Just a Broke Kid with a Rolex

Nov 9, 2021 · 8 min read

I was a teenager in the mid-Nineties, as my life was slowly being ripped apart. And the ever-present background to that tragedy was always that bookshelf, filled with words and dreams from around the world. Even the bar that was nestled in it held the promise of faraway places. Far, far away was always better than here.

And on that bookshelf, the National Geographics represented everything I yearned for. The absolute pinnacle of existence. The masculine whiff of my father’s Drakkar Noir would, I was sure, trail me as I roughed it out in the most exotic, godforsaken corners of the world, oscillating between great romances destined to fail and crushing loneliness guaranteed to lead to great writing. I not only knew the magazines intimately, down to the smell of their pages, but knew the styles and thoughts and lives of their best photographers. And there, as I took a deep breath of everything I wanted, and turned the cover, was a double-page spread.

A man. Standing triumphantly in a world of ice, hands up, holding a flag. “To the ends of the earth and the top of the world. Only two of us have made it.” I didn’t know Erling Kagge. But more importantly, more than the fact that he had been to the North Pole, the South Pole and Everest, was what he had worn: the Rolex Explorer. And there it was. His name and achievements inscribed into its solid block of stainless steel.

I stared. It was almost ugly in its perfection. Massive, indestructible, timeless. No batteries, just a mechanical beating heart that would be powered by your movement, your life. What dreams were made of. I was sold.

Our neighbor had one. He was a retired film director. He also had an old Mercedes, and when he sold the car for nothing, my father asked him why he hadn’t told him it was available. Mr Sen said it would’ve been too painful to see it every day with someone else. These were sentiments that real men appreciated in each other. Men like Mr Sen, my father, and me. Mr Sen also had thoughts about his Rolex. He said he didn’t treat it as anything special. It had to be worn through everything, even when he washed the dishes. The vision of Mr Sen washing dishes would never have occurred to me, just as I wouldn’t ever have imagined my father making his own coffee. But I now pictured him over the sink, soap suds over his Rolex, making sure it knew its place, and his, in the universe. My heart swelled with pride.

But men like them, with their aquiline noses and veneer of Bengali aristocracy, were only one layer of thinning hair away from a rage so consuming it became their identity and pride. I know this, because I was such a man too. Even if I was barely a man.

Escape, and childhood dreams of National Geographics, were foremost on my mind. They were all I had. I would have gone anywhere, grabbed on to anything, followed anyone. But there was no one, and nothing.

First desert crossing, sometime around 2004

I drowned for a decade, and then the universe, barely pausing, spat out something at me, and I grabbed on to it for dear life. I was on my way to Oman. I took everything I had in the bank and changed money at the airport. It was perhaps the worst place to do that but I wouldn’t have thought of exchange rates. I wouldn't have known the difference anyway. Thirty thousand rupees, three hundred rials. Numbers meant nothing to me. I could barely count how many fingers I had. Barely knew which day it was, which year had passed. Had one? Time slipped through my fingers, and I hadn’t even noticed.

I had to be at the palatial hotel for the sultan’s royal orchestra. I needed a suit. I had worn a jacket once, which a friend’s mother had lent me. It had been her husband’s. It was black and white, and I had a black Gap turtleneck that my girlfriend had got me from Paris. The sleeves of the jacket were too short but the lady said I should push them up like a rockstar. That’s how I got into my prom in college.

The orchestra was playing that evening. I walked into Cerruti and saw a gray silk suit. It looked liked something my father would have chosen. Although he hadn’t owned a suit either. How much? The Lebanese man had his hair slicked back. Years later, I would meet his girlfriend, who managed a shop. She told me “everything here is for sale.. except me.” He threw a number at me. It might have been my entire salary. I bought it.

I had always blamed my lack of interest in money on my parents. They believed that children shouldn’t have any involvement with it. So I never got pocket money. Things were either bought for me or they weren’t. And numbers never made sense to me. Of all the things in life, maths held a particular horror. Arithmetic that could not be explained. Things just were. You just had to learn them. A formula just is. There was none of the poetry or song of words to speak to me, to soothe my brain as it quietly crumbled. Maths, grammar, time.. a world of no logic or explanation. I was staring at a wall. Those first glorious days of Montessori school were long over. No old Parsi ladies to fawn over me, no Banyan roots by the sea to swing on.

I was in what was supposed to be one of the best schools in the country, and it was awful. Each classroom was in the shape of a hexagon, with 50 students (my previous school had eight of us in the last year). And there were six classrooms for every year. Six hexagonal rooms attached to a central hexagon, and 300 of us in gray and white. Even the goddamn window grills were hexagonal, as were the school badges pinned on our uniforms. I threw up on my first day. The art teacher specified that each figure drawn in crayon had to be as large as the distance between our middle finger and thumb. The music teacher had a cane so long it drooped as its thin hatred sliced towards us, as he’d sting us on the legs if we didn’t keep to the rhythm.

And, back home, my father’s eyes would narrow into dangerous slits as I stared at that wall, numbers on my page. There was no way out. We all knew how it would end. My throat caved in on me. I wanted to cry, or scream, but I couldn’t even croak. My father’s ears turned purple. Those were days when I thought being beaten was normal.

My first impression of Oman was open space. Endless space, on that first drive from the airport. Sand and rock and heaven, over which I would lose myself over the next years. The nothingness of the desert was everything for me. That emptiness that others shrank away in horror from, that saved me. That was my world, and the further, the harsher, the better. The worse it was, the more it repelled the others, the more I wanted it. Was it revenge? Was it pride? Was it self-flagellation? Was it desperation?

I had crossed the desert in an Abu Shenab, and arrived at the sea. Shot on Fuji Velvia

I didn't care. I was on fire. I was in a LandCruiser at the edge of the desert. There was a lone Bedouin. Just me and him and hot sand. I recited the first paragraph of Arabic greeting. And then words without grammar. He was going to take me to the other side of the desert. Just like that, on the spot. We decided that, man to man. First, he took me to his tent. An actual tent like in the movies. His wife was inside, her head uncovered, her long black hair loose. I thought I had to look away, but she walked to me, stretched out her hand and shook mine. The Bedouin have a freedom and poetry to themselves that people of the little cities of the interior never could imagine. I have always found this character in people who live in such places, from Oman to the loneliest depths of the Swiss alps. And I have always followed it.

They shared their lunch of goat and rice and ghee with me. And after, he jumped into my car and drove me hours across the desert. At the end, the dunes swelled up, and there was a different blue on the horizon: the sea. And there, gathered at the edge of the world, were a crowd of Bedouin who had come back from the ocean, unloading their catch on to their LandCruiser pickups known as Abu Shenabs. And above us, thousands of birds, almost blotting out the sun, just as the squid ink blotted the sand. And my heart, bursting.

When I wasn’t dreaming of the Bedouin and deserts, I’d explore the inner neighborhoods of Muscat, the capital. It was also home, and where my office was. And where the Rolex showroom was, too. It took me years to walk in. And for the first time in my life, I saw the Explorer. It was even bigger than I had imagined. National Geographic hadn’t done it justice. You could kill someone with it. I tried it on. It was a shattering experience. My arms, which hadn’t done a day’s worth of physical work, looked ridiculous with it on. Maybe if I had been a sailor, or a miner, or a man who had gone to both poles and Everest… But I was not that man.

But there, away from the spotlight, something looked back at me. Something much smaller. Simplicity and elegance in stainless steel. So understated no one would ever know. And no one ever has, all these years, as it wound itself with every movement I have made since, across continents and lives, as time ran through my fingers. But mostly, I don’t think of it. It’s just a part of my body.

But, every once in a while, I remember. And when I raise it to my ear, I can just about hear that clicking that has never stopped since I first put it on. Something like a guarantee, in a life of none. Or perhaps a promise made to oneself. Maybe even a dream one once had.


photographic literature