Saturday, February 10, 2007

Not quite arriving: Omair Ahmad

Last month, Omair returned to Delhi after a year in our motherland, England. I enjoy Omair's writings for the precisness of his prose for his healthy attention to detail. The current post is another example of a strength, Omair, in my opinion ignores, classic reportage and bringing to his readers the fidelity of a great observer. I enjoyed this short piece for a number of reasons.

The first is his incredibly identifiable description of 'arriving' at Delhi Airport. The first time it was the musty smell of the socialist state in India that can be best described if one can imagine the ITDC hotels of the pre-liberalization raj. The imitative marble counters, the thin gaudy carpets that are unravelling at the edges, maintaining a semblence of neglected prosperity and the crucial smell that only a combination of the counters, the carpets and babudom produces. The second time around when I flew into IGI, Delhi, a putrid smell of shit that hit my nose unnerved even me, a son of the soil! The other reasons I think this piece was good is the way Omair intervenes in his observation with his politics and in extra ordinary times like ours, its a crime to merely be a passive observer. I will not hold you further so that you can read it for your self and find your reasons.


The first difference to strike my senses is the smell of phenyl. I had forgotten the all-pervading nature of the smell in government buildings. You could call it a disinfectant, but this is a particular one, with its own particular character. Other disinfectants hide their smell behind some pleasant odour, but phenyl, the Government of India's olfactory calling card is purely chemical, astringent. It perfectly complements the blocky Socialist architecture of the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi.

This is babudom, bureaucrat-land, and the idea that functionality could be married to elegance simply passes the grey men by. The idea that it could be beautiful, or even fun, is so far beyond the pale that it isn't even worth thinking about. It is possible that one of the men stamping the paperwork might actually smile at the customers, but if any have had such a heretical idea it would probably only be admitted behind the closed doors of a confessional, and nowhere else. I'm far too used to it to do anything except grin irreverently at the man behind the desk.

He doesn't even blink.

Past the men and their stamps is some foreigner with a bag on his back and the expression of a mildly concussed duck on his face.

"Welcome to India," I quip.

"Yeah, yeah…" he says, more to himself than anyone else.

Testing the Limits

Striding past him I realise that there are advantages about being casual about things and pushing rules to their limits. I'd been rather late checking in, with my e-ticket not printed out. Now, as a consequence, my bags are among the first to make their way out. Leading the way is the bright yellow, blue and green umbrella that I bought at the Smithsonian Museum on a rainy day while I waited for a friend to finish her interview with the US Department of Energy. It has been with me for four years and through many airports now, and I swing it up, and twirl it happily, in India.

Of course this is when I find out that there are also downsides of pushing the limits. I have grown used to wearing my black-and-white chequered keffiyah wrapped like a scarf around my neck. In London such scarves have become a meaningless fashion accessory, like the picture of Che Guevera on T-shirts. On me, with my South Asian features and Muslim name, its meaning becomes more nebulous, although I was taken aback, when one of my friends was jokingly described me to his colleagues that we were supposed to meet at the Victoria & Albert Museum as, "...he'll be the one dressed like a terrorist."

Here, at IGI Airport, it doesn't seem to be a joke to the security official at the customs. His gaze seems fixated on my keffiyah, his eyes narrow and his mouth pulls down at the corners in a mixture of distaste and offense before he gestures impatiently at me to have my luggage X-rayed again. The bags pass through again without setting off any alarms, although I reflect that if they were to open my bag and read the reports I am carrying on terrorism in Bosnia-Hercegovina and jihadi activity in Denmark, I would possibly have to do some explaining. I have both the documentation and references to prove that it is research for my MPhil/PhD, but it is striking how useless such "security" measures are. In this day and age the software of terrorism, the ideas, understanding, capability, and commitment to a cause are far more important than the hardware, which can be acquired far more easily. If the "war on terrorism" continues in this haphazard and superficial manner, based largely on profiling, I fear we have quite a while of insecurity left before the crazies burn themselves out.

Into India

Past the last barrier, though, I discover a far more prosaic reason to discard the keffiyah. The creeping heat of Delhi, even in late January, is enough to make me discard any scarf. Like many an idle philosopher before me, my theories wilt before the muggy reality of India.

Outside, in the Ambassador car that acts as my taxi, with the windows rolled down, the rushing air is bracing. To the right of the roadside I see large banners of political parties, and immediately pick out the bright ones of the Bhartiya Janata Party, the quasi-religio-nationalist party that had led the last coalition government until their defeat in the elections of 2004. I am unsure whether to be happy or disappointed in them.

I'd met Lord Meghnad Desai at a talk in the UK and he'd argued that we should treat the BJP as just another political party, as a "normal" one. It's a hard argument for many of us in India to accept because the BJP's rise was preceded and accompanied by a great deal of violence and instability. One of my cousins was stabbed in the back on his way to Friday prayers during those days, and died from the wound. Dead for being obviously Muslim at the wrong place in the wrong time. If such prices were accumulated by the BJP in their rise power, it would have been nice if they had delivered something in return. Instead they seem to have succumbed to an unpalatable mixture of hubris, incompetence, corruption and (political) backstabbing. It isn't just their supporters that are disappointed in the BJP's inability to deliver.

I make some sort of remark to the taxi driver and he immediately corrects me, "No, sahib, it isn't a political rally, that whole set up is for the Hajj pilgrims returning."

I'm nonplussed, and wish now that I'd tried to read what the posters said. There must have been more than the BJPs one, and has the BJP become so much of Desai's "normal" political party that it has hoardings put up to welcome Hajj pilgrims back from Saudi Arabia? Isn't that anathema to all their ideas of nationhood. In the end all I can summon is a weak comment / question, "But the Hajj ended more than two weeks ago..."

The Casualness of This Land

The driver shrugs, and I am left, as so many others have been, utterly bereft of a response that would do justice to the very casualness of this land. As I think it, the casualness becomes apparent in other ways: the houses by the road with walls not quite built, the bright plastic litter by the wayside and the layer of dust that rests, dances and sifts over everything. I also come to the sudden realisation that I am not on CCTV.

It is an odd sort of realisation. In the last twelve months in London I had never consciously thought about the ubiquitous cameras grinding away, but now I feel oddly liberated. It is an exhilarating feeling, and all the more so for being so totally unexpected. I savour it, as much as I savour the heightened senses I have for this particularly short stretch of time, in which I have not quite arrived. Even the smell of Delhi, three quarters dust and air pollution, is welcome because I can taste and differentiate the many layers in it, something which will be gone by the next day.

No Longer a Stranger

But Delhi is not a place I can be a stranger in for long. I have studied here, have too many friends and family, and odd networks of tea-shop owners, waiters, motorcycle mechanics that I have acquired. I am supposed to be staying at the Guest House at my old University and as the taxi pulls up, the guard looks inside, recognises me and gives a kind of salute.

"Oh, it's you, sir. It's been a long while," he says.

"I've been out," I reply in that classically casual Urdu phrase that can mean I just stepped out of the house, to being overseas. He nods in understanding, and my time as even a marginal stranger comes to an end. From then on I am running from one appointment to another, meeting contacts, friends, family, and am welcomed so very warmly that I am thrown off guard. It strikes me most uncomfortably when I am at the British High Commission where I worked two years ago. It's lunch time and I am waiting for the person who I replaced while he was on study leave. He studied at the same University I did, and we share similar world views, moreover he is very bright, and I want his opinion on a project I've been working on managing India's borders. It's only when I am feted by a number of staff that I think it might have been a mistake to schedule the meeting here. I had taken a little effort to deal well with cleaning and work staff, and I am repaid for that basic courtesy a hundred times over.

It is far from comfortable, more so because I think of the British High Commission as my past and I have always been far too focused on my future to ever look back. The unexpected outpouring of affection makes me feel that I may have some responsibility to those who extend it to me, which is oppressive. It is also because my old University is part of the foundation that I have been building. Its networks are useful, and are part of the academic world with which I will continue to be associated. The British High Commission is foreign territory. It is a place where I may make friends, but certainly not a place where I could lay any foundations. Or at least not until I have added Britain to the lands under my dominion.

The Imaandari of the Police

It is later in the day that I understand why my drive will not be diminished anytime soon. I am in an autorickshaw traveling to Noida, in the suburbs of Delhi. It is late in the evening and security is tight since the next day is Republic Day and there are fears of possible terrorist attacks. So when a policeman hails the autorickshaw, the driver slows down and stops automatically. The policeman wants a ride, of course he will not pay. I very reluctantly make room. It is not a big enough issue to make a stand over at this moment, but I dislike the casual abuse of power. Along the way the policeman questions where we are going. When I say a slightly different address than the driver, the policeman, correctly assuming that the driver is more malleable than I, starts to accuse the driver of lying for some unexplained reason. His tone is aggressive and threatening, and the driver pleads and explains.

I cannot intrude into the conversation. Had it been directed at me, I could have turned the tables on the policeman easily, but I don't have an independent power base of my own as of yet. If I speak it will only make things for the driver difficult. Finally the policeman abruptly orders the driver to stop.
"Get me a half," he orders, asking for the driver to buy a half-bottle of whisky. The driver pleads that he hasn't the money and has earned far too little.

"Get me a quarter," the policeman says.

"Sir, I don't even have that much," the driver says. He proffers some notes, and says, "I'm willing to prove my integrity and will contribute if you also pay."

His use of the word "integrity", imaandari, is staggering. The policeman grabs some of the bills, grumbles, and lumbers out.

I am too furious for words, and I realise that it does not matter. Words are not what is needed, but power. Being a writer is nowhere near enough.


Carina said...

As always, I enjoyed Omair's writing...
Thanks for posting it,Satya.
And wish you the best now in India, Omair.
For both of you a big hug! Miss you all!

Omair said...

Hey Carina,

Thanks. Glad you enjoyed the piece. Compliments are always truly welcome, and hugs from lovely are an essetial dietary requirement for a writer's well-being. (=


Shalini said...

"Dead for being obviously Muslim at the wrong place in the wrong time..."

"..."I've been out," I reply in that classically casual Urdu phrase that can mean I just stepped out of the house, to being overseas. He nods in understanding, and my time as even a marginal stranger comes to an end...."

Wow,read it twice...the first time I was on my chai break. The second time, I was not on my chai break but tempted to read again.

Doc, where is this excerpt from?

xanjukta said...

bugger!!! i thought i was going to post that on my blog... you beat me to it.. okay... i'll get you next time... three months before i get to delhi... yippee!!!!

Amit Ghosh said...

hey satyabrat - could you point me to the web address where omair writes. i found his writings pretty interesting.

Satyabrat Sinha said...

Hi Amit,

Thanks for your comment. I will pass the message to Omair.

I claim to have been the solitary website/blog for which Omair writes but in the past he has been published on Open Democracy.

Omair's first novel was also published last year and it is called Encounters. Published by India Research Press, you could ask your local bookstore for the book. The Amazon link for Encounters is

Here is a peek into the book

Amit Ghosh said...

Ok thanks. I think I am covered then, I have your blog bookmarked :-)