The unmistakable ‘imama'(turban) with a mix of subdued brown grey and beige and the long flowing dish-dasha were part of the fabric in my memory. Then came the mellow drift of Arabic ‘As-salamu-alaykum'(Peace be upon you) followed by the pleasantry, ‘Kaif Al hal’ (How is it going). A native Omani has his own dialectical intonation when it comes to greeting, be the addressee his relative, friend or guest. The middle aged man smiled through his gold capped teeth before saying, ‘Have a pleasant stay’. Perhaps under any other circumstances I would have felt home, but not this time, certainly not now, when I have returned to this land of date palms and camels to pack into cartons the left overs of my father’s 15 year stay here, of which we also formed a part, though in bits and pieces.
My family and I first flew to Oman in 1998 when my father joined the Sultan Qaboos University(SQU), a place which would become our abode for the next 15 years. I remember not being able to contain the excitement at the first glimpse of the landscape from the tiny window of the airplane. The terrain was fringed with rocky brown mountains, and layered with dark honey colored sand forming invisible waves. The towns looked like little blocks of off-white legos, patched with faded green lawn and roads running crisscross like arteries, but in muted grey color. One inadvertently cringed at the bright sunlight and hot air. Oman, harsh by climate but warm and peaceful at her soul.
I spent my best formative years in Muscat never knowing that they would, over time, become the fondest memories to which I would keep returning to, quite often. It is this country which brought us prosperity and well being as it has been for many other expats. A culture which we hold close to our hearts and a place which my father tenderly called home. As we made the touch down at the Muscat International Airport, I could feel heaviness seeping into my heart. Although the humidity was close to non existent, the very air that I breathed felt thick. After the emigration checks, we tugged our trolleys to the exit, and out of habit my eyes darted around for my father who usually waits at the Arrival.
Instead, we were greeted by our family friend who were to take us to SQU. From the moment we landed, I was taking innumerable trips down corridors of my memory lane, sometimes slipping away from conversations, but soon to return back to the painful reality. I almost let out a muffled cry when I saw the Rusayil or Burj Al Sahwah round about. At the center of the shoot green lawn stood the brown square clock tower along with the painted blocks, just as it was 15 years ago. I imagined our Toyota Echo taking the smooth curves of the round-about, my father nodding to the beats of Qawwali, and we kids blabbering away in the back seats. It may look silly to others, but this is what Muscat does to her expats. She makes you fall in love with her. And you love her for an eternity.
The roads with huge trees and lawns bordering them looked a lot wider than before. An array of new buildings have popped up on either sides of the road giving it a more city like feel which was absent during my times here. Staring at sparkling water ahead of us, I recollect when my father showed me a mirage for the first time in the scorching heat and blinding sunlight. He explained to us that a mirage is nothing but an optical illusion to which may men have fallen for while staggering through the tiring deserts. And now, my memories seems to be a cruel yet a sweet mirage. I snapped out of my thoughts as we contoured that familiar arc which leads us to the university, and within minutes we reached Royal Oman Police(ROP) gates. These gentlemen and women truly hold their royalty. Their decorated khaki uniform and stature radiated power, security and responsibility. We waved a ‘Salam’ with our hands and he gestured back, This is one custom we carried with us back to our natives. The waving of hands as a gesture of appreciation. You could always thank someone in a vehicle by just lifting your hand a little up and giving them a gently nod or a smile. And they would do the same.
University campus is where I spent most of my time. All the houses in the university looked like replicas of one another, wheatish colored, with a car porch, a small patch of green bush and wooden gates. We lived in the same house for more than a decade. Road C, House No.5. It was unnerving to walk back into the empty home which once cocooned our happiness, sorrow and hopes for the future. I could almost hear myself running down the carpeted stairs, my siblings giggling hysterically, or that unmistakable jingle of the keys when my father was at the door. I falter into the somber living room, to be greeted by the lonely new sofas, the same old book shelf and the keyboard at the corner. The positions of the furniture has changed in my absence.
I walked up the stairs, my ankles cracked, just like how my father’s always did. The stairs landed into a small horizontal corridor with 2 bedrooms at the two ends and a master bed room at the middle. I gazed into my father’s room, hoping to find him snuggled under his blanket. The bedroom lied untouched. It looked as though he has just left for office. A ruffled bed and blanket as he got up, the research papers along with markers on the side table, coffee cups beside the bed, the wardrobe doors hanging open after a hunt for his dress. I simply wished that this was just another working day where he would return home for lunch.
As I walked to my bedroom, the familiarity swept me off my feet. I was hurled into the time wrap, conjuring flashes of myself in different times. I could feel the innocence of a child; the euphoria, rage of a teenager; dreams and disappointments of my adolescences all in the same room.
We spent most of the days disposing the unwanted, and packing the rest into cartons. Every now and then, one of us would coming running with an old toy, a fancy dress costume, or some random note. Among various objects of my past, I found an address book with the names of few friends, all what’s left of my nostalgic school days. Getting to school was a journey on its own. As the university was located about 60 km from my school, we had to wake up as early as 5.30!. When the world was still in its dreamy slumber, we would be getting ready for school. I remember my sister asking my mother, “Here in Oman, we go to school at night is it?” University had kids from different schools namely, the different Indian schools, Bangladeshi school and the Pakistani school. We would all be picked up before sunrise into one big vehicle and our journey began. I believe my love for travel stemmed from this routine. I would try to stay awake, while the bus whizzed through the highways and curved down the hills. Half sleepy, half dreamy, I would wait for the best moment of the one and half hour journey, when the glorious red and orange ball would peep out from the mountains or the horizon, lighting up the languor sky. And the most picturesque morning is when we take the curve down to Darsait. The blue ocean rimming the mountains on your left, buildings popping out like daisies in spring on your right and the ocher hues of the sky. A scene which I still paint on the canvas of my heart.
Days flew fast. We got busier by the minute. The temperature had risen and it was impossible to go out during day time. I could not see the possibility of taking one last tour of Muscat. But I did manage to visit Muttrah lights. Muttrah used to be the trade capital of the country before the advent of oil. The old city still holds the grandeur of a glorious bygone era. We took a short walk through the waterfront promenade. It was a spellbinding scene to watch the vessels under the incandescent street lights. On our way back we stopped at one of the small shops to have the all time favorite food of both the expats and nationals. The Shawarma. One thing I missed the most on returning to India was the traditional, authentic gulf Shawarma. Indians would replicate anything to utter perfection, except this delicacy. Every time I see a joint selling shawarma in India, I cross my fingers and walk in straight. Only to return disappointed. The first bite of the Turkish shawarma sent me all the way up to the seven heavens. I was all over in love with the country, once again.
Though I could not visit the tourist spots, I took a good look at the university. My first visit was to the local bakery and supermarket. For old times sake, I bought one of my favourite confectionery, an ice cream sandwich. I walked through the streets biting into the nostalgic taste. College buildings started where the residential quarters ended. I walked past the garden in the college of commerce where my father and I would take few rounds of brisk walking. I remember constantly panting and running to catch up with his pace. After a while he used to wait, waving his hands asking me to walk faster. I can walk faster now, but there is no one waiting and waving for me.
Day 14. We were ready to leave. I was surprised that despite being away from this beautiful country for almost seven years, packing up for good was heart wrenching. I went from room to room trying to etching everything into my mind. Bidding goodbye to my father’s room was the most difficult. How do you leave behind something which you realize you love the most? I walk into his room for one last time.The red curtains looked deeper and his blanket colder. The ac vent coughed softly breaking the aching silence. The bookshelf which were always full is now empty, waiting to be moved away. I turn to face the mirror stand and a forlorn face stared back at me. Every step that I took to the front door seemed to plead for more time.
While in the car, as the surrounding scenes quickly flashed before my eyes, I’m reminded of my dad’s favorite song. “Country roads, take me home to the place I belong. West Virginia, mountain momma, take me home, country roads.”. My home.
As the aircraft took off, I saw the breathtaking aerial view of Muscat. The grey artery like roads were now lit up. It looked liked golden threads weaved into a black blanket. As if the stars have come down to bid farewell. My attempts to hold the gaze was futile. Slowly everything dissolved into the darkness. And in the darkness, I started painting my memories of this beautiful place that I call home.
This article appeared in print in ‘Thursday – Times of Oman’ published from Oman on March 19, 2015.