Thursday, August 11, 2011

Beautiful words from a beautiful book

"When you write a book, you willingly step into the public arena, no longer reporter but being reported upon, no longer jotting down notes on the debate but joining in it. You should welcome to conflict with journalists, scholars, critics, and others who will read your work and challenge your version of reality with their own. That kind of disputation is healthy for a society and it will keep your talents sharp. Never be afraid to defend the vision of the world that you have committed to the page. But make sure you can defend it, because every charlatan in our midst undermines the credibility of us all."

Thursday, June 09, 2011

The half-way point

Bear with me a moment. I'm trying to explore the nature of something.

I've found that when it comes to memories, there is an inevitable point when what you know and what you feel and what you feel about what you felt back then all come together to create the perfect storm of nostalgia. This is long after the actual event. This often happens naturally, but can also be forced out of myself by creating the conditions necessary for a deep longing. It's been a while since she died, but I recall my mother when I enter the room she died in. I recreate the last sounds that came out of her, pull out the look on the doctor's face when he stopped pumping her heart, and then my sister making a phone call I could never have made.

The idea is not to mourn, or grieve, but to remember. And not just remember a moment, but a moment filled with feeling.

But there comes a half-way point when the bubbling in the water starts to subside before it cools and, finally, becomes still. My instinct then is to remember what I can dispassionately, and fall back on photographs, videos, and the recollections of other people. Through these things I can reconstruct, in a Frankensteinian way, the life of people I knew. This happens after the half-way point.

At this stage, truly unreliable narratives are formed. The kind that can't always be verified because they could be true, or just might not.

Just thinking aloud.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Dubai-returns

To me, a memory is a story whose cast and lines change imperceptibly with each recollection. Seen from other angles, memories become a kind of hazy witness report. Put together, they overlap to form some kind of truth. Three years ago, in a fit of nostalgia, I began to write a long, flawed memory of our life in Dubai. It is by no means accurate, but I had hoped to capture what I remember of this family before it became entirely fiction. This urge to record was always there, but it became more urgent when an uncle threw out a trove of old letters, photographs and documents because he needed the trunk for storage. I suddenly realized how much I wanted to read those letters, and see those photographs.

(A note. This was meant to be much longer, but I reasoned that a series of stories would allow me to delve into this history in greater detail, so I chopped it off abruptly.)


Not long after its independence, my elders landed on Dubai’s shores. They came by ship, one after another, heeding the trunk calls from other relatives in the desert. Come here, life is good here, get a job here. Here was the place to be. Between here and where they were, this was not a difficult choice to make. The Seventies were swinging elsewhere, and leaving India couldn’t have been easier. So they came, as others from India and its neighbors had, without a job, their confidence built on the rickety rumors of better prospects. They came with eight dollars in cargo class (because that is what India allowed them to carry outside) stopped at Karachi a while, and arrived here, unbathed and unshaved, five days later.

On arrival they walked to their new home under a burning sun. Word would spread. Another one had arrived. That evening the clan would converge, happy to have grown in number. I was not there then, but they would have danced, as they always did. Their arms jolting rhythmically and convulsing bodies following, their eyes closed, forefingers up, as if to say ‘bear with this for a minute’; the dance of men who could not groove. Wives and sisters, newly acquainted, sat on carpets with the air conditioning turned up, and talked about things the men had no time for.

Photographs show them before the wrinkles appeared, before the desert took its due. They look beautiful in their saris and pants, with the lady from Bombay in her short hair, and the new entrant from Indore in plaits, her eyes wide open. In hindsight, those years were lean but uncomplicated. Decades later, when they finally had the money they wanted, the simplicity would be gone.

For all it signifies, Dubai remains a small city. Along the way, its planners were galvanized by the idea of a greater destiny. The first attempts at greatness were classical: the world’s longest cake, the world’s biggest clock. Sharjah, the emirate next door, had the world’s third-largest fountain. These were diligently reported in the Khaleej Times, our local paper. Supportive letters were sent to the editor. Relatives gathered every week to discuss these achievements in earnestness. If anyone missed these drunken meetings, as an uncle who ran a photo store did, he would be heckled by the mob. “Note-chaap,” they would say to his face. Money-printer. And then rib his sons who had stayed behind.

Every now and then, a cousin would down a few drinks and claim to have seen the blueprint for Dubai’s growth. It involved breathtaking road layouts and supreme architecture. It was a great conversation stopper. For a moment the family would pause to consider how plausible this was. It was entirely plausible. Only fifteen years ago there had been nothing here but houses in the sand and a creek. Now there were malls and central air conditioning. Even then, it was implausible. The idiot had drunk too much. They would continue discussions over Amstel and Planters cheese balls. It was not a place or a time for introspection. One arbitrary ruling by the royal family, would have meant we’d be back in Indore. So the future, for many people, was of course filled with unknowns, but it held no promise, only the dread of tomorrow. They otherwise earned and lived well, better than they would have elsewhere, but many of them lived from day to day.

The cousin would not tell us how he knew. You only need to see a picture of modern Dubai to know he was right. There will be trains in the sky, it will be a city of skyscrapers and huge attractions and ten million visitors each year. You could see pictures of the same place, year by year from 1972, and understand that this advance was inevitable. But in 1990, which falls halfway between 1972 and 2007, we had simply no idea. Dubai was Dubai, it stood for nothing else. People made money there, but that was all. It would be a decade before it was compared with Monaco, giant islands were built off shore, and the Burj shone like a jewel in the Dubai skyline. But I missed this breathless growth. In 1996 I left to start my own life. 

Breathless activity has its downsides. Where I used to live is now unsympathetically called old Dubai. Twenty years old and it’s known as old Dubai. The beating heart of the city has shifted twenty kilometers outward, and so planned was the approach that for a while the city had a downtown filled with cranes and construction workers and not a finished building in sight. Before modern Dubai, a place like it existed only in Sim City 2000.

But downtown came later. This was a quiet town once, before the desert was swept back. At the time, a single low aerial snap could capture every building in town. A creek slunk through its center, splitting the population in two; Deira with its electronics stores on one side, and Bur Dubai’s south Asian textile shops on the other. The place couldn’t have been closer to heaven for immigrants from India, of whom there were multitudes. They lived a life radically different from anything their own countries could afford. Dubai offered wealth and familiar food and entertainment. Of course rules had to be followed, the first among them being unofficial - that the Arab always took preference over all else. It was a wisdom that held true, as people learnt from the unfortunate experiences of others. Deportations and jail terms were common. But such were the benefits of staying in line and keeping your head down that the city, at least as the papers reported it, experienced virtually no incident or crime.

Back home in India, people argued that they lived in a democracy. In Hindi movies the term ‘Dubai-return’ was coined to describe a peculiar comically stylish breed of sunglass-wearing Indian. The city came to be renowned as the den of smugglers and thieves whose motive was to destabilize India. Those were na├»ve times, although the truth is that the Indians who stayed behind lived an unforgiving life. There was violence and corruption and taxes and an uncooperative bureaucratic regime and a list of wrongs as lengthy as history.

The view in Dubai was of course different. To them, the freedoms of an authoritarian country were not as taxing as those of the democracy left behind. Naturally dissent was unacceptable, but they were here for work and the good life, not trouble. It did not matter whether internationally wanted men moved among them for the city was content and promised lasting peace. And peace was kept, despite the immigrant population consisting largely of Indians and Pakistanis afflicted by Partition’s festering wounds. Their recent history had brimmed with injustices that often boiled over into wars, but the immigrants here had long ago decided that nationalism did not buy a new car. Besides, Dubai offered only one chance.

They took that chance to build businesses that thrived for decades. Movie theaters and drive-ins, jewelry stores, supermarkets, photo studios, music stores, restaurants – the small businesses sprouted everywhere, making it like a sanitized version of home. This happened by strength in numbers. The photo studio I sat at was bracketed by an Indian fast food restaurant and a tailoring shop – one run by a sikh, the other by a South Indian. Down the street small and identical music stores did business, and flourished. Which was befuddling, because everyone sold the same video and audio cassettes. Indian textiles flooded the market. Hindi was adopted by Arabs, and they spoke a broken version of it: “Ek minute. Hum aati.” The Indian hand was everywhere. And so, given the evidence of their culture flourishing, each day convinced the immigrants further that the land was their own, even if they couldn’t buy it.

Perhaps they overestimated their supposed stake, because one morning the exodus began. The day’s papers mentioned a new ruling that forced workers below a certain income to leave Dubai immediately. As days went by the reports of departures nurtured an old insecurity. Our family meetings were more politically inclined. ‘Who knows what they’ll come up with next?’ some would ask in anger. It was true. Rulings came with no prior warning, and had a nasty way of forcing upheaval upon large swathes of the population. The children, my cousins, who had so far been unaware of the impact of new legislation, were now old enough to latch on to catchphrases. “Who knows what they’ll come up with next,” a cousin parroted and was immediately shushed up. My parents would wait until the last guest had left before holding me to never repeat conversations at home. The reigning Indian policy of no confrontation had worked for them, and they wished for us too to become invisible in some ways. The local populace, we understood, had to be respected and feared. An Arab was always - always - connected to someone who could alter the course of your life. Proof of this was not required. When enough people speak about a thing, it becomes true. Dubai was not the kind of place where you learnt from your own mistakes.

The theory of cooperation and respect was tested during the first Gulf War, when the city swarmed with marines. I’d spend time with my uncle at his photo studio in Bur Dubai where a cash register swallowed green bills with a frequency unimaginable to us. The volume of work had overwhelmed the small staff. He needed an extra hand. I’d help with feeding the negative into the processor, cutting it in to strips and slipping them into plastic sheaths. Then the photos would come out of the machine, one every half minute or so, with these alien white faces doing strange things. They were big and had blond hair and freckles. They dressed differently, and wore shirts untucked. Sometimes they were bare-chested. Sometimes the women wore almost nothing. My uncle would look at every picture, replacing bad prints with a reprint, not stopping to linger on any one a little longer. He betrayed no curiosity. Racy pictures were destined, like all others, for a drawer under the register filled with envelopes marked for customers. I think back now, remembering his glasses perched half-way up his broad nose under his thick Sindhi eyebrows, skipping through these prints quickly. The faster he did this, the more he earned.
Ever so often a local walked in to the crowded shop. Experience had taught them that Arabs will get attention, so nothing need be said or demanded. My uncle stopped what he was doing and would speak with him directly, bypassing the customers who arrived before. The others waited testily, but said nothing. Americans looked at things differently.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The pianist

The pianist, a quiet man from Washington, contemplated what he would do after he gave up what he was born to do. Greying, slowing, he no longer relegated tasks to the future, when he would be greyer, slower. He was born to old parents who gave him the opportunity to be still and read, and through these books he learned that men a thousand years ago were no different from those today. In time, after he was alone a long while, and after his professional ambitions began to fade, he saw the dreams his passions had obscured. The pianist took to travel, looking for answers to questions that were never clear. He traversed the quietest parts of this country, moving between places where people found enlightenment, hoping to be inspired. There had been no inspiration so far, only a faint realization that his life was enviable, even as it came to a close. Men who helped him get around told him so, and he began to see the walls that separated these men from the lives they could lead. The force of this desire made him reconsider what he was doing, and how he was doing it.

But there's still the future to think of, he said, lighting up a cigarette on a musty morning in Goa. There are things he wants to do, but these are tempered by things he has to do. Right now, he has to play the piano.

Then he shrugged, and smiled, and did what men a thousand years ago did: he filed the dilemma for later.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Why they left

Last Sunday, Niranjan Rajadhyaksha, Samanth Subramanian, and I caught up.

As an aside, one of the things I'm irrationally proud of - don't ask why - is that Samanth edited the first article of my professional writing life. He had been at Cricinfo a while, and I was three days old there. He went through it at the speed the web demands, adding a word here, removing one there, rejigging a couple of paragraphs, before reaching the last line. Here he paused, reading it again and again, before writing this over it in one thirty-second burst:

Farhat's dismissal brought Inzamam-ul-Haq to the crease, and he scored a quickfire 25 in his 300th one-day international to set the tone for the late-innings savagery. Youhana's 53-ball 64 and Razzaq's 34 off just 16 balls merely drove the nails more thunderously into the coffin of this depleted New Zealand outfit.

I don't remember what I had written, but the way he wrote these lines did. After he was done, he felt compelled to say something about good beginnings and satisfying endings. This was my first taste of the uncluttered thinking that added to Cricinfo's aura. In time I'd come to learn of Tim de Lisle's legendary stylebook - 'colour is good', I think he wrote - why adjectives were discouraged, and other things I can't remember, but which live on in the writing style of nearly everyone who moved on from Cricinfo (except for Rahul Bhattacharya, who came and went with his own style).

But ten days after I joined, Samanth left and, by dint of being present, I became a full employee. I was thankful for the job, but didn't really bother finding out why he left. In the years since then, while I worked there, I knew that Chandrahas left to explore a wider world, while Amit wanted to focus on blogging. It's difficult to explain how seismic this was. Sure, we talked about how there were more distractions for Indians today, and yes, a casual survey did tell us that football was more popular in city schools than cricket, and that is why people were stepping away from the game. These reasons explained dwindling audiences, they explained falling ratings. But now, when I think about it, these were probably things we felt by ourselves. That the more frequent games became, the lesser was the anticipation. The more they marketed each game, the less we listened to the personal rhythms that connect sport lovers spread over continents. Cricket thrived, and still does, but I'd argue that it is no longer the medium for its writers' passions that it once was. Siddhartha Vidyanathan continues to write about the sport beautifully, but he does this outside the fold. No Zimbabwe versus Bangladesh matches for him. Rahul has turned to exploring quieter worlds. Amit, who brings scary intensity to everything he does, now challenges himself in other ways.

All this is connected to Sunday. When the discussion veered to cricket writing, Samanth said he left because - and I'm phrasing this very loosely - he didn't want to hate the game. Now, writing this, I realize he felt it change before most of us did. Like the writers who came after him, he left it because he loved the idea of it too much. It would be funny if it wasn't true.

Why this post, why now? I guess I'm grappling with something new - the idea that writing seriously in India requires sacrifice and a degree of risk-taking. Looking at Cricinfo and its writers helps. They put themselves in a new place because they couldn't completely believe in the old one. I can't think of a better reason to leap.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The phantom leap

Eight days short of six years ago, when there was time for internal dialogue, I wrote this. Many things have changed since, but the conflicts present in the last paragraph have remained. There have been growing responsibilities, and a greater awareness of the consequences of each choice. And yet the conflicts don't go away. Even after six years of learning, of working toward something, of hopefully becoming a slightly better writer. That phantom leap still lingers, waiting for me to decide. Each choice is brave and yet cowardly; the secure path leads to a warm life, and the one I haven't taken could be miserable.

But I live and breathe my stories in a way I can't explain. Not to you, or my bosses, or my family, or even myself. The last story I explored and wrote with passion - even if it doesn't come across - was the longest I had ever written and, I asked myself after a month: "Still not one comment?" The story took three weeks to research, and a week to write. Then came another story, about the Oscar Library, which I wrote because I had to fill a weekly deadline. I wrote it in an hour. I spent the next two days in a terrible funk, because it was terrible. And I'm still surprised how many people liked it.

So at what point does one take that leap? I'm still grappling with it. When I wrote 25, 35, 45, I genuinely didn't know how life would turn out. At 31, the answer is no clearer, but the choices, and their consequences, certainly are.

I guess knowing how you're going to be screwed is a kind of progress.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The spirit of inquiry

Reading The Emperor of All Maladies today, I came by a passage whose sentiment I found familiar .

"Basic research," [Vannevar] Bush wrote, "is performed without thought of practical ends. It results in general knowledge and an understanding of nature and its laws. This general knowledge provides the means of answering a large number of important practical problems, though it may not give a complete specific answer to any one of them...."

Bush argued that the the spirit of inquiry was central to scientific progress, and that "programmatic" science, which favoured a regimented, goal-based approach, would stifle innovation.

But as I mentioned, Bush's words felt familiar because writing often felt like this. Especially at the start, and especially at times like now, when I want to stop doing whatever I'm doing and focus on defining my present limits. These boundaries keep changing, and with these boundaries the 'laws' change too. The "general knowledge" it results in is of the personal kind; I discover a little more about myself. These discoveries, in turn, take me someplace else. When the spirit of inquiry is alive, we chart new territory.