You are three years old. You only know the word for a door in its Malayalam: “vathil”. It is fifteen minutes before five o’clock. Not that you know that because learning about the clock in kindergarten is yet to happen. With your one blond-haired Barbie and purple Barney toy that sings “I love you” at the press of a button, you sit by the white vathil, your green frock spread on the speckled marble tiles of the apartment. Fifteen minutes into your game with Barbie and Barney, a shutter and a flash of light interrupts you. Amma is standing at the vathil of the kitchen, black disposable camera pointing at you. You know what a camera is and your toothy grin glows in the fluorescent light but this next photo is stopped by the doorbell.
You get up in a jump and dance as Amma scrambles with the key. “Acha!” you scream and cling to his black work pants as he walks in and kisses Amma on the head. Acha picks you up and hugs you, the smell of sweat and dust mixing with the subtle cologne on his blue shirt. This–this is your world: Amma, Acha, and you. This moment of you by the door is now a photograph in one of the many photo albums Acha and Amma painstakingly maintain. This moment of you greeting your Acha has not changed through time but the vathil has.
Unknowingly to you though, vathil has become a part of your world too. No, not in the ordinary way of how you pass through vathils everywhere but of how they eventually mean departure. Your family has been departing for years, through vathils of rented houses, rented apartments, cities, deserts, airports, houses surrounded in petrichor-drenched greenery that give your Acha and Amma nostalgia of simpler times. It is a nostalgia you do not know what to do with because to you, their childhood vathil is a foreign land, this house is a foreign house, the Kerala they call home is a foreign land to you. Your grandparents welcome you with a homecoming meal of mutton curry but this is not coming home. Your home is through the vathil of a rented apartment that changes shape and colors while walking through the grid streets of Abu Dhabi. Your home is a tongue foreign to your family. Your home is the vathil of Eldorado Cinema, of Marina Mall, of baqalas that once had creative names for grocery stores and Lulu supermarkets. Your home is Abu Dhabi, a city in which people like your father called the Gulf and your grandparents call Persia.
Your Acha first came to the ‘Gulf’ after hugging your Achamma while your guilty Appupa had his hand on his chest and your Sindhu Appachi waves goodbye. The Gulf turns into a vathil in Fujairah Airport, and then a flat in Sharjah where your Rani Appachi hugged him with homesickness. Acha then works in Dubai for a year before coming to a studio flat in Abu Dhabi. Here, in a city that grows because of men like him, is where the next 25 years of his life will be spent. Abu Dhabi is where you will see your first vathil but it is not the time yet.
After five years, your Amma giggles at a love letter that traveled an ocean, with a photo of her new fiance standing by his apartment vathil, flowers in his hands. The letters are a vathil made of many pages, postage stamps, and a lot of ink to a love that slowly grows over 6 months. Your Amma still has all the letters and–no, you are not allowed to read them. Not that you would understand them. They are in Malayalam, a mother tongue of curls and untranslatable sounds, a vathil you will always struggle with opening even at the time you write this. On a December afternoon in 1997, your Amma in a cream-colored wedding sari with intricate beadwork cries into Ammuma’s arms at the steps of a white church. She then walks through many unfamiliar vathils to live with your Acha, her now-husband in a new land, a new city. She is no stranger to cities but this was not her city of Thiruvananthapuram, with kapalandi or your Ammuma’s soft hands or her favorite cats or your Mama’s laugh echoing in it. This city had sand, had date trees bearing the weight of the sun, and a husband who was trying his best to escape the cards he got dealt with.
One day your parents walked through that first Abu Dhabi vathil into smoke. A fire has sparked and ravaged its way through this small studio your Amma was slowly starting to get used to. They pack everything that survived without charred holes and leave. They make sure the passports are safe. Do you know the four basic needs? In the UAE, your little book with visas and stamps called a passport will be the fifth. In every turn of life, this world will remind you that you are nothing without it and that your place in the hierarchy is determined by it. Walking out of their burnt apartment was the first departure your parents did together, holding each other’s hands and a gulf dream that will soon dissolve in the coming years.
Through the next new vathil of a one-bedroom with a brown sofa and pink-blue curtains, Amma holds you close in her arms, swaddled in white. She is terrified of how to bring up her fragile daughter away from her home. From here on, her eyes will always watch for a fire that might hurt you. Your Acha walks behind with your baby bag, beaming at you, the girl he always wanted. He names you in his mother tongue–Aathma–soul–from a poem he used to sing carefree with his four best friends in university–a time that feels so far away. His first soft smile for you as he held you, so small in his arms, white cloth against a blue shirt, is preserved in one of your favorite photos.
Later, you and Acha and Amma walk out of this vathil and many vathils of other flats. The reason is that the fire came in a different form. The fire is a one month notice your Acha receives to clear his office desk. They are usually accompanied by a newspaper with first, a headline announcing the 2008 recession, then announcing construction projects closing down, then announcing their preference for what passport occupies the workforce. The fire is debts and loans that sneak in between the gaps of the vathils since the time of your Acha’s childhood. The fire is a rent that increases to the whim of invisible men feasting on oil that feeds it. You see, Abu Dhabi is all you know but you will be told it is not home. You are here for a temporary time–the borrowed time from a company that gave your Acha a work visa, of a country, a border, that will constantly remind you that you will never belong, to pick up your roots and passport and leave. You are not the locals, not the descendants of Bedouin tribes that have roamed these deserts before Abu Dhabi was a thought. Your parents are part of a people forced to leave for survival, who came on boats and planes leaving all they know, who’s blood, sweat and tears built this city, the invisible bodies made so dispensable, they become ghosts the moment the fires get them, the moment the visa expires. You were six when you answered an uncle’s “Nattil evideya?” Which land are you from? with Abu Dhabi and was corrected to say Kerala. The day you finally understand how easily you could be made to leave, how easily vathils close, you will wonder how many ghosts are waiting for you in each new flat. You cannot count them on those small fingers.
Vathils become a part of your world. No, not in an ordinary way but of how they eventually mean absence. That is, how your Amma waits every morning, eye on the vathil waiting for you, and then your Acha to walk through. Till then, she fills the empty apartment with the smell of spices, Malayalam comedy movies, and old 80’s Hindi songs that remind her of her youth dancing to the radio. How, the vathil of Kotaparambil house in Kerala knows your Ammuma’s tears too well because she does not know when her son in London or her daughter in Abu Dhabi is coming back. Appupa waters the plants on the balcony of Kotaparambil house in place of tears that will not fall. You remember that vathil in Tirumala glowing in the early morning sky filled with grey clouds, your Achamma’s loud wail falling onto your Acha and you realize Appapa’s sewing machine will have an empty chair next to it forever. You find out a year after that your Appapa too had been working in the Gulf before he came back penniless and your Acha took his place. It seems departure and absence are an inheritance you cannot escape and nor do your cousins. The airport vathils have gotten tighter. The airport vathils in UAE do not let your cousin coming from Qatar visit you one December. You hear your younger cousins call you Aachechi but their growing voices become strangers to you over the phones. There are years between the times you see their faces. Your city does not allow video calls because a monopoly is more important.
You are of a generation of gulf children born as mangrove trees, with roots that will always float upon the sea between lands. Gulf kid–Expat–Migrant–there are no exact words for you. When there is no tongue for you, how do you exist? In fear, you grab at all the languages you can but you live between their gaps. Growing up, you have watched friends who sat by you in classrooms walk out of the vathil and not return. You have lost count of the times you have come to a new school day only to find the seat next to you empty. The fire had got to their parents. You still remember their names, you still have photos of them, from a physical copy of both of you at a fancy dress contest to an Instagram post of your high school drama performance. You know
where some of them went. Social media is not merely a luxury here, it is a necessity. Some friends have still escaped you. All you have is a memory. All you have is ghosts. Your name in your passport’s hindi translates to ‘ghost’–a cosmic joke. You are the one that stood the test of time so far. The seats are soon filled by newcomers. Dreams like the Gulf dream and American Dream exist because people still believe, right? Some newcomers know the rules of this country and prepare themselves. Some do not but learn fast what it means to sit upon ghosts.
You are eighteen. Your friends, fellow Abu Dhabi kids have learned humour is the go-to coping mechanism: “you better throw a goddamn amazing farewell for me” and “When I leave, we have to go for one last shawarma”. Your 16th birthday was celebrated with a farewell for another friend. The chocolate ice cream cake had ‘birthwell’ written in pink, loopy icing. It is still an inside joke. By chance, you stayed in Abu Dhabi when everyone left after the chapter of highschool closed. You got lucky. A generous scholarship that made your parents cry in joy because maybe, just maybe, you might survive the fire. The vathils of Abu Dhabi have heard your goodbyes so many times. When your friends come to visit, you wonder if you have become your Amma and Ammuma, waiting and watching the vathil for a return.
“You’ll get used to it, Kanna. I have left the vathils of 30 houses since I was born” Acha tells you with a sad smile one day when you cry about leaving Abu Dhabi, cry about never being able to stay home. He watched your Appapa go and come from the Gulf, his friends leave and come to the gulf and even in Kerala. This is the life he chose it seems: having goodbyes catch you like a sucker punch and then learn how to make the best of it: a punchline, a story, a win, a loss, a regret(?), a price paid. It’s different for you. You were born into a city that constantly shows you the door out. Vathils are all you know.
Aathma Nirmala Dious is a Malayali writer, poet and multidisciplinary artist from Abu Dhabi. Much of her work deals with South Asian-Gulf migration narratives and personal history, with a focus on womanhood, family and memory. A recent graduate from NYU Abu Dhabi with a B.A in Literature and Creative Writing, she is currently writing a speculative fiction novel about Abu Dhabi.
© Variant Literature Inc 2021