First published (October 4, 2013) on my TOI blog, Freeze Frame
The deserts of the Middle East are oil rich, thus the sultanates and emirates are stinking rich, and as a result both expatriate and citizen earnings are tax free. I’m sure if one were to objectively judge the happiness qoutient among world citizens, the graph will peak here, in the land of black gold. No wonder we’re tying to build a war there forever. Any way, that is not what we’re here to spin yarns about.
We found ourselves on the move, again. This time we crossed the Arabian Sea and landed by the Gulf of Oman. This was just a few years post the millennium, the pre ‘information at your fingertip thanks to internet explosion’ days, so my notion about most of Middle East was still limited to deserts dotted with bedouin tents, rows of camels trudging along the scorching desert sand, men in flowing white robes saying “walllaah!”, women hiding under layers of veils, date trees and virgin oil wells, owned by whimsical sultans with cluttered, overflowing harems.
We had landed in one of those relatively docile desert cities, quietly rich with a very strong currency that had immense buying power. The neat white rows of houses, pruned lawns, long, empty serpentine six lane highways, swank malls, a lazy sea lapping the beaches and rugged hills had actually taken me by surprise. All my preconceived notions were replaced by spanking new cities, all chrome and glass high-rises, rivieras, obnoxiously lavish malls and an ever expanding skyline. And that again aligns me with my story about my carmic connections. Also, this is to give you the cue to close your eyes and imagine the car of you dreams. Aston Martin Vanquish? Audi Coupe or the top of the line A8? Ferrari? Maserati? Jaguar? Porsche? Bentley? Volvo/Saab/Lamborghini/Alpha Romeo? If one were to fence-sit by any Emirati, Saudi, Omani, Qatari, Bahraini city street you would see these cars parade past you, strut their stuff and unabashedly flirt with that dreamy look in your eyes.
A few months before I had descended upon the Gulf region, I had sworn not to touch the steering wheel of any ‘automobile’ after I had nearly crashed the traing car which could have killed my driving instructor, in the Good Gaon. It wasn’t my fault, no, not at all. Just that my novice eyes hadn’t seen the lamp post approaching the car neither could my inept mind gauge the distance up to which we would have been at a ‘safe’ distance from the post. But here and now, in the desert city, with those mean machines zooming past me in lightning speed, I forgave my little folly, cast aside my phobia and took to car watching in my idle Middle East life.
If I may, here’s a little insight into why a gulfie, after landing a job in the Middle East suddenly starts behaving like a Saudi sheikh. If you earn the ‘right’ kind of salary in the Gulf, you can buy almost anything that you have ever dreamt of. The currencies are so strong that they have the power to import the best brands from all corners of the world and fill up their whimsical empty shelves. The Sultans and Emirs don’t need their subjects’ money to run their countries, aka, emirates and sultanates. Instead, they make all the comforts of the world available to everybody, tax-free. Even cars. Yes, all those brands of cars I mentioned above can be bought at the swipe of a card.
But the provisio is to first ‘pass’ the driving test and secure a driving license. The search for the holy grail pales in comparision perhaps. I have, in my five year long idle stint in this desert city, attended several coffee mornings and lunches thrown in glee of ‘finally getting the driving license’, number of attempts at it varyin between five to fifteen times. It was always a raging conversation starter in the air conditioned comforts of friendly drawing rooms about how gruelling it was to train with the Arabic speaking driving instructor under the desert sun and even more difficult to appease the ROP personnel who would finally take the two tests. The Bee secured his in the third attempt and was I proud. But no, I did not throw a party, not even a small coffee morning. We celebrated by finally visiting the car showrooms of Wattayah, that had been eluding us for the last four months.
So what car did we settle for? Nothing too flashy. Just a humble Quartz Gray Audi A4. That too because while we were trying to decide from among a Jag, a Camry, a Rover and test driving the Volvo, a newly launched black Audi A4 overtook us. It was love at first sight with the beauty that glided ahead of us, almost hugging the road and poof, all else seemed worthless without the Audi. Our new car treated us like royalty. And the next few years sped past with us speeding through the silken smooth, serpentine highways, with a maximum speed limit of 120kmph, crisscrossing the rugged interiors of Oman, bashing wadis, driving up the picturesque coastal road to Sur, climbing jebals, knocking at forts et al.
And how did we treat the Audi? “Don’t bang the door!” “No eating crisps or chocolates on the back seat!” “I’m NOT taking THIS car into those narrow, filthy Ruwi streets; we’ll take Ujjwal’s cab instead!” “No banging the door!” “Call the cab to go grocery shopping please!” “Must we treat OUR car like a hitchhiker’s paradise?” “No lifts!” “Don’t bang the door!” “How I hate it when nincompoops open their car doors without watching – see that idiot left a scratch near the rear door lock!” “DO NOT BANG THE DOOR!” This is how he treated the Audi. Like the Britbaba’s second born.
As the reluctantly proud parents of the Quartz Gray Audi A4 we knew that our market value in the Indian Social Club of Muscat and among the confines of the maachh-bhaat-phootball loving pretty much parochial Probasi Bengali Social Club had risen meteorically. I suppose naive me had thought that we had left this vanity fair behind in saadi Dilli, this ‘size always matters’ as does the make and class of the car syndrome. Though initially we were hesitant but later we started to enjoy the attention, but always slightly reluctantly. Thus whenever our top of the line Audi, that came fitted with a Bose audio system, made a social appearance alongside us, we found ourselves walking a few inches above terra firma.
But all dreams must come to an end and one should force oneself to return to reality. The journey back was necessary. And the only thing that I still miss from the Middle Eastern Utopia is the Audi, the late night rides on it through sleepy deserted streets, through winding alleys by the corniche, stopping by to just smell the sea near the souk, a soft late night jazz playing on the Bose or navigating the broad silken smoothness of the Omani highway, chasing the sunset, to reach the beach before the sky had turned to dusk.
Reality was Bombay and return to the black and yellow Bombai hackney ala the fiat taxi yelling ‘Virar/Vasai/Versova’ in bold colourful letterings on their rear windscreens. Come rain or shine, the old faithful was back at our side as we set out to set up home, again, in this tinsel town of broken dreams.