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!