Savouring Dubai, the land of opportunity and refuge

Dubai has been on the cards for a while now. The last and only time I visited was in early 2010 for a conference. I vaguely remember doing a brief spin of a city deep in the doldrums of economic depression, staring at half-built buildings and getting the sense that I was experiencing a ‘freeze frame’. That first impression and the idea that I am motivated by (hi-fi?) stuff like art, culture and history and not so taken in by glitzy glass-clad skyscrapers (sarcasm, confusion, loads of self-judgement in those words!) ensured that Dubai wasn’t really on my radar for some time. But then, Rahul started to come here every year for his annual training refresher and Dubai was back on my list!

This time round though, the city feels very different. Alive and buzzing with the energy of the Dubai Shopping Festival and a renewed construction boom kicked off in part by the fact that the World Expo 2020 is being hosted here. I promised myself to reserve the judgement before I came and have been happy tramping about the city by myself (while Rahul is working), exploring the Metro and meeting friends and shopping! Despite myself and because of the way this city is, it is impossible not to appreciate the sense of organization, the aesthetic of opulence, the ease of getting around, the effortless intermingling of cultures very different.

The cranes are swinging again in Dubai!

The cranes are swinging again in Dubai!

An organized city, the cars speed by and you let a different-yet-familiar cultural ethos seep into you

An organized city, the cars speed by and you let a different-yet-familiar cultural ethos seep into you

It's strange how mass transit has begun to define your experience of a new city. The Dubai Metro, though limited in coverage, is simple to use. I wish metro experts in India would think to have these sort of protection screens at the platform edges on stations!

It’s strange how mass transit has begun to define your experience of a new city. The Dubai Metro, though limited in coverage, is simple to use. I wish metro experts in India would think to have these sort of protection screens at the platform edges on stations!

I really like the signages. Here, people are not-so-subtly encouraged to let passengers exit from the centre while they climb in from the side. The Dubai metro also like Delhi) has a ladies only coach, only at peak times though

I really like the signages. Here, people are not-so-subtly encouraged to let passengers exit from the centre while they climb in from the side. The Dubai metro also like Delhi) has a ladies only coach, only at peak times though

In conversations with those who live here, friends as well as strangers I met on the Metro, I can see how it is easy to get used to the conveniences of Dubai, especially in the face of the employment opportunities and improved pay packages it provides as compared to ‘back home’. Dubai has attracted people from a plethora of nationalities- Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Yemenis, Syrians, Egyptians and many more- for whom it represents a better life. Yes, by corollary it also means that life ‘back home’ wasn’t that great for many of those who have come here. By all accounts, most of these immigrants will never ever go back, or even want to go back. Despite the big brother watching, despite the controlled media and the heightened awareness of the need to mind your own business if you want to survive, Dubai is a good experience, a place that treats you well.

Both strangers and friends confided to me that a sense of personal safety, the lawfulness and speedy execution of justice were what made them most comfortable here in Dubai, as compared to India. I wasn’t too surprised by this admission, even though I had to curb my urge to fiercely defend my country. You have to read papers here to see that nearly all news out of India is negative! In contrast, the media reports about the UAE are a mix of heady, positive, self-congratulatory stories interspersed with rather watered-down criticism. My analysis: You cannot compare apples and oranges, you gotta see things in perspective. By this I mean that living in a democracy and an autocracy are very different, but I can also see that this difference may matter little for citizens who are happy to have their daily needs well met. Walking among the glitzy edifices and seeing families out carefree and happy in the middle of the night, it’s hard to push this point without sounding defensive!

And so, I let it go and shop some more. I click pictures of dancing fountains and ornate ceilings. I enjoy the pleasure of the us-time Rahul and me are getting as we choose from a fantastic selection of restaurants, eat, talk, laugh… I savour Dubai, I refrain from judging, I miss home.

Malls in Dubai are works of art, with ornate interiors and grandiose ceilings that rise high above you

Malls in Dubai are works of art, with ornate interiors and grandiose ceilings that rise high above you. This is at the Mall of the Emirates, where I trawled aimlessly for an hour, clicking pictures and feeling intimidated by the determined shoppers!

The Dubai mall, next to Burj Khalifa, is the place to be! Absolutely monumental in scale, the spaces are so large that even the most bizarre ceiling fixtures seem to fit right in!

The Dubai mall, next to Burj Khalifa, is the place to be! Absolutely monumental in scale, the spaces are so large that even the most bizarre ceiling fixtures seem to fit right in!

Another ornate ceiling

Another ornate ceiling…

...and the space below it!

…and the space below it!

At every juncture, we miss the children, and become kids ourselves!

At every juncture, we miss the children, and become kids ourselves!

The curtain of water inside the Dubai Mall

The curtain of water inside the Dubai Mall

The dancing fountains outside are infamous. Every half-hour, they dance to a different tune, ranging from Western classic to Arabic to pop, against the backdrop of the dazzling and slender Burj Khalifa. It's pretty spectacular.

The dancing fountains outside are infamous. Every half-hour, they dance to a different tune, ranging from Western classic to Arabic to pop, against the backdrop of the dazzling and slender Burj Khalifa. It’s pretty spectacular.

Fun at the Dastkar Nature Bazar at Kissan Haat, Andheria Mod, Delhi- Oct 29, 2012

We visited the Dastkar Nature Bazar on Saturday. It’s been my favorite place for pre-Diwali shopping in Delhi, followed by the Blind School mela. Blind School’s advantage always has been its fixed location. You know where to go and what to expect each year. Dastkar, on the other hand, keeps moving around and it’s not always convenient to get to. We skipped last year because I couldn’t get to Pragati Maidan.

This time though, the exhibition has moved to the Kissan Haat in Andheria Mod, near Chhatarpur Metro Station. Therefore, on Saturday morning, six of us, all women and all geared up to shop, hopped on at Huda City Centre to troop to the Dastkar Nature Bazar.

It didn’t disappoint. In fact, I thought this was a nice home for the exhibition and was delighted when someone mentioned that Dastkar had signed a 15 year lease for this space. I see no official announcement or press item to this effect though. I looked up to research what the Kissan Haat was originally built for. I always thought there was a mandi here, or some sort of direct selling farm produce type of establishment was going to be set up here. Whenever I drove by, I saw the signs and looked forward to such an announcement. Fresh produce markets would do so well in South Delhi!

But today, I found online that the government had failed to start this and finally decided, sometime during the Commonwealth Games preparation, to set this up as another Dilli Haat, replete with food stalls and crafts outlets. I suppose that is what they achieve by handing the space over to Dastkar. I don’t know what Dastkar plans. I heard there will be 4 exhibitions a year instead of an annual one.

For those of you who haven’t yet gone, do go! If not to buy, to just see. If you love handmade, hand crafted, hand loom; if you love original work and design; if you value authenticity; you will be happy here. Plus you have the satisfaction of buying directly from craftspeople of from organizations that work directly with them. I interacted with founder Laila Tyabji last year at the India Urban Conference at Mysore and was impressed with the depth of her knowledge of crafts-based livelihoods and her advise to urban practitioners on how to design and plan for such communities and how to integrate them into the economy. Here’s a link to a post wrote about her when she got the Padma Shri.

It’s on till November 9th. For pics etc, do check out the Dastkar Facebook page. Happy shopping!

Spare a thought for those who work through weekends to make ours fun! August 31, 2012

Every Friday, I am struck by the number of people sharing their joy of the anticipated weekend with the world. On Twitter and Facebook, elated office goers heave sighs of relief and announce their weekend plans. It’s a virtual war out there, a subtle but keen competition for who will have the best weekend.

How about all those scores of people, though, who work through the weekend. It occurred to me today, that a privileged lot actually get the weekend off. A whole bunch of people work through Saturdays and Sundays providing services, manning retail stores and salons, movie theaters and car parks. When do they spend time with their children, with their families? When do they shop, eat out, relax?

Being married to a pilot, weekends are an interesting concept in our house as well. The kids follow a strictly weekday-weekend routine thanks to school and my life sort of loops around that. Rahul’s availability on a weekend has always been a luxury though. There have been times when he has been out on several weekends in a row and cooling his heels at home on a weekday, when the rest of us have no time for him. When he is in, we’re all happy to plan something special or just chill at home! Because I do not work full time, weekends do not need to be cluttered with chores like shopping. I manage to finish all those at some point during the week so we have clear weekends to enjoy. But, I digress.

I’m amazed that our mindsets are so set on this weekday-weekend pattern despite the fact that many people in a modern economy work on very different schedules. It is one of those things most of us do not really dwell on and that also feeds off the fact that Indian cities are very diverse. People from varying income groups, classes and backgrounds co-exist and therefore, many of these aspects get evened out because expectations differ hugely.

For many of the people I observe who are the worker bees that fuel businesses in retail and entertainment, a day off is a luxury. These are the hard working masses that really hold our cities afloat. With varying levels of education, their assets are things like skills acquired on the job, temperament, the ability to do repetitive tasks, take orders, etc. In conversations with a cross section of people like shop attendants, security guards, waiters, chefs, ticket checkers, those who man cash counters at superstores, etc I am amazed at how satisfied they are with their lot. They are happy to have a job, to earn a decent living and be treated with dignity. A day off here and there is good for them and they seem to make the most of this day. The guy who cuts my hair, for instance, takes Tuesdays off to visit a Hanuman Mandir somewhere near ISBT and his faith is a matter of great satisfaction for him. Of course, their lives may be difficult, they may not always be treated well and jobs may come and go. But the weekend and the crazy premium we attach to it is absent from their lives. They are hugely aware of how important it is for ‘us’ though, their customers who set the cash registers ringing starting Friday night up until Sunday night! I guess we could call it a symbiotic relationship!

Shopping with children is fun and instructive too- Aug 29, 2012

A quick trip to the supermarket with both kids in tow was the highlight of the day. I hadn’t been too chirpy all day and was on the verge of copping out, but Aadyaa insisted we go and Udai tagged along as well. Busybees that they are, both of them wanted to actively participate. Aadyaa clambered onto the shopping cart and I was supposed to pick stuff off the shelf and hand it to her and then she put things into the cart. We didn’t have a shopping list today, so Udai was running around finding the stuff I needed as and when I remembered it.

Fortunately, we know the layout of Needs Gourmet in Vatika City by now. So we know the cereals come first, then the jams and peanut butter stuff, then the namkeens, then the biscuits, then the boring stuff (aata, sugar, besan, dals, oil, etc), then soaps and cosmetics (which we never buy from here), then the noodles and pasta, then the drinks and finally the refrigerated stuff like cheese and butter. I was amazed to find Udai remembered where to get what from, even though he isn’t a regular on this jaunt since we shop mostly while he is in school.

What I love about shopping with the kids is how much they observe and their unending curiosity! Do we need this mumma, do we need that? Why can’t we buy that? Do you have enough money? Why have they packed so many packs in a bigger pack? When something is free with something else, what does it mean? Do we have this at home? Yes? then we don’t need to pick this up, right? And so on and so forth. (All those questions were actually asked today, not making this up!)

It is absolutely thrilling to pick stuff from the cart and put it on the billing counter. Aadyaa did all of that for me today. I keep wondering how excited they would be to see a standard Walmart type of set up where the moving conveyor belt system operates!

Udai also commented on how expensive he thought things are. He was genuinely shocked at the total and much amused by the length of the piece of paper that the little machine spat out, the bill! It set the stage for a discussion on food costs, why food must not be wasted, how processed food costs more and why it is good to buy as much as we need, not stock months and months ahead. On the ride back, he read every item on the bill aloud. His tone made it clear which were his favorites and which were of no interest to him.

Helping with the shopping means the kids know roughly what’s in stock, what ingredients are needed for what, etc. It also means they’ve picked up what they sort of like (the no junk food rule is sacrosanct at our place though, and exceptions can only be picked up by parents!). Consequently, they have a healthy interest in cooking and make good little sous chefs! Aadyaa helped out with the chicken tonight, for instance. To top it all, they love to eat what they bought and cooked, so mealtimes are effortless too :) I wish I had taken a pic of Aadyaa gobbling up the chicken….

Upset by the death of MG Road, thrilled by a night bus ride in Bangalore- May 29, 2012

After a day full of site visits and meetings, I did not see myself cooling my heels in an obscure hotel in the middle of nowhere, an apt description of Electronic City in Bangalore. I took the opportunity to ride with someone into town and found myself at that familiar intersection between M G Road and Brigade Road. Right next to me was the Cauvery Emporium where as a child I remember buying Mysore Sandal Soap with my grandmother and staring at the bronze statues and silk carpets that my uncle Gopal would sometimes buy (he was passionate about these and they appeared super expensive to us).
I decided, for the sake of nostalgia, to walk down M G Road. It was about eight in the evening and the stretch that used to be the heart of the city with people jostling for space was a deserted, sad place with no pavements to speak of, a clattering ugly overhead Metro line and lots of traffic. Even after several malls came up in the city, this used to be a vibrant space. The metro seems to have sucked whatever life it had out and I was sorely disappointed.
Brigade Road was more like what it used to be, though it also seems to have relinquished it’s status as a prime shopping location. Even so, I enjoyed watching the passers by and marvelled at the wonderful cosmopolitan mix this city now is and the sheer feeling of youth and casual confidence here as compared to say Connaught Place in Delhi.
A good meal later, we (my colleague Nipesh did his own city trawl in the meantime) topped off a the evening with a small adventure we greatly enjoyed- we yapped away while riding in a City bus to Electronic City and then savoured a long walk to our hotel in dark deserted but beautifully tree lined streets escorted by a street dog!
Images below: The overhead metro has ruined the heart of Bangalore, followed by two shots of Brigade road at night.




Guilty pleasures: Shopping at Promenade, Vasant Kunj on a working day- May 16, 2012

Whatever the excuse (a transportation glitch, meeting that gets over early, hunger pangs), finding yourself in a shopping mall on a working day with all the shops pretty much to yourself (and kids not around!) can be a fun experience! In my case, I’m not adept at shopping alone and I’m certainly no fashionsita, but window shopping I enjoy a lot! And people watching too!

I did end up buying footwear though, since clothes were out of bounds (on a diet, can’t buy clothes till I reach my target weight!). Here are some pictures I took using my iphone.

Holidays are here and mom-and-kid combos trawl the malls to take respite from the 46 degree heat outside. The VK malls get a fair number of expat footfalls. This kid was adorable; the moment formed a perfect foreground for the Kuoni ad behind!

High quality window dressings make window shopping pleasurable. I noticed certain colors were really in this season, this particular orange-red being the one that most caught my eye!

The trendy brands are right there in front of you in this mall. Zara, Bebe, Promod, Mango, M&S, S Oliver…you take ten minutes to get the lay of the land!

The mandatory ice-cream stop for the kids. Missed them at this point!

The shades in vogue- salmon pink, lemon green, lemon yellow, the orange-red, tangerine, a prussian-navy sort of blue, cream..summer is here for sure

Walking out wearing my shopping!

Urban villages fill the gaps precisely because they aren’t zoned! Amid pots and basins in Sikanderpur – May 4, 2012

A few days ago, mum and me did the the rounds of Sikanderpur, an urban village in Gurgaon that has a concentration of building material stores, especially hardware, electricals, lighting and all sorts of other knick knacks. In the NCR, urban villages are the default location for all things messy. Except for the few villages like Hauz Khas and Shahpur Jat and perhaps parts Khirki and Lado Sarai, that have become gentrified and accommodate eclectic tastes in art and food, many urban villages consist of a winding maze of streets crowded with miscellaneous goods that service the zoned, usually higher income, residential and commercial areas in the vicinity. Often, some of these markets, like Sikanderpur in Gurgaon and Kotla Mubarakpur in Delhi, specialize in certain types of goods and serve a larger urban area.

Planned development in Indian cities has not been able to accommodate many essential components. I write often about planned development not catering to low-income housing, but I observe that small retailers too are being pushed out of high-income areas where shop rents are unaffordable for them. Urban villages or illegally using residential property for shops are viable options for them, especially if they sell something as unglamorous as pipes and wires!

In Sikanderpur, we realized the posh bath accessory stores did not exist. They were located in DLF Phase I and similar colonies where moneyed people went. These swank stores displayed foreign brands like Grohe and American Standard, while it was the back alley in Sikanderpur that finally satisfied my search for a Hindware dealer!

We had a good time choosing pots and washbasins and kitchen sinks, as you can see from the pics below!

Mom in pot heaven!

The vibrant market thrives even as the Metro soars up above: Kind of parodies India’s paradoxical, interesting development and growth, doesn’t it?

Of malls, empty ones and those that entertain! Apr 27, 2012

A few days ago, I decided to park in the basement of a new, large mall in Gurgaon. When I say new, I guess it must be a year old. We give retail spaces a long birthing period here in Gurgaon now. Earlier, no sooner than a mall opened, shops would mushroom inside and it would become the latest hip destination for people from within and outside the city to hang out in, mostly without purpose!

So this ‘new’ mall, which is called MGF Mega City Mall and has Lifestyle as its anchor tenant along with SPAR Hypermarkets, looks like this…..

We (Aadyaa and me on our way to the building next door that houses our bank!) come out of the elevator, cannot find the exit, there are no people to ask….you get the drift!

Here on Sohna Road, where I live, they continue to build retail space. A short stretch of about 3 kms now has 4 malls, only one of them with any decent level of occupancy. Its a depressing situation and I avoid going to malls like the plague (except to watch movies, because there is nowhere else to watch them!)!

Last Friday, a few of us families took our kids to the set of malls at Vasant Kunj. We did the very mall-y things like rides in the kiddie amusement center, spent time at the play area, walk around aimlessly, eat, check out the loos! I have to admit it was fun, mostly because of the company and because the malls had open shops in them, and people! Duh!

Mishu and Myrah enjoying the car experience!

Udai waiting for the roller coaster ride to begin...

Aadyaa driving a stationery car and Myrah in the back seat

Aadyaa climbing, papa watching....roz ki kahaani :)

Hey Hansa! What're you doing in there?


Small retailers are superbly efficient: Another party planning tale- March 29, 2012

So today was the errand day. First stop was Landmark. A huge pan-India chain selling books, music, stationery, toys, etc. We were trying to buy return gifts for Aadyaa’s friends and Udai’s, who would be coming for the party tomorrow. It took us about half an hour to select what we wanted, basically large quantities of finite items. It took us nearly the same amount of time to bill them!

One young man, sprightly enough but clearly on his first job ever, was patiently passing every single pen, pencil, crayon and comic (oops, did I let out the secret?) through the barcode scanner. He even fed in barcodes where the scanner didn’t oblige. About ten minutes down, I asked him if there was a better way to do this and he told me the system only takes one item at a time. There apparently was no way to enter a code and then enter the number of items of that type! All the items that he did scan were meanwhile piling up on the other side. About ten employees of the store hung about, not one of them attempting to fill these into a bag. Finally, we (scanner boy and me) had to ask one to help! And then, this dude proceeded to put all the books in one bag and the stationery in the other! Explaining the merits of weight distribution was sort of pointless…..So, after having a word with the manager of the store, who looked pained but not inclined to do anything much about the situation, we left carrying one bag that was nearly bursting open and another that was fairly light!

We didn’t find wrapping paper at this huge mega store (only the super expensive kind!) and so we visited the stationery shop at the urban village nearby (Chakkarpur, Gurgaon). We saw in operation a well-stocked store, efficiently manned, with an owner-manager who knew his stock (and most of his customers) intimately.  I could bet all the stuff we bought at Landmark would have been billed here in 3 minutes flat! Plus, we would have got a better deal, more variety, friendlier service….

Stupid us. Falling for big names. Lesson learnt! Look local first. And for other stuff, plan better and order online!

We buy what we eat, we eat what we buy!

We tried the newly opened Spar Hypermarket in Gurgaon today. Like all trysts with super (oops!-hyper) markets, I went in with a list of about ten items and came out with a cart full of shopping. Call it the advantages of choice or you can question whether we really need all the stuff we buy!

Which brings me to my observation about the contents of the shopping cart of the average urban shopper family. Today’s informal survey (sample size 50- yup the new place was buzzing) showed me that a whopping 50-60% of the average carts comprised of chips, namkeen, maggi, aerated drinks, maida biscuits, etc. Of course, to some extent, cart contents did mirror the family composition, but not hugely. For a city that comprises educated salaried reasonable well read people and considering the astounding amount of health related information being belted out to us, I kept wondering that the future is bleak. Very bleak. South Asians, that is US, have the highest risk of diabetes and heart diseases and all the related health problems in the world. The WHO has lowered BMI standards for us and now we need to be thinner and more halth conscious than ever before if we are to expect to lead reasonably normal healthy and happy lives.

Those shopping carts reflected no awareness of this health epidemic, larger than dengue, chikunguniya, swine flu and what have you, that we indians are facing today. Worse, the carts probably reflected apathy, or worse, escapism of these harsh realities. At this time, the planning commission, the government, economists and civil society are waging battles over how poverty should be defined and what the appropriate calorie intake of urban and rural Indians should be to quality them as poor or not poor. At the same time, urban India is wolfing down the excess calories in all the wrong types of food with no thought for their own individual futures, leave alone the collective future of our civilisation.

We need to question our lifestyles in many ways, including what we are buying and eating and how much of it. No harm in a bit of fun, but seriously, when will we learn to take responsibility for ourselves?