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_Alleppy1Before: Extremely Wheat Complexioned (plus warts and all..)!
FullSizeRenderAfter: 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 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.


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.


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”


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.


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!”

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!

Around the World (11 times) in 465 Days!

Carpool Tunnel Syndrome

It was our typical 37 mile drive home from work. There I was… navigating the trusted Honda Accord through Coopersburg (trying very hard not get a speeding ticket) as the speed limit suddenly drops down to 35 mph from the usual 55 mph on RT 309,  with my car pool buddies (and co-workers)!

My Vietnamese colleague Quan was describing the intricacies of a biasing circuit he was working on for a memory design (his specialty) when all of a sudden he goes  “Guess what?? Jumbo shrimp on sale for 2.99/lbs. at Shoprite!” This was way before high speed internet and smart phones!  In fact, he did not need any of these… he had all the available best deals in his head magically and like flipping through a Rolodex – he would just land on the right deal for the moment!

The other colleague Mike, a Virginia native and a fellow chip designer, says “My group went to that Indian Buffet place for lunch today! Their Baarfi is too good! Do you guys make Baarfi at home?” “I want to learn how to make Baarfi..” he said with a wink. I could tell he was relishing saying “Baarfi” over and over again. I played along “Sure Mike.. I love Baarfi too!”

Me .. “Guess what?  Today Monica Lewinsky turned 28!  It seemed like just yesterday she was crawling around on the floor in the Oval Office.”   I was the true environmentalist in the car – ‘cos I was the one who was always recycling previous night’s jokes (from TV’s Late Night Comedy shows)!


Commuters R Us!

In 1990 when Uma started her Medical Residency in Philadelphia, we moved from Allentown to Lansdale so that it would be equidistant to both of our work locations. The plan at that time was that we would move back in 4 years after the completion of her Residency. Since then, a lot of things changed in our lives as well as the world around us – but my commute to Allentown remained essentially the same!

Allentown is in the Lehigh Valley along with its twin city of Bethlehem. Most people may not know that Allentown was the place where world’s first solid-state  transistor (which paved the way to the computer and Internet revolution) was fabricated by Bell Labs Engineers Shockley, Brattain and Bardeen. Bethlehem used to be the home of Bethlehem Steel – which had a long history and provided steel for Golden Gate, George Washington and Verrazano Narrow bridges, Hoover Dam along with other major projects.  Allentown was also made famous by Billy Joel with his song “Allentown” – which depicted (quite negatively) the life of the Lehigh Valley area after the demise of the steel industry in the area!

Lansdale area is essentially a northern suburb of Philadelphia with commuter trains to Philadelphia and several large pharmaceutical industries within short driving distances. Back when we moved there, it had a modest Indian community – but we still had to make weekly pilgrimages to Edison, New Jersey, for Indian groceries and restaurants. Now we have several large Indian grocery stores and restaurants (even a Hyderabadi one!) within a few miles from my house supported by the large Indian/Bangladeshi population in the area.

Earlier, I said that my commute remained essentially the same over the years. But, that is only partly true. Yes… the distance remained the same – a round trip of about 75 miles! But over the years a lot has changed along the way – corn fields turned into massive shopping centers with huge parking lots.  I wish I had a time lapse video that showed the rapidly changing landscape: from countryside and cornfield to huge shopping centers with acres and acres of asphalt parking lots. Because of all this development, the total number of traffic lights that I now pass through quadrupled  (compared to 1990) – thereby adding to the commute time.

In 1990 – George Bush (senior) was the president and gas was 75c a gallon and Saddam Hussein had grand plans to increase territory by annexing Kuwait. I used to work for AT&T Bell Labs and had a company cell phone that was as big and as heavy as a brick. In order to make calls, I had to pull out its antenna and balance with both hands!

Descent into the Lehigh Valley

During the early years of the commute, I used to listen to a lot of music – Hindi and Telugu songs as well as a variety of classical music on cassette tapes. Later I added talk radio to my repertoire. There was a financial adviser that I used to avidly listen to.. Once I even called his show and managed to get through. I explained my situation and asked him if I should buy a house (or rent) in Lansdale for a period of 4 years. He said that it did not make any sense to buy for such a short period of time! So… we went ahead and bought the house anyway! And lived in it for 14 years!

After a few years of driving alone, I came across others at work that happened to be doing the same commute. It made perfect sense to carpool with these guys.  Over the years I carpooled with 5 other guys in different combinations. Two of them were Indian, one who grew up in Virginia, who it turns out lived only 2 blocks from my house and 2 Vietnamese guys. Even today, I still carpool with one of my co-workers. Carpooling worked out great for all of us. It saved a lot of money on gas (more on this later). At times we took turns to take a nap if we had worked late previous night and needed to catch up on sleep. Politics and religion are generally considered a no-no in carpools, but in our rides these came up all the time and since we were polar opposites on political topics – we’ve had some very fiery and spirited debates. It certainly helped liven up the boring commute!

Typical Pennsylvania Row Houses in Bethlehem

Overall – carpooling worked because we were all very flexible. There were a couple of instances when halfway through our drive I thought that I had left the iron ON in my house – and that we needed to turn back or the house would burn down or another time when I had left the garage door open and I would be robbed of all my treasures if we didn’t turn back immediately!  My friends were very understanding and turned back even if it meant an additional hour and half of commute that day! We were all fairly reasonable drivers and a testimony to that fact is that we never had any accidents or speeding tickets in these past 24 years (on the commute). Outside of the commute it’s a different story – and probably a subject for another blog and another day!

Talk radio was our constant companion and it was mostly local talk shows in the early days that covered about Philadelphia specific topics. Later these evolved into national syndicated talk shows mostly dominated by right wing personalities who knew just the “right” things to say to keep the masses fired up about “gun control”, “the war on Christmas”, “the liberal agenda” or “the corrupting influence of  the Hollywood elites” etc.


I have driven through the presidencies of George Bush Sr., Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Obama. During these years the gas price ranged from 75c to $3.67 per gallon. In these 24 years my employers changed from AT&T Bell Labs to Lucent to Agere to LSI to Avago (plus a mini detour of 3 years to PMC Sierra – also in the Lehigh Valley area)! The drive itself is a vibrant mix of urban and rural landscapes. We drive by the usual box stores and fast food places – Walmart, McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts, BestBuy etc in Quakertown followed by  lush greenery on both sides of Rt 309 for miles. Past Coopersburg, we drive by small roadside stands of home grown fruits and vegetables as well as “The Little Red Honey Stand”. This is a self-serve stand where there would be bottles of fresh honey along with a box to deposit the money in. Here’s a perfect  example of honor system at it’s best! 

The Little Red Honey Stand (click to enlarge)

In terms of numbers..

The other day on our drive home – I reminisced about my commuting experiences. What amazed me were the numbers! Yes… If we boiled it all down to just numbers – we are talking about 283518 miles driven for work. If there was a way to circumnavigate the Earth with my Honda Accord – I would have covered this more than 11 times with these 283518 miles! I could have easily driven to the moon and a third of the way back with these kind of miles! Want more such analogies? I could have driven 50 round trips from New York to LA!! I calculated that we had spent $17000 in gas for our commute (remember… even till late 2002 the gas price was less than one dollar per gallon). I estimated that I had spent 11172 hours on the road – which is about 465 days that was spent driving to and from Allentown!!

Much more than the numbers…

I ran into Quan the other day after several years. He is now retired and he has sharpened his skills about amazing deals to a whole different level. He told me about an airline credit card which actually “pays you to stay at the hotel in Paris after you get there on business class for free!!” In turn, I told him that I learned I can write off my hair loss and the resulting loss of self-esteem in my taxes! He has over 15 credit cards and got free money from all of them for limited period which he turned around and invested in CDs or even stock and made a lot of money! I always felt (and still feel) like a total beginner when it came to finance and other money matters compared to all of my car pool partners. I lost touch with Mike but recently found out that he is still in the area and works for a start-up chip company. I plan to look him up and re-connect with him. Over the years, I found that the car pool partners were also good sparring partners on all sorts of uncomfortable topics (usually during election times) – but we all got along quite well and remained good friends over these 24 years.  Our families became good friends and we even had  “Annual Carpool Family Picnics” for a few years and used to keep track of the progress of our kids through school and college. I have to locate Sanjay, Ravi and Mike and plan a “Reunion of the Carpool guys” along with Quan and Thien… like “Seinfeld” and “The Wonder Years” reunion shows!  Might even do a road trip up and down Rt 309 for old time’s sake!

Down Memory Lane… Then Turn Right at Artillery Center

Strike and Boycott – two words that I had never heard of while in school were commonplace when I got into Engineering College!  It looked like we were boycotting classes for no reason at all or at the whims of the student leaders who had the muscle power and political backing to do whatever they wanted. Halfway through the first year at the JNTU College of Engineering , we found ourselves on strike again. The reason for the strike must not have been too important or compelling, as  I do not remember it now. Coming from Kendriya Vidyalaya system of schools (Central Government administered schools for the children of transferable Central Govt employees) where there was heavy emphasis on  strict discipline  to  this engineering college  – where there was no respect for authority, the contrast was stark and was quite shocking and amusing for me.

Initially it started as walking out of the classes and raising slogans against whoever/whatever was supposed to be “oppressing us”.. then goofing off on campus, while the militant student leaders did their thing, like  throwing stones at passing buses and shouting at the policemen that were lined up and ready for action.  The rest of us spent most of our days sipping endless cups of chai in the makeshift canteen which was run by a middle aged north Indian lady near the bicycle stand. She was quite entertaining – regaling us with stories of student life in Delhi. I remember her telling us how “smart and fast the girls of Miranda House” were.  She had two kids working for her, appropriately named “Chotu” and “Munna”. Back then, these seemed to be the most popular generic names for every chai wallah’s helpers! These guys would walk around the “campus” peddling chai, yummy samosas and curry puffs to all the students hanging around.  It was barely a “campus” – hardly 4-5 acres on which we had the engineering college and a much larger Architecture and Fine Arts College.

Reunion – Bollywood Style!

On day 3 of that particular strike,  I could sense that the atmosphere was beginning to get more tense.  The students  spilled onto the main road across from the college which connected Mehdipatnam area with Nampally/Abids area. Mahavir hospital was directly across from the college on the other side of the road. Slogan-shouting students halted the buses and emptied the horrified passengers from them. Then they flattened the tires of these buses – which essentially made  the main road impassable! I watched all this in horror! A line of policemen, looking stern and  ready with their Laathis (wooden rod used by police in India as a club) were waiting for the order to thrash the students who were generally disrupting the traffic and creating havoc.   I saw one lanky policeman smiling at me..   “Yashodhar?” he said softly.. hesitantly..   I was shocked. He introduced himself as Ramsingh! I immediately made the connection. He was my classmate from  KVG (Kendriya Vidyalaya Golconda) – which was my school from 2nd grade to 11th grade! Wow.. This was quite a  surprise. I had not seen him since 6th or 7th grade – which would be about 1972! I thought he either dropped out or moved to some other school. I remember he stood out in the class – as the tall one (along with another one- Nasir). He was the  quiet and shy type and was always hanging out with his  close buddy Ramswaroop (who was at least a foot shorter than Ramsingh).   He said that he left KVG and went to a state school after which he went into police force.   It felt great connecting with an old friend after almost 6 years. Excitedly and animatedly, we started catching up on the past 6 years right there on the main road surrounded by rioting students and stalled traffic!

“Where is Ramswaroop – your twin, now?” I said with a wink and a smile..
“Guess what –  S.Sridhar and Y.V.N are here in JNTU with me – Civil and Mechanical”
“Where is your brother P.Sridhar?”

“Remember Mahalaxmi , who lived in Langerhouse? She is  married  and has a baby now!”

As the Police Inspector arrived, he had to go back and line up with the rest of his police buddies. I went back to my friends who were quite curious about my police-friend. Luckily for us, that day, the lathicharge (i.e clubbing by the police)  did not happen and I did not get thrashed by my long lost friend – which would have  been quite a bollywoodesque event!

“two jigri dost get separated after 6th grade and then meet up after several years under tragic circumstances. One is a cop and the other rowdy student!    The good guy (cop) gets to beat up the bad guy (student disrupting traffic  – and thereby stopping blind-pregnant-old lady from entering the hospital for delivery.  Right after a few blows, cop recognizes Yashodhar and then emotional reunion scene ensues “Ramsingh!!”  “Yashodhar”!! Hugging followed by a  sentimental song. Then each get’s his own heroine to sing songs with etc..  After several song and dance sequences, they both get to fight the real villain – the dirty politician who was behind all the student agitations.  Throw in a few more sentimental scenes about the mom losing eyesight in the beginning of the movie and regaining at the end of the movie after singing the heart wrenching song in praise of multiple gods – and we have a 70s style blockbuster!”

That evening I went home and told my family and other friends from KVG about meeting my old friend Ramsingh under the unusual circumstances. I located the old photo album – which was bulging with black and white photos. I quickly found the class photo that I was searching for  – the one from 5th grade! In fact, that was the only class photo that we ever bought! My brother Sridhar and I were in the same grade from 2nd grade onwards when we transferred to KVG from a state school.  For some reason,  we never bought any other class photos except for the 5th grade one!!

Class Photo: KVG, 5th grade (1971)(click for enlarged view)
Class Photo: KVG, 5th grade (1971)  (click for enlarged view)

There it was – with our principal Mr Gangal, class teacher Mrs Sudha Mathur , and the entire class in the old KVG school which was in military barracks right next to the wall of the Golconda Fort. Ramsingh was in the middle of the last row along with the other tall ones – Nasir and  Arif. These guys were quite literally a foot and half taller than me!  It was fun going through the photo – reminiscing about each of the classmates from 5th grade!

“Didn’t Leena become a model? Yes we saw her and her sister Neelam  do a fashion show at the convention center in Khairatabad”
“Sudha is doing M.B.B.S in Osmania”
“Rajan’s dad owned a large poultry farm in Premnagar. I wonder if he followed in his dad’s footsteps”
“Remember how Arun got into trouble with Nabi sir for skipping classes and stealing from the army canteen”

As you can see, ours was a co-ed school. But we hardly ever talked with our classmates of opposite sex – out of mortal fear that we’d be teased for having an affair (Ha!) . The only contact I had with a girl (4th or 5th grade) was when one of them violently disapproved of something I said! Those nails did leave scratch marks that lasted for a while!  I didn’t notice it back then , but now, I find it remarkable that everyone except two of the girls had a solemn/serious look in this photo.

A Sentimental Fool!

Later we started talking about our graduating class. I started getting very nostalgic and sentimental about the school, my friends and the teachers.  I was upset that we did not buy the class photos of other grades especially the one for the final year graduating class. The strike continued to drag on. One day while I was at college, I suddenly decided that I should go to school and see if there was any way that I could now buy a copy of the class photo! I was never the  spontaneous and sentimental type  person back then (same as  today!).  So I surprised myself that day by quietly leaving my friends and  riding off westward (on my trademark blue BSA  sports bicycle) towards Kendriya Vidyalaya Golconda!

So, off I went on the familiar bus route that I had taken for 11 years –  from Masab Tank and cutting through the army territory to finally arrive at the school in Langerhouse. We had moved into this new school in about 1973. Back then, we all helped with the landscaping for the brand new school grounds as part of the CCA (Co-Curricular Activity) classes.

I walked into school office  – where I met the accountant- Agarwal sir. I introduced myself and explained the reason for my trip back to school. He told me that the school did not have any of the class photos and that I would have to go check with the photographer.  He said, “go to Artillery Center Stadium area and just ask anyone about Babbar Studios!” Everyone in school  knew that Ramesh Babbar’s (my senior in KVG) family owned the studio and they were the official photographers for all school photos – including class photos and other school  functions.

I immediately set off towards Artillery Center Stadium, which was adjacent to the Golconda Fort. This was only about 3 kms from school but back then it felt like it was far far away! Once I got to the stadium area, I pulled into the army housing/offices area next to the stadium and asked the jawans about Babbar Photo Studio. They pointed me to a small grey/light blue single floor building which was quite indistinguishable from all others around it. I don’t  remember there being a signboard. I walked in and immediately recognized the photographer. As I mentioned earlier, he was quite a fixture at all school functions. He was tall and fair and had salt and pepper hair. I was out of breath from all the cycling activity as well as from the excitement. It took me a few minutes to calm myself down and explain to him who I was and why I just showed up at his doorstep. He was quite amused by  my little spontaneous adventure that day and said that he would be able to help out. After I told him that ours was the class that graduated after 11th grade in 1977,   he rifled  through what looked like files in a filing cabinet and finally located the negative! I was ecstatic! He told me that he would be able to make me a print if I could wait for an hour! I could not believe it! This was way more than what I had expected. When I left JNTU campus that morning , I had absolutely no expectations of what I would achieve! I was sure he could see the thrilled look on my face!  I told him that I could wait for  as long as he needed. While he got to work on the photo, I walked out and sat on my parked bicycle. I had to pinch myself to be sure that I was not dreaming..

A Parade of Memories

There I was in front of the studio and I could see the majestic and imposing Golconda fort in the background and the Artillery Center Stadium in the foreground. The stadium was the site of all of our  School  Annual Sports day events. This was a huge event for the school. The sports day was modeled after Olympics. The entire student body was divided into 4 groups – Subhash House, Nehru house, Patel house and Sastri house, all of which competed in sports and games. In preparation for the sports day, we used to practice calisthenics for months, along with marching with the Army band.  There were a lot of popular and rousing tunes that the Army bands used for the marches. I clearly remember this following one, but did not realize till much later that this was the famous marching  tune called “Colonel Bogey March” and was used in the world war II movie “The Bridge on River Kwai.”

If I close my eyes, even now I can picture the students in all white emerging through the ceremonial gateway to the loud bugle sounds followed by the army band (in their regal finery).  I can still hear Seshgiri Rao sir (our Hindi teacher) – providing commentary from the commentator’s box as we marched with pride. He used to describe the festive and colorful atmosphere and his favorite quotation was the popular poem from our 6th or 7th grade Hindi book –

“Hum Panchi unmukth gagan ke, Pinjar badhh na Ga paayenge” – that nicely summarized the indomitable spirit of the young ones marching through. Excellent  English language commentary was provided by Mrs. Ramayya, who had the perfect diction for such commentary.
 The parents were also included in some of the games and races as well. I remember my parents winning a prize in the lemon and spoon race one year!
As I was deep in flashback mode, reminiscing about the glorious school days, I had not realized that it was over an hour and that the photographer had walked out to announce that it was done!  I snapped out of it and almost ran back in  – as I was eager to see the end product
11th Grade graduating class with all of the teachers of the school (1977)
11th Grade graduating class with all of the teachers of the school (1977) (click for enlarged view)

There it was on the drawing board – about 8 x 10 or so in size. He had actually mounted it on a beautiful cardboard frame. I eagerly scanned through to see who all were there! This was a unique photo in the sense that – in addition to all of my classmates and friends it also had the entire staff of the school (both teaching and non-teaching).  There was my 2nd grade class teacher Mrs Joseph and all of my 11th grade teachers along with teachers for all the years in between. Right in the middle was Mr Gangal – our principal, uncharacteristically without his suit! I guess it must have been a very hot day!  I immediately noted that at least 4 of my classmates were missing from the photo – Ravi, Rangesh, Nagendra and Kanaka .. and, oh yeah.. there’s that broken window that I remember so well!

I repeatedly expressed my gratitude to the photographer for going out of his way to fulfill my request, which he certainly did and so beautifully too! He refused to take any payment for his work and said that he was happy to help out!

I rushed back home with a beaming smile and the class photo! With a dramatic flourish – I unveiled the photo to my surprised family! We all gathered around it and reminisced about every individual that made an indelible impression on us for over 10 years in that school (granted.. some of those impressions were accompanied  by choice blessings like – “Naalayak” or “Badthameez”, but they were  impressions nevertheless).  Sridhar and I promptly wrote down the names of everyone (students and staff) on the back – just so we won’t forget the names as the photo and/or memories fade!  Folks.. today, I would like to announce that after 35 years neither the photo nor the memories faded!


Stalking R.K.Narayan

If you ever get a chance to be in or near Mysore, you should not miss the opportunity to try Set-dosa and Ravva idli followed by Chow chow bhath and finish the meal off with proper “Mysore filter coffee.” A set-dosa is just that – a set of small fluffy dosas served with kurma and chutney. It looks like a stack of pancakes and is the epitome of mouthwatering deliciousness!  Ravva idli is idli (steamed dumplings) made with Sooji or cream of wheat with nuts and other spices. Chow chow  bhath  is a unique way of serving Upma  (savory breakfast staple) and Kesari (sweet Upma) as a combo. I consider these to be the quintessential signature foods of Mysore – kinda  like Hyderabadi Biryani or Philadelphia Cheesesteaks!

One morning, my friend Aditya and I found this exact combination of yumminess in front of us in a small nondescript “hotel”  in the V.V.Mohalla area of Mysore. Back then (maybe even now, in small towns in India), restaurants were called “hotels” and hotels were called “lodgings.”  So, as we took our time savoring the yummy breakfast, we pondered how we ended up in this place.

Both of us are “pucca” Hyderabadis that had never set foot in Bangalore or Mysore before this. We had just graduated from Engineering College with a B.Tech in Electronics and Communications Engineering and had made this trip to Bangalore for my on-site interview at HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) in Bangalore.  Aditya was free and we thought it would be a fun trip to tour Mysore and surroundings. Our buddy and classmate Ravi’s family was originally from Mysore, so he had uncles, aunts and cousins who lived there. Unfortunately he could not make the trip with us, as he had his own post-graduation related interviews/travel. Ravi had raved about the sights of Mysore and surroundings so much that we just had to check them out ourselves. He contacted his uncle in Mysore to help us out with accommodations and other arrangements.

I don’t remember much about our stay in Bangalore or even about the interview in HAL. As expected, time has taken its toll on my memory, but thankfully it left all of the interesting and fun events still intact! Right after the interview, we boarded a bus to Mysore to visit Ravi’s uncle. I clearly remember the road to Mysore, flanked with green fields and coconut trees. The bus took about 3 hours to get to Mysore, which included one scheduled pit stop at a roadside dhaba, where I remember we had the sweetest “tender coconut water” (“Yellneer” in Kannada).

I have vague memories of meeting Ravi’s uncle and cousins and of their house in the Gokulam Park/V.V.Mohalla area.   If I close my eyes, even today, I can picture the Gulmohar trees full of the flaming red flowers, and smell the strange mélange of jasmine flowers and the famous Mysore filter coffee!! Mysore had a very distinctive small town atmosphere. Obviously it was a lot less crowded back then, and just as today, Mysore provided a wonderful alternative to the hustle and bustle of Bangalore (and certainly Hyderabad).

For me, Mysore was synonymous with the Maharaja’s Palace, the famous Dassera celebrations, Chamundi Hill and also my favorite author R.K.Narayan’s hometown! As soon as I found out that R.K.Narayan was from Mysore, I wanted to go visit him. All through the trip from Hyderabad to Bangalore to Mysore, I kept talking about visiting R.K.Narayan, the way teenagers go crazy about “One Direction” or  Justin Bieber!

That summer I had read RKN’s collection of essays “Next Sunday” as well as his diary called ”My Dateless Diary”, which he wrote during his travel through US in 1958. As there was a good possibility of me going to US for graduate school, I was keen on reading this diary of RKN. His descriptions of specific events and locales in US made such an indelible impression on me that I remember some of them even to this day – “On thanksgiving day millions of turkeys were finished off..”, “The word ‘Grand’ never had a grander role to perform than when describing the Grand Canyon”, “No wonder they call it a railroad – it comes to a stop right in the middle of the road”. He was a bit of a coffee chauvinist – he declared that he wanted his  coffee “neither black nor white, but brown which ought to be the colour of honest coffee – that’s how we made it in South India where devotees of perfection in coffee assemble from all over the world.”

Of all of his books, “The Guide” was the one that I loved the most.  The way he casually deals with the taboo subject (back then) of adultery is quite remarkable. While I loved the songs and dances in the movie version of “The Guide,” I actually enjoyed reading the book much more. The descriptions of the fictional south Indian town of Malgudi and of interactions between Raju, his mother and his other relatives is so typically south Indian. The movie departs quite a bit from the book, but certainly had its charm and was a big hit. By the way, I recently learned that Nobel prize winner Pearl S. Buck was responsible for the book being turned into a movie. As a matter of fact, she wrote a screenplay for the English version (both English and Hindi versions were simultaneously produced). Pearl also helped Waheeda Rahman (lead actress in the movie) with the English diction. Of course, the Hollywood movie was a huge dud whereas the Hindi version was a runaway success. As an aside, I now live 15 minutes from Pearl S. Buck’s house in “Bucks” County, Pennsylvania.

As soon as I met Ravi’s uncle, I started bugging him about RKN. Do you know if he actually lives here? How can we find out? Can we go visit him? Just for a few minutes?  His uncle was nice and patient with me. He said that he would try to find out from his contacts in the local newspaper office.  Since we had two days in Mysore, Ravi’s uncle suggested a day-trip to Belur, Halebeedu and Sravanabelagola.

If these stones could talk

The tourist bus was sparsely filled – Aditya and I, a mother and son (~13 years old), a middle-aged couple from North India, a couple of foreigners (possibly European, based on their accents), and another Indian couple. This last couple was seated diagonally across from us. The man was middle-aged and his partner was probably in her late 20’s.  The moment the bus left Mysore, the man and the women started getting frisky! This created a very uncomfortable atmosphere for all – especially the mom who had a heck of a time diverting her son’s attention. She kept asking him to look at the “beautiful scenery” outside! This unusual display of public affection (for India, that too in 1980’s) was quite amusing for me and Aditya, and we had our own theories – we said they either just got married or were having an affair!! Later we dismissed the “just married” theory, ‘cos the “affair” story made more sense based on their perceived age difference and also added ‘masala’ to the story that we would later tell everyone! Surprisingly, even the foreigners (white couple) seemed to be shocked by this activity too – they were turning beet red with embarrassment. Yet, of all the people on the bus, they were the most successful in avoiding staring at the show. For the rest of us Indians, staring at others was a national pastime, so we just continued what came naturally!! At each of the stops, the amorous couple would take a break from their activity just to take a quick tour of the sights and then hurry back to the bus!!

Monolithic Statue of Gomateshwara
Beautiful Statue at the feet of Gomateshwara

I had first seen the giant (naked) stone statue of Gomateshwara also known as BaahuBali, on TV – when they had a huge festival called Maha Mastakabhisheka which literally means “the great head bath.”

At this festival, the statue of Gomateshwara, who was a Jain saint, was ritualistically bathed using water, milk, turmeric, etc. The statue which was carved out of a monolith around AD 981 stood about 60 feet tall. The scale of the statue was very impressive.
Bahubali_feet_1It was quite simple and symmetric. The nakedness was understood and accepted by everyone as part of the Jain digambara tradition (for the saints or ascetics) – and represents the complete victory over earthly desires.
There is a lot of history associated with Sravanabelagola that I did not know back then. I was especially surprised to learn that in 298 BC, after abdication of the throne to his son Bindusara, emperor Chandragupta Maurya had spent his last days here as a Jain ascetic, and supposedly fasted to death. I had no idea that he had come this far south.

With my trademark cloth bag of the early eighties, at the Hoyasaleshwara Temple at Halebeedu.

After  Sravanabelagola,  we headed to the 12th century temples of Belur and Halebeedu. I had heard of Belur and Halebeedu as the famous ancient temples that were used as the backdrop in one of the songs in a popular Telugu movie (Shankarabharanam).

The carvings in these temples were simply amazing and were perfect examples of Hoyasala art and architecture.
We could see intricate jewelry that was carved into stone. Elephants and crocodiles were carved along the entire perimeter of the temple along with detailed carvings of the Hindu epics.

Beautiful, Intricate jewelry (carved in stone)! Extreme closeup view of my face included to provide a contrast!
Gandharva Kanya carving – Belur

There were detailed depictions of women in exquisite dance poses.
It almost seemed like the sculptors were picking the most challenging postures and situations to show off their skill!  The guide used the sunbeam reflected from a tiny mirror as an improvised laser pointer, on the outside of the temples, to point out various minute details of the carvings. He showed us that fashions and hairstyles from the 12th century were making a comeback – like capris, bangs, and up-do’s. He pointed out the depiction of  erotic poses and said that this was not a taboo back then (12th century)  and that it was considered normal – which caused most of our tour group to turn and stare at “the couple!” The guide also explained how the temples were saved from destruction at the hands of the Bahmani invaders by burying them under a huge mound of sand. There were several similar temples that were destroyed and a precious few that were saved.
I was so impressed with these two archaeological sites that I visited them a total of 4 times since my first trip in 1983.

Garuda Statue outside the temple – Belur
Beautiful young woman checking herself out in the handheld mirror – Belur
Belur 1988
Halebeedu 2000

After a long day of being tourists we reached home exhausted, but I perked right up when Ravi’s uncle said that he knew of a gentleman who worked in either a newspaper or a printing press that personally knows RKN!!  He asked us to go meet him the next day.

Meeting the Maker of Malgudi

It was so hard to stalk celebrities back then!! No internet or Google!  So you had to do it the old fashioned way – rely on your network and word of mouth. You had to have connections with the right people who should be willing to divulge the information. Ravi’s uncle had a friend whose friend knew someone who worked in a newspaper office or printing press. We were told to meet this gentleman at a particular house on the main street, very close to the restaurant. So, as soon as the sumptuous Mysorean breakfast was washed down with the amazing coffee (served in a traditional stainless steel tumbler), we walked the short distance to the address that was given for our contact.  We introduced ourselves to the gentleman as Mr. So & So’s friends. He was nice and friendly (since we approached him through “proper channel”).  He inquired about our details (just to make sure we were legit, I guess), then he gave us the address of Mr. R.K.Narayan! (Just like that…).  I was thrilled and surprised that it was so easy to get the info! The two of us got into an auto rickshaw and asked him to take us to Yadavagiri, specifically to Dasaprakash Hotel in Yadavagiri. RKN’s house was supposed to be diagonally across from Dasaprakash hotel in the area of Mysore called Yadavagiri.  We were there in less than 10 minutes. I could immediately tell that Yadavagiri was a posh area of Mysore. It reminded me a lot of Banjara Hills area of Hyderabad.

Self, R.K.Narayan and Aditya (2/3rds of us seem to be excited to be in the photo!)
If it weren’t for this little piece of evidence, I could have named this “My dateless blog entry”

From Dasaprakash hotel, we started walking towards the compound and, just to be sure, inquired with a gentleman we saw walking in that area. Sure enough, he pointed us to the writer’s house! We were quite nervous as we approached the gate. There was no one in sight. So we just opened the gate and walked in, rang the bell and waited. After what seemed like a long time, one young man came out. I don’t exactly remember the wording but I mumbled that we were big fans of RKN and we had come from Hyderabad to meet him.  Fittingly enough there was a strong smell of “proper” Mysore coffee wafting out. We waited for what seemed like an eternity. Just when we were thinking of giving up, R.K.Narayan walked out. He looked exactly as I had imagined. He looked fresh (after his morning cup of coffee?). I didn’t know then but I estimate he was about 76 years old and looked quite fit for that age. He was very cordial and talked to us as if we were his friends or neighbors who had stopped by for a chat. “What do you do in Hyderabad?” We told him about how we came to be in Mysore and of our future plans. That I was most likely going to US.  Told him how much I loved his books, especially “My Dateless Diary.” He spotted Aditya’s camera.  We told him of Aditya’s hobby (photography) and the places we saw on the previous day. “Would you mind posing for a photo or two?” “Not a problem,” he said!
We asked his assistant/friend who was there to take a photo of the 3 of us. Just as it looked like we should not be taking more of his time, I thought that I should get his autograph. I am not sure why I was carrying my final year engineering project report  – but at that moment that’s all I  could find for him to write me a short message – which he readily obliged.
Then he wished us well and we bid goodbye and left. It must have been no more than 10 minutes but we were thrilled that we could actually meet and talk to R.K.Narayan!  As we headed home, I was grinning from ear-to-ear!

That afternoon we left Mysore for Hyderabad via Bangalore.  Visiting Mysore and not seeing the Maharaja’s palace or the Chamundi Hill is like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower or visiting Agra and not seeing the Taj Mahal, but that is exactly what we did. But, I was extremely happy that I was able to meet RKN. The palace could always be visited later, I told myself. I bragged to anyone who would listen and care that I had met RK Narayan!  Some of my friends and relatives were impressed with my tenacity. Lot of others did not seem impressed or had not heard of him. After all, we are not talking of meeting Sridevi or Madhuri Dixit!!

In any case, these fond memories will last a lifetime (as evidenced by their longevity so far). Those were simple, innocent times. Today, I would not even drop-in on my neighbors without calling and making sure they are available and free to meet. Now, thinking back, I find my actions of invading his privacy absolutely unacceptable!! Imagine fans showing up at your house and disrupting your routine and life constantly! Thank God we did not get booted out like Sheldon and Penny did when they went to meet Sheldon’s idol Stan Lee (Marvel comic’s creator of Spiderman, Ironman etc)!!

Our Very Own Proof of Heaven?

If she were born in a different place and time, I could easily see her being a stand-up comedian (a la Phyllis Diller or Lucille Ball). I have not seen or known anyone of that generation wield humor, wit and sarcasm as well as she did. I  am talking about my Ammamma  – my maternal grandmother. She passed away last year after a year of battling cancer.

Undated photo

Hard knocks life!!

She was married off  at 12, to a 45 year old widower (his 3rd marriage)!  I guess this wasn’t much of a shocker back in 1932!!
My mom was born when Ammamma was 15 years old. Ammamma was pregnant with her 3rd child when her husband (my grandfather) died tragically of a snake  bite in the rice fields. My uncle was born 10 days after the funeral!! She was only 19!
She raised  the kids with help from her  extended family. She made  education a priority for her kids, especially my mom – which was unusual in those days (especially in rural India). She herself was literate enough to read and write Telugu and could do farming-related math quite well. Eventually, she took over the reins of the family and the farming. I’m not sure if she was mild and demure when she was young, but she turned out to be a very strong woman out of sheer necessity – because of circumstances. She had a commanding voice and a hot temper and could be harsh when needed. I have seen her in action and have seen grown men cower when dealing with her ferocity!

Undated photo

We lived in the village with her when I was around 2-3 years old, as mom was working in Guntur and dad was posted in Andaman/Nicobar islands. Because of this time as well as regular visits during summer vacations – we had special bonding and memories, as well as endless stories and anecdotes  that she remembers and narrates in vivid detail.
After my uncle’s untimely passing, she and my aunt lived and managed the household. Together they managed to raise 3 wonderful kids (my cousins) – who are very successful in their lives. About two years ago she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Except for the pain (which was managed), all her faculties were intact and her mind and wit were sharp till the end.

She was not too religious, nor was she an atheist. She did follow some gurus and babas occasionally – but not to the point of performing any bhajans or rituals etc. in other words she was no different than the average indian when it came to religion and belief. I remember that the veranda had framed pictures of : Meerabai with Krishna, Buddha, Gandhi and Jesus Christ.

“My Maternal Uncle, brother, I, Mom and Ammamma – ~1963

Vidya and I were lucky to have spent time with her last july. She had lost a lot of weight and was on pain killers. Her eyes glowed when she first saw us, then she  became teary and emotional for a few minutes, then immediately changed mood as if a switch was turned off. She started inquiring about all the great-grand kids and our vacation (we had just come from vacation in Thailand).  She insisted that we have our lunch. My aunt served us lunch and mentioned that Ammamma directed her to make specific items that were my favorites from when we used to visit the village during summer holidays. “Chinta chiguru  pacchadi & pappu” and fish.  We were there with her for less than a day, but we reminisced about my childhood days and summer vacation trips to the villages. All her faculties were in great shape, especially her memory. She would refer to specific incidents and laugh heartily.

“Remember when you and Annayya (brother) stole  fish from the fisherman near the lake..” (We were probably 7 and  8 years old. She knows that fisherman. They had a laugh about it later and she would threaten to turn us in for the next few years!!)

“How about when you and Annayya walked  halfway to the next village without telling anyone, and we panicked and organized a search party” (we were probably 7 and  8 and decided to explore on our own I guess!)

“Remember how you had spilt the milk which you were supposed to deliver to the dairy center, then came home and lied that the delivery went well..” (Again, everybody in the village knew her very well. So, the loop was closed quickly and my deceit was revealed!)

“What about the time when you fell  into the dirty creek when the water buffalo knocked you over..” (This provided for endless jokes and she would mimic my tantrums perfectly. She was excellent at  imitating others voices and mannerisms).

Of course, I remember all of these and more, very vividly.

After dinner, she made my cousin dig up an antique, portable manual spinning wheel (to make thread from raw cotton) that was actually in working order. She made my cousin demonstrate the mechanism for us, all the while giving specific instructions to him on its operations.  That was her unique style..
When we left next morning, we all got quite emotional, knowing fully well that this is the last that we would be seeing each other.  I maintained a brave facade as much as possible.  My aunt stuffed a roll of several hundred rupees into Vidya’s palm!! This is a tradition I am very familiar with. Whenever we left the village after vacation, Ammamma or Attha would give us cash as a  gift for us to buy whatever we wanted (or turn it in to the parents – which is what we always did!)

Village Library; Used to house the only radio for the entire village in 1960’s
Village Temple, with lake in the background

As the car left the village, through moistened eyes, I could see the palm and coconut trees the village was famous for, the temple and the small library (which is now being used as a place for collective tutoring for the school kids). The lake behind the temple and library  (from where we had stolen the fish – at  7 years of age!) still had some lotus flowers (I remember we used to pick these during our vacations). For us, the village would just not be the same, without her.

Back from beyond!!

After we got back to US, we kept getting updates on her condition, through my parents and also through Skype calls to my aunt and cousin. Her condition kept deteriorating and my aunt did yeoman service  to take care of her.
She was unable to eat anything and was given fluids (a few spoonfuls per day). My cousin from Pennsylvania left immediately  in order to be by her side.  Before he reached the village, one night , she was in such bad shape and unresponsive that they thought that she was gone. She was probably in a  coma for a day or two.  When my cousin got there, she was barely there, and was mumbling incoherently. She saw him through barely open eyes. He talked with her and mentioned the great-grand kids. Amazingly, within a day, she completely  turned around. After two days she was sitting up,  eating and conversing normally. Every one was amazed at this happy turn of events. In fact, my parents and aunt mentioned that she was even more energetic and talkative than before. She was inquiring about all the relatives, grand and great grand kids! For one so sick, she had an amazing amount of  energy. I guess this is what is known as “second wind”!

She told everyone that she saw some bright light and the “Yamadoothalu” (assistants to the Hindu God of death) taking her towards the door/light. Then she heard someone say that it was not her time and for her to go back!! People were awestruck. When my dad told me of this I could not believe my ears!!  A “Proof of Heaven/Near Death Experience/Out of Body Experience” in my own family!!   I had heard about these kind of experiences/stories, but was always skeptical about them, but now one of these in my own family.. wow.. unbelievable!!

I could not wait to talk to her. As soon as I could, I called up and talked first with my aunt and cousins. They said that she was in good spirits and gave the phone to her. She was ebullient and effervescent. She inquired about Uma and  my daughters and their studies. After 10 minutes of miscellaneous conversation, I could not contain myself – so I came right out and asked her.
“Ammamma,  I heard that you had mentioned about meeting Yamadoothalu and hearing a  voice that asked you to go back, since it was not your time yet. Can you tell me more?”
Here’s is what she said with a chuckle in her voice “I was just kidding” (“Oorikaylae .. Yegathaaliki”)!

My jaw dropped and stayed dropped for a what seemed like a long time!! The old lady just said the equivalent of “JK LOL”!!


A month later she passed away in her sleep. She was about 92 on September 22nd 2012 when she passed away!! (there were no birth certificates in 1920s rural India).  End of an era for our family as well as the village!!  Till the end,  she was quite a character! It turns out that she gave detailed funeral directions to a family friend in advance, including specific items to make for lunch!!

Late Mrs. Dasari Lakshmi Kanthamma

That Was 30 Years (and 30 Pounds) Ago!

The Sendoff

I clearly remember the sendoff at Begumpet airport. The entire extended family and close friends were there. The airport was packed. The ratio of the passengers to “family and friends” was at least 1 to 50!! A majority of the passengers were headed to the “gulf” – which was a popular euphemism for either Dubai or Jeddah. There were several passengers that were getting the royal sendoff in the form of rose garlands, bouquets and “Tilak” ceremonies. Several group photo sessions were happening with different permutations and combinations of guests with the passenger. I was glad that my folks did not go overboard with the sentimental sendoff ceremonies. As it is, I was nervous and overwhelmed with all the attention and anxious about the long journey ahead into the unknown!!

Where the heck is Iowa?!

In the final year of B.Tech at JNTU, I followed the trend that was set by some of the  seniors from JNTU,  of  taking TOEFL, GRE and then narrowing down a set of US and Canadian universities (from Peterson’s guide).  I had applied to Ohio State University, the University of Iowa, and Georgia Tech in the US, and  McGill University and Concordia University in Canada. The choice of these was mostly based on the fact that I had heard of seniors from JNTU going there. Of all of them, only the University of Iowa gave me an admission (but no scholarship or financial assistance!).  At that point I was still waiting for results from two interviews I had – one for Engineering Trainee job in HAL and the other for a Master’s degree in Engineering Management (or some such..) at IIT Madras.  Since I didn’t have any better option at that time, we felt it would be prudent to apply and get the Student Visa (from US Embassy in Madras). Getting a student visa was a big deal back then. I knew a lot of students that got rejected – for what seemed like the flimsiest excuses. The day I had my interview – more than 70% of the students got rejected.  So when the interviewer asked me to collect the Visa at the end of the day – I just could not believe my ears!!

I had come to a fork in the road (a 3 pronged fork, if you will) – grad school at IIT or HAL job or grad school in the US. By early July, the Engineering Management option was eliminated (by the IIT folks). I wasn’t too upset. “It’s their loss” I said to myself. Then we found out that the HAL job results would not be finalized till late September.  So that is how the decision to go to the US was made easy for me by others.

In a great hurry I had to get a loan and start collecting all the data I could about this trip to Iowa. Back then I didn’t have a very clear idea of Iowa’s geographical location with respect to other big cities such as Chicago or New York!! Because of the magic of the internet, today’s students or other first time visitors to the US from India would know every minute detail of this country – including which mall or department store would have good sales for a specific item!!


Today, no one believes me when I tell them that I had not even looked at a detailed map of Iowa to locate Iowa City (with reference to Chicago, for instance) – where the University of Iowa was located. You have to remember that this was before the Internet, cell phones or even PCs.  All I could gather was that Iowa was going to be brutally cold and everything in  the US would be very expensive. Just to give you all a perspective – back then, $1 = Rs 8!!  But then, you have to scale everything down to that time as well. We were a typical middle class family and my dad owned a Vespa scooter (for which he took a loan). No fridge or telephone in the house. We did finally break down and buy a black and white TV (after all the neighbors had graduated to the color TVs!!

I had found out about another student (Narayan) from Hyderabad (Osmania) who was going to the University of Iowa for the fall semester. I managed to track him down and we connected and planned our travels together. Again – I cannot believe how I managed to connect with this other individual in a big city without – cell phones, email, SMS, Facebook etc.!! I guess there was good old-fashioned networking alive and well even before all these high tech advances.

My dad had found out about a Nizam’s scholarship that is given to students going abroad for higher education. They pay for half of the airfare. I applied for this and had an interview (somewhere near Fateh Maidan). As luck would have it, I was selected for this scholarship. I was ecstatic!! Nizam’s trust had only one stipulation – I had to use Air India.  Absolutely not a problem for me!! In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed Air India flights and service. A one-way ticket to Chicago was Rs. 8800.0. Nizam’s Trust gave me Rs. 4400 which was a lot of money back then. So I was thrilled and grateful to receive the scholarship.

Flying on Air India meant that I would not be travelling with Narayan – who found a better deal with KLM. So, we decided that we would meet up in Chicago and then travel from there to Iowa City (somehow).

While I didn’t have a clear idea of where Iowa was, everyone else seemed to know a thing or two about the place!!  Pack some sweaters they said. Don’t forget spices, daal and tamarind they said. Also, some pots and pans – “ ‘cos you should not waste your dollars on these over there!!”   As the D-Day approached, word started getting around that I was headed to the “States”. Several of my parents’ friends (whose kids were already students in the US) stopped by to drop off packages to be taken by me. Packages filled will miscellaneous sweets, spices and pickles!! We had almost 5 kgs of these! On the last day – we were almost considering removing some of my items to make room for these packages! Finally we managed to shut the suitcases – only after I sat on them while my dad forced the latch shut!!

 One-Way Ticket to Yankee Land

It is not an exaggeration to say that throughout the several flights (Hyderabad to Bombay to New Delhi to Dubai to Cairo to London to NY), I was at the edge of my seat, wide eyed and marveling at every little detail. I was like a kid in a candy store!! I was excited to get a window seat and I paid attention to every word of the flight attendant’s safety instructions – on every single flight – in case there were going to be specific details about that particular flight. I just could not believe that “the seat cushion could be used as a flotation device in case of a water landing!!” I thoroughly enjoyed the “yummy airline food” (probably for the first and last time! 😊). I had non-stop animated conversations with those seated next to me. If they were annoyed – I did not notice. I was in no mood to notice!! This was the first time I was on a plane. This was the first time I had left home to be on my own. Throughout my schooling and college years – I lived with my parents. I had never even lived in a dorm/hostel. At almost 22 years of age I was stepping into the world as an independent adult (something that most kids do right after high school in the west). There were some Hindi movies shown on the first segment (from New Delhi to Dubai). I do clearly remember watching a couple of Hollywood movies – “An American in Paris” and “Singing in the Rain” on the long flight to New York. That was my first intro to Gene Kelly and his spectacular musicals.

Like most other Indians my exposure to America and American pop culture was mainly from the Hollywood movies and James Hadley Chase thrillers (found out much later that he was actually a British author who perfected the American Gangster genre).  Based on the number of airplane disaster movies that I watched – I should be perfectly at home in any airport and airplane. Also, based on all these movies, I was expecting to be welcomed by a blonde and a brunette at JFK airport to take me home. Yes, I said a “blonde AND a brunette”, ‘cos even in my fantasies I am a fair person. If you are thinking- “what about the redheads, blacks and Hispanics?”. I agree, and I blame Hollywood for not having enough of these folks represented in their movies, thereby depriving them of roles in my fantasies! 😊

I didn’t have problem with anyone’s accent in New York or Chicago. I give credit to all the Hollywood movies that we watched in Liberty, Skyline and Sangeet for preparing me for this day!! I am certain that the Americans had plenty of problems with my accent – based on all the “Eh” and “Say what?” that I heard quite a bit in the early years.  I do have to credit my favorite author R.K. Narayan for some of the advanced orientation that I got from reading his “My Dateless Diary” – which was his travelogue describing his first visit to the US. Even though it was slightly dated – the essence of his experiences described in the typical RKN style of simple narration laced with subtle humor did make a strong impression on me.

My first impression of New York was limited to that of JFK airport and the people I interacted there. I do remember the polite and smiling customs official who inquired about the packages that I had in my suitcases. “These are sweets only!!” I said with the typical Indian bobble head which indicated a hybrid between yes and no. I am sure he did not understand a word – so he took a pocket knife and cut a hole in the sweets box and then stuck a finger to make sure it wasn’t some sort of drug. Then he let me go. It would be at least a week before I would be oriented enough in this country to be able to pack this box of sweets up and mail to my parent’s friend’s kid.

Kindness of Strangers

On the flight from New York to Chicago, the kind American lady sitting next to me helped me with the descriptions of the food being served. I was surprised that she was able to relate the food in terms of common Indian food items. I believe that it was Angel Hair Pasta that she compared with “Saemiya upma.” She could probably sense that this was my first time in the US. During conversation I told her about my destination (Iowa) and my plans of going there on a bus after meeting up with my friend the next day at the Airport.

At Chicago’s O’Hare airport, after the luggage was collected, an Indian gentleman approached me and introduced himself as Narinder Suri. He was the husband of the white lady that was seated next to me. They along with their 7 year old son had just come back from vacation in India. Mr. Suri asked me about my plans. When I told them that I had planned to stay in the airport till next evening (for my friend’s flight to arrive), he graciously offered to take me home for the evening and then drop me back at the airport the next day.  After more than 24 hours of travel I was tired and exhausted and was thankful for their kind offer. At the same time I did not want to be a burden on them. They had just returned from a long vacation and the last thing they would want is to shuttle me around to the airport and bus depot the next day.  Mr. Suri insisted and convinced me that it was not a problem for them. So I happily agreed to go with them.

 After I left my suitcases in the locker (to be picked up the next day), Mr. Suri’s friend picked us up from the airport for the 20 minute ride to Schaumburg.  My first impressions of the American highway system and the nearly empty (by Indian standards), clean roads and all the greenery was from this trip to Schaumburg.

Finally we reached the ranch-type single family home of the Suris in the quiet suburb of Schaumburg. I helped them with the luggage as they began unpacking and picking up the piles of mail that had accumulated during their long vacation. Mrs. Suri gave me some clothes to change into and put my clothes in laundry.  In their comfortable guest room that night, I had a very restful sleep – on my first night in the USA.

The next morning was a beautiful sunny Saturday morning and my first weekend morning in the new country and everything was new – the buildings, surroundings and people. Yet, I did not feel uncomfortable at all because of my host’s friendliness and warmth. After breakfast and shower Mr. Suri had to go to a bank and took me along for the ride. I was so impressed by the open and clean suburbs shining in the bright sunny day. Mr. Suri gave me my first orientation on how banks work in the US, about ATM cards and even mentioned about “Money Market” accounts!!

Later that day I helped with some gardening work – weeding and clearing some brush. After an early dinner, I bid farewell to Mrs. Suri and their son. Then Mr. Suri gave me a ride back to O’Hare airport, where we had to pick up my luggage.  When we opened the locker, to our horror, we found that red oil had leaked from the mango pickle jars that my parents had packed for me!! This was a terrible mess, and Mr. Suri had helped me get some wipes from the restrooms and clean it up.

Then after figuring out that it would be impossible to connect with my friend at O’Hare, We decided that it would be better for me to proceed to the Greyhound bus station in downtown Chicago.  Mr. Suri then drove me to the bus station and got me settled on the bus to Iowa City with the entire luggage (including the leaky pickle jars lugged from halfway around the world!!) carefully loaded on.  There was no way that I could have managed all this by myself. I am thankful and forever indebted to the Suris for being so kind and taking care of me in all possible ways when I needed this the most. I then bid farewell to Mr. Suri and promised to send him a copy (cassette) of  “Call of the Valley” by Shiv Kumar Sharma and Hari Prasad Chourasia, which was my favorite music back then (Amazingly, it still is one of my all-time favorites). Just  as the bus was getting ready to leave, Narayan also managed to get there and hop in..

Final Destination: Hawkeye Country

The bus journey from downtown Chicago to Iowa City was just a blur – as both Narayan and I got hit by a severe case of jet-lag!! We woke up just as the bus pulled into the Greyhound Bus terminal in Iowa City.

It was Saturday evening around 10:00 pm. Iowa City is a small college town with a population of about 50 to 60 thousand, most of which are students and staff at the University. Everyone in town is directly or indirectly associated with the university. We left our suitcases in the locker at the bus terminal and started walking in search of Narayan’s friend Nirmal’s apartment. We were armed with his address and a phone number. After inquiring, we had to walk just 3-4 blocks before we were on Washington St. From the look of it, we could immediately tell that this was a “happening” place.  This was downtown Iowa City and the university buildings were right there in the downtown. If you are imagining downtowns with tall buildings and crowded streets – you would be mistaken. This was a typical university town (as I found out much later).  There were partying students everywhere—even at 10:30 pm!! This was the weekend before the fall semester would start – which, of course, is the perfect time for students to relax and have fun without the worry of projects, assignments, or exams.

As I stepped into this environment – I was the typical FOB (Fresh off the Boat) Indian (as I found out much later) – staring at everyone as if they were from another planet!! You’d have to forgive me – as I was the one who quite literally came from another planet/culture. I was not used to seeing college students wearing shorts and  tank tops. The loud partying of uninhibited students, induced by a liberal consumption of alcohol, on the streets  was a sight to see for us newcomers. It took a semester or so for me to gradually lose this desi bad habit of staring!!

We walked up and down Washington St. to try and locate 222 ½ E. Washington for what seemed like a long time. I thought we had some crazy addresses back in Hyderabad like 6/3/596/32-12B but 222 ½!!?? (BTW, I later on found out that this is an anomaly – and have not come across this sort of fractional addresses anywhere else in the US.

With my friend Ravi outside 222 1/2 Washington St. where I lived
With my friends (L-R) Ganesh, Nagesh, and Ravi (far right) outside 222 1/2 E. Washington Ave. where I lived in Iowa City

While walking around the throngs of students, in one of the plazas across from a Baskin Robbins, we ran into a group of Indian students. Based on their clothing and mannerisms – we could tell that they were not FOBs like us, but were seasoned veterans of at least a semester or two. We approached them to inquire about Nirmal. In that group of five, I could immediately recognize one of my classmates from 6th grade (in Kendriya Vidyalaya Golkonda, Hyderabad).  Wow!! What are the odds that I would run into Suresh  in Iowa City in 1983 after he left Hyderabad in 1972 or so!! Even more amazing was the fact that I could identify him after all these years!!  Everyone was amazed at the sheer improbability of this reunion!  After Suresh and I caught up on twelve years of our differing paths from Hyderabad to Iowa City, we explained to the group that we had just landed in Iowa City and that we were in search of Nirmal’s apartment. Unlike today, Iowa City was still just a small town back then and every Indian knew every other Indian. Of course they knew Nirmal and walked with us the short distance of two blocks to take us to his apartment.

That evening, after completing a full day in the US, I felt rested and relaxed among a group of newly formed circle of friends.  There was still long way to go before we moved to our own apartment and got comfortable with the school routine as well as bonding with friends – Indian and non-Indian.

In those early days and months, many strangers and some acquaintances (who became good friends and mentors) helped me with the transition from FOB to a confident desi in a foreign land. I am forever grateful for the support and generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Suri and Nirmal. Others who helped me a great deal in those early months are my friends Sandhya, VenkataRamana, Mukund and Jiji  as well as my professors and advisors Dr. Steve Collins and Dr. David Skorton. Thanks to the support and guidance of these individuals, I effortlessly assimilated  into American society in general and university life in particular. Also, because of them,  I  can honestly say that I never felt homesick in the new country even for a moment.

With my friend Kumar (left) in front of a motel we stayed at
(August 15, 1983) With my friend Kumar (left) in front of a motel in Iowa City where we briefly stayed


AT&T had a monopoly on all phone calls back in 1983.  International calls were very expensive (To call India it was – $2.95 for the first minute and $1.95 from the second minute on wards). I did a quick calculation of how many rupees would be depleted from my minuscule bank account, if I made a call to inform my parents that I arrived safely. So instead of calling, I just wrote them a nice long letter about all the details of my journey and all the wonderful people I met that made me feel comfortable in my newly adopted country. That letter reached my parents in Hyderabad after 3 weeks!! For these three weeks  my poor family had no idea what happened to their son, who had the grand sendoff at Begumpet Airport!! In today’s world of Skype, Facetime, email, SMS, and international phone calls for 1 cent/minute etc. – this is totally unimaginable. Right now, I am looking forward to the next 25-30 years—By then we will have equally unimaginable changes that will make Skype, Facetime etc. seem like Stone Age tools!!