Last week I was in glitzy little Qatar for a glitzy big conference. From the start, I knew there was something interesting going on: I was one of the only women on a packed flight to Doha. No business people either, just young dudes, mostly south Indian, all wearing the same shiny jeans, knock-off shoes, and big plastic watches.
That’s because a lot of Indians live in Qatar. Over 95% of the working population of Qatar are not nationals; the Indian population alone is over 500k. Most of them are young, most of them are men, and all are very far from home.
In geographic terms, Qatar isn’t all that far from India; just a 2.5 hour time difference. But I can’t think of two countries more different. India has it all in abundance: squalor and glory; potholed roads and slick toll bridges; Ferraris and ox-carts on the city roads. It may be full-on, but India has more soul than anyplace I know.
And the slice of Qatar I saw seemed, well, sort of like landing on the moon. The Qataris themselves are warm and charming (not to mention good-looking; I do love a man in a keffiyeh), their history rich, and their ambitions for the country exciting. I’m part Arab, and being around Gulf Arabs makes me feel right at home.
But, it should go without saying, this place was nothing like India. Business districts in Mumbai are all honking and overcrowded buildings; the trains burst with people. But Qatar’s population can’t yet fill out its ambitions, and the glittering buildings in Doha’s downtown are said to be, as yet, largely unoccupied; a skyline without a city.
I commented on this dichotomy to a taxi driver, how different these two places are.
“The problem with this country, madam,” he responded, “is that it is having too much money.”
Certainly more money than much of India. I met a handful of Indians during my three-day trip. When they learned I lived in Mumbai, there was inevitable cheer; the night I arrived, the hotel receptionist beamed and said, “Mumbai, that is my place!”
I talked to two drivers, both Muslim Keralans recruited in India for driving jobs in Qatar. Driving in Doha was a good job, they said, but they missed India.
“Where do you eat? Do you make Indian food at home?” I said to one.
“There is Indian restaurant near my house with very spicy food.”
“You eat all your meals at the restaurant? Breakfast?”
He paused, and laughed. “Almost all, madam.”
Both men are planning to return to Kerala, their pockets a little fuller, early next year. But for now, it’s hard to be away from India. They had just one week of annual leave each year, and both had infant children.
One scene I saw at the airport will stay with me a long time. A large Indian family group was saying their goodbyes at the security gate. The father and son hugged for many long minutes, clutching each other tightly. When they pulled apart, the son wiped away his tears with the meat of his palm. When he hugged his mother goodbye, she had her head to his chest, and he rested his chin on her hair. They both cried openly and talked out loud to each other, saying how much they loved and would miss each other.
Sometimes I miss my family like that too. I’ve had that scene at the airport (perhaps with less demonstrative crying) maybe 30 times, maybe more.
But at least when I miss them, I’ve got the light and life of India to fill the dark corners.