A gleaming Gudaibiya

I must sincerely apologise to my avid readers (!) for my sudden disappearance. I was away on vacation in India. In the once-beautiful hill station of Dehradun hidden in a Himalayan valley.

I say ‘once’ because even though the rest of India still thinks it is a lovely little town with single-storey bungalows hidden in large gardens full of lychee trees the reality is that ever since it became the capital of a state carved out in the north of India bordering China, the city (yes, a city and no longer a town) is creaking under the load of extremely high volume of traffic given its narrow roads, extremely high population considering its planning potential and totally chaotic and garbage-ridden highways and alleyways.

Even worse is the case of Delhi, the capital of India, which has little to redeem itself except for the sprawling garden city which houses the government bigwigs and the diplomatic enclaves. The same goes for a majority of cities in India with a population of more than two to three million.

Now you must be wondering what has my forlorn hometown to do with this blog which ought to focus on Bahrain. The thing is my sojourn of some 50 days in north India was so depressing on account of its sordid state that once I returned to Bahrain – the pearl of the Gulf as it is called and for good reason – even Gudaibiya, which I consider as the least organised area of Bahrain with certain pockets not offering a very cleanly look, appeared gleaming. That’s the magic of contrasting visions.

And why Gudaibiya alone? The moment you leave the inner city behind in Bahrain in winter the air is keen, the breath is fresh, there is no trace of air pollution, the sea is turquoise, and there are no garish and horrendous visual distractions either, by way of advertisement hoardings. It’s a serene and tranquil world – a far cry from the infrastructurally-overstretched swathes in India and elsewhere in parts of overpopulated Asia.

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Looking for Food of the Mind

 

Well, yes. I am talking about books here. Not computer or cookery books or pulp fiction or school books. But fiction and poetry by great minds of our times and travel narratives and biographies and history books and so on. Volumes that really constitute the food for the mind and not the dull fare for the classroom.

 

Now where do you look for such fare in Bahrain? Of course at the well-lit, well-organised and let us say well-stocked bookshops in the shopping malls of the city and a few outlets elsewhere. Jashanmals, Family Bookshop and the like.

 

But the focus in these places is not really so much on catering to the needs of the informed as the needs of the learner or the reader looking for some light fare or ‘ancient’ classics – Shakespeare, Jane Austen et al. Else they have fine, large, sometimes unwieldy, tomes called coffee-table books carrying unaffordable price tags.

 

My theory is that the best books are best bought at bargain prices in places beyond the regular bookshops. In Bombay you have the Flora Fountain, in Delhi the Sunday Bazar behind the Red Fort, in Calcutta the perennial College Street. In Bahrain I had at one time stumbled on some unsual, valuable and readable books on the Middle East in a fleamarket off Naim Police Station but that was many years ago.  And the sprawling bazaar for bargain hunters in the Isa Town Market has piles of old magazines and shelvesful of books to rummage. But you have to be lucky to lay hands on something out of the ordinary at a decent price.

 

That leaves one with only two places from where one rarely returns empty-handed when it comes to good books at bargain prices. Both are close to each other near the second roundabout beyond Lantern Restaurant on Budaiya Road. One is run by Dogfather in a villa full of clothes, crockery and bric a brac with one full room set aside for shelvesful of books from top to bottom. The other is the double-storeyed BSPCA outlet in Busheri Gardens with books all over the place on the first floor.

 

Between them they have helped me fill my own bookshelves with precious volumes on art, cinema, travel, biography, history, politics and much more, thanks to the well-heeled expatriates leaving behind their book boxes for the two outlets to dispose of.

Where cats rule the roost

Despite so much hullabaloo about dogs, dog fights, abandoned dogs, stray dogs and malnourished or maltreated dogs in the Bahrain Press you do not really get to see dogs in certain parts of the island. There is no trace of any dogs [except pets on leash] in Adliya, Zinj, Juffair, even Gudaibiya, Manama or Busaiteen. The menace seems to be confined to the outskirts of the capital or certain villages.

This aspect of dog-free areas brings into focus those lovely, stylish, adorable felines. Yes, cats rule the roost in all these areas mentioned above, in addition to the areas where dogs do prowl about, because with their sharp survival instincts developed over millennia the clever cats know how to outwit the stupid dogs.

Only the other day, at a friend’s place in Jurdab, I noticed a cuddly cat basking in the sun on top of a wall, leisurely and nonchalantly licking its paws, while a hefty dog barked its guts out as if that would persuade the snooty one to walk into its jaws!

But in the dog-free areas they indeed have a free run, sitting around in knots close to garbage skips, or atop parked vehicles, or lurking under them. And if you notice, unlike the dogs who have this habit of barking at the smallest pretext, cats rarely utter a meaow unless they are hungry or want attention for some reason. Else they remain silent and operate silently and stealthily. I often wonder why they sit around garbage skips without exchanging any pleasantries, merely staring at each other. Do they exchange notes, thoughts and ideas telepathically?

Interestingly, unlike dogs, cats play around with their own species but rarely. I say rarely because I have noticed them playing and fooling around on occasion in the park close to the Marina Club. They would approach each other, gently touch foreheads, glide past each other as they rub their bodies and the day’s greetings over, off they go running after each other, climbing trees or bounding across grassy patches. When hungry they’d either jump into one of the garbage bins or, more often than not, sit circling a picnicking family at a discreet distance, patiently waiting for stray crumbs as they are flung in their direction.

Cat-watching can be fun indeed because cats are proud, independent, self-sufficient and uncommandable – unlike dogs which come running to you if you just whistle in their direction and grovel at your feet even if you give them nothing. As a friend commented: Dogs need masters while cats need servants.

An oasis even if a little unkempt

On the Manama side there were only two seaside parks for a long time where people could stroll about or take walks, children could play and families could either go for a picnic and enjoy home-made meals [or prepare them in the park itself] or have snacks from kiosks. One of them was next to the Kids’ Kingdom off BFH. The other halfway between the Shaikh Isa Library in Juffair and the Bahrain Museum.

The former is now barely a shadow of itself and both the approach to it and exit from it is a tricky and circuitous affair. As for the latter, that too is trying to survive in ‘reduced circumstances’ but still has a charm of its own even if these charms have somewhat faded.

Thus, clumps of straggling trees with benches here and there at the Shaikh Isa Library end have long been cleared, Layali Turkiye restaurant with its sheeshas has disappeared and given way to a green patch, and Bait Al Omdah restaurant which offered some lovely tea was burnt down some years ago due to a kitchen accident. The pleasure boats that once plied from there have also long gone and so have the remnants of piers.

But the park still has compensations for middle-class families and their children. For one, the toy train still chugs along, there are enough playthings to keep children busy, including swings, the dolphinarium seems to be thriving, a couple of kiosks can be found perennially busy selling tea and popcorn, parking is never a problem and it is all safe for children. The star attraction, which is a draw for the well-heeled, is the huge ship-shaped restaurant whose facade at night might lull a new visitor into believing it is a real one berthed along the shore. And wonder of wonders it has a proper sandy beach as well, even if barely 20 yards long, complete with thatch umbrellas and tree-trunk benches.

But the real attraction of this park is its tree-lined avenue with a banyan thrown in half way through [wonder why its hanging roots have been cut away]. Even though the boulevard is lined with straggling, unkempt trees born bent thanks to strong winds, in the evening the stretch gives a cosy feeling as you plod along with children running about in the vast grassy patches, kebabs being roasted while the flames are being assiduously fanned, not to forget the knots of cats playing in the trees or prowling about the picnickers in anticipation of an occasional crumb.

Dunes, silence and beauty

 Coming from Sitra you reach the Alba roundabout and turn left to hit the road leading to Al Dur. Not long after you’ve left the last of the red lights behind, the aspect of the landscape changes and you seem to enter a totally spartan world – of silence, solitude, and a strange sort of beauty.

 

The linear highway virtually devoid of traffic could be the road to heaven. On the left you occasionally catch a glimpse of the blue streaks of the Gulf waters and on the right lies the illimitable stretch of the desert. No manmade object interferes with the view. There are no roadside hoardings, no kiosks, no vendor on the streetside.

 

It’s the desert pure desert. The classic stretch of sand with not a blade of grass or a shaggy bush or a clump of date palms to ‘distract’ the view … the vision. Bahrain otherwise is not a desert country in the sense that the UAE, or Saudi Arabia are imagined to be. Remember the 1962 film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ or the minutely descriptive accounts of Rab Al Khali and the Abu Dhabi deserts by the greatest 20th-century explorer Wilfred Thesiger?

 

But this stretch of Bahrain desert is neither daunting nor menacing nor desolate. Because we all know the size of our island and realize that though the desert might look vast it is indeed a not-all-that-immeasurable stretch.

 

Like anywhere, the desert changes its hues with the passage of the day. We drove past it in the late afternoon and it was the colour of an overripe peach. And the dunes undulated like the contours of a beautiful woman lolling languorously…

The grace of Art Deco

I had referred to Art Deco style buildings in Bahrain in my previous blog. As a reaction to highly ornamental Gothic, Palladian, Indo-Saracenic and a medley of other architectural styles Art Deco had fascinated many parts of the world from Miami to Mumbai from the 1930s onwards and Bahrain was no exception. The reason for this could have been the fact that in terms of British influence, Bahrain fell under the Bombay Presidency and there was a lot of traffic of men and ideas between the two places.

The finest building in Bahrain in the Art Deco style and in my opinion among the most graceful buildings in Bahrain is the Law Courts across the road from Yateem Centre with its modest double storey, spartan façade, linear horizontal and vertical patterns and nuances and sensitively highlighted strips of paint.

I am not sure if it is still being used for the purpose for which it was built but this evidently 1930s building is worth preserving and maintaining and sad will be the day it is swept away [like the kitchenware store next to it 15 years ago which was also Art Deco]. In a way the grand structure in its simplicity, charm and strength signifies all that is characteristic of the Arab ethos.

Once the centuries-old methodologies and material to build houses and public places was dispensed with in Bahrain, Art deco was among the new trends and the lanes of Gudaibiya still have a few private mansions in the style.

The Maharashtra Mandal on the road from Pakistan Club towards American Hospital is one such though its front has now been built over and much of the key elements of Art Deco hidden away as a consequence. Another lovely Art Deco villa that stood opposite Punjabi Restaurant off Last Chance was demolished a couple of years ago.

Those were the days

Ruminations over the ‘golden olden’ days are going to be the opening offering of my Bahrainia blog. Having watched Bahrain’s natural and social landscape for 18 years I thought it was time to put my pen to paper [figuratively speaking, since the effort nowadays actually involves punching keys of QWERTYUIOP].

While 18 years is as good as the millionth of a blink in terms of the time span our continents have existed, it is amazing how much can change in a place like Bahrain in such a short time.

Recalling parts of Bahrain back then in 1997 they seem like visions out of the 19th century when many a road had no divider, many a crossroads was a roundabout redolent with greenery, vast empty spaces stared one in the face in areas close to or even inside the city, high-rises were few and far between, the now-forlorn Yateem Centre was THE place for upmarket shopping pleasure, the Bab Al Bahrain souq was jammed by shoppers on a cool evening, there were far fewer cars on the road, the buildings generally bore the stamp of the 1920s architecture, material and style and the majority of houses in the inner city built at the time bore the unmistakable stamp of Art Deco.

But Bahrain has kept pace with the times and is second to none of its neighbouring cities as it has progressed, one aspect of which is keeping pace with the contemporary in architecture, housing, highway infrastructure, shopping comfort and so on… And while some of the abandoned and dilapidated shops and mansions have given way to high-rises, others have been lovingly restored.