We’re going to Kyu-Wait, Kyu-Wait, Kyu-Wait, we’re going to Kyu-Waaiittt my mother would sing-chant in the days before we would travel to see my father. My mother is a champion of cute little portmanteaux of sounds and words, of cut-up techniques applied to parts of speech, word sounds and pronunciation. Kyu-wait, q8, Coo-Ate were signs of our excitement at seeing him again, and about what the city-state symbolised. We were just on the brink of escaping respectable, middle-class poverty thanks to my father “raking in the moolah” – my mother would permit herself these vulgarities only in the context of Kyu-Wait.
My parents are doctors, my father is a Urologist and transplant surgeon; he was invited to help rebuild the practice at the Urology department in one of Kuwait’s big teaching hospitals. Dr. George Someone was the much-respected Iraqi head of department who had to flee when Saddam invaded. There was something conveniently honourable in what my father was doing – helping rebuild the hospital’s practice and simultaneously earning tax-free, beautiful money, which in the early 1990s was 100 Rupees to the Dinar. You could get a little giddy doing the conversion. This t-shirt costs as much as a buffet breakfast at the Taj in Nungambakkam. This loaf of machine-made sliced bread would buy us 10 bakery-made loaves in India. These 100 Dinars are going to buy us a holiday.
The first association with the Gulf was money, of course. Sitting on billions of barrels of oil, and with fields burning in the desert, oil and what it means shape every point of reference. Many Indians, epecially South Indians, will pronounce it ‘gelf’, mocking the Kerala accent. The Gelf was full of people from Kerala, so much so you couldn’t get a plumber or carpenter anymore in Kerala, or so they said.
I was almost 16 years old in January 1991 on the eve of Desert Storm, the son et lumiere show over Baghdad. ‘Scud’ and ‘Cruise’ made it feel like we were watching Top Gun in real life; though secretly, late at night in bed, my fertile imagination would make plans to survive World War 3. (Someone at school said that their father said it was going to be World War 3). My grandfather’s stories of the Second World War in South and South East Asia made me dread the idea of conflict. Watching the TV coverage, I had no idea that a war in the sense of the World Wars wasn’t actually happening. Years later when I read The Gulf War Did Not Take Place I felt robbed, somehow, of that mixture of dread and excitement.
1991 was marked by a vivid, grisly memory of a young man called Rajeev Goswami who set himself on fire to protest the Mandal Commission’s recommendation of affirmative action in favour of Dalits and ‘lower’ caste people applying for government jobs. Cities erupted in violence; ‘forward caste’ youth felt that the Mandal initiatives would close down opportunities for them. There is no fear more justifiable -or powerful – than that of a parent for their child’s well-being. The Mandal violence surfaced the prejudices of many adults around me who were concerned that there simply wouldn’t be enough seats in universities for their children. I somehow could not appreciate this idea or the fear underlying it: perhaps it is a sign of privilege to believe that you’ll always get by. Life in middle class India can be exhausting in the anxiety that nothing will ever be enough, things will run out, there won’t be enough to go around, you’ll get to the end of the queue and then the office will close for lunch. What Mandal actually made apparent was that for progress to happen, inequality just needs to be more equally distributed.
December 1992 was when the the Babri Masjid demolition occurred, and the following March, the Bombay Blasts. Indian’s economy had just ‘opened up’ around that time; this was most palpable in how television broadcast content exploded; from three channels we got five, then seven, 15, and then everyone stopped counting. Well-meaning adults advised me to do get an MBA – a new economy needed people who could manage it. Amidst all the opening up and liberation, there were dark currents that you couldn’t see but only sense.
As part of the terms of my father’s employment in Kyu-Wait, the university would either cover our education in Kuwait, or fly us to visit him three times a year. My mother, sister and I stayed behind in India, it was just an awkward time to move -my sister was in the 8th grade and I had just joined college in Madras. In any case, who went to Kuwait to go to school anyway? As much as we could all appreciate Gelf money, we held fast to our snobbery: the Gelf, was, eventually, a place for money, not culture or education. You went there to meet practical needs, and the things you just could not do in India in the 1970s and 80s – make money legitimately.
My first glimpse of Kyu-Wait was actually at a boarding gate in Bombay’s international airport. I was shocked at the diversity and quantity of Indian expatriate labour in the Gulf. All Indians are familiar with domestic labour but the idea of importing this hadn’t crossed my mind. In 1993-94, traveling to the Gulf out fragile and shaken Bombay was fraught. Security was high, everyone was tightlipped and holding something in; coming back was even more fraught. I’ve had that particular passport squinted at by immigration officers in South East Asia, Europe and North America wanting to know why I had so many visa stamps in Arabic. Eventually we’re all the same when it comes to the dark-blue passport, all subjected to the same pre-boarding checks, the HIV tests.
The Gulf was where people went to buy things, and I think they still do. My generation and class of Indians has a perverse, contradictory craving for material things, and simultaneously mistrusts the desire for these things. So there’s a reason why malls paralyse and annoy me. Malls are an especially broken metaphor for progress and development. You cannot not see the South Asian labourers working outside them, or on them. Strangely, though, you couldn’t actually tell that the workers on the sides of the roads were South Asian, or even human – they could be robots under there – because they would be completely covered to protect themselves from the sun. But robots don’t shuffle or get tired, or stop and stare at the cars whizzing by. The workers on the sides of the roads wore orange jumpsuits (this was a good decade before Guantanamo started receiving illegally detained Arab men), their faces were wrapped in keffiyehs, only the eyes visible. My mother would point them out and get agitated (I get this from her). See, Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, see our people having to do this, be treated like this. Why can’t we take better care of our people? How hard they have to work, how are they being treated in this country, who looks out for them, do they have unions, where do their families live? There were no answers, only just the nameless relief that we were inside looking out. Looking out of the back of the car after we’d pass them, it would seem like they would evaporate into the mirage, as if they had never been there.
My father lived on the 15th floor of a building overlooking absolutely nothing. He lived in university accommodation in Shuwaikh, which at that time was a bleak edge beyond which was only the port and the sea. Further away from downtown, Shuwaikh were not so scrubbed clean of the memories of the invasion. In front of one of the other residential buildings was an ochre sofa with big cushions; one side had been ripped out, and the other had a little sculpture of hardened human shit. The Iraqi soldiers did all kinds of mad stuff here, my father would say. There was a lot more of this when he arrived, he told us. He would be walking down the street to the local store and come across a kitchen sieve or a toilet seat; driving down the road you’d see clothes and shoes and personal belongings blown to the side and wrapped around the roadside brush. My father talked of sightings of abandoned Lexus and Mercedes cars, an infamous tanks, shell casings alongside the roads. We just ran, we left everything, we tried to take things, we had to leave things.
The university’s residential campus, like the rest of the city, felt empty, anorexic, a little numb; it felt like there was some vital ingredient missing. There were, however, huge, Olympic sized swimming pools, tennis courts, gyms, malls, luxury cars. There is a low-point in every summer holiday when you wish you could either go back to school, or have your friends magically appear and share in your holiday. Kuwait was an incredibly boring place for a 18 year old with no car and no friends to hang out with.
Meeting other Indian families was the primary source of social interaction. One of the main reasons for this was to get access to alcohol. Alcohol was not legally sold in Kuwait but there were obviously huge black and grey markets in it. Being new in town, my father had no way of procuring branded alcohol so he depended on the generosity of friends and expat colleagues who had ‘connections’. At dinner parties with other Indian families, the de rigeur first order of conversation was about who had the best Scotch and where they got it from; it was like an aperitif before the Scotch itself; it was as predictable as the conversations about the peculiarities of living in post-invasion, newly liberted Kuwait itself.
Not so far from Makkah though we were, to us Indians in Kuwait, Dubai was the real one. Things, we heard, were slick, foreign,there were things to do in Dubai. Gangsters lived in Dubai; the schools were better there; you could go on desert safaris in Dubai, there were bars in Dubai. Dubai was fun. Dubai was a fantastical elsewhere, Kyu-Wait was the drudgery of here.
I recently read Manan Ahmed’s personal memoir of not-Dubai and it set me thinking about my experience of having a father working in that part of the world.