instead of going to restaurants one can order a takeaway. Instead of going to the cinema with friends, one can watch films on a plasma screen enveloped by 5.1 surround sound. Instead of meeting people in clubs or at their homes, a webcam and an instant messenger or a Facebook account can take care of one's social life.

These are extreme examples, but these are not beyond the realm of the possible. And our Asian and Middle-eastern lives have been impacted by these forces. And one has to only take a walk in our streets to observe the social debris of these phenomena. I am tempted to give examples but I'll resist the urge to do so. Perhaps I'll save it for another post. It's not that I dont want to give examples, but I believe there are so many and it'd be hard to select the best of the lot.

But what puzzles me most is, what is so enchanting about loneliness that poets, artists, photographers, film-makers and writers have managed to create an impressive body of work on the subject? Why does painful isolation of certain individuals become so inspirational that it has steered discussions on the social condition of the human race?

But I'm sure there is more to it than meets the eye, and underneath all this philosophical jugglery lies a simple desire to make sense of a crazy world that does not operate the way we expect it to. Maybe it is this exception to the general rule of how we want our world to be that makes us aware of anomalies, and makes us equally determined to state that they are anomalies.

Maybe, but then, again, one never knows. It'd be best to find out, but question is, where do we begin, and how?

Friday, June 29, 2007

Death in slo-mo

What does one do with a degree in pharmacy?

The obvious answer would be, to wear a lab coat, stand behind a counter and dispense medicines that have unpronounceable names. And of course, being able to figure out a doctor’s scribble for the ‘words of wisdom’ they are supposed to be.

But let’s think out of the box, shall we? Is it absolutely necessary that a degree in pharmacy should logically lead to a job in a pharmacy? I mean, is it really a must? Why can’t there be an exception to this rule?

Why can’t a pharmacist do something else?

Why can’t he lift bricks at a construction site, do some masonry work on a villa, or generally help out in gardening, if possible? I mean, why limit one's options to just pharmacy...

There are, after all, wide choices available if one only decides to go ‘lateral’ with career progression. Take Rao (not his real name), for instance. A friend of a friend met him at a construction site last week, and saw how Rao managed to go lateral and proved to be an exception to this rule.

Rao had come to Bahrain as a qualified pharmacist but he came on a construction worker visa, and his sponsor refused to give him a release unless Rao pays him a huge amount for 'services rendered' or some such bull crap. Rao had taken huge loans to purchase this visa and as a result had no extra money for the 'release'... and so what does he do? What else? Keep his pharmaceutical dreams on hold, and ends up working as a mason even though his professional skills were meant for some other job.

It would be easy to blame the 'free-visa' and 'sponsorship' system for Rao's predicament, but I guess, the problem is a lot more complicated than that. Of course, it goes without saying that if Rao was not so dependent on his 'sponsor' and if he was not a victim of the insane 'free-visa' system, his professional life might have taken a different turn, and Bahrain wouldn't have lost a pharmacist to the construction industry. That's one way of looking at things.

But it still doesn't answer why a pharmacist - of all people - have to go and do construction work?! Why does he have to lift bricks instead of dealing with paracetomols and panadols? Why does he have to be in a position where any job will do to help provide for his family? Why does he have to live in near penury when he is well qualified not to be?

I suppose there aren't any easy answers, and the blame game - if one has to take that route - has to be distributed widely. I may not be an expert in coming up with brilliant answers to this query, but one thing I do understand is that Rao's story certainly places our own work related problems in a better perspective. I mean, after hearing of Rao's situation, it makes my office problems something of a damp squib in comparison.

But that still doesn't alter the slow-motion death of Rao's dreams and desires.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Twenty years

The 'search button' in Yahoo Mail can uncover a lot of treasure. I was on the lookout for some email exchange from last year, and stumbled upon this 'email' that I sent to a few friends from school in 2004. I left school in 1984 and felt twenty-years was a milestone in our lives and wrote this reflective piece about what it felt to look back on the past two decades. Since then, I've got in touch with numerous other batchmates, and in fact, two-weeks ago, we had a mini-reunion of sorts at Shada when Gayatri and her two kids visited Bahrain from Philadelphia. And Rajesh, who currently lives in Dubai, phoned me today to say that he is here in Bahrain till Saturday.

There's something about meeting classmates from school that is so different from any other meeting. One can actually be oneself in their company, and no artifice or diplomacy is required. I suppose one cannot because most of them have seen us at our most formative state and have witnessed some of those crucial events: first moustache, first crush, first heartbreak, first exam, first attempt at sports, first everything really.

Twenty years. It has been exactly twenty years since we left school. And what incredible years these have been. A leap from immaturity and brash post-adolescence to creeping middle age. Not a pleasant thought if your memory of those school days is still fresh and vivid, as if it all happened only yesterday.

Those years seem like relics now, a reminder of what we were and can never be again. Our youth in full bloom was eager to take on the whole world and sought more challenges than we could even handle. We were still school kids and we could dream. We lived with our parents and so bread and butter issues were not a priority. Dreams and desires lay before us like goats before a hungry tiger. And we honestly believed that we could realise all that we desired. Reality had not yet crept into our radar screens.

Twenty years ago, we did not mourn saying goodbye to school. We were glad we were getting out of those restrictions and getting rid of the so-called narrow mindedness of some teachers that made some of our lives uncomfortable. Of course, there were some of us who were sad about leaving school – it was the only educational institution that we ever knew. Saying goodbye to all that meant adjusting to a whole new educational environment. It wasn’t that we weren’t sure if we could. We were just not sure if we wanted to.

And, yes, we were sad and pathos coloured the farewell reception the XI standard gave us. As our friends sang, "may God be with you till we meet again", we realised that some of us may never meet each other again. This was the final goodbye. The end. The last opportunity to ever see each other in the flesh. This broke our heart and crushed our spirits because it became painfully clear that lifelong friendships will soon suffer separation. Best friends, tennis partners, football team mates, bum chums, sweethearts, possible spouses, cheating partners, fellow conspirators, bus companions. All of them would soon disappear from our physical space and enter the elusive arena of aerogrammes.

We are now in danger of becoming like our parents and other elders who talk fondly of the "good old days". Strangely, we now understand and fully empathise with our elders’ fondness for nostalgia. Whereas earlier we simply frowned at their stories we now find a kind of kinship in those narratives. We empathise because we understand. We understand because even we do that a lot. And constantly, compare present circumstances with past events and irritate the hell out of those who don’t share our perspective.

We lived in a different world, too. Back then, the "evil empire" still ruled with iron fisted ferocity and the US was the so-called benign alternative.

Today’s unipolar world has forced its own dynamism. Black and white has disappeared into the greys of moral ambiguity and we have nothing to say to the young. Our words do not have the same force as before. We are less passionate and so less convincing. Our passion is gone because we are more realistic now. We call ourselves ‘pragmatic’ because that’s what grown-ups are supposed to be. And today, we are those grown ups.

Some of us have families, some are single, some separated. Some are employed, some have their own business, some doing higher studies, while some are still searching. And some may have also moved on to the Higher Place. . .

We are altogether different creatures than what we were, totally unrecognisable from our earlier persona. But if we look closely enough, we will realise that we are still the same. We haven’t really warped into something else, into something hideously different. We are now nothing but a culmination of what we were: a sum total of all our experiences, circumstances and events. The past is not a mere fossil or a useless footnote for nostalgia buffs. The past is the crucial DNA that has shaped our present. The motivator for what we are now.

Twenty years ago, we left school and a life of relative comfort and ease. But those years haven’t altogether disappeared, they find their echo in the person we have become. They have not only made us what we are, they have defined us. They have shaped our character and given individuality to our personalities.

And the fact that I am able to write to you is proof that our relationships haven’t disappeared into the misty past. We are still able to keep in touch with each other. That alone is the most important thing.

I am not sure how many of us would be around in the next twenty years. To imagine what we would be doing at that point of time is hard to fathom. But I am confident that the foundations that were laid in the past would continue to shape us in the years and years to come.

God be with you till we meet again. Till then, let’s continue keeping in touch.

Regards,
Ashish

Sunday, June 03, 2007

As the crow flies...


This story could read like a fable, but it is not. It is simply dressed like one, and might even give the impression of one of those quaint moral tales with deep underlying meaning, but it is nothing like that. It is simply an account of a bizarre experience in our garden, which may or may not have moral implications but we could take a chance.

On Tuesday, a baby crow fell off a tree in our garden... maybe, that’s not the right way to begin this story, and so let me try again... once upon a time, a baby crow fell off a tree and landed on the soft blades of grass that covered the Gordes’ garden in Juffair. Upon hearing the soft thud on the lawn, Tequila, my dear little mongrel, ran towards the little bird and began to bark as loudly as she possibly she could. She was clearly surprised to see a life-form fall from the sky, and called my brother to check it out.

If the story had ended here, I suppose, some convenient moral could have been drawn... two creatures interacting with each other, a dog calling out to a human to assist a dying bird, a human intervention that saved the day... sadly, the story took a different turn.

As soon as my brother knelt to take a closer look at the bird, two crows suddenly swooped down at him and tried to attack him. Taken by surprise, my brother looked up at the crows, and they came back and attacked him again. Meanwhile, my dog had already scurried inside and my brother followed soon after... it was pointless standing there and watching the re-enactment of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds in one’s very own garden.

The next day, the day after and since then, the crows have been relentless in their attack. As soon as any member of our family steps out of the house, they fly down and perch themselves on a lower branch, call out to each other with their loud crowing and then fly close to our heads and flap their wings on our hair.

Two days ago, they followed my father all the way to the cold store, and only stopped when the neighbour’s dogs started barking. And yesterday, as I went for my evening walk, the birds followed me by jumping from one pole to the other, and that freaked me out, but thankfully, they didn’t follow me all the way.

I was told that this is quite normal. Apparently, crows do get very protective about their babies (what are baby crows called anyway?), and do not tolerate anyone coming close to the nests. And if a baby crow dies in a fall, then, they start pecking and clawing at anyone who might be standing close by or even jogging, as this poor soul in London discovered to his horror. This site gives detailed information about all that crows are capable of doing, and provides some assurance that what we are going through is not unique but a normal pattern of behaviour as far as crows are concerned.

It may be normal for crows, but it is definitely uncomfortable for us. It is, after all, our house. A place where we stay, eat, drink, sleep, entertain and relax. A place that we call 'home', and yet we are being cornered by these birds who are not even registered residents of this compound. Obviously, I'm exaggerating but that's because I want to twist this account into a fable, a morality tale or even - shudder shudder - a political statement.

Without going into detail, I suppose, there are many parallels to be drawn into the politics of victimhood that's so popular amongst some quarters, occupation, aggression and retaliation. The crows might be thinking that we are, in some ways, responsible for their little one's death and might be seeking revenge (I know this sounds crazy but it sounds good for the fable bit), and so, flying close to our heads, following us, and freaking us out could be the only weapons at their disposal.

As far as 'we' are concerned, it is apparent that our superior biology hasn't helped matters much, and when we finally decide to do something about it, then, it will involve solutions that are drastic. And yes, if this goes on for a few more days, then, we'll have to come up with some final solution, however, ominous and loaded that sounds.

But all said and done, every day when I step outside the door and stare at the crows, it is not politics or sociology or ecosystem that comes to my mind... I get this miserable feeling that I am part of a Seinfeld episode.

Monday, May 21, 2007

She Bop



Nostalgia usually comes with background music, and for many of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s, Radio Bahrain 96.5 FM played a significant role in making that happen. Long before MTV, Channel [V] and other music channels, it was Radio Bahrain and it's army of DJs that energised our musical universe. Who can forget Tim Manns' Breakfast Show, Mark Morrell's Mid-Morning Show or Bob McCready's Afternoon Delight? It wasn't just the music, it was also the competitions and the sense of community one experienced by listening to the same songs at the same time.

Most teenagers and 20-somethings today will be surprised to know that in those days we hardly 'saw' any of the pop idols on TV except for those occasional James Last StarParade, Dionne Warwick's Solid Gold (on Aramco) and... Top of the Pops videos that we'd rent from the video shop and share with our friends. Those memories amuse me now especially how the latest TOTP video was usually such a big event that we'd clamour to get hold of one.

Sometimes there'd be some TV channel that would show some 'real' music videos and they were quite a treat since there were quite a few gems though not many. The 80's may have been great musicwise but they definitely spawned bad fashion and corny videos... ahhh well, it didn't seem so bad back then though.

It's funny how Boy George seemed such an outrageous performer those days even though he seems so tame in comparison to others today. And who can forget Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood? It was banned by the BBC but Radio Bahrain didn't think it was bad enough, and so we felt extra privileged to be able to listen to it, and figure out for ourselves what the fuss was all about.

Cyndi Lauper -- wonder what she's upto these days? -- was one of those singers who wowed us for her effervescent charm, energetic sound and powerful vocals. Her colourful hairdo was so 80s, but it seemed so sexy back then that it feels embarassing to even think that we found it attractive. "Girls wanna have fun" may have earned her some degree of notoriety for all the wrong reasons but one has to admit the song was extremely catchy. However, the Cyndi Lauper song that I really like has always been "Time after time". I like its brooding quality and the way her voice cracks while she belts out the vocals.

Of course, "She Bop" is a song that I like for reasons that I cant put my finger on, but it does bring back some very pleasant memories from the 80s. I dont know if it's because of those memories that I like this song, or is it because of the rock n roll sound that I like it, but frankly, I don't care. However, one thing I do have to admit that it's one song that never fails to put a smile on my face, set my foot tapping and my body swaying... and make me go wistful at the same time because it reminds me of those innocent teenage years that will never return.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Blog block

I've been trying to blog for the past three-four weeks, but somehow am unable to do so. It's getting frightfully impossible to get the right words together and form meaningful sentences and paragraphs. It's not like I have nothing to say. In fact, there's so much I want to talk about, to rant and rave, to complain, to get cheesed off with, and just let off steam.

But at the same time, there's a part of me that wants to just throw my hands up in the air and say, what's the point anyway? And it's this sense of futility that worries me.

I don't see the ranting and raving as a problem. At a certain level, I guess, it is simply a knee jerk reaction to the things that irk us, an almost instinctual response to irksome things. As human beings, it is part of our nature to react, and it begins from the moment we are born and continues till we reach that singular moment when we breathe our last. We react either on the emotional or the physical realm, but we react all the same... and in some cases, we use words when we wish to react to those irksome things.

But then, sometimes, in more reflective times it is natural for us to wonder whether or not there is any point to all this. Is it worthwhile to use words as a medium for our reactions? Do our words make any difference? Does our tongue-lashing actually shift the earth from its axis and bring about changes to the eternal scheme of things? Do we really have to say something anyway? Or is silence preferable to the cacophony of words that, sometimes, disguises itself in the garb of 'meaningful conversations'?

I suppose there are no quick and easy answers to these questions. If there are answers to be found to these questions, then, they are most likely to be found in some existential quarry from where fundamental issues could be unearthed and examined. But that may not always explain why certain things bother us while others don't register even a pipsqueak in our mental radar. The quarry will only give us a broader picture, and skip the micro-view that is, often, the one that matters. The irksome things are found there in tiny dust fragments that grow larger and larger with the importance we give to it.

And here's the problem. Ignorance might stunt its growth, but will not altogether eliminate it altogether from the scene. It will remain there as a reminder of things that are bothersome. It will remain there to force some sort of reaction. So the choice is, rather, limited. If we give it the importance that, we feel, it deserves it will turn into a crisis of global proportions and swallow us up, but if we ignore it altogether it will not disappear but will seep under the surface and grow slowly but surely.

So the only thing we can do is just speak up, and leave it at that. Adding emotional inputs will only aggravate matters, and so it's best to avoid them altogether. It's best to go back to our instincts, and to the basic responses that rise from our guts. It may not be easy to keep emotions out of the picture, but sometimes, it's the only thing we can ever do... the only necessary thing we can ever do if we wish to preserve our sanity... the only possible thing that will produce the response we so earnestly desire.

So what has this got to do with my blog? Will I now start reacting to things that irk me left right and centre? Or will I use this point to justify a new reactionary 'me'?

I dont know... only time will tell. All I can do right now is to simply admit that I need to write and not remain silent. It may not make a difference. It may not change anyone. It may not alter anything. But at least, I would have done my part. I would have said something, that's all.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Anna's tragedy

So the results are finally out. Larry is the dad, and the other five can now go home and contemplate whether or not the month-long media circus was well worth it. Now I'm not sure if they're satisfied with the results, but am positive that, at least, we are finally going to be spared this 'virility contest' that was getting increasingly tiresome and boring.

However, much as I express my sympathy on her passing, I find it rather puzzling as to why Anna Nicole Smith's death should garner such huge publicity. It's not as if she was hugely talented or even drop dead gorgeous. Alright. The jury might still be out on that one, and I concede that a sizeable chunk of the male population are going to miss her terribly.

But I'm still hard pressed to find out what really made Anna Nicole Smith so famous that even two months after her death, Entertainment Tonight on Showtime keeps featuring the same subject over and over again. I can understand blanket coverage for the first two days, but even now? Two months later? Puzzling, to say the least.

It was, probably, her drug overdose that heightened the sympathy factor. Maybe. Drugs, drinks and fast living have had a hand in the death of many showbiz geniuses in the past, and Anna Nicole Smith has just joined this illustrious list that has included Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon, James Dean and others.

However, it does seem rather worrying that Anna Nicole Smith was even considered worthy to be included in this list, and that comparisons were drawn between her and Marilyn Monroe. I agree that most of these great dead celebrities were, somewhat, unhinged at a certain level, but it has to be made clear that not everyone in the celebrity circuit who is unhinged is a genius. Sometimes the person is just... unhinged.

Marilyn Monroe, for instance, was not just a sexy bombshell, she was, also, an extremely talented and skilled actress, and has a portfolio of work to demonstrate this fact. It's true that much attention has been given to her affairs and to her sexy allure, but all said and done, if she is still remembered for her allure even almost half a century after her death, then, it is safe to assume that she must have something in her that deserved such remembrances. There were others who were sexier but they aren't remembered with the same 'candle in the wind' fervour.

Hence, it does seem rather tad premature to compare Anna Nicole Smith with Marilyn Monroe because, for one, Anna does not have a substantial body of work that would stand the test of time. It would be silly to use her performance in the Naked Gun movies and the reality tv specials as worthy examples because they just aren't in the same league as the body of work of other dead celebrities. And two, her claim to fame, apart from being Playboy's Playmate of the Month, was her marriage to J. Howard Marshall II, the octogenarian oil tycoon who and the subsequent fight over inheritance claim with Marshall's son. So, in a sense, she has been famous for being famous like many others who populate People magazine and Hello.

So why this sudden urge to elevate Anna to such super-human status?

Now let me pause here, and say that I do feel sad that Anna had to die young and die in such a sad state. The paternity dispute over her baby, in particular, was a sorry spectacle, and no person - living or dead - should have to go through such an insult. Perhaps if she had lived longer one would have had the chance to see her in a more positive light, and perhaps, her potential would have been realised. But that was not to be, and therein lies the tragedy of Anna Nicole Smith.

But still, it does not explain the blanket coverage given to her death by news organisations and entertainment/celebrity journals. I may have to hazard a guess though, and assume that this blanket coverage said a lot about news organisations and news consumers in general than it did about Anna Nicole Smith. It clearly amplified
a craving for a heroic figure to mourn over than an actual feeling of loss over her passing. It, also, showed that in the 'newsmaker' circuit there was, hardly, anyone worth emulating and so, an almost-celebrity like Anna Nicole Smith was chosen for such 'greatness to be thrust upon her'.

Or was the reason too deeper? And was her death that much needed distraction that people needed after the continuing violence and cynicism and deception that has followed the current war in Iraq, the uncertainty over Iran's nuclear ambitions, the taliban's resurgence in Afghanistan, the doomsday scenarios of global warming unraveling itself?

It could be any reason at all, and I hope, it isn't what I suspect because, no matter who it is, no one should be mourned out of a need for distraction. Anna Nicole Smith may have been a non-entity as far as her talent goes, but she was a human being first and foremost, and because of this fact alone she deserved better. She needed to be treated as a person who died and not as a media event that had to be milked for all its worth.

In a few months time, the media will have forgotten her, but her loved ones will remember her and miss her for a long, long time. But the media won't care how they cope with this loss because the media will have gone searching for the next big sorry victim to gloss over.

This is the way it goes, and it's a pity that there will be many more Anna Nicole Smiths for us to read about, talk about, feel sorry for, and agonise over. Ad infinitum ad nauseum

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Fencing off suicide

Is it possible to suicide-proof a bridge?

City councillors are faced with this dilemma after two people jumped off a footbridge in downtown Manama in a space of just three months. They are concerned because this footbridge is in the very heart of Manama’s business district, and close to the upcoming Bahrain Financial Harbour, and right over the King Faisal Highway that takes you to the Seef district, Muharraq, and the Diplomatic Area.

So it is quite understandable that they wouldn’t want such a high profile area to acquire this level of notoriety. It wouldn’t make sound business sense to work next to or even purchase property next to a popular ‘suicide point.’ Hence, the suggestion going around is that some sort of fence be erected around the bridge, or if possible, even spikes are put around the railings to prevent anyone from jumping off the bridge.

On the face of it, the suggestions couldn’t have come at a better time, and the two suicides have shed light on safety issues and the need to make buildings and bridges as much suicide-proof as possible.

However, I’m bothered by a few of these suggestions. I find it ridiculous to assume that just by erecting a fence around THIS bridge, we’re going to prevent people from jumping to their deaths. If suicides can be prevented merely by incorporating thoughtful architectural touches like fences or spikes, then, we’d be looking at a decidedly stress-free world.

But we know that reality presents a completely different picture. Those who want to kill themselves will find a way to do so no matter what hurdles are placed in their way. If this bridge is fenced, then, they might find another bridge or the nearest tall building, or walk in front of a car or even hang themselves in their room. They’ll kill themselves anyway, and won’t be bothered with niceties like, will my death spoil the image of the neighbourhood?

Obviously, 41 year old Indian painter Ashokan Vamoora and 47 year old Indian salesman didn’t think about the market value of downtown Manama when they plunged to their deaths. We don’t know what was the underlying problem that forced them to take their own lives. We can only make assumptions, and arrive at conclusions that will only scratch the surface of this problem.

They are not the first Asian workers to kill themselves, and probably, wont be the last. Soon they’ll be part of a statistic that aid workers will use to justify some theory or the other.

Point is, fences or spikes are not going to stop this trail of death because they can never do so. The problems are much deeper, and solutions, if at all, require something much more substantial than these cosmetic treatments to structures. Perhaps, better working and living conditions could be a start, maybe putting an end to the exploitative free-visa system, maybe enforcing minimum wage to everyone across the board irrespective of nationality, maybe debt counseling would help, maybe… well, there are so many ‘maybes’ that can be considered and even contemplated, but it’d be a start, I think.

Actually, debt counseling would be a good place to start because most of these workers have accumulated huge debts just to land themselves here in Bahrain and the Gulf, and it takes them a lifetime just to pay back their debts because the salaries are miniscule, to say the least.

And most importantly, ‘hope’ must be restored in their lives because that’s what they sorely lack and that’s what makes them regard life with such pessimism. It may not solve all their problems, but it’d be a start, I think.

In fact, hope will be the best place to start… and a much more effective suicide-deterrent than any fence or spike.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Spring cleaning

I've been rather busy with work for the past few weeks, and today, I finally sat down to clean up the mess accummulated in my bedroom. For some reason, bedrooms are usually the place that suck in books, magazines, notepads and other sundry written materials, and somehow, in the process, I discovered this poem I'd written last year. I dont know why I wrote it but I thought it was such a coincidence that the poem talked about the very thing that I was doing this evening.


let me clean the wardrobe today
and retrieve the lost innocence
of my boyhood days:
the t-shirts and jeans
that saw my youth fade
like the fabric itself
and the jacket
that made a man
out of me.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Smile

He smiled at me, and I smiled back. It seemed to be the most polite thing to do. I couldn’t just ignore a smile and walk away. No one ignores a smile. Smiles are meant to be acknowledged or, at least, given a nod. That’s how things are meant to be. And therefore I smiled back…

I don’t remember seeing him before though I may have passed by him on numerous occasions. I’m sure if I’d some vague memory of a previous meeting I would have given him a broader smile. But there was nothing about him that suggested any such encounter. And so, for all accounts and purposes, he was a mere stranger smiling at me.

But for some odd reason I knew that wasn’t the case. It’s not that I remembered him, but it was the way he smiled. It was as if he knew who I was and was simply doing the polite thing by acknowledging my presence. He must have noticed my blank expression but his face didn’t reveal any disappointment in my not remembering him. He just shook his head, smiled and continued doing what he was doing while I walked away.

I turned back and looked. He was busy in his work, and he looked guiltily at me when he saw that I was looking at him. I don’t know what must have crossed his mind, but I waved back to assure him there was no problem. He looked somewhat relieved and wore a more confident smile this time. I was happy, too, because I wouldn’t have liked the man to suffer unnecessary tension because of my second glance.

I was only trying to jog my memory and not trying to find fault with him. But he had no way of knowing that because people in his position are rarely given the benefit of doubt. Or their innocence taken for granted. They are just there to be treated with utter indifference. And whose presence is acknowledged only when things go wrong.

After all, he was only an ordinary gardener tending the lawns while I was the man in suit taking a walk to clear my head. And your guess is good as mine as to who is taken more seriously in this lopsided world in which we live and have our being.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Citi-rant

Someone's gotta say it, and it better be me.

Something must be done about the queue in Citibank's Manama branch. It's not the standing in line that bothers me or the lack of proper space that aggravates me though these two factors do rankle a bit. But there's something else that's really and positively annoying.

I don't know how to put it more gently, but let me try anyway. I can't understand why some people just enjoy standing right behind anyone who's withdrawing cash, peering at their screen and then nonchalantly asking, if everything's ok.

Now if everything was not ok, I would do the rightful thing by contacting support or holler at the security guy and tell him the machine is not working. But do I really need 'help' from someone who's only interest in life is to check my 'available balance'?

If this had happened once or twice, I could understand if you think I'm over-reacting, but this seems to happen regularly especially when there is a long queue... now I don't know if some people believe surreptitiously checking someone's available balance is a fine way of killing time and boredom while standing in line, but hey, I don't like it.

The other day while withdrawing cash I had this man standing right behind me looking very curious, and I had to tell him to back off... he simply stared at me very blankly, smiled like a toad and walked away. Alright, let me clarify. I wasn't very blunt while asking him to back-off but I tried to be cheeky and asked him if the ATM booth was an amusement centre. I don't know if he got the sarcasm but thankfully he did back off.

Anyway, I just had to let off steam here, and I feel a lot better now. Excuse me while I go and withdraw some cash... :-)))

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Second-hand virgin

I don’t know if this qualifies for a heroic deed on my part, but it happened a few years ago and I’m still mulling over the underlying issues that were raised that day. It was an argument with a former colleague, and like all arguments it was quite silly to begin with and quite pointless, too.

My former colleague... well, let’s give him a name, shall we?... perhaps, Rudolph would sound better because that way no one will be able to guess his real identity. Anyway, Rudy and I were talking about long-term relationships and marriage because he thought he needed to talk about these issues with me since I happen to be single and he happens to be married, and well, he thought, I needed to do something to change my single status.

Why my single-status should be a source of concern to a colleague at work is something that I’ll never understand, but hey, that’s a digression.

Anyway, I told Ruddy that I don’t plan on remaining single forever but will only marry if and when I meet someone I want to grow old with, and someone with whom I can talk and not get bored. I thought that was a reasonably good explanation even if it’s me saying so, but Ruddy had to ask another question.

“Will you marry a girl who is not a virgin,” he asked, “or will you even consider a woman who had a serious boyfriend in the past?”

I didn’t think of this as a serious issue, and so I told him, “a woman’s past really doesn’t bother me unless she is still pining for her lost love, but if she is not, then, it shouldn’t matter.”

Ruddy couldn’t believe his ears. He thought I had lost it completely, and he became increasingly aggressive as I explained my position. And finally he questioned my manhood because I refused to take a firm stand against women with previous relationships.

I felt this argument was getting to be quite pointless, and wanted to look for an escape hatch and leave my colleague alone with his regressive views. But no, it didn’t end up that way at all because he had to explain his position and that made matters even worse.

He told me that a wife has to be a virgin because a real man must marry a woman who is untainted either physically or emotionally. And if any man does marry a woman with a past it’ll be like purchasing second-hand goods.

It took me a while to digest what he said and then, I told him that it was a load of bollocks. Not a good move because it only made him more furious. My point was, if it’s ok for a man to have relationships before marriage, then, why should such a big deal be made about women? His answer was that women are different because once they lose it they lose it forever, but then, I asked him, doesn’t the same apply to a man because once he’s done it, then, he can never do it for the first time ever again.

What really made me mad was this assumption that women were some kind of a product that must be acquired in its pristine form only. And that this product (for want of a better word) must be seen as a baby-making machine because, according to Ruddy, that’s the purpose of marriage anyway.

I felt sad for Ruddy not because he missed the whole point of marriage, which is lifelong companionship with someone you love, but more so, because he failed to recognize that women are, after all, people with feelings, emotional experiences and their own unique perspectives on life. What a sad life, I thought, if one has to live an entire lifetime without being able to relate with women as the human beings that they are.

But the really sad thing is. . . Ruddy is not alone. There are many more Ruddy’s out there who think along the same lines. It is these Ruddy’s who have given ‘men’ a bad name in the eyes of women everywhere. It is these Ruddy’s who seem to define gender equations… and I think it’s about time we say, ENOUGH!!!

Monday, March 05, 2007

Blank Noise Project

Blank Noise Project is an initiative by a group of Indian bloggers to highlight sexual harassment against women through a blogathon (of sorts). The idea is to get bloggers everywhere to talk about issues related to gender discrimination, sexual harassment and the like. And to ensure that everyone posts their piece on March 8, and send an email confirmation to the Blank Noise project people at their email address. This way, you are extending support to the cause and doing something about it, namely, writing about it

Last year the project was an incredible success because it saw both men and women talking and sharing their experiences. It was an eye-opener to see what women go through, and it was a revelation to find out that cities that were once considered 'safe' were, in fact, not.

This year, the theme is on "Action Heroes", and instead of me explaining what it's all about, I think, I'll post the email I received from them. And I hope many of you will participate -- I certainly will -- and let's do our bit to make our community gender safe.

Blank Noise invites you to participate in an online event-" BLANK NOISE ACTION HEROES"

On March 8 last year (Women's Day), we had a blog-a-thon of stories of street sexual harassment. The blog-a-thon was picked up by bloggers across India, and all over the world. We shared stories we had never shared before, stories we thought we had long forgotten, stories that we had often wanted to bury. We read each other, we linked to each other and we linked back to the Blank Noise Project blog. We were touched by each other's stories, and drew strength and sustenance from the the long, cross-cultural chain of shared experiences.

This year for Women's Day we're asking you to share experiences of times when you were an ACTION HERO and fought back against harassment. Blog about your experience, and let us know so we can link to you on our blog.

When did you flip a situation so you could resist, when did you give back as hard as you got? How did you choose to confront the situation? When did you become an Action Hero?

We hope that this response helps us understand the different strategies women (across age groups, cultures, and countries) have instinctively created to deal with street sexual harassment.

(If you're a male blogger, ask your female friends and relatives about their experiences.)

Here's how to participate:

1. blog your story (as soon as possible, and definitely before March 8!)

2. email the link to your blog post to blurtblanknoise@gmail.com with a subject titled "Action Heroes Online"

3. we will link to you right away!

And don't forget your non-blogging friends and family members -- we'd love to hear stories from your mothers, aunties and grandmothers!

If you're not a blogger, please feel free to email the action testimonials instead. We will upload them on a new blogsite. (WWW.BLANKNOISEACTIONHEROES.BLOGSPOT.COM)


Questions? Email us at blurtblanknoise AT gmail.com.

Look forward to hearing from you,

Sincerely,

Sujata, on behalf of Blank Noise

PS: PLEASE CIRCULATE WIDELY. THANK YOU.