Thursday, 15 September 2016


Facebook has enormous advantages. A friend who I have never met in person but who hails from my hometown, the coal capital and who comes across on facebook as a leftist, (pseudo)secular, cynical, forgetful blogger; when she decided to recommend the movie, Kapoor and sons, I took the plunge. For the first time, I went and watched a movie in the theatre all alone.

Since then I haven't stopped praising the film and have watched it again on two occasions in an attempt to make some of my family watch it.

So when somebody suggested I watch some of the Pakistani TV dramas that Fawad Khan had starred in, I bit the bait and spent many hours watching episode after episode till 5 am one morning and many hours while on call on another day. They are a pleasant watch with subtle expressions, developing relationships, designer sets and beautiful people. Even the saas bahu saga was played out to a different level of smiling deceit unlike our loud Ekta Kapoor brand of quarrelling, slapping, manipulating daily soaps.

Finally having thoroughly enjoyed these two TV shows which had the ever so handsome Fawad Khan being nice and romantic with his beautiful heroines while mouthing dialogues in the distinguished, soft and poetic language, Urdu (I now cringe when I say I speak Urdu to patients in the hospital)...I decided tentatively to start watching another of these TV dramas recommended by a dear friend.

I got bored quickly as there was no Fawad Khan but also what struck me was that all the Pakistani TV serials have plots which feature a rich good looking young man who gets in and out of swanky cars, plush houses and clubs; while the woman comes from a lower middle class hardworking background. Most of these serials also favour stereotypes like rich working women with "liberal" lifestyles don't make good wives and mothers while the conservative and religious women are a blessing to the family.

However, the very western Mills and Boons romances which we were brought up on, in school and college too invariably had a rich successful guy who falls head over heels with the working class girl who manages to look beautiful in dresses which she buys in sales. I am sure there were umpteen stereotypes being reinforced in those Duke- Governess, Comte- companion type romances, we read. Infact there used to be a series of Doctor Nurse romances- I wonder if there were any women physicians falling in love with male nurses, practitioners and the like.

Indian Bollywood masala films on the other hand often featured a rich spoilt daughter of a business tycoon falling for the roadside romeo.

The pairings are dependant on the audience, The Mills and Boon romances as well as the TV dramas have many more women readers and viewers while Bollywood films are more likely to be watched again and again in theatre by the young male population. At least that seems to me to be the reason for these typical story lines.

Women when they become successful apparently stop being feminine. Women in senior management, want to look feminine and hence less bossy. Therefore in a  disproportionate trend, these women prefer to be blonde, according to a study I recently read. It seems to me everybody loves a Trumping successful man but not a go getter ambitious brunette, either in the office or at home. But gradually the world and thus India too is changing, as the Olympic champions from the state with the worst male female ratios have shown us.

Bollywood thankfully has a lot of directors of different ages and genders, who have successfully shown the masala hero heroine villain and tree brand of filmmaking, the door. They will hopefully make more movies which challenge stereotypes and which feature more successful women who don't know how to cook and can't be bothered to clean yet who have hearts which unfortunately do not follow any rules about who to start beating faster for.

Looking forward to more from Zoya, Shakun, Nitya and the like...

Friday, 29 July 2016

Honeymooning Indian couples

Why are we such cynics? Why try to find sense in a honeymooning couple's chatter, why grudge them their little games with long noodles? After all we know better than them that it is a magical time in people's lives which, like magic doesn't last that long... And even in today's age Indian couples have probably not had the legitimate sanction to do what they want whether in public or otherwise before they were joined in holy matrimony.

But more importantly it spells hope for humanity reeling under negative news from all continents...Some things like the handholding and touching coochicooing of honeymooning couples in India doesn't change and the everyday reality of that should be reassuring rather than vexing.

But of course we have the married men fed on infinite whatsapp jokes on marriage from morning until bed time, who just cannot see the innocent romance of early matrimony.

They are dying to take the man away and break the news to him. They want to look into his eyes and in a sombre voice, trying not to break down...tell him what the future holds for him and how the heady passion filled days are going to give way to a nagging, jaded partner who can read your mind to the extent that if you try to bring the romance back by doing or saying something nice, it is treated with suspicion and the nagging partner then turns into a FBI agent investigating a crime.

Needless to say married men soon settle for beer and whatsapp or whisky and television or golf and pub...the options are many!

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Local versus international

"You had an arranged marriage? How could you go to bed with someone you had barely met?"
That was in England, back in India it would be- "People use toilet paper? You mean they don't wash  after they...chhhiii chhhiii..."

Different cultures react to different things in different ways.

In England in late 90s, when I told my co workers  I had just met my husband a few times before we got married, they were aghast and after the first set of exclamations did not show signs of calming down, one of the midwives calmly said- "Well at least she knew she was married to him, not something one can say about the women who go in for one night stands after a few drinks at the pub"

 Now with more and more knowledge of other cultures, more connectivity and most importantly dating apps which do precisely the same thing as the parents of  yester years did i.e. matching people's education, profession, hobbies etc. to come up with hopefuls to check out on, people don't exclaim as incredulously as they would have done nearly two decades ago.

Of all people my nineteen year old daughter's take on arranged marriage was quite jaded- "Most people arrange their marriages at some point" Well, do they? Yes there comes a time when the desire to settle down takes over other desires, I guess and you settle....for more or less. But it is still an intriguing aspect of my life for most "Westerners".

Apparently that is an official term used in some forms here in the UAE- Are you a Westerner, followed up by- Are you really a Westerner? I guess that would be for people like me who have difficulty deciding which side of the hemisphere they can call themselves from.

Coming to toilet paper, I must admit that finding a water bidet spray in every toilet here in UAE is heaven. I think that gives my Indianness away! No matter how long I survived in UK, how much I loved the countryside, the weather, the people and the local radio....there was always a mug in the toilet as is the case with most NRIs.

It has its downside. I had a bucket of water in the toilet for my in laws when they arrived in wet and windy Durham. My mother in law decided as a matter of habit to wash her feet on the floor of the toilet which was carpet less but had no outlet for water. The crumbling hospital accommodation leaked through the boards really fast and we had a job mopping it all up and explaining to my in laws that every time they wanted to wash their feet they would have to climb into the bath!

A lot is speculated similarly about the lives women lead in Islamic countries. When I was about to move to UAE I heard a spectrum of reactions. People who thought being in a sunny rich country would be great and others who had multiple reservations about what life would be like.

There were people who felt they would not be able to live here because they would not be able to hold hands in public and others who were concerned about how much they would need to cover up. I now meet Americans who raise their eyebrows at the length of shorts and skirts sported by foreigners in Dubai.

But I see young giggling school girls as well as grown women, young and old in ordinary, lacy, embroidered and now increasingly designed abayas and hijabs. Foot wear however depends on age and occupation. Sports shoes if they are younger or working in a hospital(!), stylish heels, which have decorations on the visible bits if they are older and comfortable matronly sandals if they are no longer looking for a husband.

Talking of husbands, we recently had a series of staff meetings leading up to the Joint Commission International inspection where we were split into teams and we play acted scenarios to familiarise us to the emergency procedures, in case we were questioned about them.

One of the scenarios was a "missing child". One of our female staff from the administration side, who usually gives us the lecture on Emirati cultures and traditions during the orientation week became the mother who could not find her child. AB is unmarried and is  always dressed in an abaya and hijab and she had told us during the orientation that if we saw her in a shopping mall, her face would be covered, even though she would greet us and talk to us.

AB got the prize for best actress! She screamed and shouted and lamented about how the child was right here a minute ago and where could he have gone and what is going to happen now etc etc. We were all enjoying her shrieking and running helter skelter but what got her the prize and the most laughs was when she whipped out her phone and said- "Where is the stupid husband?"

That had us all in splits and reconfirmed to all of us how wearing an abaya doesn't change a thing, the equation with the other half, for instance. I wonder when humans started wearing clothes. Just like we wouldn't be seen without our clothes on, similarly different cultures have different limits on how much exposure they find comfortable. I remember walking into the ward in UK for the first time and wondering why the women needed to be so exposed until I realised they were very comfortable in their skin and it was just not something they were thinking about, even though I was....but not for longer than the first few minutes.

More recently, I had an eighty eight year old patient from Oman, whose main concern when going in for surgery was the fact that she would be exposed. All the family rallied around her, son and daughter in law staying to look after her, grand daughter coming in everyday at prescribed times for dressing changes and nephew shuttling up and down talking to insurance etc. He even joked with his grand aunt that they would find a new man for her after the operation. The cohesiveness of families, the children running around, the food and the fragrance...these are the essentials of the local culture one is witness to all the time.

Teenage pregnancies happen everywhere but here they are in the context of marriage. This 88 year old mamma was probably a teenage mum too. I am not sure which teenage mums end up feeling more empowered.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

"The limits of my language are the limits of my world" Ludwig Wittgenstein

Living and working in the UAE has been a pleasant experience so far. With all that is going on in the world, one tends not to take peace and quiet for granted anymore. I too take each day as it comes.

I am learning  key words I need, to communicate with my patients in Arabic, quite rapidly. But my patients come from all over the world. A lot of Indians I cannot communicate with because I don't speak Malayalam. Pakistanis most of them speak Urdu, even though some are more comfortable with Baloochi, Sindhi, Pashto or Punjabi. I honestly never imagined that Pakistanis weren't all super cultured people who spoke immaculate Urdu like Ghulam Ali Khan.

Then there are also the Big burly Afghans with baby faces, whose wives all need their husbands to translate. When I asked one husband what was the problem the wife had, he said in a resigned way- the problem is she doesn't speak Urdu. I had to then persuade him to find out if she had any medical complaints and what they were.

Then there are many patients of mine who are half Indian, mothers from Hyderabad or another place in India. There are those who are Pakistani or Indian but married to Arabs, who speak Urdu but speak fluent Arabic with their children and husband. Caucasians or Afro Carribeans from South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, America, Europe and UK are the easiest, because they mostly speak English. Syrians, Jordanians, Lebanese, Egyptians, Palestinians are the fair Arabs, whose Arabic apparently differs from the Emirati and Omani Arabic. A lot of them speak English and usually wear a Hijab but not the Abaya.

One woman walked into my clinic and said she will call her husband who can speak Arabic. Her nationality and the language she spoke was recorded as Iran and Persian. I waited until a tall bearded man in traditional Arabic dress complete with head dress arrived and we started communicating in broken Arabic. Soon realising I will need a translator I summoned one. Our translators are Pakistani young women who have been born and brought up here in UAE, hence speak quite a few languages.

The translator walked in, had one look at the couple and one at the file and with an air of experienced assurance said- "Doctor, he will speak Urdu" Apparently there is a population in Pakistan, which speaks Persian. The man looked crossly at me and said- "Doctor is speaking to me in Arabic, what am I supposed to do?" So I sent the translator away and started afresh taking a history in Urdu, much to the woman's relief.

Then there was a Filipino lady who I was struggling to make sense of and hence called one of the Filipino nurses to help and realised she is not making much progress because she is speaking to her in English- "Before, Before...", she seemed to be shouting. I asked her to stop and asked her why she wasn't speaking to her in the language of Philippines. Apparently apart from Tagalog, the common Filipino language, there are twelve others....... Life is not that simple, is it?

I am getting great practice of my Bangla though, with Bangladeshi patients...they always ask me if I am from Kolkata! Sometimes beyond how are you even their Bengali dialect differs and both of us revert to good old Urdu/Hindi

Then there are instances when I start speaking to women in Abayas in Arabic only to have them reply in an indignant tone in fluent English or Urdu. I now make sure I look at the nationality and occupation. Computer Engineers, Teachers, Call centre operators, students....UAE women constitute 60% of public sector workforce. They are a very visible force in all Government offices and get only 45 days maternity leave. However, they have lots of babies, if they can. They do get breaks every four hours to enable them to breast feed. Apparently the Quran encourages women to breast feed for two years.

With very close knit families and often marriages happening amongst cousins, the mammas, the elder women of the household who accompany women to the hospital during labour are a force to be reckoned with. They keep the caesarean section rates low. They discourage the women from opting for interventions, sedations, epidurals and they question the doctors who suggest any of this. I treat them as partners in my quest to ensure a natural yet safe child birth. However, I have to bank on translators to keep lines of communication open day!
Hopefully all this exposure to multiple cultures and languages will keep my mind active and Alzheimer's at bay!


Monday, 30 November 2015

Life on the road!

UAE is celebrating 44 years of it's being on the National Day, 2nd December with decorations, lit up roads, buildings, bridges; events and a parade showcasing the various nationalities represented in the population.

The other day I was coming back from work and the car in front of me stopped abruptly, to drop off the passengers. I didn't know what to do hence moved to the wrong side of the narrow street but was blocked off by an open car door. I stopped and then saw another car from the opposite side come and stop right in front of me. I looked at the Arab driver and in response he threateningly inched his car closer with blazing head lights.

Needless to say I turned around to reverse to find another 4x4 waiting behind me. How the usually deserted street accumulated so much traffic in a minute, I had no idea. For the first time I felt tearful and homesick for polite Britain, where people wave and flash lights to thank you for waiting, never to intimidate or bully. Or that is just the experience I have had, others might have had a different experience.

Nobody waits in busy traffic junctions regardless of whether it is Britain, India, Bahrain or UAE but this was my quiet neighbourhood.....

To balance the story about my tears I now need to tell you another story. One month into our stay here I suddenly realised my son needed to exit and re enter the border to legally extend his stay in the country until his residency papers were processed. By the time I realised, I had reached the date of the deadline. Even though my hospital helped by ensuring I had a valid UAE driver's licence and gave me directions about how to get to the border post and the stamps that were needed in the passport, it was up to me to actually go and get it done.

I set off in my rented car with my son and decided to follow one of the staff who apparently used to travel everyday from Oman. Little did I realise that there wasn't just one border post in the city of Al Ain and border posts were different for Gulf Country Citizens and others.  Start, stop, start again, go back, questions, answers in broken Arabic and broken English, officials in uniform asking me to switch off my head lights every time I was asked to stop, others wanting to check the boot of the car, others asking for papers for the car and I tried finding this Omani border post supposedly 45 km away and failed miserably. I reached a turn where the road was deserted and dark and decided to turn back. Hubby dear was constantly on google maps at home which only showed the rugged topography of deserts and mountains, not the well lit new road I was on. He was on the phone constantly, making me worry about running out of battery, asking me to fill up on petrol and asking pointless questions which I had no answer to.

Finally I found a taxi driver fixing some promotional material on the road side. This was around 9.30 pm by now. I went up to him and told him that he needed to take me to the Omani border post. He reiterated that I should just follow the road and I can't miss it until I looked really distressed and said I had tried and failed.

He was a young man in his twenties, in the traditional white Arabic tunic and head gear. His English was limited as was my Arabic and after an exchange of "Hini, Mini" (this that), he walked to my car and reassured to find my son inside, said he would help me. He got into his car and I started following him but I realised he had parked the car and he came and sat beside me in my car, smelling of freshly sprayed traditional perfume and sweat. He then in sign language took permission to turn the rear view mirror towards himself and wiped his face, adjusted his head gear and then we set off.

We chatted and in between when I missed seeing a speed breaker and made the car jump or swerve, he would look worried and offer to drive. Hubby meanwhile was continuing to call my son to update himself on his crazy wife's exploits. This man then in a very understanding tone would gesture towards my son on the phone and say-"Baba?" I nodded and asked him if he had kids to which he replied he was not married.

He took me to the border post, got the pieces of paper needed for parking and leaving the border post and directed me back to near where he had parked his car. He gave me instructions about how to get back to Al Ain and got out of the car. I tried to pay him but realised I had no Omani Riyals but he firmly refused, smiled with a hand on his heart wished me well. All I could do was say thank you and wish well for his safety, health and well being from my heart.

Life is like that. Good people are everywhere. If it hadn't been for them I definitely would not survive!


Thursday, 6 August 2015

Amsterdam- cycles, canals and chefs

We took an overnight ferry called the Stena Line from Harwich, a port on the East coast of England to the Hook of Holland. The ticket was a rail-sail one. Hence the ticket price included rail fare from any station in East Anglia to Harwich and likewise from Hook of Holland to another city in Holland. The ferry is like a mini cruise, with restaurants, casinos, shops and even a cinema to keep you occupied. On one of the decks is a basket ball court, enclosed in a cage, lest the balls end up floating in the sea. I have never been on a proper cruise, I had taken a similar ferry from Helsinki to Stockholm on the Baltic Sea called Silja Line, which was a bit more posh or may be I was less posh back then.

Trains in the Netherlands seemed superior, there seemed to be a lot of them, a lot being double deckers and very fast. We reached Amsterdam around half ten in the morning and were told by the information desk that if we walk out of the station we would be able to see our Movenpick Hotel (yes of the ice cream fame.) Sure enough we did and were able to walk to the mutistoried building, check in, leave our luggage, pick up maps, have a Movenpick icecream and start walking again. The lady at the desk realised from my passport that it was my birthday and gave me some chocolates too, it was all very pleasant!

Next we got on to the hop on hop off canal cruise. Amsterdam is full of canals and bridges, which were dug and built in the 17th century to help with the sea trade. Today the canals are said to be three meters deep, according to our tour guide- one meter mud, one meter bicycles and one meter water. Yes, Amsterdam, true to how it was pictured in Aamir Khan's PK, is a city of bicycles. The cycle tracks or two wheeler tracks are as wide as the roads for cars, only thing the bikes ply in both directions. All bridges, railings etc have cycles locked on to them. People of all ages cycle around the city. The canal boats are supposedly run on natural gas thus making Amsterdam a very green city indeed. 

Our first stop was the Anne Frank house, which had a very very long queue and the temperatures reaching 26 degrees did not make it very inviting for us to wait hence we carried on to stop at a church, a market and a cafe which serves world famous Dutch apple pie with cream! I could not have imagined apple pie could taste so delicious, it looked like a cake in height and was crispy and crumbly making me wonder involuntarily about how rich in calories it must be. Monday Market days are busy days for the apple pie cafe hence they have a restricted menu. 

The hop on hop off canal cruise was a good way to see the touristy places near the museums. Amsterdam had recently hosted the Gay Pride, the slogan- I amsterdam in shape of a monument, was a place where young people were climbing on to pose for photographs.

In the evening I planned to take my teenage children to the famous red light district. Needless to say it was making me nervous but having experienced the shock when I first saw it, many years ago, I wanted them to see it. The red light district is in the old town, where the streets and canals are narrow and we encountered China Town and eateries of all kinds on the way. Lebanese, Chinese, Thai, Brazilian, Argentinian, Mexican, Italian, American but we ate at a Malaysian restaurant. Wow, I had never had Malaysian food and I knew it would have Indian influence but since I am a great fan of Chinese food, I found Malaysian food has the best of both worlds. It was spicy, had a myriad of ingredients including fish, prawn and eggs in my fried rice but the taste, they do know how to cook. My daughter had noodles with a chicken dish and my son had lamb seekh kebabs with satay sauce. All of us felt it was one of the best meals we had had. 

While we were walking to the red light district, my nervousness was making me mutter to my kids that we did not want to stay for long at all, we will get there and back and that is it etc etc. My dear daughter armed with her map was trying to get us there and suddenly we saw the windows and I said- Right we are going back! My son who had been quiet all this while, was really irritated and said- "I haven't seen anything yet!" I reassured him he would and we then walked into the busy street with lit up windows with women in underwear, sex shops and thronging crowds of people on both sides of the canal. 

Next day our target was to queue up for the Anne Frank's House. We reached there to find the queue was already 3 hours long. I stood while the kids went to find breakfast first and then  a follow on hot chocolate. It had been cloudy since the morning contrary to the scorching 26 degrees the previous day, but it soon began to rain. People went and bought umbrellas while I hoped it would stop but it only got worse and worse, until I called the kids to come fetch money and find an umbrella. So we have a souvenir from Amsterdam, one of those I love Amsterdam umbrellas!

 It was a strange feeling to see people queuing up for hours to go into the house where Anne Frank lived in hiding when she wrote her diary. The fate of the sixteen year old in the gas chambers of the concentration camp should serve as a reminder to us today. Looking at the crowd of people in the queue, we were from all over the world and I think in our hearts we all know and fear that this injustice is happening today too to a sixteen year old in some part of the world, but we hope and pray it will never happen again to so many people and of the magnitude it did, all those years ago. 

Today I read in the news that it has been 70 years since the bomb which killed 140,000 people was dropped on Hiroshima on 6th August 1945. 

Visit to the Anne Frank House is an emotional experience with quotes from her diary, her photographs, videos of her dad and sister and a friend who saw her before she was killed at the camp. They talk about her life as a normal sixteen year old who wanted to decorate the wall of her room with posters of celebrities. There are actual documents on display from Otto Frank's Jam making business, photographs of the people who brought them food and gifts, model of the furnished version of the annexe where members of three families lived. One comes out humbled and teary eyed.

Trip to Amsterdam was interesting with shopping for dry clothes, looking for the famous Dutch pancake and kids getting on to  a tram without me or any money. This happened because of my mistaken belief that tickets were only given out by the driver at the front of the tram. This is obviously not the case, but in the process of my trying to get to the front, the tram left without me. Thank God for mobile phones!

Friday, 17 July 2015

Human Watch- Hats and Hijabs

I happened to spend nearly two hours outside London Dungeons waiting for my kids, just next to the London Eye, which is situated on the banks of Thames; overlooking the Big Ben and Houses of Parliament in Westminister.

Watching crowds of tourists from literally all around the world was a refreshing and enjoyable experience.

There were the big footed Americans with their twangy accents, the quiet little Chinese and Japanese, the tall, pale Russians and Eastern Europeans, the loud, dark eyed Spanish and Italians, stately Arabs and of course lots of Indians, amongst the other South East Asians. There were shorts, mini skirts, figure sculpting leggings, flowing abayas, saris, hats and hijabs!

There was an elderly Indian mother dressed in her best for the London experience in what looked like gold brocade Kanjeevaram sari; being helped along, in her waddling gait, (probably from osteo arthiritis in her knees), by a young man (son, possibly). There was an Oriental looking couple too, the lady in bridal finery and man in a three piece suit with flashes of red satin in his outfit. They looked like they were either coming from their wedding or were models for a photo shoot. The lady had gathered up the trail of her delicate fabric and lace gown and was carrying it nonchalantly in her right arm while she joined the crowd in her now clearly visible stilettos.

Most people were in T shirts, which were fun to read too- "Yes, I am a Unicorn", "Keep calm and take a selfie" "Love is....I wouldn't know, I am still falling", Another big woman had a large cat in patchwork stitched on the front of her top which just said HAPPINESS. There were quite a few brands like Jack Wills claiming to be "Fabulously British", though the company has come under a lot of scrutiny over what was fabulously British about their manufacturing units abroad.

There were lots of young people holding up selfie sticks, which seemed a bit dangerous in the crowd, jostling along neck to neck. Since I was near the landmarks I witnessed a lot of people taking selfies. One self conscious huge man was struggling to fit himself in with Big Ben but walked away before I could muster up courage to offer to take his photograph.

There was a group of middle aged American couples who were taking turns to take photographs of each other with Big Ben. On one of these photo shoots, one of the ladies watching, spotted that even though in the photograph the man looked like he had an innocent arm around his partner, in actual fact he was pinching her bottom, while she smiled to the camera. They laughed and joked boisterously as they moved on. Clearly, the photos were not going to tell the whole story even though they would have caught the spirit and they would be reminded of the memory every time they looked at the photos.

Food was in short supply as we soon discovered after queuing up for road side noodles, only to be told it was all gone. McDonald's looked like they were giving away burgers for free. McDonald's has been doing more to connect with the world than all the American embassies put together, I think. All parents of kids who are fussy eaters will agree with me. Writing off Greek debt or the Iran nuclear deal would not get consensus from world over but if we rounded up kids from all parts of the world and asked for consensus on what lunch should be, offering McDonald's would clinch the deal!

Talking of kids, we saw lots and lots of them. Little people in school uniforms usually with fluorescent little aprons, holding hands, again very diverse groups with all regions of the world represented looking at their souvenirs from the London Aquarium, while being pulled along in a queue. The little ones were from London itself but there were older school children too, usually speaking in European languages, moving together in groups and queuing up for attractions.

The excitement was palpable in all except the people in suits! They were just going to work or having client meetings and looking miserable while trying to look smart.

I was held up by the energy being generated from a very heterogenous, dynamic, moving, changing crowd of happy faces visiting London.....

My achievement that afternoon, which kept me buoyed up and smiling; was getting a baby to look at the camera, when I clicked a photo of a couple with a little son.
Long Live London!