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!!

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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!!