Accidental Expat.

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River Ganga, Allahabad

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.

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Dhofar…land of frankincense and camels

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’.

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Muscat Souk and the Corniche

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.

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1997, Salalah, Dhofar

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

Odds and Ends

Ailsa’s Challenge\Cee’s Odd Ball Challenge

Wall writings in a Pub…appropriate for the festive season. Gurgaon, India

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Odd balls one cannot discard….a Goat Walk ( somewhere in British Columbia, Canada)

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Kumbh Mela- 2013

Link to my observations on the Kumbh Mela: http://www.tripatini.com/profiles/blogs/kumbh-mela-instant-moksha

The Kumbh Mela held every 12 years on the banks of Rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati at Allahabad is supposedly the biggest religious fair on earth. Allahabad or Prayag is my home town and I grew up with the myths surrounding the three rivers.
Moksha is salvation and a dip in the sacred waters cleanses mind and body.

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Taj Mahal ……Marbleized

The whiteness vandalizes the senses as I gaze at this architectural splendor from the prism of the entrance arch. On closer view the white is flecked with browns and greys and burrowed settings once embellished with precious and semi precious stones. I savor the fluidic elegance of ‘a teardrop on the cheek of time‘* and wonder how long will it take for the present pollution level to stymie the Taj into a giant tear drop.

It is amazing how this venerated love monument has taken on the rampaging composition of pollution, population and political sentiments……the prayer caps and picnicking families, the gullible tourists* (foreigners pay Rs. 700 as compared with Rs. 20 for locals), the never-ending queues of admirers listening to guides crochet VIP visits ‘Princess of Wales sat on this very seat’ with the history of the monument, the workmanship, the conspiracy theories of Shah Jahan hijacking a Hindu monument, whether it is a ‘monument of devotion’ or simply a Mughal conquerors statement.

Agra played a central role in Mughal history, forfeited its capital status to Delhi in 1637. with its cache of Mughal architecture such as Fathepur Sikri the city built by Akbar, the tomb of Itmad-Ud-Daula, Sikandra 13 miles from the Great Red Fort of Agra from where an imprisoned Shah Jahan would view the Taj Mahal through a piece of glass and the Taj Mahal, constructed in 1631.

This was my fifth visit to Agra and the Taj Mahal in last 40 years and on this visit the Taj took on the hue of the protagonist of hypothetical murder mysteries revolving around religious conflicts, secret organizations, assassinations and the world of dancers and dons. In real scenario the main burial site of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan is off-limits to tourists and I tried to visualize the action as I strolled on the paved pathways searching for hidden clues. The surrounding narrow and congested lanes, the dilapidated Mina Bazaar near the entrance to the Taj, the gardens turned into farms, crowded parking lots, the colorful modes of transport, the varied cuisine are props for an actionized duplicate.

The real is marbleized photo-op for visitors.

* Rabindranath Tagore
*The Taj Mahal is visited by nearly 2-4 million visitors annually with over 200,000 from overseas.

NEW DELHI and GURGAON: I Thought I Knew My Cities.

Delhi is celebrating 100 years of its existence as the capital city of India and shades of its glorious past squint through heritage sites and dilapidated pockets of livelihood. The long journey of transformation from collective villages into a metropolis has been traumatic, uneventful, deceitful, apathetic, joyful, resentful.

Delhi is my adopted city, married here, and Allahabad my birth city and school holidays meant visits to my mother’s ancestral home in one of the lanes of Ballimaran, Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi. My great-grandfather had seven sons and one daughter and the wise old man refused to build property because he did not want his sons to fight over bricks and mortar. I remember the rented ‘haveli’ or mansion with its shadowless rooms, the ‘baithak’ or lounge with a massive mattress, where great-grandfather reportedly spent hours puffing on his hookah, and the labyrinth of passages for the children to run around. I heard stories from my mother and her cousins of how they would sneak out to purchase candy from street-hawkers when great-grandfather had his afternoon nap. The visits also meant gorging on jalebis* at the Dariba, fruit chaat* from the vendor in front of State Bank building and parathas* from the Paratha gali or lane.

New Delhi- Connaught Place

I made New Delhi my home, after marriage, and similar to most dwellers became immune to the dirt and squalor blaming it on the government and the people trooping from adjoining cities and villages. I would weave my way through traffic stopping at red lights by choice and accepting noise pollution, power outages and water shortage as addendum of daily living.

The equation changed when we returned after five years in Oman, 2000, and I viewed Delhi from an ‘outsider’ perception. The ‘India Shining’ slogan rang hollow against the squalor, the lounging cows blocking roads and traffic, the daily workers living on roadsides and using the vacant plots as toilets, the women beggars with scrawny infants hanging onto their hips, child beggars and the ‘acceptance’ attitude of the public. The list was endless little realizing that I was voicing ‘tourist’ views when I too was to blame for the apathetic state of affairs.

The Gurgaon entrance

In 2006 we moved to Gurgaon, 15 miles south of New Delhi, hoping for a slice of the ‘millennium’ bonanza. My first impression of the ‘Millennium’ city was that ‘it is haphazardly crowded’ with nearly 26 shopping malls showcasing major world brands, golf courses, private clubs, movie theaters, pubs and bars, luxury apartments, palatial villas, slums and all-glass commercial hubs displaying world’s top corporations. The city touted as the symbol of rising India slipped somewhere along the line and problems that were once the bane of Delhi haunt the new city and its residents: The unreliable power supply (generator power is the main power supply), missing pavements and sidewalks, vacant lots converted into garbage disposal sites, pot holed roads and lanes, the newer overcrowded Metro stations still in incomplete stage, rickshaw queues and traffic snarls.

still developing

On a recent visit to Delhi/Gurgaon from Hong Kong, our residence since 2008, I was driving from Gurgaon to Delhi on the main connector M.G. Road with its demolished landmarks (commercial buildings demolished when the Municipal Corporation decided they were illegal) and the crawling traffic made me chant prayers to keep my cool. For a few minutes it worked but I soon gave up all pretence of civility and for rest of the one hour drive I was mouthing expletives at passing motorists and motor cyclists. There is still no lane or signal concept and before you can say ‘red’ a car zooms past oblivious of your rear view mirror. It is an ordeal or an adventure, whichever way one looks at it, though I still would not trade it for a monotonous drive I experienced commuting from San Jose to San Francisco where one is in danger of dozing off.

The 2011 Anna Hazare movement against corruption captured the collective imagination of the country in different ways. Even when the Anna fast was going on and streets crowded with sympathizers, an employee of the electricity sub station in my block, in Gurgaon, wanted to know whether I was living in a bungalow or an apartment. I had gone to register a meter fault and was without electricity for four hours. He showed up around 6 p.m.,least apologetic about the inconvenience though sorry for missing out on ‘pocket money’ because by then I had called a private electrician to repair the meter.  A Catch-22 situation..be damned if you give and be damned if you don’t.

The Gurgaon and Delhi refurbishings are still on, and hopefully, someday the cities would not remind me of village belles stepping out of their comfort zones with mismatched accessories.

* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jalebi

* http://tarladalal.com/Fruit-Chaat

* Stuffed Indian flat bread

Continuity

India Gate

For an Indian man any woman above thirty is a ‘bahanji’ (sister) and any woman above 50 a ‘mataji’ (mother). Here I was belonging to the second group traveling in the county’s national carrier. I desisted from wearing tights, a loose shirt and knee-length boots. After all I did not want to short-circuit the immigration officer. He would waste ten minutes scanning me and then my age in the passport…a ‘mataji’ gone mod.

A flight is known by the food it serves and services offered. Asked for non vegetarian and it was a mistake. The chicken was anything but curried, the bun too solid, pulled and pulled and tore it apart, thankfully saved my teeth. Satisfied my hunger with rice, fat-free yoghurt and yellow lentil to last me for 4 (four) hours.

The plane is half full…tour groups and company largesse crowd from small towns, getting high on free glasses of whisky, calling out to each other across the aisle.

The new airport is humongous. I felt I had never stopped walking from Hong Kong to New Delhi, except for the few hours plane ride. Kept glancing upwards, towards the ceiling, waiting for some mishap. With so much happening, falling bridges and ceilings, one expected the worse. But then as a friend pointed out, it is the national airport.

Connaught Place

Visited Connaught Place or Rajiv Chowk. It did look refurbished, new coat of paint and new tiles. Some left over patches are visible and one wonders whether we will have to wait for the next big event or wait for the tiles to disappear to people’s homes. Anything is possible.

The one constant, India Gate, a mute witness to the shenanigans of the inhabitants, still manages to stand tall.