Thursday, 4 October 2012


The discovery of a bunch of letters written in the 1990s brings back good memories of a bygone decade - and offers some lessons about life as well.

You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
And then the one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

Seldom had the the words of the British rock bank Pink Floyd's famous song Time so much personal resonance for me as from the moment I got hold of a bunch of letters that I had written in long hand over a three-year period in the mid-1990s.

The correspondence abruptly stopped just before December 1996, the month the addressee of the letters relocated from Calcutta to Delhi as my young bride and a roller-coaster love story spanning the two cities came to a happy end.

Despite their strong romantic association for me, the letters too abruptly stopped to exist in the deep recesses of my mind, possibly out of relief that a sense of closure had been achieved.

Or so it seemed until last month, when they were handed over to me in a large brown envelope in which my wife found them inside a drawer of what was once her study desk.

It is not that all this while she had no inkling that the letters lay somewhere in her parents' home in Calcutta; other preoccupations simply took precedence over launching an all-out search for them.

Going through the entirely one-sided correspondence during a recent afternoon filled me predictably with nostalgia for our courtship days, though I am not sure I want to turn back time to the phase when a weekly, long-distance landline phone call was the only way to keep our fragile relationship going.

On a more philosophical level, however, reading the letters heightened my sensitivity to two things that are easy to lose sight of amid the daily business of life: the transient nature of happiness and youth and the pointlessness of petty rivalry in the long run.

How time flies!

Most of the said letters were mailed from a small post office tucked inside one of the many obscure lanes that crisscross Connaught Place, a showpiece of Edward Lutyen's Delhi and one of the Indian capital's top heritage structures.

The Inner Circle of Connaught Place was not just my office for three years from July 1994 onwards; it was practically the place where I lived, considering the abnormally long hours I spent in the office, first as a staff writer and then as the copy chief of what was then India’s premier fortnightly newsmagazine.

The phrase "how time flies!" may be a cliché among people in their forties or older, but it is nevertheless the expression that best sums up my sentiments as I ponder the contents of my letters, exactly 18 years after I started writing them.

Looking back, I wonder if there was no way at all to make time stand still, so that my fond recollections of my Delhi days would not have turned so quickly into faint memories of a bygone decade: brisk walks through the Connaught Place central park (under which the metro rail station is now located) to the famous confectioners, Wenger's and Keventer's, for a quick bite; frequent trips in big groups to Delhi Press Club for a delicious lunch of chicken and rice; exploring the monuments in the Lodi Gardens and Hauz Khas area with my mother; spending lazy afternoons window shopping on Janpath or in the South Extension markets.

I am glad that I am able, as a frequent visitor to Delhi and a part-time resident of Gurgaon, to drop in on my old colleagues - the few that remain anyway - in the magazine's office regularly enough.

The face time I get with them, as also with other friends and former colleagues residing in Delhi and its suburbs, enables me to reconnect with a past that is far from dead and which, in the absence of any photographs, I continue to view through rose-coloured spectacles.

Disappearing faces

Eighteen years being a fairly short time by the standards of the rise and fall of nations, one would not normally expect a city to undergo significant structural transformation.

But Delhi's rapid infrastructure development has meant parts of the metropolis are all but unrecognisable to people visiting it after a long gap.

As a result, a journey from the Mayur Vihar township in East Delhi to my old office in Connaught Place in the present age of the Delhi Metro is a very different experience compared with one undertaken in 1995.

That office happily continues to be located in the landmark F-Block building endowed with the famous red signboard on top, the same modest entrance and the same paan seller in front.

However, in keeping with the ephemeral nature of any organisation's staff relative to its geographical location, the old familiar faces inside the building are almost all gone.

I was a callow journalist in 1994 who had just moved from the boondocks of Calcutta to the leafy avenues of New Delhi.

All I was hoping to achieve then was a measure of career stability in order to make the transformation from daughter to daughter-in-law as smooth as possible for the girl I was in love with.

Today, after having worked 15 years in the Gulf and become the owner of a tiny piece of the Indian capital region's real-estate dream, it is hard for me to say that I am ready to trade places with my young old self again.

Still, I cannot help contemplating if there doesn't exist some special magic by which I can be both financially secure and a 29-year-old once again, be the thrifty father of two children and also a carefree shopper, to have a wi-fi-enabled smartphone at my disposal and yet boast a full head of dark-black hair.

Fanciful thoughts aside, the dilemma of how to square the loss of one's youth with the concomitant improvements in one's material circumstances is something every adult inevitably has to grapple with at some point of their life.

Petty politicking

Though the letters to my then college-going girlfriend are, in retrospect, chiefly a lesson in the fleetingness of time, I blush to think about the silliness of embellishing them as I did with accounts of office politics in excruciating detail.

There is no denying that the animosities and jealousies that kept the powerful editors of the newsmagazine in a perpetual state of hostility were the stuff of 1990s' Delhi media lore.

A junior editor like me who had a ringside view of the fierce professional one-upmanship could hardly have been expected to leave these juicy bits out of his correspondence with a girl.

The jousting and sniping of the time strictly followed Sayre's Law, which states that "in any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue".

Viewed in the cold light of hindsight, however, my descriptions of the acrimonious debates that characterised the preparation of nearly every issue of the magazine sound comical at best and ridiculous at worst.

For better or worse, the senior editors of the time have long moved on to even more powerful positions in the industry, leaving behind their coveted office spaces for a new generation of journalists to occupy and, for all I know, to carry on sparring.

Coming full circle

Luckily for me, I did not miss what Pink Floyd metaphorically called "the starting gun", be it in the matter of marrying and starting a family or latching on to more exciting job opportunities.

And while it is true that I am now "older, shorter of breath and one day closer to death", there has been no cause for contemplating - at least as of now - my own mortality.

In the mid-1990s, such an outcome seemed plausible but by no means preordained.

Indeed, had the trajectories of my wife's life and mine proceeded in different directions 16 years ago, the trove of letters that prompted me to write this personal essay might have met a quick and fiery end.

I fear they would have been reduced to ashes in the most melodramatic fashion in the event the young girl in Calcutta decided willy-nilly to end our long-distance relationship and become someone else's wife.

Call it destiny or fate, the letters have instead come back nearly intact into my possession, bringing the story of the most exciting phase of my life so far full circle to the present.

Saturday, 8 September 2012


The opportunity costs of a move to the Arabian Gulf, unlike the benefits, are difficult to quantify, yet it is impossible to overstate them.
Omar Chatriwala/Doha News
Photo by Omar Chatriwala

Since the beginning of the oil boom in the 1970s, the attractions of expatriate life in the Arabian Gulf have been almost too obvious to enumerate.

The pros have consistently outweighed the cons, especially for middle-class foreign workers who come from Asian countries with crumbling public utilities, slothful bureaucracies, a venal police and frequent natural as well as man-made disasters.

No matter how scorching the Arabian summers or what the risk of regional conflicts, the twin blessings of tax-free salaries and inexpensive petrol are enough to make even the most objective cost-benefit analysis seem like a one-sided picture of expat life in the Gulf.

Combine that with India’s declining rupee, prohibitive fuel prices and chronic power cuts, and it becomes still easier for expatriate Indians in the Gulf - who accounted for more than 30 per cent of their home country's estimated $65bn remittance income last year - to figure out how much they profit from working abroad.

The loss, on the other hand, is difficult to quantify yet sizeable all the same.

In recent years, the international media and rights watchdogs have highlighted the hardships and deprivation suffered by the Gulf's low-salaried foreign contract workers, the category to which a large majority of the region’s nearly 4.5 million Indians belongs.

Less publicised is the fact that big Gulf companies have long relied on skilled Indian executives to fill their management posts as well.

A recent report in Abu Dhabi's The National newspaper on India as a "source of top business talent" quotes Ashish Panjabi, the chief operating officer of the UAE retailer Jacky’s Electronics, as saying: "Whereas, once upon a time, [India] was the place to go to recruit cheap labour, today is about quality and qualified talent."

Lonely and isolated

The elite segment of expatriate Indians, whose jobs do not require them to toil at construction sites in the burning desert sun round the year, are certainly better off in a material sense.

However, feelings of loneliness and isolation are pervasive in the Gulf’s highly transient expat communities, especially for those reluctant to socialise with compatriots purely on the basis of common professional and cultural interests.

Reading about flashy functions and party lifestyles of cosmopolitan Gulf metropolises in glossy magazines is one thing.

Cutting through the invisible barriers of nationality and language and developing a diverse social circle is quite another, unless you are heavily into sports like golf and squash or a fixture of the cocktail circuit.

For those with a regular job, working 9-5 or shifts, maintaining a busy social life is almost out of the question.

Indeed, most families with children find they have little time, except during the weekends or short breaks, to invite friends and colleagues over for small parties.

With Indian schools following a policy of continuous academic assessment, parents who actively monitor their children's school performance invariably find their "to do" lists spilling over to occupy even the weekends.

As for parents who have to accompany their children for an extra-curricular activity, such as swimming, painting or sport, the weekly routine can get hectic, to say the least.

In the midst of so many commitments, the expatriate dream of being able to meet like-minded people, have intellectually stimulating conversations and to establish lasting friendships and support networks often ends up as just that.

To be sure, there are many Indians in the Gulf who have a sibling, a close family friend or an old college mate living within driving distance.

In what is a common sight during weekends and public holidays during the cooler months in Dubai and Sharjah, large groups of South Asians have lunch or dinner alfresco, the conservative family ties that bind them together evident in the attire of the women.

Contact with other people being a basic human need, many expat families do keep in regular touch with each other via weekend phone calls and dinner parties - only to see a sudden change of job, Canadian immigration or relocation to India snap their tenuous links forever.

Disposable incomes

Looking at the brighter side of expat life, as the months grow into years and the years into decades, research shows that skilled foreign workers in the Gulf are likely to enjoy much larger disposable incomes than their peers in India.

A global survey of expats commissioned by HSBC Bank International in 2010 found, for example, that 79 per cent of those who entered the United Arab Emirates were saving more there than in their home countries.

Those who become quite wealthy begin to take regular vacations in Europe, USA and South East Asia, acquire assets in different countries, and send their children to expensive colleges in North America and Britain.

Considering the insecurities of middle-class life back home, it is no surprise that so many Indians, whether young or middle-aged, grab a job offer in the Gulf at the first opportunity despite the known constraints on career mobility.

After all, a few decades of earning in Dubai, Doha, Manama or Jeddah can make all the difference between one’s children having to join the rat race in India for a seat in an average college, or contemplating an international career on the strength of a US university degree.

Frayed friendships

As with any decision, however, there are opportunity costs involved with a move to the Gulf.

From the poignancy of parting and separation to the bittersweetness of fleeting reunions, these cannot be expressed in monetary terms. It is also impossible to overstate them.

It may be elementary knowledge for psychologists, but for most laypersons the fact that forming and nurturing relationships becomes progressively difficult as one moves from childhood to adulthood, is a lesson that becomes clear only in the fullness of time.

People who come to the Gulf intending to work for a few years and end up staying for decades, learn first-hand that not only does it get harder to make new friends the older you get, even the most cherished relationships start to wear under the strain of time and distance.

Over the years, family obligations, filial duties, divergent career paths and irregular communication take their collective toll on expats’ ties with relatives, old friends, neighbours and former work colleagues back home or in distant parts of the world.

In the West as also in several other parts of the world, the unspoken pain of an isolated expat existence is relieved to a large extent by the certainty that one’s children, and their children, will gain citizenship or at least permanent residency.

In the Gulf, however, no such mitigating factors exist.

While it lasts, expat life essentially involves a trade-off between the mundane comforts of a stable power supply, ubiquitous air-conditioning, orderly traffic and low crime rates, and the emotionally superior benefits of proximity to ageing parents and grandparents, face time with relatives and close friends, and reliable support networks.

And in the end, it all boils down to whether the nest egg you have accumulated is tidy enough to buy a comfortable retirement for you and a head start in life for your children.
The past, by then, is already a foreign country - "There is no going back ... No second chance" either.