For nearly as long as I’ve lived, I’ve held a pretty detached attachment to my birthplace. I was born in a hospital in Kuwait, the only information of which I have is that Mumma was a nurse in their maternity ward and I was born without any assistance on a day she was actually on duty. In her defense, that’s what pregnant women did back in the day – worked till the baby was just ready to pop out. In my defense, I was a tiny baby.
People have reacted to the knowledge of my place of birth as if something about me finally makes sense to them
I suppose I could ask Mumma for details about the hospital, but that would snuff out this mysterious air I’ve enveloped myself in ever since I heard the story of my unaided birth. I may have dramatized it a few notches higher in my storytelling over the years, though.
People have reacted to the knowledge of my place of birth as if something about me finally makes sense to them. Many have instantly begun referring to me as a Kuwaiti, which I am not. Some others have exclaimed that I look just like one, which I most certainly do not. A few honest people have asked me where it is though, and I’ve told them it’s hard to find on the map.
I have held a passport ever since I was one month old. It came in handy when I flew to my grandparents just one month after it was issued. Of course, I didn’t fly alone, I flew with (probably a hundred or so people and) an aunt – one of many first cousins my father has. Us Mangaloreans are a trusting lot; we still wonder why I wouldn’t stop crying and had to be promptly brought back to Mumma a few days later. I was sent back to my grandparents “for good” when it was time for me to be admitted into a school.
They thought I was pretty bright the following year.
Apparently, I could recognize letters in the alphabet by then, but I was just not bright enough, because I told the person interviewing me that my mother’s name is Mumma. I could have started and finished school a year earlier than I actually did if this world had any patience for real talent. Thus, began my training in mugging up answers to questions I didn’t give a fig about (I have never addressed Mumma by name even after I learnt it). They thought I was pretty bright the following year.
I have an older brother. He and I would visit my parents in Kuwait during the Summer holidays, every year. Yes, we got away from peak Indian summers to enjoy immensely hotter Middle Eastern summers. At our Number One holiday destination of those times, if you’d step out of the house during the day time, you could melt down to half your size before you stepped back into it. But we were there for the central AC, and our parents.
My brother and I would travel to and fro Kuwait unaccompanied all the time. Every year we had whiny and scared kids flying with us. Well, my bro had them and an airsick little sister whom he hated traveling with. One year he looked out the window, pointed to the clouds just beneath the aeroplane and said, “We are going to crash into the sea!”. I believed him (they did look like stationary waves I had seen in paintings). And then there was pandemonium in our section of the aircraft.
All the whiny and scared kids grew whinier and scared-er. That year I threw up even more violently than ever before, because kal ho na ho. He must have wished I were struck by lightning since we were so close to the clouds anyway, but unfortunately for him, that didn’t happen.
We were a formidable gang of little persons.
Now there were a few other Indian families in the building that also subjected their children to such precious summer holidays, and we soon had a fun bunch of holiday friends we played Indian games like Chor – Police and Running Race with (in the evenings, of course). We were a formidable gang of little persons. I clearly remember Malati (who bossed over all of us), Rajeev (who was so cute he made me blush) and Kunnu (who was stuck in the elevator when its cables accidentally gave way one night). At the time of writing this, I have no idea where, how, and who these people are, not even Rajeev.
I have a cousin, just a month younger than me. He was a non-visiting kid, he lived in the same building as my parents did. I loved him to bits. I didn’t know about incest back then and I wouldn’t have cared even if I did. He could read and write Arabic, and he had this hotshot helmet he wore while riding his cycle, the same one I had the great fortune of learning to ride on, before I nearly crashed it into the side railings. My folks decided then that it was time I had one myself. It was a brilliant blue BMX bike, though in retrospect I would have preferred a pink one.
Speaking of bikes, I vaguely remember a terrific incident of how Arab bullies nearly killed us to steal our shiny new bikes and how courageously we ran away from them. It was tough being an Indian kid on Arab turf, but we lived to tell the tale (and to add a far greater magnitude of adventure in every telling).
I don’t remember what we did throughout the day in Kuwait, to be honest, but everything sprang to life in the evenings when my parents and everyone else’s parents came back from work. There were the friends and cousin I mentioned before, and a few others from the gang whom I don’t remember at all now. We had a good time nonetheless.
We also had an alarmingly large number of close relatives in Kuwait and they all lived relatively close by. So uncles and aunts would come over for drinks and chakna, in the name of seeing the visiting kids. Once, a really large number of us went to the beach and I returned looking like a resident of a planet closer to the sun.
Novenas and prayers were being offered round the clock.
When I was 8, the horrific Kuwait invasion took place. We were in India at the time, and my parents have always been thankful for that. But for nearly a month, we had absolutely no idea where my parents were. We knew they had left Kuwait, but there was no sign of them for weeks after. Novenas and prayers were being offered round the clock. I can’t recall the details of my prayers, but I remember giving Mary immensely frightful stares, just willing her to come down and do something. Mary or anybody else did nothing for a few weeks.
Then one incredibly gloomy morning (of 22/09/1990), it rained so heavily that I remember going out on to the balcony and praying they wouldn’t show up that day. At lunchtime, I was listlessly toying with my meal, and my dad walked into the house delegating our other relatives on how and where to keep all the luggage. This, on the day I had specifically prayed they wouldn’t show up. I was so shocked I couldn’t speak, or give the universe a much deserved eyeroll.
Mumma cried for hours over her suitcase full of ruined sarees. I could not understand why, until I began collecting sarees myself last year. I would have refused every meal for a week if I were her.
They had left nearly everything else behind, among these were an aluminium trunk full of our childhood photographs, memories I would give anything to have today. The above are pretty much the only memories I have of Kuwait and those holidays…
There were no further summer holidays in Kuwait for years after. Mumma soon left her job and came to live permanently with us in India; and we moved out of my grandparents’ house “for good”. Dad went back to a prestigious post in the same company he was forced to flee from; he began flying down to us once a year.
I took one final vacation to Kuwait in the last year Dad was there, before he relocated to Dubai. I was much older then and could have retained a lot more memories without the aid of pictures. But all I remember from this visit is my parents recounting stories of explosions and smoke-filled skies.
I may never go back there again