Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Life with a three-year-old

My niece believes I've been imported solely for her edification so she's reluctant to let me out of the house. I ease her into it by letting her participate in the dressing process. She lays out my make-up and hands it to me like a chatty surgical assistant. She comments at length on my clothes and puts on my jewellery to see what it looks like. Then she picks out my shoes and dusts them with my powder brush. It adds at least half an hour to the process but it makes the day go so much better. And a one-person fan club who firmly believes you are “so pretty” is a relief when you’re seeing a new grey hair every day.

She has wondrous toys that we would have killed to get, but her favourite* consists of two jam jars full of ordinary glass stones of the decoration-in-flower-pot variety. They represent, variously or together, people, money, food, cars, houses, laptops, phones, groceries, luggage, furniture and, after she’s been spending some time with her father, aeroplane parts. She’s lately learned about the presence of mascara in the world, so it also becomes that sometimes. The stones form the jungle, the lions and the princess lost among them. There’s always a princess. It becomes Swiper, the thing he’s swiping and the chorus that says “Swiper, no swiping”.

She seems to learn a new polysyllabic word every day, though none of us knows how. One day she’s struggling to work out how to slant the lines of “A” and the next, she’s writing her name easily (according to my brother, the Indian government would now consider the household 100% literate). She came home from ballet class and taught me the “arabeck”. In return, I taught her the Surya Namaskar; she had fun doing it but couldn’t pronounce the name, so promptly rejected it.

It bothers her when I disappear into a book and she’s lately taken to hanging around the bookshelf and picking out “books without pictures” (which necessitated a hasty shifting of some books that do have pictures to higher shelves). She turns the pages, getting increasingly frustrated by the rows of black type that mean nothing to her, understanding even less why I prefer that to playing with her. Sometimes I suddenly remember that she will be sixteen one day with no time for tedious old aunts, so I shut the book and play anyway.

I’ve forgotten what it’s like to do anything without a running commentary, I haven’t invented so many exhausting games at such short notice since I was that age myself, I can’t go out, work late or sleep in without feeling guilty, my reading has slowed to one often-missing book a month and my powder brush is permanently out of commission, but every time she’s happy to see me, I feel like I’ve won an award. And I’ve never won so many awards in my life.

Aunts and uncles – much like grandparents – have unshakeable belief in the unique glory of their nieces and nephews (I have several and I think they’re all geniuses, including the one that’s only 10 days old). So I could go on forever but will stop here.

*Favourite at the time of starting this. At the time of publishing, it was a pack of cards. By now it’s probably something else.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Things I haven't blogged about

1. The tsunami that decimated parts of Japan with the completeness of Hollywood special effects passed uneventfully over my blog. And I only used a Facebook status to record my observation that newscasters use superlatives for everything so they have no words for something like this. When a fashion faux pas is devastating and holidaymakers forced to sleep in an airport are tragic, what do you call a 30-foot wall of water that comes in so fast that the most prepared nation is helpless? Of all the videos of the flooding, the most poignant one for me is the one of the little town where you can hear the warning sirens, the repeated, urgent recordings that are probably saying “run for higher ground”, but there’s no time, no time at all. The sea is already there. In a few seconds, the cars have started to float. In six minutes, the water is up to the roofs, the sirens quite literally drowned out. But I believe that it happened to probably the only country capable of coming back from it stronger and better.

2. I even left underided the efforts of the US to find some way to muscle in on the tragedy, and the equally futile candlelight campaign on Facebook. The only thing more unhelpful than holding up a lit candle is passing around a photograph of one.

3. On another part of the emotional scale, the joy of watching the BBC series on the South Pacific also went unrecorded here. It was great to know there is somewhere a coral atoll not open to tourists, white beaches left to birds and turtles (and the occasional TV crew). The volcanoes still moving in Hawaii, the islands rising and falling, the strange fish that eats coral and craps sand, the earth’s continuous shift and shuffle form a reassuring big picture. Also on the subject of big pictures, my brother’s obsession with giant TVs paid off in this case because it did full justice to the glory of all that high definition cinematography.

4. I haven’t written my usual cafe piece on the Coffee Club in Orchard Fountain Corner, “my cafe” in Singapore. It sits cheerfully at a busy crossroads, open on all sides, with a clear roof high above. Behind it is a row of restaurants leading to the metro station, across from it is the Singapore Visitors’ Centre. On either side stretch the shady pavements of Orchard Road, lined with temples to the Gods of retail. The clientele changes through the day, like coloured lights. Yet everyone seems to hang out for hours. It’s always busy, friendly, unexpected. They’re playing Bach today, and when it’s played in the open air, threading between the noises of the street, it becomes somehow hip. I walked in after a gap of two weeks, one waiter smiled a bright hello, another said “Cappuccino and water?” and a third, seeing the glass full of ice, reminded him: “No ice”. They have the best cappuccino ever.

Some other things I haven’t written:
- An ode to the iPhone
- A whinge about the sudden breakdown of hair and skin, in an anticipatory deterioration into 40
- A witty piece about life as a freelancer-on-contract, with restful benefits of only being on the fringes of office life
- A warmly informative article about salt water aquariums, the strange preferences of captive anemones and the surprising discovery that fish seem to have personalities
- A travelogue about the Singapore metro
- A frankly self-indulgent ramble about the fact that the cashier in the Seven Eleven at Queenstown Station recognizes me now
- A word portrait of the Jurong Bird Park

Oh well.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Out-walking the blues

One disenchanted evening, I was feeling the bewilderment you feel when strangers have been rude to you for no reason. It was the last day of my longish freelancing stint at this place and apparently they didn’t think I merited the courtesy of a goodbye*. I was leaving an empty office, alone. Ad agencies never say thank you or sorry – it’s part of the ancient covenant – but I’ve grown to expect at least a “nice knowing you”. It is nice knowing me, especially on a short-term basis.

More than a little pissed off and fighting some epic self-pity, but not very hard, I took the stairs and found myself singing Yesterday When I Was Young, starting a train of thought that added one more, darker layer of blue. Outside, there was much thunder and lightning and an exuberant breeze, weather that always makes me feel good, so I stood undecided on the covered pavement that led to the station. The breeze was already tugging at the blue fog and I didn’t want to disappear underground. I checked my iPhone map and found that it was only a five-kilometre walk to the house. The route stuck to the main thoroughfares, so I could hop into a cab if the threatened rain came down.

I set off down Scotts Road, under the big trees. The neighbourhood was calming down, offices shutting for the night, and apartments correspondingly lighting up. Soon my iPhone told me to turn right, where the bright lights and brighter-eyed buzz of Orchard Road dimmed even the spectacular tropical lightning. (Or maybe it only seemed spectacular to someone used to the dry skies of Dubai and the more-temperate-than-anything-else Bangalore). As I cantered past the glossy window displays, I was pleased as always in my circle-of-life sort of way that there were clearly people wanting to buy Steinway pianos and the Loewe TV that cost five times more than a Samsung. Music played and glasses clinked at Black Angus, and I turned again to merge with the mighty Taglin Road.

It grew quieter and darker, the light receding to pools under streetlamps, until the silence of the sleeping embassies left the night to the cicadas and to me (and of course the security guards outside each gate). It was an uneasy walk for a while, the bits of rainforest that litter Singapore dripping moisture around me and thoughts of marauding raptors surfacing rather more often than was comfortable. The experience was anointed by the sudden appearance of a painfully thin girl with an afro whose high heels echoed behind me for a brief distance and then vanished. I suppose one of the intermittent cars was a taxi.

Eventually I saw the busy junction of Alexandra Road up ahead, and on the basis of being in the home stretch, I turned off the map, thus enlivening my walk by getting unaccountably lost. The landmarks seemed to be in the wrong places and no matter which way I turned, I seemed to fetch up at a previously unknown Ganges Avenue. My map seemed to have become equally confused in this Bermuda-trianglesque spot. Perhaps it was only confused about why I couldn’t follow a simple set of directions in words of one syllable.

Since I was lost, it started to rain and the taxis were all full, so I had to shelter in a bus stop with all the other weirdos of the night. But when a bus arrived, I noted with joy the route number that stops right in front of the house, jumped in and congratulated myself at length on my resourcefulness. When I was at liberty to look around me, I saw wondrous sights, including a Hotel Miramar that I’d never seen before in my life. You guessed it, I boarded the right bus going in the wrong direction. I hopping off in a hurry, crossed the road in the rain on what may be Singapore's only uncovered pedestrian bridge, and caught one going the other way.

This time, I spent the ride standing at the door in a near-empty bus, peering suspiciously at passing signboards. I can’t think of any place else in the world where the bus driver would have let that pass without comment. I only relaxed after a train came shooting out of the ground alongside to join the elevated rail, because I finally knew we were going in the right direction.

I started out at 8:30pm, did an hour's very brisk walking and finally got home well after 10 because of the attendant adventures, but I was in a rollicking good mood by then. Mission accomplished.

*The omission was amply corrected the next day when I went in to tie up loose ends, so all was well in the end.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Two days in Dubai

A friend of mine is going to be spending two days in Dubai next month and is collecting opinions on what she should concentrate on. By the time I’d finished my reply to her (getting more homesick all the time), it had turned into an itinerary on a Word file. So I decided to post it here and see if anyone wanted to add to it. Also, I haven’t posted in a while, so on the basis that something is better than nothing, here's my mail to her, as is.



A lot of history is along the Dubai Creek, but the weather might hamper your enjoyment of this. It’s probably too hot now for strolling from place to place. In winter, it used to be one of my chief activities. Anyway, at this time of year, I would suggest choosing air conditioned haunts in the mornings and setting out after three for the creek area towards late evening and sunset. That’s how I’ve listed stuff here, but of course you can mix it up as you choose!

Mid-morning: Jumeirah Beach Road

1. Jumeirah Mosque
It’s very beautiful and I recommend the guided tour.

2. Magrudy’s bookstore
A little way down the same road as the mosque (take a cab), you’ll find Magrudy’s Mall, with the bookstore. It’s an indigenous brand and apart from imported books, also encourages local publications in English. You’ll be able to find interesting Arab-character books and other fun stuff for Rohan, some local history for yourself if you’re so inclined. Chat a bit with the staff and they’ll help you. There are other big bookshops too in several malls – Borders in Mall of the Emirates and Books Plus in Lamcy Plaza have good collections.

3. House of Prose

If you’re still feeling chatty, walk to the next building, Jumeirah Plaza. Hunt around on the ground floor undeterred by the strangeness of this particular mall until you find a little bookshop in an unlikely corner. It looks like a library from the outside. It’s a second-hand bookstore run by a deeply interesting American called Mike McGinley. I first discovered his shop in Muscat - where he started out - and by the time I’d moved to Dubai, he’d also set up a store here. He’s one of the original musician-hippies of Haight Ashbury, has been in the Middle East for ages, been everywhere, done everything, read every book and heard every piece of music. He’s a wonderful person to talk to for perspective on a place that is defined mostly by people who have never been there or never bothered to get to know it.

- Near the mosque, there’s a big building called THE One. Funky interior stuff, from furniture to candles – good browsing and somewhere to escape the sun for a while. It’s a brand that was born in Dubai, used to be a client.
- If you want to pick up cold meats, cheeses, preserves etc from different parts of the world, take a cab down the road after the bookshops to Spinneys supermarket (Umm Suqueim branch).

Lunch suggestion:
Reem Al Bawadi: Lebanese restaurant much further down the same road. Very good food by Arabs, for Arabs, and a very comfortable place to sit on your own (have done it lots of times). Landmark for taxi: HSBC

After three in the afternoon

1. Bastakia, in Burdubai, near the creek (one of my favourite places).
- A restored settlement, wander around the interconnected houses, cobbled paths, the classic barajeel (wind towers)
- Includes the Majlis Gallery (used to be good for gifts and stuff worth seeing generally), XVA Art Gallery, XVA auditorium and the XVA Café (good food)
2. From there take a cab to the Dubai Museum (very close, very walkable in good weather), must see.
3. From the Dubai Museum, walk through the side roads to the wooden souk, which is a beautiful old market, with wooden carvings and lanterns. It was closed for renovation briefly but I think it’s open now. The merchandise being sold there is dead boring but the structure is achingly pretty.
4. When you walk through the souk, you’ll come out at the abra station on the creek. Jump into an abra and go to the other side of the creek – the Deira side.
5. Wander through the spice souks there to see much exotic Arabian-Nights-style incense, spices and things we’ve never heard of.
6. Across from the spice souk is the gold souk. Take a quick walk through, simply because it’s fascinating how much gold there is on display and how casually it’s treated.
7. Outside the souks, stand for a few minutes by the creek where the big dhows are – these are old-style wooden boats that still travel between East Africa, the Middle East and India carrying goods.
8. There's stuff on either side and behind these souks that you can explore if you have the energy.


1. Hope you’ll have company to be able to and go out to see some swanky parts of Dubai in the night.
2. A suggestion if you’re on your own: The evening musical fountain show on the Dubai Mall promenade (another of my favourites).
- It’s free and runs every half hour from 6 pm, but if you can catch the 7:30 one set to opera, that’s the best.
- You can see it from the railings along the promenade. But a better option is to have dinner in any of the lovely restaurants, bars, cafes around the lake, either in Dubai Mall or across the bridge in the Downtown Souk and watch the shows from your table. It’s a great experience. And you can stay there for a while, reading, writing or watching the beautiful people, all rewarding experiences.
- Dubai is very safe if you’re not being silly (infinitely safer than Bangalore in all conditions), so it’s okay to be out late in restaurants on your own.


The Dubai story is incomplete without seeing some of new Dubai.

1. DO NOT miss Burj Khalifa. The At The Top tour is expensive but very worth it.
2. Take the monorail on to the Palm Jumeirah simply for large landscape experience, check out the Atlantis Hotel (don’t do anything in it, stupidly expensive) and return.
3. From there, take a cab to the Dubai Marina, stroll along that promenade, check out the boats and have lunch at any of the nice restaurants there. If you’re lucky to be there on a street market day, you’ll lots of fun stalls where people like you and me are selling things they made.
4. Take the metro whenever you can, it’s great.
5. Any one of the big malls - it's educational.
5. You’ll probably be driving down Sheikh Zayed Road anyway, so you’ll see the financial district in passing.


You can’t not go out into the desert, so book a Desert Safari and go on it. They usually set out before sunset - dune bashing, followed by dinner on the sands, which includes belly dancer, shisha, cups of kahwa, the works. It’s extremely touristy but it’s necessary, trust me. Pick a good safari company – timeoutdubai.com is a trustworthy source of information.

Other things if you have time:

- Sharjah Blue Souk
- Madinat Jumeirah and/or Downtown Dubai
- A dhow race: As far as I remember, the boat racing season is Nov to May so there’s a good chance there’s a race on. For goosebumpy sense of history there’s nothing like a line of traditional wooden ships with giant white sails, racing at high speed.
- If you do end up in Meena Bazaar (round the corner from Dubai Museum), check out the Pakistani fabric. My favourite store is called Bareeze.
- The Saeed Maktoum House/Museum, same general area as the museum: Historic building that used to be the house of the rulers and is now a museum. It doesn’t have much to see, but what there is provides an overview of the history of the place, old currency, trade etc.
- Near the Saeed House is the Heritage Village – provides craft-style gift shop delights.
- The Ras Al Khor mangroves with migratory flamingoes. It’s a walk into a really tiny patch of wilderness right in the middle of the city and leaves you with a strange sense of bewilderment.

- Please, please eat Lebanese food while you’re there. There’s nothing like it when it’s made well, and it’s almost never made properly outside of the Arab world. Make sure you have it at a good place, though. Some suggestions:
o Al Hallab – Branches in Mall of the Emirates, Dubai Mall
o Reem Al Bawadi – branches on Jumeirah Beach Road and on Sheikh Zayed Road
o Automatic – branch in Jumeirah Plaza
o You'll get other recommendations: everyone defends their own favourite Arabic place hotly.
- Food is something that Dubai does well, so you also get very good Japanese, Pakistani, Iranian, Mexican, Spanish and Italian food at different price ranges. So do not be lured into wasting your time here on Indian food.

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