Thursday, November 27, 2008


I once lived in a country called Lalaland, a finger sized oil rich kingdom clusters on Middle East map. Then, it was a good place to live, though there were teething issues common with all new states. It was relatively cheap, the money I earned was good and went a long way, there was decency among its people, strong ties to past traditions and Islam and a Ruler who was shrewed but very balanced and generally fair; it was a blessed country.

Then the Ruler died and Lalaland became even more prosperous, developing so fast and so hard, it amazed the new Rulers and threw them into a heady frenzy; even the sky was not a limit. Whatever that could be done bigger, better and flashier was taken on. Money poured in, modesty out, the country was prostituted to the highest bidder. A healthy population feeding on fish and dates for thousands of years took to fast food and welcomed diabetes and hypertension epidemics. Whites and Arabs became immune to laws of the land; native were seldom apprehended and Whites had their hands slapped and given suspended sentences for even serious offenses. Rulers marred new, more modern, more powerful wives, Liquor and prostitution, unheard or strictly controlled ago, went public and flourished.

Bizarre episodes of greed and patronism fueled amazement and anger which was quickly suppressed and soothed by easy money and power. Consider:

1. A car registration plate with number 1 was auctioned for USD 1,000,000; other numbers like 5, 10... sold for similar crazy sums.
2. The Ruler won every horse racing and endurance event he raced or fancied.
3. Half baked laws were put into place only to be rescinded in a few days or amended so many times, nobody knew what it was supposed to fix.
4. The State (or some pot bellied, pot smoking cousin of a cousin to the Ruler) decided where people slept, how many families lived together, who was or was not permitted to give a ride to a college to work...
5. A country boasting of the richest of rich saw labourers sleep in chicken coops; rape and forceful detention of maids from poor countries rampant and plight of labourers so dismal, it made Saddam Hussein seem an angel.

Still, people from all over the world flocked to Lalaland, undeterred. New building got taller still, cars fancier, jam packed roads jam packed some more, glimmer and shine glitterer, deals dirtier, rotten morals rotted even, the West got aped open armed and I migrated back to the US; had to keep my sanity.

Now, there are signs of the dam busting; property prices correcting to 20%? Layoffs a word actually spoken, people actually leaving...

What next? Look out...the shit is going to hit the fan.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

An invite for a private Mujra dance

I am going to Houston; it is very far away. Just the thought of flying 19 hours it will take me to get there from Mumbai via Dubai gives me the shudders so I block the thought out of my mind; for now at least. Emirates Airlines is getting ready to depart when the seat next to mine is occupied first with a rather sturdy scent of cheap perfume, then the tingling of ornaments and then the presence of a girl-women face that regards me for a second before getting to settling down.

I regard my fellow traveler; a dark, pretty but knowing face like a sly fox. She settles down and then gives me a brilliant warm smile. Kaise ho uncle, she asks and my face darkens. Did she just call me “uncle”? I am allergic to being called by title, especially one that denotes (elevated) age; I respond with a tight thin smile that lets her know, I hope, that I am not amused. Then she rubs it in, would you please mind my bag while I go to the loo, uncle? Nothing will happen to your bag, I tell her rudely, go. She registers a surprised, hurt look on her face but gets up and goes away. I eye the small bag and consider hiding it just to be mean but I don’t fancy being arrested either.

She smiles her thanks upon return and settles down once more, heavy bangles of gold tinkling all the time she moves and layers of gold chains on her neck an instant attraction for an eye. She gets busy studying the movie guide and magazines and I lose interest in her. It is while we are eating our meal that she gets talking again. The omelet is very dry, she laments, but proceeds to clean up everything on her try in half the time it takes me; not bad for a person quite slim and petite. I am going to Dubai, she tells me, to entertain. My interest immediately piques; entertain what? She turns towards me and her eyes laugh. Men, she says. My interest elevates even more but fades much faster as my mind processes ideas. Oh, no! I shut up.

It is not what you think, she says, disappointment (and disgust?) evident in her tone. I am a mujra dancer; she says, a good, respectable, years of hard work and trained mujra dancer, just like any actress in Bollywood, even better, perhaps. You watch movies, uncle? There she goes again! Sometimes, I respond, my wife and kids all the time. Ah, you see uncle, I am just like any of them actresses, like Kareena and Katrina, but much hard working and better, only they get all the glamour and rupees. I act as well, and I dance and make people happy, especially ugly and lonely men. Especially in Gulf countries, where men live without their wives and are very lonely.

Interesting, I tell her. What about abuse, is she not abused by the men she entertains? Only if you let them, she says with a firm tone, a clenched fist that pumps in front of her for emphases. I never let men abuse me; they respect me, give me money, lots of it, she caresses her gold adorned fingers to indicate the universal sign of cash, and want to be with me all the time. They even want to marry me, especially the Arabs, you see. But they become quiet when they find out I am Hindu.

Do you go to Mujras, uncle?
No, I growl, I do not. Perhaps you should, she says enthusiastically, come watch me. I will dance for you. She gives me a name of a place in Dubai where she will be dancing for the next 2 weeks and invites me. Come uncle, really, you will enjoy. I will dance for you in a private room and please do not worry; you do not have to pay me either.

Baab re baap…

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The business of fear

I am on my way to Afghanistan, my ninth visit there since 2004. Unfortunately, it is only Indian Airlines that fly to Kabul from India, from New Delhi at 07:45 AM. So for me, living in Mumbai, it is a night in New Delhi; no big deal except for the hassle. The flight to Kabul itself is uneventful, the usual mixture of mostly businessmen and security personal on the flight. Astonishingly, it lands on the minute, at exactly 08:45AM Kabul time; some of the better known and classier airlines need a time management lesson or two from IA.
The immigration officer makes an error on the stamp he thumps on the passport, realizes the date is yesterdays and glares at me as if I am at fault. He then hee humms, scanning pages within the passport, as if looking for a solution for his mistake, furiously scratches his scalp cap and finally decides to just correct the error by hand. Happy with the solution, he grins at me, revealing a missing tooth, blows garlic fumes at me, hands me my passport and jerks his head, indicating I can go.
If you think your city is polluted, visit Kabul; I feel, see, smell, and taste it immediately our vehicle enters the very heavy chaotic traffic on the streets. My throat contracts, eyes water and breathing is more labored within five minutes on the street. Nothing new, things have definitely not changed.
What has changed in Kabul this time is the element of fear; it is everywhere. It is in the air, in the shifty eyes of policemen who man security checkpoints all over the city, in the attitude of hotel staff and even the man on the streets. We get stopped three times going to our hotel and then twice again when we drive towards Chandawaal. Kabul is like a fortress now, my every movement scrutinized and controlled.
Herat, near the Iranian border to the West is a little better and I get to relax a little bit; short lived as I return to Kabul in two days for my return trip to New Delhi / Mumbai. Our Engineer Basheer drives me to the airport early, just in case. Good thinking, for security is blocking entrance to the airport, no cars allowed in, no exceptions. I have to walk two kilometers, lugging by bags with wheels. I have to hurry; I have little time for pity towards others who are still figuring out how to get to the terminal with loads of luggage and children and the old.