Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Persian dreams

It is a warm Sunday afternoon. I am at the residence of Mr. Mohammed Aslam*, an electrical engineer from Iran. Miriam*, his wife ushers me in with a warm smile.We are soon seated comfortably in their living room. Mr. Aslam introduces their sons Abu* and Ali*. After civic formalities, I get down to business. The Iranians soon put me at ease with their warmth and cooperation. I notice a shadow pass over their faces when they talk about the homeland they miss. However there is a ring of complacency and hope as they narrate their tryst with India.

Neena Padayatty: First things first, what were the circumstances which brought you to India?
Mohammed Aslam: Both of us came to India for studies. Iran is such a country where a plus two education gets you a good job. It was a fashion to go for higher studies. Students usually chose U.S.A, Canada or India.I just happened to choose India. I had an Iranian friend studying in Rajasthan.

NP: Was there any particular reason to choose Kerala?
MA: I got a seat in the government quota reserved for foreign students at the College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram. So I came here. I had not even heard of this place before. I met my wife (also an Iranian), who was doing her degree, in Rajasthan. We got married in Iran. After finishing her studies she came down to Kerala with me.

NP: Studies would have taken five to six years, at the most, why did you decide to stay back?
MA: You must have heard about the Iran-Iraq war of 1980.Our hometown Abadan is right on the Iran-Iraq border. So when the Iraqi army invaded our town was the first to be seized. My family home was destroyed. My wife’s parents were killed while fleeing. We had no home to go back to. They had expected us to return. If we had gone back we would have had to stay as refugees in some part of Iran until Abadan was released from Iraqi siege. Then we would have to start from the scratch. We didn’t want to do that because we were leading decent lives here. We still can’t go back because anyone whose been out of the country for a long time, whether rich or poor, are considered spies.

NP: It’s been almost 20 years since you’ve been here. Have you become citizens yet?
MA: We have applied for citizenship long back ever since our student VISAs got extended due to the war. The paper work is now complete. Verifications are going on. Our friend, Laurie Baker got his citizenship at the age of 76.I hope we wont have to wait that long. The people who have vouched for us are all respectable government servants. So I hope to have the postman delivering the good news soon.

NP: Do you miss your homeland?
MA: Of course, we do. Though our immediate families are no more we do have a large extended family. There were no calls from home for along time after the war. But now the situation has changed, our relatives have recouped after the war and have re-established connections. Whenever we have Iranian friends visiting us we ask them to bring cassettes of songs and films. It is a great culture.

NP: Malayalis are generally known for their hospitality, what does your experience testify?
Miriam Aslam: Malayalis are lovely people. Very helpful and cooperative. In Bombay, if you ask for directions they just point vaguely. But here, people are even ready to take you there. However curiousity is very peculiar in Malayalis. They ask too many questions. If you are ready to answer two or three questions you can make friends. We used to find it irritating in the beginning, but now we know that it’s a way of breaking the ice. We have a lot of friends here.

NP: Migration from Iran in the Middle East region of north-western Asia to Kerala must have been a sea-change. How far have you adapted to this change?
MA: I think we have adapted to a great extent. The language is still difficult. We still speak very little Malayalam. I teach English in schools and also take spoken English classes. My students have helped me a lot. As for our cooking, it is a cross between non-spicy Iranian and spicy Keralite. Our guests love it. The climate here is good, though summers are hot. After the rain it is beautiful weather, clean and cool.

NP: How is life as refugees?
MA: Under the United Nations, a refugee is a person who has no country to go back to. But we are slightly different because we told them we didn’t want financial aid. We are educated, we work, we lead respectable lives. This was welcome by the U.N. We just wanted permission to stay here until we became citizens. Every year, we have to go to Delhi to refresh our documents.

NP: The government of India is known for its benevolence to refugees, asylum seekers and the like. What has been its attitude towards you?
MA: The government of India is welcoming to people from Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan But a person from a Muslim country is viewed with suspicion. Maybe because of the terrorist activities. A few years ago when there were terrorist attacks we were summoned for questioning. When they found us innocent, we were cleared. That’s all part of the national security. Generally we don’t have much of a problem because we do not fall in the category that depends on the government for sustenance.

NP: Kerala leads in the number of NRIs, a majority of who have migrated to the Gulf in search of jobs. Being non-citizens was it difficult to find jobs?
MA: Yes, it was difficult. I know a lot of Malayalis go to the Gulf, because there the wages are high, work is plenty and workers are less. Here it is just the opposite. The wages are low, work is less and the workers are plenty. I wasn’t prepared to work here as I had only intended to study. But when I chose to stay back, I was forced to work. There was the language problem but people trusted me. I used to work as a service engineer but now I am into teaching. My wife is also teaching. SISO books recently published her grammar book.

NP: After 20 years, you still hope to become citizens of this great nation. Would you mind sharing your dreams and hopes for the future?
MA: Citizens or non-citizens, everyone has hopes for a bright future. We expect our citizenship soon. If it gets too much delayed, then we might think of moving either back to Iran or to USA or Canada. Opportunities are more there. After all that’s what we learned from living in Kerala. We want our children to have a permanent home .So God-willing that might happen soon.

* Names changed to protect privacy.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Doggy Ta(i)les

The wag of a tail, the affectionate yelps, the nuzzling nose, the eyes melting with adoration, the wet lick; all make you feel that you are the king of the world .Oh yes, you are, in the eyes of your dog. Some may scorn and dismiss it as a show of abject servitude. No cat will be caught dead with an adoring look in its feline countenance. Lovable and loyal are two apt adjectives for dogs. There are many famous dogs in literature too; from Argos in Greek mythology to Scooby Doo and Snoopy. Who can imagine Tintin without Snowy and the Famous Five without Timmy?

The first dog, I ever owned was a black Labrador named Hessy. My dad had got her as a puppy and had trained her well. She was good friends with me but declared war with my brother, who had once accidentally poked her in the eye. Sundays were her bath days, which was quite a spectacle. It was fun to see her black coat turn white with soapsuds and her ‘after-bath-shake’ left the onlookers dripping. She grew old and died peacefully not before leaving her ‘paw-prints’ etched on our minds.

Then there was our neighbour’s dog (whose figure is more memorable than his name), a well-fed mongrel whose bark chilled our spines. He didn’t fall for my charms. One day while playing with my brother and friends, he broke loose and celebrated his freedom by pinning me to the wall between his giant paws while he ‘licked’ my face. I was later taken, shivering and crying, to the doctor’s for a shot of tetanus toxoid.

My grandparents needed watchdogs for their farm and my dad being a canine lover volunteered to find one. We got them a Doberman called Heidi. She was really cute puppy owing to her pedigree; with a shiny brown-black coat and a little locket with her name on her neck. She travelled with us to the countryside in a hamper and was the cynosure on train. However she grew up to be a ferocious dog that scared the living daylights out of us kids. But we were quite bereaved at her death and made floral tributes at her grave the following vacation.

Popsey, a pretty white Lhasa apso - Tibetan terrier cross, was yet another neighbour’s dog. Since we shared the same compound she was our frequent visitor. She would saunter into my room every morning with a wake-up-lazybones look in her eyes. She often tried to ensnare my determined mum with her unctuous docility; sometimes it won her a tasty morsel too. Our neighbour’s house was thick with her fur; we didn’t want that so we tried keeping the front grill closed. That didn’t work because she soon learned to open it with her paws and nose. She was particularly interested in badminton. The minute the cork touched the ground she would have it in her jaws and have us chasing her all over the place.

After Heidi, we offered to take more dogs to our grandparents’. There were two mongrels called Hardy and Snowy. They were quite a comic pair. My uncle had much trouble transporting them as the carton ripped in the train. The two puppies ran amok much to the amusement and irritation of the co-passengers. My uncle managed to catch the ‘fugitives’, when they puked all over him! Gundu and Mani (of Popsey’s brood, as a result of her liaison with a wandering cur) were the next pair headed for the countryside. Their descendants have managed to stay. The dogs at my grandparents’ place presently are Smarty (this queer looking dog, with lone tufts of fur on the face and tail, is reported to respond to many names) and her son Heidi jr. (my cousin, in a haste to christen forgot that ‘Heidi’ was feminine). Heidi is a handsome dog with a beige coat and brown eyes. We have dubbed him ‘Braveheart’ for the sight of humans within a hundred meters freezes him.

The most memorable dog we ever owned was Laddy (again a case of illogical christening, this time mea culpa). She was only five weeks old when we got her and didn’t even look like a dog. She rolled out of the box, an amber coloured ball of fur making funny noises. We called her ‘Ladoo’ for short. She grew up to be a lanky dog .She looked almost like a fox with a long nose and a bushy tail. Her appetite ranged from broomsticks to glass; she loved munching rubber bands. Being of the adventurous turn she landed up twice in the unused well in the compound. She specially enjoyed her trips to the vet in auto rickshaw. She would stand on her hind legs, looking over the disgruntled driver’s shoulder, enjoying the wind in her face, her long pink tongue hanging out. However she had this unfortunate habit of slinking out at night. In the beginning, she used to disappear only during the night; then she was gone for days and weeks at a stretch. When Laddy turned up nonchalantly after a two-month escapade, my parents decided that she’d have to be permanently dismissed. Unknown to me they hatched a plan to dispose her. One Sunday evening they lured an unsuspecting Laddy into an auto rickshaw and headed for the seaside. Laddy (as they later told me) was enjoying the ride oblivious about the ambush. When the auto stopped she simply hopped out and walked off into the sunset, without looking back, probably mesmerized by the smell of the sea. My parents had then unscrupulously taken cue and hurried back home. We have never heard of Laddy since. I had openly voiced my displeasure at the ‘treachery’, but my mum assured that she’d be quite happy there.

We have never owned any more dogs since. Every time I bring up the topic my parents become temporarily deaf or propose lofty deals like ‘a first rank- for -a dog’ and then it’s my turn to act deaf.

My Room

My room is painted in hues of pink,
And the colours of my dreams.
In it lies my table and bed,
And my inner most thoughts.
On the wall facing my bed,
Is the portrait of the Sacred Heart.
An old faded one in sepia tone
Framed in wood, painted pink.
On the opposite wall, is my clock,
A gift from my uncle abroad.
A rectangular clock, in flashy maroon;
Ticking away the moments of my Life.

My routine is like clockwork;
At six begins the rat race
For the bare necessities of life
A minute wasted as precious as Life-blood
Time brings in its wake happiness and success,
Moments of exhilaration and jubilation
Moments, which are wished to last forever.
Time also brings with it sorrow and failures,
Pangs of separation and dejection.
Dark hours, which seem unendurable.

My Comfort is near;
I wake up under the gaze of those Eyes.
Not the ones on faded paper, with a cold stare
But vibrant Eyes radiating warmth.
Eyes, which look into the depths of my heart
Eyes, which tell me that I’m not alone;
That I’m safe in the Heart that bleeds for me.