Wednesday, October 02, 2013

To El Dorado and Back: Filter Coffee column in Kindle this month

The 'Gulf-return' stories are part of every person who was born, raised or lived through the 1980's, when America was still mostly inaccessible, when India was still socialist, when foreign-returned was a coveted credential to have. If you weren't a Gulf returnee yourself, you knew someone who was, you would have seen the glitter on the chocolates they brought in, the gold, the shirts, the scents. You grudgingly envied them their lives, at least the lives they told you about. In this month's issue of Kindle magazine, in my column Filter Coffee, I write about some anecdotes that look at the waves of migration from Kerala to the Middle East that peaked in the 1970s and '80s. 

Read the story here. Or see below.

To El Dorado and Back

“Very seldom in life does a book like Goat Days come along and ruin you for other books. It becomes like that mythic true love you once felt for someone when you were still innocent — but now that you have lived through it, you no longer are that innocent person. You have read it and now other books just don’t compare. You may stop reading altogether, for a while, just to let memories of Goat Days flow through
you unchecked.” Sheheryar Sheikh, in Dawn, a while ago.

Sometimes, like in Benyamin’s Goat Days, language plays only a functional role. Sometimes, you need to strip language of its vocal abilities to tell a story as powerful as that of Najeeb’s. He is recently married; the wife Sainu is now pregnant. He dives for a living; the business of sand mining though might now be regulated. Worried for the future, he doesn’t let go by an opportunity to go to the Gulf, “Only long enough 
to settle a few debts. Add a room to the house. Just the usual cravings of most Malayalis.” From Riyadh airport, Najeeb gets kidnapped. He is driven into a slave-
like situation tending goats for over three years, unpaid, underfed, losing hope often but retaining his faith in Allah. He braves the expanse of the desert; there is a happy ending. But not before your heart wrenches at the cruelty, driven by necessity or otherwise, that humankind is capable of. Not before there is the tension and poignancy that precedes the triumph of the human spirit. Not before you internalize the fact that Najeeb is real and this is a true story.

Stories like Najeeb’s aren’t the sorts you hear very often, even if you discard the magnitude of his. You rarely, if ever, hear a sob story about the Gulf. What is the need to acknowledge the dust on the road to that El Dorado, some would ask. 

The stories that you would hear of would be of Shaji’s, among the first few batches of 
migrants from Kerala who went to Gulf, or to Dubai; Dubai being the generic name for Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Riyadh, Qatar and the rest of the region. You would hear of Shaji being a ‘manager in a shop’ there, when in reality, he would probably have done something much more menial. You would see him coming back to visit and the air would seem different around him. He wouldn’t flaunt the gold wrist watch or place the new VCR too obviously in the front room, but he would bring with him the air of the Gulf, the air that filled the lines on your forehead with specks of sand and smelt rich. His friends, Najeeb might have been among them, would hear from him the word khubus“in the riverside bragging of many Gulf-returnees”, Shaji in that tribe now.

In Shaji’s newly built house, a showcase would be added in the drawing room. That showcase would have things no one in his village had seen before. Those things, the new aura of well-to-do-ness that his wife, his mother walked beneath would become part of the Gulf lore. 

Many years later, after the stories overheard, imagined, exaggerated had become legends and rosier dreams, there would be told stories of people like Abbu, who would have gone to Dubai at the behest of his grandmother and aunts who show him their neighbor Shaji’s house in the distance and push him to help the family out, buy them some status. Abbu would learn to make wafer thin pappadams from a Pappada Chettiyar in the village. It would have once been the domain of that one caste, but economics would have a way of driving away such minor inconveniences. He, several other 19-year olds, would trudge along to these places of learning, ribbing each other, laughing, like the way 19-year olds do. They wouldn’t talk about it much, but Dubai dreams would cloud their every thought, every joke, every new crush.

Abbu would be part of the second wave that supported the lives of Shaji and others of his wave. Those pappadams would probably be sold at Lulu Hypermaket in various cities; the industrial size of consumerism at those would make Abbu feel lost and yet strengthen the sense of awe that Gulf stories arose in him when he first heard them. Two years later when he visits his village, he would wear a slightly see-through shirt and sit in the front seat of the Ambassador car his family would hire to go pick him up from the airport. 

People in this same village in Kerala would have a hearty laugh every time they retold Ahmad Kutty’s misadventure. They would tell of how he fell for an agent’s trick and went on a dubious visa to Oman, of how he was never able to leave the building where he worked and lived for two whole years, never stepping out, never seeing the desert at night. They would tell of how, when he was ready to return, he walked out and surrendered before the police, was sent to prison for not having the papers, where he got his head shaved as was the rule. Ahmad Kutty would be deported, land in Mumbai but stay on a few weeks till his hair grew back a little. The village would tell of how his distant relative (they never liked each other much) saw him in Mumbai and carried that tale of shame to the village. People who had also seen those lands understood though, there were things you did, there was money at the end of it, but you never talked of certain days. People left behind understood, but still made fun, laughter the only mask they could afford to wear. It didn’t matter though because when Ahmad Kutty came back home, they all milled around his suitcases. The Gulf-returnees would have gifts for everyone, however small, scented pens, scent bottles or seedless dates. The opening of the cases, petti thorakkal, would be accorded its due ritual. 

Generations of Malayalis grew up on these stories. Mostly the gold-plated ones. The
Najeebs of the world don’t get talked about though on the shores of the river Nila. Some stories were best left behind on those dry shores. For what you did wasn’t the question, you smelled of Dubai. That was enough.

Disclaimer: Except when referring to Najeeb as part of the book, all other names are 
fictional. The anecdotes, however, are all true, and were collected from friends from Kerala.

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