Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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Monday, 2 January 2012

The Dubai Syndrome

 It is commonmplace for Indian husbands to go to Dubai (at one time all of the gulf states were subsumed under the tiltle 'Dubai') with wives staying behind. Remittance wives are not new to Kerala or to India for that matter. At first there was Malaya and Ceylon, Burma and the east coast of Africa. They went in steamers, which took weeks to cross the oceans and came back years later. Interestingly, my father-in-law went to Scotland for seven years to become a doctor and his young wife stayed behind. Some marriage that. So we went where the money beckoned and some came back rich. Others never came back. My husband's old man returned wearing a three-piece suit, a bow tie and a fob watch. He ate bulls eyes and porridge for breakfast ever after.
Hanging around in the long corridor in Dubai airport one night, some years ago, I came across some Malayalee drivers chatting. They did not spot me for a Malayalee, probably because I was wearing a shift - my usual, shapeless, maximum-relaxation outfit for air travel - and carried hardly any luggage. If you were from Kerala, in the sixties, you travelled behind a barrage of shopping bags.
   In those days the travel between Dubai and Cochin was fraught. Men carried back 'three-in-ones' and 'two-in-ones,' making the aisles of aircrafts dangerous places to be when embarking. All over the place the red-and-white bomb-proof Dubai plastic bags could be seen with five-kilo tins of orange squash and milk powder, dried fruit and chocolate and sweets enough to pay for the new Benzes of at least three or four dentists.
The aisles sounded like a Kochi bus at rush-hour, Malayalam urgencies being called out as passengers settled. I generally ended up completing customs forms for a whole lot of them at three in the morning as they had no English. I breezily wrote 'no' against the questions about new goods they were bringing into India. Getting the details from them was just too difficult.
I got talking to those drivers in the Dubai lounge eventually as they kept sneaking looks at me and my sparse hand luggage. 'Will she carry some for us?' they asked each other in whispers looking at the Emirates official sizing up hand luggage items. So I had to put them out of their misery.
   'Bad shoulder,' I said in Malayalam. 'Can't carry too much.'
   'Do you go home often?' I asked, trying to mitigate the refusal. The two answered together. 'Good Lord , no.' One went every two years and the other every four. The first one thought he was extremely lucky to see his family once in every two years. 'Haven't seen my new baby,' the other volunteered. 'Over three years now.' Poor sod, I remember thinking. He'll need all the sweets in the world to entice that little one into his strange lap. I supposed the compensations would be the new concrete-roofed houses, indoor toilets and dowries for sisters. Come to think of it, if those guys decided to stay home, their families would probably forcibly drag them to Nedumbasseri or wherever and put them back on the planes to Sharjah, Abu Dhabi or Quatar.
   This migration has of course been responsible for many changes in the social - and possibly- physical landscape of Kerala. It hits me in the solar plexus when I travel to Thalassery these days, which is once a year on my visit to Kochi. I can no longer find my way around the town in which I was born and raised. You'd think that is because of development. Not so. Not so at all. North Malabar is the despised poor relative of the State Government. Too stroppy by half, too violent and so, no money.
   Thalassery remains without the usual signs of civilisation: good, wide roads; trustworthy water supply; power, broadband ...  There are hospitals scattered here and there and I suppose that's a step forward, considering the old general hospital, into which you went (Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.) if you were poor and had the temerity to get sick. Mind you, the hospitals are private now and and a  sick appendix could cost you more stomach ache (and head ache) than the original disease. But there is a choice anyway.
   What I notice these days is that there are high-rise flats all over the place dominating the landscape; I get claustrophobic just looking at them. And then there are the new concrete boxes where once we had fields and red spinach and tapioca growing, rippling in the breeze. They have low ceilings and sit squatly on village land, looking a little out of place. I could feel sorry for them.
   I should accept that people now have flat-tops to live in as compared to the old fragile thatches. Definitely more durable. But, for sheer ugliness those flat tops are hard to beat.
   There is money in Thalassery now, I console myself. People eat better, dress well and have longer lives. What started as a few smuggler's boats dropping off contraband gold on the beaches at midnight, has now turned into a legitimate livelihood. Still, I don't know whether I can call this progress if a man and woman have to spend their youth apart, though married, so that their families can prosper. There must be other less painful ways, I tell myself.
   I remember what one wife said to me; her husband was expected back soon.
'You must be happy,' I said. 'After so many months.' She looked confused.
'I am not sure of anything. I don't know him, his clothes, his ways. I have forgotten all that. Then he comes back and ...'
Did it look like an intrusion? That was an embarrassing moment. What was she trying to say?
  

2 comments:

  1. This post reminds me of reading about Gopi from The Streak of Sandalwood :D

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  2. Quite right, Alex. In the blog you flit over an idea, whereas in a novel you watch the words, dress it up, pare it down. You think of your audience and clarify. A blog is more honest. But both come from the same source: a bank of ideas, concerns, even despairs.
    I prefer the blog,; the novel is too much like hard work.
    Anand

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