Saturday, January 05, 2013

If only life were always about happy endings despite the hassles!

My friend and I reached the airport well ahead of time and I was mighty relieved.  My flight was on schedule too.  Chatted till the friend's boarding time and returned to my gate.  

I had more than enough time to get myself a veggie-burger at the kiosk, and now it was boarding time.  No activity at the gate, however.

It got closer and closer to the departure time and there was no sign that we would ever be allowed through the gate.

Bad omens, I decided.

It was now five minutes past the scheduled departure time.  I walked over to the desk.  A young mother, with her four or five year old daughter tagging along, asked me whether there were problems.  "I am trying to find out whether we are flying at all" I replied.

The only female of the five airline staffers, who also seemed like the boss there, softly said, "the flight has been canceled, sir, because of technical difficulties.  I can re-book you on the 6:15 flight."  That was almost six hours later, and would certainly derail the appointment that I had been looking forward to: meeting and dining with Ramesh.

"But, I have a meeting at 7:45."

"I am sorry sir.  Only now we got word of the technical problems and cancellation."

"Is there an earlier flight?"

"That is full, sir."

No options left.  She assigned one of her deputies to escort me, and the young mother and daughter, past the security to the check-in counters and re-process our reservations.

When I returned, there was confusion at the desk.  "You are not treating us like human beings" yelled one passenger at the staff.  The female boss and her aides carried on with their task without replying to the remark.  "You expect me and my wife to drag our two kids all the way up and down because of your faults?" yelled another frustrated traveler.  The staffers kept doing what they had to do.

I called up Ramesh and updated him.  He offered to move the reservation at the restaurant to 8:30.  "You come over when you get here.  No problems."

After a few minutes, the rest of the passengers had been escorted out for re-processing of tickets.  I noticed there was another airline flying out well before the 6:15 hour.  One of the staffers escorted me back to the counters.  I bought a ticket on the earlier flight.

The staffer suggested that I get a full refund on my original reservation.  "No, I want to hold on to it, in case this flight at 5:00 doesn't work out" I said.

He looked straight at me.  "I am telling you, sir, that maybe even our 6:15 flight can get delayed or canceled.  But, that other airline will never cancel their flights."

That level of honesty convinced me.

My flight was not canceled.  In fact, we took off a couple of minutes before the scheduled time!

As the young stewardess walked past collecting the trash, I told her I had a question for her.

"Yes, sir?"

"Your name, Taralyn, is quite unique.  What is the story there?"

She smiled one of the biggest smiles that I had seen on the trip in a country where people seemed to smile very, very rarely.  "Thank you, sir.  I am from Shillong."

I looked out the window.  The sun was beginning to rapidly descend.  The sight of the glorious sunset almost wiped out all the confusion related to the flight cancellation.  I did what I like to do in such situations.

I took photos.

All is well that ends well, indeed.

And, yes, I finally got to meet with Ramesh after more than 33 years.  We were joined by two other friends. I hoped that the other passengers also had happy endings of their own.

If only Ramamirtham and Indian babus had a German boss!

It was those heady and optimistic days after India's independence and with the five-year-plans resulting in what Jawaharlal Nehru described as temples of modern India--the big industrial projects of steel-making, dam building, and the likes.

My father, to whom coming from Pattamadai to Madras was one huge step in his life, decided to keep going north in order to pursue professional possibilities at some of those big projects.  That took him to India's version of the Tennessee Valley Authority--the Damodar Valley Corporation.  His assignment was at Maithon Dam.

After a couple of years, it was time for him to get married.  It was also the time, professionally speaking, to look for the next rung of the ladder.  He applied for a position at the nearby steel plant (I think he said Hindustan Steel.)  The application worked out, and father was offered the job that he was looking for.  The salary offered was 425 rupees a month, and father wanted 450.

As father recalled it, it was a Tamil personnel officer who had the responsibility to decide on the salary level. The officer's name was Ramamirtham.

I laughed even as I was listening to all these.  But, I didn't share with them about an additional layer for the humor: the fictional character, Ramamirtham, that my friend, Ramesh, often writes about!

True to Ramesh's caricature, the personnel officer, Ramamirtham, refused, for some bureaucratic reasons, the higher salary that father wanted.  And that was it.

My parents married in 1957, and the new bride and her mother-in-law went all the way from the deep south of India and lived in Rourkela, where father joined a German firm that was hired as consultants to the steel plant under construction there.

Father's compensation with this German firm? 650 rupees a month, plus free furnished housing and transportation to work.  A lot more than the 450 rupees that he was refused by Ramamirtham!

A few months in, father decided to take his mother and wife on a holy trip--to Kashi, Allahabad, Gaya.  Realizing that it was only a few months into his service with the German firm, he applied for three days of leave, which was granted.

Later, while driving between the construction sites with his boss, the tough German, feared as a bulldog, apparently asked father about what he planned to do over the days off.  As father explained the travel plans, the German, whose name I forgot to jot down, remarked "that is a lot of distance to cover in only three days."  So, father replied that he didn't want to ask for more given that he was a relatively new hire.  The boss grunted.

When they reached the office, the boss walked with father straight to the personnel guy and asked for the leave application.  On that he struck out the number of days.  And wrote over it "seven days."

I had never heard about these work-details until a few days ago.  I have heard plenty about the trip itself from my grandmother, who died when I was in high school.  As a traditional Hindu, going to Kashi was an important pilgrimage to her.  Perhaps that pilgrimage, at a leisurely pace, might never have happened if Ramamirtham had agreed to the monthly salary of 450 rupees that father was negotiating for.  A big thank you to Ramamirtham :)

Father says he absorbed many such work practices from his tough German boss.  I know very well that he did.

Every time we say goodbye ...

Many decades ago, when I was in middle school, I guess, I read a short story in the Tamil weekly, Ananda Vikatan.

It was about a father visiting with his son in the city and then the son accompanying the father to the railway station.  The father boards the train that will take him back to his village and sits by the window while the son stands on the platform by that same window.  During the conversation, which itself was not a freely-flowing one and rather awkward, the son places his arm on the window and it accidentally grazes the father's hand. The son feels goosebumps all over and he realizes that it has been years since his childhood days when he even touched his father.

A simple story that said a lot about the culture in which I grew.  A culture in which there were no handshakes or hugs, particularly across the genders.  I often joked that it was because we lived in hot and humid conditions and that the last thing we wanted was the other person's sweat!  

Of course, life in the US has changed my own practices, perhaps slowly, with respect to men and women alike.  Hugs, too, have found a way into my relationship vocabulary--awkwardly, at first, and a lot more comfortably as years have progressed.

A couple of weeks ago, my brother (who lives in Australia with his family) and I were on the train to visit with my aunts, who lived in the south of India.  It was three-tier coach. At the single-seats facing each other were a woman and a man--they seemed like husband and wife--and a young girl perhaps about five years old.  The adults looked like they were in their late twenties or early thirties.

Two other males, about the couple's age, stood in the aisle and kept talking with them.  As it got closer to the departure time, these two males got off the train after saying bye.  They re-appeared on the platform outside the window.

The couple barely spoke to each other.  In fact, at one point, the husband even took out his Blackberry and texted, and the wife engaged the kid with some small talk.

The train gently shook, indicating that we were all set to start moving.

The husband jumped from his seat and exited the train.

That was it.  No saying bye.  No hugging the wife or the kid.  No peck on the cheek or lips.

He, too, re-appeared on the station platform and waved goodbye as the train pulled out of the station.

This scene was quite a contrast to the typical American goodbyes!  Different cultures and different practices. It is a wonderful world, indeed!

Friday, January 04, 2013

What I learnt about Pattamadai thanks to talking shit!

Who would have thought that talking shit can yield some valuable details, like how the legendary Mukesh ended up staying at my grandmother's home when he visited the village!

It was one of those conversations when we were recalling the awful toilet conditions in grandmas' villages back when we were kids.  As I have often noted in this blog, most recently here, sewage and sanitation gets marginalized in India and perhaps even subconsciously I end up bringing this topic up for discussions when I am in India. 

We were chuckling away, with a little bit of discomfort recalling those unpleasant experiences, when my father hit a home run (or a sixer, in the Indian contexts!) when he said, "did you know that Mukesh stayed at our home because of those very issues?"

Yes, that very Mukesh. And, yes, in grandma's village of Pattamadai.

Sit up for "the rest of the story," as Paul Harvey often said!

The remote village of Pattamadai was where Sivananda was born--well, his name was Kuppuswamy before he took up monastic life.

With his ashram far, far away from Pattamadai, in the very north of India, it is not any surprise that Sivananda had very few followers even in the town where he was born.

While my father and grandmother were not Sivananda's followers, for as long as I can remember, we have always had at home a small figurine--about nine inches high--of Sivananda in a meditative posture.    That pose itself is miniaturization of a life-size statue that is at Pattamadai.  It is this life-size marble statue that ties the story together.

Soon after Sivananda's demise, his followers decided that they needed to do something to honor and commemorate Sivananda in his birthplace, Pattamadai.  The first of these was to build a small prayer hall with a Sivananda statue.  According to my father (the researcher in me always worries that I do not have evidence to crosscheck!) a great number of Sivananda's followers came to the village, led by the then head of the Ashram at Rishikesh--Chithananda.  Mukesh, too, came with them. 

The monks might not have worried about indoor plumbing and toilets.  But, the majority of the visitors were city folks who had gotten used to taking care of the biological daily business within closed doors.  The village had very few homes that had indoor toilets--most at that time had the open-latrines at best.  My grandmother's home was one of those very few equipped with indoor toilets (which, by the way, my brother and I did not like much because we had experienced better ones in Neyveli.) 

Now it is not that difficult to imagine Mukesh being at my grandmother's home, is it?

Why do I get so pissed off at religion in India's public spaces?

Every trip to India, the country appears to be less and less secular in the public space than how it ever was.

While at Chennai, every morning I took off to the nearby Panagal Park, typically between 5:10 and 5:20 in the morning.  Yes, being on vacation doesn't mean that I sleep any much more than during regular days.  In fact, according to this research report, going significantly off the workday schedules can create something like a jet-lag effect when the weekend or vacation gets over.

So, an easy five minutes after leaving my parents' home, I reach the park.  Without fail, every single day, the park was far from quiet that early in the morning--the loudspeakers in the park blared out music.  Hindu spiritual music, that is.

And only Hindu spiritual music.  Nothing Islamic, or Christian. Only Hindu.

Panagal Park is no private space either--it is owned and maintained by the Corporation of Chennai.  Yet, music of the majority religion was always played there, by the corporation itself!

I worry that this is merely yet another, and recent, example of the lack of a wall separating religion and government in India.  It is even odder that it should be the case in Chennai, given the land's political history of anti-religion and atheism.

When I casually mentioned this, the response was that I could shut myself off by using an iPod/earbuds.  There was no way I was going to argue about individual freedoms, the role of the state, and the state not favoring any religion.

As we got closer and closer to Christmas, I wondered whether I would get to listen to at least one or two seasonal tunes.

Irreligious that I am, I suppose I missed the festive atmosphere of Christmas time.  Which is why I went to a couple of local bakeries in order to get fresh plum cakes.

Artisanal was what I was looking for, but, much to my disappointment, mass-produced industrial varieties were the ones the neighborhood bakeries carried.  Perhaps I was looking at the wrong places.

Finally, I bought one, which was not all that great to look at, from Hot Breads. It was not that exciting to taste either.

It was Christmas eve. As I left home for the walk, I thought perhaps I might hear a Christmas jingle or two.  But, I had overestimated the conditions.  The same old Hindu spiritual music greeted me as I neared the park.  And the same old music throughout the entire hour.

Christmas day arrived.  Surely, there would be a break from the Hindu music, was my thought.  I suppose I never learn!

When in India, I rarely ever talk religion or politics, lest I offend the people there.  I wish I freely could.  Do religious minorities feel they are equals when there appears to be an overwhelming Hindu culture, even at a public park in the morning hours?  Will Hindus, for example, accept loudspeakers blaring Islamic or Christian spiritual music at public parks?  Is there any movement at all to ban religion at publicly owned facilities?  Should I dare to engage people in these topics the next time I am in India, or merely be a passive observer?  Am I being too much of a wuss under the guise of not interfering with local practices?

Crap, if only I weren't so pedantic!