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.

A God of Their Own?

Why are they called praying mantises? They seem to be known for killing and eating their own kind. Shouldn’t they be called cannibal mantises instead?

So, what exactly are they praying for? I am guessing that the male one is praying and hoping that its partner won’t be too hungry after mating (which is when the cannibalism is supposed to start).  The female is thanking the lord for the meal it’s about to have.

This got me thinking about animals and their belief in a god. When an antelope is running away from a cheetah, is she praying to her almighty, to be saved (in a very physical sense, and not the Christian metaphorical way), and is the cheetah doing the same (praying for a sumptuous meal that is not too “gamey” 🙂 )? What are the odds that they are both praying to the same god – who could, technically, dodge both their prayers with a “free will” argument and go focus on something more important, like helping a specific horse win the Kentucky Derby! As you can see, I had assumed a dedicated god for the animals, thereby freeing up the god of humans to take care of our important issues… like war, famine, child abuse and ensuring an abundant supply of McRib and Popeyes chicken sandwich!

I am in no way unique in addressing this question about animals seeking help from deities. There are stories in ancient Hindu texts that cover this topic. There is one specific one where an elephant prays for (and gets) divine intervention when it is grabbed by a crocodile.

Coming back to praying mantises, here’s one that I captured with my iPhone, while it was in the midst of this sumptuous meal of dragonfly. I am sure the dragonfly would have appreciated it if its deity would have heard its prayers and gotten involved.

She definitely did not pray for a salad!

Proof of Dependence

In over 33 yrs of marriage and being employed by various companies, not once was I asked to show proof that I was married, for any reason. But, now, with my new job – they are asking for my marriage certificate, in order to cover my wife as a dependent for health and other benefits.

Holy Matrimony it is!

We had not seen this certificate nor needed it in 33 years! I certainly could not have found it! The fact that Uma could locate it fairly quickly and handle it with the care that such a crumbling document needed is proof enough that we are married! What more proof do you need to realize that I am the true dependent, here
I am not sure if this document will satisfy the requirements of the company, because it does not have our social security numbers, signatures or anything relevant or meaningful! Everything on this certificate is barely legible. It looks ancient and feels like it belongs in a museum – along with the manuscripts of the Magna Carta and the Dead Sea Scrolls!

One of us is still fresh after 6 hours of marathon ceremonies!

I wonder if, instead of the marriage certificate, I should just send out a couple of our wedding photos and a video clip of me trying to fix the toilet and her repeatedly asking me to “call someone who knows what they are doing”, or maybe show them the idiot-proof grocery lists that she gives me every week and how I, even after such detailed lists, come back missing a couple of items or bringing the wrong items. This will of course be followed by an amusing session (for one of us) of “How may times I have to tell you..”, “You always do this..”, “I knew it..” , “I told you so..” etc. Any of these, individually or collectively should definitely prove that we are seasoned veterans of holy matrimony!

“Are you sure you know what you are doing?”

If you think these instructions are idiot-proof, you are underestimating idiots in general and this one in particular!? (-:

Tokyo, Toledo Tonight; Moscow, Miami Tomorrow!

I had no idea that I could ever sweat from the soles of my feet and palms! I was sweating from every pore in my body. The loud thuds from my heart were competing with the booming act-outs from the comedian as well as applause of the audience downstairs. I really should be fairly comfortable doing this. After all, I have come a long way since the 7th grade poetry recitation competition in school, where I totally bombed, and only managed to get the 1st line of the poem out, before walking off the stage in tears. Since then I have had a few years of Toastmasters experience under my belt, which definitely cured my stage fright! So, why this new anxiety?

It was the graduation show for the 6 week stand-up comedy class that I took at ACT II theater in Ambler. I thought I had done a fairly good job with writing and re-writing the material and practicing it over and over again. I had done all the exercises suggested in the “text book” by Judy Carter that was used for the class. I had even pasted cheat sheets onto the water bottle (in case I forgot my lines), as suggested in the class. But, there was something about bombing in front of an audience (especially based on my on-stage history) that was totally nerve-racking and had me pacing up and down in the green room.

Finally when it was my turn, I got on the stage and could not see any of the audience members because of the bright lights in my face. This was perfect, as I did not have to bother imagining the audience naked! There were over 60 members in that small community theater, whose stage was set for a play with performances scheduled through the week. Hence the strange looking bedroom set on stage (which I worked into my opening bits), for my debut stand-up performance. This had to be the friendliest audience that I will ever perform for, as they were all friends and family of the performers and would be giving us all the encouragement as well as pity laughs, if needed. I only had 5 members of my family there. I could not coax or bribe any more than that! The bulk of the audience was Sam’s (a fellow student in the class) friends and family and they were super generous with their laughter for all the performers. I am grateful to them for their encouragement during the show and afterwards as well. Thankfully and surprisingly, I did not forget any of my lines and the audience feedback was reassuring and calmed me down. I did not even need my cheat sheet (although with all the moisture on the bottle, the note was practically useless).

My first stand-up performance (no, this is not my bedroom)!

Open Mics!

About a month later, just on a whim, I looked up stand-up comedy open mics in Lehigh Valley (where I worked). Luckily, it turned out Stout Laughs had an open mic that evening at Bethlehem Brewworks. Perfect! I stayed late at work and then showed up in time to sign up. Strangely, I did not feel nervous at all, maybe because I did not know anyone there. It was a case of, “what do I have to lose?” attitude. I did my best “5 mins” from the original debut set and was very happy with the feedback from the audience. So, just like that, I was a virgin no more (in the world of open mics)! Then in a quick succession, I did two more open mics back to back – in Northeast Philly and Lansdale, over the next two days. From then on, the open mics became part of my weekly routine. Folks at work used to wonder why I was hanging around after hours. The guy at the Vietnamese restaurant (that I’d hit before Stout Laughs) started recognizing me – “Chicken Pho, right?”. I also added a few more spots in Lansdale and Doylestown to the repertoire. I was slowly getting more and more comfortable with the mics. The comedians and the audiences were very friendly, encouraging, and receptive to my bi-weekly routine about “fish out of water” narrations covering India and immigrant experiences!

“Oh, the places you go… and the people you meet!”

The 5 min set I did at Stout Laughs on March 3rd 2020, was the last in-person open mic that I did before everything closed down due to COVID19. We all thought things would get back to normal in a matter of weeks. That was over 6 months ago! In mid April (exactly 1 year since my first stand-up performance), I tried my very first Zoom open mic. It felt great to be able to reuse my favorite bits (Indian stereotypes, Kamasutra, spelling bee, etc.) on the Philadelphia-based “Ill At Ease” open mic. By now I was between jobs and had plenty of time to feed this “mid-life crisis” hobby of mine! I found other mics – in Chicago and Omaha, which I started attending regularly. Then someone mentioned a Facebook group called “Displaced Comedians” which was created to help out just my kind of comedians who were all extremely thirsty for opportunities, networking, and resources. I joined the group and immediately fell in love with the mother-lode of compiled data about worldwide open mics at this site. Armed with this information, I went nuts -signing up for open mics throughout the world at all possible hours! I got a high out of performing in as many as 6 different open mics in one day, virtually hopping from London to Moscow to Salt Lake City etc. Sometimes I was using the same material at every mic, but fine-tuning to improve the quality and context. “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” references and specifically Yiddish ones do not work in Tokyo. Nobody outside the Philly area knows what Scrapple is… 🙂 .

I started seeing the same faces from all over the world at these different open mics. Within a short time, I was friends with a lot of them. We would give each other feedback – ‘pat on the back’ when the jokes land perfectly as well as constructive suggestions to make the bits funnier.

While doing these open mics, I got to do a few featured showcase comedy specials. These are typically an hour long with 5 or 6 comedians. I loved performing in these and having the opportunity to share the virtual stage with some very talented comedians. It was eye-opening to see the number of Indians who are into comedy! I had the pleasure of meeting and performing with Indian diaspora – of all shades and accents, not just the ones in India, but many from South Africa, Malaysia, US, and Canada. Some of these folks who are 2nd or 3rd generation Indians have never even been to India. Who knew that ‘funny’ was one of the spices that was innate to us all! Not surprisingly, what’s common to all of us Indians is the “desi-ness”** in our material – assimilation with local population, spicy food, strict and stingy parents, religion, sex-ed (or lack thereof), and other taboo subjects. That’s right folks, we Indians are not just coming for your spelling bee trophies and IT jobs, now we are even coming for ‘your’ comedy gigs 🙂

**(desi – Pertaining to the Indian Subcontinent. pronounced “They see”)

Last “Steal The Show” online mic from Moscow

Stay in your lane

I heard that most seasoned comedians do not like Zoom mics and shows, for obvious reasons. Zoom certainly lacks the real-life touch and feedback, but for me it makes up for that in terms of convenience of sitting at home while interacting with and performing for folks all over the world. Since I was practically a newcomer to comedy before the covid pandemic hit, I did not have much to compare with, so I jumped into this world happily with both feet. I am thrilled to have connected and become friends with a lot of comedians and wonderful hosts worldwide through the open mics for these past 6 months.

My comedy primarily draws on my own Indian background and immigrant experiences. In addition to that, I do observational comedy. Some of my favorite bits deal with my “Italian-ness” and “Jewishness!” These were big hits and are now part of my repertoire. Some of my friends “playfully” urged me to stay in my lane and stick to “Indian” material, else they would be forced to cut into my “Kamasutra and Yoga” routines. Personally, I think it would be a boring world if we all stayed just in “our lane.” Recently, my Jewish friend’s daughter made “naan” (Indian flat bread) from scratch. I can guarantee you that not even 0.001% of Indians have ever made a naan! To return the favor, my daughter made yummy bagels from scratch. So… here we are having a ball while happily cutting into each others’ lanes.

It has been an absolute thrill ride pursuing my newfound hobby for these past few months. I hope to continue with online open mics for now and the in-person ones when the world opens up!

Epilogue : If you want to give it a shot…

As you might have guessed, there are no prerequisites to get into comedy. If I can do it, anyone can! All it takes is an urge to entertain people and an unlimited well of experiences to draw from, for the material. Here is a sampling of some resources that have helped me and could be of interest to you.

  1. Facebook group : Displaced Comedians, founded by Niko Lukoff, has a list of all open mics along with signup details. These are all free and anyone can sign up. Here are some that I have attended regularly.
    • Villain Theater open mic (Miami, Florida)
    • The PandeMic! (Salt Lake City, Utah)
    • Backline Comedy (Omaha, Nebraska)
    • Ill at Ease (Philadelphia)
    • Suddenly Standup (New York City)
    • Get on the Mic! (Tokyo)
  2. Stand-Up comedy classes (online and in-person) offered by
    • Flappers Comedy Club
    • Tao Comedy Studio
    • ACT II Playhouse
    • Off Mic Comedy School
  3. Writing Workshops – these are great resources for getting feedback:
    • Stand Up Comedy Writing Mastermind
    • Joke Shop Online
    • “This Just in News” – Feedback Mic
    • The Comedy Writer’s room presented by Hot Breath! Comedy Network

All-in-one That We All Need!

I am generally not the kind of person that wishes harm on anyone or anything, but I am going out on a limb to wish that our 30 year old pressure cooker just dies right now! It has lived a wonderful life and served us well, but now it’s time for it to make way for the next generation!

My wife has a strict policy about bringing new items into the house (especially the kitchen) when there are existing alternatives. That seems logical enough, but I am through being logical! We are talking about an Instant Pot, which has been winning hearts, minds, palates and stomachs the world over! If you have been living under a rock and therefore have not heard about this magical kitchen product that apparently “everyone” must have  – it is an electric pressure cooker, steamer, rice cooker, slow cooker,  saute/searing pan and food warmer! It seems that you might even be able to steam clean your carpet by combining it with a Roomba (I am working on the design for this right now! 🙂 ). The Instant Pot was invented in 2010, right next door, in Canada, by some ex-Nortel employees. All of our friends and family have had it for years and we are under a lot of pressure to join the group. We’ve been resisting all of their brain-washing efforts for years 🙂 .  Actually, mostly my wife has been standing strong. As for me, I am easily tempted, especially when it comes to kitchen gadgets. There isn’t a single infomercial on TV that I did not watch over and over again (open mouthed and wide-eyed) wondering how they were able to throw in – “this and that” and “also that” for  4 easy payments of $49.95 plus shipping and handling of only $29.95. As you can imagine, I have fallen for these gimmicks several times over the years. Some were good, but most were duds!



There are millions of followers for the Instant Pot worldwide and there are dedicated user groups on Facebook and other social media, for these folks to compare notes and share recipes. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these folks have weekly get-togethers to sing the praises of the Instant Pot and maybe even go door-to-door with pamphlets to convince folks about the one and only savior in the kitchen! I have seen Instant Pot recipes on Youtube (like a sweet-toothed diabetic in a donut shop) for making mouthwatering delicacies in every possible cuisine. In addition to the usual (and expected) Biryani, Sambar, Pot Roast, Chilli, Baked Potatoes etc, I have seen recipes for  wine, beer, yogurt, masala chai and even dog food (Wow!!). Once you own one of these, you are on a mission to convert everyone to your way! Some of my buddies go with the aggressive sales pitch – “you could cook that in half the time and use the time you saved to convince others to buy Instant Pots!”. Of course, that makes perfect sense to me. But, as mentioned earlier, I am the one that easily gets carried away by kitchen gadgets.

           Instant Pot Duo                      Instant Pot Chicken Curry for the win!!!

Some of our friends have 3 or 4 of them on their kitchen counter-tops. Each one for a specific function, in order to whip up an entire 4 course meal at once. My daughters go with the soft approach – they post their food creations on social media  and our family Whatsapp groups and then rub it in. “See! If you had an Instant Pot, even you could have made this!” At parties, these folks take turns trying to persuade us with their  tag-team recruiting approach. Thanks to my wife and her strong ‘belief’ in our pressure cooker,  it seems that there is no room in our hearts or on our counter-top for yet another gadget.


I will keep working on my wife to change her mind (wish me luck!). Meanwhile, please add your best Instant Pot recipes as well as your best argument to convince my wife, in the comments section below..  🙂


Close Encounter with Plaquenil

Cutaneous Lupus was the diagnosis that my dermatologist came back with after doing a biopsy of my scalp. I had gone to him after a persistent itch morphed from minor annoyance to a major preoccupation and finally forced me to act. At first, I was not sure how serious of an ailment it was till he referred me to a specialist at The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.  My wife and daughter calmed me down, as Lupus was not yet confirmed and there were medicines available to treat it.  Even then, a possible diagnosis of Cutaneous Lupus got me all worked up. As a confirmed hypochondriac, who has his WebMD on speed-dial (bookmarked), I needed all my powers of restraint from  spending hours on the internet researching this.

Based on my dermatologist’s  referral we were able to get a quick appointment with the specialist at Penn.  At the appointment, she and her team took their time to analyze the earlier biopsy results and ordered their own specific tests/biopsy. After a few weeks, at the second appointment she narrowed the diagnosis  down to Lichenoid Dermatitis, and planned to start me on Plaquenil. Yes, this is the same Plaquenil (Hydroxychloroquine) that is currently being touted as the possible miracle cure for the CoronaVirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

One of the possible side effects of long term use of Plaquenil is eye damage leading to loss of vision. Because of this, the doctor asked me to have my eyes checked out by the ophthalmologist to establish a baseline before starting the medicine. While I was starting to accept the diagnosis and the prognosis so far, the seriousness of this medicine and its potential side effects rattled me! On the way back from the ophthalmologist, Uma reiterated her previous theory that maybe all this was due to the use of hair dyes and that I should stop using them. I had dismissed this earlier – thinking that she was just jealous of my youthful looks.  Finally, because of her persistence, I stopped coloring my hair (just to prove her wrong, of course 🙂 ). After a month or so, the itching stopped COMPLETELY! The sores on my scalp gradually healed!

Phew! That was close! If it weren’t for Uma’s idea and insistence that I stop the coloring, I could have gone blind – a ‘young-looking’ blind guy,  instead of the George Clooney look-alike (with the salt-n-pepper coiffure) that I am today!  🙂

Modeling “Just For Men”                       Au Naturel

You are probably eager to get the name of the hair dye that caused all this angst.  I had used “Just for Men” for several years before switching to “Indica Easy Hair Colour” based on the recommendation of a dermatologist (who said this was more natural). The problem started when I used this brand. After I stopped using it, the problem got resolved. Then after several months, I was tempted to go back to “Just for Men”, to see  if the issue was limited to that original Indian brand. Well, guess what? The exact same problem was back! So, essentially, I was allergic to an ingredient that was common to all these hair dyes.

The takeaways from this experience (in no particular order):

  1. Always get 2nd and 3rd opinions for any major diagnosis
  2. Forget the George Clooney look, I really should have just shaved my head and gone with the Vin Diesel look
  3. How many people would I have fooled with a wig or toupee?
  4. In order to have harmony in your matrimony, always listen to your wife and do what she recommends (and be prepared for “I told you so” for years…)
  5. If I had not goofed off in high school and worked hard, I might have become a  dermatologist myself! Oh well…
  6. Beware of the side effects of all medicines. DO NOT ignore them! We have smart scientists. I wish they would come up with better side effects. For e.g.: How about an erectile dysfunction drug that reduces belly fat and fixes hair loss (based on the targeted users of this drug)?


Caveat Emptor

These are unprecedented times.  This post is more for the future, so that we can look back at this horrible time when we were in dire straits, deep doo-doo and holy shi*t all at once! This is the “World War II” of our generation!  Unlike WWII, how we come out of it on the other side depends on all of us, not just the healthcare workers toiling on the front lines!

It is imperative that we all follow the guidelines that the experts are pounding into us non-stop via all the media. In addition, we have also been getting inundated via social media about many other ways to control and even cure the CoronaVirus (COVID-19). I wanted to compile all the proposed methods/ideas that I have been getting (from social media and news) so that they are available as a reference for all. Several years down the road, we could take a look at this list to see which one (if any) of these or a combination of these actually helped. As you can imagine, this will be a running list which I will keep updating as I receive new recommendations.  While the following items may or may not have other generic benefits, they have been included here because of the very specific claims about CoronaVirus (COVID-19). 

1. Washing hands regularly and thoroughly

2. Eating only vegetarian food

3. Doing yoga

4. Social distancing and isolation/quarantining as needed

5. Doing Pranayama

6. Using Ayurvedic medicines

7. Repeat Allah’s prayer (Du’a for protection) – 3 times in the
morning and 3 times in the evening.

8. Eating haldi mixed with honey before sunrise

9. Gayatri mantra

10. Ask Jesus to heal you

11. Ashwagandha (“This stops the blending of Corona protein with human protein”)

12. Jim Bakker’s Silver Solution

13. Pope asking “The Lord to stop the epidemic”

14. Homeopathic pills : Aconite, Rhus Tox, Belladonna

15. Gau mutra/dung

16. Banana a day keeps Corona away

17. Rosary for protection of families from CoronaVirus

18. Acupuncture/acupressure: Press pressure point LI-11 5 times:  Increases your immunity against COVID-19

19. Chanting Maha Mrityunjaya mantras to generate vibrations to ward
off the negative and evil forces and to protect your family from the deadly effects of COVID-19

20.  HydroxyChloroquine + Azithromycin

21. Use of hand sanitizer

22. Turmeric and Rasam Powder

23. Religious group chanting “Go Corona” as a group while holding candles

24. Hydroxychloroquine is a component of Kalonji Seeds (Nigella Sativa)  – “There is healing in black cumin for all diseases except death” — Islamic literature

25. “Bringing Ultraviolet or very powerful light inside the body”

26. “Injecting disinfectant inside .. knocks it out in a minute.. almost a cleaning!”

27. Vitamin C and Zinc

28. Coronil – from Patanjali (Baba Ramdev), “100% favourable results during the clinical trial COVID-19 patients“.

29. Immunity Booster Rotla – at Patel Brothers

30. Bhabhiji brand Papad – “has edible elements that can help create antibodies which will prove to be helpful in fighting coronavirus.” (Indian politician).

31. Weight lifting and other misc Crossfit steps proposed by Marjorie Greene as “Covid protection“.

32. Eleven day Yagna being conducted at Ujjain Temple with a view to cast out COVID-19 (reported in “The Hindu” on 4/9/2021).

33. Vaccines from : Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, Covishield, Covaxin, Astra-Zeneca, Sputnik V, CoviVac, SinoVac, CanSino, Wuhan Institute

34. Dry ginger powder

It is entirely possible that some of these were sent out by non-experts. So, I am assuming that people will take them with a pinch of salt! (and turmeric?)   🙂 

As I am not an expert in any of these, I am refraining from giving my opinion of them.

Stay safe and try to keep your spirits up.