Gone Too Soon…

Growing up in Hyderabad, Ravi, Sridhar and Srinivas were very common names, with there being 3-4 in each middle school class. So, by necessity we had to add a descriptive prefix or suffix to the names. There was choTa Ravi, moTa Ravi, PeddA Sridhar, chinna Sridhar etc. Ravi was – choTa Ravi, potti Ravi, MN Ravi Kumar, MNRK, Kannada Ravi and more recently Ravi Mysore. ChoTa Ravi, with a baDaa dil left a void for all of us that is much bigger than his physical self. We recently gathered to reminisce about the fun times we had with Ravi all these years and to honor his memory. Please join me in this walk down memory lane

Open House @ Pratap Mahal

Picture an old apartment complex. Two floors of tightly packed units seemingly representing all of middle class India. There was plenty of open space, and all this was enclosed in a compound wall. This was the famous Pratap Mahal complex of Khairatabad. It was just a few blocks from the main road and you’d get to it by walking on a narrow road that straddles a naala (creek) on one side and the Institution of Engineers building on the other. At the end of the road, you will enter Pratap Mahal, which was next door to Nasr School, which was a prestigious school for girls.

My best friend Ravi and his family lived in the corner unit and I was a fixture at their place from 1975 onwards. We were classmates from 7th grade in Kendriya Vidyalaya Golconda, KVG (“passed out” in 1977 🙂  )  and all the way through engineering college (@ JNTU). There were 5 members in the family. Murthy uncle, Rathna Aunty, Ajji (grandmother), Ravi and his younger brother Manju. 

It felt like it was always open-house and open-hearts at their place!  While we were classmates and friends since 7th grade, we became even closer during college days (Engineering at JNTU).

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The gang in August 1983 (From L-R : Yashodhar, Sashi, Ashok, Ravi, Ravi Shankar, Aditya
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In Allentown (1989) with Ravi, Aunty, Uncle and Manju)

Ravi, Ravi Shankar, Ashok, Aditya and I became very close during the last few years in college and we used to study together. We used to call it “combined studies”, and to be sure, there was some amount of studying involved too! Coincidentally (wink-wink) it was almost always in Ravi’s house (or Ravi Shankar’s sometimes). I am sure it had something to do with the inviting-atmosphere or the awesome music or yummy food during breaks!! This is where I got my intro to Kannada language and Kannada ootaanna, pallya, saaru, thuppa, BisiBeleBhath, uppitte, dosa, sandige and proper Mysore coffee with just the right amount of chicory (that aunty used to get it ground up at this coffee mill in Khairatabad). Aunty and Uncle were always the most welcoming and gracious hosts ever. Aunty would talk in slightly accented Telugu. I have never heard uncle talk in Telugu. Ravi could manage Telugu quite well, although it was heavily accented and did not have the finesse for some people or situations! When Ravi tried to talk to our classmates Shobha and Jayalakshmi in Telugu, they appreciated his efforts but politely encouraged him to switch back to English. BTW, through all these years of interaction with Ravi and his family – I have picked up enough Kannada to understand the language and manage a few sentences in a pinch!

They had an awesome stereo system with amazing speakers! I had never experienced such a sound system before! By contrast – we just owned a basic cassette player (not even a stereo). Fun fact – Murthy uncle was an avid audiophile and had built several powerful audio amplifiers. The powerful amplifier and large speakers could have easily powered a decent sized discotheque! So, you can imagine what they did to the small living room (or the neighboring apartments)! They had an extensive collection of vinyl LP records. The western collection had Neil Diamond, Simon and Garfunkle, Boney M, Abba, BeeGees, Beatles, Carpenters, John Denver, Cerrone etc just to name a few. The most notable Bollywood one they had was Sholay, which they bought as soon as the movie was released. RD Burman’s score for Sholay blasted from those speakers was phenomenal. We used to spend hours on weekends copying the songs from his extensive collection of vinyls on to cassettes. These were our version of “recording sessions”, and my introduction to western music. We used to come home with all these recordings and blast them away in our puny cassette player. My parents used to freak out and complain about the “racket” we were creating! “What’s all this noise? Why don’t you listen to some nice Indian music?”

There is no better blend of east and west or spiritual and material than listening to MS Subbulakshmi’s  “Vishnu-Sahasra-Namam” immediately followed by Boney M’s Daddy Cool or ABBA’s Waterloo or BeeGees’ Stayin Alive!

This was part of the morning routine at the Ravi household. Aunty or maybe Ajji would request Vishu-Sahasra-Namam and then right after that we would start off with the loud BOOM-BOOM-BOOM of BoneyM or Abba or BeeGees! We pretty much monopolized the music. Very rarely did any other (Kannada or Hindi) music get played. I do remember they owned a couple of 45 rpm vinyl records with good Rajan-Nagendra hits like “Neerabittu Nelada Mele Dhoni sagadu” and “Jeeva Veene neeDu miDitada Sangeetha” from the movie “Hombisilu”.

Quizzing Times

In the first year of college, Ravi, Sitaram and I discovered our common love for quizzing. We participated in the college annual quiz competition and beat all the other teams easily. We repeated that for the next 3 years! Ravi was our pop culture expert who came up with the correct obscure details about Rock Stars, western movies etc. to save us in competitions! At various intercollegiate level competitions in Hyderabad, we got a couple of 2nd place finishes and a first place in Nizam College festival! It was always fun showing off our knowledge of the trivia and we made some good friends in the quizzing fraternity – who we kept running into at every competition. We later started our own (short lived) quiz club called “Quizibisa”. I covered all the fun we had during our quizzing days in an earlier blog entry: Who or what, is or was… ?

Bindaas

Both Ravi and I came out of our “shell” in college. We were reserved and kept to ourselves in school. In college, the differences in our basic personalities became apparent and amplified. He became a more spontaneous, free-spirited, outgoing and ”bindaas” type of guy. In contrast, I remained a more serious and reserved one, although, his nature did rub off on me over the years. He would make friends easily with folks from other branches of engineering, seniors, juniors, girls etc. He was very approachable and didn’t have the traditional airs of someone who is a couple of years senior in college. He was always helpful and would dole out advice to the juniors on which topics to focus on for exams and which professors repeated old exam papers etc.  By the time we graduated (in 1983) and I moved to the US, he had a large group of close friends from our junior classes who were in touch with him all through these years.  Since JNTU days he moved to IIT Kanpur, Gainesville Florida, New Brunswick NJ, Freehold NJ, Conshohocken PA, Ridley Park PA, Bangalore and Columbia Maryland, with one summer in Amsterdam. Since his last move back from Bangalore to Maryland (around 2008), he has continued that “open house – open heart” tradition and helped out his extended family and friends with whatever was needed. Ravi and Chandrika have helped children of several of our friends who were either going to school in the area or moved to the DC area for jobs. Just a couple of months ago he had sent a whatsapp message to our friend and classmate in India offering to help his daughter when she comes over to the US for grad school. He said “Don’t worry, I will help her out! She is the same age as my kids and is like my daughter. That University is only 3.5 hrs. from my house!!” That is so typical of Ravi!

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Four Turbaned Ravis at Ramya’s wedding

Torrent of Memories

  1. When black and white television was first introduced in Hyderabad, Doordarshan used to televise one movie per week (on Sundays). I used to come down to Pratap Mahal to watch the movie (as we did not own a TV back then). It was always a fun experience! We would sit outside and watch through the window, because there would be a sizable crowd already in the living room and also it was more fun goofing off with friends (and trying out one-liners) than sitting and seriously following the movie! Sweet memories..
  2. As a goof, we all decided that Ravi should contest in the student body elections (for General Secretary) to represent the cool and nerdy non-political students! There were two extremely polarized politically supported candidates representing ABVP and PDSU, who could not give a proper speech in English (we thought) and that was where Ravi would come in and dazzle everyone, we thought! Of course, these were not intellectually challenging times or elections, so nobody cared about this “independent candidate”. As expected, one of them won and Ravi came in a distant 3rd place. But on the bright side, while we did get threatened with violence (which was quite normal during student elections, in those days), we actually did not get beat up. We did have a lot of fun networking with the student body and also provided much needed comic relief! 
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    With Sashi. Modelling the ‘election campaign look’ 🙂
  3. On the college trip to the Thermal power plant, we had a sumptuous lunch at Ashok’s relative’s house in Vijayawada. After that Ravi, Ravi Shankar and I came back to the hotel room and on the way had some MeeTa Paan.  We got back to the room and passed out for several hours. We were so out-of-it that we did not even shut the door of the hotel room.  We suspected that the Paan was spiked with some kind of drug!
  4. Ravi and I came up with an original approach to calm ourselves before stressful exams. We picked a Neil Diamond song (“Solitary Man”) that we both loved and then used it to calm our minds for weeks before the exam. Then on the day of the exam, we listened to this just before going to college. This Pavlovian method worked wonders! Looks like we came up with an early form of “Mindfulness”!!
  5. I have vivid memories of experiencing my first (and only) full Solar eclipse with Ravi at Pratap Mahal on Feb 16th 1980. 
  6. Ravi, Ravi Shankar and I did a month of summer Internship at HAL – Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (thanks to Murthy Uncle who worked there). It was here that we saw the application of what we had learnt in the dreaded “Antennas and Wave Propagation” class)
  7. Ravi and I were regulars at all the movie theaters in the city that showed western movies – Skyline, Sangeet, Liberty, Plaza and Paradise. I have fond memories of watching some of the classics in these old stand-alone theaters – Saturday Night Fever, Jaws, Godfather, Airplane (released in India as “Flying High”), Raiders of the Lost Ark etc.
  8. Just before we graduated from college, the gang of 5 (Aditya, Ashok, Ravi, Ravi Shankar and I), went on an outing to Ananthagiri Hills, which was a nice forested area and had a government guest house on the top of a hill offering amazing panoramic views. It was about 50 miles to the west of Hyderabad. We took 3 scooters. On the way back Ravi’s scooter died! We could not find a way to get it fixed. So, we did the next best thing – to tie that scooter with a rope to another one and tow it all the way! This was some precarious towing over 20 miles while Ravi Shankar balanced the dead Vespa being pulled by a rope. Obviously there was no easy mechanism for him to know if the guy pulling would need to brake! How we managed to pull that off (pun intended) is one of those youthful miracles that cannot be explained!
  9. Over the years our typical phone calls would always start off with a mock Kannada conversation (remember that my Kannada is limited to basic pleasantries) : “Yo Ravi.. Yen MaaDthaide?”, “Yaenu iLLa Yashodhar.. Chenna Gi Dira?” “, “Of course, Chenna gir gaya”! , “Yaaru Beku ree?” “Meena Bakery”!! Ha.. ha!!     I had a very similar conversation in the 1st week of May when we talked about the kids and long term plans etc. He was his usual mellow self (which was a gradual change over the years from his boisterous college days). Before we ended the conversation he touched on his and Chandrika’s plans of moving back to India for retirement. That would be our last conversation, as he passed away 2 weeks later on May 20th 2018, quite suddenly, drowning all of his loved ones in shock, dismay and sorrow.

I will cherish these fond memories of Ravi forever! Chandrika, Ganesh and Ajay have a large extended family here in the US. We are all part of that extended family and we are here for the journey forward with Ravi always in our hearts.

I would love to hear your personal fun stories of/with Ravi. Please add them in  the comments section below..

That’s Not Burnt! It’s Blackened Cajun…

…and other helpful excuses in the kitchen!

The trick to making soft and delicious Gulab Jamuns is the butter that you drizzle into the Bisquick and Carnation milk powder while mixing and kneading into little balls! This little tip was not in the recipe that I copied from Cedar Rapids public library. I am proud to say that it’s something that I came up with!  This was just one of many gastronomic techniques that I had developed during my bachelor days in Iowa!

More science than art!

Like every other Indian  grad student in the US, I learned cooking from those that came before us. Every student’s pantry had the requisite cans of Garbanzo beans (for Chhole) and Red Kidney beans (for Rajma). Starting with the easy staples of Chhole , Rajma, scrambled eggs and V8 sambars we eventually graduated to pizzas made from scratch as well as more complicated sounding Indian non veg items. Every desi grad student was self-taught and, by the end of the first semester, could easily whip up a meal for the roommates as well as for weekend parties. The new comers just watched and learned. It was no big deal .. a little bit of this and little bit of that and then go crazy with the spices and cook the hell out of the whole mess and voila..  in no time you are a genius in the kitchen (at least in your mind)!

When I started living by myself as a working bachelor, I did try and bring some finesse to the cooking style and even consulted some recipe books to expand my repertoire! I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Saranya Mandava – a copy of whose popular recipe book was acquired from a friend. This was the first recipe book that had all the traditional Indian (and Andhra) dishes suitable for the US market! During those bachelor days in Iowa, I had the patience, time and aptitude to experiment in the kitchen – and more importantly, there was no one to throw cold water on my enthusiasm. Even if the end result was an inedible horrible mess, (not that it ever was),  didn’t Thomas Edison fail multiple times before he hit on that perfect element for the light bulb? I certainly was no less of a scientist in the kitchen!

Back in those Cedar Rapids days, when I was craving for Idlis (South Indian breakfast/brunch item) — I used an Idli mix packet (imported from an Indian store in Chicago) to make one large idli as shown – using the inverted lid of a rice cooker for pouring the batter and steaming it, in a 5 qt dutch oven (since I didn’t own the requisite “Idli Plates”). It was perfect! Who cares what its shape was as long as it tasted authentic! This was also the first time I had made the traditional Idli chutney with Peanuts+Coconut+Tamarind+Chilli peppers!

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One Big Idli!!

Another time, when I felt like having proper whole wheat chapatis and not the store bought tortillas, I started with whole wheat flour and improvised with a 2 liter bottle of coke (as a substitute for a rolling pin)! Ahh.. how can I forget those early days when the smoke alarm used to trip quite often (or the time when the apartment supervisor showed up in panic), just because I ended up with blackened Cajun Chapatis (quite unintended, of course)!!

Queen of her domain!

By the time Uma arrived on the scene, I was already an expert at cooking and more importantly,  I enjoyed cooking! When Uma was in college, her mom had told her – “Once you learn cooking, you will be cooking for  the rest of your life.. so there’s no rush , you can learn later”. So she had never stepped in a kitchen till she came to the US! Which is no big deal, as that was the case with me as well! Uma came to the US armed with a few written recipes from her mom and a recipe booklet! I was her first cooking guru. I taught her the basics and the rest is an amalgam of recipes, phone consultation with me (while I was at work) and hours and hours of phone consultation with her mom (AT&T did send us a thank-you note  that year for helping them meet their revenue goals)! As far as cooking is concerned we are polar opposites – She doesn’t really enjoy cooking, but does an excellent job of it when she does cook and is very particular about starting and ending with a clean kitchen. I, on the other hand, love to experiment in the kitchen, and have been told that I “leave a mess behind” (of course, that’s debatable, in my opinion). 🙂

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In 1989 Uma came to the US armed with these recipe notes

Uma is a strict traditionalist in her style of cooking. She will not mix two ingredients or spices unless her original notes or her mom says it’s OK to do that! She still hates cooking – but whatever she cooks is tasty and traditional! (I am required to mention this per the legal contract!). 🙂  She rules over the kitchen and says that I make a mess and create extra work for her when I do cook! She gets upset that I don’t follow a recipe or that I do not name the item till it’s all done (really, who knows what it will turn out to be anyway). I have  essentially been kicked out of the kitchen for all practical purposes and only invited to take  care of a few selected items which are my signature items, such as the aforementioned Idli chutney,  Avial (which morphed into Vegetable Korma – after some key ingredients were subtracted by family members) and Masala chai (which I have been told is too strong, sometimes)!

Today, I am happy to report that after all these years, a little bit of me has rubbed off on Uma and vice versa. She is in the mood for experimenting with different spice blends as well as some combinations of vegetables which were a taboo earlier. As for me, I have been more careful to not make a mess (“an ounce of prevention…”) while cooking.  She has picked up newer recipes from VahReVah.com and also added her own twists to some of the recipes to come up with awesome results! She makes a mean Hyderabadi biryani and authentic Paalak Paneer!

On one winter weekend morning, the kids wanted pancakes or waffles for breakfast but Uma and I were not quite in the mood for a sweet breakfast. So, I experimented with topping the waffle with chopped onion, chilli pepper and some Andhra style gun powder! The delectable result was thoroughly appreciated by 2 out of the 4 in the family. The other 2 screamed – “Sacrilege”!

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Belgian Waffle —>> Mysore Masala Waffle

There was another time when we bought Paani Puri shells from store and got very creative with the filling – different salsas, Adobo, Cajun and Creole seasonings instead of  the usual ‘Pani’. The kids used to turn out delicious Naanzas (Naan + Pizza) for a quick meal – improvising different toppings based on whatever was available in the house! So, all in all the inventive streak does run in the family.. and we have fun with it!

Chicken Biryani (Paprika waala)! 

In those early days in Allentown, when we were hosting a party, I was making chicken curry and as usual, I wanted to experiment with some new spices (I was always a scientist in the kitchen!), so I decided to add paprika in addition to chilli powder. The end result looked very impressive, till I tasted it and realized that it was extremely bitter! We panicked briefly… and then, with guests arriving in less than an hour, I jumped into the the Mr Fix-it mode! I quickly washed every single piece of chicken under running water and then turned it all into chicken biryani! The guests thoroughly enjoyed the dinner and especially loved the biryani. When they asked for the recipe, we gave it to them – every single step including the first pass with paprika and washing the pieces in the sink!  I am not sure if they remember this, but after 27 years, we still remember this (and chuckle) like it happened yesterday! 🙂

As Ramya and Vidya get ready to try out Indian cooking on their own,  I decided to create a cheat sheet of sorts for them as well as all others who like Indian food but are generally intimidated  by the seemingly complicated steps involved in preparing it.

Indian cooking for dummies
Intro to Indian Cooking (Click on the link below for enlarged view)

Indian cooking for dummies

Analyze that!

Most likely, because of my experience and interest in cooking,  I am too analytical (when it comes to food) for my own good. Whenever we emerge from a restaurant, I immediately deconstruct every item we had for lunch/dinner down to its nuts and bolts to minimize the chef’s efforts  (and to ruin the experience for the family)! ):

“Looks like they went crazy with the Aamchoor in that Chhole!”

“$7.99 for that Double-Ka-MeeTa?? I can make that in 20 mins with toasted bread, milk and nuts!”

“That biriyani reminds me of our  twice cooked paprika chicken biriyani.. wonder how they got hold of our family recipe?”

“Hmm that Gulab Jamun seems to have the stamp of approval from the American Dental Association!!”

Sweet Tooth?

Back in Iowa, where it all started, when word spread among my friends in and around Cedar Rapids/Iowa City that I was a Gulab Jamun expert, I started getting requests to make and bring some for parties. One particular party stands out in my mind after all these years (for reasons that will become apparent soon)! It was a big gathering in Iowa City for someone’s farewell dinner (I think). They asked me to come over and make my world famous Gulab Jamun. I was, of course, more than happy to oblige. I followed the recipe word to word, including the trick about butter in the Bisquick and Carnation milk powder. I must have made almost 100 of these balls! Some of the ladies at the event suggested that I should start my own catering business! I pushed any such suggestions aside with a modest/sheepish smile.  When it was all said and done, just before arranging the food, I tasted one of the syrupy balls and I almost chipped a tooth! It was as hard as a marble. I could not believe that my tried and true formula failed me  in such a massive, humiliating way! Someone said “Don’t worry, they are  not too hard.” to console me!.. One good thing that came out of that disaster – No one dared to ask me to come over and cook ANYTHING after that!

“Who OR what, is OR was?”

(This story is certified 100% Organic and  95% non-fiction!)

We were on fire! It must have been our lucky day- we were breezing through all the questions…

“Who is Lot’s wife?”

“What is Mahayana?”

“What is Hejira”

“Who is Odin?”

There – we demolished the Religion and Mythology category on Jeopardy and high five’ed each other as the show went to a break before “Final Jeopardy”.

It was winter break for Vidya and this was our daily routine as soon as I came home from work.  We would sit down with unhealthy munchies  in front of the TV waiting for Jeopardy to start. For years now,  Alex Trebek (the host of Jeopardy) has been an intimate part of our evening/dinner routine! We would answer (or “question” in  this case -as Jeopardy has an “Answer & Question” format and not the other way around) along with the contestants. We had our favorite categories – Vidya’s were Pop & Rock Music, Mythologies, Geography & Current affairs. I was generally good at Religion, 70s, 80s, 90s Pop culture & TV shows, Movies and Current Affairs. It turns out that, under pressure, we were pretty good at making intelligent guesses. We were both pretty good that day! Barring categories like Sports, British Monarchy, American History, etc., I was generally good at Jeopardy, as long as I was in my pajamas in my family room and in front of my TV! I would probably fail miserably if I had to do that in the studio! In fact I may not even make it past the qualifier rounds!

 

Nothing Trivial about this Pursuit

Early in our freshmen year of Engineering (1978 in Hyderabad, India), my buddies Sitaram, Ravi and I discovered that we had something in common – all three of us loved digging up and storing obscure & generally “useless” information! I was thrilled to find this niche that we were good at! We used to show off to each other and others around us, at every possible opportunity…

“What is Karen Lunel famous for?”

“Who wrote the script for the English version of Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman starrer ‘Guide’?”

“In a Vintner’s world – who or what is a punt?”

Remember – this was all before internet, Google, mobile phones, etc… heck, forget about a mobile phone.. we did not have any  phone in the house. It was before quizzing was made popular by “Quiz Time” (the TV Show by Siddhartha Basu)!

Sitaram had prior experience with the quizzing circuit of Hyderabad and was plugged into what competitions were scheduled and how we could get in. He was the de facto leader of the team and was an expert on current affairs (world & Indian) and overall general knowledge.  He had friends and acquaintances in the circuit. He would point out the strengths and weaknesses of the regulars to Ravi and me.  As we went to a few of these, even Ravi and I started recognizing the regulars among the contestants as well as the Quiz masters. There were teams from all the prestigious schools/colleges of Hyderabad.

The regulars included teams from Hyderabad Public School (HPS), Nizam College, Osmania Engineering, VV College, Little Flowers, etc. There were a  whole range of characters among the participants – from the snobs of HPS to the  shy ones from “Madapati Hanumanth Rao High School”! Our team managed to surprise everyone (including  ourselves) by  consistently placing among the top 5 in the city. Among quiz masters, I clearly remember  Satya Prasad (of K-Circle)  and Y.Prabhakar who were quite popular in the Hyderabadi quizzing circles for their unique styles.

Bala the wunderkind

Those days, you couldn’t miss Bala at any of the city quizzing events!  He stood out at every one of these competitions for the genius that he was. He was probably in 10th or 11th grade and his depth and breadth of knowledge was jaw-dropping!  He would go one up on the quiz masters by giving them more than the necessary answers, on questions which were considered extremely obscure to start with!  “What’s the name of the character from Homer’s Odyssey, which means ‘burner of ships’?”  Bala comes back with “Nausicaa… and her parents were King Alcinous and Queen Arete of Phaeacia”!!  We were sure that he had memorized all the volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica. I wouldn’t doubt it – as I saw him in action! He was proficient in every conceivable area. In the audio-visual portion he could identify the 5th of Beethoven as easily as Charukesi Raga! All the girls were in awe of Bala (so it seemed from the jealous corner that we were sitting in, anyway)!

Ravi covered Western, Rock, Pop music areas as well as mythologies. As for myself – somehow pop culture became my thing and then I sharpened this by going through certain magazines that were popular in those days – India Today, Illustrated Weekly of India and Bombay Magazine – from which I culled obscure, useless (for everyone else) details like – “Who is  Alyque Padamsee’s wife who acted in the Movie KhaTTa MeeTha. For a bonus point – What was her religion?” I remember once, in the audio/visual section, they played the signature tune of “All India Radio”, and then asked –  “This signature tune of AIR was based on Raga Shivaranjani. Who composed it?”. After the first few guys went for the obvious guesses of “Ravi Shankar” or “Hari Prasad Chaurasia”, Bala jumped in with “Walter Kauffman, in 1936, a Jewish refugee, originally from Czechoslovakia, who was then the Director at AIR!”

 

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Certified!!

Our own Quiz club?

It turned out that Bala actually lived not too far from my house. As we kept running into each other at various competitions, we became friends and decided that the city was big enough to accommodate another Quiz Club – so we started one! We named it Quizzibisa (a take-off on the name of the British Afro Pop band  – Osibisa)! It was a very small group that met in the Community Hall across from my house.  As far as I can remember now, there was Bala, Ravi, I, and a few other friends from my colony. We took turns being the quiz master and running through the standard quiz routine. We started the club with a lot of enthusiasm, but could not sustain it past a couple of months – as real life interfered in the form of crucial exams!

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Sure.. This could happen!

On a typical Hyderabadi summer day I was  standing at the bus stop with my signature cloth bag and this beautiful girl walked up and said – “Weren’t you the one that  won the quiz competition  at our college yesterday?!!”. I figured she was from Osmania Medical College, as she had that white coat and stethoscope on her arm. “You guys were amazing! I especially loved how you answered the question about AIR signature tune! By the way – is that tune really in Shivaranjani Raga? I used to think that  it was Mohana Raga!”. Looks like she mistook me for one of the guys who actually won the competition! Oh well… no need to clarify these minor details! She was going on and on about specific questions from the other day… “It’s amazing how  you guys knew that a grand piano has 16 fewer black keys than white ones!”. “Do you take this bus to go home everyday?” “Wow, really? Me too!”… etc, etc…

That, dear Ramya and Vidya, is how I met your mother! 😉

 

 

Popcorn for Breakfast!

We drive by “309 Cinema” all the time and never pay any special attention to it. As the name implies, it is a multiplex (quite old.. compared to other multiplexes around here) on Route 309, not far from where we live.  We’ve often wondered how it is still in business competing with  all the state-of -the-art theaters with fully reclining seats and some that even serve food and drinks inside the hall! Yesterday when Vidya and I walked up to the ticket counter at 9:40 AM and bought a couple of tickets – it evoked waves of nostalgia for me! Continue reading “Popcorn for Breakfast!”

Best Supporting (Actor?) Audience Member

Identifying Krishna was easy! Obviously he was the one with the blue body and trademark gold crown with peacock feathers. By association, we assumed that it was Arjuna standing next to Krishna. They were both dressed in their mythological finery with gold crowns, assorted jewelry, silk costumes and gaudy, garish makeup!  I was about 10 years old and this incredible (and indelible) scene played out near my house in SVR Colony in Hyderabad.  It was part of the Rama Navami celebrations in our colony – which used to be celebrated with much pomp and ceremony, on a grand scale, over several days! There was a huge Shamiana (tent) and a stage setup on our street in front of Sriram Murthy Uncle’s house.  Earlier in the day there were elaborate poojas and other traditional rituals (Seeta-Rama Kalyanam) on that stage,  which was  beautifully decorated with garlands of chrysanthemum  and jasmine as well as mango leaf  ‘thoranams’. The rituals ended with the distribution of yummy Prasadam, which was always the highlight of my day! Each night, there were wonderful cultural programs on the stage that regaled us late into the night. The highlight for that particular evening was a mythological drama – an episode from Mahabharata. While everyone was waiting patiently for the drama to start, a few of us sneaked “back stage” – which was really the road in front of Chandraiah uncle’s house! We just stood there wide eyed – gawking at these larger than life actors! When I saw the “Arjuna” actor take a couple of puffs on a cigarette – it just blew me away! That image has been burned into the 10 year old’s memory forever! Before we could recover, a couple of aunties from the colony stopped by to do “hArathi” for the actors. They spotted us and yelled at us to go back and sit with the rest of the audience.

That night’s performance was my first significant exposure to actors and acting and it made quite an impression on me (along with the incongruous ‘Smoking Arjuna’, of course)! Those guys did a superb job of conveying the story through songs and powerful dialog. It did not matter that they had minimal set decoration or musical accompaniment (just a Harmonium) to work with! I was totally mesmerized and transported to a different world altogether! Such was the power of their acting and storytelling! Right then and there I decided that I wanted to be an actor!

This should be Child’s play.. right?

I got my first shot at acting the following year on that same stage – thanks to Smt. Ganga Bhavani – who used to run the colony’s Baalananda Sangham. She was a kind-hearted and patient lady. She probably saw something in me (or it was a case of affirmative action – and mediocre kids needed to be represented as well)! I was given a role with a grand total of 2 lines. I was extremely thrilled. I practiced these lines over and over again. The play was called “InTi mandhu sOnTi kashaayam”.  On the D-day, when it was my big moment – I clearly remember taking one look at the audience and panicking! I totally froze and barely whispered the lines! Luckily for the play and the rest of the cast, it turned out that my lines were inconsequential anyway!

Radio Times..

In spite of my less than stellar debut, Ganga Bhavani garu did not give up on me! She gave me yet another acting role – in fact several of them – in a serial Radio Drama that our Baalananda Sangham performed on the Baalanandam program (with Nyayapati Raghava Rao and Nyayapati Kameshwari as Radio Annayya and Akkayya) at All India Radio, Hyderabad!  This drama aired on several Sundays and I went around boasting to everyone that I was a star on the Radio. It didn’t matter that I was only playing bit roles – as a servant of the side-kick or part of crowd scenes! That’s how all big stars got their start anyway… right?

Theater Junkie!

During school days, final exam time meant three things – scheduled power cuts, Rama Navami celebrations in the colony and drama competitions at Dad’s office (AG’s office). Telugu Nataka Samithi was the cultural organization at AG’s office and they had their annual drama competitions almost always in April. I was so addicted to these that even during exams, I would walk all the way to the office (2-3 kms), watch every single drama and then walk back home late at night  (even if no one from the family came along). I have fond memories of many wonderful performances that I experienced in that open air auditorium. I got a chance to watch amateur thespians as well as seasoned veterans perform on that stage. Paruchuri Venkateshwara Rao – who went on to make his mark as a writer in the movie industry was from AG’s office and was a regular at these competitions. I saw multiple performances by Rallapalli, before he became a successful movie actor. I saw gripping and hilarious performances of “Kanyasulkam” by J.V.Ramanamurthy (as Gireesham) and J.V.Somayajulu (before his successful crossover into the movie industry via “Sankarabharanam”) twice in that year – once at AG’s office auditorium and again at Ravindra Bharati. I was so obsessed with this performance that I used to go around repeating the funny dialogs from Kanayasulkam for weeks!

Breaking a leg (again)!

When I was in 8th grade or so, I found out that they were looking for actors for the school play! I jumped at the opportunity! Once again, I got a role with barely a few lines. I guess my notoriety of excelling at such minimal roles had spread far and wide by then! This Hindi play called “Mrityu Mantri” was to be performed at the school Annual day function. It was an off campus event – at Indira Priyadarshini Auditorium in Public Gardens. Back then it was the 2nd most impressive stage in Hyderabad (after Ravindra Bharati)! So, as you can imagine, it was a fairly big deal! During rehearsals, I received compliments from our Hindi teacher (who was the director of the play).

Mrityu_Mantri
Dying on stage! Hindi play “Mrityu Mantri” for School Annual Day

Obviously he had high expectations – because he had heard (mostly from me) about my amazing performance on the Radio Drama! On the day of the performance my entire extended family was there to show support! Some of them helped me with my makeup!  From backstage, I could hear the bursts of laughter from the audience! Finally it was my turn to make a grand entrance – for which I got a couple of laughs (as expected)!  When I turned to face the audience to deliver my precious dialog – my knees started shaking! I froze and just mumbled my lines. The other guy on stage had to repeat my lines!  Luckily, it was publicized beforehand that this was a rip-roaring comedy! So, the audience thought all this – including my incoherent mumbling was part of the play!!

I was beginning to see a pattern. Maybe acting wasn’t really my forte! While I loved being a theater junkie – I had decided that I should look elsewhere for better career (and even hobby) options!

My Regards to Broadway!

My first exposure to Broadway style performances was when I saw the “Radio City Christmas Spectacular” in New York. It was a mind blowing experience! The scale of the performance – the number of performers involved, the amazing split-second set changes from a street scene to ornate palace to an ice skating rink was nothing short of miraculous. The entire live orchestra (pit band) of about 30 performers moves from below the stage to the stage level and then is moved 6 feet above the stage level – all while continuing to perform (without missing a beat)!  A few years later, we experienced the magic of musical theater – when we saw “Thoroughly Modern Millie” – a Tony award winning musical on Broadway!  I wish, if at all possible, that everyone who is in the vicinity could experience at least one Broadway show! It will be an experience that you will never forget!

If you are in the US, there is an easier and cheaper way to experience ‘almost’ Broadway – by checking out your local high school performances! Our local high school, where both of my daughters graduated from, has a wonderful theater program and they put on amazing plays, twice a year. They spend months planning these shows. There are a couple of rounds of auditions to pick the entire cast. Other than the guiding theater staff – the entire show is by the students – including set decoration, costumes, music, choreography etc.  I had the opportunity to experience the following amazing performances over the past few years – Music Man, Sound of Music, Beauty and the Beast, Crucible, Children of Eden and Brigadoon.  For $10 you get to sample almost Broadway like shows, which in NY would end up costing you ~$200 and up!

Aida
North Penn High School’s production of the Broadway musical “Aida”

While a career in the performing arts did not work out for me, I am still crazy about the theater and do hold stage performers in very high regard! Each year, I sit down with chips, salsa and other assorted unhealthy appetizers to enjoy the Tony awards show on TV, the way most people do for Super Bowl!  When I watch those amazing live performances, after I applaud and admire the actors – I always end up with self-pity – “if it weren’t for the crippling stage fright, lack of any discernible talent or a face which was meant for Radio – that could easily have been me on that stage!!”

(This article was published in the “TANA 20th Conference Souvenir” in July 2015)

Always Fair and Almost Handsome

I have opened several bank accounts online in the US in under 10 minutes without the bank folks knowing what I look like! I tried doing the same in India and they wanted photos done a certain way and left thumb impressions as well as my entire family tree listed (along with all sorts of identifying birth marks!) on the application form. Since I  needed a few passport sized photos for these types of applications as well as some kind of Power of Attorney documents, I popped into one of the many photo studios that was in the neighborhood. I had done this at CVS or other corner drugstores in the US countless times. You just walk in and get the picture taken with a small point and shoot digital camera and they print out a sheet of 6 or 8 photos and you walk out with the photos in less than 10 minutes. This photo studio in Hyderabad was just a couple of  doors down from my in-laws house. It was a small room with several canvas backdrops and fairly sophisticated camera setup. There was the photographer and his assistant. They seemed to be working on the closeup of some lady’s neck (on the computer). After I explained the purpose of my visit, they had me sit down in front of a blue backdrop. Then he  clicked away. I am almost certain that I blinked and/or grimaced for most of the shots. These were photos that I would be putting on some routine and  boring official forms and you couldn’t blame me for not being excited about the “model photo shoot” that these guys were making me go through!! I took out a wad of cash and asked  him how much it was for the photos. He said that I could pay him when I come back to collect the photos! What?? I don’t get the photos now?  “Come back in half an hour saar”, “Oh … OK” I went back in 45 mins and stuck my head in to inquire if he was done. He said “No current saar… Come back at 2 o’clock”. Fair enough. There were regular, scheduled power cuts twice a day. It was the way of life there and most people took this in stride. Most businesses managed with generators. Looks like this guy was not quite there. When I stopped by at 2:30pm, the guy and his assistant were both laboring on their computer. He  said “take a seat saar” “we will be done soon” What is there to be done.. I wondered aloud.  He pointed to the monitor and said, “final touch-ups saar”. I couldn’t believe my eyes – these guys were busy Photoshopping my passport photo like it was gonna go on the cover of Vogue!! I was barely recognizable. They wiped out all wrinkles, spots, etc and gave me a complexion that can only be called beige! Looks like my left eyebrow became a victim of some sort of an aggressive Photoshopping maneuver!   The photographer turned to me and said “Can I take another good one..!!” I did not have the heart to yell at him. He seemed quite sincere!!  I tried to calm him down with a “It’s not you … it’s me” line. He didn’t see the humor in that! Who knew that photo studio guys took these things so seriously! That would have been the perfect time for Shahrukh Khan to appear out of nowhere, look at the camera and say “Fair and Handsome.. for when the task is beyond the abilities of Photoshop!”. In fact, every photo studio could also be selling boxes of “Fair and Handsome” on the side.. ‘cos we all look forward to a society that is at least “Fair”, right?

I told him that this is just for some official forms and there is no need to redo them. I asked him to go ahead and print these out. Meanwhile one lady stopped by on a scooter, parked it in front  of the store, peeked in and said that she needed a “Pelli Choopulu” photo (photo for matrimonial purposes) and wanted to know what kind of clothes would look good. He said “It does not matter… Anything is fine!” Of course.. it doesn’t matter because he will  Photoshop it all!  No matter what the would-be bride looks like, these guys will turn her into a Katrina Kaif!

Yash_Alleppy1
Before: Extremely Wheat Complexioned (plus warts and all..)!
FullSizeRender
After: Approaching “Rice Complexioned”. These two photos were taken only 2 days apart!!

The 100 Rupees that I paid for the studio guys has paid itself off many times over in non-stop peals of laughter for the entire family! This photo would be perfect for my Shaadi.com profile!! Sure.. everyone in India is wheat complexioned and 6 ft tall, but only I can bring the unique combination of  “almost rice complexioned” and a partial left eyebrow to the table! I’ll just have to wait for the deluge of women that will want to line up for this! Next up… an App that I am working on, which will identify all my imperfections and  suggest fixes for them. I’ll call it WifesApp!

Don’t Watch This Bollywood Movie (“PK”) …

That’s right.. Don’t watch this movie..

-If you feel that religion and entertainment should not be mixed and that you do not want to get the religious (or anti-religious) message from liberal/secular actors who are out to shake your faith.

-If your view of religion (specifically Hinduism) is so skin-deep that it could be hurt by anyone asking innocent questions.

-if you think that your particular guru, swami, baba or spiritual leader can’t stand up to questioning.

-If your view of the message is always colored by who the messenger is. Would you have a different opinion if the movie was from Abhishek Bacchan or Hrithik Roshan or some other generic Hindu sounding actors (instead of Aamir Khan)?

-If you strongly believe that the movie was funded by some Muslim organization or country that is out to malign Hinduism.

-If you are afraid that by watching the movie, your deeply held beliefs could be altered. I personally am under no illusion that people’s minds will be changed by merely watching a movie (that too… on the topic of deep rooted faith)!

-If you feel that for all the time spent in the movie, on Hindu rituals and fake gurus, an equal amount of time should be spent on similar aspects of Christianity and Islam (money grubbing televangelists, molesting catholic priests, Taliban and Boko Haram should be given equal time?)

-If you are offended by male actors showing off their well-toned bodies (almost) in the buff. Remember, they never show Aamir Khan totally naked. There is always a branch or a Boom box that is strategically placed. So, maybe it’s the allusion to male nudity that is the problem for some folks. Meanwhile, there are several such portrayals of women which are usually met with whistles of approval.  There are routine and gratuitous displays of blood and gore and disemboweled bodies in movies as well as TV news, magazines and newspapers. This seems quite acceptable. No one is worried about the negative impact of these on impressionable young ones.

If you fall into any of the above categories, please DO NOT watch this movie! It will ruin your day for sure!!

 The movie is not attacking Hinduism. It is not even attacking all gurus, babas or spiritual teachers. It is highlighting some specific kind of babas and religious practices. Why not assume that your particular baba is the “good kind”? One who is merely preaching love for all, universal brotherhood, peace, tolerance  etc. Not that kind who is always trying to relieve you of your material burdens (e.g., cash or jewelry). In fact, I understand that some of the sayings and ideas used in the movie are from popular religious teachers.

This whole “alien from another star/planet” stopping by, is a very clever vehicle for the director/writer to ask some “innocent” questions about religion, faith etc., which, if asked in any other context would get you thrown out (maybe even get you beat up, just to underscore that we are “peaceful and non-violent” people). Religion generally requires that you suspend critical thinking and curiosity.  The PK character does exactly the opposite in the movie.

I thought that the overall treatment of the topic was fairly even handed by the writer and the director. They did not go off and question the existence of a creator. They just questioned some intermediaries (agents) between the creator and the created.

If the worst thing that can happen from watching this movie is that we start questioning instead of blindly following, not just in matters of faith, but in all aspects of our life, then we will be a much more enlightened and tolerant society.

Sure, that whole affair with Sarfaraz in the beginning and the melodrama at the end with the conference call with Pakistani consulate staff seemed too sappy and formulaic! But, hey.. this is still a Bollywood movie and you just have to take certain aspects of it on blind faith (in the director’s abilities to satisfy box-office appeal). Couple of the song and dance sequences looked good on the big screen but none of them so catchy that I would remember after a day.

All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable and funny movie. A perfect dessert after a sumptuous New Year’s lunch! Compared to Aamir’s earlier movies, I would rank this slightly below “Taare Zamin Par” and “3 Idiots.”

As we walked out, we heard the conversation of couple of older white ladies who were in the theater with us… “Wow! What a wonderful movie”, “What a great way to start the New Year!”, “I wonder why it only got 87% on the Rotten Tomatoes website?” One of them even asked me as we exited the theater, “How did you hear about this movie?”, before we could ask them that same question!!

If you have not seen the movie and if you are currently blasting the movie (and/or vandalizing movie theaters in India) for its negative portrayal of your particular religion (based on inciting views from others), then please DO NOT watch this movie, as it could sap the energy out of your righteous indignation!!

Oh My Goddess!

What perfume would you recommend for a Goddess?

No… this is not some clever way of soliciting gift ideas for my wife (Uma’devi’)!!  Please read on…

Yesterday, I was just about to wrap up my breakfast ritual of soggy cereal and chai and leave for work while Uma was wrapping up a phone call with my aunt in India.

She had this expression of shocked disbelief as she hung-up the phone!

“What happened? Everything Ok at home?”

“Oh my God!  You won’t believe what I just heard.”

“Tell me what happened… and don’t call me god!”

“Your aunt wants me to send a large bottle of ‘scentu’!!”

Sure… it is not often that aunt asks for anything to be sent from the US, but is it really THAT shocking?

“Absolutely… let’s send a good perfume”, I said.

“You don’t understand… your aunt asked for this perfume for the goddess!”

“What?? Ok… let me sit down”

Some background would be in order here…

Aunt lives in the village with my uncle. It’s a typical small village, in Andhra Pradesh (India) inhabited by middle class farming families. The main road that leads into the village is a muddy/slushy one that winds past thatched houses and some pucca (brick and mortar) houses as well. It also goes past multiple temples and a small lake – which stopped being the source of drinking water a few decades ago. Now the villagers buy potable water from the neighboring village. A typical small village in AP!

My aunt is a very religious person. She wakes up at 4:30AM and does an elaborate puja. Twice a week she fasts and does additional pujas. Unlike most of the village folk, she is literate enough to actually read through and chant the mantras in a sing song way. She has personally taken it upon herself to support the local Ramaalayam (Rama Temple). She has donated her time and money to support it. She has on occasion sought donations from us and others for specific temple needs (financial support for the pujari for e.g.). She is a loving and affectionate mother and a grandmother and is very close to us.

Now… back to the jaw-dropping phone conversation that Uma had with my aunt. It seems that the pujari (priest) of one of the temples in the village told aunt that after he ritualistically bathes the idol of the goddess and wraps her with the saree and adorns the idol with jewelry, he felt it would be good to spray some “Scentu” (perfume) on the idol. I am not sure exactly what prompted him to awaken to the realization that this was missing from the routine ritual.

I have seen some elaborate rituals in India (mostly on TV). The ritualistic bathing of the huge statue of Bahubali in Shravanabelagola in 1981 which I saw on TV was a very memorable one and the images are indelible in my mind!  So, I am not new to such religious rituals. It is possible that this ritual with the perfume may also be a similar one. It is just that neither Uma nor I had heard about this before.

My first reaction was to ask the pujari’s wife as to what would be a suitable perfume for the “goddess” <wink> <wink>. Uma said that my skeptical imagination was running wild!

I also consulted with that god of eternal knowledge – “Google”, about this question and mostly came up with links such as this: “GoddessLine” , which seem to be targeting gullible folks with perfumes named after assorted  exotic sounding goddesses.

I wonder if the pujari was considering the perfume as an alternative to the more traditional agarbathhi (incense)! If not, he certainly hasn’t thought through the olfactory overload caused by an unholy blend of “Chanel#5” & agarbatthi in the same room!  I loved the fact that the subtle smell of agarbatthi could transport (even) me  – like a Pavlovian dog, to the Poojas and rituals that we all grew up with and I would start salivating at the thought of yummy Prasadam that was sure to follow!

If this perfuming ritual catches on in the temples,  then in a few years,  when I walk into a Macy’s department store and the overly made-up blonde dressed in a lab coat (like Madam Curie) sprays Calvin Klein’s Obsession sample in my face (without asking for my permission) – it will spontaneously bring back visions of temple rituals and mouthwatering prasadam in my head!! Not a bad visual eh?

Hairy Tales

“Watch out for the American girls! I heard they are out to trap smart and  good looking Indian boys!” – this was the ominous sounding warning from my mother when I came to the US in 1983. It seems she  got this piece of advise from her friend (so.. it must be true!). I chuckled and told her that  I was safe.

She’s the one?

“Do you like Cheech and Chong movies?” the blond beauty asked, while lovingly running her fingers through my hair!

It’s only been 5 weeks since I came to the US. I was yet to lose the bad habit of staring at everyone. In this case, it is quite understandable – this was a very good looking young college girl standing next to me and saying something. It could have been her accent or the fact that I was not paying full attention to what she said, but I didn’t get it the first time!  I suddenly remembered the warning that my mom had given me before leaving for US. I just hoped that this girl would not be too picky about the “smart” and “good looking” attributes and just focused on my Indian-ness! And then .. this smiling and giggling girl repeated

“Do you like Cheech and Chong movies? They are hilarious!”, she said.

“hmm.. I do not know who or what Cheech and Chong are..” – I said, captioning the puzzled look on my face.

Then she went on to give a detailed description of who these guys were and the types of movies they made,  all the while giggling and playing with my hair. It took me a little while to figure out the connection between her “Cheech and Chong” references and her giggling. It seems these guys were two comedians who made marijuana/pot themed comedy movies in 1970’s and 1980s! Once this sank in.. I just froze  – even more than I was required to (considering that I was in a barber’s chair and she was armed with sharp scissors)!  It took me a while but even stupid ‘ol me could put 2 and 2 together! This chick was totally high as a kite!  Oh.. and I did not have to guess for too long .. for she came right out and told me that she just smoked a ‘joint’.

In the orientation session that I had at the university or even those informal orientation guidelines given by my roommates and friends, they had not prepared me for this situation. That is, how to react when your  hair stylist just announces that she was  high (on Pot/Marijuana/Weed)  while operating sharp tools inches away from your neck, eyes etc! What are you supposed to say or do?  Much later,  I did find out (thanks to “Harold and Kumar go to While Castle”)  that offering some snacks to them in such situations would be the right thing to do! Intuitively, I did know that I should not make any sudden movements – for the results could  range from hilarious to disastrous!

Most of the Indian  students at the University went to “Jackie Goran’s Academy of Hair Science” for haircuts as they were the cheapest ($5) and were right there on-campus. It turns out they were cheap because you get the hair cut by students learning to be hair dressers. This was my first visit to the “Academy” and turned out to be quite a memorable one!  The giggler came to her senses briefly, just as she announced that she was done. She asked me not to report her to her boss.  I gave a faint smile and nodded (that famous Indian bobble head  – which is a hybrid of a nod and a shake)!  Then her teacher/boss showed up and reviewed the work and gave a huge compliment on my hair –  “So thick .. nice & natural curls”. Then she gave specific and academic feedback to the student and then she was off to review the next haircut!  As I left .. the hairstylist-in-training giggled some more and said “Thanks for not ratting on me”!  I rushed back to the apartment and breathlessly described what just happened, to my bewildered roommates! When they were done having a good laugh, I asked  “what does ratting mean?”

Hyderabadi Trimmin’

Growing up in Hyderabad we had quite a contrasting tonsorial experience!  Till I was almost 15 years of age – we used to have the haircut at home! Chandraiah who was our barber – would show up on a Sunday once every month or so – without any appointment. Then my dad, brother and I would get standard haircuts one after the other. For some reason, it was decided that this needed to be done in the front yard. It was a beautiful and an unnecessarily public location for such a job. We were surrounded by a Pomegranate tree and several colorful and fragrant flowering plants – Hibiscus, Jasmine, Sampangi.  We would sit down on a “PeeTa” – which is a small wooden plank that is only 2 inches off the ground.  Chandraiah would squat behind and open up his leather case and go to work.

koppa_barber

There were no questions about what and how much to cut or any instructions from us. He did it all very skillfully with just a comb and scissors. He did not ever touch the hair with his  hands. Most of the time I was totally embarrassed to be doing this in the front yard. We were always worried that our friends would see this spectacle while walking along the road! We were quite sure that everyone else was getting their hair cut at a fancy Salon (or Saloons as they were called in India). By the time we were in high school – we also started going to one of those saloons in Chintal Basti! I can still visualize the old guy nonchalantly cutting the hair .. taking a break once in a while  for bouts of cough and to drag a few puffs on the cigarette. These places were strictly for men and the barbers were always men. There wasn’t much of a small talk or any magazines to flip through while waiting. I am sure it’s quite different now.

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Scissors or Clippers?

The first thing I noticed about hair cutting routine in the US was that there are a lot of questions –

“Would you like a shampoo or just wet the hair down?”

“How much off?” — When I say an inch off – they actually do a imaginary measurement with their fingers before cutting!

“How do you want the sides? How about the back”

“Would you like some gel”

“Clippers?”

The place I go to now has computerized records (just like the doctor’s office has my medical records) – so no matter who gets to cut my hair  they already know my preferences (clippers or scissors? How much off? etc etc) – ‘cos they look it up based on my phone number. They probably also have a note in the system that asks them to compliment me on my ‘lovely natural curls’ – ‘cos they all do it and it automatically prompts me to add an extra dollar to the tip!

“My name is Jenny” , “So how was your weekend” , “Isn’t it a lovely day?” , “I cant wait to get out of here” — she rattled off even before I was seated and she got hold of the scissors! This was the first time she was cutting my hair.. but she was talking up a storm, with me chiming in once in a while!

I noticed that people are generally quite at ease discussing personal details freely with their barbers/sylists. I told her that my kids were off at school and she mentioned that she and her boy friend were thinking of getting another tattoo!!

These women (I had male stylists only 3 times in 31 years) could take the traditional role of the barkeeper or even a therapist –  who engages the patrons in idle banter  thereby drawing some interesting conversations and feelings out of them..

“I am the best man in my buddy’s wedding this evening” said one guy getting a buzz cut for the event!

“My boyfriend’s coming back tomorrow after 2 years”.. I thought he was coming back from the war in Iraq or Afghanistan. It turns out (based on further conversation) – that he was in prison for something to do with drugs and she was excitedly primping herself for his homecoming!

Kids getting their trim before school starts – the parents are usually right there giving specific instructions about where to cut and how much! “A close shave with the clippers  please, I don’t want to have to  come back in 2 weeks!”

Jenny paused from her monologue about tattoos in general and the specific one that they had picked, to announce that she’s done! Before I could stop her, she pulled out a mirror to show me the back of my head – bringing to clear view my bald spot!  I smiled and nodded my approval on the good job she did and told her “Extra tip for you next time – if you DO NOT show me my bald spot!” She had a hearty laugh.. and before she could recover, I pointed to the hair on the floor and said “Can you see if you can glue that back there to cover up the bald spot?”

As I walked out .. I told myself that I have to keep looking for the hair stylist that will take me seriously!

My Career Backup Plan

In most American Colonial style homes – there is a family room, a kitchen, a living room and a formal dining room on the ground floor and all the bedrooms are upstairs. The family room and kitchen are the ones that get used most downstairs.  Even in our house the living room and dining room are barely used. Our living room – ironically, is now a graveyard for all of our musical instruments. There is the upright piano which Ramya and Vidya had practiced on for several years, the alto saxophone – that Vidya had  played throughout middle school  and high school, an acoustic guitar (which Vidya planned to teach herself  from YouTube videos) and my favorite – a brand new tabla set! All these have not been touched in years – except the piano which Vidya does use once in a while  when she comes home from college for holidays.

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Zam Zam Cafe

I was probably 10 – 11 years old when I first entered an Irani café in Hyderabad. These Irani cafés had lent a unique charm to the city. All Hyderabadis that I meet in the U.S. fondly remember their special Irani restaurant back home which they had frequented while growing up. They all had a lot of stories to tell about their favorite ones.  When I first walked into Zam Zam café that summer day, I was awestruck by the atmosphere and the hustle and bustle inside! The owner – who was a fair and well-fed Iranian guy looked down from his high chair behind the counter and said “Kya hona?” (“What do you want”). I just said “Chai” and handed the money and a kettle to him. He counted the money and barked an order – “Chotay!  Theen Chaai la re!”

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Entrance to Public Gardens

While I waited for the chai to show up I took in the atmosphere. I could see ‘Chotay’ working pretty much all the tables… passing plate-fulls of mini samosas and salty “biskoots” and Pauna Chai.  At that time, I thought it was an odd nickname! Later on, when I was in college, I realized that “chotay” was a nickname of choice for any kid that works in these types of establishments. Finally, after what seemed like a long wait,  ‘Chotay’ brought back my kettle filled with chai. He looked like he was about the same age as I was. Yet,  there he was  – practically running the whole place! I was impressed and a bit jealous!  I carefully crossed the road back towards Public Gardens. Once inside the Public Gardens complex, I walked along the tree lined road which led to Jawahar Bal Bhavan. I stopped to pick up some ripened Kaala Jamun fruits that had dropped on the road from the massive trees! By the time I reached Bal Bhavan – my mouth and tongue were coated purple! It was almost a 15 min walk back (including the distractions along the way). Once in the building,  I made my way to the music room where my tabla teacher was eagerly waiting for his Chai. He grabbed the kettle and without so much as a “thank you” asked me to go back to my tabla set and continue practicing! Yes.., I was back to the boring two notes “Dha Dhin” that the teacher had taught me a week ago! All of the kids that at that tabla summer camp were told to practice just those two notes! Aaargh!  This was a large hall with several sets of tablas and sitars lined up along the walls. The campers were clearly split along gender lines. All the girls were playing sitars and boys were on tablas.  The paan chewing teacher was playing impressive tabla beats back and forth with his favorite older (teenager) students  – while the younger ones got bored with the “Dha Dhin” . This was equivalent to us practicing writing “A” and “B” over and over again, while the teacher and his favorites were showing off the equivalent of writing complex prose and poetry!!

Summer of ’72

Jawahar Bal Bhavan from my recent trip
Jawahar Bal Bhavan from my recent trip

Since my parents were both working and we had a long summer break, they had put all three of us into the popular summer camp at Bal Bhavan in the Public Gardens which was next to the State Assembly (and across from the All India Radio Station). We had the option to pick from a smorgasbord of activities. I picked  – photography, swimming, clay sculpture & tabla! We had learned a lot about composing photos (on our first ever camera – an Agfa Click-3) as well as developing, printing  and enlarging photos. We never actually picked up any swimming skills, but my sister and I did pick up a painful eye infection called Trachoma from the swimming pool, which required even more painful treatment which lasted 2 years!  I do remember that my brother had  learnt an important lesson that summer about the ill-effects on your knees of diving in a kiddie pool (2 feet deep)!

When I first saw the senior students play tabla – I was so impressed that I started dreaming  that I would be playing like that at the end of the summer session! After a couple of weeks of working on just the  two beats (“Dha Dhin”) – I totally lost all hope that I would ever get to play like those guys! Maybe the teacher was just testing to see if I was seriously interested – i.e. a sort of a tabla aptitude test, before teaching us the rest of the notes?  When I told my parents about my maiden visit to an Irani café – they were furious! While Irani cafes were fun hangout places for young men and adults, they did not think it was an appropriate place for a 11 year old to be visiting! Of course, they were also upset that the teacher was making little kids do personal chores for him! Bottom-line.. I was asked to drop that class right away! I did not protest too much, as I was getting quite bored with practicing “Dha Dhin” endlessly! 

Tabla lessons – the sequel!

While the desire to learn tabla stayed latent, it was nevertheless very strong for a long time. Whenever, I saw artists like Zakir Hussain and Tanmoy Bose perform in concerts – that latent desire to learn and shine as a tabla player  kept  erupting.

Later… much later… I found a tabla teacher not far from where I lived in the Philly suburbs. I managed to find a kid in Silicon Valley who was selling his tabla set and bought it for $100. The teacher was excellent. He was patient with me and worked around my crazy work schedule and I did not have to fetch him chai! In fact, since the classes were held in his house, there were times when he offered me chai! Most of his other students were young kids  (6 – 18 year olds). At almost 40 years of age I was the oldest of his students. One day I had a chance to see his younger students play and my jaw dropped! Wow, simply wow!! When will I play like that? I was a big fan of fast food, instant noodles, instant soup etc. In that same theme… I wanted to be like Zakir Hussain – with minimal effort. I wanted “Tabla for Dummies” and “Complete Idiot’s Guide to Tabla” and  to go from “Yash to Zakir Hussain” in no time (and with no effort)!! Practicing for hours everyday was too much for me. At one point I felt like saying to the teacher “Can we just skip all these Taals and just show me what I have to do to play like “Zakir Hussain and his magic fingers?” I used to joke that if I ever got laid off, I could play tabla in the NY subways to make some money. DSC00489

After about a year of classes and learning some basic Taals, I decided to buy a brand new tabla set on my next visit to Hyderabad. My dad and I visited the highly recommended shop for musical instruments – “Akbar Miya and Sons”, in the narrow streets of Afzal Gunj. There we sat down and bargained in the true Indian fashion. Dad told Akbar Miya to “give us the best one” and also “You should give us a good price – as he has come all the way from America!” I was almost certain that Akbar Miya just doubled the price in his head! Later when we came home with the set, I sat down and played some of my basic taals for my bemused family. They couldn’t believe that I was still so passionate about tabla after all these years! I then brought the two tabla pieces as my carry-on luggage all the way from Hyderabad to Bombay to Frankfurt to Philly –  convincing the customs and security officials along the way that there was nothing explosive hidden inside! Once back, I probably had 3 – 4 classes with  the new set. Then things got crazy at work for several months and sadly,  I just had to drop out of tabla lessons altogether. That was 15 years ago!

This isn’t over yet!

Every time I go to an Indian concert or see a 7 year old kid or even a non-Indian  play amazing tabla on YouTube, my desire to jumpstart the tabla classes is kindled!

It seems like everyone could effortlessly play like Zakir Hussain except me! It’s just not fair! What do I have to do? Put actual effort into this? Oh well! I hope to get back to tabla someday. That is why the tabla set is still in my living room – collecting dust (instead of getting sold off on eBay or Craigslist!!). Till then I will keep drumming my fingers on the dining table, on the steering wheel etc.. in the process, annoying my lovely family and my patient car pool friends!