Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Train of thought

Being anti-car in Dubai is getting rather frustrating.

Not when I stroll easily through the snarl that is Trade Centre Roundabout during Gitex. Not when I can leave the cab in the stationary traffic on the Sheikh Zayed service road and just walk the rest of the way. Not when I can get to work without first driving around the block twice and then parking in sand about a kilometre away.

But when I need to go somewhere that’s not walking distance, the cabs are spread thin over an ever-growing area and the buses are delayed in traffic, I remember the good old days of 2005, and sigh.

My hopes are now centred on the Dubai Metro. And my evenings are now coloured by the fact that construction on it has reached the stage where they have to bang large pieces of metal on other large pieces of metal all night. So far the inconvenience to me has been restricted to the closing off of the median, so I have to go all the way to traffic light to cross the road to the restaurants, instead of jaywalking as the crow flies.

But even when I can no longer hear my music, I don’t feel the murderous rage I used to at the slightest little beep from a crane when they were building apartments next door (now mercifully complete). If it’s for the Metro, I feel it’s in a good cause and tolerate it with minimum fuss. And I’m not the only one – I noted when the first barricades and notices came up that there was much less of the usual bitching from drivers. That’s quite something considering it’s Dubai’s favourite pastime.

I used to make fun of the fact that they had boards with the names of stations before they had rails, but in retrospect that was a great little bit of situation management. The boards very simply and quietly showed the results. They gave the inconveniences an acceptable name and place: “We’re not disrupting traffic to build a tower you won’t be able to afford to live in and which will drive your rent up. We’re building infrastructure.” And they remain a reminder that this is important work.

The same goes for the extensive feature articles, the display of the train at last year’s DSF, the constant reiteration of facts and figures in the newspaper. It all seemed to be just personal back-patting and self indulgence, while all the time it was a masterly PR exercise.

Even on the longest nights of the construction next door, when whatever they were doing was not only noisy but made my building vibrate, I wasn't as impatient for it to be finished as I am now with the Metro.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Lost causes

It's a scary world. Still. For every guy with a mind he's not afraid to use, there are ten thousand who are content with thinking what their friends and magazines tell them to think. This would be fine if the thinking man was the friend, but unfortunately he's few and far between. Comments like the ones on this post make me deeply grateful that I haven't yet been suckered into wifedom – the odds being what they are, I would have almost certainly got the sort that would have led to suicide or murder or at least the divorce courts. (Gratitude is a refreshing change from the other thing.) Fortunately for the institution of happily-ever-after, there is a Cosmo for every FHM.

The fastest way to locate them is to use Sheep Hooks, the terms or subjects that spark a reaction irrespective of the context in which they appear. In fact, the context is largely ignored, except if it's needed to make the strong point about the operative phrase. Indian Heritage is one. Religion is another. Self-fulfilment. America. All the fashionable relationship labels, leading with "commitment-phobic". Any term with "issues" in it. Anything to do with children. It doesn't matter what your story is, they'll gather in swarms to react to just the one throw-away bit.

But there's one word to rule them all, one word to find them, one word to bring them all and in the darkness bind them: Feminist.

Where's a pretty fly, then?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Coffee, tea or watermelon juice

If your greatest pleasure is to sit in a coffee shop and read, are you dull and boring? If your most important goal when you're in a new place is to find that cafe, does it make you a loser? The problem with both those questions is that the answer is probably yes.

All I can say is, once I find the cafe, a stranger's city suddenly becomes mine. And 90% of the time I prefer my own company to 90% of the rest of the world's. Give or take 10. So there.

There's no rule to choose them by – I just know when I walk in whether it's the one I want. But I know it is never, ever a Starbucks. Or rather, hasn't been so far. I have lately become a seeker of wireless internet, so Starbucks might enter the lists.

There were two in Bangkok. One, all battered wood, catatonic junkies and heavy-eyed backpackers. The other, full of stylishly chunky furniture and arty types with trust funds. My Chicago one was gleaming chrome and steel, full of people from Ally McBeal. In Izmir, it was a low table on a pavement in a crowded souk. Pasadena's Kaldi had the soul of an old English coffee house and the face of a lady who lunches in LA. The one in Ithaca was a pretentiously unpretentious "family place". Providence provided an entertaining hole in the wall, full of students being pretentiously unpretentious. Beirut contributed two as well – another students’ hang-out near a university and a trucker’s cafe halfway to Nabatieh, where the scent of fresh manakish mingled with that of lemon groves and nobody spoke English.

I never got a chance to find the ones in Boston and Cape Town, but their presence throbbed around me like the memory of caffeine in my veins.

In Mauritius, a cool, shaded sanctuary, with questionable pictures on the walls and an unquestioning acceptance of generations of foibles, was a lot like the one that started it all for me. Like most of Bangalore, my secrets too have been absorbed into the air of Koshy’s – long afternoons reading a book, when I was supposed to be in class earning a degree, long mornings writing my own instead of what I was being paid to write. Warm, theatrical evenings eating mince on toast with an excitable cast of characters. The occasional breakfast or lunch with the family. New friends. Old friends. Ex-friends. If you sat long enough in Koshy’s you would meet everyone you knew. You still do – though now they often turn out to be the baby siblings of those you thought they were.

With every wave of change that sweeps Bangalore, we hold our collective breath from afar. And then sigh with relief that Koshy’s survived. Beautiful, colonial Victoria Hotel became a mall. Premier Bookshop became an office tower. Nobody negotiates Gangarams’ eccentric shelving now that Landmark displays books like CDs, so maybe that’ll go next. To make way, perhaps, for a Starbucks.

But I’ve forfeited my right to take a lofty stance about Starbucks since I was delighted to find a Dome cafe in Singapore, and chose it for the sheer familiarity – it looked exactly like mine in Dubai, down to the posters on the walls and the etching on the mirrors. In my defence, the menu is entirely different, even between the two in the same city. It seems their only “signature offering” is the service. When you’re absorbed in your book, they don’t bother you. And if you’re writing, they treat you as a sort of sacred trust. When the fifth Harry Potter came out, I went to Dome to start it over brunch. And ended up sitting there, reading, until eight in the night. I was left severely alone, and the waiter who badly wanted to talk about the book waited all day, until I asked for the bill, to do so.

The one I’m sitting in now is not bad either, but it’s no Dome.

Thursday, November 01, 2007


It seems there is an answer to the chicken-or-egg question after all. And it would be in the Vedas. It’s surprising that the India Shining brigade hasn’t put it into a Powerpoint presentation to be forwarded round and round the universe until the end of time.

I received my two-hundred-thousandth forward today that needed me to send it back to the person who sent it to prove that I am their friend. Well, they’ve been taken off the list – as they have presumably already gathered by the absence of a reply. If the phone don’t ring, it’s me.

Anyway, we now need a new question: Was the egg broken for the First Breakfast or did the First Breakfast happen because the egg broke? Is that what they mean by First Cause?

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