Saturday, May 27, 2006

Ancient air conditioning tactics

Did you know that perhaps the earliest forms of air conditioning evolved in the middle eastern deserts?

For years I had been asking those who lived there about the old Dubai, its history. But the standard reply was that Dubai is a modern trading country, which has left its history behind. It boasts of huge modern docks, tall buildings like the famous Burj and the World Trade Center and massive malls. In the midst of all these, history has been very carefully and beautifully preserved from as far back as 3000 B.C.

A visit to the Dubai museum is a must. Located bang in the middle of the Meena Bazaar, it is housed within the beautifully restored Al Fahidi Fort, which was erected around 1799 to defend the city against invasion. The fort is small by the standards of the massive forts we have in India, but the the space has been used effectively by taking the museum underground.

At the ground level are replicas of the houses of the olden days, complete with perhaps’s the world’s first form of air conditioning to keep out the desert heat. Wind towers rise high over the middle of the house, using jute fabric to filter out heat and dust and cool the insides.
The museum shows off Dubai’s rich cultural heritage colorful life size dioramas vividly depicting everyday life in the days before the discovery of oil. Small stalls recreate scenes from the Creek, traditional Arab houses, mosques, the souk, date farms and desert and marine life. One of the more spectacular exhibits portrays pearl diving, including sets of pearl merchants’ weights, scales and sheaves. Also on display are artifacts from several excavations in the emirate, recovered from graves that date back to the third millennium B.C.
The museum's realistic life-size static displays provide an insight into the traditional occupants of Dubai. Those have included dhow building, fishing, pearl diving and trade. Indeed, the export of fine pearls was a major factor in Dubai's rise to prominence as a trading centre. 

The Creek, lifeline of Dubai, provides safe harbor to mercantile and fishing vessels, since Time Immemorial. The museum offers a splendid audio-visual diorama depicting the old charm and bustle of commercial life along the banks of this fabled waterway, soaking in the atmosphere of a souk in the 1950s, as you stroll through a labyrinth of spice stores, pottery and carpentry workshops and rows of shops, including tailors, grocers, textile merchants and date-sellers.

Domestic Life

Traditional Dubai houses are considered to be among the finest examples of Gulf architecture. The earliest houses were constructed with humble building materials, including the leaves and trunks of palm trees (areesh), rocks and earthen clay. As flourishing pearl trade brought greater prosperity in the latter half of the last century, however, these gave away to houses built of stone and adorned with the Magnificent wind towers, updating the world's earliest form of air conditioning. 

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Chicago and Dubai

On Friday last, I went to see “Chicago”, the musical that has been making lots of noise in the entertainment world.
It was a beautiful evening and a wonderful setting, although the stage was smaller than I had expected and most of it was filled with the orchestra, leaving, I felt, very little space for the dancers.
But it was truly amazing how they managed to utilise that little space to dance and tell a story of the 30s Depression and the mafia rise of Chicago, coming and going with minimal props to tell the story of how women are driven to murder.
What actually came home to me was that Hindi movies have long been pilloried for song and dance. Once upon a time 10-12 songs were not considered unusual for a film. Then came the vilification of Hindi cinema for its musical slant and the music content has slumped to remixes.
Chicago was just like a Hindi movie; except that it was being performed live on a stage with the dancers who also sang, walking on and off the stage for more than three hours and almost a dozen songs. The only thing that was different was the amount of skin being exposed!! A fraction of that would have our moral brigades out in full force, after frothing at the mouth over “choli ke peechhe kya”.


Dubai has been a different experience after decades in Ahmedabad, despite the climatic similarity. It is hot and often humid. But there it ends. The sand has been kept at bay and the buildings rise tall and high and coolly conditioned to keep the heat at bay.
What is happening in Ahmedabad now somehow makes me feel that the master planner has visited Dubai several times and seen how and what is happening and tried to do some hotchpotch replication.
The malls, the multiplexes, the blossoming of all sorts of eateries, ala Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai.
It is all very nice and modern and impersonal. May be Ahmedabad should retain its inner city as the personal, intimate connection with the past, while letting the outer cities grow up as global villages.
Roots are basic to growth and without them the tree may just wither away. So let Ahmedabad retain its roots, please. Is anyone listening?

Sunday, May 07, 2006


I entered with a big delighted grin on my face.
" Aaj pata Maine kya kiya ?" ( you know what I did today )
Perhaps it was that grin that acted as a damper to his mood. He sat down heavily and picked up his paper " Kya ?"
" Main jhoole pe baidhi ..."
" kahan ?"
" garden me"
" Hoon ". The grump in that response effectively evaporated my grin.

Why, I ruminated, did women love swings ? Isn't it curious -- except for trapeze artists, you never see men on swings. It is always women and girls who are on the swings, in the gardens, the public parks, the playgrounds, the private jhoolas in homes, everywhere, all the time, in art, in literature, in song, in festivals, in the seasons, whatever.
What is the special link between women and swings ? I had never given it another thought until that morning.
One morning when I had walked through the almost somnolent garden, a few early walkers and yogasaners. The deserted swings in the children's playarea beckoned sensually.
Should I, dare I ? even as two young college girls took advantage of that rare opportunity : ever seen a swing in a children's park ever idle, except at 6.30 a.m. in the morning ? I walked determinedly on.
The next day, the area was again deserted. Again the swings beckoned. I belonged to a family that was totally urban, females repressed into rooms, no gardens, no swings .... ever. I could not recall ever sitting on a swing in childhood; except if that massive old world bed mounted on hooks would qualify for a "swing" swing.
I sat down gingerly on the swing, moving first back and then forward. The sudden loss of equilibrium, feet off the earth, shook me. I started to feel self-conscious " People must be looking ", I thought. Then consciously decided to ignore the thought.
The first few swings were plain, childlike fun. Then I aimed higher; and doing so, stretched my arms and put back my head.
I felt the soaring air and was swept up in its current. In my line of vision came proud tree tops, touching the sky. It was a balmy cloudy day; as yet, no rays of sun had pierced the cloud cover to expose my elation.
Suddenly, I broke free - of that self-conscious " What will people think ?" , of self-imposed regulations of time " There's so much to be done still.."

Now I knew : Why do women only sit on swings ?
It is for that momentary breaking of their eternal bondages. Up there, you are one with the clouds, the birds, the air. those velvet lined, gold chains around the ankles are left behind down there somewhere, as you soar high on your imagination and feel yourself FREE ........ MOMENTARILY
All too soon, you're back, with feet on the earth. The sound of the creaking swings is telling you " Time's up. go home".
Is it only the women who need those breaks from the earth-linked bondage, who need that feeling of freedom, no matter how momentarily, when one is linked to no-one, tied to no-one, dependent on nothing but that little piece of wood underneath and the two ropes holding it up ?
The Male of the Species has created his own world, his own identity and his own rules. the rules that dictate that when I went back a week later, the swings were patrolled by sharp-eyed chowkidars even that early in the morning.
In any case, my affair with the swing was over. When I thought about it, the idea of sitting on the swing and reaching the clouds had lost its novelty and was almost scary. Was it because I had reverted to my conditioning ? the years of loss of freedom resulting in a fear of freedom, a fear of even the sense of freedom from the pulls of natural and social gravity that the swing represented.
The Males of the Species have their freedom. They do not need the crutch of a swing to express or to discover its highs.