The story of my generation of Indian American immigrants is a blessed one.
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The story of my generation of Indian American immigrants is a blessed one.
Like swallows flying south in winter, we fly to India as the year end approaches. Each year for the past three years, we’ve marked the end of one year and the start of another this way. If we mark this phase as India, the grandparents mark this time of the year as Maya.
We book the tickets well in advance, usually by June or July. The time can’t seem to pass fast enough and then we’re on the plane, filled with equal parts of thrill and dread. The dread is mostly about how Maya will fare during the long flight and how we’ll cope if she gets unhappy. The first year we went with Maya, she was not even one and I was a tad apprehensive about how she would react to the air and the not-so-sterile environment of the land of her parents (she did fine). Traveling with infants in their first year is the easiest, we heard parents say. They’re too small and will sleep most of the time. The second isn’t too bad, but the third and fourth are the worst, the kids seized by the restlessness of their age and the long time in cramped quarters making for a parentally lethal mid-air combination.
After my mostly successful flight and first week with Maya last year, I dreaded this year’s travel even less. I figured that with her age, she had better ability to reason and understand the situation than before. We started prepping her in advance, telling her that she couldn’t get upset on the plane, that the stewards and stewardesses on the plane would get upset with her and we couldn’t travel any more after that, that she had to listen to her pop during the flight. For all that, she’d be rewarded with good times with grandparents, our friends’ kids and magical India. She nodded and started chanting this mantra every time she saw a plane.
I travel alone with Maya a week before Shanthala joins us and the lack of a backup adds to my concern. My difficulties would begin once we landed. I knew that I had to synchronize my jet lag with hers, sleep when she did and be awake when she was. The first week is also when the long flight with recirculated air and lack of sleep leaves us more vulnerable to upper respiratory infections and gives cause for our stomachs to be upset with us. The first year, Maya puked a few hours after we landed, throwing up everything she had consumed during the past 24 hours or so. Shanthala’s mom put it down to stomach distension due to the long flight. This year, I was more worried about how to keep her occupied. There are no cousins she interacts with, no children near my parents’ house that we know. Here in the US, she goes to a park practically everyday leaving us with only a few hours of dark to keep her occupied. In India, there are no parks for her to play in near my parents house. The two parks nearby are closed during the day and the playgrounds are in a sad state of repair. I only worried about that first week, for after that, the ever-practical Shanthala would be there to help. Also, Maya clings more ferociously to me during that first week, when the foreignness of her ancestral lands and jet lag confound her.
For every such part of dread, I’m filled with equal parts of thrill. Bangalore has always held a special place in my mind. From my childhood days, my mind would fill with anticipation of new toys, watching the latest English movies (for years I watched the newest adventures of James Bond in Bangalore) and eating at fantastic restautants. And now, my mind is excited with thoughts of good food and good times, and the excitement over new toys has yielded to an eagerness to visit the book stores (Strand, Blossom, Gangarams and more). Walking down the MG Road promenade always made me feel grand, like a kid in a toy store, even though so many things have changed there. My mouth watered at the prospect of eating the excellent Dosas and other South Indian delicacies at select restaurants. While the Bay Area has a surfeit of Indian eateries, none can do justice to the South Indian eats, especially the quality of Dosa, Sambar and Chutney that I’m used to at Bangalore. Even the most mediocre of restaurants in Bangalore produced better South Indian fare than what we get in the Bay Area. I wanted to drink Sugar Cane jiuce, coconut water. I hallucinated on the quality of the Indian desserts that I would be able to feast on, my sweet tongue lolling in anticipation. And the thrill of seeing family and some of our closest friends, of nights spent talking about everything and anything.
At a friends’ place here in the US where there are twin girls about 10 years of age and a boy of seven, Maya has a glorious time. She vanishes with the kids once we arrive, leaving me time to chat with the adults. I thought that she’d be the same with our friends’ kids. One of them emailed me regularly about eagerly she was waiting to play with Maya. The last two times, she hadn’t bonded too well with all the grandparents. With her being almost three, I thought that this would fare better too. So, overall I predicted that this trip would be even better than the previous two that we had taken with her.
So, what could possibly go wrong ?
An Irish Perspective On The Journey
Our winter escapade to India is not unusual among Indians, at least amongst those without children or their school-going variety. I think Indians of my generation and socio-economic class are blessed amongst the immigrants. We were welcomed with mostly open arms in the US, provided an excellent path to make this place our permanent home and respected in the community because we were in the computer industry. Unlike immigrants of the past who landed here and started at the bottom of the unskilled job market, we arrived as skilled immigrants, starting fairly high in the socio-economic totem pole and usually heading upwards that ladder. We arrive in a place that has a surfeit of Indian restaurants and Indian grocery stores. Movie halls play the latest Bollywood flick, Holi and Deepavali are major organized events in several places nearby and we even have a choice of temples (for the observing Hindus) to visit. That is not to say we don’t have our share of existential angst, but compared to other immigrants, past and current, we’re fortunate in a myriad ways.
The striking contrast between us and other immigrants of the past is brought home every time I hear the Irish ditty, “Kilkelly, Ireland“. The Irish fled their homeland in droves, somewhere between 1 and 1.5 million leaving during the worst period of the infamous Irish Potato Famine, between 1845 to 1855. Unlike the independent India we came from, they were still subjugated by the monarchy in Britain at that time, with the Irish famine probably analogous to the horrific Bengal famines. They set sail, usually from the harbour of Cobh, on a journey mostly to North America, that took 45 days or more and cost anywhere between 55 shillings and 5 pounds. The cramped, insanitary conditions killed so many people, that these ships carrying Irish immigrants were dubbed “coffin shps”. One description of the conditions on board such ships reads:
“Hundreds of poor people, men, women and children of all ages huddled together without light, without air, wallowing in filth and breathing a fetid atmosphere, sick in body, dispirited in heart; the fevered patients lying beside the sound, by their agonised ravings disturbing those around. The food is generally ill-selected and seldom sufficiently cooked in consequences of the insufficiency and bad construction of the cooking places. The supply of water, hardly enough for cooking and drinking, does not allow for washing. No moral restraint is attempted; the voice of prayer is never heard; drunkenness, with all its consequent train of ruffianly debasement, is not discouraged because it is found profitable by the captain who traffics in grog [watered-down Rum] “.
“Kilkelly, Ireland” one of the most moving songs I’ve heard, captures the longing for the absent faces in the form of letters sent by a father, living in Kilkelly, to his son who has immigrated to the US. Each stanza of the 5 stanza song marks ten years. The song, written by the Americans Steven and Peter Jones, is based on the letters sent by their great-great-grandfather Bryan Hunt to their great-grandfather Bryan Hunt.
Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 60, my dear and loving son John Your good friend the schoolmaster Pat McNamara's so good as to write these words down. Your brothers have all gone to find work in England, the house is so empty and sad The crop of potatoes is sorely infected, a third to a half of them bad. And your sister Brigid and Patrick O'Donnell are going to be married in June. Your mother says not to work on the railroad and be sure to come on home soon. Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 70, dear and loving son John Hello to your Mrs and to your 4 children, may they grow healthy and strong. Michael has got in a wee bit of trouble, I guess that he never will learn. Because of the dampness there's no turf to speak of and now we have nothing to burn. And Brigid is happy, you named a child for her and now she's got six of her own. You say you found work, but you don't say what kind or when you will be coming home. Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 80, dear Michael and John, my sons I'm sorry to give you the very sad news that your dear old mother has gone. We buried her down at the church in Kilkelly, your brothers and Brigid were there. You don't have to worry, she died very quickly, remember her in your prayers. And it's so good to hear that Michael's returning, with money he's sure to buy land For the crop has been poor and the people are selling at any price that they can. Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 90, my dear and loving son John I guess that I must be close on to eighty, it's thirty years since you're gone. Because of all of the money you send me, I'm still living out on my own. Michael has built himself a fine house and Brigid's daughters have grown. Thank you for sending your family picture, they're lovely young women and men. You say that you might even come for a visit, what joy to see you again. Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 92, my dear brother John I'm sorry that I didn't write sooner to tell you that father passed on. He was living with Brigid, she says he was cheerful and healthy right down to the end. Ah, you should have seen him play with the grandchildren of Pat McNamara, your friend. And we buried him alongside of mother, down at the Kilkelly churchyard. He was a strong and a feisty old man, considering his life was so hard. And it's funny the way he kept talking about you, he called for you in the end. Oh, why don't you think about coming to visit, we'd all love to see you again.
The money sent home, a family taking root so far away, a family seen only in one or two probably blurry photographs and the longing, oh! the longing, expressed with such eloquence in just “what joy to see you again”, does violence to my heart each time I listen to the song. I hear my father’s voice when I read the lines: “You say you found work, but you don’t say what kind”. He always wants to know more about my job than I find the patience to explain.
Now you see why I think we’re blessed. With cheap telephone and the advent of video chats, families separated by many oceans can still see each other and a journey is not just affordable, but far more comfortable and short.
Back To Our Adventure
So, what could go wrong ?
The first shoe dropped two weeks before we were to leave, Shanthala’s backup was diagnosed with cancer. So, she had to cancel her trip. I pondered for an instant if I should cancel the trip too, but coupled with my fantasies of Maya playing with older kids here and my desire to not rob this time from the grandparents, I decided to journey alone with Maya. I secretly realized that I may have to give up visiting any bookstore. I like to spend an hour or so at each store and I knew that wasn’t possible with Maya in tow. She’d probably be patient for about 15-20 minutes. But I hadn’t given up hope completely.
The second shoe dropped a few days after that when my parents informed me that they had moved houses, from their current location in a fairly central part of the city to a remote hamlet, far from the city. Their move took me by complete surprise. It is considered a rural area, my father said, so the landline is a via something the local telephone company calls wireless local loop. Do you have any Internet connection, I asked. We have something, he said and my heart sank. Go to a place where there is not even an Internet connection ? That was so last century, I thought.
From Bangalore Airport, it took about 2.5-3 hours to travel to my parents’ new place. Not wanting to risk traveling in the middle of the night to a place I hadn’t even seen, I scrambled to make arrangements to stay with a friend immediately after we landed. How was I going to meet my friends and relatives ? I flinched at the thought of sitting for a couple of hours each way in the car with Maya. Travelling in a car in Bangalore’s congested roads was like chinese water torture, who knew when the car would stall ? What about eating at all those places that I had been fantasizing ? Could I even walk down M.G. Road ?
With a steely heart and iron resolve (which I hoped wouldn’t rust), I boarded the plane with Maya. The only one facing the whole thing as a real adventure was Maya.
September doesn’t just herald the coming change of season. For me and several others around the world, every two years, it heralds the release of a new Mark Knopfler album. Get Lucky, his seventh solo album (including his duet with Emmylou Harris) was released a few weeks back, with just about as much fanfare as his previous releases; that is, almost none. An email about pre-concert ticket sales for a concert next April was how I came to know of this album.
Though the album was to be released only on September 14th (15th in the US), I got lucky and found out that my Rhapsody music subscription service allowed me to listen to the entire album a full week before the release. That alone justified the monthly subscription that I pay for Rhapsody. Coupled with Roku Soundbridge 1001, I listened to the entire album on my hi-fi system.
Compared to his previous album, Kill To Get Crimson, Get Lucky is a more modest effort, a notch or two below his best, especially in song writing, which has become his primary focus.
Across eleven tracks and 52 minutes, Knopfler uses flute, whistle, accordion and strings to produce a sound that is a throwback to the soundtracks of Local Hero and Cal. It is a september record: a few upbeat sunny songs but mostly quiet, midtempo tracks, tracks composed with a knowledge of the coming cold, austere times.
Three tracks stood out immediately. Hard Shoulder, the second song in the album, is a heartbreaking song about an unexpected loss. In a style that he employed on Hill Farmer Blues from The Ragpicker’s Dream, he starts with a workman listing out the things he has, the tools of his trade and then quietly slips in the real subject.
I’ve got latches for windows, handles for doors,
Grinders and scrapers and sanders for floors,
Rake for the gravel, chains for the snow,
Always got the shovel – you never know
I never thought you’d go
A workman, has stopped on the shoulder of a road, trying to recover from the loss. And with beautiful wordplay, he mixes the shoulder of the road with the need for a shoulder to cry on.
A few years back, we were having some repairs done on the house. The workman called to say the morning of the repairs that he had had a family emergency and that he couldn’t make it that day. I’ll call later and reschedule, he said. I was a little miffed (I had to shuffle my schedules so that I could be home when he showed up), but didn’t think much more. He called back a few days later and we rescheduled for him to come a week later.
He was an immigrant, like me, but eking out his existence in a much harder way than I ever had to. As he was doing his work, I remembered his family emergency and asked him if everything was alright. I remember how he looked at me, his clear blue eyes shattering as he said, “My daughter died last week. She was six years old. She had a fever that led to complications she never recovered from. That morning I was to come to your house, we had to rush her to the hospital”. I held him as he cried a little. I thought about my getting a little ruffled over his rescheduling. How little we know of the lives we call upon to care for our needs. Listening to Hard Shoulder reminded me of that man.
In true Knopfler fashion, the loss is never spelled out. A first reading made me think that it was about a lover leaving. But subsequent readings made me revise that opinion: this could be about any loss.
The second stand out track was the gentle waltz, Monteleone. The song is about John Monteleone, who Knopfler calls the world’s greatest living builder of the arch top guitar. The song is about his working of the wood to produce a beautiful musical instrument. I love the line “the chisels are calling”:
The chisels are calling
Its time to make sawdust
Steely reminders of things left to do
Monteleone, a mandolin’s waiting for you
The final standout track is also, in my opinion, the finest on the record, So Far From the Clyde. The song is about a ship taken to a breaker yard, some desolate beach in some impoverished part of India. I felt my insides rip as he sings about the ship as it is first shattered by riding it hard into the ground and then hacked and sawed off “’til there’s only a stain in the sand”. The ship comes alive, becomes a living thing. In one beautiful stanza, he sings:
As if to a wave
from her bows to her rudder
bravely she rises
to meet with the land
Under their feet
they all feel her keel shudder
A shallow sea washes their hands
I love the way he mixes in the metaphor of Pilate’s washing off his hands at the judgement of Jesus to the actions of the people involved in the tearing down of the ship.
Again, the song at one level, can be treated as merely the story of a ship, or it can be treated as an elegy to the end of a way of life. The song reminded me of an article that I had just read on NYT, about the lonely, wretched existence of many elderly immigrants in this country. The lead anecdote was about a Sikh father, living in the not far-off East Bay town of Fremont. Many of these immigrants had been cast aside by their children after being brought to this country. Now far from their social network, their ways of knowing and being, a stranger in a strange land, they seek solace in the company of fellow immigrants in similar positions and return to their rented places to die lonely deaths. Not unlike a ship that sailed proud and free for many years but taken at its end to a strange place. From the article:
Mr. Singh, the widower, grew up in a boisterous Indian household with 14 family members. In Fremont, he moved in with his son’s family and devoted himself to his grandchildren, picking them up from school and ferrying them to soccer practice. Then his son and daughter-in-law decided “they wanted their privacy,” said Mr. Singh, an undertone of sadness in his voice. He reluctantly concluded he should move out.
So when he leaves the Hub, dead leaves swirling around its fake cobblestones, Mr. Singh drives to the rented room in a house he found on Craigslist. His could be a dorm room, except for the arthritis heat wraps packed neatly in plastic bins.
The album is unusual in that it comes with some liner notes by Knopfler, a man known for his understated, taciturn persona. Knopfler writes that this album was a personal one more than usual. His uncle, dead at the age of 20 in WWII, is the piper in “Piper to the End”, his father makes an cameo on “Before Gas and TV” and his own childhood and adolescent life is the fabric from which songs such as Border Reiver and Get Lucky are sown. But I found his songwriting on most of the songs not upto his usual exemplary standard.
Maya likes the three songs that I mentioned as well as the title track and Border Reiver. Especially, Monteleone which is one of her staple goodnight songs now.
There’s so little new music that soothes me. Don’t get me wrong. I continue to find new music that I enjoy, new styles and new artists. But novelty isn’t all that it’s cut out to be. Homecoming is not about novelty, but it is among the most emotionally complex and satisfying experiences. Listening to Knopfler is like a homecoming to me. Not all homecomings are as good and satisfying. But we go home anyways. And so, I’ll listen to this album.
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Returning home from work two weeks back, a little earlier than expected, she decided to stop by a baby store. Maya needed some sundry items. As she drove home from the store, down the road that housed the local public library, standing at one of the street corners was a guy selling strawberries. During this time of the year, I’ve often seen Hispanics selling strawberries on some residential street corners. I’ve often wondered who they are. Daily farm workers or farmers themselves ? People with relatives in the farming industry trying to eke out an existence ? We’ve never bought anything from them because we get all our fruits from the local farmer’s market and we’re not big fans of strawberry. But Shanthala spied that this guy had something more than strawberries. She eyes were drawn by a flash of orange color, though the fruit was not shaped like an orange. The corner had a STOP sign and so she used the opportunity to pause. He was selling mangoes.
Summers in India are indelibly linked with the mango. The hot, sweaty days made sweet with the succulent and aromatic fruit. From about March till about the end of May, mangoes are very much the craze. Even for a household like mine where fruits were never in much demand, mangoes were the exception. I remember my father bringing in a crate or two of the most loved mango variety, Alphonso, each layer of mangoes separated from the next with hay. My mother would sift through them, picking out the ripest and those almost ready to spoil to be eaten first. The sweet aroma of mangoes permeated the house.
In season, the mango finds its way into so many foods. “Aam ras”, a thick paste of mango pulp that is sometimes sweetened with jaggery or sugar and eaten with hot pooris or chapati. My mother would make mango rice made from slightly unripe mangoes. There is even a popular mango-based soft drink, Maaza. When I had tonsillectomy, unable to eat any regular food, I had stayed on a diet of ice cream and Maaza. The painful experience was enough to turn me off from Maaza for the rest of my life. In the US, mango lassi is a perennial favorite. Available only in summer, people take to mango pickles and mango chutney to get through the rest of the year. Maharashtrians and Goans make a spice, amchur, made from dried unripe mangoes, that is added to various dishes such as dal. Shanthala like many others, also enjoyed eating a slightly unripe mango mixed with chilli powder. Besides the fruit, mango leaves adorn the doorways of Hindu houses during religious festivals or on propitious occasions such as a marriage.
Indigenous to the Indian subcontinent, mango belies its roots in being a difficult fruit to tame with a fork and a knife. As you suck the very marrow around the core seed, juices drip down your arms. Eating a mango with your hands is the only way to get a full measure of the fruit. I was raised to eat with a spoon, never cultivating the Indian habit of eating with my hands. When I had to mix pickles or chutney powder with rice and ghee, I turned to my mother to help me mix the combo, a spoon hardly upto the task of mixing the ingredients well. My mother sliced the two sides of the mango providing an easily scoopable cross-section of the fruit. But the heart of the fruit lay inaccessible. I never knew what my mother did with the core of the fruit. Did she eat it ? Did she throw it away ?
Our first mango season together after our marriage was in Mumbai where Shanthala pursued her residency and I was chased by my demons, trying to quell the voices that said that abandoning higher studies in the US for a job in a small company in Mumbai foretold the end of my computing life. The evening we got our first batch of mangoes home, she watched in amazement as I sliced the mango the way I had seen my mom do. I finished eating the scoops and not having known what my mom did with the rest of the fruit, I dumped it in the trashcan. Shanthala had a apoplexy. “You won’t eat any more mangoes, not if I can help it, how can you waste so much”, she said, snatching the box of mangoes out of my reach. Taken aback, I suggested that she could eat the middle if she liked, but I would not sully my hands.
Shanthala grew up in many ways that seem more Indian than my own upbringing. Nothing exemplified it more than how she ate mangoes as a kid. Her parents would take off her dress (as well as her brother’s), seat them in their underclothes, put a plate in front of them, cut the top off the mango and offer the whole fruit to them. They’d suck on the fruit, peeling off the thin, easily removed skin as they devoured the fruit, their arms coated with the juices from the succulent fruit. They’d lick the juices off their arms. After they were done, they would wash up and get dressed. When time was limited, her parents would slice the fruit into thin slices for devouring. Another friend of ours remembers eating mangoes in a similar fashion. Here is a description from an article in New York Times:
“She first holds out a cupped hand, in which sits the imaginary
glistening orange oval of a whole peeled mango; she then deftly flicks
her hand at the wrist to propel the phantom mango against her mouth,
which gets busy sucking the flesh down to the seed; finally,
outrageously, she deploys the full length of her tongue to lick her
arm, elbow to wrist, to recapture an inevitable trickle of invisible
“That,” she says after a long moment’s rapture with
a fruit that’s not even there, “is the best bit.” She goes on to
speculate that there is something alchemical in the mingling of
sweetest mango juice with a salty sheen of sweat.”
For Shanthala, mangoes smell of home, a home she misses all the more after Maya’s birth. When we came to the US together in March 1996, she left home at the start of the mango season. With another friend of ours, as fanatic about mangoes, she searched for mangoes in Indian grocery stores without much success. Mangoes here are imported from Mexico and other Central American nations and lack the aroma, flavor and juice of what she had left behind. That they were expensive made the fruit even less palatable. They tried various stores and even tried tinned mangoes. At Thai restaurants, sweet sticky rice with mangoes is a staple dessert. We ate the sticky rice casting the mango, tasteless or sour, aside. Each year, Shanthala lamented the lack of mangoes.
US banned Indian mangoes starting in the 80s over fears that Indian farmers used harmful pesticides on the crop. Japan had imposed a similar ban. About the only thing that Shanthala will cheer about our ex-president, Dubya, is that he lifted the ban on Indian mangoes in the US (in return, the Indian government offered to open the Indian market to the Harley-Davidson bikes). The largest producer of mangoes in the world, India produces upto 50% of the world’s mangoes. On April 27, 2007, the first batch of Indian mangoes arrived in the US after a hiatus of 18 years, made up of 150 boxes of the famous Alphonso and Kesari varieties.
A few weeks back, we encountered a stall at the farmer’s market selling a few mangoes. Though pricey (each fruit cost $2 or $3), they were delicious. Unfortunately, they were exhausted in a couple of weeks. Shanthala’s mango urge, latent all these years, had begun to itch and had not yet been satisfyingly scratched.
So, when Shanthala spied the fruit being hawked by a street vendor, she decided to give them a try. She bought a box of about 20 mangoes for about $13, a steal. Unaware of her find, I came home from work and as we headed out for dinner, Shanthala said, “Can we swing by the library for a second ?”. Always a sucker to be at the library, I agreed. She explained what had happened on the way. We weren’t going to the library, but only upto the corner. Shanthala had sampled the mangoes, found them to be excellent, remembered the guy had one more box and so she wanted to pick that up, hoping no one else would have already snapped it up.
He still had the box. Thirteen more dollars were coughed up for about 25 mangoes and we left with a big smile on Shanthala’s face. Shanthala wanted to know if he had more mangoes and if he would be back. He spoke no English and we No Habla Espanol. We called Maya’s nanny to provide us with the appropriate words, but she didn’t pick up the phone. Shanthala and I continued to gesticulate, trying to get our question across. “I don’t want to lose this opportunity to get such good mangoes”, Shanthala kept saying. The guy finally understood what we were trying to say and said that he was all out of mangoes.
That night, I decided to give them a shot. I finished five of them in a row. Maybe not in the same class as an Alphonso, but these were still excellent: juicy, sweet and aromatic, just like we remembered mangoes. I made my favorite mango drink with milk a couple of times and have otherwise been devouring them along with Shanthala. I have since learned to use my hands to get all the meat off the fruit.
A week ago, Shanthala ran into another streetside vendor selling mangoes and she lightened his load of two boxes of mango. These are excellent too. Maya ate the fruit the first few times we bought the fruit. Since then however, she’s steadfastly refused to eat it, though she continues to eat other fruits such as blueberries and cherries.
As she stands by the counter, diligently slicing the mango into thin strips and sucking the fruit off the skin, I sometimes feel she’s sucking deep into the well of her memory as well. For us immigrants, such are the small mercies helping us remember what we’ve left behind.
P.S: Picture is courtesy of !ºrobodot, via Flickr