Brick By Brick

When I was a wee lad, and even when I was a not-so-wee lad, I loved playing with LEGOs. I spent hours building and re-building playsets, pitting pirates against spacemen and knights against cowboys. It was mainly pirates against everyone else, though, because I frigging loved LEGO pirates.

As I grew older, I drifted away from LEGOs. Teenage hormones and that kind of thing. It was odd being a teenage nerd, and it’s hard enough being either of those things individually. It was some time in college that I rediscovered my old blocky friends, but the LEGO landscape had changed.

Most LEGO playsets were themed, based around the pop culture craze du jour like Harry Potter or the Spider-Man films. My precious pirates were nowhere to be found. And then there was the price. When did those little guys get so expensive?! It seems LEGO and I were destined to part ways there.

But we weren’t quite done. LEGO continued to fade in and out of the background, notably with a few video games that were also based on pop culture properties. Then, last year (or I guess it’s two years ago now…I’ll get used to that new year by mid-March), they took center stage with The LEGO Movie, which was awesome (then again, isn’t everything?) and were all the rage again.

My interest was piqued again, but the prices. Oh, those prices. Until last week, when I stumbled upon this guy here from the upcoming Batman v Superman:

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Yes, I know I just complained about pop culture LEGOs just a few paragraphs ago. But look at that image again. Superman, Batman (badass armored Batman no less) and a Bat Signal. All in one little playset that’s at a pretty reasonable price. How could I pass up a LEGO Bat Signal? Oh, right, I couldn’t. Thus the start of 2016 saw me reunited with an old hobby, albeit in a slightly new form.

And it’s one I’ll be revisiting again I’m sure, given that 3 LEGO stores have opened up here over the past 6 months. They also have pirates playsets again. Pirates! And they’re not that expensive either! Granted, when you buy multiple inexpensive items it does add up to a considerable expense, and I can hear my wallet sobbing quietly, but it doesn’t matter.

Because I have a Bat Signal to build. And I look forward to the day when that shining beacon of justice will be assaulted by a band of roving buccaneers.

The Slab

Just a short while ago, I finished typing the post about my favorite childhood meal. And now here I am, writing about my childhood home. Guess I’ll be strolling down Memory Lane a while. To be fair, it’s also my current home, so it’ll be a short stroll.

At the age of 12, I was living in the same little apartment that my family had moved into four years before, when we first moved to Dubai. My family’s been living there for 23 years now.

The apartment’s part of a housing colony, comprising a cluster of identical rectangular slabs painted in a forgettable shade of white. Each building contains a row of four or five apartment blocks. Each apartment block has three floors. Each floor, four apartments. It’s a very dull-looking neighborhood.

Inside, it’s not much better. Bare off-white walls surround a tiled floor that can only be described as hideous. There’s a staircase with a steel railing, topped by a dark wooden handrail. It almost seems like a group of builders had a bunch of scrap left over from some other projects and decided to dump it all together, bestowing it the very generous title of ‘apartment’.

Climb up two flights of incongruous stairs and you’ll come to a landing. Each corner is marked by a door. At present, the landing is bare. When I was 12, a partition hid two of the doors from sight, one of them being ours. Our apartment actually belonged to our neighbor, who was renting the place out to us; he liked to keep his property gated off. So getting in and out of the apartment was a two-stage process. It was kind of like a secret bunker.

In one corner of the landing, you’ll find a cream-colored door decorated with a few religious artifacts. That’s us, though the artifacts are gone now (new management, new rules). Our place was, and still is, pretty snug. Two bedrooms, two bathrooms (with one working shower between them), a kitchen and a living room, connected by a hallway.

The floor was once covered by a mud-brown shag carpet. How long we had it, I don’t remember. The cloudy white tiles we have now feel like they’ve been there since the beginning. The apartment was fully furnished when we got it, which was a blessing and a curse. We didn’t have to buy new furniture. But the furniture we had…sucked.

Our couch was an orange wooden frame covered in cushions the color of dirt. The end tables and coffee table were the pale orange , topped with clear glass. Our dining table was a sheet of glass with four metal legs. It was surrounded by six metal frames encasing chocolate-colored faux leather. Something a furniture showroom ate didn’t agree with it, and it vomited all over our house. Over the years, the furniture was replaced bit by bit, but the majority of it hung out there longer than it should have.

I could go into even more detail about the spidery cracks along the walls of each room, the windows covered with an almost opaque screen and practically screwed shut, or the kitschy knick knacks that adorned ever empty shelf courtesy of my mother, but I think I’ve made my point.

However, as much as I hated that house, it became a part of me. It was where I spent my childhood. The small, poorly lit kitchen was where my mom would make school lunches that I often forgot to eat while playing with friends. It was where a veritable feast was cooked up every night for dinner and where,in later years, my parents cooked as a team, sometimes getting me and my brother involved in the process.

The unremarkable bedroom that I shared with my brother (for a long time, due to lack of space) was my study hall and my playroom. It was my entertainment center and my library. It was where both my dreams and my nightmares came to life at night and disappeared like a puff of smoke at daybreak. It was where I woke up on my birthday and on Christmas morning, unable to contain my excitement over the presents that lay waiting for me.

The horribly mismatched living room was where my best friends and I watched movies and played video games. It hosted many a birthday and anniversary celebration. It was a classroom where my mother held tutoring and singing lessons. It was a playground where my brother and I wrestled, played catch and broke a whole bunch of fragile objects.

That house that I grew up in is not fancy. It’s not pretty. In fact, it’s downright hideous.

One day, in the uncertain future, I’ll be moving out of here. Part of me will be relieved to move into a house or apartment of my own, one that’s hopefully put together better. But I know that another part will feel nostalgic about that ugly white slab of an apartment building. It’s a place I call home, inhabited by countless memories that paint every room in shades of joy and sorrow.

Maybe it’s not so bad after all.

Family Nights

Picking a favorite childhood meal is not an easy task. Everyone in my family cooks and I love gorging myself on all sorts of food, so finding one meal that defines a special memory is hard. It’s the polar opposite of the ‘Three Songs’ conundrum. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m Indian by birth, and was raised in Dubai. This exposed me to an entire world of cuisine that I might not have discovered otherwise.

At home, my parents cooked only Indian food, but when we ate out, there were no limitations. Pizzas, burgers, pasta, steaks, we ate it all. In Indian culture, eating beef is a bit of a no-no, but my brother and I never suffered for it. My mom didn’t exactly like it, and ordering any beef dish was met with a disapproving stare, but it was worth it to enjoy a good burger.

Eating out was a weekly affair for my family, a tradition that continues to this day. In Dubai, the weekend used to fall on Thursday and Friday (changed to Friday and Saturday in recent years), and I looked forward to Thursday nights, when we would all go out to dinner. We were creatures of habit, and had a handful of regular places that we visited.

One of them was a small but elegant restaurant called ‘Kitchen’. They served primarily Indian food, but did have some international cuisines, serving as my introduction to Russian Salad (which is apparently known as Olivier Salad, according to Google). It’s a combination of diced potatoes, carrots, peas , boiled eggs and green apples, slathered in mayonnaise. I think Kitchen used to put a little something in their mayonnaise that made it magic, because I just could not get enough of that creamy goodness.

My favorite meal there was a combination of roomali roti, a paper-thin, slightly sweet flatbread (if you can call it that) whose name literally translates to ‘handkerchief bread’, and reshmi kebab, which translates to ‘silky kebab’. And boy, was that name ever appropriate. The kebabs were morsels of melt-in-your-mouth (and fall-apart-in-your-hand!) chicken with a creamy, yogurty marinade and a sprinkling of herbs, and were indescribably amazing when wrapped in the gossamer-like roti. To date, I have not come across a kebab that made me fall in love with it quite like that.

But I digress. That’s not really the meal I had planned to talk about, although it is a fond childhood memory. No, my most-remembered childhood meal was at the food court of one of the major shopping malls here at the time (back when we only had like 2 malls, and there wasn’t a competition to see which one could be the most extravagant in the world). We all had our set preferences there, except for my brother, who’s the most adventurous eater in the family.

My mom stuck to Indian food, my dad usually went for Chinese or Japanese (one of my funniest memories is seeing my dad, a lover of all things hot and spicy, steaming at the ears after a taste of wasabi), my brother tried whatever struck his fancy that night, and I had the Mozza Burger at A & W. A juicy beef patty with lettuce, tomatoes, a slab of beef bacon and the special Mozza sauce, this thing makes my mouth water just thinking about it.

I’ve had a lot of burgers in my time, many of them easily better than the Mozza Burger, but I can still see myself going to that A & W at the mall, tucked into one corner of the food court and with glass walls that made it seem bigger than it was. Biting into that burger, feeling the saltiness of the bacon, the tang from the Mozza sauce…I really shouldn’t have been writing this post so close to lunch.

But it wasn’t all about the burger. I mean, it is just a burger. What I loved most was being out with my family and just getting out of the house. Everyone was pretty busy with their lives most of the time, except for me. Once my homework was finished, I had all the free time in the world, but nobody else did, and I wasn’t allowed out by myself. On Thursday nights, we were all free. We could go out, eat, and just have fun!

I also had my own little agenda, of course. There was a video game arcade in the food court area, which I visited almost religiously after dinner. I was a very quick eater, and got bored sitting around while waiting for the rest of my family to finish their dinner. So I’d get permission from my parents (not always granted, mind you) and run off to my own little world.

Afterwards, we’d have ice cream from Baskin Robbins (no matter how stuffed we were), bringing the night to a sweet finish. I was always eager to try the flavor of the month, and loved their many chocolate concoctions (the World Class Chocolate speaks for itself).

Then came the ride home, at close to midnight, when the whole city was quiet (back during a time when that was a real possibility). Many a night, I’d fall asleep on the way and would have to be carried home from the car.

Life’s changed a lot since then. Kitchen closed down years ago, and I don’t think there are any A & W outlets left here. The city’s gotten bigger while my family’s gotten smaller. It definitely wouldn’t be appropriate to carry me to bed. Our dinner outings are more often just lunch outings now. But I still get that familiar rush of excitement whenever I go out to eat with my family. It reminds me of a time when I could bite into a greasy Mozza burger, or feel a reshmi kebab disappear on my tongue, leaving only its delicate flavor behind. It makes every meal the best meal ever.