Gone Too Soon…

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

Open House @ Pratap Mahal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quizzing Times

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

Bindaas

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

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Four Turbaned Ravis at Ramya’s wedding

Torrent of Memories

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

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

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

“Who OR what, is OR was?”

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

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

“Who is Lot’s wife?”

“What is Mahayana?”

“What is Hejira”

“Who is Odin?”

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

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

 

Nothing Trivial about this Pursuit

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

“What is Karen Lunel famous for?”

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

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

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

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

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

Bala the wunderkind

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

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

 

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Certified!!

Our own Quiz club?

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

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Sure.. This could happen!

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

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

 

 

My Career Backup Plan

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

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Zam Zam Cafe

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

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Entrance to Public Gardens

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

Summer of ’72

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

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

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

Tabla lessons – the sequel!

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

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

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

This isn’t over yet!

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

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

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!!