Friday, July 2, 2010

My Fish 'Tanks'

Once upon a time, A. and I went to the Dubai mall to see the much talked about aquarium. (In fact, wasn't that sometimes last year?) It's definitely huge and it's amazing how they have managed to get so many different varieties of fish. The ones which most fascinated me were the sharks of course. Then there were shoals of beautiful little fish which swam up and down gracefully. Pretty spectacular. Though all the time I wondered how they managed to keep such a huge 'fish tank' clean and what would happen if god forbid it leaked or broke down. Gosh, that is going to be hell of a scene and someone will have to do quite a lot of mopping up to do, not to mention all those dead fish.(see how morbid my imagination can be at times)Of course the guys at the Dubai Mall may have a back up plan and must have it all figured out.

This obviously led me to reminisce about many innocent fish that we had tried to 'raise' as pets. Back in our school days we had many fantasies and obsessions. The one that I remember most vividly is how we all hoped that one day we would find little elves and then we will befriend them. (but that is a different story)While our sole obsession was trying to keep fish as pet. We were not living in the city by the sea, nor by the riverside either. Actually there wasn't even a small measly fish pond or any kind of pond nearby. We bought those innocent fish from a man who used to sell them in tiny plastic bags. I don't know how common it was elsewhere, but there was this darkish man who sold fish sealed in tiny plastic bags right in front of our school gate. More than once did we spend our precious pocket money for buying those tiny fish imprisoned in plastic gaols.

Then we brought them home, and our mothers duly admonish us and invariably threatened to throw them out. They told us that we were just going to kill them in a few hours by our over zealous care and should give up this fish raising project. Being young and ever optimistic we never paid any heed to their advice, nor did their cross words had much effect on us. Instead we scrubbed large plastic jars, then we made holes in the lid of the jar to let fresh air in. After that we just put in a lot of food .and waited for the fish to eat all the food up and grow bigger. Sometimes, all of us, that is to say all my siblings and cousins would each buy a fish and put them in one large jar and then brag whose fish was growing bigger. I don't think any of them lived beyond a couple of days. Then we mourned their loss for a few days, before hazarding our pocket money for another purchase and the cycle would repeat itself. It's a pity how young children don't have much wisdom and end up committing monstrous acts of cruelty while all the time they have the noblest and most pure intentions in the world.

So, those were our fish tanks then. Don't know what reminded me of them today. Poor little fish.

Moral of the story? I will leave that to the readers.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

An Observation and Another Observation

Why is it that:
  •  If you go to a dawat they have to have two dozen dishes on the table when it should be quite obvious that no normal human being can eat and or enjoy so many dishes at one time. And anyway, isn't that a terrible waste of food???
  • On the other hand, another unwritten law is that as a guest you must refuse any thing that you are offered several times before you concede to your hosts requests, "kuch lijiye na(please take something)". And when you do so you are only supposed to eat very small portions, otherwise God forbid others will think that you never get to eat nice food at home. (Then what is the point of making so many dishes in the first place?)
Also, if you give a gift to someone desi(and I am specifically talking about people of Pakistani origin) they would never accept it with a "Thank lovely it is" Or "I like this so much"/ But the first thing they would say is invariably going to be, "Iss ki kya zaroorat thi(you shouldn't have)". As if you have committed a crime by bringing something. And gifts are seldom received and given with the right spirit, i.e. as a token of love. On the contrary, they are thought of as a social obligation. No wonder, some people in my village still write details of what was received on the weddings of their offspring in diaries, so they can give the exact same stuff or amount of money whenever someone in that family gets married.

The above things tick me off no end. It seems everything that we do socially has a certain degree of superficiality about it.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Memory or Forgettery?

On my recent trip to Pakistan, I happened to drop in a ladies beauty salon for a few minutes. Both of us had just been to see a doctor who also happens to be an old acquaintance, On our way back to home, she said she wanted to make a quick and brief stop at the neighbourhood salon and I happily agreed. After all, even if you don't need anything done, what can be more fun than seeing other fellow beings tormented in the name of beauty?

Anyway, just when we were getting ready to leave this prettyish young lady stepped in with her younger sister. As soon as she caught sight of me and little Zubair, she went into raptures and began to hug me and fuss over Lil Zee. Then she bombarded me with question like"Ah, so this is the little one..what's his name...when did you come to long will you be here" etc. I put on a civil smile and mumbled appropriate responses.

Once outside, I turned to my cousin and asked her, "So, who was she?". She was flabbergasted, "I don't know her at all.Judging from your warm response I thought you knew her". Then I mulled over the question for a long time, who could she really be? I dismissed the suspicion that she was the girl who I used to see occasionally on the bus stop, because I recalled that girl's face. Then I narrated the incident to my chachi and gave her a detailed description of the girl, she is fair and slim, had a tiny nose pin etc."Aha, that must be miss K."she said. Hm...yeah I had also wondered briefly that she may be miss K.

Today, I related this incident to A.and his response was, 'but why didn't you ask that girl who she was?" How could I, that would have been kind of rude and of course it is very embarrassing that I don't recognize my neighbour. .I have never been to her home, and have only briefly conversed with her standing on the rooftop: she lives across the street and we can see right through their window because they haven't put up any curtains etc.Whenever we look, she is ironing a huge pile of clothes. So am I really to be blamed for not recognizing the girl whom I have always seen ironing the clothes form across a street?(and my eyesight is kind of poor too).

The reason for not asking her who she was is quite obvious, and not. Well, many years ago when I was just 11 or 12 years old, I went to a wedding in my chachi's village. A girl came up to me, she was pretty excited to see me and yapped on and on about how we used to play and have so much fun when we last visited. And stupid me not only stared at her with a blank look on my face but actually had to contradict her and say, "oh but I don't remember anything of the sorts". She was crestfallen and kept on relating things that we did last time. But I kept on insisting that I couldn't remember any of it, I didn't remember her face or even her name. For rest of the wedding she kept at a distance, even though I later felt bad for inadvertently hurting her and in order to make up for it, I tried to start conversation with her.But she just never was the same again to me. In fact, after that day I never saw her again. To this day, I don't remember if we really did have all that fun she claimed we had had,and I still don't remember her name. Yet I often recall that incident and feel really sorry,both for her and for myself as well.

Maybe I make too big a deal out of small thing, but to this day I regret not pretending to her that I did know her. I could have feigned recognition and could have had fun and saved her from  hurt and embarrassment.

Such is life.

Moonless Nights

Now this is an ordinary story about an ordinary man. And he had a very ordinary name too, Chiragh Deen. Like most ordinary men Chiragh Deen had lots of children and a wife. He would have liked to have more wives and fewer kids, but that was not to be.

However, what he wanted more than anything else in his life was to have electricity in his village, which was a very small village named Roshan Abad. It was a very superfluous name for a place that didn’t have a single light. It was a misnomer, and whoever was responsible for it had died many decades ago. Why did Chiragh Deen want Roshan Abad to have electricity so badly? Partly because his parents, like all parents blinded by affection, had called him the light of their eyes, and had also mistakenly believed he would light up the whole world with his light. They had conveniently overlooked his complexion, which resembled more a moonless night than a lamp or Chiragh.

But, what really spurred on his ambition of having Roshan Abad lit up was a fan. Now this fan had a very interesting history too. Once Chiragh (who was later nicknamed Chacha Bijli by the villagers) went to visit a distant relative in a big town. The name of the town is of no relevance here. What is relevant here is that the distant relative’s wife didn’t like to have Chiragh Deen at her home.

The distant relative was in a fix. He couldn’t tell Chiragh Deen to leave, and didn’t dare cross his wife. Then he remembered that there was a fair in the city and perhaps he could take Chiragh there. Thus, the distant relative and Chiragh embarked for the fair. Chiragh was a man who was very careful with his money. So, even though the fair had lots of interesting stuff on sale, nothing could induce Chiragh to part with his money. Well, nothing except a fan. And he didn’t buy that fan. It was there to be won as a prize in some sort of lottery. Chiragh would never have wasted his money on anything like that. But, the distant relative bought him a ticket because he felt guilty at his wife’s treatment of Chiragh. There were lots of things to be won in the lottery. But, what really fascinated Chiragh Deen was the fan. Perhaps, because Roshan Abad was a hot place, or perhaps because no one in Roshan Abad had ever owned a fan. As luck would have it he did win that fan.

He had to travel on the roof of the bus on his way back, because the fan would not fit inside the bus and Chiragh could not think of trusting the buswallahs with his precious fan. It was very uncomfortable up there, but he didn’t really mind it.

The fan, as expected, caused quite a sensation in the village. All the womenfolk in the village came one by one with the excuse of congratulating his wife, whereas all they actually wanted to do was to see the fan. His wife had never approved of anything he had done in his life. For the first time in his life she did praise him in front of all those women, saying how wise he was and recited a long list of his good qualities; most of which were not true. The first thing she did was to embroider a cover for the fan. She also got its borders crocheted by her neighbour in exchange for a promise that she would let her sit in front of the fan, whenever the village got electricity.

To get the electricity now was the sole ambition of Chiragh’s life. Not that he ever had very many ambitions in his life. Most of his dreams consisted of having more cows and poultry, and sometimes secretly of a second wife. But, all of them had been replaced by this new obsession. All night he lay thinking alternately how he could get electricity into his village or else what would it feel like to be cooled by the fan in the scorching summers of Roshan Abad.

How he spent that night only he knew. The next morning as soon as he had had his breakfast he went to the pepul tree, which was a sort of unofficial community centre for the men folk. He started a long speech on why it was important to get electricity in the village. I cannot remember all of it, most of it was drivel, but I can tell you the most interesting parts.

“As you all know my mother died because she had this attack of I know not which disease in the middle of the night” Here he paused to snivel or to do something to the similar effect, and resumed his speech. “She fell ill in the middle of night, and as everyone sitting here knows, I went to doctor Allah Rakha (and here he alluded towards the doctor who was present among the audience). It was a moonless night. And my mother may God rest her soul in peace used to say that moonless nights always are so unlucky. I would have called that a silly superstition started by women, were it not for the fact that my mother did die on a moonless night. So, as I was saying this mother of mine chose a very bad time to fall ill. It was very dark that night. We had run out of oil for the lamp, because my son did not go to buy it in the evening when his mother had asked him to. So we had to borrow a candle from our neighbours. And you know our neighbour, he is so miserly. He gave me the smallest candle that he could find, which Allah is my witness, was smaller than this small finger of mine (showing his finger for the benefit of the spectators). How much light could such a small candle produce? And the doctor could not really see very well at night, and perhaps injected the needle in the wrong place or something.” The doctor grew very uncomfortable at this, but Chiragh Deen added with haste “All of us here know how competent the doctor is. It was not his fault at all. It was the lack of electricity that killed my dear mother. That and the moonless night. And were it not for that I would not have thus been orphaned.” Here he paused, to the relief of everyone, to drink a glass of cool water.

Once he had cleared his throat and gathered his thoughts again, he renewed his speech with a new fervour. According to him the grandson of the Chaudry had been failing in his matriculation exams for last three years because there were no electric bulbs. This had prevented the boy from studying at night, thus causing him to fail at the exams that he otherwise was sure to top. The boy and his grandfather knew the truth. He spent all his day catching measly fishes at the local pond, or else bathing in it.

The list of unfortunate incidents in the village because of the lack of electricity was long. All of those present began to relate their experiences. Someone said his hens would not get stolen at night if there were light. The darkness provided the thief with ample opportunity to escape. Another one’s sister had dislocated her knee joints because she stumbled over a dog at night. In the end, Chiragh had finally persuaded everyone to file an application with the local authorities.

The next day, at least twelve people who were considered the village’s eminent persons and Chiragh embarked for the big town. The clerk was just as rude and snobbish as all the people of his class are. He made them wait for two hours before he deemed it fit to accept their application. To all their inquiries he answered very gruffly and in vague terms. The only thing he mentioned time and again was how poor he was, that he had a large family to support, with such little income too. The villagers however chose to ignore his financial crisis. And in his turn he didn’t let them see the senior officer, stating he was too busy. They could see the officer chatting and laughing with his friend through the window. But, since they couldn’t do much about it, they just contented themselves by abusing the clerks amongst themselves.

Many more visits to the office were made. Each time the officer was too busy and one by one the members of the get-electricity-in-the-village committee declined. By the end of the first year it was reduced to two only people, Chiragh, who was the only one who really did believe that he would manage to get electricity in his village, and the village Chaudry for the sake of his ego. He too however refused to go when two full years had elapsed, and their application got lost in the midst of all the red tape.

By this time his wife had started to see many faults in him again. She wanted him to sell the fan and instead buy her a silver necklace or some gold ring. For, once in his life, he stood up to his wife and refused out right to sell the fan. “I would not sell it, even if I were starving” he declared in a dramatic tone that failed to impress his wife altogether. For, he had quite a comfortable income, and any chances of his starvation were very thin, in the immediate future at least.

As the time went by, the villagers started to make fun of him. They nicknamed him Chacha Bijli. Many years had passed. The snobbish clerk had been replaced by another one of the same species. The busy officer grew busier, until his transfer took him somewhere else. And another officer too occupied came. Chiragh Deen did not lose hope. True he despaired every now and then. But, he would buck himself up again and go to the district office with same determination as the first day.

Now a big landlord in that area wanted electricity for his lands. He used his contacts, pulled a few strings, and got the busy officer to pause his ‘business’. In no time, the application was approved. As chance would have it, Roshan Abad happened to be on the way to the landlord’s lands. And thus, Roshan Abad finally did get electricity.

The day when electricity finally arrived in the village was the grandest and biggest day in Chiragh’s life. The first thing he wanted to see working was his fan. But, when he switched on the fan its blades refused to stir. He checked the light bulb; it was working fine. Why wouldn’t the fan work? The miserly neighbour’s son was then consulted. He had gone and lived in a big city and learnt to repair electrical appliances. When he had finished inspecting the fan he shook his head and said, “Chacha Bijli, this fan would not work ever, all its parts have rusted. Nothing I can do about it. Why don’t you sell it and buy a new one?”

Some people think that Chiragh Deen fell ill that night because the fan had not worked. Some blame the quack doctor for his death, and others blame old age and related diseases. But, I will tell you what really killed the man. It was a moonless night after all!

Friday, June 25, 2010

A Day in Baby Beebly's Life (at the age of 6 weeks)

I cannot be too exact, since I don't know much about time and watches yet, but I assume it's 7:00 A.M when I normally wake up. It's really hot and bright outside, and the sunlight barges into the room despite the thick curtains. My mom is still asleep, I patiently wait for her to wake up. Usually I give her a couple of minutes  to notice that I am up), however if she continues to sleep I have to take further steps to wake her up like squirming, and kicking my legs wildly. Sometimes she wakes up briefly at this stage, only to smile at me or to kiss me before she nods off to sleep again. Although I love my mommy very much, I have to disturb her sleep because I am very hungry, and I think my diaper needs to be changed too! So regretfully I begin to cry in order to get her attention,on some days I have to wail really loud in order to wake her up. There you go, she's finally up, finally I will get some breakfast!

But I should have begun at the beginning. My day starts at 4 or occasionally at 4:30 in the morning. Everyone else is sleeping at that time,unless they wake up for Fajr. Other than that it gets very lonely, so I only wake up for my feed, and to get that diaper changed. Then I let them(my dear mom and dad) sleep in peace. After all they have had to fuss and dote over me all day long.

At this point in time, my life is fairly unexciting, you could even call it boring. But it used to be even duller a few weeks ago when I was a newborn baby and spent most of my time sleeping, because my eyesight wasn't fully developed and I could only look at close objects. Now that I am a 'older' and more active there is so much more to do. And since my vision is much better compared to 6 odd weeks ago, I like to stare at all kinds of objects. They are so many new things to stare at everyday. My particular favourite  are those fancy light bulbs, they are very intriguing. I can stare at them for hours and not get tired of them. Now that I have begun to 'talk', I speak to those light bulbs occasionally. My dad says that what I am doing is actually cooing, He says this because he doesn't understand baby language. While mom thinks that there is something wrong with my throat and I need to see a doctor!

My mom is funny in some ways(mind it I don't mean it disrespectfully after all I love her so much). Okay let me explain why I find some of her behaviour funny at times. When I was newly born, she would say it a hundred times in the day, "Oh, but he is always that normal? Is he okay?"And when I gradually began to sleep for smaller duration, she was worried that there was something wrong with me which prevented me from sleeping peacefully. If I sneeze thrice in a row, she becomes anxious and thinks I have caught cold, if I throw up small quantities of milk because I had overfed, she begins to think I am undernourished. To date, I have had at least two wholly unnecessary visits to the doctor. Luckily, my dad is reasonable and hence I don't have to go there every time mom pesters him. Although doctor Edwin is really nice. He is always smiling even when he explains to my anxious mom that everything is fine and I am a perfectly happy and healthy baby. Mom has secretly begun to wonder if he is really as able as he is said to be.

Mostly, I am a happy baby and as bonny as babies can be. But sometimes I am troubled by my enemies Angaa and Engaa. Then I have to squirm, kick my legs, punch in the air and do all methods that I know of fighting these enemies. Mom and dad still confuse these two. So for instance, if I am being trouble by Angaa they try to feed me, whereas they should be giving me those pediacol drops which the nice doctor prescribed for me(it tastes and smells awful). While if it is indeed Engaa who is the real culprit they feed me nasty stuff from various bottles that they have acquired. Also, sometimes they don't notice that my diaper needs to be changed so I have to cry in order to get them to notice. It's very tiresome though, why do I have to wail or cry all the time for getting something done? And still people are confused. My mum and granny shake their heads and wonder aloud what's , and mom even resorts to tears if I cry too much. She needs to understand that i am only trying to say something to her. Hmm..maybe I need to learn more efficient ways of communicating with them and learn that funny language they use.

Later in the morning, everyone else has breakfast, while I have had nothing since morning. Normally I manage to wake up at the precise moment when they are about to begin eating (I score1000 points if I wake up at the very beginning, 500 if it's the middle of the meal, and a measly 200 if they are about to finish. However, if I soil my diaper and begin to wail then I get 2000 bonus points!)

After breakfast, granny whom I call dada gives me an oil massage. I really love being massaged, I kick my legs and arms and make gurgling sounds to express my pleasure.

After that I take several naps in the day, but I make sure that I wake up to get some nourishment. Evening is the time when I mostly get attacked by Angaa, but dad says that he will disappear within a few weeks time, once my digestive system matures. I really hope that his information is right, because being attacked by Angaa every other evening is such a nuisance. Especially since he is responsible for making my nana think that I am always crying whereas nothing could be further from the truth. Those who live with me will testify that I have the sweetest disposition in the world and am always smiling(provided Angaa and Engaa are not bothering me).

When it's eleven O'clock in the night, it's bedtime for me. Though some people may argue that as a baby, I am always asleep hence every hour is bedtime for me. But that would be incorrect,because in the mornings I am only taking naps. Sometimes they are longer, sometimes they are really short. It only counts as bedtime after 10 P.M. And that's how a long day finally draws to a close. Hopefully as I will grow older, there will be much more interesting things in my life.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Different Ball Game

When my cousin Talha's uncle came to visit and brought about a dozen tennis balls for him; his joy knew no bounds. And, it was instantly decided that we should play a game of cricket. Cricket is said to be gentlemen's game. Talha hardly qualified, if we are to judge by that strict standard. Because, being just 4 ½ years old, the prospects of manhood for him were still years away. Besides, all those who knew him, unanimously agreed that he was the worst tempered child within at least a hundred miles. And, if he had any gentility or nobleness about himself, he had successfully managed to keep it hidden to this day.

Despite all that, we decided to play a game of cricket nevertheless. Partly, because all the kids wanted to play it so badly; and partly because I couldn't spend all my day sleeping and idling away (when I was actually supposed to be preparing for my final exams) no matter how hard I tried. A game of cricket had never appeared to be more alluring than at this particular time. Now arose the need for a "venue" to play. Talha's idea to use the porch as the pitch was rejected instantaneously. The only other choice was to play on the rooftop; this proposal was readily accepted, there being no other alternative left. Talha took it upon himself to comment as well as play.

There were only four players all in all, this did not even comprise even one side, but this party of four was divided into two teams. My team included Saba besides me, on the other side were Talha and his sister Aleena; two years old Amana was our sole spectator, who somehow had gotten it into her head that it was required of her to run across the pitch every now and then, just when a ball was about to be delivered. So, most of our energy was spent at keeping the field clear of her or vice versa.

Our side was to bat first; Talha very earnestly measured the steps, tried his best to imitate Shoaib Akhtar and delivered a very wide ball, which in his own opinion was "a very nice delivery". On the very next delivery I hit the ball so hard that it landed on the rooftop of our immediate neighbours. "oh! Never mind" said Talha, much to our surprise, in ordinary circumstances he would have raised such a hue and cry at this incident. Particularly Aleena looked at him with such a look of astonishment that cannot be described merely in words. "Perhaps, it is the heat which has affected his brain, it is very hot today, you know" whispered Aleena.

After playing as poorly, as cricket can possibly be played our "whole" team was out at the glorious score of 21. Whenever Talha was at the non-batting end, he would not only constantly pass "inflammatory" remarks at Aleena's batting ability, but every now and then completely forgot that he was supposed to bat and not act as a fielder; which he kept forgetting and after every delivery ran after the ball to save runs for us much to the disconcertion of his partner; and once he almost caught poor Aleena out. Who in her turn vented out her anger at Amana, who innocently enough always cheered when she was not supposed to do so.

After about an hour or so when most of the balls had been equally distributed amongst the neighboring rooftops, we decide to end this day's game. "Will we resume the game tomorrow?" asked Aleena hopefully. "Oh! I don't know" I said doubtfully, wondering how many more balls Talha could possibly lose before his patience would wear down. So far, surprisingly enough, he always cheerily told us not to mind it whenever he lost a ball.

Almost ten days later, Talha had only one ball left. By now, he had absolutely refused to play with us. These days his temper had not only worsened, but he always declared philosophically that "all girls were fools" and such chauvinistic remarks, which had no effect on any of us, and thus offering little consolation to him. Funnily enough, the last ball was torn in the middle, and thus had little value if any at all.

Thus, it continued, until Khurram came from Faisalabad, where he worked in a textile company. Somehow, Talha was finally persuaded to bring his "new ball", as he liked to call his last ball. "You had better be careful, already these girls have caused a great loss to me" he warned. Almost every shot Khurram played landed straight in the colony, and Talha had to run downstairs and out to retrieve it. "amazing isn't it, that the worst ball of all has not disappeared at all!" exclaimed Saba. No sooner had she said it, when Khurram smashed the ball away so hard, as it disappeared into the neighboring rooftop, absolutely torn into two pieces, a pitiful cry pierced our ears, "Oh! My new ball."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Arzhung: Pictures Of A Pakistani Village(III)

The Exorcists

The smoke of the cigarettes had filled the entire room to the point of suffocation. The room was tightly packed with various people; men, women, and kids. Some were the relatives of the mad-looking woman, about whom it was being said she was possessed by a jinn. Most kids though were hanging about out of sheer curiosity. Some were sitting on the few chairs in the room, a few perched up on the table, and the rest of them peeping from the slightly ajar door, watching the ‘exorcist’, the guy who was supposedly fighting the evil jinn. “Who are you?” he said in a very angry voice to the woman. The hangers-on whispered amongst themselves excitedly, awe-struck that he was talking to the jinn.

The woman must be in her mid thirties. A certain sort of madness in her gaze, foam was spewing out of her lips; suddenly she fell to the floor. Now she was laying flat on her back, moving her legs and head forwards as though she was riding a bicycle. Some kids were horrified; others were fascinated. “You must have a look” all the kids insisted. But the smoke of cigarettes drove me away faster than a whole host of jinns could have. “We have been watching him since morning. The two kids sitting with her are some relatives of her, they too have jinns in them” the kids eagerly informed me, a bit amused. “Looks to me like the entire family is possessed” was all I could say.

“Don’t you keep standing there, any of you. When the jinn leaves a person’s body, he leaves behind a sign” my friend warned all of us. “What type of a sign?” we asked. “I don’t know. It could be anything, but usually something very bad” said she and then she went on to explain how the jinn threw down a woman’s child from the rooftop when he left. “Why’d he do that?” we wondered. But then, why would a jinn want to reside in a human’s body? But, not wanting to take a risk, most of the kids dispersed. Most probably gone off to tell their mother’s what the incredible thing they had seen.

It is very remarkable how of all the countries in the world, the jinns seem to prefer Pakistan. And in Pakistan too, the rural areas, seem to be struck by this unseen enemy of the mankind. Well, at least that’s how they are perceived by most of the people. All the jinns in the world seem bent on mischief all the time. Haunting people’s houses, stealing their precious goods, waiting upon them in deserted places to scare them out of their wits, and inhabiting people’s bodies appears their full time occupation. And women, whether young or old are their favourite targets.

In Holy Quran, the jinns have been mentioned, this proves their existence to the believers. A close look however would reveal that many of those who claim to be possessed by jinns are in most cases suffering from hallucination, depression, or psychological diseases. The cases where the hand of an actual jinn is involved are few and far between in my personal opinion.

The village folks however are convinced, when anything untoward happens, that the jinns are up to their old tricks again. Then they seek the help of those who claim to have mastered all sorts of evil spirits and jinns. Many of them are self-confessed masters of dark arts. Most often than not, they are frauds of course. And many of them have no qualms about robbing the poor fellows of their hardly earned money. Money, which they could have spent on actually getting the patient treated, if only they had sense enough. Money that could have been spent on buying ordinary household goods.

If a child throws temper tantrums they would consult some pir. The pir would give them some amulet to wear. Your cattle are sick, the pir is sure to find some remedy for that too. Your business is doing poorly, and the pir is convinced it is the effect of evil eye. Then large sums are extorted from the already poor family. The persons are assured that they have some hidden enemy, someone who doesn’t like them to prosper, and has had a powerful spell cast on them.

These superstitions are rooted deeply into their lives. Some even seem to draw consolations from them. The lengths they would go to fulfill the orders of the pir are incredible. There was this young man who ran ways, leaving his grievous wife and four small kids. His family instantly managed to find a person who claimed to be very highly qualified in dark arts and black magic.

And if it is not for the plight the poor family is suffering from, the things they did on advice of the pir are way too funny. He gave them a piece of cloth, and told them to iron it at the intervals of every ten minutes. They faithfully followed his advice till the load shedding in their area prevented them. But, the family was determined to fulfill his orders to the last letter. After a great deal of trouble, like attaching their electricity cables to some other transformer (Which had power) they managed to keep on ironing the piece of cloth. Still no signs of the runaway son!

Next they were told to take a balloon that had been filled by helium gas. He gave them some amulet to tie to it. His words were, “the farther the balloon travels, the nearer your son would come.” Now there were no helium-filled balloons available in their area. On another occasion he advised them to ride on a bicycle backwards for a certain number of days. The family kept on performing the amazing feats with unwavering faith in the pir. The son of course hasn’t turned up to this day. Because he had large debts to pay off, and having no means or money to pay them, he just ran away; leaving his family to fill the pockets of the fraudulent pir.

In some cases, though it appears the young persons are just pretending to be affected by the jinns just to blackmail their family. For instance, a fourth-grader in my cousin’s class remarkably falls unconscious each time she wants to take a day off from school; later on claiming the jinns took hold of her.

“So what sign did the jinn leave behind” I inquired the next day from the young kids who had been sitting right inside the room. A group of them was sitting together, cramming their books and doing their homework. “Ask Ahsan, he saw the jinn!” the kids clearly looked greatly impressed by Ahsan.; a young boy of about eight, who always read aloud his lessons in a very unpleasant manner. “Well, Ahsan what did you see?” we asked him. All kids had stopped doing their work and sat looking expectantly at Ahsan. “The exorcist made me close my eyes and then I saw the jinn.” Ahsan beamed at us. “Then he (the exorcist) took a sword and slew it. Cut him into many pieces and totally finished it off. It was very fearsome, with fiery eyes, but I wasn’t in the least afraid of it” he grinned now. “Well, well get back to your lesson now,” said my friend in a severe tone, “and you stop distracting them” she looked very displeased. So there it ended, perhaps I can have another sitting with Ahsan and ask him what exactly the jinn looked like!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Arzhung: Pictures Of A Pakistani Village (II)

The Faithful: The Road to Paradise

The sun had set and the darkness was descending slowly but surely to enshroud the village. A few screeching sounds and the loud speaker came to life. “Gentlemen! The date palm of the mosque has lost its keys. If anyone finds them, please to return them, thank you.” Obviously the announcer had been either too panicked, or in too much of a hurry. So instead of saying the mosque with the date palm has lost its keys he made the above announcement, much to everyone’s amusement. Come to think of it what could one have possibly stolen from the old mosque? Why did it have to be kept locked? Maybe to keep out the members of rival parties. For it does happen, people claiming the house of Allah as their own and barring others from entering it.

The mosque with the tall date palm tree is perhaps the first mosque of the village. At least that’s the only one I remember from my childhood. That was where my cousins used to go to learn to read the Holy Quran. They would leave early in the morning, the ‘sipara’ in one hand, the other hand busy adjusting and readjusting the skullcaps, with sleepy eyes and hesitant steps; stopping and staring at the most uninteresting objects. On their way back though they would dash off at top speed, chirping cheerily like young birds.

The girls learn from some older woman who would consent to teach them. Sitting on the cold floor, huddled together like a herd of sheep or goat, each girl trying to learn by rote the day’s lesson, while the lady of the house builds fire and cooks breakfast for her family. Small girls with unwashed faces drop in at regular intervals to take the milk or buttermilk. The girls more interested in these visitors than in their lesson. Some smile shyly at the new arrivals, others just stare in a sulky manner because they cannot remember their lesson and are being constantly scolded by the instructoress. The younger ones fret over Arabic alphabet, looking greatly perplexed as they keep mixing them up with the Urdu ones. In a few years they would learn to recite the Holy Quran, in an accent that is neither Arabic nor Punjabi, but a sort of compromise between the two languages; piously moving forwards and backwards in a rhythmic movement. Funny how all girls and women alike recite the Quran and make Du’a moving backwards and forwards. Where did the tradition start? Perhaps they find comfort in the rocking movement?

There are five mosques in the whole village. Too many mosques, each under they impression that they are the most upright and pious. There are occasional outbursts of anger against each other. Then the loudspeakers are used to hurl insults at each other. The mosque with the date palm is the most active one. And they are the ones who are begging for donations constantly. At the beginning of each month the Imam turns on the speaker and informs the unsuspecting villagers in a doomed voice, “Gentlemen! The electricity bill has arrived.” A pause as if he is waiting for people to show their sympathy or surprise. “All those who want to give money in the name of Allah please send money. The bill is too much this time. Every brother and sister please help pay it and Allah will give you unlimited Sawab(reward).”

Promptly young children  start trickling in with money clenched in their fists. They are excited because the Imam announces each child’s name and the sum of money he has donated. Every young kid wants to hear his or her name announced on the loudspeaker. “Ma sha Allah! Jazak Allah! Fahad Butt, son of Saeed Butt has given ten rupees to the mosque. May Allah reward him. Fahad Butt son of Saeed, ten rupees…”

He seems to have invented various blessing and uses them at appropriate times. If it is some man he would go something like. “…may your business prosper”. For old ladies it is the prayer for a fabulous house in paradise. The small kids are usually referred to as “…the cute one” or “the innocent, sweet little child”. One can even buy blessings for their dead relations. “Here is a sum of ten rupees sum from the daughter of Rehmat Khan. Five rupees for the soul of her grand mother, and five for the grandfather’s. May Allah award them a place in heaven, ten rupees…” And thus the reward is split equally between the soul of the deceased grand father and grandmother.

“As you all know I don’t believe in talking too much, so each brother and sister please hurry up and send their share in the good deeds” he would remind us constantly. At intervals, when the ‘brothers and sisters’ are not sending any money some young boy would start reciting a Naat: praise of the Holy Prophet (P.B.U.H). Some with voices so hoarse you can barely make out any word at all, others with squeaky thin voices. Madina is their favourite subject. So one small child would tell us:

"…I would go through the forest, there is a date palm tree. I would go to Madina, there is the Roza of the Holy Prophet (P.B.U.H). In Madina: the holy city, I saw such beautiful sticks which the pilgrims used to wash their clothes…" That makes one wonder where did they conceive these ideas about the holy city. Definitely they must have seen their mother thrashing the clothes, to beat out the dirt imbedded in the very threads of the material. Another one sings: "…for ages I have been living in the hopes that I will be invited to the holy city, when will my turn come…"

But collecting the donations is not the only use of the loudspeakers. It is used to make all sorts of announcements. “A poor fellow from a nearby village came to sell the pulses. He has lost his purse, any brother and sister who finds it please to return it to him. He is a very poor man.” Or. “ Gentlemen! All of you are informed that the wife of Azmat is selling her fields to Farid Khan. And she says that this is our personal matter, everyone please to stay away. Once more you are told not to bother, it is their home’s affair.” Er okay, but then why are you announcing that on the loudspeaker?

On Fridays and in Ramadan of course all the maulvis are in their element. Each one has a different theory on why Allah created Man and the universe. But all of them are unanimously agreed that every individual would rot in hell unless they belong to their sect. They would invent their own meanings for each Ayah of the Quran; would tell baseless and fantastic stories that they claim are true. Their best-loved topic though is hell. It seems to give them immense satisfaction to constantly dwell on the tortures the evil people would suffer in hell. It never appears to leave their minds or tongues for even a single second. So one excited mullah in a hurry blurted out, “ May Allah grant you Heaven and Hell”. Why wouldn’t they sometimes tell the people how Merciful and Compassionate Allah Almighty is?

The holy month of Ramadan is observed with much religious zeal. That is the time when everyone is feeling charitable and pious. Even those who never enter or even pass the mosque fast and go to offer prayers. Women and young girls recite the Quran. Young boys, who love abuse and pick fight refrain from so doing. Young girls refrain from putting the Kohl in their eyes, under the mistaken belief that it would break their fast, or the appliance of any perfume or scent would corrupt it. Dates are considered a must to open the fast with. Bangles and Henna are exchanged among young girls as a token of friendship and love.

Eid is the time of festivity. Young kids are keen on collecting the money that is traditionally given to them by the elders. Then stuff themselves with all that is there to be eaten, and end up falling ill. The men like the ‘Big Eid, when they can gorge on the meat. Women complaining on too much of work to do on both Eids, yet do everything cheerfully.

The Christians have a church that has been invariably painted blue ever since I can remember it. IT has a long room, and a courtyard that used to serve as a wedding hall for the villagers. Then the Christians in a fit of rightful anger closed the door, and carved out a new door for themselves on the other wall. The one facing their ‘colony’. The only time there used to be a service was on the ‘Big day’: Christmas. That was the only time of the year when the Christian men, women and children bothered to wash themselves and wore clean clothes! Then a minister would be invited from some far away place to give a sermon. We used to watch their services from the top of the roof, amused at their strange chants. The Christian weddings of course take place in the church. They buy a gold ring, and once the ceremony has been performed sell it again to pay off the debt they had take to buy it in the first place!

A few years ago the church also got a loudspeaker. Mercifully they are a little less charmed by it than the Imams of date palm mosque. Occasionally the ‘padri’ would scold the Christians. “Why don’t you fast you wretches! Look at the Muslims, even their small kids are fasting too! And you good for nothing people cannot do as much” he had said exasperatedly once. And all the young Muslim kids were overjoyed, to hear themselves mentioned and praised by the padri. “See even the padri is praising us” they would tell us proudly. So much for the Christians.

October had started and the Imam was busy once again with the loud speaker. Poor guy has trouble pronouncing unfamiliar names. So young Khansa became “Aneesa Bibi”. “Please excuse me. A very cute little girl, but a very difficult name…Ma sha Allah! Jazak Allah!…”

Monday, January 18, 2010

Arzhung: Pictures Of a Pakistani Village

An American friend asked my father to describe how a Pakistani village looks from the air and he said, “All Pakistani villages look the same from the air: a few houses and a mosque surrounded by a few fields”. They look very different from the ground though. And the most wonderful thing about them is that they are inhabited by people of diverse natures. You pick out any one of them, and each individual has a story of his own. Love, hate, pain, joy, sickness, wisdom, foolishness, seriousness and humour all are to be found in these stories. They teach us that life and love can survive, even in the most desperate conditions.

The Journey: Returning To the Nest

It had taken me ages to decide whether it was the fit time to visit the native village. And it took longer to decide which things I wanted to take along. Books, clothes, talcum powder! And a toothbrush added as a second thought. My mother helped me pack and later on I regretted it. Too few clothes and most of them were unsuited to the fluctuating weather, which appeared never to be able to make up its mind. As if it was standing between winter and summer, with one foot on the either side, wavering between the two. Cool winds blowing now, the hot sun blazing another moment. My mother under the mistaken illusion that it was frosty cold in the village had made sure she packed all the warmest clothes. Of course I was the one who chose how many books to take, and carefully stacked them in a neat pile, hoping they would stay in the same neat order after suffering the jolts in the train and tonga respectively. Things somehow always tend to get so mixed up in a bag.

It was very early in the morning when we arrived at the platform. For various reason my family always has favoured the 7:50 train in the morning. In the summer because it becomes unbearably hot in the noon; and in the winters merely out of habit I suppose. And anyway, the 7:50 train travels faster than the others, makes fewer and shorter stops, and has very few ‘crosses’: the things which we used to hate mutually in our childhood.

In summer vacations, when all of us were eager to reach the village as soon as possible. When all the stops and stations on the way seemed unjust and unnecessary, the ‘crosses’ were the most hated things. Sometimes, the train you were stopping for took twenty to thirty minutes to arrive. Every minute seemed to pass like eternity. Young boys would get down and stroll along the platform. The kids would start demanding to eat all kind of uneatable stuff from the vendors at stations. Greasy pakoras and leathery naans, the soft drinks which were invariably hot, the water whose taste seemed to get worse the further you got from Lahore; men discussing the current affairs and smoking cheap cigarettes, women fanning their babies and themselves with the pallus of their dupattas, the smaller kids bawling, the older ones scampering around and all cursing the railways, which perhaps they held culpable for the scorching heat and buzzing flies. As if the railways had especially had the weather ordered, or the flies bred for them by the most competent scientist of the country!

Every now and then one of the kids would dangerously lean out of the window to see if the other train had arrived or not. We always thought it mean of the other train to leave before ours. Well, if we had waited say half an hour for them, they should at least have the civility to let us go first! And when the other train started to leave, it always did make me so dizzy. Because, I was so confused wondering which train was moving, then had always to look the other way, and see the stationary platform of the station to know that it was them and not us leaving. Somehow we always happened to be on the waiting side after all! That of course was in the time when most of the train drivers thought it an insult to arrive at time. Nowadays most trains leave and arrive at time, on our route at least.

Most of the benches at the platform had already been occupied by the crowds of people, waiting for the train. In childhood it always fascinated me that the train for our village always arrived and left from the same platform. I was always worried that one day they would change it without letting us know, and then we would end up in Faisalabad or Rawalpindi, the only two alternate destinations I could think of.

Once the train arrived, everyone eagerly flocked to the train. That is when coming early comes handy. You can choose any compartment and any seat. Window seat for me! As kids however we always thought it more adventurous to sit on the sleeper’s berth. But we did get to down to have a look at the Ravi, which to our small minds seemed deeper and vaster than the oceans; and the tombs of Jahangir and his beloved wife Nur Jahan, now decaying and surrounded by dirty and ugly houses. Though, most of the times the berths were occupied by sleeping men. It never ceases to amaze me that some people mange to travel all the way from Lahore to Narowal sleeping on them. What if the station they had wanted to go on would pass without them noticing? What if they change their side while sleeping and fall down? What if someone decides to run away with their luggage, or else their shoes which always seem to be too close to the edge of the berth, as if they were going to fall right on the head of the person sitting under it. What a row would it start then!

But never once so far have I seen any of the above things happened. My aunt though told me a story that chilled my blood with fear. Apparently one of her cousins (a distant relative of course, since miraculously all the horrible things seem to be happening with the distant relations) had been sleeping on a sleepers berth, using someone else’s briefcase as a handy pillow. Well what do you know; the briefcase had been put there by a terrorist, and contained a time bomb. Poor thing had her face completely blown off when the darned thing exploded. It must have been a horrible sight to behold her corpse!

The fans perhaps are older than anything one can possibly think of. It is a wonder that they work at all! They move at an imperceptible speed, hardly producing any air, and producing lots of interesting sounds. And in winters I have often seen them used as the trash bins. The rinds of orange, banana skins, the empty packets of stale potato chips, pieces of newspaper that the vendors had used to wrap their eatables, shell of peanuts and what not! A short while ago the railway has put restrictions on the vendors. No more sellers of fruits are to be seen any longer. The railway thinks this would help to keep the train clean. Well, my advice is let us wait till winter and see if we don’t find it all littered up with peanut shells and all.

These days the journey seems much shorter, perhaps the railways system has improved after all, despite all the complaints to the contrary. Or perhaps the passage of time has taught me to be a bit more patient. Or is it because I have finally learnt that the journey itself is far more exciting than we ever gave it credit to? That the tightly packed compartment; noisy and quarrelsome women; men passionately discussing the current political situation of the country; the vendors selling the cheap, low-quality foodstuff; children with smudged faces and runny noses; young boys ogling at any available young girl; wheezing old men, old ladies complaining of various diseases and injustices suffered by them; the beggars, most of them sound in body and mind, have all begun to interest me in a way they never did before.

However, I never can and never will learn to put up with anyone smoking. When the acrid smoke of the cheap cigarettes fills my lungs and almost chokes me, all I want to do with such a person is: beat him, slap him, shout at him and send him home! This was the treatment my Iraqi neighbour’s young daughter always threatened to give her impish brother. “Khobaib!” both of us would say in the gravest voice, “if you don’t behave yourself, we will beat you, slap you, shout at you and send you home!” And Khobaib sulked and jumped up and down like a little monkey, threatening to beat us, imitating the poses of some hero from the screen.

The ticket checkers, the deity that reigns the trains; some smiling and friendly, others frowning and sultry. My family insists that the ticket checker is the most corrupt person in the entire railway staff. Many of them buy the tickets not out of a sense of duty; they buy it because they do not want those ‘swindlers’ to profit! They are sure that the fine you pay if you have not bought a ticket goes straight into the pockets of those ‘contemptible’ fellows. More often than not this does happen.

It appears to be many centuries away, the time when you got down from the train and there were hardly any tongas at all to be found. You had to walk all the way from the station to the house. With blazing sun, and heavy luggage it seemed to last for many miles, even when you were passing through the fields using them as a short cut. In winters it was comparatively better. The tongas were scarce, and most of the villagers considered it too great an expense to hire one. These days, there is a host of tongas, and a rickshaw too. The rickshaw perhaps was found at some excavation, perhaps it is the mummy of some ancient transport. That could be one explanation for all the terrible sounds it produces when the driver tries to start it. It has a notorious history of never being on time, tumbling off the road when you least wish it to perform such acrobatics. (Not that there is ever a time when you do wish it to turn upside down, you never say it would be such fun if the rickshaw tilts to the left just once, after all!)Mercifully there is only one of its kind in our village.

As far back as I can think, all the tonga drivers and now the rickshaw driver too, absolutely refuse to go further than a certain point. Perhaps they have unconsciously but unanimously appointed it as their stop. From then on you just have to walk! The same sensation one used to have, on the way to home. Greeting old men and women, all of whom appear to know my parents and all our ancestors perhaps. My aunt with moist eyes, since she is more than an aunt to me is: a second mother. Then there is a whole host of aunts and uncles, grandfathers and grandmothers to be dealt with. Take your shoes off; the verandah is as cool as ever, home at last!

And when the birds are tired after having flown all the day, the frivolities of day have wearied them. The grains of food have filled their bellies; they all flock back to the nest. To home!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A few forgotten things

The other day I decided to fish out one of my older bags out of the dark recesses of the cupboard and put it to use again. The reason was?Well nothing really. The bag I was currently using was small and couldn't hold the heap of things that I have to carry with me all the time. Interestingly enough, I found a 50 Dhs. note and a handful of coins in it, along with an old, battered anthology of short stories, a bundle of tissue papers and a cutting from Friday magazine(which listed qualities of my sun sign). Oddly enough, I don't remember using this bag for ages. And during all this time, I never missed any of the stuff that was stowed in the bag, and yet I am hundred percent sure that I wouldn't part with any of these things, i.e. the bag, book or the info about my sun sign now that I've 'refound' them.

This is a huge problem with people like me; we hoard stuff that we don't' even need any longer, or never really needed in the first place, just because of some silly reasons. I have saved letters and cards that are at least 15 years old, I hardly ever read or look at them, and yet I wouldn't dispose them either. At the same time, I don't want to leave them behind in case of my death, it would mortify me if someone else went through them. There are several hundred emails that I cherish and therefore they have been in my inbox for close to a decade, yet I've never gone back and re-read them.

That makes me wonder why have these things been saved at all? Why this hesitation to part with them? Do I secretly hope to go back to them and peruse them again when(and if) I am old? By then I may have to tax my memory to recall what a certain joke or reference to a certain incident means. What all those 'code words' meant that my friend and I used to describe certain people. The code word were used merely for the heck of it, as no one read our letter anyway and we didn't have to resort to these cryptic methods. Besides, the things we wrote about were so mundane and trivial that none except us would have found them of interest anyway.

These aren't the only things that I am holding on to as a greedy magpie. There are the tiny gold hoops that I got when I was 7. They are too small to be worn by me again, and yet I wouldn't give them to any of the smaller girls in the family. I still have an old doll, some old toys; even clothes that I know I am never going to wear again(nor would many of them ever fit me again!), but I continue to collect it all. Two albums of stamp collection; my coin collection; some costume jewellery; even my old text books, notes and photocopies of assignments. And I am sure there must be some other stuff that's lying somewhere, which I don't remember but whenever retrieved would continue to guard it like a dragon.

Is that a sign of greediness? Am I being selfish for holding on to stuff. Why do I need these material tokens of my cherished memories? After all memories are something that can be cherished in your mind without having to collect all this stuff.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Musandam Pictures

A View of Old Navy Harbour at Khasab from the dhow

Emerald Green Waters of the Fjord

Another dhow on its way

The "Hello Mr. Dolphin" kid with his father and our Captain

Qanaha: A fishermen's village

The mountains reflected in the still waters of the sea

"The Alligator Island" (named by A.)

Scenic view (sorry for lack of creativity!)

More Scenic beauty

Our dhow from top of the Telegraph Island

Ruins at the top of the Telegraph Island

Another view from the top of the Telegraph Island

The dolphin that came promptly on my wish!

A shoal of fish at the Seebi Island

Snorkeling at Seebi Island

A storm brewing in the sea

The captain and jack-of-all trades wrapping up the torn canvas sheet

Chaos in the dhow
(one of the last pics before the heavy rains came)
A mountain enveloped by dark clouds(on the way to home)

Random shot(on the way back)

A Trip to Musandam (Part IV)

We stayed in the dolphinarium for about half an hour. Then we had to move forward to our next stop, the Seebi island. Another round of snorkeling and swimming followed. A. had changed from his bathing outfit to his own clothes, and he regretted it now. Because that meant getting locked in the tiny bathroom in the corner of the dhow yet again for changing. At first he even reasoned if it were worthwhile to change one more time, but as usual I henpecked him into doing it. (and I would like to think of my action as purely 'altruistic' one, after all as his better half I am supposed to encourage him and all that) We had driven halfway across the UAE, and had sailed for more than 2 hours to get to this place, how could he be so lazy now!

So he took the bathing costume, which consisted of a grey t-shirt and grey shorts, which we had hung on the side of the dhow for last half an hour or so for drying. It's a good thing that they didn't completely dry, or they would have been blown off with the first gust of wind when we were engrossed in dolphin watching.

The fish in this part of the sea were slightly bigger in sizes and came in bigger shoals. The captain and the jack-of-all-trades threw several pieces of chicken from the leftover chicken curry, and instantly scores of fish gathered and ate them all up. That either proves that the fish like horrible chicken curry, or else they inherently had a bad taste! At any rate, we were amused at the sight. What must be the fish thinking while eating chicken, as that's not something they may normally get as a food. Unless, the dhows customarily dispose of their leftover chicken curry at this spot.

I would have to say this about the Khasab Tour company, they really did give us enough time to enjoy each activity. They gave us 1 hour each time for snorkeling and swimming, and lingered sufficiently long in the area where dolphins were, so that everyone could have enjoyed. Come to think of it, what else could they possible do to a dhowfull of people otherwise? For me, the only lousy part of the trip was the food. I come from a family where almost everyone is an excellent cook and you are doomed if your cooking is below par. Besides, I am a born glutton, so food figures majorly in my life. So it's not surprising that while planning for the trip and the cruise, all my questions were about the food, what are they going to give in the buffet for me was the biggest questions. For some reason, A. thought that they were going to serve a variety of fish. I am glad they didn't, as I am not a fish person at all.

Up till now, the sun had been shining brightly, and a pleasant breeze caressed our faces and the sea was as calm as an innocent babe(ah I am sorry for the poor analogy, but cannot seem to think of anything else). But the weather changed drastically at this point. Everyone was back on board, getting ready to leave the island. We had another island village to visit, according to our itinerary. But already the sky was overcast, the wind changed from a gentle breeze to a strong gale and soon enough it started to rain. No more lolling or lounging on the mattresses. Everyone quickly grabbed their things and piled them in the center of the dhow. Then all the mattresses, pillows and bolsters were also piled haphazardly in the middle.

There was a chill in the air now. Our captain and the tour guide were clad in long rain coats now. "It's winter time now" the captain grinned at us. Yeah, okay. If only we had known that the weather was going to change from pleasant to chilly so soon, we would have brought something warm to wear too. My shawl no longer seemed enough defense against the weather, poor A. was only wearing a light cotton shirt and a pair of jeans, and after the recent round of snorkeling was feeling slightly cold. To make matters worse, it suddenly started to rain really hard.

"Ah, the Musandam cruise turned into an adventure". The dhow had begun to rock violently now, although we weren't in the open sea yet. "If we were in the open sea, it would have been really rough" our guide said in a bid to reassure us. I felt that what we were currently experiencing was rough enough, thank you for the cheerful thought! No one was interested in taking pics any longer. And anyway, it was raining so hard by now that we were gradually getting soaked, although everyone had grabbed towels and had wrapped themselves in it as much as possible. In the midst of all this hullabaloo, a young Japanese guy calmly buried himself under a pile of mattresses and slept! The extremely salty water of the sea splashed all over us, and it was hard to even keep our eyes open.

For understandable reasons(because I have a morbid turn of mind?) my mind quickly brought back the images of people in Titanic. Arghh...The tour guide was taking everyone's pics. "These might be your last pics" he chuckled. Well at least someone can find some comic element in this, everyone tried to appear nonchalant. I don't know about others, but I for one was really scared and it was so darned cold. The guide updated us every 10 minutes, "we will be there in 30 minutes" he said with his usual grin. "Ah, I wonder how many 30 minutes before we reach the shore" someone said.

We were in the open sea now. The guide had been right! It was much rougher now. We saw other dhows too, and even small speed boats too. Despite all the rain and storm, the captain stood firmly on his spot, and skillfully manouvered the dhow. The canvas sheet which had been covering his part of the boat had been torn because of wind, and they had taken it off earlier. The second-in-command hopped here and there excitedly, doing one thing or another. Though to be honest, for the most part I had buried my head in my lap and kept on thinking, 'Please Allah mian, I don't want to die like this. Not now". Frankly speaking, I cannot think of a time or manner in which I would want to die. Okay, too much of morbidity.

The worst part was that I had to use the loo really badly! The dhow was rocking really violently, there were no signs of the shore yet, and even if we were near enough, how long will it take to find a bathroom at the harbour? I have this horrid habit of trying to avoid public bathrooms for as long as possible. If I am in a plane, it amazes me that people file a queue outside the bathroom as soon as the aircraft takes off. Hmm...perhaps they are smart. At least they aren't the ones likely to be caught in a similar predicament as me. How I reached the bathroom is an adventure in itself, but a wholly unnecessary detail so the narrator should focus on other things now!

It took us over an hour to reach the shore at Khasab. The rain had stopped a short while ago. The mountains which had seemed majestic earlier on had taken on a menacing countenance. But we were finally on the shore. And now that we were safely at the harbour, the sea had suddenly become calm and innocent. As if the last one hour or so was but a figment of our imagination. Everyone cheered and clapped! The guide said that he was going to make a small collection for captain Waleed, for valiantly braving the storm. I couldn't agree more!

That's how our day long cruise at Musandam ended. The drive to home was pretty uneventful. On our way back, we saw tribal Arabs dancing somewhere in outskirts of Ras al Khaimah, someone was getting married, but A. adamantly refused to take their pics. He didn't want to invade their privacy. They were dancing out there in the public for heaven's sake! Oh well. We were home by 7 O'clock approximately. Tired, wet, feeling cold but very, very happy and satisfied. Because we had brought back many wonderful memories to cherish.

That's all folks!

Monday, January 4, 2010

A Trip to Musandam (Part III)

A. was gone for a good half an hour for snorkeling and swimming. The fat south Indian guy was back and was busy interviewing the (presumably) Central European father, who had two cute little kids with him. "How old is this one?" he asked in a school masterly fashion about the young boy dressed in an orange t-shirt. (I am sure everyone knows what a school masterly or alternately a headmistressy fashion). "er...he is four years old replied the father. Then he quickly added, "no, no...he is five". The other boy was a year younger if I remember correctly. He sounds like my father, to this day he has no clue how old I am! The best thing about my father's 'forgettery' is that he always thinks I am half a dozen years younger than I actually am.

The second in command/jack-of-all-trades would come every five minutes, grab a few oranges from the fruits' tray. He was probably the only person on board who lived the tour company's claim of 'unlimited refreshments, fruits, and drinks throughout the day'. Then a small speed boat stopped next to our dhow, and two Omani guys handed over three large parcels of food. It was barely 12'O clock by then. Is it time for lunch already? And this is the alluring buffet lunch which they had promised us? I couldn't help but smile and shake had at the silly notions of grandeur about the 'cruise'. Well, at least mine were a little moderate compared to A's, who when we were going towards Telegraph Island that there was going to be some dining place where people from various dhows would gather for a grand buffet.

"Mmm...smells good!" the Chinese guy said with a wide grin. I wish it had tasted good too. Yes, I am admittedly finicky about food, but that buffet lunch was the only negative point of the entire trip. I didn't even dare touch the mixed vegetables, the rice were okayish, but the chicken curry was a disaster! And that was all we had in the name of a 'buffet lunch', unless you count the accompanying hommous and khubz as a separate dish. Since I was waiting for A. to get his share too, and am a very slow eater, almost everyone had finished their food by the time we tucked in. Since the food wasn't very palatable, it took even longer to finish it. The jack-of-all-trades fished out chilled Pepsis and Mirandas from the icebox and now everyone was drinking them. There was something 'funny' (in a nice way) about how when one person chose bananas from the fruits tray, everyone else would have bananas too, and if one person began eating oranges everyone else followed suit too.

Almost everyone had finished eating (except for slow eaters like me), and now a general ennui seemed to descend on everyone. Some were lying on the mattresses, others lounged about lazily, and some lazy souls were actually trying to fall asleep! The south Indian family was back to reading their choicest bestsellers. There were still no signs of the much promised dolphins, who according to our jovial tour guide were always playing about the boat. They must have had a really rocking party last night, and had probably had too much to drink in A.'s opinion. Being the occasional skeptic, I expressed my uncharitable views about the tour guide's claims and was convinced that they just used the dolphins to lure more tourist on their cruise. We were in the middle of our food, when the Chinese lady next to me suddenly shouted excitedly, "Dolphin!" Yes we all did see a small splash of water, but there was no dolphin. Were we all acting like the shepherd boy in the story who shouted, "The lion". Whether she had actually seen a dolphin or not, every single person on the dhow got up, even those lazy, sleepy folks too.

And then it actually came, a dolphin! Everyone went wild with excitement. But the elusive dolphin dived under the boat and was soon gliding gracefully on the other side, everyone clustered at that one sight, in a frenzy to get as many pictures of it as possible. It only stayed there for about 5 minutes and then it was gone. But everyone kept standing near the edge, and staring hard in hopes of spotting another dolphins for quite some time after that. Then everyone got tired and went back to their places. Except for the kid in the central European kid in the Orange t-shirt. Both of them had now become permanent fixtures next to my seat, where the first dolphin had appeared. "Hello Mr. Dolphin" he hollered. "Please come out". Everyone began to chuckle, then someone began to whistle loudly in a bid to attract more dolphins. Gradually the excitement died down again and everyone else sunk into collective ennui again.

I was sitting a bit higher now, propped up on my pillow and staring at the water, though I didn't shout 'hello Mr. Dolphin, please come out', I couldn't help but long that dolphins would actually come and follow our boat. I had only caught a brief glimpse of the last one. "How nice it would be, if a dolphin comes right where I am sitting and begin to follow me like a pet dog or cat". The words had barely left my lips and lo and behold! A dolphin appeared right where I was sitting and began to swim close to the dhow! That has easily to be one of the best moments of my life. Normally, I only have to wish for something to make sure that it doesn't happen. But today, fortune smiled on me as they say, and my wish was instantly granted. I excitedly motioned to the kid in the orange t.shirt who had been earlier requesting Mr. Dolphin to come out. Everyone gathered in our part of the dhow now. More video graphing and photo shooting ensued.

There has to be something magical and charming about the dolphins. Because, regardless of their age, nationality or ethnicity, everyone at that time was excited like a child. And although my dolphin(mine because it appeared on my wish!) glided with us only for 5 odd minutes or so, soon enough we were in an area where a whole school of them was playing, diving in unison in a synchronized movement. We were in the midst of a real life 'dolphinarium'. Everyone gushed with happiness, the pure, innocent kind of pleasure that normally only little children can experience.

To be continued....

A Trip to Musandam (PartII)

Geographically speaking, Musandam is an exclave of Oman, which is separated from rest of the country by United Arab Emirates. That means that we weren't on the mainland of Oman, where Muscat and all the other major cities of Oman are situated. Four wilayats (districts) form the Musandam governorate:

1. Al Bhukha
2. Khasab
3. Dibba Al Bayah
4. Madha

The dhow cruise we were on started from Khasab, which is the regional centre. It's not a very populated place. You do see small settlements of fishermen here or there, but mostly it's more of a tourist attraction. The rugged mountains and the coast line are very similar to the ones in the polar countries. In fact, many people refer to Musandam as the "Norway of Arabia".

We were told by Mr. Binoy that our dhow was dhow no. 1, which happened to be the closest one to the dock. Lucky we! We were the only Pakistanis on board. The dhow was a sort of small global village. There were people from America, France, China, Japan, India, and a family who looked like they were from some central European country. Our 'captain', Captain Waleed was an Omani, so was his 'second-in-command', while the tour guide was probably a Moroccan or Algerian. I am only making an educated guess about the tour guide, because he could speak fluent French, as well as Arabic and English. He may well have been an Egyptian or could be from Brunei for all I know!

The Chinese family was sitting on our immediate left, while on our right side were an American family. While the (presumably) Central European family and a south Indian family were sitting across. While rest of the tourists were partially hidden from our view by a cabinet-cum-table that was in the centre of the dhow, in and on which were stored provisions, refreshments etc. The youngest boy of the South Indian family was reading "Horrid Henry Rules the World". His mom was reading a title by Sidney Sheldon, which I don't recall. But I did wonder why anyone in their right senses would want to read on board a dhow, when there is such scenic beauty around them and they could have easily done that sitting in their living room.

When we were seated our tour guide, a jovial,stocky fellow collected our tickets and gave printed handouts to all of us which had a map of Musandam on the front and the travel itinerary on the back side of the paper. According to that hand out, and I quote verbatim:

The Khor Sham is a sheltered, 17 km long fjord. The water is crystal clear and calm, very inviting for snorkeling and swimming. The mountains rise out of the sea and reflect back on the water. There are almost always dolphins playing and following the boats as they cruise around the villages.

Of course, we were mainly doing the cruise for the dolphins and snorkeling! And the guide reassured us that there were always plenty of them to be seen. On both sides of us, we could see majestic mountains standing tall. We were mesmerized by the splendour of the mountains, and the quiet, crystal clear water enchanted us. "The sea is so calm" exclaimed A. for the one hundred and twentieth time. The water was emerald green, still and so clear that you could see the sea floor.

A few minutes after the dhow set sail were offered Arabic qahwa by the short but sturdy fellow(previously referred to as the 'second in command'), he was basically a jack of all trades sort of guy. He served refreshments and fruits to us; took off his clothes and jumped into the water to secure the boat with an anchor whenever the need arose; served the 'buffet' to all on board; and when the hour of need arose, he helped captain Waleed in managing the boat and so on. Soon afterwards he served fruits to us on a big, round platter. And we chuckled when we remembered the description on the website of the tour company, "You will have unlimited snacks, refreshments, fruits and a buffet lunch'. More about the buffet lunch will follow later.

One of the attractions of the cruise were the villages which were on various small islands. The first village that we passed by was Nadifi. Its population was approximately 100 inhabitants, who are mostly fishermen. The tour guide explained to us that they fish for six months, mostly in winters, they take the fish to the town of khasab for selling. Since they aren't connected to the land by any road, almost everyone in the village owns fishing boats or small speedboats which they use to travel to and from the village. There children travel by boats to Khasab, and stay in the boarding houses from Saturday to Wednesday, and come to their homes on the weekends only. We were also informed that the government of Oman provided amenities like electricity and water to them even in this remote area, free of charge. The local children's academic expenses were also paid by the government.

We stopped near Qanaha, another small village for 15 minutes or so. A cluster of stone houses could be seen from afar, since we or any outsiders weren't allowed to travel beyond that point and go any close to the village. In the old days, this used to be the first line of defence against invaders. Some of the houses were almost the same colour as the mountains behind them. This was done in order to conceal them from the view of invaders, especially pirates, the tour guide explained.

Our first main stop was going to be on the Telegraph Island (Jazirat al Maqlab). and I refer to the handout again:

"...the most famous landmark in this area. Here the British laid the first telegraph cable in 1864, it ran from India to Basra, Iraq and the island was manned for 10 out for butterfly fish, groupers and the coral growth is among the best in this fjord."

"I wonder where all the dolphins are" said our tour guide somewhat anxiously. He sounded apologetic, as if they were his pet dolphins and were meant to have been there on schedule. "I think it's too early and all of them are sleeping" he joked. "They must be very tired, it was a big night last night" the American guy at our right chimed in. Everyone laughed at this, still everyone was looking around for signs of any movement. None, very quiet and still so far.

We made our first main stop at the Telegraph Island. Almost everyone left excitedly to climb the rocky island, except for me, the (presumably) central European lady, and a south Indian lady; and a very fat south Indian guy who was fidgeting about. He asked the short, sturdy (second in command) guy if the water was too cold. Then our jack-of-all trades guy looked analytically at him, hopped down from the boat, was back in a jiffy and declared that no it was perfectly fine for swimming.

The view was very spectacular from atop the telegraph island, but alas I was meant to stay behind. But since the island wasn't very big, and there are only so many photographs that you can take and so much looking at the mountains and the sea that you can do, soon everyone was back. Excitedly changing into their bathing costumes and donning the snorkeling gear! The young French children were the first to undress and jump into the water. The American mother and daughter were next. "It's just the initial shock, after that the water is just fine" the young American girl shouted to the still reluctant fat south Indian guy. So he finally took the plunge and dived in the water with a big splash. He was so bulky that he seemed to float without any effort at all.

A. took ages changing into a t-shirt and shorts, and fidgeting with his snorkeling gear. Then I had to literally shove him into the water(he is so not going to agree with this part but it's true!) After that he sort of disappeared, while I wondered where he had gone and regretted all the nasty things that I had said to him till now, of which there were many. Apparently he had gone under the dhow and on the other side of the rock. The water was so clear, that I could see shoals of fish, even while standing on the deck of the boat. The water was a deep green, the fish were of various colours. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the snorkeling and swimming, while those who like me couldn't swim or snorkel, enjoyed watching everyone playing and having fun in the water. We were going to stop there for an hour.

To be continued...

A Trip to Musandam (Part I)

Do you remember the days when we were at school and were always expected to write essays on topics like 'A trip/visit to Jahangir's Fort'. In fact, I don't remember seeing any other topic, for some reason, the examiners and those who designed the 'guide' books seemed to be enamoured by Jahangir's fort, whereas, there are many more exciting places in Lahore!

Anyway, this blog entry is not about Jahangir's fort at all, it's about a recent excursion into Musandam Peninsula. Oman had been on our 'to-d0' list for quite a while now, and we were looking forward to the trip with keen anticipation. Initially, the trip to Musandam and the dhow cruise were planned to be on the long weekend that fell on 24th or 25th December. However, we hadn't done enough planning and it was postponed.

On the first day of twenty ten or 01/01/2010 (I only wrote it that way because all those alternate ones and zeroes look so cool!) we embarked for Musandam. For those of you who are totally clueless about what/where Musandam is here is some brief info. It is approximately 125 km from here (here means where I am) towards the north, when driving northbound from Ajman, you cross Umm ul Quwain first, then Ras Al Khaima, and then cross over the Omani border into Musandam peninsula. Beyond the Musandam peninsula is the Strait of Hormuz, which makes the tip of the peninsula less than 100 km from Iran.

It was 8:20 A.M, A. we were sitting at the Al Dhara checkpost on the Emirates/Oman border, A. was hurriedly filling the visa application forms, while I read out the requisite info from the passports to speed up the process. The dhow cruise was to start on 9:00 A.M, while we were still another 40 kms away from Khasab, from where the cruise was going to start. Then A. grabbed our passports and literally ran to the waiting queue which mercifully wasn't very long. While I fidgeted in the car, and irritably thought how useless my getting up at 5 O'clock in the morning is going to be, if we can still not make it in time for the cruise. Grrr... we had left home shortly after 6 O'clock, and here we were still stuck on the border post. A huge party of South Indians were waiting there too. Apparently they had some guest with them who was visiting from India on a visit visa and this meant an even longer procedure for them. He had to produce his return ticket to India and what not, while we had to just deposit some money as security.

Ten more minutes passed and A. was still standing next to the window of the small cabin like room.Are we ever going to make it to this dhow cruise at all! After all this planning and anticipation, it seemed as if the whole trip would be useless if we couldn't make it in time for the cruise. Another 5 minutes passed, I sighed with relief as A. came back. We had the entry stamps on our passports, finally we were free to go. The South Indian party were still there when we left.

The coastal road to Khasab is simply splendid. Simply spectacular. Imagine, I had lived most of my life not to far away from this place, and had no clue that such a beautiful place existed right 'next door'. Oh well, better late than never. We quickly gobbled down the egg and butter sandwiches that were prepared last night, while we wondered aloud for the umpteenth time, 'would we make it there on time'. Despite all his anxiety to make it to Khasab in time, A. had to stop twice to take photographs. He is a camera crazy guy, who has to take pic of everything, even mundane everyday outings. And this place was exceptionally beautiful, no wonder he went berserk with excitement. Every few kilometres, we noticed that people had parked wherever they fancied and were camping there.

At 8:55 we called Mr. Binoy (the contact person of Khasab Tours) and told him that we were running slightly late. Mr. Binoy reassured as that it was perfectly fine, the cruise was going to start on 9:30. I fished out the blue writing pad on which A. had jotted down directions for the Old Navy harbour at Khasab. At least we were going in the right direction.

"It says, after Golden Tulip resort, there is a fenced area... you should enter the gate at the left side and we will be at the Old Navy harbour" I informed A. "Ah, there it is!" We'd barely passed the Golden Tulip resort and there it was: the Old Navy harbour. I now understand how discoverers of old must have felt when they reached a new destination. We had made it there in the nick of the time. All the other people were already huddled around Mr. Binoy and were fussing over their snorkeling gear. We quickly paid Mr. Binoy, got our 'ticket' which was actually an invoice, and then A. too began to sift through the small pile of snorkeling gear.

To be quite honest, I was under the impression that it would be like a luxury cruise liner. Perhaps it has to do with watching all those movies and reading all those novels where...but it was slightly silly of me. I have always known what a dhow looks like! The dhow was furnished in the style of a traditional Arabic drawing room,: carpets, mattresses, pillows and bolsters. Everyone was lounging about comfortably, we too found a spot and settled down.

To be continued....