Friday, September 15, 2006

More tributes.....

We are all still reeling from the loss of Chin and it will be a slow healing process for all. Her body was taken to the crematorium after all the traditional last rite rituals were performed by Raga and his brother. The rituals will continue for the next 12 days culmintaing on the 25th, which is the 13th day. In Indian culture, a son who has the honor of performing the last rites for his mother, is a fortunate son. Raga told me yesterday that these rituals help greatly in the healing process.

Here are some things friends and relatives have to say about Chin -

She was one of the gentlest, softest-spoken people I've ever known......She was so dainty and fragile. - Nimmu Chitti

I know we will all miss Chinakka's presence, and what I will miss the most is how she used to ask me to have a glass of milk every morning! I think now it is important to remember what a wonderful grandmother she was, and not think about how it happened - Gautam

Suryam and I keep remembering her gentle and elegant demeanor - Usha and Suryam

She was a beautiful person with a gentle soul - Krupa

I hope our human resilience will help us focus on Chinakka's kind & gentle legacy and the closely-knit generations of family that she leaves behind. That is what I will be thinking about - Ranjit

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A tribute to a gentle soul

Today was a sad day for us all. R's mom passed away after succumbing to burn injuries suffered after her sari caught fire lighting a lamp last evening. She was rushed to the hospital but her body went into shock and never recovered.

We are all stunned at this. Chinakka was the gentlest soul in the family and every single one who knew here remembered only one thing - her smile. In my 26 years of knowing her, I have NEVER seen her lose her temper or raise her voice.She was soft spoken and had a shy smile with a tinkly laugh. She was endearing and endeared by all.

Chin - as she was affectiontely known - thrived on fussing over people especially children. Her aim in life was to feed them. There have been many adults who played many roles in the family - some taught the kids, some played with the kids, some disciplined the kids, some told them stories, some scolded, some yelled, but Chinakka did one thing only - she FED them! Her main mission in life was to fatten us all, kids and adults alike. Not a kid in this family has grown up without hearing her say - Have more cereal, another idli?, another dosa?, how about some milk? More Horlicks?. And not a single kid has grown up without replying - Nooo Chinakka, I've had enough!

We will miss her clucking and fussing over us! Rest in peace Chinakka. We love you and will miss you!

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Back in least for now!

OK, so YES - I did get my driver's license, but NO - I didn't get killed at my first attempt behind the wheel like many may have suspected! My lack of blogging has been a combination of various things - lack of long bouts of uninterrupted time, not much to blog about, well....that’s not entirely true....and a slight lack of motivation. But many of my true blog fans are refusing to put up with my excuses, most of all my niece Nikila in New Jersey. She has been an avid reader of my blog and from her parents I hear that she checks religiously every morning to see if there is a new post! So Nikila - this one's for you, and hopefully it will get me back on the blogging path!

So much has happened in the last 4-5 weeks so I thought it best to categorize my posts by topic so I don't start to ramble on about one particular subject, in the midst of another! So lets give it a shot -


Since I left off on the verge of getting my drivers license, let’s talk about the traffic. Its in one word - CHAOTIC!

I came home triumphantly having obtained it in an hour's time at the RTA office. Normally something like this would have taken a week, but the commissioner's attendant - who I should mention, remembered the generous tip Raga had given him the last time and really its these guys who hold the ultimate power- ushered me into the commissioner's office, plugged my case to him and then continued to accompany us thru the various snake like lines and cues and in an hour I had it. Or at least a receipt showing I had paid the money for it. Since I had my US license I didn’t have to go thru any kind of driving test or eye test1 Nada! If traffic conditions were the same in India and the US I can see the point in this kind of logic – but heck, NO! In the US people follow rules, they “STAY” in their lanes till they signal, pedestrians are able to cross streets and so on. Here – might is right. Clearly there is a pecking order on the streets which is highly respected. You give way for anything bigger than you! Pedestrians are on the bottom and run out of the way of everything, bicycles make way for cycle rickshaws, which give way to auto rickshaws, which stop for cars, which are subservient to trucks! Buses stop for one thing only – the cow! (Read more under the “Animals” section)

Anyway, that day happened to be a Monday and they assured me my license would be mailed to me by “speed post” and I would get it in 2 days. Tuesday, Wed, and the rest of the week came and went…and then it arrived on Saturday – a gleaming laminated 2” x 3” card with my mugshot on it – YAY! We consulted the almanac for an auspicious day to start driving – here would be a good time to mention that NOTHING is done in India without consulting the almanac and the location of the planets and the appeasement of the gods! (I don’t mean to backtrack but the day we bought our car, after having paid for it and all, Raga and I hurriedly got in excited at driving off in a new car but were stopped speechless in our tracks when the car salesman asked us “Aap kaunse mandir mein gaadi ko pooja kar rahen hain”????? or in other words – “Which temple are you taking the car to, to offer prayers”???? We hastily mumbled something about a temple down the street at which point he and his assistants proceeded to drape a red ribbon on its front, apply some red tilak powder to the dashboard and suspend lemons from the front 2 tires….all prayer rituals here. Then they had each of us smash coconuts to the ground then happily they told us we could go! So now we are able to spot new vehicles on the road – they all proudly display the red ribbon).

So after my dad-in-laws help with the astrological consultations, it was determined that I should wait till Wed to start driving, so promptly on Wed morning I drove the car from our house to the gates of our development, about 100 feet or so without any trouble. This was just a sort of auspicious start, my plan being to continue during the week and master the beast in 2 weeks. It has been almost 7 weeks and I haven’t touched it since!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Everytime I make the decision to continue with my Driving 101 class, I see something terrifying that freaks me out. People unsuspectingly popping out of manholes, animals and kids darting across in front, scooterists coming dangerously close, potholes getting deeper and more treacherous with the rains – all these things have successfully kept me away! In fact a few days ago there was an article in the paper about a man who was riding his scooter with his wife on the back seat. He stopped somewhere to drop her off and when she stepped off she fell into a manhole that opened up miraculously under her at the precise same time! He didn’t know what had happened till he turned around to say bye to her and then saw her 20 feet below. It’s a true story – I swear!

I have just finished reading “Holy Cow” by Sarah MacDonald and with her permission I am going to quote from her book because she has really captured the traffic scenario perfectly.
She writes:
“Blokes – and a friend or two – perch atop tall, rusty bicycles. Entire families share motorcycles; toddlers stand between dads’ knees or clutch his back, and wives sit side saddle while snuggling babies. Auto rickshaws zip around like tin toys. Huge tinsel decorated trucks rumble and groan, filthy buses fly around like kamikaze cans squeezing out a chunky sauce of arms and legs. Shoes dangle from back bumpers and black demonic faces poke out red tongues from windscreens; these are for good luck. The road soundtrack is a chaotic symphony of deep blasts, staccato honks, high pitched beeps, musical notes and a weird duck drone. Its as if people are driving by sound – except it seems many are deaf”. Thanks Sarah!

So hopefully you can all understand why I have yet to hit the road – my goal is to be a skilled driver by the end of the year! So wish me luck!


Again, in one word – HOT! The weather has been my biggest challenge since we got here in June. People kept saying it was an unusually warm summer, so I sort of put up with it. The assurance that next year would be back to normal and less warm sort of kept me going! Then the rains came, the much anticipated monsoons which lasted for about 3 days and then we were back to searing temps! Again, “they” said it was an unusually short monsoon and yet again the hope of a longer monsoon season next year kept me going. There was this buzz about the second heat wave which hits around September, and “they” were right!!!! The past 10 days has been blisteringly hot. My hair has been up in an unsightly knot since we landed here end June – so that’s about 10 weeks now. When I open it out to wash it, it sort of coils back into a spring shape from weeks of being tied up. It doesn’t know what else to do! Then once its all washed I cannot bear to have it hang on my neck, so I tie it up again when its not completely dry and that reinforces the coiled look! I think there’s a physics lesson in there somewhere! The thought of using a hair dryer when the daytime temp is 90 degrees is unthinkable. So, in other words I look like a fright! People keep saying Hyderabad gets cold in the winter, but I don’t believe them! If the temp dips below 70 degrees, my hair may come down. Till then it stays up! I hang around in loose kurtas and long skirts all day long cos that’s the only thing that feels sort of cool, but it only adds to my frumpy look. The other day I got all dressed up to go to s friends house and I looked like another person! I don’t know how these women manage in their saris but my mom swears it is the best dress for India. It makes you feel cool in the summer and keeps you warm in the winter. I’ll have to give it a try one of these days! I cannot imagine how as kids we used to walk home from school for fun, ditching the bus to walk together in groups in this hot weather! I am hoping I will get used to it. The three swamp coolers or desert coolers as they are called here, are all on during the day and that helps a bit. In the meantime I just marvel at the locals – zipping about merrily and looking as cool as cucumbers!

Next topic – Food!

Yet again, in one word – FANTASTIC!

The food scene here is so good , Raga and I have had to make a very conscious effort to not overeat and pig out. You name it, you get it. Indian, Chinese, Mexican, American, Italian, Thai – it’s all there and all so incredibly cheap. Our hands down favorite is Indian Chinese. It’s so yummy, there is nothing quite like it. Hakka noodles and Vegetable Manchurian are unbeatable and if we could, we would be eating it every day! Another favorite haunt of ours is a chain called Hyderabad House – they specialize in Hyderabadi food, their signature dish is the world famous biryani – this amazingly flavorful rice dish. For people in a hurry they have a carry out cafeteria and you can pop in and out in 5 minutes with Biryani, Roomali rotis, Panner Masala curry and Gobi Manchurian for 2 people for about 200 Rupees – that’s about $5!! Needless to say we have been visiting them a lot since we are on the run all the time. The one food we have not been able to get is Vietnamese and both Raga and I sorely miss Pho Cyclo on 1st Ave!!!!!

Then of course, there is CHAAT! For those who do not know what that is, this description may help. Chaat is best eaten from roadside vendors and the range is huge. We have discovered – thanks to our watchman - an awesome chaat stand, Maharaja Chaat Bhandar, 2 minutes from home. My goal is to one day go there and try one each of everything he has on the menu.

The pizza in Pizza Hut has cilantro chutney, corn, peas and paneer as toppings, the Subway sandwiches have falafel and hummus choices, Italian restaurants have pasta with cilantro and mint sauces. Then there are these ubiquitous corn stands all over the place – they take freshly boiled corn and mix it up with masalas - cayenne, paprika, lemon and black salt – and serve it to you in these small cups. Just delicious and a great snack when you’re a bit hungry. Dominos delivers within 30 minutes, hot piping pizzas with red peppers and garlic sprinkled liberally on spicy red Chettinad sauce and green chillis. My eyes are watering just writing this…..! When your thirst buds are craving, there are fruit juice stalls which serve either fresh fruit juices – pineapple, mango, sweet lime, pomegranate, litchi, grape – or milk shakes with fruits and vanilla and almond for flavor! In addition there are sugar cane juice carts that squeeze sugar cane thru a machine and mix the fresh juice with lime and serve it up in tall glasses. Another favorite is young coconut water. Carts are piled high with tender coconuts bursting with water inside, you pick the one you want, the vendor chops off the top and sticks a straw thru the flesh and you drink the sweet water inside. Not only delicious but also very cooling. There are bakeries with hot vegetable puffs, samosas, cream rolls, freshly baked warm biscuits, cakes, pastries and breads!

Even though I miss the beautifully laid out grocery stores, I thoroughly enjoy buying fruits and vegetables at the corner stands. The dizzying varieties are displayed in baskets, stacked precariously high so one false move and you could topple the whole thing. Spinach, cauliflower, carrots, bell peppers, garlic, ginger, tomatos – all fresh and chemical free and piled high- yours for the asking. You pick what you want and throw them all in these little baskets that are provided and the shopkeeper weighs them on his scales and then totals it all (in his head, that too!) and tells you the grand total is 45 rupees or something like that! Fruit stalls are loaded with papayas, mangos, guavas, pomegranates and whatever else is in season and lit up like Christmas trees at night. Apples and pears are expensive, papayas are the cheapest and tastiest – 10 rupees for one! That’s 25 cents! In most neighborhoods, the vegetable vendor brings his cart around every morning so you can haggle good naturedly and buy your produce for the day! But the gated community we live in is too snobbish and won’t stand for such middle class nonsense, so we have to drive outside to buy them. Hopefully once we move back into our remodeled house, I can have the thrill of buying vegetables at the front gate!

The animals of India!

In India animals rule! Dogs and cows are the most commonly seen animals on the roads, but you also see buffalos, goats and cats to a smaller extent. One time we actually saw 5 camels all in a row running on the street!

There are dogs of all imaginable sizes, colors and girths! They prance, they preen, they pose and they play on the streets! For the most part they all seem to get along with each other, the occasional fight breaks out when a well intentioned person throws one of them a scrap of food, then they all scratch and fight trying to get at it. They hang around food stalls hoping for food, but otherwise they sleep lazily on the streets. They are so used to traffic that you can literally drive an inch from their noses when they are sleeping, and they don’t budge an inch! And they are all so cute and surprisingly well fed looking. They clamber onto garbage bins trying to get food, they look at you with hopeful puppy eyes when you buy food at the stores, they follow you around if you give them so much as an encouraging glance. Sometimes you see 5 or 6 of them all laying in a circle and dozing as if they have just finished an important meeting or something.

If I could I would start some sort of home for all these homeless dogs, sometimes its pitiful to see them! I have a distant cousin who works with homeless animals in another part of the country, lets see if i can get his help!

Then there’s the cow! They graze on the roadsides and chew meditatively. They will not be hurried. Crows and birds sit on their tails and even on their heads and they don't seem to mind. Its as if nothing can bother them.

Again to quote from the “Holy Cow”:

“These animals clearly know they rule and like to mess with our heads. The hump-backed bovines step off median strips just as cars are approaching, they stare down drivers daring them to change, they turn their noses up at passing animals and hold huddles at the busiest intersections where they seem to chat away like the bulls of Gary Larson cartoons. It’s clear they are enjoying themselves”!

Then there is the occasional herd of goats and sheep that block intersections and roads and the herder is trying hopelessly to corral them together. The harder he tries, the more berserk they get! Its hilarious to watch! Sometimes the goats climb onto piles of rocks below trees to get to the leaves,sometimes they escape onto fields and eat grass! Cat appearances are rare, but every once in a while you see them.

The children:

I felt I had to write something about the children here and by that, I do not mean the kids of affluent families. I am writing specifically about the kids on the streets…..the ones who are barefoot, wear tattered clothes or sometimes none at all, but who are the most cheerful happy kids I have seen. These kids clearly come from families who have very little money and have parents who are very likely laborers working in other peoples’ homes. They play all day and all they have for toys is their imagination. They fabricate make shift swings out of cement bags or jute bags and tie them with rope to the thick branches of trees and have hours of fun playing on them. On our way to our remodel house every morning, I see three kids who have done just this and every time I pass them by, they seem to be having a whale of a time taking turns on the swings and giggling away. Then there are some kids who play with old car tires….they pump them up with air and roll them along the roads with a big stick running crazily after them. Usually there are 2-3 kids running after one tire! Because there is so much construction work going on in the city, there are piles of rocks and sand all over the place. Invariably you will see 2-3 kids on these rocks, playing with them like marbles or sometimes playing with the sand and making little sand castles. The other day I saw 6 kids piled on a runaway rickshaw…..the oldest of them, about 10 years old was riding the rickshaw and 5 of them were squished together in the seat squealing with delight as they went hurtling down the street. Little girls sit under trees playing with stones, little boys chase dogs and tires and they all seem blissfully happy and unaware of any problems that exist. I have to mention 2 kids, Bharati and Ganesh, a girl and a boy, both 3 years old and kids of the laborers working on our house. They spend all day playing with cement bags and little rocks and sand and plastic containers to hold the sand in. The moms have fashioned swings out of cement bags and hung them from the guava trees. They take their afternoon naps in them. Every once in a while Bharati smacks Ganesh and there is some commotion, but other than that they play all day in perfect harmony. I have been taking them cookies and stuff and now they look at me expectantly every time I go. Bharati sees me and comes racing towards me screaming "Aunty, aunty, biscuit, biscuit"....I am so tempted to buy them each some small toy, but R says “No”…that will only curb their imagination. He may be right! Anyway, all this only reconfirms what I have thought all along – that kids these days are all spoilt brats! I have seen enough evidence of this the past few years in the US! They have too much and don’t know how to respect what they have! And unfortunately this trend is becoming all too common here too. Working parents riddled with guilt are buying off their children!

And finally the remodel

Our house remodel is coming along splendidly. Our contractor, Vijay Valluri, is like the Energizer Bunny. He keeps going and going! Its been 6 weeks since we started and the ground floor demo and masonry work is complete, the first floor walls are up to 7’, another 3 feet to go and then the slab for the roof will be poured. This is the first time I am witnessing house construction here and it has been an eye opening experience. No wood studs and beams….the walls are all solid 14” thick walls built out of bricks and mortar! Bricks are 31/2 “ x 9” so the walls are either 4”, 9” or 14: walls depending on how they are oriented. It’s a painfully laborious process. First the sand and cement are mixed in some secret proportion that ensures the strongest bond, then the wall is built brick by brick, the mortar is applied between them and then after the wall is done, it is plastered. Part of the problem of a remodel is you never know what to expect, so there have been days when we have been designing the house as the bricks are being laid. Now I understand why people choose to build their own homes even tho it is such a headache! The thrill of seeing a floor plan translated into actual 3D rooms with walls is very exciting. Raga and have not skipped a single day and have been at the job site every day. Some days its grueling to stand on the terrace and discuss dimensions under a 90 degree sun, but its all worth it.

Builders and contractors will be shocked to see what antiquated tools are being used here, but the fact is that they work, and very well too. The masons use a plumb line to build straight walls – it’s a top shaped thing at the end of a rope with a small toggle on top which is aligned with the side of the wall. If the side of the top does not align with the wall, its crooked. Then there’s the long tube filled with water that is used as a level to ensure horizontal straightness. Windows are marked at a specific distance on each end, then the tube filled with water is held up so the water level aligns with the notches on the window. There you have it – an absolutely level window!

The work is very gender specific. The guys do all the masonry work, plastering and mortaring while the women do the heavy work. To see the women work is absolute poetry in motion. They pile about 8-9 bricks on a platter sort of thing, then they balance it on their heads and walk up the stairs WITHOUT HOLDING ON TO IT – and bring them up to the masons. They fill up bags with sand and cement and again do this balancing act and haul them all up. Sometimes they form a sort of assembly line, with the first person on the ground floor by the bricks and the last person on the first floor and 3-4 in between standing on precarious scaffolding and pass the bricks one by one till it gets to the top. They do it so fast and so accurately, I have never seen them miss. All of them are so graceful and supple and toned and beautiful. There are about 15 workers and they have all worked together many times before, so the work goes on quietly and methodically and every one seems to know exactly what their job is. Raga and I have now made it a habit to watch them work from about 4.30 pm to 6pm…when the sun is setting and things are cooling down and the workers are all working furiously to finish up the days work. Then they all wash up, chattering excitedly about going home.