Friday, February 29, 2008

Of cabbages and kings

I recently came across a Sultan Qaboos fan club of sorts and promptly enrolled as a supporter. In the process I found that a large number of the fans are not Omani, or indeed living in Oman.

People in Dubai tend to be derisive about its gentler neighbour (and it must be admitted that a lot of the things they say are true). But of all the people I met in my three years in Muscat, not one was able to leave without a backward glance. In contrast, more than half the acquaintances who've left Dubai have shaken its dust from their feet in disgust or weariness.

It is hard to convey to those who worship the gleaming towers and swank nightclubs, the sense of time and substance that Oman offers. I worked as hard and the same long hours that I do in Dubai (in fact I had a six-day week), but somehow I always had time to do it all and more. Everyone should live there once, though perhaps not more than three years – more than that, I agree with the detractors, will probably make you catatonic.

I want to beg the tourists wandering through Bastakiya clutching leaflets to visit Oman. Because that is where it is, the Arabia they've come to see. Living, breathing Arabia at its most honourable, in its element. The boat-builders in Sur do it for a living, not as museum workers guarded by a visitors' centre. The frankincense harvested in Dhofar is piled high in the souqs for Omanis to buy as part of their monthly shopping, not just for tourists. These are working souqs. As of a year ago, the Muscat-Dubai bus still had its kahwa-maker handing out free cups of spiced coffee before the six-hour journey to the border – in that gesture lies the spirit of the country, the "essence of Arabia", as their tourism department chose to call it.

The first time I went snorkelling in Fujeirah, I secretly howled with laughter at the raptures of my fellow visitors. This elaborate trip to see coloured fish yielded almost nothing compared to any random beach in Muscat. At Bandar Jissa there were whole schools of them swimming around my ankles in water a foot deep. On a casual swim at PDO beach, sea turtles could come right up to you. Glancing out of a cafe window on a desultory evening, there could be phosphorescence flashing like lightning in the water. I've seen dolphins cavorting far out at sea on a mundane weekday, while driving to a meeting.

The refreshing flash of blue as the road wound between hills was a feature of my daily life. And every day the sun floated up ceremoniously from behind ranges upon ranges of mountains – right outside my bedroom window. Bored winter afternoons could be enlivened by climbing old hill trails that rose almost from your backyard, until you reached a place where there was nothing but orange, pink and grey stone in every direction and were subsumed into a monumental calm that was there before you and will remain after.

The only thing I am subsumed into here is a colossal lethargy, broken occasionally by impotent anger at injustice. (The races mingled benignly in Oman, so the septic, jagged edge of racism was unfelt until I got here. It was in Dubai that, for the first time in my life, my writing encountered the thick brick wall formed by a concept called "native English speaker".)

When I leave here I don't think I will take anything but the friendships I made. It is unlikely that I will feel the kind of affection for the place that moves me, six years and many leagues later, to pay my respects to the head of the Sultanate. These things are reciprocal, you see.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Subsidies and other mysteries

India's railway budget adds a few more concessions to the already staggering list of exceptions and dispensations. "Unemployed youth for interview", I found out today, travel free. A "circus artist" pays half-price, as does a polo team for some reason – you'd think they could afford the ticket. Perhaps the difference is made up on the horse boxes. If you have heart disease, kidney disease, cancer, leprosy, TB, thalassemia or haemophilia – or can treat them – you never pay more than half the fare and often not more than quarter. AIDS was added to the list today.

Passenger fares have been reduced this year and by a fair amount. (Or at least so it seems. I struggle to decipher the economic-speak and have to wait for tomorrow's newspapers to translate it.) How do they make the profit? I wish I knew more about these things.

The railway minister's speech is a delight. I have said it before in the teeth of outcry from my compatriot friends and I will say it again: If this man stood for Prime Minister, I would get on a plane to vote for him. Including the mannerisms, the studied rusticity and the turn for the (tongue-in-cheek, possibly) devoutly dramatic.

Monday, February 25, 2008

My favourite quote of the week

"We don't live in any time zone any more so call whenever." – My sister-in-law who's just had a baby.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Dear Santa

I've given up the evil tobacco. I'm ready to collect my returns now, at your convenience.

My health? What is that? I can't eat it. I can't wear it. I can't take it to dinner. I can't even see it. (I have a cold, so I still can't taste anything and my throat still feels terrible when I wake up. It doesn't look like anything else has changed either.)

I deserve an exotic, immense worldly reward. Gimme.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

And in other news...

Guatemala farmers release police
Guatemalan farmers disarmed 29 police officers inside a police station and took them by boat to a remote jungle village, where they held them hostage for two days. The helpless hostages included a police station head, a police district head and four other commanders. The farmers wanted the release of a "farm leader", whatever that means, arrested for robbery and illegally occupying land. Apparently they've got what they wanted. A police spokesman said: "They told us they are going to kill them one by one."

The Japanese invented a DangerBomb
It’s an alarm clock that looks like a bomb, sounds like a bomb and forces you to work like a keen-eyed Hollywood bomb squad before you're even awake. You can turn it off only by detaching the right coloured wire – which is determined randomly every day. If you get it wrong, it will explode in your ear. If you're likely to be in a US airport at the same time as a flight coming in from Japan, expect to take at least a day to get through security.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

If I'm laughing, it must be two weeks.

I had the strangest few minutes this morning. I made my coffee, opened the balcony door, took a deep breath of the morning air, then casually put my cup down and started to walk about – first in the direction of the side tables, then the shelf my music system sits on, then to my dining table, not impatient yet, just puzzled at something unaccountably missing from the place it should be. I suddenly stopped the automaton-like wandering and laughed. I was looking for my cigarettes. Without conscious thought. So this is why they say not to have any cigarettes stashed away anywhere. The relapse can happen involuntarily. How fascinating.

Monday, February 18, 2008


One of my friends is super-fit (she drops casually into a spilt like a rag doll), with the flattest stomach I've seen outside of Baywatch. She's also blessed with considerable height and real curves. As you can imagine, she is stunning. But she hides herself away most of the time because she thinks she's fat.

This is not a unique story. Slim girls who weigh themselves every day seem to look in the mirror and see only the extra half-pound of negligible water weight. Fat girls like me, who use the weighing scale as a doorstop, look in the mirror and see the body as it would have been if they had shed five pounds by doing the "bikini ready in four weeks" thing they'd cut from a magazine and put on the fridge a month ago.

It may sound like delusion, but it's actually just the joy of potential.

I did become bikini-skinny one time, through great toil and trouble. After the novelty of it wore off (about a week) it became apparent that I had not magically transformed into anything else. Not an elegant social butterfly, nor a brilliant, extrovert scientist. I still couldn't remember any jokes, let alone tell them. It had not lessened my workload, lengthened my weekend or helped me pass the slope test, not matter how easily I did it when practising with my driving instructor.

Basically, I was still me – but an unhappy, malnourished, uptight, weighing-scale-junkie version. The "unsuitable" clothes that I wear with exuberant pleasure in my overweight state were impossible to buy when skinny, because all I saw in the mirror was the extra half-pound of negligible water weight.

In other ways it didn't make a blinding bit of difference. I don't think my friends even noticed beyond the first few days. (In fact I expect one of them, reading this, to wonder when it happened though he was present at the time). The only one it mattered to – too much – was the boyfriend. This mercifully annoyed me enough to force me off the wagon.

So I was free again to take pleasure in being me. To enjoy the places I went, the people I met, the food I ate, the sun, sea and sand, without worrying about what I looked like doing it.

Years later, I let myself to be talked into joining a celebrated weight-loss centre. For two hours every day I was judged and found wanting by strangers that I did not respect or like. Day by miserable day, they picked and tore at my self-esteem (apparently your existing confidence needs to be destroyed before they can build their version in its place as promised). I have looked forward to dentist visits with more girlish enthusiasm.

The mental self-defence system kicked in 10 days later and I ditched the whole thing. Someone else I know tried it and reacted exactly the same way. This kind of "slimming centre" – its lying refrain of wellness, beauty, confidence, in equal parts hypnotic and nauseating – represents everything that is wrong with the world. The reason why millions of young girls are seduced by anorexia. Why my proficient, intelligent, extremely level-headed friend has inexplicably allowed a pretender called "body image" to get under her guard.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Fat, winged pests

A most spirited friend chose to make this her Facebook profile picture for the "season". (The original is from here). It's my favourite Valentine. A shining beacon of truth and beauty – or at least soothing defiance – in the vast headachy sea of artificially scented red roses and heart-shaped candles. The local papers have devoted millions of serious column inches to the "day of true love", as one of them courted grievous bodily harm by putting it. All I can say is, once you've crossed 22 (if you missed the boat at 18), you should at least have grown up enough to pretend that your celebration is ironic.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Ashes to ashes

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn the passing of a friend.

For ten years, we shared the joys and sorrows, the wakeful nights, the happy mornings, the contented hours and the disturbed ones. We celebrated and mourned together. Travelled, moved house, worked, partied, grew up.

We were together for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer. A daydream believer and a homecoming queen.

There is a lot of hearty, strident stuff spoken about quitting the habit, mostly because, like marriage, it's incomprehensible from the outside – you need to be in it to understand it. Someone described it as a magic wand that changes everything and quitting is hard because there isn't another one to replace it. Actually it is the closest companion, the truest love and the fairy godmother wielding the magic wand, all rolled into one.

A ten-year relationship is a hard one to end, but I did. As Hugh Grant says in Love Actually, "I fear this has become a bad relationship and from now on I am prepared to be much stronger". I finally got tired of the tyranny of this habit, angry about feeling helpless, dragged along in the wake of yet another compulsion. Tired enough, once more, to walk away from this sort of thing.

And now I need to go out to find creatures smaller than me and kill them just to watch them die. And I hope that you, dearly beloved who are reading this, will get fleas.

The quit-smoking programme said I'll stop feeling homicidal in two weeks. It also warned that heavy smokers would experience real feelings of bereavement.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

An uneasy valentine

A side-effect of researching the history of Indian Railways is an involuntary feeling of respect, in spite of yourself, for an empire that fully earned the word mighty. And a fresh disdain for the lesser version being attempted now.

The old invader was ruthlessly feudal, magnificently arrogant and calmly self-centered. The new one wears its power clumsily, still in awe of its own brute force. So no railway system will be bequeathed to Iraq, no snob schools will be built in Afghanistan nor clubs in Kosovo, no courts, cathedrals or civil service.

They will be left nothing to tear down in a gesture of independence or appropriate with ceremony or simply build on. Nothing will be stolen from them that can be demanded back in indignation as "closure". It will have been a rape, as opposed to an unequal relationship.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The great Indian railway journey

It began at 3:35pm on April 16th, 1853. 14 coaches carrying 400 passengers steamed out of Bombay's Bori Bunder to a 21-gun salute. They were hauled by three engines picturesquely called Sindh, Sultan and Sahib. It was an hour and fifteen minutes to the destination, Thane.

Of course two freight trains were already operating somewhere a few years before this, but they weren't nice enough for the memsahibs to sit in and didn't get any dress-uniform recognition. So the glamour date (as one might see in a Merchant-Ivory movie) is the Bori Bunder-Thane passenger.

In the first 25 years of Indian Railways, more than 6500 kilometers of track were laid. They moved from narrow gauge to meter gauge, built the Darjeeling Hill Railway, upgraded the coaches at least five times, published a railway timetable, laid emergency lines for famine relief and started construction of the Victoria Terminus. Routes emerged almost simultaneously to the North, East and South. Bombay, Ahmedabad, Ajmer, Delhi, Calcutta, Bangalore, Chennai, Salem and Hyderabad were just a few of the places connected rapidly, without the benefit of sixteen-wheeler trucks, cranes or telephones.

The Bangalore Metro, on the other hand, has been 25 years in the making and is still three years from completion (at the last estimate).

But in spite of that (and others like it), Indian Railways remains an awe-inspiring phenomenon, noticeably so even in a country where you're likely to find one around any random corner. 108,805 kilometres of track connect the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean, the Arabian sea to the Bay of Bengal. Across the vast spaces, signals rise and fall, points click and move, the little piece of paper with your name on it appears by magic on the reserved coach.

For me, like for many others, the life and times of the railways are caught up in my own, from a child who kept falling off the top berth to a lawless adult hanging out the doorway of a speeding express. Like everyone else I’ve resisted the temptation to pull that chain just once, just to see if it works. Cut dangerously across the rails from one platform to another, rather than climb the stairs. Still believe that even the most questionable food tastes great in the train.

In the first 25 years of my life, my local station went from a single-rail ghost stop to a seven-platform junction. The railways form India's only living, breathing, evolving historical monument. The Bangalore-Chennai Mail that I know so well has been running for 145 years.

I've stopped looking bewildered by choice when would-be tourists ask me where they can see the "real India". Now I tell them: just ride the trains. (One of them took my advice and so I discovered that there's an Indrail pass, modeled on the Eurail one.)

Perhaps one day the Shatabdi will be a bullet train and the commuter trains will run on elevated rail. Meanwhile, Indian Railways functions, through flood, famine, fire, riots, strikes, accidents, budget cuts – all the hazards of being the national carrier to a large and unwieldy democracy – almost always against the odds. If the trains stopped, so would the country.

Monday, February 04, 2008

War on error

Occasionally there is a quiet voice of reason that says coincidence has been an acceptable form of human error since time immemorial. Or a calmly informed comment about perfectly natural prevailing conditions of wind and water. But these are ignored even by readers who were thinking much the same thing themselves. Conspiracy theories about the cut cables are far more exciting.

Discussion among bloggers ranges from the obvious and unimaginative "terrorist attack" to the equally so NATO/CIA/NAVY axis of evil-bashers to the hysterically amusing "Russia is starting a cold war again" to the highly entertaining "I sent a large file to my friend, maybe it was too much". It's also interesting to note that several US bloggers and their readers seem to believe that the cutting off of Iran is the most serious consequence, forgetting, perhaps never knowing, about the others. India, for example, and the very real seriousness of that. The links are so many, I can't provide them here. I suggest a Google search. It's well worth the time.

Meanwhile, my internet access in Dubai continues uninterrupted, as you can see. I seem to have fallen within the correct 60%, in an entirely unprecedented move by the universe. Maybe it's been taken over by aliens.

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