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!!

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Monolithic Statue of Gomateshwara
 
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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.

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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.

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Beautiful, Intricate jewelry (carved in stone)! Extreme closeup view of my face included to provide a contrast!
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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.

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

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Self, R.K.Narayan and Aditya (2/3rds of us seem to be excited to be in the photo!)
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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.

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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!

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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.

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“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!)

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Village Library; Used to house the only radio for the entire village in 1960’s
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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”!!

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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!!

1982
1983

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

Epilogue

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!!