Friday, December 15, 2017

The Pedant

Last weekend, my son announced, Appa I’m inviting a friend of mine home for dinner on Sunday. Could I please be a little less sarcastic and little more courteous, definitely not in that order? Also, Amma, can you make some adai avial and Vaangi Baath, he is a big fan of both of those. Left with no choice, I grumbled a yes. I looked up at the year calendar with a small photo of Lord Ganesha and big bold typeface inscribed name of Lakshmana Groceries, their way of rewarding frequent shoppers and prayed that this new avataram not be one of those new generation mobile savvy, startup dreamy, torn tank top and low waist jeans flaunting hombre who would attempt to make me put down the remains of my provident fund into his application which would deliver me coriander leaves at the click of a button in twenty two and half minutes, ninety seven point eight percent of the time. So help me God.

“How do you know him? Is he working? Is he an engineer? Where did he go to college? Sarkaar college il a private college il a? Which caste does he belong to?” unleashing the barrage of questions, I found myself panting at the end of the monologue, I had forgotten to breathe in the middle.

Jr. Me stared at me, with his jaws wide open. With a shake of his head, he thrust his earphones back in his ears and started waving his hands in the air. Whatever he was listening to, it wasn’t Subbulakshmi’s Suprabhatam, the pace did not quite match with the violent gyrations of his body. Shiva Shiva!

On explicit orders of Ms. Me, my soulmate of this lifetime, I picked up a cloth bag and set out in the direction of Lakshmana Groceries. Unfortunately, the raw materials for adai avial, Vaangi Baath and a bunch of culinary delights Ms. Me and Jr. Me were planning didn’t grow on the trees lining my street. Lakshmana Groceries was going to turn a profit this year too, courtesy my family.

The day of reckoning came sooner than I’d have wanted it to and I found myself extending my hand out to shake hands with Jr. Me’s friend. Jr and he sat down and talked about topics in the world ranging from latest X Box releases to upcoming Formula One Grand Prix and Spanish La Liga all the while munching the savories Ms. Me was constantly doling out from the kitchen. I was left to wonder whether these poster kids of posterity were indeed talking about happenings on Planet Earth or some equivalent in a parallel universe.

I was relieved when Ms. Me announced dinner services and in the short span of a few seconds, found myself sitting at the head of the dining table, with the self-illusion that I was back in control.  I decided to strategically preempt the discussion in areas I considered myself to be pedantic and asked, “So do you follow state and national news?”

“Of course, I do!”

Eager to find a weak spot, I asked, “Are you aware of the recent skirmishes on the India Pakistan border?”

That, in hindsight, was the sentence I should not have uttered. I should have let the evening play out by itself, Jr would have handled it adeptly but I was keen to show who was the master in the house. Mistake. Big mistake.

It was as if someone turbo charged Jr’s friend. He launched into a tirade against the atrocities committed by Pakistan. He then proposed to blame Pakistan for all the ongoing problems in the world. Looking back I have no recollection of how he changed gears but his diatribe expanded and covered everything from Islamic State and Israel Palestine conflict to Chinese influences on North Korea and American imperialist aspirations in South East Asia. It was as if he had the solution to all the problems in the world, unfortunate part was that no one had thought to put him in charge! Thankfully, before the topics could expand any further, adai avial ran out. I used that as my opportunity to run to the wash basin. Golly, I needed a break! It was like I was listening to a speech in Klingon.

Finally, after a few more minutes, it was goodbye time. It couldn’t have come any sooner. As we all gathered at the door to see him off, he suddenly remembered something.

“Oh I forgot. My ammi had asked me to get a 10-kilo packet of idli rice from a grocery store on my way back. I only have Rs. 200 with me. Uncle, aunty, would you know how much a kilo might cost, so that I could decide if I need to stop at an ATM before purchasing?”

Saturday, December 9, 2017


As a kid, ambulances always fascinated me. I surmise that was because of the lights and siren sounds they had, the way they were treated when on the road where other vehicles would make way for its passage. I caught on the fascination at an age where I was too little to think of why ambulances had those lights and sirens, why they got priority on the road. I probably came to know that at a later age. But the fascination stuck, even though I assimilated the purpose of the urgency. My mother used to tell me that whenever they took me to a toy shop, ambulance fire engine toy replicas were inevitably my first choice. Strange things to like when I look back. But you have to understand, back then not everything was wrapped around societal etiquette. When you are that age, you can love anything and hate anything, neither of which would seem logical. That is the way it is.

I had wanted to sit in the back of the ambulance as it began its somber sojourn from the airport. But it wasn’t possible, I was to show them the way.

Me and Jai were of the same age. We had studies in the same school till plus two. I wouldn’t categorize us as best buddies. Yes, I was friends with Jai but we didn’t belong in the same circle. While both of us did not bring home any academic laurels in our periodic report cards, I was a notorious member of the village naughty children gangs while Jai was someone who was more of a silent type. I was considered by the elder folk as somewhat of a headache, my presence in most cases was a precursor of some mischievous activity in the near future. On the other hand, Jai was a different breed. He was silent and pleasant and was generally friends with most children in the area. There were circumstances when he had come to our rescue. Like in the case when five of us stole toddy from Chandran’s toddy shop and were caught in the act of consuming it, Jai pleaded with Chandran to let us off the hook, vouching for us that we would never steal from anyone. Or when I gave a love letter to carpenter Raman’s daughter when we were in tenth grade and it unsurprisingly came in the know of Raman, Jai talked to Raman to cool things down. And so on went the stories.

As I mentioned, Jai and I were friends, not the thickest of buddies but friends nonetheless. Things took a turn for the better when we were in plus two. Both of us did not know what to do for future. Our academic records did not hold much promise that we could get an admission for any professional degree course and we had started thinking about what to do next. It was Jai who broached the idea of joining the army. The more he talked about it, the more I was convinced that army was a good prospect. There were no army men from our village, so it would help get an image makeover, to get us respected in the village. An additional incentive at least for me was the booze on offer. Army, I had heard, was quite generous in serving up booze to its rank and file and that certainly was a swing factor in my decision. Not to mention all the pluses and perks of a government job.

And so, a handful of us prepared for the Army recruitment. Three of us managed to clear the physicals and get offers from the army when they came for recruitment in the state. As luck would have it, me and Jai got posted to the same battalion. It was certainly good to have a known face to bank upon - the training period was tough and sapping and we depended a lot on each other to get through that. And that it when the bond of friendship between me and Jai was strengthened. Being of the same battalion, we got our postings together. We were posted in different parts of the country and the two eggheads from a remote corner of India got to see the soul and essence of the length and breadth of India. We also developed a pattern when taking our annual vacations - we tried to space them up so that one of us would be home every half year or so. That way, even though we went home only once every 12 to 18 months, from our village perspective, any one of us would be home every 6 to 8 months.

Time passed, as it always does. Both of us married, had kids. When I would go home for my vacations, along with all the luggage for me and my family, it was an unwritten rule to carry one box full of stuff for Jai’s wife and daughter. And vice versa when he went home for his vacations. And when everything was going well, came the war. Historians of futurity may judge it with a different set of views but for us as soldiers, we were taught to obey orders coming from higher up, not question them. Our regiment, as was the case with a lot of regiments, was sent to the international border. Our battalion was posted at the front-line - we were the first line of defence for India. When you are in a war, your psyche is very different from what you experience during peacetime. The adrenaline levels are pumped up and you need that to cope up with the death and destruction you see happening in front of you. You know that you and your colleagues are responsible for creating that havoc directly or indirectly and you need to convince yourself that you are doing the right thing.

And that is when it happened. The eighteenth day of our deployment on the international border. That is when a shell fired from the enemy forces hit one of our front-line command posts manned by Jai and another colleague. Death was instant, I later came to know. I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard the news. Yes, we are soldiers and we are “used to” seeing a colleague waving hello at us one day and coming back inside a body bag the next. No matter how trained you are, no matter how much of the army psyche you have assimilated, you cannot quite get “used to” some things. 


The body of Jai lie wrapped in a white cloth in the back compartment of the ambulance. As I directed the driver to make the final turn into the road which led to Jai’s house, I could see the crowd afar that had gathered around the compound of Jai’s house.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

An American Conundrum

I’m a citizen of India, residing and working in the United States of America. With the recent American presidential elections and the spate of rhetoric around visas and immigration, a lot of immigrants who are in this country, are quite anxious and concerned. Rightfully so. And I find a high volume of literature on the Indian media about the immigration news coming out of America on a regular basis, and often see the jargon spiral quite out of tone of reality and end up in places closer to sensationalism.

The intent of this piece is not to go into detail about how right or wrong the new President’s immigration policies are, but to more pen down a very biased approach in India and how India views the system here. While I personally have my reservations on some of the recent changes in immigration policies starting to be enforced in United States, I still hate to point out that even despite that, even if America implements all the policies that the President talks about, it will still admit more immigrants into the country than India does. Officially, at least.

Let’s face it folks, we are a highly immigrant unfriendly nation. While a lot can be said about the richness our culture and civilization, we cannot claim to be a nation that has been friendly to immigrants. In fact, we have often had strong anti-immigration stances. We’ve had cases of vandalism and protests when a state accused people from other states, which are a part of the same union and salute the same flag, of coming into the former and “taking away” jobs. Sure, we have had our high points, like the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 during and after which India absorbed a lot of people fleeing from war and persecution. Another example would be India’s resettlement of Sri Lankan Tamils during some of the bloodiest fighting between Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Sri Lankan armed forces. But I’d argue that was more borne out of an anti-Pakistan or pro-Tamil sentiment, a sentiment of “them and us being from a common background or race”, rather than a genuine desire to help refugees.

The recent spate of refugees from war torn regions in Iraq and Syria is probably the biggest case in point. The world was truly facing a refugee crises. Western European nations and some other countries like United States, Canada, Australia and Brazil to name a few did choose to accept people fleeing war from these countries. While you and I can agree or disagree on whether everyone was “fair” and took in a “fair share”, what is indisputable is that these nations actually took in people. Tried, even if halfheartedly, to help them get settled into their countries. And where was India in all these global efforts? Zilch. Our silence and inaction was loud and clear.

There has probably never been a period more tumultuous and non-peaceful in history than the present times. The world has faced crises, the world will continue to do so and weather them. India has had her chance, but we have not helped (In all fairness, India has a point to argue that she didn’t do anything to precipitate a lot of these crises in any way. And I’ll grant her that!). The world has never looked up to India in such situations, and India has never responded like befitting a large, democratic and free nation.  We have rarely shown the resolve to accept and integrate refugees or immigrants into our society, and we probably never will. And in such a circumstance, it is unfair to stand on top of Gateway of India and shout across to the Lady Liberty complaining about her immigration policies.