Thursday, November 18, 2010

For Tvisha – Age 9, 1975

Dear Tvisha,

This was one of the best years I had, traveling wise. School was getting tougher every year, with the expectation of performing at the top level in class.

Paati used to teach me daily and help me with my homework. She was very good in Mathematics, and instrumental in me getting top scores in the subject. She was very particular about Krish and I doing really well in class, and made sure that we worked very hard. People from South India, from where we originated were known to be well educated, who worked hard and were loyal to the company they worked at , generally starting and finishing their careers at the same company. So now you know where it all came from :-).

What was becoming a joke in our apartment building and the neighboring building was whether I made the school bus daily in time or not. Some of the neighbors used to come to their balconies to watch this and get entertained. The bus would come exactly at 7.30 am to pick me up. If the bus driver didn’t find me waiting, he would start honking continuously. So while I was getting readied so to speak, someone would stand at our kitchen that faced the street, or run out to tell the driver that I was almost on my way. What was the reason for all this commotion? I just couldn’t wake up soon enough. Almost on a daily basis, I would be running out of my apartment with my school bag hanging from one arm, my shoes and socks on the other and a chapati rolled with butter and jam (my breakfast) jutting out from my mouth. I would somehow make the bus mainly because the driver was so nice. All my friends in the bus would make fun of me, and who can forget the neighbors watching all this and having their entertainment for the day.

The four of us, paati, thaatha, Krish and I traveled a lot this year. We visited several places. I traveled by air for the first time in my life. Our first trip was from Bombay to Goa, by air. Of course Krish and I fought for the window seat, and of course he won!

Apparently for reasons still unknown to me and my family, while sightseeing in Goa, I was upset about something and due to that I wouldn’t walk alongside my family, I was walking on the other side of the street, but I did make sure that I was close enough to them in this new city :-). Not good behavior on my part. We had a great time in Goa, visiting the beautiful beaches the city had to offer and its monuments, churches and temples.

We almost missed our flight from Goa to Trivandrum, capital of Kerala, in South of India. We were sitting at the gate as the flight was delayed, and didn’t realize when everyone had already boarded the flight. Out of the blue, a lady from a foreign land shouted out to us, saying “Hey Trivandrum, Come Along!”. Apparently she was in the same flight from Bombay to Goa and recognized us as we waited for the flight.

Before another fight could start, thaatha had settled matters in an amicable way between Krish and me, saying one of us could have the window seat on take off and the other on landing. Thankfully for us the plane wasn’t full, and both got to enjoy our own window seats.

We visited Kanya Kumari, which is a town at the southernmost tip of South India and went to see Swami Vivekananda’s statue. Swami Vivekananda was a great philosopher in India. In his memory, there is a memorial built on a rock around 200 meters in the ocean. You have to travel there on a boat. We saw the sunset there which was really beautiful.

We headed to Palakkad from there to attend my cousin’s marriage. That was the time when I had started to play cricket a couple of years ago, and we got to play cricket now in the fields as opposed to the concrete streets in Bombay. It was different and fun.

Paati got to see all her relatives and siblings, was very happy and mentioned offhand that who knew, she may never see them again, especially the old folks.

Our next stop was Ernakulum to one of our relatives place. The most exciting thing for me there was the railway tracks that ran just around 40 feet away from our relative’s house. I had so much fun watching the trains go by, especially the Island Express which daily used to speed past the house we were staying at. I don’t remember the colors of the cars, but do remember the steam engine that pulled the cars. It was jet black, with a huge star painted in silver occupying the middle of the face of the engine, with its headlight in the center. It looked really imposing when the Island Express roared past us, with steam puffing ferociously towards the sky. Then there was the Cochin Mail that had a light blue colored diesel engine, whose cars were painted dark blue with light blue stripes running through the middle. A fantastic combination :-). I found that in the South there were more trains with their own distinctive colors and engines. Even though electric engines were available that would have saved money, some of the trains were being pulled by steam engines and diesel engines. Must be about prestige and history.

We visited Chennai after that, to visit paati’s elder sister (my aunt). My aunt had 7 kids, all girls. They lived in a huge house, and the days we stayed there were one of the best times I had. We visited a lot of family from both thaatha and paati’s side in Chennai. We finally made it back to Bombay almost 3-4 weeks after having a fantastic vacation.

Back home, I was finding it difficult to find boys of my age to hang out with and play together. The people my age were girls, and some of them who I was good friends with had left our apartment building to go live some place else. Most of the boys who played were all elder to me in age, and the age gap was a big issue. Being a small kid amongst teenagers, I didn’t get any chance to play cricket with them or even hang out with them. I would be sent home since I was ‘still’ a kid. Finally I made a few friends who were from apartments a block away from where we used to live. After that I had no complaints whatsoever in terms of having enough friends as that group of friends grew to a 20 to 30 strong member group over the next few years.

Also around this time, thaatha and paati were on a mission, looking for a prospective bride for thaatha’s younger brother. This meant a lot of work for them. Arranged marriage was the widely accepted and followed way of getting married in India during that time. But that needed a lot of ground work and research. Once there is mutual interest shown by two families, it starts from meeting the prospective bride’s family, assessing them, and tapping your network of contacts and friends to enquire about the family and the prospective bride. This worked both ways. After making sure that both the groom’s side and the bride’s side weren’t crazy people :-) and their reputations were intact, the parents from both sides would meet and discuss the possibility of marriage and match horoscopes of the groom and bride. If things moved forward, then the girl and boy would meet up briefly, ask each other a few questions if at all, form whatever opinion they can in those 10 minutes or so, and then make the decision whether to get married or not. Scary?? Absolutely. But this system does have its merits and has worked for generations with huge success.

All in all, this was a very enjoyable year; I was doing well at school and enjoying it; I got to make new friends, lots of them, and went on a big vacation with my family; and visited several places in India and met with almost all my relatives. It was fantastic and I have to thank my parents for that.

It would also turn out to be the last vacation I went on with paati.

- Appa

Thursday, November 11, 2010

For Tvisha – Age 8, Grade 3 (1974)

Dear Tvisha,

There were a lot of happy moments during this year and one that was worrisome, outside of life in school.

I will get to the worrisome one first. I am not very clear as to when they diagnosed the diabetes my mother (your paati) had. One day while playing the Veena she cut her right index finger pretty badly while striking one of the strings.

She went to our family doctor and got it bandaged and continued to do so for several days, but to no avail. The finger was only getting worse, with no signs of healing.

My father (your thaatha) finally took her to the local private hospital. It was pretty serious and they had to slice off a tiny part of her finger, as it was badly infected. The doctor said that if there was any more delay they would have had to cut her finger off. She had to watch her sugar levels very closely going forward, and manage her diabetes the best she could.

Paati stayed at the hospital for over a week or so. Thinking back, I am sure that the thoughts going through her mind at that time were not pretty. She expressed the desire to go visit all of her relatives in India. She belonged to a large group of siblings who were scattered around India. She got her desire fulfilled. We had a fantastic time vacationing :-).

There were several other events that happened this year. Krish had his thread ceremony (that symbolizes coming of age). He was 13 years old. Thaatha had invited many people for this event. Such are occasions where most if not all of the family attends, and is a part of the celebrations.

We went to the south of India to attend my cousin sister’s wedding. There were so many people there. Since my mom’s family was huge, there were many cousins of ours who were present at the wedding, and mischievous things were happening that drove the adults crazy.

There was a funny incident that I want to tell you about. There was a cute old lady, called kutti ammai, translated literally as ‘small mother’, because she was quite tiny. She gifted Krish Rs.50 (a big amount those days) for his thread ceremony. She couldn’t attend the event. Now I didn’t know the reason why she gave him the money though. From where I stood in the hallway, I just saw him go down flat on the floor and touch her feet and seek her blessings. I thought to myself, hey that was easy!. So I did the same thing as Krish, and lo and behold, I was given Rs.50 as well. I was so thrilled by this; I wanted to share what happened with my other cousins. So I went running around telling my cousins about the miracle that had just happened – go seek kutti ammai’s blessings and you will be rewarded with a lot of money!. Soon there was a long line of kids waiting to seek her blessings. As they fell flat on the floor to touch her feet, kutti ammai, being the grand lady she was, did not flinch a bit and handed the kids money from her purse that after some time was devoid of financial resources. Finally, given the sheer number of kids who went to see her, I am not sure how many of my cousins actually ended up getting money, haha.

Paati started to learn to sing as well. She hired a teacher, a very kind lady who used to come over to our apartment with a harmonium and teach her music every day. Paati also got her friends from the building to join. So music was back in our apartment and it was so nice to hear the women singing on a daily basis.

Movies in India are a big craze. You can easily see that, given the way appa watches most Hindi movies that release, and the good English ones too. I know you love movies as well. Since we didn’t have a television in our apartment then, Krish and I used to go watch a lot of movies in the theater.

We did get a new phone before most people around us, and that made paati very proud :-). It was really tough to get a phone connection in India back in those days, and after filling an application for a phone people had to wait for months before they could get a line at their home, such was the demand for phones. I still remember our first phone number, which was 482627.

What I remember particularly about some of the Thursdays (my day off from school) that year was the visits my mother and I used to make to her sisters' places during the day, when the mighty West Indies team had come to play a series of cricket games versus the Indian cricket team. These kind of series last a few months, and hence there were a number of occasions when we did this. Krish used to join us most of the times.

Why do I remember this so vividly? Well, the West Indian team was so good and so flamboyant in displaying their cricketing talent that even women in India started following the game of cricket. Further when my mother and her sisters met, it was a treat for me, a mini feast, with all kinds of food experimentation taking place. Sandwiches were made with different varieties of chutneys each time, some with mango, some with ginger and caramelized onions, all packed in different twists and turns in between two unassuming slices of white bread. That was also the first time paati let me eat eggs. Remember, we were strict vegetarians. My aunt prepared a hardboiled egg, which was delivered to me steaming hot, sliced into 4 long pieces, seasoned with salt and pepper. Yum!

Finally that year we made a trip to Poona. Paati had never been to Poona and she really wanted to go there. Thaatha was invited by his friends Joshi, Thite and Mulay from the bank to visit them in Poona, and they had also arranged a guest house for us to stay at.

We were in Poona for 3 weeks. The trip started off with a big disappointment for Krish and me, since we were so looking forward to going to Poona from Bombay on the Deccan Queen. Alas, there was a railway strike, and we ended up hiring a private cab. When we reached the guest house around afternoon, when Krish and I were in a rush to see who could hit the toilet first, a couple of my fingers got caught between the door and the hinges when he shut the door in a hurry, and my finger nails were crushed. That apart, Poona was awesome. We went sightseeing all day and just ate to our heart’s content.

We were invited for a few dinners. There, instead of our staple diet of rice, we were served pooris (fried whole wheat dough shaped flat like mini tortillas) accompanied by curries and vegetables. Krish and I got hooked to pooris.

The best thing is that the restaurants we went to back then in 1974 in Poona, still exist, I think. They are Café Mona, Café Delite, Roopali and Vaishali. Café Mona had a glass walled kitchen so people could see the cooks preparing the food. The cooks used to throw huge flat poori dough high up in the air as a show, before they were deep fried. Thaatha still laughs when he remembers our standard phrase wherever we used to go to eat food in Poona – ‘chawal ke badley mein poori dena’!, translated as ‘serve pooris instead of rice, please!’

When we visit India next year, I am definitely going to take you to Café Mona to eat those delicious super size pooris.

- Appa

Thursday, November 4, 2010

For Tvisha – Age 7 (1973)

(Here is my mom in the center, and a few other ladies from our apartment building singing during the Ganpati festival celebrations)

Dear Tvisha,

There are several events during this year that are coming to mind very clearly.

School was full of fun with lots of friends, homework and exams. I was doing well too, and was in the class top 10. I will give all credit to my mother for that.

During our daily short recess in school that lasted only 5 minutes from 11.25 am to 11.30 am, the school arranged for those who paid for it, a refreshment that was usually a 12oz bottle of chilled Coca Cola. If Coke weren’t available then there was Energee, a flavored milk drink.

As soon as the bell rang announcing the recess, the kids would run as fast as they could to the long hallway outside the classroom where the refreshments were kept, pick one up and drink. We had a friendly bet to see who finished his Coke first (bottoms up if they could!). I used to finish first most of the times. Yes! :-)

Father Oscar succeeded Father Gaiety. Now that I think about it, Father Oscar had a brilliant idea by which he tried to pique the interest of the kids into the hobby of collecting stamps. During the long recess at 1 pm, once a week, he stood at the balcony on the 2nd floor outside his office and throw hundreds of stamps into the air to the kids below, and the kids did their best to catch and accumulate as many stamps as they could. For some years I had picked up this hobby of collecting stamps. I had several hundreds of stamps that I gave to another kid when I grew up.

At the home front, this was the first time that Krish, paati, your thaatha and I began living alone in the apartment that was full of people living as a joint family. Thaatha’s two sisters had been married off and they went to their husbands’ homes, and cuttle appa as you know passed away when I was 3+. Thaatha’s younger brother Ramudu found a job at the same bank as thaatha. Since his office was far away from where we lived, he decided to rent a small apartment near his workplace and moved there with his mother, who was my grandmother.

To be honest, it felt really sad to be without all these people who lived with us, and with whom we had such a great time. But then that is life - keeps moving, keeps changing.

The four of us countered this loneliness at times by doing more and more things together like watching movies, visiting Ramudu at his new place, visiting my relatives, taking more vacation trips, going to the park daily, going to music shows, etc., which was great fun too.

The best times during the year were the Ganpati festival and the Diwali festival. The Ganpati festival is celebrated all across Bombay to bring in the birthday of Lord Ganesha, and also to bring all kinds of people together to get a great sense of community.

We celebrated this festival in the building in a spectacular fashion for 7 days, bringing a 3 foot idol of Ganesha and offering the Lord daily poojas, and lots of food and sweets distributed to whoever came for blessings. There would be music playing on the loudspeakers all through the evening. The whole of Bombay had and still has a festive atmosphere during these 10 days.

We had daily shows that included Veena recitals by the some of the ladies in the building, magic shows, fancy dress shows, singing, etc. Everyone participated.

It was absolute fun. The final day, when the idol was immersed into the sea, was a sad day since everything would come to a standstill, and people would get back to their routine daily life from the next day onwards.

Another occasion during which the whole building came alive was during Diwali (festival of lights, to celebrate the triumph of good over evil). On this day we would wake up very early around 4 am, bathe, and offer prayers to God. We would then wear brand new clothes, and burst lots of firecrackers in our building compound.

My mother, who was a great cook, prepared so many different sweet and savory snacks. Imagine this: early morning at 5 am all the kids from the building, and even some of the adults were down bursting firecrackers, and wishing everyone Happy Diwali in their brand new clothes. After the crackers were done, we would then head to our each of our friends home and wish their family Happy Diwali, and devour any sweets coming our way.

There was exchange of sweets and savory items amongst the women in the building, including exchange of cooking tips, critical judgment of the dishes prepared and exchange of in demand recipes :-). I used to lend a keen ear to all of this.

To top it all off, there was a feast at home usually consisting of onion sambar, roasted spicy potatoes, rice, rasam, papadam, and rice payasam.

A tradition we always maintained on this day was to go see the latest movie in the theater. To this day, there are lot of prominent movie releases around Diwali, a sure fire way to earn revenues for the filmmakers.

Here in the US, mommy and daddy have made it a point to celebrate the above 2 festivals in a grand manner, so you can not only get a good understanding of our culture and our festivals, but also we can all have a great time with all your friends and their families on these occasions.

- Appa