Kramer vs Kramer vs Kramer

A “brand new tradition” is an oxymoron, similar to a “brand new antique”! There are traditions passed down from generation to generation, such as “Mundan”, the ritualistic clean shave that kids get when they are about 1 year old. We all went through that in India and continued it for my daughters (here in the US) and again did so recently for my grandson. Then there are “brand new traditions” such as the ones we started in our family a few decades ago here in the US and still continuing today. Watching back-to-back movies on New Year’s eve is one such tradition that I am very proud of. Taking a nap on Sunday afternoons on the sofa is an example of one that I am not so proud of. 😊

In preparation for the New Year’s eve, we would first try to get a consensus on which movies we wanted to watch. With four strong willed folks making up our family unit, you can well imagine that this was not an easy task. At first blush, it might seem like this consensus-making was slightly manipulated. But, based on the number of hours that we got subjected to “Barney”, “Matilda”, “Lion King” and “Jungle Book”, we figured that we the parents, should be allowed some leeway in manipulating the list of movies to watch 😊. Once we narrowed the list down (without any help from Google or IMDB etc.), it was my job to hunt these movies down from either Blockbuster rentals or the local public library. One year (most likely 2003), I randomly picked up the VHS tapes for “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “Inherit The Wind” from the Library, mainly because these were the crumbs left behind after everyone else cleared out the sought-after popular ones.

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (GWCTD) (7.8/10 on IMDB; Available on Youtube/Amazon pay option)

“Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” was and is an amazing social drama that deals with interracial marriage in the 1960s and was a pathbreaker in so many different ways. Such marriages only became legal in the US in 1967 (just 6 months before this film was released). It features brilliant portrayal by all the actors, especially stalwarts – Spencer Tracy , Katherine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier. The theme of interracial marriage and the powerful dialog and interactions depicted could easily apply to inter-faith and inter-caste marriages that we routinely come across in India.

While the theme is serious, the rational discussion and reasoning between all these adults that are trying to explain/convince others without resorting to the kind of histrionics that we normally associate with such themes is very refreshing. It’s a powerful movie that packs a lot in under 2 hours. Do not miss it.

Spencer Tracy never saw the movie – as he died 17 days after completion of his shoots. It seems that Katherine Hepburn never saw the movie either- as she felt that it would be too emotional for her (She and Spencer were a couple in real life).

A future black US President predicted in 1967!

Inherit the Wind (ITW) ( 8.1/10 on IMDB; Available for rent on YouTube. The 1988 version with Jason Robards and Kirk Douglas is free on Amazon Prime).

This was a total fluke for me. I had never heard of “Inherit the Wind”. I only picked it up because it was right next to “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” on the shelf and I had to grab one last VHS before the library closed.

..and what a pick this turned out to be! The story is simple and based on a real case from Tennessee known as the “Scopes Monkey Trial”. It’s about a teacher, who, in 1925, was tried for teaching Evolution in school, which was against the law back then.

This movie has the potent mix of religion, science and fiery oratory – from the high profile lawyers on the case played by Oscar winners Spencer Tracy and Frederic March. Unlike his usual song and dance roles, Gene Kelly plays a wise-cracking reporter and does so brilliantly. I strongly recommend this classic courtroom drama which is in the same league as “12 Angry Men” and “To Kill a Mockingbird”

Fiery courtroom drama!

Trivia : In 1960, “Inherit the Wind” became the world’s first “in-flight” movie when Trans World Airlines used it to lure first-class passengers (this is from a note on the DVD box).

While watching Inherit the Wind, I realized that the director of both of these movies was the same guy – Stanley Kramer! I had never heard of his name before or paid attention to his works. I later found out that Kramer was a giant in the area of social issue-based movies, which he produced and directed.

After that year, re-watching these two movies on New Year’s eve became our fallback option/tradition, if we could not agree on any other movies as a family. When we first started watching, our daughters were only 12 and 9 (in 2003), and were going to Middle school and Elementary school respectively. Even though you would think that these two movies would be slightly above their level (intellect/level of maturity – for that age) – they not only understood the adult themes and dialogs but actually thoroughly enjoyed them. As a matter of fact, they used to request to re-watch them in later years.

After a couple of years, I ended up buying these two DVDs, just so we will always have them when needed. Of course, this was before the abundance of streaming services and choices that we have today.

I was very surprised to find that “Inherit The Wind” was recently adapted into Indian cinema . “The Holy Conspiracy” – which is primarily in Bengali and English has legendary actors Soumitra Chattopadhyay and Naseeruddin Shah in the lead roles. I can’t wait to watch it to see how it compares with the original and also to see if the theme works in the Indian context. This movie is the perfect vehicle to tackle the topics of religion, education and pseudo-science and will be effective as long as the audiences go in with an open mind. I wish they had dubbed it in Hindi and the other regional languages for a wider reach.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World ( 7.5/10 on IMDB; Available for rent on YouTube and Amazon Prime).

The next year, when I picked up “It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world” for our New Year’s eve marathon – I was pleasantly surprised, when I realized that this was yet another Stanley Kramer movie. With this zany comedy, he proved beyond a doubt that he had an amazing range (from serious drama to silly comedy). While I had not come across the other two movies before, this one I had watched in Hyderabad, India (in Liberty Theater, in Basheerbagh) back in the late 70s. It’s a riotous slapstick comedy that had us in splits from the get-go. At that time I probably only understood about 50% of the dialog and definitely had no idea about the amazing cast and famous cameos that were assembled for this production. It’s a literal who’s-who of comedy scene of that time. Only recently did I catch the cameos by Carl Reiner, “The Three Stooges” and both the landlords from the sitcom “Three’s Company” – Norman Fell and Don Knotts. I would definitely rank it among the greatest comedies of all time.

It’s a zany, zany, zany, zany comedy!

These three movies are absolute gems that came from the creative genius that is Stanley Kramer. Of course, in addition to the director, Spencer Tracy is the brilliant common factor in all three movies and he shines through even when surrounded by other greats like Sidney Poitier, Kate Hepburn, Frederic March, Mickey Rooney, Gene Kelly and Milton Berle. Please check them all out for yourself and let me know which of these Kramer movies is your favorite. Pease share your thoughts/feedback in the comments section below.

Anecdotally Speaking

(Name Dropping like a Boss… 😊 )

“Un-day!”

My voice has always been faint. I joked that if I ever was in trouble and needed to scream to save my life, that would be the end of me for sure. There I was standing at the gate of this very unique cottage-like house on Banjara Hills Road No. 1. Screaming at top of my lungs (so I thought). “Un-day, Un-day” (rhymes with “sunday”). That is just the Hindi word for eggs. I was probably 10 or 11 years old. It was my assigned chore to go buy eggs from this particular place. In the posh Banjara Hills area, this “poultry” was quite an incongruence. It was the house of a retired government official (IAS officer). It seems his married son lived there and raised chickens in a small shed on that cute compound, probably as a hobby. They were Muslims and probably Hindi/Urdu speakers, hence my use of the Hindi, instead of my mother tongue of Telugu. I used to show up with my egg carton once every couple of weeks and scream “Un-Day” and that gentleman would take the plastic carton and fill it up with half dozen eggs. Of all the chores that I helped out at that time, this was the one that I hated the least. The other ones, like getting wheat or chickpeas milled into flour at the at the ‘girni’ (flour mill) in the neighboring colony meant walking with a bucket full of wheat, past my friends who would be having fun playing and for some reason that was embarrassing for ten year old me. They all probably had servants or parents themselves taking care of these type of tasks and I was convinced that they were all looking-down on me and mocking me lugging the bucket down the street. I did not have the smarts or the self-confidence at that time to turn it into a “Tom-Sawyer-painting-the-fence” type of clever retort or comeback.

ANR

That Sunday morning, as I left with my carton full of eggs, I noticed the tourist bus pull up in front of the palatial home of ANR, just about a block from the poultry-house. Akkineni Nageswara Rao (ANR), was one of two top matinee idols of the Telugu movie industry at that time. ANR and NTR (the other heartthrob hero of that time) were the equivalent of “Raj Kapoor and Devanand” of Bollywood or “Paul Newman and Robert Redford” of Hollywood, in popularity.

ANR acted in 250 movies in a career spanning 7 decades. He ruled the roost of Telugu movie industry for decades and was at his peak in the 60s and 70s. He was credited for single-handedly moving the Telugu industry from Madras (current day Chennai) , which was the center of the the industry back then, to Hyderabad. He built this house in Banjara Hills in the late 60s. We kids from our neighborhood walked around the construction site when the building was going up and marveled at the number of rooms, the sizes of these rooms and the marble flooring. Once his family started living there we never saw them. We would walk by hoping to catch a glimpse of him, but the best we did was to see the gardener watering the roses.

The happening scene on Road No. 1, Banjara Hills!

That of course was good enough for us. We went around telling everyone that we lived so close to ANR’s house that we even saw his gardener! While Banjara Hills was sparsely populated by the super rich, we lived in SVR Nagar, a middle class colony of mostly government employees, living in one or two storied houses packed tightly with compound walls separating them. The women typically were housewives. Kids played cricket or dodgeball or Gilli-Danda in the small patch of land or sometimes right on the road in front of our house. The area between our house and Road No. 1 of Banjara Hills was full of rocks (some as high as 20 – 30 feet) and hillocks. Growing up, we used to spend hours playing hide-and-seek and “rock climbing” on these. Today, every inch of this land is “developed” – a euphemism for filling up of all open spaces with houses, apartments/flats and shopping malls.

In front of the famous rocks of SVR Colony (circa 1970). I’m the one on the far left. (pc. Surekha)

Back in the simpler times of the early 70s – I had heard about ANR’s house being on the tourist map of Hyderabad, along with Charminar, Salar Jung Museum, Golconda Fort and Birla Mandir. But this was the first time I actually saw a tourist bus pull up. A crowd of tourists piled out and were standing in front of the gate, probably admiring the gardens and rose bushes. When I saw the gates open up and the tourists rush in, I ran and joined them, with an egg carton full of fresh eggs in my hand. The excitement was palpable! There he was, standing just a few feet outside the house, on the driveway. He looked fresh, and was wearing traditional Andhra Panche-kattu. He started off with very warm and friendly pleasantries. Just a casual conversation, of the kind that happens in every household. From the accents and the dressing style, I could tell that the tourists were all farmers from rural Andhra Pradesh (our state). There was some back and forth about farming season, harvests and rains that I could only get a gist of. After all, I was a city-bred ten year old. For someone who was “up there” in social status and riches, I remember him being extremely cordial and empathetic. He exhibited genuine interest in their well-being. There was a barrage of questions from the crowd about his upcoming movies and heroines that he will be acting with in these. Unfortunately, I did not know enough about his movies to get anything more than a surface level grasp of this part of the conversation either. Soon after, he bid the group good bye, turned around and went back in. There were no photos or selfies to capture the moment for posterity! Just indelible images stored away forever, only to be recollected for a future blog such as this. Of course, I came home with an ear-to-ear grin and some exaggerated stories to regale my family and friends.

Flashback in black and white

Within the next year, I got to see ANR one more time, at an outdoor filming of a song for a Telugu movie. This was also on the same Road Number 1, just a couple blocks to the right of the poultry. These sort of movie shoots used to be fairly commonplace in Banjara Hills and later in Jubilee Hills. We got word through the Colony grapevine that there was one happening with ANR and Kanchana (heroine). We rushed there and hung around for hours outside the house where two lines (literally 2 lines!) of a song were shot for hours in the front yard of the house. There was a horde of tech people manning cameras, lights and reflectors. I found this first exposure to movie-making to be fascinating. After watching several such shoots, I realized that, for the creative and artsy people who are involved in fine-tuning the scenes this could be fun, but for the rest (even fanboys like me) it could easily get tedious and boring. After rushing over and watching a few more such shoots, I got over the thrill very quickly. Over the years I did “meet” a couple of movie stars – one from the ANR era and another one closer to my age, in very interesting circumstances. But that story’s for another post…

The World We Want!

I am so glad that the Youtube algorithm targeted me last week with something beyond the usual street food videos from Thailand or old MadTV comedy clips (my latest obsession).. and I am equally glad that I did not ignore it!

Yesterday when I casually clicked on this black and white Youtube video, I did not realize what a goldmine I was unearthing! Yes.. I landed on videos of debates and unrehearsed discussions (sometimes labeled “The world we want”) between International “High School Exchange Students” in New York City, in the 1950s. The students, one representing each country were invited to the US for 3 months, to stay with 3 different host families and attend multiple high schools during that period. They were all selected by their respective Ministries of Education via a nationwide competition in their countries.

This is the first one that I watched – about religion, featuring high school kids from Pakistan, India , Brazil and UK. The candor with which these high schoolers discussed this topic while being totally respectful to each other’s differences was mind blowing. When I grow up, I want to be just like these kids… 😊

These teenagers back in 1950s discussing a multitude of topics ranging from School uniforms, popular dances and dating to serious concepts like religion, prejudice, colonialism, Communism and Education systems so maturely just warmed up my heart! Such clarity of thought by the youngsters is so inspiring! These kids could teach a masterclass in polite debate and discussion to all our TV pundits. They are extremely honest and held nothing back. The moderator Mrs. Waller does a brilliant job by providing just the right amount of fuel for the discussion to thrive among the youngsters and jumping in as necessary to guide it along. One striking thing I observed was that most of these kids look much more mature (both physically and mentally) than their age.

I later found a total of 85 such clips (each ~27 mins long) in this archive, which I have already started binging (Yes.. they are very addictive. So, be forewarned!). The kids were slightly younger than my parents would have been at that time, and would have had a front row seat to – World war II, Colonialism, Independence to India and Malaya, formation of Israel, racial segregation, Communism and Cold war, etc. It’s like opening an amazing time capsule!

Scan through the entire list below and pick one that you would like to sample and see (with the gift of hind sight) if those kids managed to get the “World they wanted”!

https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLfZFeqnCUQDr1ed5kkdlGUWLR7BBs6DZ_

A Lesson In Perspective

The park is the midway point on my morning walk. It was actually supposed to be a “morning run”, but most of the days it is no more than a stroll – as I slow down to admire the landscaping or flowers in people’s yards along the way. I had captured some amazing photos on this route – blue skies, bright colored flowers and sun peeking through varieties of Maple.

Today was a different kind of beauty. The thick fog that cloaked the trees in the park would be a wonderful backdrop for a selfie, I thought. I positioned myself such that I would get the trees in the background with enough light on my face. I was getting quite good at this selfie thing (for a guy my age, of course). I was engrossed in appreciating my face on the iPhone while framing the photo.

Me : 💭 Let me capture from a lower angle.. No point highlighting my bald spot. I am glad I shaved before the walk. I don’t want to look shabby in this selfie. I wonder if I should post it on Facebook or maybe just our family group on Whatsapp? How about Nextdoor? The neighborhood folks really liked my photos the last time I posted them. 💭

Being so absorbed I did not notice the lady with her dog who was directly in front of me about 20 feet or so away.

Lady : 💭 I wish Buddy (dog) would hurry up and do his thing. I should get back to breakfast and get the kids ready for the summer camp. It’s going to be a crazy day at work, with Jack being out and I’ll have to cover for him.. and .. wait!! What’s this creepy guy doing? Why is he recording me? Dammit! I was warned about such people. It’s too quiet here. There’s nobody else around. I should start carrying my pepper spray on these walks 💭

Me : 💭 Calm down… don’t worry about the dog. I know it’s coming at me but “if you ignore them they will go away” – is what I was told. After all these years of being married to Uma, looks like I might have picked up traces of her dog phobia! 💭

Lady : “Hey! hey! What are you doing?”

Me : 💭 Oh good… looks like she is going to stop the dog from attacking me! That’s really nice of her. I should be wrapping up my selfie masterpiece and get out of here!💭

The dog is now so close that it could lick my ankle.. (or take a bite of my juicy calf… it could go either way), so I stayed frozen. The lady walked up… hopefully to get the dog away from me, right?

Lady : “What are you doing? Why are you recording my dog?”

Me : “What? 😳 Oh no! I was just taking a selfie. See… here’s the one I just took”

She quickly realized her mistake and was visibly embarrassed and profusely apologetic. I mumbled “It’s Ok. Don’t worry about it”. As she walked away, she shook her head and said “This is funny… This could be written up as comedy.”

I am a big fan of the “put yourself in the other person’s shoes” philosophy. There is absolutely no reason for the lady to apologize. Think about it – What if I was actually a creep who is out on the prowl with a camera and capturing women walking around for whatever creepy reason. There was no possible way for her to know that I was indulging in some harmless self-admiration for the sake of social media. Both of our viewpoints are valid and harmless. You can see how something like this could spiral into an incident – if either (or both) of us was hot headed and confrontational.

Like she said… It could easily be the start of a sitcom scene or even a clever “Candid Camera” or “Just for Laughs” gag. 😀

On my way back, I captured this doe (a deer, a female deer 🎵), who posed fearlessly with quizzing looks.

Her perspective and his perspective!

The Day Of The Tiger

Even the seasoned veterans of the Forest Department and the locals could not believe their eyes that we could have such a close encounter with the tiger for such a long time on that day! I had initially assumed that running into a tiger in the Nagarahole National Forest (Karnataka, India) was a fairly routine occurrence. But, based on the super exuberant salivating reactions of the Forest veterans, who kept clicking away to record this majestic beast during it’s most regal stroll, I realized how lucky we were to have a such a closeup darshan of this great Bengal Tiger!

In addition to the tiger, we also saw : herds of Spotted deer (Chital), Sambar deer, packs of wild dogs, Gaur (bison), Mongoose and Langur (monkeys), Spotted owl, Serpent eagle and Wild Fowl

I did not have a camera that weighed 20 pounds to capture extreme closeups of the tiger’s nose hairs from a distance, but my Iphone8 did a fairly decent job… and there’s no way I could have called or texted the kids using the 20 pound Nikon! 😀

King of The Nagarahole National Park

Here’s the rest of the wildlife that we encountered that day…

Wildlife of Nagarahole National Park

Later that day…

Me (calling my kids excitedly): Guess what? We had three sightings of a tiger today in the Nagarahole National Park! It was marking it’s territory and we followed it for almost an hour!!

———————————————–

Elsewhere…

Tiger (to its cubs): Guess what?? Today, I had 3 sightings of a Jeep full of dinner! Lucky for them that I was not in the mood for Indian today. Next time I will stick my tongue out and wink at them!! It will definitely go viral on YouTube/Facebook/Twitter!! 😀

Tiger’s partner : Did you make sure to pee on the trees like I asked you to? They do seem to lose their sh*t when you do that, don’t they? Also, did you try roaring? That impresses them too! Although, the other animals don’t seem to care anymore!

Tiger (trying it’s best Rodney impression) : That’s right! No respect.. I get no respect at all.. I tell yeah! This sucks! We really should get the “King of the Jungle” title back from the Lions! BTW, all this whispering of the tourists is driving me crazy! I have a feeling that they are talking about me behind my back...

Tiger’s Partner : We should tell Forest department that we will not do these tourist appearances anymore, till they start increasing our food ration and also stop recording our love making! I hate doing these “Wild” Life videos. We need some privacy back in our lives!

What’s Great About The Indian Kitchen?

There is a ton of cooking in “The Great Indian Kitchen” (TGIK) (on Amazon Prime), just as you would expect it. You will see repeated closeups of Dosa making as well as many other traditional Kerala favorites like Idiyappam, Puttu, fish, Sambar and stone ground coconut chutney etc. But this is not the movie for drooling over such. I can recommend several wonderful Mark Weins’ videos on YouTube for such material. The camera does focus on the stove and the minute details of the cooking as though it were a cooking show, but the focus is primarily on the lady who is cooking and the nuances in the expressions that mirror her emotions. The kitchen, the dining room or bedroom are mere backdrops for the interplay between the characters and a whole lot that is non-verbal as well.

TGIK poignantly depicts the rapid transformation of a new bride into a servile machine whose only purpose is to serve the men of this middle class household in Kerala, India. There is nothing uniquely Keralan about the theme itself. It could very well be anywhere in India – hence the title “The Great Indian Kitchen”. It took me a few minutes into the movie to realize the sarcastic nature of the title.

I was blown away by the brilliant acting of every single actor. The lead actress – Nimisha Sajayan conveys so much of her angst without saying much! The sub-titles are done very well and there’s a lot more that is said through her vivid expressions than through the dialog. My wife was so taken in by the story and acting that she was screaming very specific instructions to the actress about what she should throw and at whom – just the way any average American would at the Quarterback, while watching Monday night football!

Online, it was heartening to see several comments from young men who recognized themselves and their households in the movie, which held up a mirror to highlight the chauvinistic, uncaring and oppressive system for women. If the movie brings about this realization even in a fraction of the viewers, then the director’s goal would be achieved.  I can tell that this is a product of intense passion for the writer/director who felt strongly enough about this topic of chauvinism to highlight it in such a fashion, in spite of possible backlash from “traditionalists” who would love for the status quo to continue. You will notice that it is not just the men who oppress. There are women right there to enable this patriarchy, and in some cases even take the lead in the name of customs and traditions.

I loved this movie and strongly recommend it. It moved us and I can guarantee that it will do the same to you! TGIK obviously is not a date-night movie. I am sure you can find a whole lot of song and dance desi ones or even Hollywood ones for that. I am a brand new fan of Malayalam cinema. They seem to be at a totally different level of the craft. I just finished watching “Kumbalangi Nights” (superb acting by the ensemble cast) and “Ayyappanum Koshiyum”, and added a whole lot of other Malayalam movies to my watchlist. I will be busy for a while watching and writing reviews for these and so will not be available to help out with the chores around the house🤪

Shtisel – A goy’s-eye view!

I am not embarrassed to admit that “Airplane” or “Naked Gun” or even “DieHard”  are my favorite go-to movies (for the umpteenth time) rather than risk watching a complete dud.  So, for me to fall in love with a drama series about an Ultra Orthodox Jewish extended family’s story was totally surprising. Thanks to the pandemic induced house-arrest over the past year, we finally started getting our money’s worth from the Netflix subscription. I loved the mini series “Unorthodox” on Netflix, which gave us a window into the lives of the Orthodox Jewish sect of Satmar in Brooklyn, New York. I found their coexistence with the rest of the secular world fascinating! Right after we got done with “Unorthodox”, the Netflix algorithm started pushing “Shtisel” on me. A few weeks ago I (thankfully) succumbed to it and started watching this series about yet another Ultra Orthodox Jewish sect (the Haredi) set in Jerusalem. I absolutely loved the show which beautifully covered the trials and tribulations of the Shtisel family. I got so obsessed with the show that I constantly talked about the story, the subplots and the characters at the dinner table which amused and possibly even annoyed my wife.

The Shtisel clan

What is so special about this show? The crisp, intricate story and dialogs stand out along with the multi-dimensional colorful characters. Every single one of the characters is delightful in their own ways. The acting is nothing short of brilliant. The viewer is inexorably drawn into their day-to-day life and we get to feel their joys, anger, sorrows, subtle humor and even hints of unexpected mischief.

When grandma Shtisel gets addicted to soap operas at the nursing home, one of her grandsons sneakily cuts the cord (quite literally) of the TV! When Giti’s son wants to get married to a different girl (and not the one chosen by his parents), Giti screams – “Over my dead body!”. That seemed SO Indian! Every single Indian movie used to have this line, immediately followed by a version of “You will not get a penny of inheritance from me”. The constant teasing and belittling of Akiva’s interest in art by his dad and uncle also reminded me of similar attitudes of Indian parents towards their kids. Growing up in India, parents always looked down upon art and literature etc. as career choices. It always had to be medicine or engineering! One unique thing I noticed in the show is that there are no fixed good guys or bad guys for the entirety of the show (just like in real life). Who you see as a bad guy in an episode, turns out to be a good guy under other circumstances, as the show progresses. Of all the characters of the show – the one that left a very strong impression on me was that of Shulem (Dov Glickman) – the patriarch who is very quirky and resourceful. He is either helping solve the jams that his kids or grandkids find themselves in, or stringing along (inadvertently, perhaps even playfully) some old widows who hoped to marry him (even showing up at their doorstep at an odd hour with a “Brizel Cheesecake”). The series showcases brilliant acting by the entire team and especially outstanding performances by Dov Glickman (Shulem), Michael Aloni (Akiva), Neta Riskin (Giti) and Shira Haas (Ruchami). Shira was the lead actress in “Unorthodox”. Incidentally, none of the main actors are Orthodox and in fact they all had to learn the ways of the Haredi and the Yiddish language. BTW, after this show, I have expanded my vocabulary to add the Hebrew phrases “Baruch Hashem” and “todah rabah” to the previous list of Yiddish ones : goy, shiksa, putz, bubbe, klutz, kvetch, chutzpah, schtick schlep, schmutz, schmear and tuchus. You will definitely enjoy the interviews with the actors (on YouTube) after watching the show, as you will get to see how different the characters they portray are from the actors themselves.

The show is in Hebrew (modern and biblical) and Yiddish, but the subtitles are very well done and do not interfere with the experience. The “arranged marriage” meetings between the young Hasidic men and women (in a hotel/restaurant) are downright ultra-modern compared to my own “arranged marriage interview”. We got married after just one meeting at my in-laws’ place, under the watchful/prying eyes of the elders. 😊 I had covered this in an earlier blog here : “Are you happily married?”

It’s important to note that the Ultra orthodox Jewish life is the backdrop for the story and not the focus of it. The religion is an all-pervading part of their life. After watching a couple of episodes, I got used to the little prayers before every meal, every event and the touching of the mezuzah before entering any doorway. They routinely go through all these as if they are programmed to do so (because they are). The focus is on the intricate relationships between the various characters and the milestones they celebrate along the way – births, marriages and funerals! Surprisingly there were no Bar/Bat Mitzvahs in the show.

I strongly recommend this show! Although, I am afraid you may curse me for getting you hooked onto something so addictive. I would love to find similar such shows/movies – where the background is the religion (Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhism etc.). I feel that this is a wonderful way to learn about different cultures and lifestyles. I am not looking for the story to be about the religion itself or conflicts between religions (of which I am sure there are many). Please suggest/recommend in the comments section below.

What the Pho?

I peeked into the barbershop. The shopping center seemed dead. Luckily, there was a barber in there. I did not recognize him. He was not my usual guy. I was trying to decide in that split-second to go ahead with it or come back later when the other guy comes back. I made a mental note to get his name next time. Referring to him as barber or Asian barber seems lame!

This new guy, also an Asian, seemed surprised that anyone showed up on this snowy Friday at 10:00AM and essentially conveyed “Are you here by mistake?” with his eyes. I said “haircut” and also mimed the two-fingered scissoring motion to reinforce what I just said.

This Asian barbershop has now become my “usual place” for a hair cut. My previous “usual place” was Great Clips, a popular franchise location that was not open during the pandemic when I desperately needed a cut.

Great Clips had my computerized records. They knew exactly what tools and techniques to use to make me look reasonable. Yes, “reasonable” is all I ever aspired for, as far as the hair is concerned. They never had to ask “how much to take off from the top or around the ears etc.”. It was all entered into the system, after that one mishap several years ago, when one of the stylists went nuts with a clipper (while I wasn’t paying attention). After that incident, no more clippers! “Only scissors!”– is probably the bolded and underscored note in their system.

I keep finding myself in Sheldonesque situations

So, when I first came across this barbershop in a strip mall (on my way to Trader Joe’s), I surprised myself by the way I just let him use whatever he wanted to, to get the job done. After all, I was very eager to shed ~7 months of hair growth and I didn’t care how he did it. He did declare at the very outset that he “would make me handsome”, which seemed like unnecessary hyperbole, given that even god could never accomplish that. In the end, he did an excellent job and so I have gone back couple more times. Today, when I hoped to get a hair cut while I was out grocery shopping, I was prepared that he might be closed (because of the snow). But here I am with me trusting my coiffure to another new guy! (My very first such experience in the US is covered here: Hairy Tales )

Once I was seated, he asked me what I wanted. “An inch off and around the ears..”. After a quick survey of my head, he pronounced the approach, “#2 here, #3 here and #4 here!”. That almost sounded like a surgeon announcing at the start of major surgery “I will start with an incision here with a scalpel, then use a retractor here and a clamp here”. He wasn’t asking me. He was telling me. Although, he really didn’t have to tell me as I had no clue about the implications of those combination of clippers on my scalp. That seemed like too much technical talk. The other guy just did it with a combination of one clipper and scissors.

When big clumps of hair started falling off from the sides, with the use of #2 clipper, I got nervous. It was beginning to look like that disaster haircut that Ted Cruz had recently. Maybe I should have waited for the regular guy to come back. Maybe I should have asked for more details when he rattled off a combinations of numbers.

Oh well.. the damage is done! I thought. Too late now. Also, the stakes are low. What do I have to lose? Who am I trying to impress? I hardly interact with anyone these days, except for those Zoom stand-up open-mics. But who is paying attention to my looks at those? He kept switching the attachments to the clipper like the professional that he was, while carrying on a conversation…

Him: “Off from work today?”

Me: “Yep”

Me: “Are you Vietnamese?” I tried to show-off my ability to distinguish between different Asians.

Him: “Wow! How did you know?”. I told him about my association with Vietnamese friends over the years.

Me: “What’s a good Pho place around here?”. My standard go-to topic. It was good to note that his recommendation matched the other guys’ suggestion. I really should get better conversation pieces than this. I am no good at small talk that involves sports, and we had already waxed eloquent about the snow situation.

Him: “Are you a doctor?” Looks like he wanted to try his hand at this guessing game. My parents would be happy that I am exuding “doctor vibes”!

I wanted to say – “No, but I play one on TV” or “No, but I always wanted to be one” or “Yes, I am a WebMD and I am qualified to answer questions about COVID”.

Instead I said “No, I am an engineer”. He had a nod and a chuckle which seemed to say “that would have been my second guess”.

When he got done, he used the mirror to show off his handy work and said “There, you look handsome!”, just as I was getting upset with my growing bald spot in the back! He left the tuft of hair on the top mostly untouched and said that because of my thinning hair we should leave it like that. Oh well… He is the expert. This is his domain. Who am I to argue? I actually tipped him well, especially since he said I looked handsome! (-:

A Prequel to the “End of an Era”

(My daughter Ramya wrote this piece in 2007, when she was in High School)

“There are places you can leave that will never truly leave you.”

I cannot remember who spoke these words, yet as I peer out the tiny window -at the house, the city, and the country I am rising above and leaving behind, they reverberate in my head. For the sweltering past month, I have made my paternal grandparents’ house in Hyderabad, India my home. Now, with henna tattoos on my hands and a schoolbag stuffed with homemade Indian sweets on my back, I am flying to my other home, halfway around the world in Pennsylvania.

This summer, my first summer visiting India as an adolescent, I saw my grandparents’ house as more than just my home base during whirlwind thrice-a-decade visits to India. On one level, with wide-eyed curiosity, I was mesmerized by the simple beauty and ingenuity of the house. Yet on a deeper level, I saw the house as a window into my family history and my cultural heritage. In the dank crevices of the kitchen, in the rare breeze rustling garments on the clothesline, even in the daunting old-fashioned bathroom, I saw clues to a foreign lifestyle and a history that is comfortingly my family’s own.

Nayanamma and Thatha, my paternal grandparents, had been the first in our direct family line to move from rural India to the city for education and employment, and by constructing this house in 1965, they had planted their roots firmly in a newly-independent, progressive India. In the 70’s and 80’s, relatives visiting from the villages used to stay for weeks and marvel at the rapid modernization that engulfed the city but left the villages untouched. In this house, my father had hastily done homework after afternoons spent playing cricket on the streets, studied computer engineering without a computer, clenched his fists in nervous anticipation through his engagement ceremony, and packed for a new life in America. Here, Nayanamma had juggled the responsibilities of a career and a family when it was groundbreaking for a woman to do so. And here, a seventy year old man who had grown up without electricity could phone his mother in her native village, e-mail his son in the States, and watch DVDs of his grandchildren’s first words. For my Nayanamma and Thatha, the house was a symbol of all they had accomplished in life, while for Nana, my father, it was a launching pad to a new continent of opportunities, opportunities which he in turn passed on to me and my sister.

While the house is significant, it is by no means extravagant. Its most memorable part, the back garden area, consists of a small cement bench surrounded by a wide array of vegetable plants and exotic trees. The area around the house is small and flows together, with the back and front doors of the house open to let in the non-existent wind and allow my free, restless movement. There is a constant smell of too many flowers mixing in the still air, and even though it isn’t like the overpriced perfumes in tiny glass bottles at the American department stores, I like it. Nayanamma sits on the bench, extracting pomegranate seeds from the magnificent fruit. She places the juicy kernels into a small metal bowl, a collection of rubies that accents her scarlet-bordered sari perfectly. Thatha sits beside her, cutting okra in his white banian shirt and lungi, a wrapped Indian cloth. Working outside whenever possible and in no obvious rush, Nayanamma and Thatha exemplify the pleasant pace of life in India.

A clothesline crisscrosses the right side of the small space. Draped on it is a fusion of garments: the trusty pair of blue jeans that had carried me from my doorstep in America through thirty-two hours of safety demonstrations and mealtimes and naptimes to this precious place; the one-meter-by-eight-meter turquoise cloth which takes form on my mother’s too-busy-to-exercise body and transforms it into its perfectly proportioned self; the faded lungis Thatha wraps around his waist while at home, alongside the Western pants he pulls on when going out to take care of business; the golden-yellow salwar my sister bought, which seems to reflect the blinding brilliance of the sun that bakes it.

The rear edge of the property is defined by a concrete wall that rises a few feet above our heads. Jagged pieces of brown glass are stuck into the cement on the compound wall, like the rotting teeth of a beast, to ward off thieves and trespassers. Dainty pink flowers creep boldly between the shards. Beyond the wall are high-rise apartments where the new and growing middle-class hang their saris outside their windows like flags and shout greetings up to their neighbors. At least five times a day, Thatha tells us how vast and empty the area behind their house used to be when they first moved to the city.

The left and right sides of the property are demarcated by the same concrete walls, but beyond these walls are houses similar to our own- small and built decades ago. The space between the house and this dividing wall is no more than three feet, so one could literally stand there and watch his neighbor’s TV or hear the scratches and gurgles of his neighbor brushing his teeth. As children, Nana and his friends used to climb over these compound walls to get to each other’s houses rather than enduring the more tedious process of walking in and out of front gates. All of these children have since grown up and moved out, leaving behind elderly neighbors who stand at these walls and gossip about whose daughter ranked highest on the college entrance exam or whose son was still unmarried. The thick walls between neighbors in India do not hinder communication in the slightest, while the invisible ones in the United States make neighbors strangers.

On the front step leading up to the house lay a heap of shoes. Black Old Navy flip-flops tossed beside worn, brown chappals underneath fancy Indian sandals greeted visitors to the house and hinted at who was inside. These piles of shoes are a comforting site to Indians everywhere and a sign of the sanctity of the home, according to Indian tradition. Arriving at this doorstep, not at the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport, always signified the commencement of a whirlwind vacation in India, the three weeks in which we were supposed to cram a lifetime of memories with some of our closest friends and relatives. The house served as our home base during our stays; from there, we set off on shopping excursions through the chaotic streets of Hyderabad, entertained guests who pinched our cheeks and asked if we got together on weekends with their sons and daughters in places like Seattle and Dallas, and ate unhealthy quantities of deep-fried delicacies. I had also stood on this doorstep so many times, surrounded by suitcases filled with a lifetime supply of homemade sweets and spices, saying tearful goodbyes and wondering when I would see my family again.

To the left of the paved area in front of the house is parked Thatha’s car, a small tan Maruti Suzuki which all three of his children constantly beg him to stop driving. Between darting around other vehicles, halting suddenly for pedestrians and cows, shooing away beggars whose outstretched hands seem to spontaneously appear in the windows whenever one is stalled in traffic, and honking constantly for no reason whatsoever, driving in India is a challenge that rivals the most intense car-racing video games. Yet Thatha continues to brush off his children’s concerns and honk and swerve his way through the streets of Hyderabad everyday, saying that Master will protect him. His car plays the catchy tune of “Saare Jahaan Se Accha,” a patriotic Indian song, each time he reverses, much to the delight of me and my sister and the annoyance of everyone else.   

To the right of the house a narrow set of stairs leads to the flat rooftop, where I help the servant girl each week with the novel task of wringing out laundry and pinning it up to dry, despite protests from Nayanamma and Thatha.

Each room in the house flows seamlessly into the other, divided only by a diaphanous cloth that hangs in the doorway. In the family room, a long couch and a short couch run along two sides of the room, facing a small TV set in the opposite corner. Nayanamma sits here every Saturday morning and watches a program called Sakhi, in which beautiful ladies with mellifluous voices relay news stories, interview celebrities, and teach women how to cook novel delicacies. From Sakhi, Nayanamma learned how to make Spanish rice, French toast, Chinese noodles, and all kinds of wrapped and rolled versions of traditional Indian dishes.

When the house was first constructed, the only toilet of the house was little more than a hole in the ground. Only in the 1990s did Nayanamma and Thatha install a Western-style toilet, solely for the sake of their NRI (non-residential Indian) grandchildren. This toilet is small, flimsy, and pink, yet we are grateful for its presence. Each time we visit India, we bring several rolls of Charmin from the United States and use them frugally to ensure that they last the entire vacation. The sink, rather than being located in the bathroom, is in a wall cavity by the dining table. Because Indians traditionally eat with their hands, this is commonplace in India to facilitate frequent hand washing.

 I loved peering through the front gate, observing children pass on bicycles and men on scooters. Boys with thin, dry, scratchy legs with feet in worn, brown sandals and girls wearing 1970s-style bell-bottoms with flowing peasant tops. Dogs, always emaciated and stray, trotting up and down the streets. On the roadside just a few feet to the front and left of the house was a dhobi, or ironing-man, who worked from a small shack-stand constructed from scraps of metal and cardboard. Women wearing vibrant saris rode by on bicycles, dropping off baskets of freshly cleaned saris. He ironed them with the most cumbersome-looking iron I’ve ever seen. It was a metal box filled with burning coals with a large handle on top, and with it, he meticulously ironed sari after sari late into the night, later than I could have possibly remained outside in that oppressive heat.

       Now I’m on my way to a home with high ceilings, granite countertops, a washing machine and a dryer, four Western-style toilets, a spacious backyard with a wooden deck, and two Honda Accords parked in the garage. It has only been a few hours, but I already miss the comforts of my Indian home, my familial home.

End of an Era

Naming our houses, no matter how modest they are, is probably an “Indian” thing. Sure, in the west, fancy estates and plantations always did this, like, “Tara” the plantation in “Gone with the Wind”, or Elvis’s “Graceland”. We’ve always given fancy sounding names to our houses. This is not a substitute for the actual address, which continues to be a mind-boggling combination of numbers and letters (like – 6/3/596/32A/W, MIGH, Block C, J.P.Narayan Marg, Padmavathi Nagar Colony). These “house names” are typically based on our favorite deities, like, “Laxmi Nilayam”, “Ram Nivas” or “Sai Sannidhi” etc. These names are usually engraved on a plaque and installed at the entrance of the house or on the compound wall. Of course, the current-day naming style has been thoroughly influenced by globalization such that “Laxmi Nilayam” etc. gave way to “Laxmi Plaza”, “Sai Enclave” or “Balaji Avenue”.

When my parents built our house in 1965, my dad blended all 5 of our names to come up with  “Yashorajasri” as the name for the house.  This was the house I grew up in, till I moved to the US in 1983. As you can imagine, for us “Yashorajasri” is much more than brick, mortar and steel! It represents something much stronger and deeper, and has in return built us into who we are today. It housed fond memories that we all will go back to time and again.

It was a tiny piece of land to start with. After building the house we were just left with about 20 feet in the front and 15 feet in the back. Apparently that was plenty to work with. So, over the years we grew all kinds of fruits, vegetables, flowering plants and trees in it. We had Coconut, Papaya, Sapota, Gooseberry, Pomegranate, Passion fruit, Drumstick (Moringa) and Curry leaf trees. We had a bumper crop of Tindora in the backyard (growing up, I wasn’t a fan of this vegetable), along with other seasonal vegetables. We also grew potatoes and sugarcane in the front yard one year. A beautiful creeper with lovely orange flowers covered the entire front of the house for years. If I close my eyes and think of “Yashorajasri” even today, I get a heady mix of the fragrances of Sampangi –  the green ones (Artabotrys Hexapetalus) and the orange ones  (Magnolia Champaca), SannaJaaji (Jasmine) and Kanakambaram (Crossandra).

We had always rented out the upstairs, and we lived on the ground floor. In fact, for several years the 5 of us managed in just a small portion of the ground floor, and let out half of the ground floor as well. All our tenants were friendly and we kept in touch with most of them over the years.

From the rooftop of our house we could see far and wide. We could see Hussainsagar (Tank Bund), Naubat Pahad, Birla Temple and the flights landing at Begumpet airport. On the backside, we could see up to Banjara Hills Road No 1, and the house of movie star Akkineni Nageswara Rao (popularly known as ANR). There were no tall structures to obstruct our line of sight. That changed pretty dramatically over the past two decades. All the old houses around ours were demolished to give way to tall complexes of flats (condominiums). “Yashorajasri” remained as an anachronistic leftover for folks like me to wistfully reminisce about our childhood.

“Remember when Padma fell off this wall and fractured her wrist?”

“Why did I have to get my hair cut in the front yard, where everyone walking by could see us! It was embarrassing!!” Hairy Tales

“or.. the time when dad almost got electrocuted when trying to trim the creeper on the power line!”

Circumstances conspired to gently encourage my parents to move out of this house in 2019. After much deliberation, it was sold to a neighbor at the beginning of 2020. We were there last year when this transaction took place and we helped clean out the last few memorabilia items. We had to brace ourselves to the fact that some day the physical entity “Yashorajasri” would be no more. It turns out that day is today. It seems that the demolition work has started. This too will now make way to another brand new tower of condos. The relations and fond memories that were nurtured in and around that house will live on forever.