It was when I was twelve or thirteen, I think. I wanted nothing more than to be a journalist. An investigative journalist, if I was lucky.
And there were a few inspiring people behind that ambition. No, Barkha Dutt wasn’t really one of them. Maya Sharma and Jennifer Arul could have been, but seemed rather regionally restricted. Sreenivasan Jain was a major one.
But I didn’t really like journalism on a national level for some reason. And this was when Times of India was entering the Bangalore market, and was marketing itself as the newspaper that could read the pulse of Bangalore just as well as the nadi astrologers of Vaideeswaran Kovil were reputed to. And having a piece or two published in Offspring [the school section of ToI, which we were introduced to through Newspaper In Education] made sure I was a ToI loyalist back then. I read every word of every article back then.
And the city-specific reporting captured my heart. It really felt like this is what I wanted to do… I’d religiously go through each column. Some names stood out more than the others. HS Balram was too serious for my taste.
And so it was Allen J Mendonca, in his avatar as Chief Reporter of the Times of India, who proved to be a major inspiration for me.
His writing style was a tad quirky, quite informal, his bylines hard-hitting. His movie reviews were a treat. His sprinkling of Kannada words in what would otherwise be an elitist newspaper article made it all the more endearing to me.
At first, I was content just reading newspaper and watching news channels, but when we got our dial-up connection, I acquired a bit more nerve.
I first mailed Sreenivasan Jain, a long garrulous mail describing how awesome I find him on TV, how I admire his ability to ask the right questions, how insightful I thought him to be. [Back then, his email ID was available in the newspaper, or when he wrote a column for The Week... not like now, when we had to really HUNT for his email ID when we wanted to contact him for something related to Engineer, NITK's Techfest]. And all I got was a one-line reply, in SMS lingo. End of an infatuation. I’d had it with television reporters.
I don’t know exactly why I mailed Allen Mendonca… other than maybe I imagined he was a nicer person not prone to SMS lingo and incredibly more loquacious, and… the name sounded like he’d be quite a looker. But it remains that I did, and got a nice reply to all that I’d asked him. I don’t remember the exact contents of that mail, but I’d asked him about how you go about being a journo, what do you need to study in college, and…. that ONE question. Did he think I had it in me to be a journo.Of course, the answer to that one was that I was too little and I had it in me to become anything I wanted. But oh, the inspiration that one provided back then!
The exchanges continued. I’d been on a holiday to Coorg, and going through the guestbook, I discovered he had holidayed at the same estate bungalow I was staying in, just two months before! Boy, did that put a smile on my face! And his detailed description of the estate and all that it offered, and how well he’d enjoyed the whole deal – the walking trails, the books in the library about the history of Coorg, the ponds, the coffee plantations…. I’d previously been rather sulky throughout the holiday, but just reading that made me realize I was missing out on stuff. And I instantly cheered up!
I wrote to him mentioning this, nicely omitting my sulkiness from the whole story, and right after, he began feeling like some friendly uncle. I stretched my boldness far enough to send him samples of my childish verse… and he actually went through fifty lines of my random thoughts, and said it was rather good. Was I on top of the world or was I on top of the world. And he said I should write more often, and needed to ‘develop a style of my own’, which would come by regular writing.
Not very long after that, he stopped responding. I consoled myself saying he was probably undercover on some story, or was incredibly busy, or some such thing. Besides, his stories stopped appearing in ToI.
And then he replied from a different mail ID, after almost months together, saying he’d quit ToI, over some disagreement with his bosses, about political favors and exposes or some such thing… I don’t remember the details. He said he was writing a book, and that he’d send over an invite for me and my family for the opening.
We stopped corresponding after that, given that I was grappling with increasingly challenging academics, swimming practice, emotional upheaval on shifting my house to seemingly the middle of nowhere, ego tussles, multiple crushes, and similar stuff.
When I was in the tenth, or eleventh, I saw a news article about his book coming out. “He didn’t invite me as promised”, I sulked. There was an interview of his on RadioCity, where he was just as upbeat, funny and full of life as I’d thought he would be.. and I wondered if I should mail him…. but stopped short of hitting send, wondering if he would still remember me, or reply, or anything at all.
I got over wanting to be a journo, thanks to the JEE dream, and quit mailing people I hadn’t met in person thanks to all those newspaper articles about some weirdo trapping kids…. basically, just switched tracks. And I saw less and less of news about Allen [Oh yes, he'd said I needn't address him as Mr. Mendonca, and Allen would do, and I used to feel a thrill whenever I typed "Dear Allen"]… given that the Times wouldn’t mention him for all the world, and my not reading the Asian Age or Vijay Times.
My opinions of other journalists might have changed, my opinion of ToI has certainly changed, but of Allen, nope…. whenever I came across any reference to him, I still get the image of a lively man who peps up his radio interview with stories about his ‘three weddings’, who had a very vivid, visual way of writing, and who was one of those down-to-earth people who still bothered enough to humour an awestruck little girl, correspond regularly with her, and actually give her feedback on her writing.
So this morning, when I came across this Churumuri post about his sudden, untimely demise, I was really shocked. I was also overcome with a whole lot of memories… surprisingly clear for ten-year-old memories that aren’t regularly thought about. Thinking back, I realize the ideal I was using to model my writing style was his – show don’t tell, local flavour, seeming stream of consciousness. I’m amazed at how such small gestures had such a big impact on my thoughts, dreams and aspirations for such a long to come. Even when I wasn’t thinking of the correspondence with Allen, I used to think of how to ‘develop my own style’. Still do. That phrase has stayed with me for a long time. And will do for a long time to come.
Great Soul. May he rest in peace.
Conversation on meeting a random person yesterday:
Me: Hi I’m Priya
Person: I’m X
Me: Where from in India?
Me: Me too! South Bangalore?
Me: 4th Block
X: Ohh… 8th Block.
Me: We shifted to Bannerghatta Road, though
X: Vijaya Bank Colony.
Me: Studied at Oxford School
Me: Oh, did you know Y, Z and A?
X: Course I did! You must have had Mrs. SD teach you at some point?
Me: Yeah, heard you guys drove her out? Good job!
I keep finding folks from South Bangalore wherever I go. And we normally have a dozen common friends. Remember, this was in Irvine, on the other side of the world from Bangalore.
And this is not the only So.Ba. meeting so far…. There’s this other So.Ba. guy, and it turns out I’ve throughout studied with one or the other of his cousins, through school, through PU, through NITK. And the cousins were all from different branches of the family, and never knew each other.
Over the years, I discover that me and any other South Bangalorean have less than three, or even four degrees of separation between us. It’s amazing, shocking, brilliant and scary all at the same time.
Like this time when I quoted something random at office from a friend’s status message, and two-three others around me were like “I’ve seen this recently…. on my friend’s status message….”, and we found that we all knew the guy in question.
Or the time when this guy in some Phoren Univ was too scared to hit on a So.Ba. girl because it transpired that she knew his ex (also So.Ba.) rather well.
Or the many times when I find that some commenter on this blog and I have a dozen common friends from our school days, and/or have met at one point or the other much earlier on, and live in the neighborhood of each other, and frequent the same hangouts. And also have a dozen people in common to gossip about.
Or the time when I was speaking to a college friend and she had to cut the call short because her schoolfriend R was frantically calling on her mobile. And the next day when I met up with my schoolfriends, they were telling me a story about a girl called R who broke up with her boyfriend just the previous day.
Or the time when my friend A had a crush on someone in her college, and the news travelled all the way to Mumbai, Surat, Rourkela, Chennai and back to her college, where the crush in question was the last to know.
Or when someone I know travelling to the UK for higher studies happened to come in contact with a long-lost schoolmate of mine who happened to be his senior there… and tried putting us back in touch.
Or when I went to write the Manipal entrance exam and met every friend of mine and her secret crush, and at one point sat down gossiping silly about everyone I’d ever known.
Or my father’s colleague’s daughter and I putting two and two together to make five – piecing together different sides of the story of my (rather er.. reputed) neighbour who happened to be her classmate.
In my office, there were four of us, three of us from South Bangalore and the fourth one who’d lived in Indiranagar for the most part. The three of us had never met before, but had enough common friends to gossip about, while the fourth person would stare blankly during these conversations.
I really wonder if this is normal; if this is a common feature of most places. But then, I don’t find others picking common threads with new people as easily as I do. I don’t see such a connect within the network of others as I see with mine… all my friends seem to know each other one way or the other. And it’s not because I call them and say “X, Y, Meet each other”.
I remember reading on some other blog that the North and South of Bangalore were two totally different cities, with even a toll gate between them, and so the cultures are very different. I have no clue about the rest of the city, but folks from my part of town tend to be very similar. Somehow, the upbringing, the values, the language, the backgrounds were similar enough to hold us together, and varied enough to keep us from getting bored. And most of us seem to have grown up the same way, and the same middle-class motivations behind our ambitions.
We’ve all gone to the same schools, the same tuition classes, and the ubiquitous BASE and ACE, apart from Gopu Tuition, Venky Tuition, and a million others… and most of us tend to have similar career paths. We know each other, and each others’ friends from one or more of these places. And it’s not just friends… uncles, cousins, siblings… our network extends that way, too.
Like, I have my schoolfriends, my playhome friends, my tuition friends, my Gopu tuition friends, my PU friends, my ACE friends, my NITK friends, my office friends… and from a dozen other things I’ve done, and it turns out atleast one friend from each stage of my life knows atleast one person from one of the other stages.
It all seems to fit in so well, I really wonder if other cities/regions have similar phenomena… I mean, of course there must be. I would generally expect this from some smalltown where everyone knows everyone else. But then, does South Bangalore fit into the notion of a ‘Small Town’? I should think not!
Or is this restricted to me, and a few of my friends who are as talkative as me? Or have I been too restricted in my horizons?
I don’t know what explanation fits this best. It would be an interesting experiment in social networking and all that, or maybe not. But I sure do know that we spread our tentacles all over the globe. Be it some semiconductor lab in Seoul, or a software development center in Seattle, or a university in Singapore, we are there. And so wherever I’m going, I’m pretty confident my Class III classmate’s TuitionFriend’s Cousin, who is also my sister’s maths teacher’s son/daughter will be there, to give me company when I want to reminisce about the perfect Ganesh Darshan Masale, or Subbamma’s Sandige.
So it’s nearly been a week since I got here. It’s rather hard to get close to a computer so far, considering summer break’s still on, and Fall Quarter starts only 23rd. So labs are all closed, and the libraries open only some hours of the day. And, there’s been lots to do.
Car Car Car Car Ell-nodi car.
Remember that Kannada song that went like “Sontakk-beltu kattikondu / Freeway-nalli haarikondu / Exit-alli jaarikoLtaaro” ? Well, all the lyrics are true. You are dead here without a car. The distances are just a few minutes away by car, but unless you happen to be PT Usha, you can’t even begin to hope to cover the distances in less than an hour. Public transport is decent, but the frequency SUCKS. I feel more so because I’m more used to Bangalore’s awesome BMTC, with it’s awesome frequency and service.
And since everything is optimized for folks with a car, and everyone (other than me) has a phone with GPS, people generally don’t know to give public transport directions or walking directions. So this Chinese lady was accosted by four rather scruffy-looking Indian girls (us), and asked, “Is this the way to Tustin District?”, and I think she got freaked enough to just say yes and shake us off. But it turned out, that was NOT the way to Tustin District. We ended up walking thrice the amount we were supposed to. So that lady earned the ire of all four of us, who wished she soon crashed her car on the San Diego Freeway, lost her license and was condemned to use public transportation for the rest of her life.
There was one other time when we had to get to this place called Quail Hill, and took the bus going in the wrong direction. We stopped two ladies crossing the road to ask for directions. One of them said “Hmm… where is your car?”. We obv said “We don’t have one”. She was LITERALLY taken aback before saying “I don’t know how you’ll do it, but cross the Freeway and get to Sand Canyon”. Driving directions for people on foot. Phew!
A side effect of walking around so much in the bright California sun is that I’m very tanned. Very very. My mother would really curse this place and lament about who would marry her dark daughter who’s been burnt coal-black in a place which has no fairness creams.
Hiee! How’re you doo-innnngg!
The first thing you’ll notice is people are VERY polite to you. We went to a hardware store and asked the guy if we could get a key duplicated. He said “Sure! I’d LOVE to!”. The bus drivers wish you a good morning. The guy who bags your groceries wishes you a good day. Random people on the street stop to enquire about you. Old ladies crossing the road with you tell you about their children and grandchildren. Everyone makes eye contact, everyone smiles.
I likes the Eendian Curry.
One look at me, and everyone asks me if I’m Indian. Other Indians quickly strike up a conversation here. And folks of other nationalities too. There was one Turkish lady who taught dancing at the school here, and a Tunisian woman who was learning English to take up TOEFL. There are many people of Chinese origin… it’s after all the University of Chinese Immigrants.
One Chinese-American old lady caught hold of me while I was waiting for the bus on Sunday, and said she likes the Eendian Curry, lamented that these forks and knives here are not enough to take big mouthfuls when you’re hungry. She likes eating from banana leaves, and described in detail how she rips apart the chicken served to her on a banana leaf with nothing but her fingers and teeth. She hated American Indian Curry, it’s not spicy enough.
And then she proceeded to educate me about the ‘Cast’ system:
In Eendia, you have the Cast. C-A-S-T. There is Tamil, there is Punjabi. Tamil-Punjabi no marry. Punjabi-Tamil, no marry. Only Tamil-Tamil marry.
I asked her if she’d like to marry a Tunisian, or a Japanese… and said the country is pretty diverse and people prefer marrying someone they have more in common with in terms of lifestyle. And that it’s been ages since we folks said balls to the Cast system, it’s about time everyone else does too.
And she had so much ire about the system, it scared me. And the loneliness was so palpable in her voice… talking absolute random stuff about yourself to the first stranger you meet…. I was scared she’d come home with me and ask me to make her curry.
Irvine chaala baagundhi
The omnipresent Gult community. Most of them working here. God, how many of them! Clad in sarees and salwars, and even nighties, they make me feel at home, and tell me how to make ghee from butter, what fruits to buy in what seasons, and a load of other timepass stuff.
Down in the dumpsters
People here discard a lot of good stuff. They don’t have the middleClass Indian mentality here. And also, when they are moving house, it sometimes turns out cheaper to discard furniture than to haul it along.
So a senior said the best way to find these pieces is to talk an after-dinner walk around the block. We did.
Within three hours, our bare house had a couch, a center table, a writing table, a bookshelf and a vacuum cleaner [which we discarded because the plug was broken and beyond repair].
…And other stuff
I’m managing cooking fine. My roommates cook well. There’s hardly a moment to myself, so I don’t yet feel lonely or homesick. I don’t yet have a laptop… I’m waiting for a Dellivery. I’m also waiting to pile up clothes so that I can finally go to the laundry and feel that my $3 was well-spent. I don’t have that much of antipathy towards Pakis anymore, considering a few of them helped me out when I was lost on campus.
The place is quite costly, and we keep mentally converting everything into Indian currency. I find I like Mexican food, and am rather glad for the proximity to Mexico, coz the green chillies are hot enough. Unlike other places where the ‘HOT’ salsa sauce will be extremely mild.
The pizzas are a blessing, and ‘No Meat, No Seafood’ has become my catchphrase in restaurants.
The South-East Asians shock me with their flawless skin, and I wonder what they do to keep it so untanned. I find there are a lot of people just like me walking around on campus on a Sunday morning taking random pictures. There are a lot of beautiful rose gardens on campus. The birds aren’t as scared of my camera as they used to be in India.
I see so many maple leaves here, it feels like I’m walking on the sets of Mohabbatein all the time.
I also seem very impressionable… when someone talks to me in an accent, I tend to talk back in that same accent… it’s unconscious. I’m sure I’m going to get killed one day or the other. Though not as brutally as that Indian on the Cathay flight who said “Ching-chong chinky monkey”.
That’s it for now. I’m rather hungry, and need to go get some lunch. Sorry, make that PREPARE some lunch.
I’m on foreign soil. Land of opportunities, wide roads, friendly profs and low-voiced people….. so this really isn’t a whine.
I’m yet to get myself a laptop, or an Internet connection, or even a cellphone… so it’s going to be atleast a week before I get back to using the Net like I used to while I was working. Right now, I’m using a system that has ONLY Internet Explorer 5.0, and hence this post mightn’t come out looking good.
At Bengaluru Intl. Airport, they said my hand baggage looks ‘suspicious’ and dug through it, dismantling my mother’s perfect packing. And the officer was nice enough to atleast try putting it back in my bag the same way it was.
The airhostesses on Cathay looked literally like DOLLS. You could easily mistake one to be a mannequin… all the porcelain-perfect skin and plastic smiles.
Six hour stopover at HongKong. Window shopping. And then decided to have Vegetable Ramen SomethingOrTheOther instead of something at Burger King. I must say it is incredibly easy to make. Take rice noodles, carrots chopped long and thin, corn and s of two different types and boil them all in water. The End. It reminded me of the time when a classmate offered me something called Rubber Dosa, which is made purely from rice and water, with absolutely no spice or seasoning and I gagged and retched at every mouthful. This one wasn’t so bad, mainly owing to the sweetcorn, but it was quite a feat to finish the huge bowl of Vegetable Ramen SomethingOrTheOther.
It turns out my working with South Koreans over the past year has given me a rather intuitive feel to talking to people with limited knowledge of Engrish [not a typo... I had a colleague who liked eating flutes and an MD who thanked us for the pressure of adlessing us. Serious.]. So at HK, when others were saying “Vegetarian! Only vegetables!” and the staff at the eat-outs said “Sowie?”, I asked for “No meat, no seafood”, and got fast service. And… it turns out I get a rather irritating (to other Indians) faux-Korean accent when I have too many South-East Asians around me. I’d better get rid of it ASAP, else I’ll get killed in Irvine, where even the Mayor is a Korean.
Twelve-hour flight to LA. Slept through it a good deal. Watched All About Eve and listened to tracks of Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone for the rest of the time.
I understand now why most of the rest of the world prefers meat over vegetables…. they don’t know any other way to cook vegetables other than by burning them. The maincourses, while not inedible, were far from satisfying. And the desserts could have saved my day if it wasn’t that they were made out of bean curd. I lived on juice for those twelve hours.
And then LA. Some other student also wanted to join us on the shuttle to Irvine, and none of us could figure out how to use the phones. When we finally did, the call didn’t get through and we ended up losing a dollar.
Funnily, none of my pickles were confiscated, and they didn’t ask me anything, and Customs and Immigration was over before I knew it. I was expecting something really crazy, from what I heard from a lot of others.
The folks who run the shuttles said with bravado that they could accomodate all six of us with three huge bags and two smaller bags each, but that was only until they saw our luggage. We were strongly advised to get two vans, until a Chinese-origin guy somehow convinced the driver to stuff all the luggage in.
My house is airy, bright and spacious. It gets rather hot in the middle of the day, but quite cold in the nights, not unmanageably so, though…. we are between the desert and the deep blue sea.
The university is HUGE. IITB, the largest campus I’d seen so far, seems to be dwarfed by this campus. I have to walk a good twenty minutes to get to my department from the University Center (yes, my spellings are turning more American). It however takes me only four minutes to get to the University Center from where I live by bus, a distance of two miles.
This morning on the bus, there was this huge Caucasian who seemed to be talking to the lady bus driver and thanking her and wishing her a good day, but it turned out, he was talking to my three roommates and me. He gave us the usual “Welcome to California, Everything’s king size” lecture, before telling us to use Vocabulary Builders, improve our language, before telling us the names of a few books that are “great for people who have English as a second language”. Two of us weren’t listening, one got really offended and thought he was being racist, while I just grinned and thanked him… and tried stopping myself from using six- and eight-syllabled words to see if he could follow
And…. it turns out I’m fine with people in clothes that don’t cover their bodies at all, or people kissing or…. men kissing other men in public, but if you touch the serving spoon with the same hand you’re using to eat, I get outraged.
It turns out I don’t have a camera charger that’ll fit in the plug points here. And it’s of a different sort, so I can’t get an Indian-to-American converter or something. So… no pics uploaded or clicked till I get something.
More later. I’m sure I’ll have lots to post about.