Monday, January 30, 2006

Grave digger sir, a little deeper please.

Yem and Eee decided to surprise me by bringing over someone I went to school with a few years ago. They had met by chance in the Chicago temple and when she mentioned Alpha and Pi, the guy jumped up and said, ‘I know her very well. I even took a huge packet to India for her when we were in Gainesville.’

So the moment arrived. My friends waited bated breath for my eyes to light up at the sight of my old friend whom I had lost touch with. Everyone looked at me with an expectant cheezy smile, that I was finding hard to place.

He walked in. I shook his hands formally and said, ‘Hi, welcome home. Come in. I'm Alpha. What was your name again?’

Yes folks, I had a complete blackout! Power failure in the upper continent. Exactly the moment you have no contingency plan for. No escape route and a pile of embarrassment to bury yourself under. I had zilch recollection of his existence in my life. Nope, not even when he spelled out his name and said he was from University of Florida and he was the roommate of my very good friend. We allegedly met many times, once during a movie. He rattled out many common friends whom I recognized immediately. He wasn’t an imposter for sure. It also wasn't in my best interests to go around forgetting handsome guys like this.

‘He even carried your stuff to India,’ added a very helpful Yem looking completely disgusted with me now. All her plans for a grand reunion just crumbled. ‘I thought you had great memory with respect to people. You even remember the name of some obscure car mechanic whom you met just once.’

Grrr… Any need to bring that up now?

I tried feigning sudden knowledge, ‘Ah yes, I remember now. No wonder your face looked so familiar.’

Only to be booo-ed by everyone around. Such camaraderie and support shown to the hapless was to be appreciated.

‘Ask your parents, they might remember me. After all they came home and had coffee and took the stuff,’ poor harassed guy added trying to salvage the situation.

When I called my parents later, they had no clue what I was talking about. ‘What stuff you sent us?’


Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Poorer by a day, richer by memories

I remember Chandu uncle having an animated discussion with Pi during our wedding reception. Anu aunty, looking gorgeous in her saree and the diamond mangalsutra, returned my curious look with a smile, ‘Oh, your uncle just found out that Pi is doing Phd. in Northwestern. They are bonding.’

Yes, of course! I should have realized. An alumnus from Northwestern University, Chandu uncle sure did have a few things to talk about. I overheard something about the Department, back entrance, corridors, west wing…and more specifics. Pi had to think twice to recollect and ascertain the exact location of the department water-cooler. I remember thinking that uncle does have a good memory considering he graduated from the institute during the late fifties. He went on to stay in Chicago for seven years after which he went back to India to complete his Phd. in 1974.

‘You both must visit Chicago when you come to the US,’ my request was rewarded five years later.

When I met the couple during Abhay’s graduation party recently, I thought the only way I could get uncle and aunty to undertake the long drive to our house was to lure uncle into a tour around Evanston and the Department building of Northwestern for an up-close look. His eyes lit up.

While we regaled uncle and aunty with tea and some snacks that I put together in such a hurry (hoping that the taste will be erased from their memory soon), I could see uncle was in the edge of the sofa and was definitely raring to go down the path of nostalgia. He kept glancing out of the window and admiring ‘his Evanston’. We decided not to test his patience anymore and jumped into one car to take the tour with someone who proved to be better than any GPS.

‘We have to go to 706 Washington St.’

Washington Street? Hmm..I think it comes to the left.’ I tried acting like an expert of this area.

‘No, I know exactly where it is. Keep going on Chicago Avenue,’ uncle instructed and Pi diligently followed. ‘Next turn right in 0.3 miles, yeah, the street after Main. Stop here!’ We were ready to bet that uncle did some homework with an Atlas before coming here. Our first stop was the apartment he lived as a student with a Chinese guy. ‘He used to cook some crazy stuff.’ The red brick building still stood in that corner waiting to be photographed 50 years later.‘ Everything looks the same. But I don’t remember this book store.’ We saw and vintage Plymouth parked on the street and Pi asked uncle if he remembers the car.

Pi, like a true resident, in his zeal to show Evanston told uncle that he was going east on Main Street to hit the scenic vistas of lake Michigan. But no, uncle was not done yet! ‘Pi, go left on Forest Avenue please. It will come now. Let me be your guide today.’ Sufficiently amused and getting the hint that we were not to mess with uncle, we played along in this Treasure Hunting game. Wasn’t much of a hunt as he knew exactly what he wanted to see and where we would find it. This time we stopped at his foster parent’s home. It was a bittersweet moment. He stood at the gate and looked at the house fondly while a surge of memories overpowered him. ‘I would walk from that apartment you saw and come here every Saturday. It was harder in the winters. I loved coming here and to share my stories with these lovely people who were like family. They had a separate dish for me as I was vegetarian.’

‘Like they have for their pet?’ Aunty was quick to add good-humouredly.

‘Yes, like that.’

It wasn’t hard to envision young uncle in his twenties shielding himself against the brutal winds, walking a mile to this house and eating salad from a doggie bowl. All this imagery was in black and white of course.

‘We should knock’, I suggested hoping for a grand reunion.

‘I don’t know. My foster parents are no more. Their kids are scattered all over. Nobody in that family stays here anymore. But I did keep in touch with one of their daughters and we visited them when we were in the US last time.’ I felt a lump in my throat.

As we were taking photos in front of this house, some of Pi’s lab mates walked by. Quite shocked that we were posing in front of random houses of no architecture significance, they gave us a polite smile that was packed with confusion. I was proud to introduce my uncle as their super-senior who shared the same institution. We left them gaping and drove to the next attraction of this unique tour- his second apartment, very close to the University near Clark St.

He swore that’s exactly where it was supposed to be. ‘Are you sure uncle?’ Yes, the disappointment was very evident. Not everything is permanent, I thought with remorse. That building was brought down to facilitate a newer construction. I wanted to see uncle jumping out of the car again. Running to the building with glee, stopping to reminisce and relate stories of this place as well. Then I wanted him to whip out his camera and ask me to take pictures while he posed in front of the building with aunty. I couldn’t get enough of it.

‘That’s Phoenix restaurant. I used to eat a lot here.’

‘Oh, we love it too.’

Glad some things haven’t changed.

He wanted to check out his professor’s house where he spent a lot of time. This was difficult to find, as they changed the roads a little and threw uncle off a little. Uncle was retracing his steps from his apartment to figure out the exact location and when he finally found it, it was pure happiness. We had difficulty keeping up with his fast strides. It was like 20 years had been wiped off his age. ‘This is the lawn I mowed many times. They’ve changed the entrance a little. But it still looks the same.’ His professor passed away of cancer he told us.

What’s a tour of Hardwar without taking a dip in the Ganges? We walked into the annals of History with every step we took in the corridors of his alma mater. Been to Pi’s lab umpteen times, but never felt goose bumps before. Many great scholars like uncle who walked this hallway are after all ‘kids in the candy store’ who would get excited at the glance of a window that used to be their lab once upon a time.

There it was, in front of Northwestern University - the exact place where uncle took the very first picture in the US, way back in 1957. I have seen that picture. We decided to do an encore in color. We constructed the bridge between the past and the present right there. No Civil Engineering feat, this. The bridge just had a couple of grey hairs, a wife, a niece and nephew, a car and an accurate memory.

Having studied in a graduate school in the US myself, I can’t imagine what it must have been like 50 years ago. Can’t imagine what it must have been without the scores of Indians we hang out with now. What it must have been to travel in a ship and not complain about airhostesses. What it must have been to communicate with family without emails. What it must have been like to share stories of your country with an older American couple sitting next to a fireplace or mowing their lawns. What it must have been to call this your home and them your family. What it must be to come there fifty years later to see them all gone. What it must be like to find the few things that have withstood the trials of time and stand testimony to a memory that you once lived.

For letting us experience all this, we thank you Uncle and wish that you will accompany me and Pi 50 years hence as our guide to Evanston when we come back to collect pieces of memories to fill in the blanks of our mental scrapbook. Happy Seventieth Birthday!

Friday, January 13, 2006

My friend S.Pam

You know, I enjoy these spam messages. Whatever they are trying to sell, guitars or sex (depending on your post), they still say a nice thing or two about your blog.

‘Your blog rocks!’
‘Wish I could write like you’
‘I am a fan of your blog.’

Boy, really? Am I sold, or what!

I mean seriously, why the heck would anyone block a little praise even if they are automated and don’t mean a thing? Spammers, you are welcome to raise my comment counter a little (now you know). Just won’t click the link like a jackass (need to remember that, though).

Thought I should bring to notice this particular spammer fella who threw me off a little. It’s the last comment on this post.

NYCGuy12 said...
Very nice blog, hard to come by these days,

If you have a chance, can you visit my how to play guitar siteIt has all guitar related stuff.

I like the novel way in how they tie in the post with the comment, just like us real people. He tries to sell me guitar lessons just when I wrote in the post that people who don’t get enough sex play guitars. Did I deserve it or what!

Now I am sot sure what he means by ‘these days’.

These days? How long have blogs been around anyway? Not even as long as my last hair cut (need to get one soon).

Does NYCGuy12 mean blogs were so good in the sixties and the quality started deteriorating towards the seventies with the advent of bellbottoms? Does he go on to mean that by stumbling upon my blog, he was reminded of the good-olden days of superior web-logs when every Tom, Dick and Harry blogged about the Independence struggle and had voting buttons- ‘Support Subhash’/ ‘Support Mohandas’?

Or does he mean, ‘Just freaking click on the guitar site and stop analyzing the bullcrap I said about your dumb site- for heaven’s sake!’

Monday, January 09, 2006

If you thought my Tamil is bad now...

I was born to parents who communicated through sign language. Both could speak and hear clearly, but different languages. Dad would rub his belly and mom would take a cue and cook for him. Mom would point at the neighbor lady and dad would buy my mom that saree. It went on for a while till they could take it no more. Dad couldn’t stop my mom from cooking every time he had amoebic dysentery or my mom didn’t know how to tell dad that the neighbor lady was stealing their mangos without having to receive the 20th saree of the same kind. Ok, they had poor enacting skills, so? Slowly, they started learning each other’s language and much to our mortification, came up with a hybrid language with some Hindi, Telugu and Bhojpuri thrown in for a good measure. This legacy, they would part to their children. Hence, the Pure Linguistic Gods didn’t shower their blessings on me when I came out wailing in adulterated Hebrew.

I was made to believe that the funny language spoken at home was Tamil. Moving like nomads around the world, and not getting anywhere close to Tamil Nadu helped my parent’s case.

What is your mother tongue? Tamil- I would say, innocently. ‘No wonder your Hindi sucks’, my north Indian friends would be quick to point out. ‘Well, at least I know Tamil,’ I would brag. Ppppfffft!

Leaving Mathura, we skipped over to Algeria. Still I thought I knew Tamil…every word of it. And an added language to boot; I knew how to count in Arabic after spending two years there. Algeria being a French colony, I learnt some French too. ‘Parle-G?’ Went around Europe and America and learnt a few more languages- American English and British English.

After this international stint, we were dumped in a forest in Andhra Pradesh… Manuguru (if you have heard of this place, you are probably a bear). My brother and I were a novelty in our little school. ‘Ohh look at those two belting out sentences in English with their cute accent.’ Laxmi’s mom told her to become my best friend so she could learn some English. In a year, I was speaking Gult and Laxmi learnt, ’Ware is the Paappar?’, which was more English knowledge than I had at that time.

But I still knew my Tamil was impeccable.

Fast forward some more places/ languages and we landed in Madras. Now to put my Tamil to some use.. finally! Having studied in Central schools throughout (except in phoren), I was a little apprehensive when I was admitted to a private school where 99.9% of kids recited Thirukurals and knew all about Rajani Kant’s contribution to Tamil culture. The 0.1% consisted of Jiggar Gupta and his Marwadi brother and sister who were the only non-brahmin, non-Tamilians in the whole freaking school. I suspect Jiggar knew the Thirukurals too.

From a dozen Tamilians that I met all my life till now- to a sudden truck-load of them. My Tamilness was put to test on my first day in Eighth Grade when they asked me, “Iyera, Iyengara?”

'Yemandi, adhi?' I asked in my Gult English. Had to figure out from nanagaru that we are Iyers. ‘Why didn’t you tell me before?’ I realized, Madras is the only place you will need to know that kind of info.

Classmates fell off the chair and rolled with laughter when I tried to talk in Tamil. 'Say- That old man is walking!'they would cajole whenever they needed their ribs tickled. What they spoke seemed to come out of that foreign movie I had watched long time ago where Kamal Hassan was the hero. Must be Iyengars all these people, I wisely concluded.

Next came the dreaded second-language selection. Big Deal..I’ll do the same thing I was doing all along. Hindi second, Sanskrit third language. With that safety net, I had changed 9 schools so far and managed somehow to stay above the water. But no, Avvaiyaar had probably put some curse on this school. There were only two options for me- Tamil second, Hindi third/ Sanskrit second, Hindi third. Hindi was clearly not the favorite subject around. It’s not like they were going to teach me Tamil from scratch. People, at that time I didn’t know ‘ka’ from ‘ga’ in Tamil. Actually to this day, I don’t.

Further investigation (my mom) informed me that I have no clue what Tamil is and it will be difficult learning it now. Current Mood: Cheated.

At least I had some head start with ‘Rama Ramau Ramaa’… So there I sat, with my Tamilian classmates in my first Sanskrit class. A priest walks in with dhoti and kudumi (tuft of hair tied in a knot). In fact, I was told he moonlights as our Sanskrit sir. Slightly shocked, I rose as everyone rose. As if they drank some elixir of life, all my dead looking classmates began to chant loudly ‘Guru Brahma, Guru Vishnu…’ with the same dead pan expression, but in a sing-song fashion bobbing their heads up and down. Next he sat down, started pointing at people and making them recite ‘Guru Shabda’. You- Hari Shabda. And you- Mrignayani Shabda.

Shabdas came to these cretins like sarcasm comes to me. Un-fucking-believable!! What Sanskrit was I learning for so long? ‘And you new girl with boy’s name- say Rhishi shabda.’ I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. ‘Sir,’ I said meekly, ‘I know only Rama shabda… and I can’t sing like that.’ The worse was yet to come. Sanskrit sir knew not a word in English or Hindi. I had to communicate in Tamil. Somehow, I should have chosen to sit in the Tamil class itself.

I almost packed my bags and left to Never-never land when the Hindi miss walked in. ‘Main aapka Hindi adhyapika hooon,’ she stressed in Tamil accent. Thankfully she carried the rest of the conversation in Tamil. I opened my book to ‘Meri Abhilasha Hai’, the first poem in the 5th grade CBSE book with the picture of kala hiran (black deer) on the cover. I remembered every picture in that book. Insult! It was like flunking, going back three grades with a teacher who could very well learn Hindi from me. Me, who had to learn Social Studies in Hindi in one our previous habitats. My Hindi speaking skills impressed no one. Knowing Hindi in Madras was like knowing how to swim in the Himalayas. FYI, English miss spoke in English. Phew!

The only way to escape ridicule in Tamland was to call myself a Kannadiga. As long as Jayalalitha didn’t know. It was easy to pose as one as my dad hails from Bangalore. Illiba bitbidi enmadhuthaidiya nimajji….and they were all sufficiently convinced and impressed. My Hindi, along with my Telugu and Arabic atrophied while signs of improvement in Tamil surfaced. I stopped referring to people as inanimate objects. Appreciated subtle nuances of difference between pallikoodam (school) and palligoodam (lizard hole). Arasi (rice) and arasai (group). Magesh and Mahesh- actually they are the same thing. “Vazhai pazham vazhukki kizhavi oruthi vazhiyil nazhuvi vizhundhal” got me admitted to the hospital for sustainable tongue injuries while twisting it beyond its capacity. Never again! Who the hell decided that 'zh' makes complete sense to be pronounced 'iLL'?

As long as you can speak to auto drivers and shop-keepers, Tamil is easy. The minute you have to talk to thorough bred Tamilian Inlaws, it becomes one heck of an ordeal. I’m still learning. Mastered yennai and ennai recently. One is ‘oil’ and the other is ‘what’..Don’t know which is what.

Next, we moved to Mangalore and there I promptly became a Tamilian again. Gotto do it! Live the life of a language refugee!

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Everything's in a name

My friends are all in a different boat. A boat that is way heavier and wobbly. Yes, they are all pregnant and I am in no hurry to jump aboard just yet. First it was the boyfriends, then the weddings and now this! Next it will be the babies I tell you…mark my words!

As excited as I am, luckily for me, they have spared me all the preggy talks. One of them blogs all about it, another calls me when she wakes up at 4 am and the others feel that they have acquired superior status and I should be the one calling. So overall it’s been cool. The grossest thing I have heard is that in some communities they cook the placenta for a feast to celebrate the birth of a new born. I suggested that she ask the doc for her placenta ‘to-go’ and later heat it in the microwave back at home. I think I am scarred for life; are you guys ok?

Since I have nothing better to do, I find out what they want us to call their offspring and then make fun of the names. I have noticed one thing common among all these pending moms. They get super defensive regarding their baby’s names. There is an inherent difference between the American way of naming and the Indian way of naming their kids. After spending months and going through two divorces regarding the right moniker, the American couple decided to name their bundle of joy (hold your breath)- John. And everybody goes, ’Bravo! That’s such a lovely name.’ Oh please! I mean just how hard was that? Looking around, I may need my extra toes to count the number of Johns smiling at me right now.

Whereas the Indian couples here have a greater challenge. Their baby needs a unique, modern name. Even Menaka Gandhi or the Sanskrit dictionary shouldn’t have figured it out. Travel all over the world, to the remote igloos of Antarctica, none other should have such a name…not even that Eskimo. At the same time, the name should mean something nice in any obscure Indian language. On top of that, you need to make sure the Americans don’t screw up this one-of-a-kind name, which even Indians are probably not sure how to pronounce. So they think real hard and make their pregnant lives miserable and finally come up with – Chakthashu.

It satisfies all their criteria- No other couple could have thought of something as insane as that. I have no clue what it means, but the Americans for sure pronounce this really well and with glee - ‘Chuck the shoe’.

Gone are the days of Ramesh and Suresh. Dinesh and Ganesh are looked upon with disdain. Anu, Priya, Deepa or for that matter modern names of our times like Nikita and Richa have been swept under the carpet. Absurd and uncanny is the way to go. My cousin is threatening to name her kid Lipi (meaning ‘writing’ in Sanskrit). I just wish for the little one’s sake she doesn’t have any lip issues. I brought up my concern and my cousin started crying. Just like that! I can only imagine the stress she had to go through to get here. At least my niece will know I tried saving her.

It’s not even worth this trauma when you come to think of it. Very few kids are completely satisfied with their name. I wasn’t one of them for sure. Maybe I will take back all I said when I am in that boat and will end up naming my kid some shit- I mean Samchit!

Monday, January 02, 2006

New Year- Time to renew relationships

I got a New Year card from my brother and his new wife. Not one of those cards where you click a link and it starts embarrassing you at work with crazy music to coordinate with a mad bunny jumping up and down popping balloons as you take your mouse around. I can barely stand one of those as I am guilty of not reciprocating with equal fervor. But what I received was an actual physical card with a stamp on the envelope and a letter inside. YIKES!!! I hate it that my brother is on his way to being a cultured human being.

I can see that the hostility between the sisters-in-law has officially begun!