Growing up I would envy friends whose father’s had transferable jobs moving to different cities, within country and abroad. Ours was a business family and this necessitated staying in one place and one residence, a family property, in sleepy, culturally and politically rich town of Allahabad on the banks of River Ganga, the holy river for Hindus.
I immersed myself in books, no limits on genre, waiting for the day when I too will have the world in my palm, because in words of travel writer Pico Iyer ‘‘…travel is, deep down, about the real confirmation of very unreal dreams”. My dreams were about ‘traveling the world and seven seas’, of becoming a successful novelist/journalist/writer, and penning my thoughts.
Travel was a family weakness (my father had traveled to Europe by the P&O liner in 1959) though in my case it surfaced late. The opportunity came with marriage (1978) when I took up residence in New Delhi, an opportunity or step closer to other lands. We covered the length and breadth of India and Nepal in first year of marriage as husband was in Sales and Marketing and I accompanied him when ever I could. I preferred the lazy somnolent train travels of the 80’s, irrespective of often-grimy stations and unhygienic train bathrooms, to latter-day air travel. The arrival of children bought a lull to frequent travels that were gradually replaced by vacations to nearby hill stations and family outings to my hometown, Allahabad.
The real expat change came when husband accepted a five-year assignment in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman, an unknown land in the Middle East. Apprehensions sidelined I did not mind being a “trailing spouse” (term coined in 1981 by The Wall Street Journal’s Mary Bralove) sacrificing a career as I had opted out of long-hours of journalistic work for freelance writing, reading, exploring and meeting with people. My husband’s position as General Manager of his company and Director on the Management Committee of Indian School, Muscat, insured us the luxuries and privileges of social and cultural life of Muscat. School holidays took us to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Cyprus, travel within Oman, while my husband jetted to USA, Europe and the Far East on work. Life was on an even keel, our daughter left for the USA, joining college in Massachusetts after high school and son followed a few years later to Purdue University.
Oman was an unknown shoe-shaped land; our then 6-year old son had refused to live in a shoe on hearing about our move, probably thinking about the “Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe”. The country was a challenge, not for language or adjustments, but accepting the similarities between India and Oman. There were no language issues, close ties between Oman and the sub-continent had guaranteed that, except for following the laws of the country. English and to certain extent Hindi was the common bond and the younger generation was keen on following what an Omani friend dubbed as ‘India’s export of English –speaking workforce’.
Oman was Indian, as far as its history goes ‘with one foot in India’ during British rule in the subcontinent. Muscat was an enclosed city with no main street, a maze of narrow winding alleys leading to a central compound. The heavy wooden gates would be closed at night, about three hours after sunset, allowing only authorized vehicles within the city boundaries. Pedestrians were let in through a small door in the main gate and that too if they carried the lantern provided by the law. A Omani friend told us about how there were few automobiles in the city and the proud owners would take pains to salute passing motorists, who, very often happened to be friends or family. Over a passage of time, with the exercise getting a bit tedious, cardboard hands replaced human hands to be waved from the windows. It did sound a bit far-fetched. In present Muscat it is impossible to look sideways for fear of being hit from the rear or side. With discovery of oil in the 1980s, progress stepped in and today Oman enjoys a stable and peaceful environment under a benevolent Sultan.
I spent time in libraries reading about Oman, its close ties with India and in free time walking the souks and the lanes, the beaches and restaurants and parks, meeting with other expats and reveling in concerts and art exhibitions. I took up freelance writing assignment with Khaleej Times (Dubai) and this opened up vistas to meet with Omanis. The women were friendly but men, a slight reserve and respect. I was intrigued and impressed by the women, their restrictions and freedom, and work opportunities. In Salalah, capital of Dhofar on Southern tip of Oman and bordering Yemen, I met with a Omani family. The wife was expecting her sixth child and wanting to know how many I had and was surprised by my answer .She placed her hand on my stomach and whispered ‘only two-khallas’. I wanted to tell her that I had a choice to decide, but refrained being guests of the family and the country. Oman was/is not a ‘Purdah’ nation, though women did wear the Abaya and covered their heads, as women enjoyed freedom to work, to drive. Being the first or fourth wife did not frighten most as I gauged from my conversation with a girl soon to be the fourth wife of a moneyed man. She awaiting to enjoy a life of luxury. There must be a different side to the story to.
The five years, 1995 -2000, were a learning curve for the family. But then changes happen and we decided to return to India, empty nesters starting anew.
To be cont: Accidental Expat on the Prowl…fresh pastures