I like talking to strangers. Especially fleeting encounters. I’m really curious about how others live their lives, to the point of being intrusive on occasion. Over time, of course, that’s gotten tempered down with a grumpy ‘everyone is the same, finally’. Earlier, my heart would do an excited flip every time I realized I had something in common with someone else, irrespective of how old they are or what gender they are. Now, well, I realize you can have enough similar with people and still dislike them intensely, and if you look hard enough, you’d find enough similar with anyone… I mean, if I met Hitler, I’m pretty sure I’d be able to bond with him over our birthdays being just a few days apart, and how German is similar to Sanskrit, and would probably practice my pidgin German on him.
At Dubai, I came across a guy from Benin who was going to a conference about nonprofits and charity in Beijing. I told him to get a facemask because of the pollution. I listened to him whine about how tricky it is to actually do something lasting, and I whined about the sorry state of mental health in India. We wished each other luck, and I came away feeling there’s so much that I can actually do to make things better. It was a different, more positive feeling than the one you get when you see people suffering and wish hard that no one else suffers this way.
Not all conversations are productive or life-changing though.
Some are plain weird fun. I was writing in a comedy bar (where you watch comedy shows, and the waiting area is a bar), when this gay couple accosted me. Right off the bat, we began this slur-filled banter, the details of which aren’t that important, but which essentially was insult after insult. Good-natured, slur-filled banter, if such a thing exists. It ended with exchanging tofu recipes. We finished our ciders and went to watch the show we’d been waiting for. Turned out, these two men were the standup comedian’s plants in the audience. Y’know, like you see a standup comedian pick on people in the audience, and they are taking it incredibly well, and you’re wow’d by how awesomely the comedian improvises his jokes based on what the people say? Yeah, these people got picked on, multiple times. Broke my heart to see these people who not fifteen minutes back were giving me awesome comebacks take all the insult comedy lying down, but well, they got free tickets and a free drink after, so why the heck not.
Some aren’t even that fun.
I found myself on a nineteen-hour-long flight from JFK to DXB. I’d scored a window seat. That’s always convenient, because I lean on the window and curl up. The seats to my left were occupied by two slightly older women, who looked just like Annette Bening and Julianne Moore from The Kids Are All Right. I’ve forgotten their names, so I’ll call them Annette and Julianne. Annette was sitting next to me, and Julianne was next to her. Annette made easy conversation, and had me laughing within five minutes. In conversation, I gathered they were both heading to Jo’burg, and that Annette was a nurse, and Julianne designed aptitude tests or some such thing. And they were coming back from a duathlon in Ottawa and ditched their group and detour’d to New York City where they let their hair down until 6am.
Now if you’ve watched The Kids Are All Right, it’s about a lesbian couple who’ve been together for twenty years, and Julianne Moore is a landscaper, and Annette Bening is a surgeon. Which to my mind was not too far from aptitude-test-designer and surgeon. Believe me, the ladies looked just like this. So I assumed they too were a couple.
Soon, Annette got busy with watching Twilight. I slept. When I woke, Annette had switched to some gruesome-looking movie. Julianne caught my expression and grinned. She began talking to me.
Right away, I realized Julianne was very different from Annette. Our conversation was halting, and trite. And I must have said or implied something wrong, because at one point Julianne vehemently said ‘Oh, no no no no’, in her Afrikaaner accent, ‘No, we don’t live together’, with a nervous giggle.
I wanted to die right there.
Julianne was niceness personified, though. She talked about her being legally blind (which was why she was taking part in a duathlon for the differently abled), about her daughter studying to be a nurse, about how she sometimes felt unsafe in Jo’Burg and thank god she didn’t live there (though Annette did) and lived in saner Cape Town instead. She talked endlessly about how smart Annette was, and how dedicated. She talked about how they met and though it had been hard for them to train for the duathlon separately, they had, and they’d won. She said it was unfortunate what Pistorius had done, and was nicely dismissive when I pressed her on it.
So far so good.
And then we began talking cuisine. I mentioned I was a vegetarian. And asked her ‘What’s one vegetable or fruit I’d get in South Africa and nowhere else that I simply HAVE to try?’.
And there it began. My dear, helpful Julianne began listing fruit after fruit, vegetable after vegetable. Asparagus, beans, capsicum, drumsticks….
I tried prying the conversation away from this grocery list. I mentioned biltong. And offal sandwiches. I even dangled the Kenyan Carnivore Cafe. But nope, the ever-helpful Julianne kept listing fruits and vegetables asking if I’d heard of them. Aubergines, carrots, mangoes, oranges….
Twenty, thirty minutes passed. We were still talking vegetables. I was at my wit’s end. I didn’t know how to cut it short with such a nice woman, who’d just told me she was legally blind and that she’d need my help reading menus and asked me to take pictures of her because she couldn’t see well enough to take selfies.
I felt like a child in a fruits-and-vegetables class in first grade, the only missing bit was those Topical charts with lists of fruits and vegetables we used to cut and paste into our notebooks for homework. And there wasn’t a bell that’d ring and save me from this.
I looked pleadingly at Annette, but she had fallen asleep by now. I prayed hard for an airhostess to interrupt, but we’d just got done with lunch, and they wouldn’t even come by with juice now. I wondered if I should reach for the call button, to call the airhostess, to escape, but it was too high up.
And Julianne wasn’t showing any signs of letting up. We were still ten hours from land.
Then a miracle happened.
I sneezed. Then I sneezed again. And again and again. Until I excused myself and reached for my allergy medication.
The sneezing fit lasted fifteen minutes. I had never been so relieved to have an allergic reaction. My doctor would say it was dry air that triggered, but I like to believe I’d gotten so allergic to talk of fruits and vegetables.
At long last, we reached DXB, the rest of the flight having mainly been sleep and listening to Ghanaian songs which I didn’t really understand, except well, this one (warning: NSFW).
I began saying my goodbyes to Annette and Julianne. I’m big on goodbyes. I always like to add a ‘nice to have met you’, or some such thing that sums up our interaction. Otherwise it feels awkward, irksome, painful to me. Like a parenthesis left unclosed in printed text which you can do nothing about.
We were looking up connecting flights, when Julianne tapped my shoulder. “See there”, she said, pointing to one of the many departmental stores that dotted DXB, “There’s fresh produce there, you’ll probably find something you’ll like”, she said, in all seriousness.
For the first time in what seems like forever, I didn’t complete my goodbyes and instead scribbled down my gate info and walked away hurriedly, though my flight was five hours away.
Andre nervously ran his hands over his fake moustache, pressed the edges by his chin. He tried to brush away the lock of his nondescript gray wig away from his eye as naturally as he could as he adjusted his thick glasses. He got up and stretched. He couldn’t afford to be nervous today.
He entered the auditorium with the hundreds of people who would continuously stream in over the next hour. At the entrance were stern-looking men and women in dark glasses, earpieces and long robes. Protectors of the Temple. Reverend Benjamin’s goons. They supervised the security. Which meant, they weeded out ‘troublemakers’ from the crowd. People who might disrupt the event, interfering with the Reverend’s auras, and messing up his powers of healing and divination. They even maintained photo lists of past offenders. Like Andre.
Andre walked in tiredly, shoulders drooping, following a blonde girl in blue and her sister, past the tall, built, curly-haired Protector. Her dark glasses made it hard to know what caught her eye. Just as he was beginning to relax, he heard excited whistles and yelling. ‘Gentleman in brown!”, the curly-haired Protector was calling. “Yeah, him, call him”, she said. The blonde girl pointed to him to turn back. He walked as elderly-gentlemanly as he could, back to the Protector.
“Here sir, you dropped this”, she gave him his tickets that had slipped out of his coat pocket. He wheezed a thanks. “Careful, sir”, she said. “You take care”.
As Andre walked back in through the doors, he caught a glimpse of himself in the shiny metal panels. Even he didn’t recognize him. Showtime, he grinned.
”Is anyone here named Brenda?”, Reverend Benjamin was saying to the audience. His eyes closed and forehead crinkled in concentration. “Brenda… Margolis”. A woman far to the right got up and said “I’m… I’m Brenda Margolis”. The Reverend elatedly walked up to her. “Fear not, daughter, now that you are here, what you fear will not come to pass”.
By now, Andre had slipped in his little earphones, hidden by his wig. His hands fiddled with a device in his pockets. Soon, he could hear a voice. “She’s losing her house in a mortgage”. The reverend began to mutter “Mort….. mort…. mort”, and the crowd held its breath. “Mortgage!”, he screamed. “Your mortgage. Will be taken care of. Daughter, you will be fine”.
Andre grinned. He needed to pick his moment. “I see…… your father…”, the Reverend started, and closed his eyes in concentration, as the young woman in front of him watched with her mouth open. Now, thought Andre, and pressed the large button in his pocket. “Ahh”, the Reverend pressed his left ear in pain. The signal had jammed successfully. Now there wouldn’t be anyone whispering stuff in the Reverend’s ear.
But Reverend Benjamin was a consummate showman. He repeated his reaching for his ear. Over and over, until it looked like he was having a fit. He began to shake all over, before standing absolutely still and emitting strange noises. He then began to speak in tongues, as the whole crowd knelt in reverence.
An hour passed. The Reverend did some cold reading. Some ‘healing touch’ stuff. Some pushing-down-to-create-the-illusion-of-disease-falling-away. Nothing that was really under Andre’s control.
Then he brought out his Pièce de résistance.
Reverend Benjamin was done weaving through the audience, and had fixated on a mother and her son.
Andre’s mind went into a state of agitation. How had he forgotten this. This was an ‘exorcism’. The ‘mother’ and her ‘son’ were the Reverend’s plants. The ‘mother’ would tell a sorry tale of a ‘possessed’ and ‘violent’ son. The Reverend would pronounce the boy possessed by demons. And would try exorcising it. There would be things thrown about, flashing lights, and oh god, there would be some levitation. Andre felt helpless. No matter how tame the rest of the evening had gone, this would ruin everything. Everyone would talk about the exorcism, and only the exorcism. The rationalists would imply some trick or the other, and the devotees would hold on to their faith.
The ‘son’ was being ushered on stage. He was being given a robe to wear. Obviously it had magnets or a string or some such thing for the levitation. He gritted his teeth in frustration.
And then the answer occurred to him. It was so brilliant, so simple, he was astonished it hadn’t occurred to him earlier. He smiled. And then puckered his eyes up in concentration.
‘Show yourself, O Evil Spirit!’ commanded the Reverend, waving his hands mystically about the boy. The boy began to shake. The lights dimmed, and a spotlight shone on the boy. He shook faster and faster before letting out a violent ‘Aaaaargh!’. He whipped around violently, and reached for the lamp at the edge of the stage, like he was going to hurl it. He grabbed it, and tried to yank it. It wouldn’t budge. He tried again, with a violent growl. It still wouldn’t. His growl grew doubtful. The audience chuckled quietly, confusedly.
The Reverend looked confused for a moment before he regained his composure. ‘Leave this innocent boy! Leave!’, commanded the Reverend. He pointed a wand at the boy, a long silver stick with a pyramid at the tip of it. The boy growled. He started a mad dash towards the podium, looking to tip it with the momentum. He seemed to have misjudged the location, and ran right across it. He looked at the Reverend, confused for a moment before returning to growling. The crowd tittered quietly.
Andre had a wan grin. He felt exhausted. He wished he had been closer to the stage. But it wasn’t over yet.
The Reverend decided to get done quick. He stood across the stage from the boy, his wand still pointed. ‘Leave, evil spirit. Leave poor Richard alone!’, he screamed, as beam of light shone from his wand onto the boy. The lights began to flicker and changed color. The boy’s growls and screams increased in intensity as did his shaking his limbs around. “Leave!” the Reverend screamed, and raised his wand. The beam of light moved up. The boy stayed where he was, his growls sounding a little confused. The Reverend tried again. ‘Leave!’ he screamed and moved his wand again. The boy jumped, but largely stayed where he was. The crowd waited for something to happen.
“Mother!” the boy screamed. The lights came back on. The mother ran on stage, and thanked the Reverend for getting her son back.
The crowd cheered. The Reverend took his last bows. The curtain came down.
In the middle row, Andre slumped in his seat from exhaustion. He only registered the blonde girl in blue slapping his cheeks before passing out. He couldn’t even marvel at the lack of a standing ovation, rare at a Reverend Benjamin appearance. Or the two elderly women next to him discuss dinner and not any matter of faith.
An attempt at baby steps in writing fiction and garnering feedback. Expecting this to be something like, I write one scene, which might or might not be complete in itself. Or not. It might tell a story. Or not.
Three Dots And A Tear
“Watch out”, Arumugam said as he quickly got Selvi out of the way of the crowd exiting the train. She was still getting used to the subway, and the rush hour. She always asked if she could leave to get groceries at Jackson Heights sometime in the afternoon when the crowds were thinner, but he insisted he come with her in the morning, when he left for work. “You’re still new, ma”, he loved to say. And then he’d caress her chin, and the three dots tattooed on it.
They got off the train. He would change trains to head midtown, she’d get groceries and catch the E train back home, all the way to the end of the line.
Eduardo wove through the crowds easily at Times Square. He never did get pushed, or jostled; being a big guy did have its perks. A little child bumped in to his knee, and apologized. He kept walking through the passage to the 8th Avenue lines. There was the one-man band guy there today, and he was playing Hotel California. Ordinarily Eduardo would have given him a dollar. But today he was in a hurry. It was his first day at his new job near Sutphin Blvd. He boarded the E train.
The crowd thinned as the train went express in Queens, and Eduardo was still standing, lost in his thoughts. It had taken a long time leading to this, he smiled pleased. The job was minimum-wage, but hey, it was something, and something more than he’d had in years. He noticed empty seats all around, and just as he moved away from the door, it opened, and a crowd of people spilled in. He shrugged. He was just three stops away now.
And he noticed a frail, rather young girl, struggling with four bags of shopping. It was only Fall, and she had on a bulky winter jacket. She didn’t know to grip the long pole at an arm’s length so everyone could hold on to it; she held it with her arm, and close, and there wasn’t anyone standing around her. She seemed new. Indian, probably. She was a healthy, clear brown, a face that had known the sun. And on her chin…. good lord…
Selvi noticed the shadow loom over her, and turned instinctively, trying hard not to show she was scared. It was a big, tall man. She reached only until his waist. His face was hard, but he seemed very young. And there was a little tear next to his right eye, a tattoo. She stared, fascinated and scared, glad for the crowded compartment.
He looked right at her. She froze.
“That tattoo on your chin”, he said touching his own, “get it off. Or they will find you, they will kill you”, he said, making cutting motions against his throat. She looked around helplessly, but no one else had noticed. “Do not be scared, don’t scream”, he said, like she’d do anything other than stay frozen. “That tattoo… bad. Get it off. They kill you”. His eyes were menacing, it was almost like they didn’t know any other way to be. But his voice was soft and unhurried.
And he got off the train.
Eduardo felt bad. That lady had been so scared. And would probably not travel alone for a while. And hopefully get rid of that tattoo, or cover it up. But better him on a bright Wednesday morning than some Sureña in a dark alley or late on a Sunday night.
An attempt at baby steps in writing fiction and garnering feedback. Expecting this to be something like, I write one scene, which might or might not be complete in itself. Or not. It might tell a story. Or not.
Queen To Play
Jenna leaned back in her seat and surveyed the lady to her left. Her dark gnarled hands turned the pages of a book. Jenna waited for her to fully turn the page before spotting the name in the top left corner – Sylvia Day. She quickly speed-read the page the old woman was reading. It seemed to be some form of erotica where the characters seemed to struggle hard to speak like someone’s bad idea of what American teenagers spoke like. She turned her head the other way when the lady turned to glance at her.
Now the lady was reading the other leaf. Bared To You, the title on the top right said. Jenna made a quick mental note to google it once the train got to Times Square; there was 3G signal then on. She always forgot by the time she got cellphone signal; she hated the subway for that reason.
And she saw a tattoo at the back of the lady’s wrinkled, gnarled palm. It was a crown. It was neatly done, possibly recently, and yet looked somewhat sinister. It was pretty, though, with five pointed tips. She’d seen something like it recently. She couldn’t remember for the world of her where. The Windsors on Netflix? Nah….
The train stopped for too long at 72nd and Broadway. When Jenna looked up from the book, she found everyone had left and stepped into the waiting local train across the platform. It was only her and the lady.
She’d been staring too hard at the novel, and didn’t notice the lady glance her way and accidentally made eye contact. Anxiety flooded her being. She’d felt this way sometime recently. And then it hit her, she’d seen the tattoo in a documentary on San Quentin.
The lady pursed her lips and slammed her book shut. She then turned to face Jenna. Jenna’s eyes became round disks. The lady’s large, bulky frame loomed over her though she was still seated. Jenna shrank and looked desperately at the door. ‘…. The next stop is, Times Square, 42nd Street. Stand clear of the closing doors’ said the announcer. The door slammed with a finality. It wouldn’t open again until 30 blocks later.
The train began to move.
Was showing my mother around Queens. Inevitably, Jackson Heights was visited. For those not in the know, Jackson Heights around Roosevelt Avenue is an Indian/South Asian neighborhood. There are grocery stores where you get, among other things, packaged lotus roots and mango ginger, and raw turmeric. There is a street called ‘Kalpana Chawla Way’. Palmistry signs dot the walls. Tons of jewelry stores abound, with old men with long beards handing you out coupons for stores or pamphlets for some cause or soliciting contributions towards some mandir or masjid somewhere.
There are tons of dress shops. All of them have some variations of clothes that look like this.
‘Imagine’, I said to mum, ‘your only exposure to Indian culture was through here’. In spite of all the nice things at Patel’s she wouldn’t find in a store in Bangalore itself, and chocolate dosa at a deli nearby, she wasn’t very pleased.
Now I’m not someone very experienced in Indian-American culture. But one thing I’ve always, always noticed is Indian neighborhoods are just so much dirtier, all over the US and in Singapore as well. Indian grocery stores are just so badly organized and maintained badly always. I’ve been told strongly by relatives who’ve lived here for a decade or two to never buy milk at Indian stores, because they shut off the fridges at night to save on costs. A Hyderabadi restaurateur somewhere in Connecticut told me Indian restaurants are ‘all dirty’, and he was trying to create restaurants with open kitchens.
In regions where there isn’t too large an Indian population, it gets worse. The only store of Indian spices is one lone Indian store somewhere, with stuff that’s gone out of date, and fake MTR mixes and pirated Maggi.
Where does this culture come from? India of the ’80s and ’90s? Because heck, I’ve seen Food World/More/Reliance Fresh be way cleaner. I assume American official standards and ratings for hygiene and worthiness of grocery stores are higher than ones in India, and the system less prone to subversion. And yet…
I’ve somehow never been able to reconcile a second-generation Indian-American’s view of India with mine. They either see disease, deprivation and red tape, or festivals, food and family values. Very few among the extremely few I’ve met actually have more evolved and thought-out ideas about India. What disturbs me is that these are the people giving the world a perspective of what it means to be Indian.
I’m not denying there’s much more to immigrant Indian culture than these two things. It’s just that these things stick out to me wherever I go, and I can’t quite help being offended in some way.
Strangely, I find myself not joining my expat brethren in celebrating Diwali and Holi too often, or being involved too heavily in any such events. It’s possible festivals aren’t festivals for me unless my family is around, but overall, I don’t seem to enjoy celebrating them too much with any Indian community I’ve been around. It’s the same sort of thing each time, held on the weekend before or after the festival, with some sort of a compromise between puja and party.
I completely appreciate the need to have such events, and the fact that only by doing so will you foster a sense of community, and keep people in touch with back home.
That said, I feel as alien with these events as I feel in, say, a gathering of standup comedians in New York (I prefer improv). The form the festival takes seems new to me, the ways they celebrate aren’t what I want, the food’s not the food my family makes for the festival, the conversations, the people….. in short, I don’t feel like running in pursuit of nostalgia after something that’s so obviously non-authentic to me.
This emphasis everyone there puts on ‘being Indian’, or ‘celebrating Indian culture’ and stuff like that puts me off completely. There’s hardly any honesty on how it’s a best-effort thing and not ‘THE’ thing you have to be looking out for. On occasion it feels like I have to put up with people and places and events I wouldn’t have to put up with in India ever, just for the sake of feeling connected to my community and roots.
Overall, I’ve begun to feel why should I have to try so hard to recreate a non-authentic replica of an idea of India I’ve never bought into, the India of Bollywood and bhangra and chicken tikka masala, when I might as well have whatever authentic experience this new country throws at me. Yes, an American tradition is anything that a babyboomer has done more than once, but atleast I can make what I want of it, and it’s more opt-in than opt-out at this stage of my life at least. And thanks to cheap communication, I can keep in touch with people back home more efficiently, so I’m not growing apart from where I’m from. Of course, it’s not an either-or choice, and I can have both, but usually the crowd that indulges in one doesn’t indulge in the other.
I know two years down the line I might be eating the words I said here, and possibly be found organizing some lame Diwali event in, dunno, Wyoming, but until then, I’m going to assert that there’s plenty more in the Indian community that needs to be done. We need some darned self-respect, we need to stop trying too hard to impress non-SouthAsians, we need to organize our events for us and not for some idea of India we want to communicate. That said, we need to pull up our socks on the cleanliness thing real quick. And yes, while it is great for all of us to come together under one banner, it sure is irksome to have one idea of what Indian culture is – the Bollywood-bhangra one – being imposed on everyone. It’d be a great idea to rethink what we as Indians have to contribute to the USA and realize that it’s greater than just ‘family values’ or ‘we invented spaceships in Mahabharatha times’. For example, why isn’t jowar being marketed as a gluten-free alternative to other grains? Please don’t tell me it’s because you don’t want what happened with quinoa to happen here; I doubt you thought of that before this. Also, it wouldn’t hurt if people thought a little more about their heritage and tried to get some real perspective on the goings-on in India, which is better than what we learn from Russel Peters, religious heads from other expat communities, visiting politicians with their own agendas, and Shah Rukh Khan films.
I seem to return to blogging whenever life feels out of control. It usually manifests such that I stay up all night avoiding something I’ll have to do anyway, and in order to distract myself, I blog. Not a bad side-effect, especially if it means I put things I’m feeling into writing.
So anyway. I’ve been watching and reading a bunch of stuff.
I watched the much-hyped Lucia last week. For those not in the know, Lucia is a Kannada film. What makes it unique is that it is crowdfunded.
A year or two ago, I saw this rather intriguing trailer for this movie. They’d put out this trailer and asked people to give money on the basis of it. I had some issues with the payment gateway and forgot all about it for a while. By the time there were regular updates trickling in about the movie, the window for crowdfunding closed and the movie was soon to be released. I regretted forgetting all about it, but oh well, can’t do everything.
The movie opened in theaters just the weekend I was getting back to New York, so I didn’t have time to watch it then. It released online for non-Indian audiences last week. The site was slow to load; there must have been tons of traffic. And $10 later, I began watching it.
The storyline is taut. The acting is topnotch. It feels real and grounded. You end up relating to the characters. The music’s fun. There’s of course a twist ending that you’re waiting for, starting from the opening credits. And it’s good. But that’s not all that you appreciate the movie for.
It progresses slow in some paces, but that only suits to establish characters, make you empathize, build it all up so that you relate better to the climax and twist. Overall, it’s nicely made, well-directed, slick, and the sort of movie that puts a smile on your face.
And crowdfunding for movies seems great. As long as, of course, the movies that rely on crowdfunding are Indie and really can’t raaise funds from producers because it seems risky. I totally don’t appreciate the idea of big names using Kickstarter for their projects, just because they are too lazy to go out there and raise money the traditional way. Because it’s easier for them, and if they invade this sphere as well, where’s everybody else to go?
Oh, do watch Lucia. It’s a nice watch.
I’m part of a quarterly book club, and this time, our book of choice was Quiet – The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. It felt interesting to me. Of course, the problem with this genre is the anecdotal evidence that masquerades as supporting data for any hypothesis. The issue here is, Susan Cain is a worse offender than Malcolm Gladwell.
Still, the way of thinking about things has offered me a fresh perspective on myself. I’ve somehow always considered myself an extrovert. I’ve always been the most talkative kid in class, I always speak my mind, and I genuinely like meeting and getting to know people. And I’ve always been big on sharing my feelings. So how could I be an introvert?
Over the past few years, I find it easier and easier to be by myself. I guess I always did, I just never accepted it because if you were quiet and did your own thing, my extended family considered you downright weird, and my whole thing has been about getting away from that since then. I like living in a big city mainly because it affords me the anonymity and removes the need to have to rely on people continuously. I hate littering my day with ten-fifteen things on the fly the way my mother does, and I’m happiest just left to my own damn devices, decide my own damn schedule and not be answerable to too many people.
And it’d be great if the world left it that way and stopped trying to ‘fix’ me.
How watching Norah Jones videos and Netflix documentaries gave me a movie idea
I’m a huge huge fan of Norah Jones. I have zilch experience singing and now all I want is to be able to sing like her some day, just because I loved how she held us spellbound on that tiny stage in Tarrytown last year.
So no surprise I’ve been watching her interviews on YouTube a lot. Her soft Southern(?) lilt is endearing. She’s incredibly down to earth for someone who’s sold the most records in the previous decade. Her occasional comebacks (“You’re writing lots of breakup songs..” | “I’m not the only one”) feel very ‘bless ‘er heart’. I’m this close to crawling small musical venues around Cobble Hill hoping I chance on her performing in disguise (‘I’m not a good practicer, I learn best when I perform regularly’)
Now I’m no fan of Pandit Ravi Shankar. I haven’t really listened to his music, but the whole rockstar musician misogynist philanderer narrative has never sat well with me, be it with John Lennon or Ravi Shankar. I can write a whole essay on how the Simi Garewal interview with Ravi Shankar and Sukanya from fifteen years ago made me want to throw up. But his daughters, they give such fun interviews, say such fun things. Like the video where they are both accepting his Lifetime Achievement Grammy soon after his death.
In one of those rare interviews Norah Jones actually was mentioning her father, she was talking about her ‘inner jazz nerd’. That led me to watch a documentary on Jazz. It’s multipart, and I’m still midway into part 2, but the culture, the history, the way it is shaped around America’s race relations, how it is pretty much American history itself, delighted me. It’s this warm fuzzy feeling that comes with knowing that the little ditty you hum while doing the dishes is part of something much larger than itself.
This is a sliver of culture people are born into, people die with. My rootless self would probably claim that influence to be Rahman and Raja saar, but jazz spans generations. The same jazz standards are sung everywhere, by everyone, be it at Birdland or BlueNote, by Ella or Norah.
I might be jaded about the culture around Carnatic music, but jazz…. that was exciting. And I suppose tons of people would find the culture around Carnatic music exciting.
So. How about this movie about a philandering musician? He sows wild oats all over the world, and the mothers of his children are from musical traditions too.
Can make this musician of unknown lineage, unknown origin enough to make him blend everywhere. Maybe get Sacha Baron Cohen to play the part, I don’t know.
Surely there’ll be the HDDCS-type Hindustani musician, under whose tutelage our Musician learns. And his first wife is his teacher’s daughter.
Then there can be a Mohiniattam dancer?
And then a jazz singer from New Orleans?
A heavymetal guitarist in Norway?
A Khmer singer who meets her grisly end in the Killing Fields?
A Tuvan whose wants to follow in her family’s tradition of throat singers, but is not allowed to because she is a girl, but then finds success in the west?
This would totally make for a book in the style of Rushdie’s Ground Beneath Her Feet, and if it can be written without trivia and references and nods for the sake of trivia and references and nods, it’d be wonderful.
Would be great to start off the book at the singer’s deathbed, with all his children coming in from all over the world to see him (or not), and go backwards from there.
Plus, it’d be interesting to explore what a father or the lack thereof means in all these different cultures, how a single mother is perceived, how these things change over the course of time.
Would be an interesting book. Someone do write it!
My last two visits to Chennai have been for visa reasons.
There used to be a time when that wasn’t the case.
Every summer, without fail, I would end up boarding the Brindavan Express or the Madras Mail to visit family in Madras. Occasionally, it was to visit my athai and cousins, but I most vividly remember visiting my granny’s sister. Her sons (my uncles) were not much older than me, and that household was always filled with children.
It possibly wasn’t every summer. A couple of summers, I remember visiting my aunt’s people in Anantapur. And back then, everyone visited us in Bangalore and my usually docile self would go wild. One vivid memory is of arguing with my studious uncle (who was four-five years older) about whether the colour indicated in a picture-book was blue or white. It was a page with a list of words beginning with W, and ‘white’ was one of them, and the corresponding picture was indicated in a cloud of blue. My equally docile uncle grew stubborn that it was White because the picture said so. I stubbornly maintained it was blue. Somehow, this five year old girl and nine year old boy found themselves in a fight-to-the-finish replete with punches and bites and scratches and knocking-things-over. It only ended when my strict grandfather burst in, rewarded each of us with a slap and sent us to cry ourselves to sleep. My illustrious uncle, who now is a professor in Germany, maintains he doesn’t remember this incident. And my other uncle doesn’t remember the incident when we found a beehive in Vidhana Soudha with honey dripping from it, and decided to stand under it with our tongues sticking out.
An incident nobody will deny however is my playing with my grandmother’s hairpin and a particularly low plug point, and getting excited at the sparks that shot onto the ground for minutes together, shouting about Diwali. No one else, I recall, was particularly excited. Not even my rowdy older brother, who then later used that incident to terrorize me.
Every Madras trip somehow involved my maternal grandfather. I don’t seem to ever remember a Madras trip which didn’t have me sitting on his lap and reading out every signboard out of the window. Other adults would bore easily, and ask me to count cows or something, but not ajja. There’d always be something happening. Every station had something interesting associated with it. When we’d pass by Krishnarajapuram, he’d asked me to wave to my other set of grandparents (which I religiously did, even though I knew you couldn’t see the train from their terrace), he’d ask me to watch out for the monkeys at Malur (I don’t know how that got started). Bangarpet was where my goodie-goodie cousin Sangeetha lived.
And Jolarpet was somehow exciting to me because it was where Karnataka ended and Tamil Nadu began. I’d wonder if he’d ease up on his rule of always talking to me in Kannada then, but he wouldn’t. Somewhere after Katpadi, we’d have lunch which Amma or Paati would have packed. Somehow there was so little stranger danger then, and we’d end up befriending our copassengers and sharing lunch with them. They’d sometimes be dark stocky men from Katpadi called Selvam who’d call me ‘paapa’, and I’d shrink into my grandfather’s arms while regarding them curiously. They’d mostly be families like us with a bespectacled uncle and a granny who’d speak to me in English. And they’d bring idlis with molagapodi too. When I was a little older, traveling with just my mother, I met a girl my age from Pondicherry also traveling with her mother. I was intrigued by this girl saying they had bats in her school. I asked her if she’d touched one, and she said she hadn’t the cojones, but a senior girl had and reported that it was slimy. Many years after this, I’d develop a phobia for winged mammals, but I didn’t know that and was just plain fascinated.
And we’d get sleepy. And ajja would tell me a story. About crows or cows, usually. And it always ended with the little crow/calf going to sleep. And by the time Arakkonam rolled by, I’d be fast asleep.
Madras meant heat. And endless beach visits. If it was my athai we were visiting, I’d get amnesia about my parents and not listen to anyone but my anna and akka. Anna would tell me scary nightmare-inducing stories about every single thing, and make me cry. And then my aunt would scold him and take us to Marina beach. Akka’s friends were fascinated by me and I by their grownupness, and big hair and endless giggling.
If it was my granny’s sister we were visiting, the heat would really hit us. They didn’t have a huge neem tree in their building like my athai did. Endless jugs of icewater would be consumed much to the chagrin of my mother.
And that household had an endless stream of children passing through. We ended up this huge gang, with some older children bossing the rest of us around. I was around eleven by then. We didn’t really complain. They’d take us deeper into the water than the adults ever did. And Besant Nagar beach seemed a lot more exciting than Marina beach for some reason.
I grew fascinated with their consummate knowledge of Tamil cinema, their lingo which seemed straight out of Tamil movies, eagerly learnt rude Tamil words, and relentlessly teased my uncle (he of the white-blue conflict) about his learning Russian. (Little did we know then that he’d go on to learn German, Japanese and a few other languages and do a PhD in linguistics.) We’d watch movies on VCR late into the night, with everyone whispering filmi gossip. Someone said Janakaraj had died in an accident (which I found out only the day before yesterday is not true). Someone else said Roja had AIDS (Also not true). That ended in a whispered exchange with a slightly older… cousin (for want of a better word… she was marginally related to my granny’s sister-in-law) about whether kissing caused AIDS… not ‘spread’, mind you, ’caused’, like spontaneous generation. I fell asleep that night significantly more afraid to even accidentally touch anyone of the opposite sex.
I’d return from these trips significantly older, taller, tanner, wiser.
I remember a very different trip to Chennai too. The entourage was significantly smaller, just me, my granny and my uncle. I don’t know why we went on that trip to start with. All I know is, when we got there, we found the house locked. Forget cellphones, not many had landlines back then. Granny and I sat on the front steps for what seemed like hours until my uncle returned from the public phone. It turned out, someone (I forget who exactly) got very sick and got admitted to the hospital. And everyone went. And they forgot to inform the neighbors. We came back quick, and they didn’t let me see the sick relative.
And one summer I wasn’t allowed to go. Kavitha akka, one of the older kids in our group, died suddenly. I don’t remember of what. Her aunt who’d raised her, lost it. My great-aunt told me about Krishna-maami, the aunt who raised her, having a breakdown. More than Kavitha akka’s death, it was that which scared me and gave me months of nightmares. Krishna-maami was from Allepey, sometimes wore a white saree with a green border. The imagery of her in a white saree, hair undone, bawling, along with all the horror movies we’d watched in Madras, blended to give me a nightmare of Vithalacharya proportions. I woke up screaming a lot. And was too embarrassed to tell my parents why.
Soon, Madras became Chennai. Cable operators cut Tamil channels, mobs burnt buses, no theaters showed Tamil movies… both because of Cauvery and Veerappan kidnapping Rajkumar. It seems a tiny thing now, but that along with my Bangalore-born mother’s derision to anything Madrasi made me a tad less proud to be Tamilian.
Besides, there were other holiday spots my father decided us to take us to. And my Akka got married, and Anna moved to Bangalore for engineering. My uncles were now busy with college and jobs. Kavitha Akka’s sister, the one who I ended up so attached to, had other tumultous events in her life. There weren’t anymore a gaggle of children frequenting that house.
I found more cousins closer to my age, and there were more kids my age in the neighborhood as well. I preferred burning my skin off closer home, bicycling in the heat and dodging kidnappers. I got busy with swimming.
I visited Chennai once more for my Anna’s wedding.
And then it was just the US consulate which brought me there.
Things have changed. The large railway station I remember is now crowded as hell and dirtier. The smell of the Cooum reaches it. The bookstore is now a tiny nook. I put my game face on to argue with the autofellows as I step out of the station now; I don’t ever remember exiting the station, I always was asleep in my mother’s arms when I did so.
My ajja hasn’t been around for nearly fourteen years now. My paati can’t stand more than a week in the city of her birth anymore; she ends up falling sick. Her sister has retired, and my younger uncle is now married with children. Kavitha Akka’s sister and I were close for a while before she got busy with married life.
The city seems weird without these familiar faces. And the internet has ruined it for me with the incessant jokes about Chennai weather and conservatism. I’ve had a few less than pleasant experiences with folks from there. I hate it that every Chennai Day post talks about how they love the city despite or because of its autodrivers and the Cooum river, and refer fleetingly to the music season.
I don’t find myself longing for the good old days. What I do want is to explore the city that fascinated me so much as a child, right from the pavadais on display at Nalli’s to the fishmarkets I wrinkled my nose at, and see if it still fascinates me as an adult. It might, it might not… it is just another city after all. But through the years of prejudice, emotions, jokes, and sheltered visits, I’ve always been left wanting…. I just want to know.
When you’re among too many smart people for too long, it’s easy to come to the conclusion you’re stupid.
That happened to me – JEE coaching, undergrad, first job, gradschool.
Now when you feel this way, it can go one of two ways. One, you ramp up your learning, try harder, plan better, take it as a challenge and all that.
The other one usually comes about after frustrated attempts at the first way – you give up because there’s no point.
I don’t know at which point that happened. Probably JEE coaching. The exams were so unattainable and high scores never went beyond 60%, and the average was around 35-40%. It kind of made me forget what attainable goals looked like, I suppose. Subsequently, with deadlines falling all over me for years, I never did really deal with this issue head on, and coasted along. I didn’t even put my finger on this as being an issue until recently.
The result was, I never really applied myself to anything new. I tried learning German in undergrad and gave up when the grammar got intense. It took me tons of trial and error to learn linear algebra… and that process was anything but linear. I gave up on the guitar when my fingers hurt too much. I got intimidated by everything. It felt like everyone knew better than me, and once you get intimidated, you stop asking questions and trying.
I quickly learnt though, that I couldn’t bring that attitude to a job where I am expected to own and lead projects, push my own ideas into becoming new projects, and generally expected to be reliable. I also couldn’t bring that attitude to improv class. You can’t be intimidated by the others on stage and hide, not even if they have acting credits on Law and Order and 30 Rock. What’s better, both of these things opened my eyes to everyone goofing up and owning up to it and it was all okay, so why can’t I do the same thing. And I did. And everyone noticed.
Another thing I noticed among successful people – they took feedback so very constructively, didn’t for one moment assume it was personal, didn’t for once concentrate on the way the feedback was given, just on the content. I began trying that. God it helped. Subsequently, I also noticed people take it personally, and saw how that impacted everyone around them and it wasn’t good at all.
None of these however helped me get through Andrew Ng’s Coursera ML course or Daphne Koller’s PGM course. I got so intimidated, I gave up in two weeks. That, and I didn’t really have the time for it.
A month ago, I attended Peter Norvig’s talk about online education. He was just a little older than I remembered him a couple of years ago at the Google office, and had on this cheerful Superman shirt. I went and asked him if he had any ideas for improving engagement with learners who were usually intimidated by subject matter, giving him the examples of underrepresented minorities and those who faced stereotype threats. He said the courses were more or less designed to provide consistent feedback with regular quizzes and assignments and deadlines.
Now that didn’t really help me, but articulating that and thinking about it made me realize I had reached a point where I can try harder. And that I can at the very least start small and personal – and technology helped with that.
So there were hackathons where I forced myself to just blindly code, not worry about efficiency and things like that. I came out with cool stuff, and I could do it because I was the one setting the rules, and I set the rules and goals to suit me.
Then I found Duolingo, which essentially aims to make learning fun. An app on my phone is what it takes to teach me some German. I still need subtitles to watch Der Untergang, but hey, I can tell you if my breakfast is too salty.
And then I worked up the courage to try learning to play the guitar, from a Coursera course. The course is structured well, unlike other online resources I found where there isn’t a time-based progression and doesn’t tell me how much I need to practice, doesn’t give me goals and exercises, except that I need to do as much as I can if not more, and that if I was motivated enough, I’d learn. Nope, forcing myself to make those decisions wastes valuable cognitive energy. I’d rather someone smarter than me makes those decisions for me and just blindly follow instructions. Sure enough, I can at least hold the guitar appropriately now and play two chords and hold a pick without getting carpal tunnel.
It seriously doesn’t matter to me if I can speak in German or play a guitar or sing like Norah Jones (though it does matter if I have linear algebra and graphical models on my fingertips… :)). It matters more to me that I learn how to learn. That when I come across something new, I can break it down into small achievable goals, and develop enough patience to set aside some time and do it over and over again till I kind of get it. And when I kind of get it, it motivates me to get better and better at it. I know there will be people who get it quicker than me, and others who won’t, but that doesn’t matter… besides, online education and adulthood means I can try as many times as I want to learn and take my own time and no one says anything. I’m not setting lofty goals of being able to do this for everything I set eyes on, but have enough of an attitude to know that while some things are not worth the effort, it certainly is possible, but with some time and effort, and it’s not a bad idea to do so.
I tried writing a full-length blogpost on most or all of these topics, but somehow lost my way. So here they are, summarized and all together
I went to NYC Pride a few weeks ago. Usually, when ‘Pride’ is mentioned, everyone assumes it to be a wild Mardi Gras of sorts, but NYC Pride was nothing like that. It was co-opted by politicians, political parties, big corporations and social organizations. The focus was on milestones the LGBT community had reached, and about what more they want to do. Everyone and his brother wanted to show support for the community. Google had tons of Pride-themed swag – I saw this girl on the train with a ‘Noogler’ cap, Google Pride Tshirt, a TDbank rainbow flag in her pocket, a rainbow wristband, a sticker from an athletes group showing support for the community… phew. I ran into my middle-aged senior colleague there, and he’d brought his kids to watch. I’m glad for the mainstreaming of the cause. I hope sometime within the next ten years, I’ll be able to see matrimonial ads from parents looking for same-sex partners for their children in India. Because, well, no one ‘becomes’ gay to piss their parents off. Once your choice of partner is normalized, you can focus on other things, like worrying about how they fit into your family, whether your parents approve of your partner’s caste and religion, and how to ward off your parents and aunties and uncles hinting that they want you and your partner to adopt children asap. Like everyone else.
It made me think of all the homophobia in India. A girl I know came out of the closet, and someone else I know met her once. When this someone else got to know that the girl was gay, she said ‘But… I met her just last week and she seemed so… normal?’. And that is one of the most benign things I’ve heard. I’m kind of optimistic that’ll change, but I don’t know.
- Freedom of Mediocrity
Pride had tons of couples walking with signs saying ‘Together for 35 years, married for 2′ and other such mushy things. Made me wonder, what about the ones who argued and split up? If they marched in this parade, would that somehow make the cause less worthy when it came to light that flash news, gay people had the same relationship issues as straight people. There’s just so much more pressure on gay people to make things work, if you consider things this way.
One of my best friends works and studies in France and Germany. He’s an exemplary student and employee. He works really hard at everything he does, and always has done right by any standard, professional or personal, though if you ask him, he won’t say exactly that. When I ask him why he struggles so hard with doing everything right, he says ‘No, if I mess up, it’s so easy for them to say all Indians are messups’.
When homosexuals get assaulted, a great part of the advice given to them is “Project yourselves as being more awesome than straight people’. The major complaint you hear (especially from straight men) about gay men and lesbian women is ‘Why do they have to dress so ‘weird’? Why can’t they just be…. normal?’.
It irks me that just because I possess a uterus, I need to be twice as good as Karthik (generic male name) to get the same amount of praise Karthik does. It irks me that just because Sheila and Trisha are lesbians, they need to have a more exemplary relationship to show the world that gay people deserve their unions federally recognized. Or because Reggie is African-American, he needs to dress nice all the time to prove to everyone he isn’t ‘ghetto’.
If you don’t believe me, look at the examples touted of successful minorities. The ones to look up to are always the ones at the top. Admiral Grace Hopper, gay couples who’ve been together 40+ years, Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
The problem is, double standards don’t affect the ones at the extreme ends of the success spectrum too much. It affects the rest of us.
Federally recognizing gay marriage won’t probably help the couple who want to be there forever and ever for each other as much as the couple, say the lesbian one in Under the Tuscan Sun who decide to have a child and midway into the pregnancy, the pregnant partner is left literally holding the baby. Gender equality won’t help Marie Curie as much as it would probably help some nameless girl in a nameless software company who realizes she would be a better coder than tester and asks for a raise due to which there’s a huge difference in the quality of her life and in the decision of who between her and her husband stays home to take care of the child for a few months.
Also, the people at the top are really few. The people in the middle are a larger bunch. If you want to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people, you’d do better to start at the middle.
Freedom to me has essentially meant the freedom to make mistakes. In some countries, the difference between taking the right route with a male escort and walking alone in the wrong street can literally mean the difference between life and death. A truly free country is where your ‘punishment’ for going down the wrong alley isn’t much, because it’s so easy to make a mistake there. Freedom means being able to say “Hey, so can you explain to me what Markov Random Fields means?’ without the fear of being thought of as a dumb blonde. Freedom means being able to realize you’ve made a commitment to the wrong person and being able to get out of it without extra punishment for having committed to someone of the same sex instead of the opposite sex. Freedom means a brown person being able to mess up on a date with a white person without the white person thinking that’s true of all brown people. Freedom is flunking your final and finding out you still have a fair way to achieve your dreams.
Freedom means being able to write bad code without wondering if that would mean you don’t prove yourself well enough and you’re going to rot in a worse role than you wanted, though that’s not really standard for the men in your industry. Freedom is to be able to cheat on your gay partner and not have the consequences be so grave that all of gaykind are seen as weirdos and cheats by citing your example. Freedom means to not be judged for the nude pictures your ex uploaded of you in revenge a long, long time ago.
Freedom is like a mother’s love that says your mistakes aren’t that worse than others, and that the world still loves you and gives you opportunities to prove yourself other ways.
- What ‘feminine’ means
So I used to think being feminine meant having feminine interests. Sewing and embroidery, knitting or crochet or cooking or makeup or clothes, or maybe singing. But apparently you can be good at all those things and still not be considered feminine enough. Gaggles of sorority girls don’t care about your consummate knowledge of eye makeup. They don’t care about your awesome recipes. Mothers-in-law couldn’t care less about your crocheted toys. Or even your hips which your ob-gyn considers ‘perfect for childbearing’. You can have stereotypically feminine skills and interests and demeanor and you can still be one of the boys. Because the notion of femininity goes beyond all that.
Being a girl seems to be more about not living life on your own terms. It’s not about being a whiz at styling your hair, it’s about having no interests apart from styling your hair, irrespective of how good or bad you are at it. It’s about deferring to someone else, irrespective of whether you need or want to. It’s about being able to let someone else make your decisions for you – No, that can be a trusting relationship, not necessarily an acknowledgement of inferiority. It’s about not explicitly controlling your own destiny, but instead resorting to guile to achieve your aims. It’s about saying I don’t call the shots in my own life. Think about it. I’m not saying ‘being a woman’. I’m saying ‘our concept of femininity’. Think about it.
- Existential Crisis
Sigh. What can I say. FOMO. YOLO. Indecisiveness. Not knowing if I’m right in being attached to what I’m attached to. Not knowing what the future holds. Wondering if I ought to have regrets. Wondering if others have been right all along. Wondering if my reasons for living the life I live are good enough or if I should have taken everyone else’s advice and done something else. Wondering if I’m good enough to achieve my lofty dreams. Stuff like that. I’ll figure it out. It’s just damned hard sometimes.
So you’re starving. Like, really starving. But you’ve kind of made your peace with it. You’ve even stopped thinking about it much.
And then someone calls you to say hey, there’s cake, and we’re giving it to you.
So you get excited, and get all ready to have some cake. You try to tone down your excitement and be pragmatic and level headed, but they call you so often in the countdown to cake day, checking if you’re coming, if you know how to get there, if you know what to bring, that you figure it’s definitely happening. So you let your guard down, dress extra-fine and everything and head there.
By the time you get there, they say ‘Oh, I’m sorry, did I say cake? I actually meant day-old bread’. Or even worse, ‘Damn, just a minute late, all we have left is stale day-old bread now’.
Thing is, you’re better off with the bread than starving. So you aren’t really allowed to be mad. But you can’t stop feeling cheated because you were promised cake. You also hate yourself for being a minute late and missing the last of the cake, and endlessly beat yourself up about what you could have done differently to have arrived a little earlier. Maybe you should have run harder to catch that train, maybe you shouldn’t have redone your hair before leaving home. But somewhere you feel it’s a gigantic prank to constantly keep you disappointed even when you have all the nice things.
This blog turned eight three days ago. I didn’t feel like updating it then because I was in pain. Thanks for asking, I’m better now.
So am I excited as usual? Not really, not this time ’round. There’s not been much going on on this blog. It hasn’t been a highlight of my life this year.
This blog’s getting older; it’s just a few months older than Google Reader. They are putting down Reader on July 1. What of this blog, I wonder. Especially since most people who read this blog seem to follow it on Reader. I suppose everyone’s shifted to an alternative, or like me, given up reading stuff on RSS. Yeah, shocking isn’t it, I don’t follow blogs anymore unless I’m following the author(s) on some other social network and receive updates whenever they update their blog. It hasn’t made a difference to my life, it seems like.
This makes me realize people didn’t really need to read me here. Of course I knew all along, but at some corner of my mind wondered if people eagerly awaited my next post. But I guess getting to read my blog is probably like the free soda refill at a deli. You have enough to read, you don’t really need more, but what the heck.
It saddens me somewhat that writing and reading aren’t anymore a highlight of my life. I have newer hobbies. Reading and writing were hobbies that didn’t require much of time or money, and now I have more of both than I ever did. Which means I can afford to get fancy-shmancy yarn to knit with, I can spend hours watching and performing improv, I can get back to machine learning basics like never before, and I can actually go watch many concerts live.
And I feel less powerless than before, which means it doesn’t feel like writing is my only way to change the world. I’m also less idealistic than I was, so I don’t even try to change the world with my writing. I feel my views are less unique in this world where everyone voices their opinions on social media and it feels less and less like I have anything unique to give.
I write less as a result.
So you don’t get to hear about the Museum of Math or the Dengue Fever concert I so thoroughly enjoyed, or how gorgeous I found Cornell’s campus to be, or my experiments with hair chalk, or about the anatomy of a heartbreak, or New York during Christmas, or a neat collection of knitting patterns I have finished thus far. Or even about Eileen’s cheesecake cupcakes.
But that’s okay.
Someday soon I’ll find something that moves me so much that I’ll have to write about it. Someday soon my fulltime job will be one which agrees with my writing-mood schedule. Someday soon my threshold for ‘stuff good enough to blog about’ will be low enough to include all the things I do regularly. Someday soon I’ll not be so shy about writing fiction. Someday soon I’ll flesh out all my sketch ideas into concrete seven-minute-long sketches, get them read out and reviewed, and put them out here so that someone finds them and films them.
Or maybe I’ll move to a different blog, unconstrain myself from what I’ve made this page out to be and write more trite stuff. I don’t know.
For now, I’m rather proud of this bonny eight-year-old who sometimes throws tantrums at me, and who I cheerfully nurtured as an infant but now feel guilty for neglecting, even edging on forgetting its eighth birthday, but who manages fine being a latchkey kid. No doubt it’ll make me prouder than before. Someday soon.
In stark contrast to my disorganized life in undergrad, I find myself living a civilized, domesticated life now. I might even go so far as to call it organized, but then the world might die collectively laughing at that.
Deal is, this is kind of alien to me, to have a place for everything and keeping everything in its place. Or to have a time for work and a time for play. And a knitting basket full of so many different coloured balls of wool. Kind of feels like living someone else’s life, on occasion.
And when shreds of the past slip in, my subconscious revolts against the present. I go to a place where it feels like I’m still wanderlust from April 2008. And there’s nothing I can do about it.
Some other times, I feel out of touch with how I used to express myself. The emotions seem new. The calmness is strange, the lack of constant agitation feels strange.
I fear losing who I am, forgetting the lessons learned at the school of hard knocks, leaving all that behind for something that’ll only end up being fleeting.
I often feel the urge to create something beautiful, but feel crippled because I have forgotten how.
Things I’d taken for granted previously now feel scary. There’s little that’s familiar that I can hold on to.
And that’s why I’m here, hours before something kind of important, blogging. Because I’m scared and this feels familiar and comfortable.
I seem to cringe a lot reading old emails, old blogposts, old tweets, or looking at old photographs and videos. Everyone does, I suppose. My past self seems alien to me at some level, and embarrassing at another. It’ll be a while before that me gets the dignity of being a sepia-tinted memory I reminisce fondly about. On other occasions, I wonder where my idealistic past self has gone. Where the unbridled passion is, where the cynicism was still fresh and untainted by jadedness. Ultimately, it boils down to these things I used to do and don’t anymore.
- Watch movies: Until a year ago, my primary form of entertainment in the USA used to be watching movies. I had the pleasure of like-minded friends who’d make sure I caught every last Pixar movie, every blockbuster that came out, every thriller worth watching. Before that, there were endless hours in front of the TV at home, on World Movies or Sony Pix, watching a twisted Korean movie or a sweet Thai movie. And innumerable Kannada and Tamil movies the names of which I’ve forgotten, but the plotlines I clearly remember. I don’t do that much anymore. My aim in life has been to not plonk myself in front of a screen every evening for the past year. So yeah, I do Netflix, but it doesn’t have the randomness of TV. There isn’t anymore that wonder of a movie you have no idea about. The blind acceptance of whatever comes your way. When on watching a bad movie you don’t consider it two hours wasted. I ought to get back to doing something like that. It makes me explore things I wouldn’t have otherwise.
- Read books: My reading habit has been the worst casualty of my habit of never coming home until it’s obscenely close to bedtime. I don’t get to read on my commute because it’s rather short and involves changing trains. I don’t own a tablet, and until recently I didn’t own many books because they are a burden when you’re constantly moving house. NYPL rocks, but I haven’t really taken much advantage of it.
That said, I don’t feel the quality of my life dipping that much. There’s enough I get to read on the Internet everyday. Shorter pieces, certainly, but they are so much more current, more elegantly structured, easily digestible. You find it easier to discuss those with friends.
Of course, I do miss the sharp plotting, foreshadowing, and such storytelling techniques, as well as the long form, and my life would be much richer with these things than without. But I notice I’m not so anal about reading as I used to be before. I don’t judge people for not owning a full bookcase anymore. While I still squeal with pleasure at beautiful bookends, I don’t find myself sharing pictures of fancy bookcases and libraries anymore. All those things that came with a reading habit – good grammar, structured thinking, an air of curiosity, lots of worldly information – they now come even without a reading habit. And that’s okay.
- Read Indian English writing: This I completely don’t regret. I used to be fascinated by any and all Indian authors who wrote in English. I now realize most of them wrote tripe they themselves didn’t understand. I don’t really enjoy reading the NRI writers’ works about India. Their perspective reeks of misunderstanding and misplaced romanticizing. I haven’t felt many Indian authors have their perspective be grounded in reality. And when it is, it isn’t the sort of reality I can connect with. Either that their perspective is completely unlike mine, or they write so badly that they fail to communicate their perspective to me in a way that I can love it. They all take themselves and their Indianness too seriously for my liking. I know there are folks who have a more chilled out perspective, but they don’t write well enough for me.
I’m quite sick of arts-student type rhetoric-filled gimmickry-filled writing. I just want to read some genuine feeling, unadorned, raw, freeflowing yet somehow structured because that’s how the author’s mind works or they’ve taken the trouble to organize their thoughts. It feels fake otherwise.
Also, I’m done, done with Magic Realism and a thousand new controversies won’t get me to read Salman Rushdie again.
- Outrage: I’ll never have long discussions with people about their views on some random topic that doesn’t directly affect me again. I’ve done that enough. A good number of times on this blog. My past levels of passion on various useless topics makes me cringe a little. I don’t anymore care if someone else is wrong on the internet or in real life. It’s a serious waste of good energy that can go into a few hours’ more sleep.
- Outrage w.r.t my rightwingery: I’m still on the Indian Right, politically. What I am not however is a fan of endless foolhardiness. The BJP goes out of its way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. They can’t be arsed to clean up their public image. They can’t put a spin on things such that they aren’t putting their feet in their mouths. Yes, the media is harsh on them, but that should only be an impetus to get better PR. And I’ve never agreed with them on their social conservatism. Yeah, maybe the main politicians don’t even think of social conservatism, but they don’t rein in the ones who do spout social conservatism. The endless misogyny, the slutshaming, the homophobia… I can’t stand for any of this. If there’s an alternative that’s socially progressive and gutsy fiscally and in other aspects, I’d gladly vote for them. Again, the problem is, too much rhetoric, not enough action items.
- Whine about not travelling enough: Alright I’ll come out and say it. I’m glad to finally admit to myself that I think travelling is overrated. I do like exploring new places, but I do also like quietly listening to music at home.
But there’s also Things I Wish I Did More:
- Code more
- Write more – sketches, fiction… blogging frequency’s okay.
- Read more textbooks. There’s just so much to learn, and so many basics I feel I’ve messed up on!
- Swim more, ice-skate.
- Improv more. Somehow, life happened since October and I haven’t been doing much improv. I ought to get back to it!
So many cool things. So little time. And so much goofing off waiting for me. Sigh
Like I’ll probably never tire of saying, I moved to New York City in 2012.
Among other things, I discovered that a lot of concerts happen in the area. I don’t anymore have to worry about getting back late. And it works great even if I’m by myself, thanks to the excellent public transport this city has. So I ended up watching a lot of concerts. Let’s see how that went.
- Norah Jones: Last April at Tarrytown Music Hall. I had no idea this place existed. My friend had an extra ticket and while I had only listened to two Norah Jones songs properly until then, I decided to just go. Turned out to be a test concert for her tour for Little Broken Hearts a month later. Two hours later, Norah had a new fan. Her voice has an ethereal quality to it. Her manner makes you feel she’s just a regular girl you’d meet at a slumber party and do your nails with and who you’ll grin at when she has her arms full of Grammys and you won’t for a moment think she’s being snarky when she says “And I didn’t thank my grandmother either” when the media asks her why she didn’t thank Pt. Ravi Shankar in her Grammy acceptance speech. I also have grown to like her country band The Little Willies. Her music doesn’t take itself too seriously, be it when she’s covering Dolly Parton’s Jolene or singing melodious yet creepy songs about what she’ll do Miriam who’s done her wrong. I love how effortless she makes it all seem.
Here’s The Little Willies singing about Lou Reed cow tippin’.
- The Manhattan Transfer: It was Last.fm’s recommendations which introduced me to this jazz vocalese band. I wrote about the concert here. It was a very enjoyable evening. It was raining like crazy as I hunted for a Kinko’s to print my tickets out near Grand Central, and I made a mad dash in my soaked ballerina flats to catch the last train that would get me to Tarrytown in time for the concert. It was still cold and rainy and dark as I trudged up the slope to get to the music hall. It was downright magical to hear jazz vocalese being performed live. When we all stood up in an ovation after Birdland, it didn’t matter that I was the youngest and brownest in the crowd, or that the two women next to me had large bobbing Adam’s apples and that had made me unsure about beginning a conversation with them or that the old couple next to me called me ‘coloured’…. all that mattered was we thought the band did a wonderful job and we had had a great evening.
- The Raghu Dixit Project: All the Bangaloreans in the tri-state area came together at Joe’s Pub that evening. Everyone had that typical RV/PESIT look about them. Their performance was just like I remembered them at NITK in 2007, though only Raghu Dixit and Gaurav Vaz remained of the then-lineup. Their token eye-candy was the flautist this time, as opposed to the guitarist while at NITK. Everyone who’d come, Bangalorean or not, enjoyed the concert a lot. There even was a caucasian woman who danced on tables and jumped up on stage as the band finished. She was introduced to the crowd as the band’s ‘stalker’. They played old songs, new ones, movie songs, folk songs… they’ve always been good at showmanship and kept the audience on their feet pretty much the entire duration. Pretty good, I’d say.
- The Doors (of the 21st Century): aka Krieger-Manzarek. They’ve got a lead singer who does a pretty awesome Jim Morrison. Ray Manzarek looks just as erudite and classy as he looked in the band’s heyday. Robby Krieger looks like just another little old man with funny pants and a great shock of white hair, but two minutes with a guitar and he’s a powerhouse. Ray’s brother Rick Manzarek came in with the lead guitar for a few songs, I don’t particularly remember which ones. (This is why you’ve got to blog just as soon as you finish a concert). I was initially trying to record the songs, or to sing along or to try and remember the songs, but with the long interludes and solos and improvizations, I just gave up and sat back and closed my eyes. It was the closest I’ve got to a religious experience. The band are very loud, very ’70s, very cheery, very prone to cussing. They remembered Jim, they got up and pranced around, they screamed, they played their hearts out. From Riders on the storm to Indian Summer to Light My Fire, the music transcended every pore of my being, and when they finally got around to LA Woman, it didn’t matter anymore that they were playing ‘my song’, all I knew was I didn’t want them to stop playing. I’m someone who makes fun of Morrison poetry, but in that music hall with the music so loud, and a powerful-voiced young man spouting them, the lyrics all came together and made sense.
The crowd was interesting as well. Lots of ex-hippies. The sorts who are balding badly but still have a ponytail. The sort who still try to drink like they did in the original Doors concerts, but now end up going to the restroom every half hour. One such man next to me was reminiscing about driving down Sunset Blvd passing by a billboard advertising the latest Doors album, LA Woman, with Light My Fire playing on the radio when the announcer interrupted to announce Morrison had been found dead in Paris. His much-younger wife piped in with ‘I wasn’t born then’, and we laughed.
- Bob Dylan and Mark Knopfler: I had the highest expectations for this one. If listening to Krieger-Manzarek had been a dream-come-true, Bob Dylan would be downright legendary. Didn’t pan out that way. First, we’d gotten the crappiest seats at Barclay Center. Secondly, it was at Barclay Center, which is a ballpark. The problem with a ballpark is, it’s too large. I was too far above the stage and watched the whole thing with my camera zoomed in to 25x. The acoustics were okay. But then Mark Knopfler was the least interactive performer I had watched until then. Most of the songs he played weren’t any of the popular ones from Dire Straits. I’d have liked to appreciate the Celtic-sounding numbers he played, but not one song got an introduction or even had its name mentioned. The band was introduced at the very end. There was hardly any greeting the audience or acknowledging us.
I thought Dylan would be better because he famously performs at his grandkids’ school impromptu. How wrong I was. He acknowledged the audience even less than Knopfler did. He sang all his songs in a gruff monotone with very little hitting the higher or even the mid-ranged notes. I had great difficulty identifying which song it was that he was singing. The lighting was terrible.
If all that weren’t enough, the audience enthusiasm was pretty low. Any burst of enthusiasm would remain rather localized because the place was so large and people were so sparsely scattered. One group starts going ‘woooooo’ and realizes they sound out-of-place and just as others start picking up on it, they stop. And everyone stops. I just didn’t feel the enthusiasm the way I had in the other ones. It was a pretty huge let-down I’ll say.
- The Queen Extravaganza: This is Queen’s official tribute band. Their act is produced by Roger Taylor and the show is designed by the same guy who used to do it for Queen as well as for Led Zeppelin and RHCP and Floyd. I was warned they were loud, but I had no idea how much until they started playing. They had two wonderful vocalists, Mark Martel hitting the higher notes, and Jennifer Espinoza doing the powerful lower notes. Neither did any falsettos, I was disappointed to note. Their enthusiasm is boundless and their energy is infectious. They had these screens in their backdrop where they played footage from Queen concerts and music videos. I especially loved their rendition of Don’t stop me now, where they flashed the lyrics along with little pictographs.
The audience were astounded by their Bohemian Rhapsody where they played the original music video and the band did all the parts live except for the Balland and Opera bits for which they played Queen’s recording. They played all the well-known songs including Radio Ga ga, Killer Queen, Tie Your Mother Down. Mark Martel sang a very very soulful Somebody To Love. They ended it with We are the champions and We Will Rock You.
This was truly a dream-come-true for me. I’ve loved Queen for many years now, love their music, love their showmanship. This was the closest it can ever get to the real thing, and I had the time of my life listening to these songs. If I ‘just let go’ and surrendered while listening to The Doors, I was alive and ready every second for Queen. It made me smile for weeks after and nothing could faze me.
My enthusiasm for the band was however beaten by a banker who said he’d been to Queen’s concerts and pronounced The Queen Extravaganza ‘nearly as good as the real thing’, and a sixteen year old Brazilian boy who loved astronomy as much as he loved Brian May and spoke perkily about learning to stargaze from Brian May’s blogposts and tweets. And a couple of girls from Yonkers who said to me, ‘Ooh, Freddie was Indian too, did you know?’.
- Upcoming…. I’m dying to attend Dengue Fever’s concert in April, and wondering about Steven Wilson too. I’m a tad pissed about missing Roger Waters and Jethro Tull and hope at the very least, Jethro Tull perform again in 2013. I’d love to attend one of The Little Willies. I’ve heard there are a lot of concerts of Bollywood singers, but I’m somehow not too enthusiastic, but maybe that’ll change. I’m hoping AC/DC choose to perform, given I’ve missed them at Indio a while back. Rickie Lee Jones and Fleetwood Mac look promising. Maybe I’ll check out some jazz at BB King Blues & Grill or the Beatles tribute bands there. Maybe I’ll finally try Birdland. Or maybe I’ll say yeah I’ve attended more concerts in a year than I have all my life before and not go for any more. Let’s see how it goes. Watch this space
New job, new city, new hobbies. New roommates, new apartments, new neighbourhoods. Some old ties. Lots of smiles. Crazy experiences. Lots of new people. Lots of people from the past as well. Lots of worries. Lots of things that didn’t quite go through. Quite a few things that fell apart.
My gap year where I discovered myself after college. Where I collected my bearings. Learnt to laugh, to feel, to trust and believe.
It’s been a good year.
That Delhi girl died.
I don’t know if I should even be saying anything. In the time between when she was assaulted and when she passed away, I was having a good time. Lots of friends and acquaintances coming in to town, and I end up coming home at hours that would be considered unreasonable back home. I often come back home by myself, unescorted. What’s more, I do everything by myself. Initially in this city, it wasn’t much of a choice – I hardly knew anyone. If I had to rely on company, I’d've never discovered half the spots I intimately love here, wouldn’t be doing improv, wouldn’t have gone for writing classes, wouldn’t go for random Reddit meetups, wouldn’t furnish my home, wouldn’t…. do anything!
My behaviour and demeanor would be termed ayyashi in an Indian city.
Enough has been said about the mentality of Indian men and the government and patriarchy, and I guess I needn’t repeat all of that, given others have said it better than I could have. All I know is how not being constrained by my gender set me free.
I’ve always been the good kid who walked the straight narrow path. I don’t like to take risks. I just like to be left alone to do my own thing. I don’t like to fight the system. I’m not the rebel sorts. I hate having to fight for what I need; I prefer negotiating. I’m the meek nerdy girl you don’t really notice. That said, having a father and mother like mine means you end up with interests in random things your friends usually don’t share interests in. And you know what? That combination makes life hard!
You don’t want to stay out beyond your curfew, but you really want to go for Toastmasters which holds meetings late in the evening. You don’t want to go out with a crowd that has only boys, but that’s probably the only way you can attend that concert you’ve been dreaming of since forever. It’s hard to make friends because they all live so far away and they hang out late after class and you need to leave because you don’t want to get home too late. You want to take pictures of the sunrise, but you aren’t supposed to be out that early. You want to exercise in the sun, but it’s weird to do so on the terrace because the neighbours have lechy sons.
And so on. These seem very much like problems of the privileged, I know. I’m lucky to be able to go away from home for higher studies. I’m lucky my parents save money for my MS and not for my Mrs. But the sort of roadblocks in my way are roadblocks too.
You are advised against taking Mechanical because it’s not a woman-friendly field. You want to do a project with one professor but he is a creep you don’t ever want to be left alone with. You correct a lecturer in class and he casts aspersions on your character (this really happened to me). While your mostly-male team is trying to negotiate with a professor, you are asked to step in and ‘turn on your feminine charms’. Some girls you know wear jackets in 35 degree heat because a colleague stares at their chests and the people above him won’t take their complaints seriously. You hear of a much-loved former colleague being fired for sexually harassing the office looker, and though you are shaken, you are hurt even more by your friends accusing her of doing all this just for a fat settlement (mostly because they are numb with disbelief), and you wonder what would happen if you were to blow the whistle on someone who troubles you… would these same friends who hold you so dear turn against you?
When I joined gradschool in the US, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of don’t-care I faced. No one cared I was a girl. No one looked at me weird if I stood my ground about a technical point and was proved wrong; it was expected I do that. No one cared if a researcher was a man or a woman. I couldn’t anymore rage about being discriminated against; I had to contribute equally. I could stay at lab past 2am, and I’d get escorted back by the cops. And I didn’t need that, really… I could walk back and it would be perfectly safe. No one talked down to me because I was a girl. No one made me uncomfortable with their eyes or touch. The world was telling me ‘Here, you have all the opportunity and none of the constraints, now you have no excuse for not kicking ass’. It was sort of scary because I was never used to feeling that.
When I finally had free time on my hands in New York, my mind and body initially protested greatly at my resolution to never come home before 9pm on any given day. It wasn’t safe, my mind and body yelled. There’s some catch, they screamed. I kept myself away from staying home with my entire self kicking and screaming. Soon, I was comfortable talking to strange people, going to places that I wouldn’t have dreamt of going to, and my only gripe when I stay out late is that I lose out on a few hours of sleep, or that the Q train doesn’t run express. I see me blossoming as a person, without the constant worry that someone is staring at my bosom or looking to grope me. I feel less helpless. I see myself finally get that sense of entitlement and innocence I’ve longed for for so long. Somehow it felt like I’d lost that with constantly preparing for the worst in India. There are no strangers judging me for my choices here and wondering aloud if my mother did a good job raising me. I feel free.
I’ve had shady creepy experiences, but I’ve always been comforted by the fact that things can’t get too bad, there are cameras everywhere. And that even if something happened, the perpetrators would be brought to justice. The confidence that if I called 911, the cops wouldn’t say creepy shit and get away with it.
The confidence that the rule of law was in effect in New York City.
Yes, we can go on blaming the general attitude of the people, of Indian men, of Indian parents, society and everything for what happened to so many women in India. But in my opinion, that’s not it. Strict laws and their strict enforcement can go a long way in changing how society thinks. There are plenty in New York City as well who’d be too glad to do it the Delhi way, but there are cameras everywhere, the laws are strict, the courts are strict, citizen groups won’t let go of any such case easily. There certainly are flaws in this system, and perpetrators do get away occasionally. But the fear is enough to deter a lot of people from committing crimes. Not just rapes. Mugging and murder too.
If the streets are safe, people no longer have an excuse to lock their daughters up. If the legal system is secure, rapists don’t get away scot-free. Parents of girls start chilling a bit, let their daughters go to a larger variety of places. The presence of a larger proportion of women changes the social dynamics of any place. Boys grow up seeing more and more girls in their activities, and the whole idea of the difference between the genders stops being so stark in their heads. Sure, to see change in the society and its mindset, it’ll take at the very least another generation, but as an immediate effect we can see the number of crimes go down, and that is not a small thing.
And that’s why we shouldn’t lose sight of legislating on stronger laws, police reform, judiciary reform, and electing officials who toe our line on these things.
I’m finally in the right state of mind to write fiction. I have time, I have my laptop and a screen, and I’m well-fed and nowhere to get to. I crowdsourced a writing prompt, and I ended up with four suggestions – ‘Holiday fiasco’, ‘Avocado’, ‘Gay rights’, ‘He was a dork, yet stocky knight’. Let me try writing it one sentence at a time and see where it goes….
Mum’s the Word
Anita took the avocado peeler out of its packaging and hung it with the rest of the cutlery. An impulsive grab while grocery shopping for tonight’s dinner. She wasn’t used to cooking for more than one person. And now ten were descending on her for Thanksgiving dinner. The thought gave her a dull ache in her limbs.
Atleast she didn’t have to make everything; just the turkey, gravy and dips for the hors d’ouvres. Michael was bringing the stuffing, Angela-akka said she’d bring scalloped potatoes, and Albert-anna and anni were bringing biriyani. Aishu had finally got time off from her lab. Stephen was doing dessert.
Stephen. Anita hadn’t seen her younger son for almost a year now. Just a few days after he got back from his semester in Europe studying Art History. He’d had a job waiting for him in New York, and left home soon. Too soon for her liking. She stood still, the pestle hovering over the bowl of avocados. Mike and she had had an amicable divorce, and after the first few years of resentment, they had learned to be friends. Still, she felt increasingly lonely as she approached retirement, and wished her son would call her more often. Aishu on the other hand was more attached to Mike, called him more often than she called Anita.
Basting the turkey lovingly with an apple cider glaze, a smile spread across Anita’s face. Her brother and sister would soon come. Mike would, too. But most of all, her babies were coming home!
* * *
“Say what you will, Albie”, Angela said “it is very inappropriate to call her ex husband and all”.
“Aiyo, akka“, Albert said for the millionth time that day, “who else is there for her at this age? Aishwarya is in Chicago, Stephen is in New York, who is there to take care of her?” Nancy, his wife, nodded along, too scared to say anything more countering her sister-in-law.
“Are we not there?”, Angela said in her self-righteous manner.
“Angie-akka, Ani takes care of you more than you take care of her. Especially after your operation”.
Angela scowled. ”She should never have divorced him in the first place”.
“Why do you bring up all these old stories? This is why Ani is forced to ask you to come and stay with us instead of with her”
“When they were getting married itself, I didn’t approve. I had taken her aside and said ‘Ani, he doesn’t seem a good boy’. Did she listen to me? No. No one listens to me.”
Nancy disappeared into the kitchen on some pretext. Albert followed her.
“But whatever we say to Angie-akka, I still am not comfortable with Michael coming.”, she said.
“You know Ani has always been like that no. Marrying that fellow even after Appa opposed it so much, then divorced him, and now their children do whatever they want, no rules nothing”.
“Aishwarya does modeling these days itseems”, Nancy snidely added.
“That boy is also some artist or something. Still mooching off parents’ money on Europe trip and this and that.”, Albert grumbled. “If I’d had a son, he wouldn’t have grown up like that”.
“Leave no, Albie, the children have been through enough. It’s not anyone’s fault they are like that. Both Mike and Ani feel guilty and overcompensate by letting the children do whatever they want. What else will they do?”
* * *
“Knight, eh?”, said Stephen to the elderly gentleman riding shotgun with him. “You’ll make a dork, stocky Knight, George”.
A dignified smile spread across George’s lips, somehow making his well-proportioned olive-skinned face even more stately than it already was. His greying at the temples only accentuated the effect.
“It’s not a Knighthood, Stephie-boy. Just an OBE. And at this point, it’s just speculation”
“Humility, eh? I mean, you did hear it from the Queen’s press secretary.”
“Yeah. But if I go around telling it around, I won’t be able to put on my surprised face when the list does come out, will I?”.
“Oh come, you can tell my folks that now and they’ll only like you more. It’ll help our case when I tell them you’re George Alaganathan, OBE for Charitable Services rendered to the Empire, than the whole Royal Family instead of George who I met in Europe and took a fancy to”.
“Stephie…… are you sure you want me at Thanksgiving? I mean, you’re seeing your entire family after ages, and I don’t want to intrude…”
“Nah, it’ll be okay. Mummy and Dad don’t mind when I bring friends over”.
“You know that’s not what I’m worried about”.
“Relax. It’ll be fine.”
“I’m fine meeting your parents. I’m not so sure about your extended family….. are you sure you want me there with your uncles and aunts and everyone there?”
“George, when else can I take time off and go meet my parents? And when do you ever get time off anyway? We’re staying the night at Ma’s place aren’t we… we’ll talk to just them later after everyone else has gone home”.
George still brooded.
“Forget about it and keep a look out for some place we can get some gigantic cake or the other?”
“Where in Sri Lanka was your family from?”. Appa and Albert-mama had rather taken a liking to George.
“Near Jaffna. It was very long ago, Sir. My mother escaped to live with relatives in Birmingham in 1984, when the fighting was just starting. I was just a lad then…. I thought it was just for a few weeks.. but…”.
And thus began a line of conversation Stephen had heard only a million times before, which George invariably was asked to narrate whenever in the company of diaspora Tamils.
“Was your father Alaganathan Arulsamy?”, Angie-periamma interrupted. “In 1983, when I was involved in the Christian Mission in Vavuniya, I think I had met him… wasn’t he a civil servant in Jaffna then?”.
“Illai-nga, my father was Alaganathan Manivannan. Passed away in 1980 itself. He was not a civil servant actually, just an electrician.”. George gave his faraway smile that always managed to charm everyone.
“Oh, your mother must have been Dhanaletchmy? I remember she was very active in the local church…..”
“Oh, yes, you know her then. Wonderful to know.” George’s face lit up with genuine happiness.
Stephen suppressed a giggle. George’s mother Rukmini had remained a devout Hindu until her death.
“Turkey’s delicious-nga. Best I’ve had in a very long time”, George added to Anita who then giggled like she was eighteen and said “Oh, it’s nothing”.
That old fox, Stephen smiled. George, having had his charitable organization that helped immigrants and refugees to the UK assimilate for the past twenty years, knew exactly how to make people feel comfortable.
Mike and George then went into a long tirade about how the US government had been unfair about Raj Rajarathinam. Stephen tuned out.
“Aishu, my laptop’s not working pa, fix it no”, Stephen turned to his sister. She gave him a look that suggested she’d heard this joke a million times. “Northwestern computer science and you can’t fix your brother’s laptop?”.
“Poda, you’ll use Internet Explorer and it’ll have a thousand popups and toolbars and viruses you’ve got from random sites”.
She leaned in closer, and in a low voice, said “What’s going on here?”.
“Nothing, George didn’t have anywhere to go for Thanskgiving, so I brought him here.”
“Don’t give me that Stephie.”
“Not now, Aishu. Later”.
“No, no, it’s alright! Nancy and I will clear the table, please don’t bother!”, Anita shooed George as he attempted to help her in putting the dishes away.
George tried to protest when his phone rang, and he excused himself as he pulled it out of his pocket.
“Kudutthu vecchirukanum, Stephen”, Angie-perima was saying, “To be friends with a man as highly esteemed as this. His mother was a very distinguished and dignified woman, and I’m happy to say he would have made her proud…..” She trailed off and stared into space.
“What’s that?”. Angie-perima walked over to where George had been standing. She picked up a bulky leather wallet.
“Oh, that’s George’s, perima. Give it here…”. Angie had already opened it.
“What is going on here? I demand to know. Who is this man?”. She thundered.
Everyone looked around in confusion. Just then, George walked back in from the patio.
“You are not Dhanaletchmy’s son”. she said as she burnt him with her gaze. “That boy died of measles.”.
“Ah, madam, you caught me there. I was just…”
“And now…”, she sobbed, “What are you doing with our boy? See everyone, he keeps a photo of our Stephie in his wallet”. She held his wallet open for everyone to see. Sure enough, there was a photograph of Stephen, standing by the Thames.
“Who are you?” Mike and Albert-mama cornered George. “What is this supposed to mean? Our boy shows you kindness and this is what you do with it, is it?”
“No, sir, it’s all just a huge mistake….”
“Appa, Mama, please leave George alone. He’s done nothing.”
“Stephen, what is going on?”, Anita angrily asked.
“Amma, Appa, Aishu, George and I are in love. I brought him here to introduce him to you people. We wanted to talk to you later tonight. We certainly didn’t mean to let you find out like… like this… “
“What have you done to our boy?” Albert was livid. “I know all your types. Catching boys at an impressionable age, and brainwashing them. Should whip you people senseless”.
“How can you call yourself a Christian?”, Angela’s eyes were full of hot tears as she clutched at her cross.
“Everyone, please calm down. I know my brother. He isn’t gullible enough to be brainwashed. He’s been aware of his preferences for quite a while now”. Aishwarya protectively held her brother.
“You knew, Aishu? Why didn’t you tell us before?”. Anita burst into tears.
“Amma, it’s Anna‘s business. I left it to him to tell you in whatever style he found suitable”.
“Why didn’t you give me any indication at the very least? Some warning? Why didn’t you, Stephen? Your poor mother has to find out like this?”
“Amma…. I…” Stephen mumbled.
“Where did I go wrong with you? Mike, where did I go wrong? Where did we go wrong?”, Anita sobbed into her ex-husband’s arms.
“Stephen, what did we do to make you feel you can’t trust us like this? How long has this been going on for? Everyone goes through confusions, Stephen. You shouldn’t let others take advantage of those confusions of yours. You could have talked to us about any confusions”.
“And you would have said they exist only in my mind!” shot back Stephen. “This is what I am. And I won’t let any force on that take this part of me away from me”.
“Aah, I’m feeling faint”. Angela shrieked as she crumpled onto the couch. Nancy rushed to her with a glass of water.
Albert and Nancy had taken Angela away, not before cursing the whole family and telling them nothing good will ever happen to this dysfunctional family. George patiently stood in the patio while the family disappeared into one of the bedrooms to talk. He gazed at the stars, worrying for Stephen, worrying for them.
“Chilly, isn’t it?”. Aishwarya was standing next to him. “I’m used to colder, this isn’t so bad.”, George said. “Listen, I’m really sorry for everything today. I was uncertain about my coming, but I never anticipated things could go this way”. Aishwarya looked at him.
“I know what you must be thinking. I must seem like a dirty old man….”
“Listen, as fiercely protective of Stephen as we are, we at the end respect his choices. Besides, he loves you. I’ve never seen him this way about anyone”.
“Likewise for me. I had consigned myself to a life in the closet, ‘Confirmed bachelor’ as they call it. Until I met Stephe at a fundraiser”.
“He’s a great guy”.
“He’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me”.
“He says the same thing”.
George smiled shyly.
“Just promise me one thing? I know I can’t ask you to never break his heart. But if he breaks yours, do be gentle on him? He’s only a boy.”
* * *
An hour later, they were all having a nightcap of brandy, toasting George and Stephen. Mike said it was wonderful to have George be part of the family, and Anita said they both were lucky to have found each other. They laughed and talked. George narrated stories about how they met in Europe, mentioned his plans of expanding his charity to America and said he would no doubt need the goodwill of people like Mike and Anita to do so. Finally Aishwarya began to yawn while laughing at Stephen’s jokes, and everyone went to turn in. Anita stumbled while getting up, and Stephen went with her to tuck her in.
“So… what do you really think, Ma?”, Stephen asked.
“You both are really in love, aren’t you Stephe, I can see it in your eyes”, she smiled.
“Yes! He takes good care of me. He’s always there to tell me right from wrong. He’s my rock. He’ll give his life for me”.
“Of course he will, Stephe. That’s what a significant other is for“
“Stephe, be your own person first. It’s easy to not get a chance to develop that if someone’s always protecting you from the world. Don’t make the mistakes I made”.
“But Mummy, you’re so independent. You raised us almost single-handedly”.
“I wasn’t always, Stephe. Even now, I find it hard, keeping my own company. I’m still learning to be happy without having to have someone else working at making me happy”.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because you are exactly where I was just before I married Appa. You don’t have to commit to the first person who asks you to, you know that, right? I was very naive. Appa was just getting ready to settle down. I never explored myself as a person, Stephe. I gave up a promising career, all my hobbies. And who do I have to blame for that? Not Appa. He never stopped me. It never occurred to me to take care of myself. If I’d waited a while, things might have been different… Appa and I aren’t right for each other, Stephe. We can be friends, but it just got too difficult toward the end. I don’t want you to become like me, Stephe”.
“First take care of yourself, Stephe. Don’t let anyone make you feel obliged to put their needs first”.
“Yeah, he is a lot like Appa. But he’s awesome, Ma. Gives me a lot of space. The long distance really does help. He doesn’t always get it that I want some alone time, but that’s our challenge. That’s something we have to work out.”
“We’ll work it out, Ma. Don’t worry. I’m just glad you’ll be there for me no matter how it turns out. It’s… it’s comforting to know.”. Stephen squeezed his mother’s hand.
He rose to leave.
“Ma?” he said. She turned. “I love you. I want you to know that”.
Anita hugged him close. Her baby boy was growing up.
I moved to New York City in January.
My first month in NYC, I sublet a rather filthy and rather tiny space in Harlem for a month from a shark sorta girl. I was given an option of taking over the lease which I tried my very best to escape and successfully managed to. I moved to someone’s living room on the Upper East.
After being used to a ginormous So.Cal apartment, a tiny Manhattan apartment with its microscopic kitchen is going to induce claustrophobia, never mind half a living room. But then, it was Manhattan and I stayed for a while.
Eventually, my circumstances were such that I needed to find a larger space. By this time, I was tired of drifting from one set of roommates to another (lived with a grand total of 12 roommates so far), getting to know someone and their quirks from scratch. I also decided I’d like it very much to fill the fridge and larder only with things I liked, use all the tiny space there was for just my stuff, be able to keep the lights on at 4am if I wanted, offer accommodation to any friend who needed it, exercise at odd hours without the sound of my breathing pissing someone off, and choose a name I liked for the Wifi.
Househunt. And good lord, it’s hard finding a satisfactory place in NYC. Let me give you a brief account and some tips.
Location, Location, Location
It’s good to settle on a neighbourhood before staking out. I needed a place close to shopping and hobbies with as short a commute to work as possible. Hopefully not by a sole subway line that is out for repairs every weekend (I’m looking at you, 7 train). This much isn’t difficult. Most places in Manhattan and the western parts of Queens and Brooklyn fulfill these criteria. It gets a little more complicated when you are on a budget. That by itself eliminates the nicer larger apartment blocks.
I initially started my search with just a budget and a rough idea of what sort of an apartment I was looking for. I’d answer all the ads I could find on Padmapper and Craigslist whenever I was in the mood months before I even planned on moving out, just to get an idea of the market. Turns out, a lot of the affordable places are in supremely shady neighbourhoods.
Take for instance a rather rowdy-looking tranny yelling insults at me in Bushwick where I’d found the nicest apartment I’d ever found. Or getting teased rather painfully near a project in Long Island City.
It’s also good to use tools like Trulia to find crime rates at any given location and neighbourhood. Mostly, these were right on the mark, but it’s not still a completely clear indication. Reddit is a great resource to ask people about how safe a particular area is. To me, it seemed better to go by what (a large number of) people said… i.e., don’t listen to one or two people’s opinion, listen to the opinion of a crowd. But ultimately, you need to go visit neighborhoods at different times of the day to gauge what it feels like, and listen to your gut.
There is simply no escaping real estate agents/brokers while hunting for an apartment in NYC. One smart thing to do would be to walk around the neighbourhoods you want to live in and call the listed numbers to see if they have apartments to let, to bypass any real estage agent. But when you look on Craigslist, even when you look for apartments listed by owner, you would find the listings to be dominated by agents. You can of course report them for being wrongly classified, but there’s no escaping them. Agents do have good listings with them.
But you know what, agents aren’t all that bad. If you know how to work them, that is. Lots of them want to just foist this or that apartment on you. They’ll tell you all sorts of tall tales, sing you praises of this apartment and its superintendent or that neighborhood and how close it is to the laundry. Read between the lines. Ask lots of questions. Stick to what you want. Don’t get distracted by what they say. Get a feel of the agents, don’t let them bully you into going for places you wouldn’t otherwise. Being a frail 100-pound girl, I got a lot of this. I deserve a medal for not taking the first overpriced apartment that came my way.
And oh, the agent fees. I found one month’s rent to be the norm. And mind you, 12% fee is NOT the same as one month’s rent. Do the math.
From what I’ve seen, the agents in Queens are less smarmy than the ones in Manhattan, but both will eat you up given a chance.
And, ‘East Williamsburg’ is real estage agent speak for Bushwick. And when they say Upper East or Upper West, make sure they don’t mean Harlem. Because what seems like a good deal in UES/UWS might be expensive for Harlem.
God of Small Things
Face it, most New York apartments are tiny. The ones in good locations close to midtown/downtown even more so. But that doesn’t have to mean you shell out a premium to live in a matchbox. Location isn’t everything. I found this studio near Juilliard which cost roughly half my earnings, but which the agent said was ‘cheap, because it’s small’. How small could it be, I wondered. My imagination failed me. This apartment probably had enough space for a twin mattress or a table, but not both at once. Just how does anyone live there, I wondered hard.
And seriously. Do not despair. You’ll definitely find a larger place for lesser than how much that outrageous apartment costed to rent.
If it’s too good to be true…
…then it probably is. That’s true of everything in NYC. More so about apartments. Double and triple check everything. Google the hell out of the broker, landlord and apartment. You’ll be surprised what you find. Speak to the neighbours, to the folks in the subway close to the location, the shopkeepers around the place. Ask them if the laundromat’s alright, how late they stay out until they deem it too unsafe to walk back home, if the landlord’s cooperative. Don’t just listen to the landlord and the broker.
I found a spacious studio on the upper east for a rather decent rent and no broker fee, and would have taken the place. Then I got chatty with the broker and found that the place had been on the market for three weeks, a near impossibility for the location and rent. They mentioned the metro construction outside as being the reason people don’t want to take the place. I googled for the place, and found that it was on the bedbug registry, and the tenants were complaining about how the owner was uncooperative and refused to pay for the treatments and wouldnt even let them out of the lease easily. I turned the place down. Bullet dodged.
But at the same time…
You’ll have to close in quickly on deals. Good places don’t stay on the market for longer than a couple of days. Acting pricey doesn’t quite work because if not you, there are a zillion others eager to take the place. If you find a good place, swoop in. The trick is to be able to know enough about the market and the area that you can make split-second decisions without losing too much. Do your research online before you go to see the apartment. It’s always better to have visited the area a few times before and talk to people who live there so that you have a better idea of what it’s all like there. It’s not all that easy for an immigrant to gauge these things intuitively and takes some time. It’s of course awesome if you find someone who thinks just like you to advise you, but I haven’t found all that many Indians who’ve been here for a while and know neighbourhoods in Queens and Brooklyn well enough as well as have your concerns in mind.
You can’t be too careful
Even if you’ve got everything sealed, things might not go according to plan. You need to have an adversarial mindset to tie down all the loose ends. My most horrific story involves this really nice spacious apartment in a superb location for a rather reasonable rent. I called and let the broker know I’m taking the place and was in the process of filling out forms. Then I googled the address again and looked at some results I’d missed the first time around. The results included a sex offender registry entry. It was the fella on the other end of the corridor from the apartment I would have taken. I noped the heck out of there.
There’s no place like home
After more than a month and a half of seriously looking, I found a rather good place for an okayish rent. I love the location; it’s alive in every sense of the word. Not everything’s perfect, but it’s better than everything else I found. I’m busy drilling holes in walls and putting in anchors and screws to hold up shelves and pictures, and twisting together DIY furniture. I still check Craigslist in paranoia that there might be a cheaper nicer place I might have missed, but so far, I seem to have picked a good place. The modem/router they gave me has a bug and I can’t seem to change its name. It’s apparently a known issue. I’m rather cut up about not being able to call my Wifi ‘NoLifeWithoutWifi’. But right from when the sun hits my face and wakes me up to when I come in from the cold to a warm place I can make a nice meal in and go to sleep feeling safe and content, I can’t help feeling more than a little pleased.
Hats off to the coursera guys and hat tip to wanderlust, I recently took up writing in the sciences by Prof Kristin Sainani. (I would highly recommend the website aka check it to know how good it is). This was partly for of non-availability of non-computer courses and partly for my labmate(s) and professor asking for constant report rewrites.
Prof. Sainani talks about how we make scientific literature difficult to read. About cutting down long phrases, substituting simpler words, using verbs for nouns, reducing jargon, basically get to the point already? My question is, can you really get a short story out of every research paper?
I have maintained for self-defense’s sake that creative writing and exam/report writing are not the same. In creative writing, you try to communicate an idea. You weave the story to let the other person fill in the details. Like a normal conversation, it is okay if the other person gets about 50% of what you have to say. The goal here is keep the reader engaged. Science on the other hand is exact. Research papers, more so. If one sentence is misinterpreted, if a protocol is not clearly etched out, the outcome might be completely different. We do not get synonyms to make jargon sound beautiful. AND we have space/time/attention constraints to explain every word to a noob in the field.
How do you explain your work to your liberal arts roommate or your next-door labmate? Can we excuse a veteran professor for the fresher dozing off in his class? Is the Road Romeo allowed to be a nerd?
Most people say that science is boring – that it is too dry and too much mental effort. It is ridiculous, they say, the effort you put into these things which don’t register the senses. Does this have anything to with the way we talk about what we do in the lab? After all, desk-clerk’s job to file client information is equally specific. Where did we begin to err? Are scientists inherently bad communicators?
We could begin by rambling less and sticking to generalities. We could include humor and use day-to-day references instead of science jokes. And how about counting jargon in conversation.
Can we somehow combine creative writing and research paper writing? Can we have a normal research conversation? The true test is probably a creative writer easily writing a research paper.