Monday, December 13, 2010

A most unusual afternoon

I have homemade Kimchi in my fridge. I didn't make it although I have done so quite successfully, in the past. I got this batch from my downstairs neighbor. A Korean woman who along with three kids (11, 14 and 17) and a husband who owns a business somewhere close by has made her home in India for three years now and plans to stay for "10-20 years..." in her own words.

The unusual thing is not that she is Korean. What is baffling is that she speaks virtually no English or Hindi or Marathi.

This is India not the United States. This is not a land of immigrants, quite the opposite. There is no Korea Town or Korean grocery or place where Koreans can feel a bit "at home." And yet--someone told me this--our building complex has several Korean families. How did that happen??

So this very sweet woman who speaks no language understood by Indians by and large likes living here. She has plied me with Kimchi, Korean coffee and delicious Tofu which, by the way, started our acquaintance. I saw a young fella in the lift carrying a pot with three large blocks of Tofu. Of course missing one of our favorite foods that isn't really consumed much in India, I pounced--is that tofu? Yes he said. Where did you get it? Downstairs from a friend, he said. I realized he lived one floor below us.

The next day I find two large blocks in my fridge. My dad said a Korean woman from downstairs had brought some. I visited her right then with a small box of Indian spices and she sent me back with Kimchi and Korean coffee and an armful of Korean ramen. I felt so silly returning her favor with my small box of spices!

Her kids, also super friendly but speak little English. They all spoke amongst themselves, commenting on my older son's looks, asking to be shown the baby, asking us to please visit again, promising to visit themselves.

And visit they did, laden with more Korean food. They stayed, had some coffee, some snacks. They called and invited another Korean woman and her daughter living on a floor below. These women and one other spent a lot of time together.

After tea and such, my baby was getting antsy and so I asked them if they'd like to take a walk. And we did. It was a strange sight. My two sons and I accompanied by three Korean women and three Korean kids. All through the walk, they chattered amongst themselves, smiling at us every now and again, telling me where I might be able to find good vegetables. People stared but they didn't seem to care. I felt awkward for them but they looked totally comfortable. When having tea at our place I commented on some incessant sources of noise. They agreed it was there but didn't make a big deal of it, didn't go at all ballistic like I do.

I asked them what they did for movies? "Download from Internet," my downstairs neighbor said gleefully.

I began thinking--what does one need, truly need to be happy? Me, I need peace, quiet, good food, my people of course--that is a given, movies and books, all in different order of importance depending on the day.

To these people--I still haven't quite understood why--India, or our city Pune is more attractive than Seoul. Perhaps it's just business but I don't think so. For just business can't keep someone in a place they don't care for. Not for long.

I wish I could find out but the language barrier is a barrier that makes it difficult to ask philosophical questions. And so all I do is observe that despite the language barrier, despite the racial barrier, despite being such a minority, truly, these people looked and seemed more at home in this land that I am a native of than I feel right now.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

An accidental tourist

An old friend asked me if I feel like a tourist in India.

He should know for he said he felt like one in the US and in his home country too.

It was a very wise question and the answer is sadly, a resounding YES!

I am not proud of it. I wish I could truly call a place home. I didn't grow up in the state I am a native of. Ancestral homes merely made appearances on one or two short visits every few years and late night stories for me. And so after putting a lot of thought into the reasons why, the conclusion is unmistakable--the blame, I have decided shall rest squarely on my parents' shoulders.

My brother and I grew up in rather idyllic settings, away from the bustle of Bombay and at the overripe age of 16 when I was unceremoniously moved out of said idyllic settings into the real city, I was a mess. Unable and unwilling to adjust and eager to escape not back to where we came from, for that was impossible, but to somewhere that old place might be duplicated. It wasn't just that we were spoilt--not with material goods anyway, but with a lifestyle that can only be described as well...not healthy for an impressionable, precocious child. That said I had friends growing up there around us who seem to be well adjusted now. So lets just say parents' fault and oddball genes--double whammy.

Or perhaps I foolishly took all our privileges that came from being the kid of a highly placed dad seriously. The chauffeur driven cars, the palatial houses surrounded by fragrant Eucalyptus trees, the gardeners maintaining beautiful gardens around us. All that good stuff.

Or maybe it isn't just that. Old Indian culture was inculcated strictly and came easily in the form of dance and music lessons. But my parents were never involved in and therefore seldom exposed us much to the whole popular and/or Bollywood culture. For the first ten years of my life, our TV didn't work. After that isolated as we were, going to the movies would have been too much of a trek and so we subsisted on the Hollywood fare my uncle got us on his visits from Kuwait, farmers programming (amchi mati amchi manse for those who know), cozy old Marathi movies and the odd Star Trek I episodes and such that came on TV on weekends when we did have a TV that worked.

I wonder what it is then that makes me Indian enough to want to defend this country to people, to explain her follies. I am not indifferent to her greatness, to the wonder that is India. At the same time I defend America too with fervor, especially when people take potshots at her. It is a land I admire greatly.

Why does the Indian national anthem make me cry with a mixture of joy and pride every single time. The last lines of the American anthem also make me cry, and also with wonderful pride and happiness at being American. I love both these countries. One is my motherland, the other the land I "married into", my adopted land. I defend and love both with equal fervor. I detest certain things about both too with equal fervor.

So does that mean I belong? Does that make me a true Indian American? Or is that statement in itself an Oxymoron.

Truth is I wish I could actually spend my mornings in one place and evenings in the other or even one week here and the other here. I wish I could buy my vegetables at the bazaars here and my cereals in the local grocery in Lombard. That would be perfect. I have always liked having my cake and eating it too.

Of course that is not possible and so here I am. A tourist. By accident of birth, upbringing, education, years spent all over, over thinking, over analyzing.

My do I envy those who have a place, one place that is truly home.

Or perhaps for people like me, home can only be where the people I love are. My husband, my sons, my brother, my parents, my friends. But my dearest friends are now left behind in America!

If only I could somehow have everyone in one place, squeeze the world so the distances aren't so immense. Now that would be a perfect world.

That place, wherever it could be, would be home.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The beauty...the sheer beauty

I stopped by at Cottage industries and a couple antique shops a few days ago.

Cottage Industries works directly with artisans and so one can leave any manner of guilt about giving money to middle men at the doorstep. And I did.

The guard opens the door.

I step in and a fragrant whiff of sandalwood incense combined with a light rose scent trails into the nostrils. It's the smell, in my opinion of Indian luxury. Now as an aside, no one does luxury like India. Ironic given the state of some of her citizens but truly, between the silks and the diamonds and gold that women can be swathed in, not to mention the sweets and rich foods, warm lemony bowls to wash greasy fingers even in ordinary restaurants, kingly marble floors and rosewood and teak get the picture.

Where was I? Yes the scent in this store. A glorious, comfortable, old world and positively luxurious scent. One that you can just sink into. Imagine a warm, long afternoon with cups of tea accompanied by sweet and spicy snacks. Its no ordinary tea but the kind one can sip lounging and sunken lazily in silk cushions, having pleasant chatter with pleasant company.

Anyhoo, that was the first few seconds worth of effect on the senses. What was to follow was the kind of effect on the visual that can only be described as breathtaking. Embroidered bed spreads with mirrors glimmering here and there, as if partly hidden and yet partly visible, applied just so in order to entice. Carved wooden boxes, sculpted onyx vases, bronze Ganeshas and Saraswatis of exquisite beauty. Dressers, coffee tables, cupboards with inlay and carved facades. Ooh la la. Furniture one doesn't dare really use, so delicate are they.

Following that I visit a store or more like an island in the middle of Pune called Sanskriti. Once more I am surrounded by antiques and antique reproductions from all over India. I buy a round brass tin for want of better words with a sort of charming little padlock. It was used to store anything from money to rotis in Rajasthan, the glamorous, ex army wife owner of the store, explains in polished English. I also buy a pan box made of wafer thin bronze, probably made for a Muslim woman, the proprietor says. Of course, only a Muslim woman would be beautiful enough to use this as her beetle leaf box. I feel a thrill go down my spine. I must bring my husband to check out the furniture, I say. She uses recycled Burma teak for the antique furniture reproductions. Beautiful and responsible. Did I just die and go to heaven? I am in love with this store. With three cottages housing its wares and the cottages separated by lush lawns and gardens where one can imagine peacocks roaming around, this place is one I am tempted to move into.

Before I leave, I close my eyes, think of the hands that created such beauty, hands of artisans of such great calibre. I am moved by the beauty, the sheer beauty of their labor.

I leave, excitedly making plans for decorating my new albeit rented home.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

How it all manages to work

Its been a day since my last post and things seem to have have solved themselves..

Not the dogs. Thanks to Ms. Maneka Gandhi's misplaced sense of animal rights, they shall continue to thrive and multiply. So no not that.

The people.

I am getting or remembering why this country manages to work. Why and how it all somehow manages to hangs together. I always wondered about how such a disorganized, completely haphazard economy works. The right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing. The right hand doesn't even know for sure or believe that there is a left hand.

Here is why it works. The people may well be some of the most inefficient but they mean well and they are sweet. Oh so sweet.

My maid returned this morning and tearfully asked me not to please hire anyone else. I am a sucker for a sob story as anyone else and so told her the truth. I am not an easy one to please, I admitted. Can you do this? I'll pay you whatever you ask but the work has got to be purrfect. Sure, she said. All was well. No issues as they say here. Of course she did a brilliant job today.

Then I paid a visit to the furniture shop I had placed the order at. I went in with guns blazing but after five minutes or so of sparring, suddenly the man cooled off. He even timidly took changes to my order of our bed. I cannot imagine that happening in the States. It was so very easy. I explained to the carpenter, or someone who knew the trade what I wanted and he bobbed his head yes.

The notes he took about the order changes make me shudder though. The order itself was written on a piece of ruled paper in long hand with copious notes in the margins for my customizations--color of polish what have you, tiny sketches to explain everything. Spelling mistakes galore. No wonder they cannot make head or tail of my dining table, I thought. I looked around me. There were some very well crafted pieces. The modular kitchen was a beaut. And so if all goes well, Inshallah, I should have a pretty nifty bed soon.

I visited the Godrej showroom. The man who had taken my order was there--all honey and sweetness. This is the Indian way. He waited patiently as my mum and I stated categorically that the color we had ordered was in fact something else. Didn't lose his temper, didn't roll his eyes at us, which he was well within his right to do. Then he went on to offer us a completely different cupboard and again waited as we hemmed and hawed about that before finally agreeing to the new piece.

All was well. All is well for now.

So this is why it works. People have infinite patience with each other here. Yes they might jostle on the streets. Literally. Rickshaws collide with bicycles and motorbikes everyday. But speeds are low and little damage is done. Mentally and physically. A few curses are let out and everyone goes their way. Bigger accidents happen for sure but on a daily basis these collisions seem to be part and parcel of life.

It's as if everyone expects the worst and so it something good happens they are pleasantly surprised.

That and most people accept that others are quirky and imperfect. Why else would they listen quietly to my father's rantings whenever he is displeased with something?

People will wait and wait until you're comfortable, sure, happy. Its a combination of hospitality, manners, respect (for age, authority, status, if you're a woman).

India has always been described as a land that cannot really be described. It has too many facets. Too many colors, too many shades to have a few adjectives applied to it.

And just when one is tempted to write something off, a sweetheart of a person makes it all well.

Its the same of anything and anywhere I suppose. Delta screwed things up for us and I swore never to travel that airline again until we were seated in our seats on our last leg flying and our stewardess greeted us. Despite her sweet Texan accent, she might have been my mother, so attentive was she. I told her she might be the only reason we fly Delta again.

People--persons really. And India is full of such people. Sweethearts. Truly well meaning people.

I really need to simmer down and adopt a 'tomorrow is another day' attitude and all will be well.

One can but try, no?

Friday, November 12, 2010

What am I doing here??

Can't sleep. Stray dogs bark at night, They howl. They shriek. I want to shoot them all. With eyes tightly clenched I imagine myself wielding an Uzi or AK-47 or some such catastrophic weapon and gunning them all down. I am mad. I haven't slept in days.

The maid is another abomination. She thinks I am some sort of idiot. She has quoted a price for work 50% more than the average. I am mad. I will give her a thousand rupees more if she is honest. I refuse to be cheated. I tell her not to do the floors, just the dishes and that too so I don't go crazy with work. I wonder if I've done the right thing having her return to the place of work where she has been slighted.

The furniture I have ordered is delayed. I call and get a new person every time. I'll call back in half an hour, two days, one day, each one promises. I hear nothing. This from a Godrej dealer. Godrej, a leading Indian company! Right.

The dining table I have ordered cannot be done, they say now. The stand is a problem. Cancel the damn thing, I say in anger.

My husband has a stomach upset from the buffalo milk that he's using to make myriad cups of coffee.

Milk and water. A full time job. Boil each, save each, buy fresh milk everyday. Take care not to drink tap water. Wash the baby's mouth with boiled water.

I have a ball of knots in my stomach. I want to go back. I want to go home.

Today my parents left after having stayed with us through all of the troubles, through all of my whining, through all of my threats to go back.

I see them off in our rented car. I ask the driver to take them back to Bombay safe and sound. My mother waves goodbye, a sweet smile on her beautiful face. I know she wants to cry. I watch the car drive away.

I turn back, try not to cry as I take the lift back to our tenth floor apartment.

I know what I am doing here at last. I know. Milk, furniture, stray dogs and more nonsense, all notwithstanding, this has been the right thing to do. For now. For all.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


Thoughts slosh about in the mind about new experiences witnessed, old experiences re visited.

Saw a woman on the street, her expression of resignation, nursing a baby. The curve of the baby's thigh, its face hidden by her sari, protected from the world if only for a short while longer. I think of myself and my baby. I feel like my heart is about to break. Is the baby a boy? A girl? Should I stop and give her money? How much is enough? Enough for her to buy a place to stay and educate her child? Enough for a meal? My car speeds by. I hold back tears. What use is my sorrow if all I do is watch? I feel anger at myself for hesitating and the moment and the scene has passed. I start to cry some hours later while telling my husband about it. He asks me to channel my sorrow.

India is too striking a land of contrasts. It is downright disturbing to see people checking out objects of luxury at swanky malls while right outside one sees the construction workers and their families building more swankiness to the shopping havens living in huts, their children running about finding play and joy in the bricks and stone and mud that form their parent's livelihood. Heartbreaking.

Compared to Bombay there aren't that many beggars on the street. Kids do approach us at certain busy street corners. But its rarer than usual here.

A Kashmiri trader of beautiful saris and shirts stops by. We met him at a home goods exhibition earlier and bought several kurtas/shirts. He has come to us bearing saris. Beautiful, hand-done embroidery on pastel georgettes and crepes. My mother buys a sari. I ask if the artisans might get some of the money that we're paying for the items. He says the artisans work on a monthly salary. I offer to pay him a bonus for the artisans. He refuses to take the money. Give them more work, he says, this isn't appropriate. It doesn't send the right message.

The same applies to the beggars, I suppose. Throwing small amounts of money helps feed them for a meal or two. But systemically, the solution is larger, so much more complicated. Education, work solutions. India has one of the smallest budgets in the world assigned to educating her people. Depressing.

But I feel a renewed sense of joy about getting involved in a local not profit, making a small difference.

I tell my husband. If we can help improve a handful of lives, help a handful of kids escape what is a small twist of fate--they were born in an inopportune place under less than ideal circumstances. My child could easily have been one of them and not the privileged little fella he is going to be and already is.

A handful of kids and a handful of women would be a good start.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Piecemeal thoughts: Indian ishtyle

One: Halloween party at school today. I’m so happy for the boy. He gets to wear his Swamp Fire costume and bake pizzas at school. Sweet.

Two: As I leave said party, I hear the teacher say, children, its time for the school prayer. This I must see. I watch as the children gather around in a circle--witches, Spidermen and fairies, join their hands together and thank God, yes God for all good things from food to friends and family. How easy it is. And how nice. So few things are nice these days. I wonder then how sad it is that school prayer has been banned in the States. Why has God become a bad word? If one is concerned about religious freedom, let the child replace the word with Allah or Vishnu or Yaweh or nature or anything they like. Even atheists must believe in the power of nature and plain old Karma. Interesting thing…most kids in class are Hindu barring two kids, both of whom supposedly actually pray to the deity commonly known in the Western world as “God.” And yet all these children, Christian and not, with eyes tightly closed, all send thanks to this God. Hmm…

Three: We have hired a private taxi here, which is costing us an arm and half a leg but is a convenience. The driver they sent us is a Tamil ex army fellow who has a smoking habit that I can unfortunately smell on him. But he’s punctual and well behaved. A bit too feudal—good morning madam, salute…that sort of thing I never was very comfortable with and now having lived in the “free, classless world” for so long feel positively put off by. For all his feudal behavior though it’s strange how easily one can get familiar. In the States, one can meet someone chat even intimately for a few minutes, and walk away, no strings attached. But here it’s not so. No sooner than he finds that I am a Tamilian and my bad that I asked him many questions about himself, he starts giving me advice, making borderline inappropriate comments--for a hired underling, that is. “Let me show you where you should live. Don’t bother looking at these apartments. Why are you not checking these out.” Shaking his head every now and again. And so on and on and on. My solution. I don’t speak to him anymore. He opens the car door, salutes and says good morning. I wish him back. My son and I get in the car and we keep quiet. It’s such a handicap now not having a language no one understands. Quite a pain actually. We cannot make comments, remark rudely on anything without being understood. Dang it. And my husband doesn’t speak Tamil. Not that it would make any difference with the driver who speaks it. Checkmate. Time to start learning the French I always wanted to.

Four: Men don’t shake hands with me here. Real estate agents, contacts we need to cultivate in high places. I’m starting to feel offended. What is this? The 12th century? Just because I’m a woman, why don’t they—but hey, wait a minute, I think then. Heaven alone knows where your hand has been, stranger. Hmm. This could be a win-win situation. I fold my hands in the traditional Indian greeting and smile with no qualms any longer. This isn’t an issue about feminism people, just plain health.

Five: So I bullied my son for months before landing in India into doing sums and words of various levels of difficulty hoping he would not fall behind in the more trying Indian education system.

Now, they had this nice open house kind of thing in his class—transportation is the subject. Tables with various charts with kids talking about aspects of transportation. Somehow the teacher manages to involve my son too with about three minutes notice. I am impressed. After, the kids stand in two rows to sing some songs. They sing a couple. For the final one, a sort of tongue twister, the teacher stands a tiny cherub of a girl in front of the other kids and hands her a sheet of paper. The girl starts to recite, “The creepiest creep wears his shirt…”something…something. She is looking at the sheet intently. The coin drops. I ask the mother seated next to me. “Is she actually reading?” I say incredulously. “Oh yeah,” this mother says as if it’s the most ordinary thing.

Gosh, I hope these guys don’t grade on a curve with this girl at the top. My son may be a bright spark but he ain’t no match for this kind of superior skill set.

Six: Did I mention the traffic? Unbelievable. Erratic. Cars miss touching each other by inches, no one stays in a single lane. Positive of this anarchy? No one on Indian roads will ever sleep at the wheel.

Seven: Indians just cannot develop dementia. The brain has to always be working here. Or you’ll be parted with your money or worse, a leg or arm in traffic. Did I mention how horrid it is? Once or twice already? Ok I’ll stop. Anyway, lets say you take a rickshaw in the city I am in. The meter reads 3:10. Ok that isn’t the rate you pay. You could just trust your driver and pay what he says you should pay. Or you can multiply that number by 8 and add 3 to that result. And that is what his rate card should say. Some creative Johnnies have been known to print “special” rate cards for trusting na├»ve tourists.

Next, say you’re at a store. Be sure and check the MRP—or maximum retail price on every single product you buy or unscrupulous sellers in small stores might tag on one or two rupees here and there, rounding off as it pleases them thus lightening your load of cash by a few bucks, and you’re none the wiser. And while buying veggies from the bazaar make sure the brain is kept charged--you have bought one kilo tomatoes, two kilos carrots, half a kilo onions, the first at 50 rupees a kilo, the second at 100 rupees a kilo, the third is 65 rupees…are you keeping track? For at the end you will have a bag full of veg and the shop keeper will have a total for you. There will be others clamoring for his attention so make sure you have been totaling the amounts accurately and if you have bargained and been given a small discount (indicated by a bob of the head), make sure to account for that discount too in your calculations. No time to bring out your calculator, right? You are too busy holding bags of veggies as he hands them to you. Maybe you have a child pulling at your side.

See? No chance of dementia.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Beginning

I am up at dawn. Prayers from the local mosque sounds loud and clear. I switch on the water heater. No continuous heating of water here. That is not done. And if you think about it, it is rather a waste of energy. So basking in the warmth of my forced eco friendly bath, I try the water five minutes after I switch on the heater. A trickle of scalding water emerges, I jump aside, add some cold water. Now it’s freezing. Using some deft maneuvering and jiggling of taps, I manage a half-inch thick stream of lukewarm water from the shower. Half of my right shoulder gets a great shower, the rest of me must just wait. That or…I just turn on the cold water full blast. I don’t have the time to wait for this heater to do its thing. Best if I get used to showering in the cold. Will wake me up good, I tell myself.

I have been here six days. Every sense has been assaulted pleasantly and otherwise.

This is the India I conveniently forget when I am not here.

The ultra cool and absolutely un-cool collide with one another leaving one confused.

Bombay was where we first landed. 3000 degrees in the shade. I lost my appetite, quite literally. Figuratively..well, we'll see.

But I haven’t snacked foolishly for days. Hopefully have lost five pounds or on well on my way. Cool.

A young man pushes a vegetable cart across busy highway. Manages to notice old beggar woman and without so much as a glance in her direction hands her some of his produce. She thanks him. He doesn’t acknowledge it. He has a heavy cart to quickly push across the highway before the signal turns and someone in a car or scooter collides with him. Uber cool.

We arrive at Pune. I am buying my son his school uniform at a store. Of course my son wants to use a toilet. Badly. I ask the store manager who is juggling three phone lines, four servants, three languages and my son’s uniforms. No toilet here madam, she says. We use the one at the McDonald’s. Fine. I’ll go there, I say between gritted teeth to my poor son who is now buckled forward holding everything in. We start walking. And we walk and we walk and we manage to cross the road. An aside here. Another aspect of India I also choose to forget. The insane traffic. It stops for no one. If there isn’t a signal at a crossing, cross at your own risk. If there is a signal, its merely considered a suggestion. I carry my son so at least I have some control of the crazies coming at us from both directions and we manage to make it across. Where is the McD’s I ask. A block away, it turns out. We go there. There are washrooms in the adjoining mall. It smells like disinfectant. So strong I think I might faint. But the bathrooms look clean enough. I sit my son atop one. No water!! Oh my goodness. No toilet paper even. I curse under my breath. This is the reason I hate I start to think, feel close to tears…my son starts to laugh. Ok, we step into the next stall and clean up. I try one wash-basin. No water. I am going to panic now. The next one does have water. Both of us start laughing. My son concludes. No one follows the rules on Indian roads, the toilets are a toss up but the McDonalds serves pretty tasty meals--their veggie burgers are really quite yummy.

After that harrowing incident, ok well, not so harrowing but a little, given my OCD issues, we go in search of a backpack for my son. This is a city that takes its siesta very seriously. We are looking around at 2:30. Most shops were closed since that is what they do between 1 and 4. Take a nap. Nice. No backpack today son.

That was yesterday. Today was a good school day. And our first day looking for an apartment. We start at what is a prime location, Boat Club Road. Nice, regal looking building. Four bedrooms, spacious, they said, a duplex. We step in and back. In time that is. The place is a colossus, space wise but really. Dingy, dark, bathrooms that have seen better days in the sixties and even then they were in poor taste. We leave. The next three or four places we see are not exactly a significant improvement on the first. One is promising until I open the kitchen drawers. Rusty steel everywhere. I might get tetanus just looking at it. Right. Large though. Nice building, park outside. Marble floors. Bathrooms could be better but then one needs to compromise somewhere, I suppose.

Looks like we need to up our budget somewhat. For the budget we are offering, one could get nice digs in Chicago but obviously not so here. At least not what we label nice. Champagne tastes, beer budget is what it is starting to look like. But tomorrow is another day. I have so much to be grateful for. My in laws place to stay in for now.

The fact that my boys have adapted like a dream. But I don't know where I stand yet.

Am I happy? Am I disgusted?

I left India swearing never to return. I had my reasons then. Are they valid now? Will I ever be content? Does place even matter to be content?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


OMG. Have been up since forever.

I know I said I'd write the next entry from India but this doesn't count as US soil either. I am in the twilight zone. It's dark out and I am surrounded by more bags than the luggage department at Macys.

I have organized this move badly. Talk about penny wise and pound foolish, monetarily and weight wise, I have been an idiot. A container load of our stuff went out the door days ago and to save money I let "some" stuff stay behind for us to take along with us.

"Some" stuff has quickly morphed into 11 suitcases which are so bloody full that if I even so much as approach them with a sharpened pin they might burst.

What do I have in them? Dashed if I know anymore. A couple jars of almond butter and three boxes of cereal and clothes have grown into stuff that can cause suitcases to break at the handle when lifted. That happened at 9 pm last night. My husband lifted one to weigh it and like glass, I kid you not, the handle shattered at the seams like glass. Bloody hell. What a CF!

More than half of what I have in the suitcases could have been brought later by hubby who will frequently travel. But where will the stuff stay is the question? With sweet younger sibling of course. And sweet younger sibling has a sweet bachelor pad-one bedroom I might add that is also bursting at the seams with stuff I plan to bring over time. My poor brother's face grew more and more tense as he saw boxes and suitcases of stuff piling up in our dining room for him to "store" for us. At first I tried reassuring him saying I'd buy those fancy under bed thingamajigs. I did but hey beds are only so wide. After a while I gave up trying to minimize. So piece of advice Don't attempt to visit said sibling for at least six months. You may not see much beyond the door. Six months should give him enough time to find a place for all the stuff I've piled upon him. Or lose them conveniently, whichever comes first.

I need coffee. My baby will be up in about thirty seconds and I know I am not going to get much sleep on the plane, business class or not.

Oh yes we are traveling business. Its not our usual style. Haven't quite got around to that yet. No we usually travel what my brother refers to as kutta class or dog class or in more refined terms, Economy. No eleven suitcases or free champagne for you there, my friend. International Economy is where they offer you meals thus, "Veg or non veg madam?" Err...I know I have six seconds to respond before she will make the decision for me. Lets see I like beef (but not airline beef for that can be tough. Once ordered a steak that wouldn't cut with the sorry excuse of a knife they provided. I don't eat chicken. This lot wouldn't offer shrimp and the fish if any would be something they found fishing in open drains someplace. Veg, I say before she can make a face. Then I venture to ask. What meal is it? Politely I might add. She shrugs as though I have slighted her. "I don't know." As if to say, we might feed you lot this junk, doesn't mean we eat it.

That's fine. Veg it is. How bad can their creamed peas be huh?

So we have coughed up a small fortune for business and will thus enjoy our pain among the more privileged and in style.

I just hope they agree to check us in first.

Now where is that coffee...

Monday, October 18, 2010

Cold feet

I sat in my older son's now empty room feeding my younger one. The slightest sound either of us made echoed back to us from the picture less, sterile walls, the empty closets, the noiseless corridor.

I felt a chill run down my spine. This is a mistake I told myself, panicking. Why am I leaving a country and home I love? This is my home, it is the place that has made me the wiser, tough, sensible person I am today. Why? why? why?

Ok Ranjini, this is nothing but a case of cold feet. Natural under the circumstances, I tried to tell myself.

That night I promptly fell ill, got chills, body, random flu-ish symptoms. I was going from room to room like a zombie, not able to get organized. There was little stuff everywhere. A rattle here, a stapler there, some coins, a set of headphones, unmade beds, old nail polish, mis matched socks, broken toys. So much junk, I thought, wincing every time, yet unable to pick stuff up and throw them away. Unable to do anything more than stare at the objects and walk on to the next room only to find more.

Once more I sat down and asked myself what we were doing and why? Everyone keeps saying we are so brave. I wish they wouldn't. I don't feel at all brave. And why is it a brave thing what we're doing?

The only encouragement I got was from my babysitter. She came to pick up her last check and wasn't sentimental in the least. Done packing, she asked? Some, I said.

She looks around raises her hands to her face and says with child like glee, "Ooh Exciting!"

Hmm I didn't think of it that way. It was all gloom gloom so far.

Exciting? Sure. An adventure. India. Hell yeah! In more ways than I care to mention.

Today the cold feet has passed. Or more like reality has set in.

Now this is a reversible action. In every single way. We wouldn't attempt it if it weren't. We aren't that brave.

One thing is for sure.

We will find out exactly how brave we are in oh.....about 48 hours.

Next post from India. Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Today I refused to say goodbye to my sister

The image of her standing with her face to the wall, her silky black head bent low, her back to me as she softly cried will be stained in my mind forever.

I was leaving her house, my hand caressing her beautiful daughter's soft cheek. That was when she realized that I won't see her daughter for a long time. She gasped. The enormity of it all had hit her and she began to cry. I began to cry. Until then it was okay, I was visiting them as I usually did. We were able to be ourselves, laugh, talk, act as if nothing was about to toss our lives in a different turn forever.

Now I couldn't bear it. I hugged her quickly, not wanting to see her tear streaked face and I left the warmth of her home.

About five years ago I met a young woman at a mom and tot class. She was pretty, cheerful, smart. Mother of a 9 month old. My son was 9 months old also. Turned out our kids' birthdays were two days apart.

I knew as we interacted that first time that I wanted to be friends with her.

I thought her so outgoing, so laid back. She said that that wasn't her at all. She said she didn't normally let her guard down and get too close to people but seeing as we were going to be moving to India soon it would be a risk free friendship.

Boy was she wrong. My husband and I didn't make concrete plans to move because year after and year something kept preventing us from doing so. Bad real estate market, our business needed to be more established, we didn't feel ready...blah, blah blah.

And so in the meantime, we just kept getting closer. Her son was born, her kids started calling me Maushi (aunty in Marathi). I started to see her as the sister I never had.

It wasn't hard to get close to her. She is funny--the best story teller, charming, sweetly silly.

An absolute darling.

I'm not one for idle banter and usually get bored by ordinary chatter. Maybe it's the elitist in me, maybe it's the loner. But with her, I can yak about next to nothing for hours and hours. And enjoy it no end.

I fell in love with her. And now the once risk free friendship has become fraught with more emotion that either of us ever imagined it would. But I am so glad it became what it did. For she will always be the little sister I can chat with, hang out with, the little sister I can spoil. I just LOVE getting her things.

Thank you my dear for giving me that joy. I look forward to many, many years of that joy.

And in return give me your clever jokes, your gossip, your banter, your charm, your friendship.

Dear sister, I am grateful to the forces that brought you into my life.

I will see you soon. Very soon. I refuse to say goodbye.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The beginning of the end

We leave Chicago in 11 days. The house is a mess, boxes are everywhere, suitcases lie all over with mouths wide open, clothes spilling out.

The house has suddenly become different. Everything has become different.

I feel as though I am detaching myself from things that have been familiar for almost a decade now. People, favorite places, trees, parks, quiet walks.

Even the air is starting to feel different. Its like visiting a new place. Everyone around you has been there, is there all around you functioning, living, being, almost not noticing all that is around them because it has been around them and will be around them always. But you are a tourist. That paneled railway station ceiling that everyone else ignores looks fascinating and you want to know everything there is to know about that obscure little church around the corner from the hotel. You are removed from the local masses, but only just. A thin film of air surrounds you making you aloof from the everyday of that place.
You are after all a tourist, a visitor.

I am starting to feel this way now. Sort of.

I am trying to stay busy, horribly busy so my mind focuses on the task of moving and only moving. I will start to "miss" soon enough. Why go through that pain now?

Most times I feel enthusiastic, excited about a new future. There is something to be said about purging all things old and making room for the new. I am a wanna be minimalist and it is therefore a wonderful feeling throwing away stuff, clearing out the cobwebs in my life and as a result in my mind. I am amazed that I am feeling this way. I had anticipated going to pieces, breaking down every now and then but that hasn't happened. Haven't shed a tear. Can't afford to as it happens, since I get blinding headaches whenever I cry. Even when friends get teary I am staying strong. It is hard, so hard but I am able to prevail without letting a single tear slide out.

It is time, I am able to say loud enough for my inner most fears to hear and believe. And also to mean it.

For it is. Ten years in one place, albeit lovely and idyllic is good enough. The mind needs to explore more, seek more, adventure more.

Yes it is time for change and for the first time, I actually feel prepared for it. Of course this minute, all is peaceful. The sun is setting, the breeze blowing in my direction is a cool one, the kids are behaving themselves.

Tomorrow promises to be another super busy day, filled with more boxes, more bags, more junk to have dilemmas over.

Heaven knows how long this feeling of serene confidence will last.

I give it 48 hours. The packing will be all done. Then I'll go ballistic.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Throw Away The Baby Food Jars!

I have a question. How does a baby food company take yummy veggies like zucchini, chick peas, carrots and spinach and turn them into a what looks like elmer's glue tinted with a nasty dull shade of green and tastes...well...also like elmer's glue tinted with green. Summer vegetables are the saddest of all. Reminiscent of not a warm summer day of lunches full of crisp vegetables that can make delicious salads but tasting instead like the bark of a tree and colored like bleached out dirt.

The squashes and fruit are all right given their inherent sweetness but the rest of the jarred food...ugh.

Now I am no expert but a little flavor on the tongue might go a long way toward enhancing a vegetable. Is it any wonder therefore that kids hate their veggies in America? I think its because no one deigns to even add salt to them before presenting them in their sad over boiled state before a child.

A Korean woman once wondered aloud why kids hate spinach in this country when while growing up in Korea she often asked her mother to make it as she always did--sauteed with garlic, drizzled with sesame oil and a smattering of sesame seeds. Yum!

My firm belief is that my older son eats like a gourmet because I treated him like one from the start. I only fed him food, mashed up at first of course but food nonetheless that I liked the taste of. I flavored mashed rice and lentils with a little cumin or garlic, some salt for God's sake, some garam masala. He in turn rejected all jarred food given its utter lack of taste but ate all of my concoctions in a hurry.

Here we moan that kids don't get their veggies except in the form of French fries. But in order to make vegetables taste good to them they ought to be not over cooked and well seasoned. The experts worry that adding salt and spice to baby food might get them used to that. Well, duh. If they hate their veg, they will careen fast towards fast foods and get over-sugared and over-salted with those anyway. What's the trouble if they eat a ton of broccoli if it is sauteed in garlic and flavored with salt. It's like being penny wise and pound foolish.

And I have the audacity to even write this blog because my second son too eats food that is well flavored. Be it zucchini mush or broccoli or spinach. If it has a little spice to it (not heat, spices such a cumin, coriander etc), he gobbles it up. The same vegetable made interesting he enjoys, when its a tasteless mush, he rejects it. Simple logic no?

My rule--if it tastes good to me it just might taste good to them.

Hasn't failed me twice. I must be on to something. And it has lasted. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that I might be the only mother in the country whose five year old son hasn't been to a McDonald's and never will. But let me not get started on that theory--the theory being never to visit a fast food restaurant (how dare they call themselves restaurants) and to never order food for your kid from the kids' menu. The kids menus are an insult, an aberration.

Treat a kid like a gourmet and chances are he will become one.

Either my theories are sound or I'm just very lucky. Either way I'll take it!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Happy Endings

I am sick and tired of showing our house. It's been on the market since April. Fifty people saw it. And each time there was a showing it meant cleaning the place to a pristine state and leaving until the people showed up, saw and left.

No takers.

Two weeks ago, we decided to put it to rent. Even at the bargain basement price we were offering it at no one wanted it and we had had enough of giving away our beautiful (yes, yes I know beauty lies in the eye of the householder) home.

Now we have showings to rent. At least a pristine state of house isn't needed since we will be the boss of whomever "chooses" or gets chosen to rent the place. As a result I am getting more and more lax about what I will and won't clean up. Papers on the desk...not sensitive? Leave 'em be. Dishes in the sink? Oh all right I'll at least load them into the dishwasher.
With an infant, an active five year old and oodles of work left to do before we leave for India, a showing, albeit necessary, has become a pain in the behind.

And I think on some super tired week ends when I ache for a nap and someone wants to see the house at a ridiculous 2:30 pm...oh I wish we could have a happy ending to our life here in the states.

I wish the house had sold at a nice price, I wish I could leave this country with a small publishing contract. I wish I could have made a success of one of my businesses.

A happy ending. I wish. I wish, I wish.

But then I look at my family. Today I will have survived yet another birthday. I am healthier than I have ever been. More active than I have ever been. Wiser. Less cynical. Less angry. Less anxious. Bolder and fuller of sauce than ever before. The possibilities are, despite all my failures, still endless in my mind.

Which must mean there is nothing to be sad about.

Truth is I am happy. We are happy.

Pat, closed happy endings, I tell myself, are for movies.

In real life, perhaps, a not sad ending is perhaps the happiest ending of all.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Pray don't 'Eat Pray Love!'

Ok so I read this book and found it condescending. Maybe because I am Indian and tired of these rich bored people going there looking for spirituality. I mean what is it about far flung ashrams and shyster Swamis in orange garb, long dirty beards and groping hands that makes people find themselves in the east?

Or is it the sight or so much misery around them that the average person with a boring life in the wealthier parts of the world returns having been hit by the worst sights of poverty and wretchedness and suddenly their humdrum provincial life with 2 cars, picket fence, impossible mortgage payment, 2.1 kids and 1.5 acre backyard seems like a dreamlike existence.

And so it is for most of the rest of the world as it so happens. I shouldn't be such a sour puss about it, I suppose but I just found the tone of that book (haven't seen the movie) so self centered, ignorant and superior.

Speaking of the movie, I dunno if I will watch it but given that I will watch Ms. Roberts read a phone book for a hour and a half, perhaps I might. Then there is the big news splash my husband informed me about with a chuckle. Julia has declared herself a practicing Hindu.

Now there is a shot in the arm for a religion few people know about. Here everyone thinks we are Muslims. Not that I mind but seriously every time I order a link of sausage or a BLT having the waitstaff look at me with panic in their eyes and saying in whispers--it has pork in it is starting to become a little tired. I mean give unto me a break. Haven't you heard of other religions besides Christianity and Islam? Kiddo, I want to tell these young people, there are several other religions who massacre each other with equal glee as do the Christians and Muslims.

I can only imagine how the Hindu fundamentalist organizations must be slapping their foreheads. All that violence against Muslims to prove their superiority was so unnecessary. All they had to do was call Julia's agent and check if she had any interest in pursing Hinduism as a religious alternative!


Sunday, July 25, 2010

Put your hand in the toilet and change the world

I have two kids. That means tons of diapers. Only I am not one to buy those diapers that degrade in 400...oh yes 400 years.

So I used cloth and some years ago discovered a more convenient option. The G diaper--biodegradable, flushable, totally eco friendly. But instead of throwing it--sending it into the landfill and pondering whether or how it degrades there, I flush them. This means putting it in the toilet a certain prescribed way, using a swivel stick to ahem...distribute the contents of the diaper evenly then whoosh...flushing them away.

Sometimes all goes well. At others, it does not and the water level in the WC rises along with unspeakable contents.

Now is when one must stay calm and be brave if one must aspire to change the world. One must not flinch from putting one's hand right in with all that catastrophe. Well...hand is a bit of a misnomer for at those depths one's arm goes in up to the elbow or more if unlucky. Then one must unflinchingly turn away one's face and dislodge what is stuck. And voila, all will be well.

This as you can imagine, is not for the faint hearted. I have cried, cursed myself on occasion, for my stubbornness about using only these "difficult" items so the burden on mother earth is less But through all those melodramatic moments, thankfully I persevere.

Sometimes, however, the rewards of doing the "green" thing are wonderful. I have been composting for about two years now. This summer with the intense heat that's been sweeping across the city, the compost pile has received a shot in the arm, as it were. No longer did it look like a pile of garbage. It has finally started to turn into that fine black dust the experts promise.

And to add to the magic, I found a plant growing in the heap. I fished it out and found it to be a mango seed that had sprouted. The sight was magical. My mum has grown a flourishing guava tree in compost and here I was with my very own fledgling tree. Immediately I dragged my older son out, we fetched a pot, filled it with compost and planted the sapling. My son's eyes were sparkling at the sight of the seed from which emerged this lush green sapling. He proudly said he'd take compost to a show and tell at class.

I thought I'd burst with pride. It was one of those soppy B-movie moments. I felt like I was bringing up my child with all the right values. It felt oh so wonderful.

And even though the feeling only lasted a handful of precious minutes...for I soon found I had committed some silly blunder or the other...I had a notion that maybe, just maybe I have got a few things right.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Vanquisher of Obstacles--Synopsis

Vanquisher, a sweeping novel set in southern India between the 1930’s and 60’s takes the reader into the pulsating world of Swami, the second-born son of a proud but impoverished family. In this world, the weak, namely Swami’s entire family, depends on the strong, namely Swami. It is from this world that Swami dreams of escaping someday to go to America.

However that is easier said than done, for a high price has been extracted in the past for being ambitious from Swami’s mother Rajee. But these ambitions she has failed to achieve. Rajee will thus do all she can to keep Swami exactly where she wants him—by her side, where his hard work and success will eventually bring good fortune to the family. He must be the savior who finds ways to deal not only with the family’s poverty but also with its tangled relationships and troubled members. Swami’s biggest anxiety is his mentally ill and closet homosexual older brother Gopal who may well be responsible for shaking the family’s very foundations and destroying its fragile but very important Brahmin sense of respectability. The one glimmer of hope Swami has is his younger brother Cheenu who Swami fervently trusts will one day start sharing his burden.

But sacrifices more horrifying than anyone could ever imagine will be needed in order for the family to retain its honor and for Swami to finally break free of his chains. And yet, in the end Swami isn’t sure he can truly shed those chains when he sees that they are in reality the bonds of his love and single-minded commitment to his family.

‘The Vanquisher of Obstacles’ takes Pulitzer Prize winning Frank McCourt’s Angela's Ashes to India, blends it with raw emotional appeal and spices it up with the angst of stifling Indian family obligations. The novel is sure to appeal to readers for its lavishly vivid and pungent settings in Bombay, pre-Independence Tamil Nadu, Tashkent and Rangoon. Within these settings, the book takes an unflinching look into a decidedly south Indian and yet universally understood vibrant family with its exasperating, often funny, and tragic ups and downs.

The Vanquisher of Obstacles--Prologue


Rangoon, Burma, 1934

“No telegrams? Again!” Rajee slammed her palm against the postmaster’s table “But I get one every month.” She closed her eyes. “It’s been three months,” she whispered, trying to hold back tears, trying to swallow the stone that had grown in her throat.

With a grimace the slight man used the back of his hand to wipe away the spittle Rajee had sent flying across the steel table and onto his face. “Maybe they forgot,” he mumbled. Rajee let out an irritated grunt. Looking at her the postmaster shrank back a little into his chair.

Rajee stormed out of the post office. It was a cool afternoon but her neck felt hot, her cheeks burned. She had been a fool. Such a fool.

In minutes she was home. Home was a large two-story brick bungalow with a wooden upper verandah. It was one of the homes built for the British, by the British, almost fifty years old and still in good condition. The bungalow stood on a narrow street lined with tamarind and palm trees, a few miles outside the town center, close to everything yet away from the bustle. The occasional tanakha smeared vendor or two calling attention to her spicy snacks that sent pungent smells from large bamboo baskets were the only sounds and smells that broke through otherwise restful afternoons.

Rajee settled down in a wide bamboo chair on the verandah trying hard to keep her thighs from jiggling. She looked longingly at the Shwedagon Pagoda’s main gold tipped stupa tower that stood in the distance. Its regal opulence had always sent assurances her way, made her feel a life of brimming happiness and affluence wasn’t too far. But today it seemed dull, inattentive, unwilling to give her the solace she sought. Rajee got up. No sense letting her mind wander to dangerous places. There were boxes that still needed unpacking.

A raise and a promotion had resulted in their move from a tiny dormitory like room to this house, two weeks ago. The landlord had refused to rent it to them at first, what with the rising anti-Indian sentiment in the country. But thankfully, her husband Mani’s bosses had exerted their influence and the landlord had been appeased. It was a prickly situation. The rich, in Rangoon especially, were all Indian. Most locals lived in relative poverty. Rajee felt guilty for being part of the upper class here, the foreigners who had taken over. But there was nothing she could do about it. Riots had started a year before and there were regular news items citing one more anti-Indian or anti-Chinese uprising. Not to worry, people had said. Mani’s was an unremarkable salesman’s job at Remington Brand Typewriters. The anti-Indian locals usually targeted the richer, more prominent Indian businessmen and their families.

Rajee willed the niggling worries to slide off her chest by thinking of their blessings instead, like this one, their new home. She walked from room to room, savoring the creaky wooden floors that seemed to speak to her, keep her company at every step. The fresh-smelling coral-pink painted walls were ablaze with the streaming light that made its way in through floor-length windows.

The gods had showered so many blessings on them and best of all she was pregnant again. If only her poor father had lived to see his grandchild. Circumstances prevented him from knowing his first but this one—it was so unfair that he was no longer alive to hold, kiss and spoil this one either. Stop Rajee stop! She put both her hands to her temples and pressed them to curb her racing mind. She stepped out of the house and settled back in her chair on the verandah. Sinking into it she took a deep breath and exhaled heavily, as if blowing away the past.

Mani was walking towards the house taking long strides, swinging his new leather briefcase and whistling tunelessly. He hurried over to her, stroked her hair, and asked how she was feeling. Rajee got up, using his arm for support.

“Nothing from your sister,” she said. “Again.”

Mani began picking at a piece of loose skin on his lip. “We made a promise.”

“I don’t think I can keep it,” she said miserably.

He gave her a pleading look. “We have to.” With a smile he touched her belly. Rajee put a palm over his. They looked at each other. The baby was touching them, reaching for them. At once Rajee’s heart started to beat slower, calmer. A quick flush of happiness spread across her chest. “Lets go out,” she said.

Mani said eagerly, “There’s a new Indian restaurant--”

“Somewhere else.” She looked at him with raised eyebrows.

He let a slow broad smile spread across his face as he touched her cheeks with warm hands. “I know. Next week, we’ll take a trip on one of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company’s steamers.” Their lips touched. She could smell stale cigarette smoke on him. His colleagues all smoked. Mani hated cigarettes and had tried without success to get them not to smoke in his presence but Rajee wished he’d take up the habit. She breathed deeply inhaling the intensely masculine odor. “We’ll go all the way to Mandalay,” he whispered. “On first class deck seats, we’ll sit with all those pompous English sahibs, eat cake and sip tea. What do you say?”

Rajee looked into her husband’s eager eyes. The steamer would take them along the Irrawaddy River past pretty villages dotted with pagodas small and large and ever so lush rice fields. What could be more perfect? Part of her wanted to leap high into the sky, soar with wings spread, like some proud, invincible bird.

Part of her felt like life couldn’t be more wonderful and yet...


Rajee could see Mani outside the room, tearing his nails with his teeth and spitting them out. A bolt of pain sliced through her. She screamed. Siti tried to hold her down as she tossed about. Siti, a local Burman was the best midwife in town. Poor Siti. She’d delivered hundreds of babies but not one of her own five or six had survived. Mani ran inside, took Rajee’s hand. Rajee tried not to think about Siti’s dead children as another painful surge cleaved through her. She screamed again and pushed. Surely her bloody stomach and intestines along with a whole lot of human dung must be thrown out and on the floor by now.

Siti held her legs apart in an iron grip and half an hour later, Rajee was handed a tiny cherub. His face was red and puckered. He had dimples in his cheeks.

Siti looked at Mani. “You have a son,” she said in Burmese. She held the baby out to him. “I can’t take my eyes off this one. So much curly hair, such a noble face but so tiny like a kitten….” Mani couldn’t bring himself to touch the baby. At last he sat down by Rajee’s side. His lips trembled, he had tears in his eyes.

“He looks like you,” Rajee said. “Gopal.” Tiny baby Gopal lay nestled in the crook of her arm. The gods had been kind. Mani put his arms around her and nuzzled against her shoulder. Rajee closed her eyes. Tears ran down, warming her cheeks. “We’re a family now,” she whispered. “At last.” Rajee felt a rush of love for her two men. Coming to Burma had made Mani the husband she could count on. And Gopal was the one blessing that their happiness needed to be complete. Gopal was special, a baby to be cherished and loved. She’d spoil him, give him everything his heart desired. And the way things were going she’d always be able to.

Siti was with her again two years later. This time the birth had been easy. Mani was away on tour. And baby Swaminathan was born with little ceremony.

“See how he looks at me,” Rajee said with pride. “Those eyes, piercing, sharp.” Rajee held her new son to her breast.

“He’s handsome!” Siti said, “but not as fair as Gopal.”

“So what? He’s my Swami. That was my father’s name. Turn on that fan, will you? My baby will melt in this heat.” Rajee caressed baby Swami’s cheek. “This one will take care of me in my old age.”

Siti turned the fan on. “Why him, why not Gopal?”

Rajee clucked her tongue. “I just feel it here.” She touched her chest. “Gopal is such a needy baby. This one will be more independent. Did you see how he grabbed at my breast? Aiyoh!”

“He’s born at an auspicious time.” Siti wiped her hands on a threadbare towel. Her soft eyes turned filmy. “Burma is finally free now, not from the British yet, but at least from India. And soon the British will have to go too. I have nothing against you Indians,” she said with an embarrassed laugh. “You’re the only ones who can afford to pay me…but…it’s an auspicious time. Maybe your Swami will be brave like the rebels who made our freedom happen.” She picked up her enormous bag.

Swami would be courageous and staunch, Rajee thought. His first look that had held her eyes in an unwavering gaze had told her so. She kissed his forehead.

“Same time in two years?” Siti said saucily and left the room swinging her ample hips.


Rajee sat on the verandah fanning herself with a sheet of newspaper. The fleeting few seconds of breeze it provided were little comfort for it was as though the sun god was having a merry laugh at their expense—‘here let me surround you with gorgeous orchids and hibiscus of every imaginable color, leafy trees of tamarind and fragrant mangoes and blind and scald you with light and heat,’ he seemed to say as he bore down upon the earth with every ounce of energy he could muster.

Mani, who was reading the morning paper, kept swearing at intervals. He downed his coffee in a single gulp. “Where’s the rest of this article?” He slammed down his cup on the table in front of him. Why was he being so crabby? Rajee ignored him and continued to fan the paper about her face. “Take this.” He handed her a magazine. “And give me--” He leaned over and snatched the paper from her hands. “That.”

Rajee listlessly picked up a cashew biscuit and bit on it. The thick buttery confection melted on her tongue. “Hmmm.” She closed her eyes.

Mani picked up his coffee cup and raised it to his lips again. Then realizing it was empty, he let out another stream of curses. “At this rate, we’re going to have to return to India soon. This war--”

“You don’t see the Burmese all leaving.” Rajee elaborately pointed her biscuit at the door. As far as she was concerned, they were home. “What should I make for lunch?” She dusted crumbs off her hands and got up.

“Wait.” Mani held up a palm and continued to scan the newspaper with narrowed eyes. Rajee stood beside him with her hip jutting out, her fingers tapping impatiently against her waist. He was probably reading between the lines finding things that didn’t exist. Newspapers existed to exaggerate the truth. But better let Mani have his say. That way he’d get it out of his system and forget all about whatever was bothering him. Hmm…so what should she make? There were some leftover lentils, fresh spinach and carrots. Usually full of ideas for meals, she found herself feeling completely blank. Tiny morsels of cashew lingered on her tongue still. She moved them about her mouth a little before finally swallowing them.

Mani read out a few lines then looked at her. “The Burmese are cooperating with the Japanese to fight the British. But the Japanese can’t be trusted. They have their own agenda.” He folded part of the paper and used it to swat a bunch of flies clustered near spilled drops of coffee.

Rajee was unconvinced. “It’s all just speculation,” she said.

“Listen,” Mani went on, “it’s not safe here for us anymore--the Burmans have never liked us. We’ll always be Kala Lumyo to them.”

Rajee winced. Kala Lumyo--black people, black aliens, something like that. Some ignorant Burmans called the local Indians that, but so what? This was her country too. Right audacious it was when Rangoon was crawling with Indians. She didn’t care if they were called stinking black pigs or sewer rats or worse. Their life here was far too precious to be affected by such drivel. She hadn’t spent so many years in Burma only to be sent back by idiots’ ranting and a senseless war that had nothing to do with them.

“I really need to start lunch,” she said and left.

The very next day, Mani came home with wonderful news. He had been chosen salesperson of the year. Remington Brand Typewriters was being most generous, for Mani was to receive three thousand rupees as reward, more money than anyone in his family had ever seen. They’d be able to buy land, a house, anything. And they might actually be able to, with perseverance and patience, ride out the war, it seemed.

Some months later

The Japanese declared Burma independent. But their promises of independence for Burma turned out to be false and the government they’d set up was their puppet. The people had turned against the Japanese and their new firebrand leader, Aung San and his people were plotting to take over.

Rajee pushed her plate away. “I won’t go back,” she said. She could feel the hairs on her arms rise, goose bumps felt scratchy against her blouse.

Mani pressed down on a piece of dosai rice pancake, and pushed it around his plate a few times until it had sopped up all the coconut chutney. He stared it for a long while before putting it into his mouth. Gopal, Swami and Cheenu suddenly entered the dining room chasing each other amidst loud shouts and laughs.

Rajee whispered, “If we must let’s go to Bombay. Let’s go anywhere but there--”

Mani grabbed three-year old Cheenu and hugged him close. Cheenu began to squeal and kick his legs in the air until Mani let him go. The boys sprinted out of the room. Mani looked at Rajee. “We can’t take three children to a new place. We’ll stop at home first. After that we’ll…we’ll see.”

Rajee packed a few light bags. We’ll be back. In a year or two at most, she told herself. Over and over. She walked around the house trying not to sob at the sight of her precious possessions covered with ghostly sheets. She swept her eyes across every room, gathering memories from every corner, burning images of every single nook in her restless mind.

On the last day, she dressed the boys in starched white shirts, khaki shorts and navy blue blazers. Their black leather shoes shone like mirrors, they wore hard hats to protect their heads. All they knew was that they were taking a trip, a long one. There had been tears shed over toys and clothes left behind but promises were made about coming back for them very soon.

As Mani checked the bolts and turned the key in a large iron padlock, fear that the happiest years of her life were being left behind that door pierced Rajee’s heart. She took one last, lingering look at the golden Shwedagon Pagoda with its shining gems. For so many years it had stood there, visible from every window in the house, like an umbrella of richness and plenty, surrounding them, shielding them. Mani tugged at the lock. Rajee clutched a picture of Lord Ganesha to her chest. “Protect us.” She hoped he was listening.

The ship tore them away from the shores of Burma. Rajee looked at the beautiful country that had been her home for so many happy years. She wished it and its gentle people well, and prayed that its years of struggle might soon end, that the rebellion for freedom would prevail. This country had given them much joy. She hoped that very soon, the Burmese could also live quiet, happy lives without fear of oppression. Just as she had.

Days later, they docked at Vizag port. They took a taxi to the train station and got on a train to Madras.

“Won’t cousin Ambi be excited to see us?” Gopal said. “I wish I could have show him my train set.”

“He’ll probably be in school now, in Madras,” Mani said.

“Huh?” Rajee said in a croaky voice. She was half asleep, undulating with the train.

Mani kept his eyes on the boys. “Lets just get home first,” he said in a stern voice Rajee knew was directed at her.

Rajee looked out the window and began counting the coconut trees that zipped by. The earth seemed swallowed by paddy fields. Sun burned men and women stood wearing colorful lungis sarongs in ankle-deep water soaked fields and called to the people on the train, with hands cupped around their mouths, their faces lit up with tranquil smiles. Rajee thought about her home in Aarumugam village, the land she had left behind. Her land. Her own modest rows of rice, her patch of fragrant ginger. And the trees. Coconut, tamarind, mango. The mangoes must be ready for picking. Should she make pickles? Did it make sense to plant rice? Her temples began to throb. “When do you think we can go back to Burma?” she said.

Mani sat still like a statue, stared straight ahead. He didn’t say a word.

Aarumugam Village, Tamil Nadu State, India

They got off the bus and walked slowly towards their land, exhausted, hungry. Rajee pushed open the creaky gate. The land was covered with masses of weeds and overgrowth. With a cry, she tore towards the house, running her hands through the tall, wild grass. The courtyard was covered with thick patches of caked mud. Dry leaves fluttered about in the breeze. The windows were shut and giant cobwebs connected the pillars of the verandah. There were splatters of bird droppings and dried cylinders of rat turd everywhere.

Shaking with anger, Rajee leaned against a tamarind tree. “Look…look at what they’ve done!” she said between heavy sobs.

“Don’t start...” Mani said harshly. Gently then, he put an arm around her, bent down and plucked out a clump of grass. “This is home, Rajee. All will be well, trust me.”

In the distance, temple bells began to ring. Rajee turned towards it. The temple’s tapered dark stone roof peered through the trees. A ragged red flag tied at its tip flew furiously in the breeze. This was no Shwedagon. There were no encrusted gems to feast her eyes upon. This temple was all stone, dark and cold. Just then, above the clanging of the bells, a chant of mantrams rose. A group of women were reciting them in clear loud voices. The mantrams sought the blessings of the divine for peace and happiness.

It was, Rajee decided, a good enough omen. All would be well, just as Mani said.

The Vanquisher of Obstacles--Chapter One


Bombay, 1958

I climb down the narrow iron ladder onto the dusty platform. The ends of my toes touch the ground. I flinch. Aiyoh! I curl my toes into my slippers. It’s not yet eight in the morning and the sun has already scorched the gray asbestos-roofed railway platform of Dadar station in Bombay to a white-hot.

A wave of heat along with a stench of sweat and drying urine envelops me. Men and women leap off trains, yelling at each other, herding numerous children, while expertly collecting their bags and negotiating with pushy porters. I look up. A huge banner hangs across the platform, torn in places, its bright lemon yellow faded in parts. But large letters in black, ‘Welcome To Bombay,’ stand out cheerful and welcoming.

Here I am at last--a twenty-two year old engineer. A penniless but capable, no--brilliant young fellow, eager to unfurl the rest of his life with his own strong hands, eager to set the streets ablaze with the fire of his ambition. Eager to—“Swami this train will go to the car shed soon, we don’t have much time,” my brother Gopal says in a harried voice. He and our bags are some distance from the train door, waiting in line to get off. The more efficient passengers are already walking away from the station in quick business-like strides, while Gopal and I struggle to get our bags out of the train and on to the platform.

Vendors shout their wares from stalls covered with red and green striped awnings. Peddlers balance trays of sweets and savories on one hand and chase away flies with the other as they make their way through the crowd.

Men in light gray half-shirts and shorts with matching oval Gandhi caps stand in stalls hawking lemonade and fizzy drinks, clanking bottle openers along rows of dark green bottles and calling out in sing song voices to attract customers. An emaciated girl of about eight and a slightly older boy, flexible and slim as a rubber band, are performing tricks. The boy is doing handstands and cartwheels while the girl is clapping and singing songs in a sad nasal voice. A large handkerchief spread in front of the girl is dotted with coins.

People here seemed to exude raw energy. Their faces bear a look of determination, their quick feet move as if they are gliding on wheels. And though hot and humid, this thick Bombay air seems to carry an electric charge, a sizzle of anticipation.

Hmm…what is that delicious smell? I turn to look for the source of the aroma--freshly fried garlicky potato buns, surely. A stocky bowlegged young man walks by carrying a basketful. My empty stomach twists itself into a tight knot, as if attempting to get a glimpse of the delicious snack I am compelled to let pass. I try to stifle the pain with a firmly placed arm over my stomach when a huffing porter in an oversized faded red shirt and loose, bedraggled white pants comes out of nowhere.

“I take to taxi? Only two rupees sahib sir.” He rubs away at his prickly gray head with one hand and scratches an armpit with another. I shake my head no with some violence. He pushes me out of his way and tries to pick up one of our trunks. His eyes gesture for me to help as he adjusts a red rag on his head. When I won’t assist him in placing it on his head, he picks it up and with a grunt settles it on his shoulder. Then he starts to grapple with me for another piece of luggage.

Gopal jumps off the train and opens his arms wide. “Ah…Bombay!”

The porter is still tugging away at my arm.

“Where have you been? Get…get…rid of this--” I wrench a large bag out of the porter’s clutches.

“I was looking for our thermos,” Gopal says. “Someone must have pinched it.” He pushes the porter away. “Jao, jao go away.” The porter puts our trunk down. He folds his hands from the tips of his fingers to his elbows, bows and touches Gopal’s feet and pleads for the work, claiming a wife and six or seven mouths to feed. Then apparently realizing that we are truly disinterested in his services, he kicks our bags and leaves cussing loudly in Hindi. Gopal makes to run after him but I catch his arm. “Idiot,” Gopal says. “You have to be firm with this lot.” He scratches his chin, looks at our bags. “Hmm…we could take a local train to Matunga but its rush hour. There won’t be enough time to get in with all this. Lets take a bus, that way you can see the city too.” We are close to the exit when he stops. “Wait here, I need to check the departure time for the Calcutta Express for one of my roommates.” Gopal walks up to a display board.

I stand away from the crowds in front of a fruit juice stall decorated with pyramids of limes, oranges and pineapples.

“Look at this one,” a soft female voice says in English. Is she talking about me? I present my profile in its best angle with nose tilted up and chin cocked, pretend to look at some movie posters.

“Bit thin but nice height--look at his curls--and those huge brown-black eyes? Mummy is after me to make up my mind about two boys--the horoscopes match perfectly, she says. But one’s hairy belly aches to spill out of his shirt, and the other smells like he hasn’t seen the inside of a bathroom in months. I can just see him rubbing his smelly, unwashed thing against me on our wedding night. Ah, my darling…he’ll pant and I’ll just vomit on him.’ Her friend lets out a low chuckle. “Why can’t she find me someone like that?”

I turn slightly to get a glimpse of the face that goes with the voice. Bright eyes, pretty nose. Not bad, not bad at all. I send them a smile. The women quickly hide their faces behind books.

Gopal returns. “What are you looking so pleased about man?”

I glance at the girls. Gopal shakes his head.

We take our luggage to a bus stop flanked by garbage bins and stalls selling everything from t-shirts and saris to fresh sugar cane juice and small electronics. A long line of taxis is enticingly close, with the drivers leaning against their vehicles, some digging their noses, others smoking beedis cheap unfiltered cigarettes. Strains of music coming from the taxis and the myriad shops and stalls blend into a raucous garble where we stand. Not far from the taxis is a line of horse carts painted with a hodgepodge of images of gods and goddesses in exuberant colors, some compassionate, others fearsome.

We wait for half an hour in a snaking line of tired-looking men and women. I try holding my breath against the smell of rotting food but give up after a while. Thankfully, a near-empty dusty red bus arrives and several people get on. I look at Gopal. Not this one, he mouths. The line has now melted into a cluster of impatient people waiting for another set of wheels to approach the stop.

One soon arrives, tilting precariously to one side with people hanging out the door. Before it can come to a full halt, a few jump off. The bus doesn’t look like it has any intention of taking more passengers and continues to move. People around me let out loud, angry groans. A tall man approaches our bus stop, lifts his arm, and brings it down to the ground as if prostrating in front of the bus.

What is he doing?” I say.

“He works for the state transport department--that’s their signal for the bus to stop.” Gopal leans forward, as if preparing to run a race.

The bus stops for but an instant, and the state transport employee lifts himself into it. Gopal bulldozes himself into the bus right behind him and asks me to hand him one piece of luggage after another. He fields the colorful curses being hurled at us from the others wanting to get in, as well as the bus conductor’s dire warnings, with placatory words and excuses.

We settle ourselves in the now-blocked entrance once Gopal has generously let the driver go on his way. The people left outside continue to shout and hammer the sides of the bus with fists.

Gopal breaks into a triumphant smile and while buying our tickets from the bus conductor starts to commiserate with him about the deplorable working conditions of state transport employees. The conductor is quickly mollified. Maneuvering the giant steering wheel with his entire upper body, the slight but expert driver navigates the narrow, congested streets of Dadar, making sharp turns and narrowly missing many a pedestrian, hardly ever worrying the brakes. To my relief we soon hit a major thoroughfare. A cool breeze blows in through the windows and everyone begins to look relaxed. Gopal finds an empty seat and pounces. “Take the window.” He lets me slide past him.

I now have an unrestricted view of my new world.

Majestic Victorian buildings flank both sides of the wide road. In front of them, Gul Mohar trees emerge from the ground like giant bouquets of flowers with their narrow trunks and wide-spread branches sprinkled with fiery orange red flowers and fern like leaves, Tall bushes of bougainvillea dot the dusty earth here and there calling attention to their rich purples and pinks.

Schoolgirls and boys walk along the wide footpaths, dressed in uniforms of blues, reds and browns. The girls toss their pigtails, laugh, skip. The boys throw friendly punches and swing colorful water bottles above their heads. Weaving around them trying to get ahead are the more world-weary briefcase-carrying businessmen. Women in beautifully draped saris walk at a languid pace, laughing, talking.

Gopal stretches across me and sticks his neck slightly out of the window. He lets the breeze hit him full on his face.

The bus stops at a red light. A respectable looking man wearing a crumpled shirt and sweat stains around his armpits looks up at me. His forehead is creased, his expression restive. He sends me a small knowing smile. Does he see transparent ambition bubbling on my face, I wonder? I turn away from his piercing stare.

Will I be standing under the hot sun someday looking a little like this man? Is my quest for a path to prosperity doomed before I even start?

The bus moves forward and I feel myself jerk back towards the seat.

With a relieved sigh, I close my eyes.