Say hello to the half-empty-kinda-girl
I am in the middle of a marathon waiting session in Bangalore airport. And I refuse to call it Bengaluru. I have only recently stopped calling Chennai, Madras. Its going to take a lot of deprogramming to get the anglicized names of Indian cities out of this girl.
Anyway, back to my greek tragedy of a day, my plane landed at the Bangalore airport at 3 in the afternoon and my flight out of here is at 3 am.
So I get to spend 12 hours in a room (its actually a huge ass room though) that is getting smaller as the hours go by. Oh joy!
I have people watched, read half my Jonathan Kellerman book, had a raucous group chat with a bunch of old friends and even caught up on my work reading. It’s now 11:30 and I still have more than 3 hours left.
I can’t decide what it is that is driving me crazy. It’s obviously not the lack of having things to do, my 70 page work document that is only slightly dented is a testament to that.
I realized that its the confinement that is getting to me. I am stuck in this great hall that spans almost a quarter mile. I have seen all the 4 corners of this hall, there is nothing left to see anymore. The impatient voice in my head wants me to move the fuck on, and I can’t.
That is the cruel and unusual punishment meted out to control freaks like me whose company’s travel desk is ruled by goons of chaos.
Next one is yours!
Aroma of fresh dosas danced with the afternoon light in the kitchen. Skylights interrupted the roof tiles warming the already hot room. Savithri Ammai sweated at the stove expertly tossing the dosa sending off a angry sizzle from the girdle. Thatha sat at the huge wooden table that was swathed in linoleum impatiently waiting for the dosa.
This tableau repeated itself every day at 3 pm for as long as I remembered. Maybe it was the scene my mother remembered as she grew up and out of her maiden home. I was always hungry when the school bus dropped me off at Dhanalakshmi bank. My feet picked up pace leaving behind the neighbor children who were heading home to their own tableaux. I imagined I could almost smell the food as I speed walked down Karikath lane. The tall, old house at the cross road, I couldn’t get there fast enough.
The jasmine plant at the gate reminded me of the evening chores. Those buds needed to be picked, delicately. Savithri Ammai hated to see any left over flowers on the plant bloom the next day. They all must be picked, she would order. The stubborn buds at the top of the plant could only be got to by scaling the wall. Scaling the wall was what my nightmares were made of. But that would have to wait.
The heavy school bag would lay forgotten near the entry way as I headed towards the kitchen, sounds of the gate and my shuffling feet already announcing my arrival. “Anu, you will have to wait, another one for thatha and the next is yours!”, she told me. I sneaked into the store room where tall and short stainless steel containers kept delicious treats from prying hands and sneaky rats. I usually went straight for the plantain chips that we never ran out of. Stuffing a few into my mouth, I would clutch a handful and slink away to the big room.
I tasted those chips when I woke up this morning. I swear that my house almost smelled like that kitchen in Karikath lane as I woke up to the harsh morning rays. I closed my eyes once again, hoping to be back there, back to being 16 and waiting for that delicious dosa. Chores would have to be done, plants needed to be watered, backyard needed to be swept. Medicines need to be refilled for thatha and savithri ammai. For every chore done, the next in line was up.
When the day was done, chores were done and homework was complete, I usually sneaked off upstairs. The terracotta floor in that room was always cool, even on the hottest of afternoons. I would lay on that floor, sometimes reading, or listening to Jagjith Singh in the old Sony tape recorder. Sometimes I lay there counting the wooden beams up high. The old beams fashioned the clay tiles into a roof, keeping the rains away all monsoon. There were spiders there, i was sure. Even in my most anxious imaginations, even in my scattered dreams, I never imagined this charmed life waiting for me. Teenage angst is so overrated. That I know now!
Open Bitch Letter to that Indian Guy
I refuse to give a second glance to a man clothed by Abercrombie & Fitch. That, my dear, is a beacon of douchebaggery. Some Indian guy who walked into these stores and thought “Ah, this is fashion” and unleashed a beast. The magic of manufacturing clothed every Indian man in this country in bright colored T-shirts proselytizing that perfect beach in California. I have long tried to figure out what irks me about those stores. I always find myself driven out of there by the mood lighting (or lack of it) and strong scented air.
I think a man who wears pink is a man worth waiting for. If you are not man enough to rock a pink shirt, move on, I am not for you.
Sheep shuffle around in groups. Men don’t need to. You don’t need three friends to go with you for a grocery run.
Stop addressing everyone at work as “boss”. I have run out of answers for all the white people questions that follow after you leave the room.
Olive Garden is not a fancy restaurant. It’s ok to dull the pain of being there with a glass of cheap wine. The hundreds of years of Indian culture is not going to implode if I have a glass or two. So stop freaking out.
It’s totally ok to own plain shirts. If everything you own from dress shirts to shorts has stripes or checkered patterns on them, my eyes hurt and I need to stop looking at you.
Stop saying Hi and Bye in languages you cannot converse in. If you open with Hola, you better be prepared to talk to me in Spanish for the remainder of the conversation.
Reading is not weird. Reading is what normal people do. If I have to explain to you why reading is a great hobby, its time I got back to my book now.
Stop insisting that every meal you ingest has to be an Indian meal. Ever heard of sandwiches?
You go to clubs to drink, stand around, check people out and maybe flail your arms a little. You do not attempt Bollywood dance steps in a crowded room full of drunken people.
Indian women in clubs are not open season. And don’t buy your cologne at Hollister.
Cars are for getting you from point A to point B. Unless you own a hundred thousand dollar car, you ain’t getting chicks because of your ride. So stop buying lady mustangs and old men Camaros.
I judge a book by its cover and your cover sucks.
It was a couple of minutes to 6 in the evening. The girls rushed towards the gate leaving behind a gaggle of boys. The boys shuffled their feet, wondering how it was that time of the day already. The girls walked, half ran, willing the gate to stay open. These late comers were usually met by Sheela chechi at the gate, with the lock and chain for the gate in hand and a disapproving smile on her face. For the 3 years I spent at Kolanghat hostel, I hated 6 PM with a vengeance.
Kolanghat hostel or simply Kolanghat was an overpriced, “safe” hostel for girls a stone’s throw away from Government Engineering College, Trichur. We paid almost half a year’s tuition for a month’s rent to share a room with 4 other girls and to eat wonderfully tasteless food. We were all ruled by the firm hand of diminutive 4 foot 9 Sheela chechi. Many bets had been placed on the age of our ageless chaperone but it remains a mystery. She cooked, cleaned, rebuked any girl with questionable manners and watched us like a hawk every second she could.
It was the time before internet, cell phones and iPhones. 6 PM jailed us indoors till sunrise. Sheela Chechi’s high pitched yell calling out your name was the sweetest sound you heard on those morose evenings. That meant the lucky one whose name she called had a phone call. When you heard your name called, you ran, tripping on your clumsy feet, banging into the tables, down the mess hall to the phone. Chechi was usually at earshot, making sure you were not talking to boys or planning something that would corrupt the rest of the girls.
The freshman 15 was something we did not have to worry about. All the girls who lived there lost around 20 pounds the first year at the hostel. You had 3 vegetarian meals a day and tea in the evenings but the food was legendary for being bad. And the vegetarian part nearly did in my eat-only-things-with-eyes friends. Each of us choked down the food, convinced we were being taught a lesson for being a bitch and complaining about our mom’s awesome dishes.
That brings us to cream puffs. Oh my God, the cream puffs. Every day at 4, we were served tea and a snack. Some days we were greeted by the almost tasty parippu vada (fried lentil fritters). But 4 days of the week, we were faced by cream puffs. It was a sandwich of sorts, with weird smelling thick bun stuffed with coconut icing. Ugh. It’s been 10 years since I had my last ever cream puff but I can still taste that crap like yesterday. We were sure that the owner bought them in bulk and used it for the sole purpose of breaking our spirit.
After dinner, it was complete lock down. We were literally locked in the building with the key safe under Sheela Chechi’s pillow. Mess hall too became out of reach for us. Some of us usually gathered at the window on the stairs to gaze at the world outside. Sometimes Ammayi broke into a song in the common study room, kicking off an impromptu concert by anyone who could hold a tune. A few of us studied, others lay on their beds talking about boys, books and dreams. The conversations were long and uninterrupted. Tearful stories were shared, tummy aching jokes were cracked and pranks were played. Lifelong friends were made after 6 o clock at Kolanghat.
It has been 10 years since I had a curfew. Gazing at the moon from my backyard, knowing I can stay out as long as I desired, I wish to go back. Back to that tiny window in Kolanghat to gaze at the moon. I want to sing off key once again, so my friends can tell me to shut up. I want to sleep early on my tiny bed, so my roommates’ chatter can wake me up. I want to hear Sheela chechi scream my name and feel that tiny flutter in my heart, wondering who could be calling me. Even if I have to eat a few cream puffs for that to happen, I say it’s a pretty sweet deal.
No homework, no packing your school bag according to the day’s time table, no lukewarm lunches in stainless steel boxes wrapped in terry towels. No school! It’s the summer vacation. When the monsoon rains begin in earnest on the first day of June in beautiful Kerala, the kids dragged their wet behinds back to school. First day of June, the summer vacation officially ended for the kids in Kerala. First day of June is when school let off for summer holidays for us in Muscat. Summer vacation was always two months too late for me.
Every June, in Muscat, harried mothers and their snooty kids with perfect English and passable Malayalam, boarded the flights home to spend vacation with their families in Kerala. The dads waved them off at the airport, suppressing wide smiles. Two months of freedom to break out the bottle of Green Label with the packs of Gold Flake sounded pretty good to them.
Every June, since the time I was 9, for 6 years, I made that trip with mother. We always landed amid torrential downpour. To this day, rain makes me think of airports and vacations and grandmothers. At my grandparents’ house in Trichur, cousins had already come and gone. My grandmother had tired of having kids around, somewhere in the second week of May. The kids in the neighborhood had resigned to evenings of homework and playing indoors. My vacation days in Trichur were spent wandering through the house, getting underfoot my grandmother as she did her chores and reading the Amar Chitra Kathas stocked in the upstairs almirah. Those picture books full of mythological stories, kept me at the base of the wooden stairs for days. My mother insists now that my soda bottle glasses are a direct result of the days spent on the stairs with my nose in those books.
After a couple of weeks, my mother, reeling from being cooped up with her parents, would finally decide to take me to Calicut. Calicut is my dad’s hometown. My favorite part of the summer vacation was the days spent there with my appamai and thatha, my paternal grandparents. My dad’s mother was the sweetest woman I had ever known. In a family where a pat on the head is a gesture of affection, my appamai was a woman full of love. There were hugs and kisses to be had when she was around. I wasn’t Anitha or Anu to her. I was always kunju (the little one) to her. Till my little cousin arrived, I was Amrutham (honey) to my thatha.
My Calicut memories are a collage of frozen images. I see my appamai holding me when I was 3 and pointing out the sparrows that had built a noisy nest on our balcony. I watch as my thatha shelled his betel nuts as he sat in his favorite chair on the porch. I remember the tears flowing freely down appamai’s face as I said goodbye on the railway platform when it was time to leave. I taste the delicacies that appamai brought back from her grocery shopping. Always a gift for kunju, I wasn’t allowed to be disappointed when I was with her.
My dad’s house in Calicut is a converted kovilakam. The big communal house meant for temple priests and relatives had been converted to a dozen identical 2 bedroom houses. They shared walls, roofs and a single long courtyard. A well on either side of the courtyard marked the boundaries for the children in the kovilakam. When the sun went down, the temple down the street played loud devotional music, spreading static filled piety to anyone in the listening range. After dinner, beds were made. The floor where we sat around and ate dinner was wiped clean and a straw mat was laid down. Appamai’s soft old saris made the mat wonderfully comfortable. I would snuggle next to her and whisper, “Can you tell me a story, appamai?” I could hear the smile in her voice as she hugged me tighter and began. “Oru oorla oru raja irunthaanam…”
She had never read a book or a story in her life. Appamai’s stories were all handed down from her mother. They were magical stories of virtuous kings and beautiful princesses. She regaled me with stories of a pauper who did the right thing and ended up rich and happy. She thrilled me with stories of the proud and evil men who were defeated by the righteous. The kings in her stories, always went through terrible hardships but„ like clockwork were rescued by the benevolent hand of a mighty deity. Somewhere between the hardship and the rescue, I would doze off, happy.
I miss my appamai every day. I miss hearing the joy in her voice when I would call her on the phone from a land far away. I miss the simple dishes that seemed scrumptious when she fed me. I miss being called Kunju, the way she did. I miss seeing her face light up when I knocked on her door. I wish she could see my perfect life now. I wish she could see my beautiful warm house and all the wonderful things in it. I wish I could take her for a spin in my fancy car. But more than all that, I want to lie down next to her, one last time, hug her tight and listen to a story.
Water, no Ice!
The year was 2006, early April in Chennai. I was living my dream, or so I thought then. Born in a tiny town of Thrissur, Kerala, I had grown up in Muscat, Oman. The luxuries of having a car and an air conditioned apartment did nothing to alleviate my conservative Indian childhood in Muscat. The most “happening” event of my teen years back in Thrissur was witnessing the opening of the first ever mall in the district. Finally, there was a place to go hang out with friends, we cheered. No matter that you couldn’t afford the overpriced fried rice or even coffee at City Center!
I had high hopes when my first job took me to the capital city of my state, Trivandrum. Capital CITY, I thought to myself! Finally, I get to live where people rode fancy cars, ate in fast food joints and wore jeans without inviting long stares from strangers. Yeah, Trivandrum is not that place. So imagine my excitement when I finally reached Chennai, the first city I had ever lived in. Jeans wearing was acceptable and there were real life pubs!
When I gushed about living in the city, everyone asked me how I planned to survive the summer in Chennai. I received useless trivia from family and friends about the horrid Chennai’s weather. It gets unbearably hot; they told me in hushed voices. I had lived in Muscat, where it gets up to 45 degrees centigrade during summer, I huffed. I can handle it. Besides, it’s a CITY!
Nothing prepared me for the reality that was my first Chennai summer. The heat in Chennai is a beast with a mind of its own. It’s a baking wet heat for months. April and May pass in a haze that can be blamed on cooked brains. But June, oh sweet June! June signaled the start of monsoon in the heart of every Keralite. But not in Chennai. June brings some more heat. If you think that the sun is the bastard that makes it so unbelievingly hot, the nights snicker at you. You don’t get a good night sleep for months because you are waking up to take late night showers to wash away the sweat.
I lived in a stuffy 1 bedroom hole in the 2nd floor of a house. The man who made the house had not grasped the meaning of windows. The house had none. NONE. The only air in and out was the front door and thankfully the tiny hole in the bathroom wall which rocked the exhaust fan. Every time you walked out of the house, the heat punched you in the face till you were a shell of sweaty clothes.
Outside my house was a cold drink shop that I set foot in just once in the year that I lived there. Every morning at eight, the ice delivery man dropped off his goods at the shop. If you imagine Reddy Ice trucks with bags and bags of equally sized ice cubes, you have been in USA far too long. Ice delivery in India happens on an open cart, huge blocks of ice many square feet in area are stacked covered with sacks made of jute. The delivery man unloads a block together with the sack covering it outside the shop, on the side of the road. The block of ice lies there, in the sweltering heat, not melting. That was the first sign that this ice is funky. The drink shop almost always had worker so low in the totem pole that his daily duty was to break this ice. He takes a hammer to this sack covered ice to break it to smaller pieces, collecting them in a steel vessel.
People blinded and parched stumbled into these shops and asked for a lemonade. The drink is made cold with this ice. This ice, made from water you don’t want to know where it came from, floats expectantly in your drink. You have seen the sack of ice on the cart, you have seen the block of ice lying in wait for the worker to come break it up. You have seen the ice make friends with the stray dogs on your street. If you have seen this, you never want ice in your drink EVER.
Fast forward a few years. I sat in my booth in the newest Indian restaurant in town, last week, enjoying a spicy chicken curry, when I hear the man in the next table ask for a glass of water. The waiter is an American. “Water, no ice ok?” the man cautions disrespectfully. What a douchebag, I think, shaking my head. The image of the sack covered ice block pops up in front of my eyes. His asshole-ish charm notwithstanding, maybe he has a point, I concede grudgingly. Ice remains a mystery to us, Indians. Its origin, shape and its strange power to dilute the drink you paid full price for. If people can survive the summer staying away from ice, the winter in America is a no brainer. But not me! I like the clink of ice in my drink. My brain freeze from snacking on ice chips invites the strangest stares from my Indian friends. We live in the land of free refills, I tell them. You should order your Pepsi with ice, I encourage hopelessly.
But only I know the reason why ice and I are so tight. We are making up for lost time and how!
When the morning light through the blinds seems too loud to ignore, I want to banish the rays and disappear under the soft covers. As my eyes adjust to the sweet darkness under the covers, I want to see you. I want to snuggle and find that nook under your arm that is mine and only mine. We would be suspended in that sweet state of half sleep. Your deep snores would soothe and lull me to my dreams and your arms would bring me back to the dream like reality. We would decide to get out of bed many times, not moving a muscle to pull away. We would talk, sometimes face averted to spare the smell of sleep still on our tongues. Talk would drift into silent humming or maybe a joke or two.
I would want to get up and read that last chapter of the book that waits patiently for me. You would have none of it. My books, best friends and family all would seem to fade away in the brilliance of your love. I would drink it all up, feeling that thirst, a constant companion all my life, be satiated. Your growling stomach would signal a break to our little tryst. Padding to the tiny kitchen, hand in hand, you would shoot down all my ideas for breakfast. Shaky truce reached on your favorite food, we would bustle around in that cramped space. Hands reaching out and distracting us from the food on the stove, the breakfast would be a 2 hour affair.
Finding a corner against the wall, surrounded by pillows and blankets, we would settle down to doing nothing. You would mess with your laptop, phones and all your gizmos as I reconnect to the world with phone calls, texts and emails. When I would be done with the world, I would snuggle closer and peek at what you were doing. My incessant questions would go unanswered. Sometimes, I would pout and pinch to tear you away from whatever it is that occupied your mind, turning it to me and only me. Other times, I would let you be and find my book and read. Feeling the warmth of you near me, the bright sun in the room and the crackle of a page turning, a sweet sigh would escape me. Ah, heaven. This is how heaven would smell, taste and feel like for me. Heaven would be a lazy Sunday with you.
There was a narrow bridge separating a huge body of water with no horizon in sight. I was on a rickety old bus, on my usual, one person sight-seeing trip. I could barely contain my excitement, the way I can be when I am anywhere I have spent an obsessive amount of time researching, on TripAdvisor. The half submerged Buddha statues were there on either side of the bridge, just like someone on the website had commented. I was being my obnoxious self, taking a hundred pictures of the same thing, hoping I got one spectacular shot that all my friends will Like on Facebook.
The road disappeared up ahead with a sharp turn to the right. The blue water was so clear that I could see the patterns on the orange rocks in the bottom. Iron rich rocks, I muttered to myself, snapping a few more pictures. The bus kept going, almost an impossible feat, considering the heaving humans packed like sardines in the bus and the explosive noise the gear shift made every time the driver did his thing. The sound and motion was reminiscent of the KSRTC buses in Kerala, riding which requires the balance of a surfer and upper body strength of a wrestler.
Amazingly, without plunging to our death into the water, we turned and continued on our journey. Straight ahead, I saw the monastery that was supposed to be the place that had to be on your itinerary if you ever visited this city. I took a few shots of myself with my hair whipped in all directions by the strong breeze blowing from open window of the bus. They were all shaky and I looked too fat for my liking. Sighing, I put my phone away, turned towards the water. I was happy. I had the freedom to take this time off from the work that was so boring it numbed my skull. I had enough disposable income to make this trip, courage to travel the miles alone to see these wonderful sights and the poise to not miss too badly a warm hand in mine to watch the rays of the Sun work its magic on the water. Life really couldn’t be better!
The bus driver started to honk. Wait, this was all wrong. This isn’t how honking sounds like. I know this tune from somewhere, I thought. I looked around the bus, no one seemed to be noticing this strange music over the bus’ creaks and groans and splutters. Why, wouldn’t it stop, I wondered. I had to stop that music, somehow. I fidgeted to make it stop. It jarred and shattered everything I saw clearly. Ah, I groaned, turning over to quiet the Marimba my alarm blared. Finally, the music stopped. There was peace and quiet now. But the beautiful summer day in the magical land had slipped through my fingers. There was no Buddha to gaze at lovingly, just tacky lamps on my night stands. There was no monastery up ahead. No bright day full of touristy pleasures, only a 9 AM meeting at work that I was already late to.
I sighed, forlornly wishing that I was on that bus again. I turned to shuffle out of bed, taking with me only the sweet feeling of contentment that lingered.