Category Archives: Family and other odd stuff

An Ode to my Parents

In three days time, on May 10th 2013, if my father was alive, my parents would have celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. It would have been a great celebration, my father didn’t know the meaning of small. Sadly, my father is no longer with us. My mom will spend the big day alone in her compact apartment, like she spends so many of her days now. She no longer lives in the house where she lived for 45 years since she came there as a young bride. I feel a sinking sensation in my heart today, knowing it cannot be what it could have been.

My father was a larger than life, dominating personality. He lived life big. His appetites and his laughter were big. He dominated the room if he was in it. Tall for an Indian man of his time, he was a full foot taller than my petite mother. My mother is and was always a quieter personality. She blends in with people and listens more than she talks. They made an odd couple in many ways. Complete opposites who somehow completed each other.

Growing up, I remember my dad’s booming voice ringing out instructions and directions. My mom kept herself busy with her home and children. When I was really little the sound of daddy’s voice if it was talking to me angrily was a scary thing. Then I turned about ten and realized he was just a big softie at heart and I could play him very easily by turning on the waterworks. Of the three of us kids, I was the one who got into trouble the most and therefore got a lion’s share of their attention. My sister and brother were lambs by comparison. And yet, even at that young age I knew I could make this man melt if I cried a few tears. I got out of so many scrapes by this simple expedient.

My dad always thought he was a great feudal lord and could make all of us do exactly what he wished. It didn’t usually work out that way but he was always such a doll about it. He always said ‘no’ to anything we suggested and then let us do it our way. I realize what a gift that was to us, particularly us girls, for not many girls in our generation were treated so evenhandedly. Of course it took me half a lifetime to work that one out.

My mom with her quiet voice and a few well chosen words had us doing things her way. She inculcated a deep love of books and knowledge in us simply by her example. This is a woman who has read most of the great works of English literature in Kannada translations. She has no college education like many women of her generation. Yet the thirst for knowledge within her glowed brightly enough to light the way for my sister and me to reach for higher knowledge. I believe she has one of the most literate minds I have across in my life, much more so than many very highly educated women I have met.

And so these two lived together for 42 years and brought us up in a household filled with love, laughter and books. There were plenty of tears too, most of them mine, many of them crocodile tears. The greatest gift my parents gave us was the right to question everything. It has made for a lifelong quest for answers, even to the imponderables.

My father liked to think he made every decision concerning our family on his own. But I have seen that on each fork in the road of our lives, he would reach out to my mother for guidance and help. She was the flaming torch that lit his way and she was his sounding board. I only wish he could be around to celebrate this 50th year of their life together. I wish we could have the chance to talk to him one more time, so we could tell him how much his love and guidance has meant to us. In his last days as he lingered in a coma, my sister, my brother and I told him everything we felt in our hearts. We can only hope he heard us.

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Who’ll Blink First?

” The party will be deported at 10am tomorrow” the man says to me. I am dumbstruck. The ‘party’ in question is my six-year-old daughter. The man delivering this astonishing statement is the inspector in charge of the Foreigners Registration Office in Gurgaon, Haryana. My mind is already in panic mode, ‘can he really do that?’ I’m wondering. Gathering my fleeing wits I look him straight in the eye and say, “you know she is six years old. How can you deport her? Her father and I are Indian citizens and we live here in Gurgaon. Where will you deport her to?”.  Contemptuously he turns her passport over and looks at the cover. “Back to the America” he says. I feel like I’m in some absurd movie, the kind that manifests in frenzied dreams. This guy is for real though, he’s ushering me out of his office with a lazy wave of his hand.

I know I can’t leave yet. This issue needs to be resolved. My poor unsuspecting daughter is in school, so I have some time to negotiate. I need to be resourceful. This little flunky is not going to defeat me, I tell myself. I look at him again though by this time his face is making me nauseous. I decide to grovel (you see, with the Indian bureaucracy making yourself into the littlest person you can, gives them a greater sense of importance). The look he gives me is pure contempt. “You allowed her visa to expire. Her visa has a non- renewal clause. She has to go. Now you go, lot of people waiting to see me” he says in his puffed up way. I won’t leave, I say, you owe me an explanation at least. “Then sit there in the corner till I take care of important business” he says, with the manner of a man who has no intention of listening to any plea.

As he deals with someone more ‘important’, I slip out into the corridor to call my husband. My panic is in full bloom now. When he answers his phone, I burst into a high-speed description of what just went down. “They will deport her tomorrow” I tell him, articulating the dread word. “Don’t be ridiculous” Naresh says to me, as if I was the one setting down that plan of action. Now I’m good and mad, at Naresh. “Get yourself down here now and talk to this cop” I say. Let him handle things for a change, I think and see how difficult these things really are. Then Naresh comes up with the single most horrifying thing I can think of. “He’s just jerking your chain. Just give him Rs.500 and everything’ll be fine”. You should have heard me screech at him. People up and down the corridor were turning to take a look. “Are you crazy? You want me to offer a bribe to a cop in a police station? Get here now you crazy man”. I kid you not, he laughed! According to him this happened all the time in cop stations in India, that all the inspector wanted was a small bribe. “Anyway, I’m walking into a meeting right now, can’t come there. Take care of it will you” he said as he hung up. Not even in the throes of labour pains have I wanted to strangle this man so badly and I came pretty close then.

So much for help from that quarter. I don’t think he even realized how serious the situation was. Well it looked like it was up to me. I straightened my shoulders and went back in to tackle the beast once more. I slipped back into the metal chair in the corner waiting for a lull in his business. He paid me no mind at all. I was ready for battle now. Arguments with Naresh inevitably help me straighten things out in my mind. I was willing to sit in his office all day, all week if necessary. I’d ask a friend to collect Aditi from school in the afternoon. And so I waited. It was a good hour before he stood up. Going for a coffee and cigarette break, no doubt. “Sir” I said, “please look over the papers again. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has given me the necessary clearance. All you need to do is stamp the visa”. He gave me a speaking look, ‘dumb cow’, it said. He stepped out, to return about half an hour later chattering on his cellphone.

I will spare you the details. The same sort of thing as before went on for another three hours at least, with me approaching him every half hour or so and him shaking his head and giving me that look again. Ok so I am a dumb cow but I will not offer him a bribe. This is personal now. This is Delhi (or at least the National Capital Region) and people get away with murder here. What had I done that was so wrong that my daughter’s security was being threatened? This was how it happened. My mom fell ill and I rushed to Mangalore at about the time I should have applied for a visa renewal for Aditi. When I returned after several weeks, I realized the mistake and went to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. I waited for ages and finally got the necessary paperwork in hand before heading to the Police Superintendent’s office in Gurgaon, where Aditi was already registered as a resident foreigner. All the man needed to do was stamp the visa on her passport. instead he was playing games with me.

My brain is ticking furiously. I’m wondering which of my uncles to call asking them to reach out and get me some help. If my father had been alive, this would have been resolved in minutes I thought.  Suddenly I had a brain wave of sorts. The inspector was sitting at his desk, fiddling with some papers. All his important work was apparently done for the moment.  I picked up my phone and dialled a number. He was watching me with great interest, as one watches a lizard on the wall creeping towards an insect. I called my friend Shirin. Her father, father-in-law and brother-in-law were or had been in very senior positions in the police force, albeit in the distant state of West Bengal. Their batchmates and friends were senior officers all over the country. Mind you, I was not looking for direct involvement but I had an idea for subterfuge that just might work on this reptilian inspector.

He listened in shamelessly to the most bizarre phone conversation I’ve ever had with a friend. I ask Shirin if their friend Mr. ____ was still SSP in Gurgaon. “He’s gone” the inspector says, as if unaware he’s eavesdropping. “What the hell are you on about” Shirin is saying in my ear. “Is your friend Mr. _______ still with the Delhi police” I ask her.  He has perked up considerably by now. “Is something wrong Nuthan? If you need help I can call my friend DCP _______ in the Delhi police’ she says. I repeat the name. He is sitting ramrod straight now, I can see out of the corner of my eye. I can hear the wheels in his head turning. “She’s not such a dumb cow, she knows people“. I zip through some more ‘important’ names and hang up telling Shirin I’ll call her later. When I hang up, he stands up. I know I’ve pressed the appropriate buttons now. Every lowly flunky in the Indian bureaucracy reacts the same way to the names of higher-ups. “I’m going to do you a favour and talk to my ACP”  he says in a phony magnanimous tone and walks out. He’s back in ten minutes flat. “Here’s what you will do” he says, sounding remarkably like Sister Carissima, my High School headmistress. “Write a letter saying you were at fault in not renewing the visa on time. Write that your child is only six and cannot be deported when her parents live here. Write that you will apply for a Person of Indian Origin card immediately”. He pushed a sheet of paper and a pen across his desk and asked me to come up to the desk to write. I felt like I was in primary school again, writing imposition, as the nuns liked to call it. It was a moment’s work to have it done. He took the signed letter and went to see whoever was in charge in that alphabet soup of officialdom. He came back, picked up Aditi’s passport and stamped the visa and residence permit as required. He handed me the passport and said I could go now. I thanked him politely and left that godforsaken office after what seemed like days but in reality was about five hours.

I was exultant. He blinked, he blinked!  My daughter would not be deported and I had stared down the cold-blooded monster. How on earth was I going to explain all this to Shirin?  I knew she’d understand. I called Naresh to tell him I had the visa. It had been at least four hours since our earlier conversation. “I knew you’d do it” he says coolly. I swear I could strangle this man, but that’s another story.

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Fourth Grade Blues

Several someones (11 and 12 year old someones) have told Aditi that 4th grade is simply too hard to handle. This most suggestible of children has decided to take it to heart. She is convinced that it’s going to be impossible for her to do as well as she did in 3rd grade. Have you tried un-convincing your child of something her peers have told her? In spite of doing fairly well in her assessments, these days Aditi walks about with a frown when discussing schoolwork or doing her homework. This is because she has already decided, 2 months into 4th grade, that she’s going to be an abysmal failure. She asked me yesterday if we could return to India, as school there was so much simpler! That should come as a shocker for all you people with children in Indian schools.

Bravely I wade into the mess, sure I can fix it all.  “I’m going to help you understand things better”, I tell her. It’s been easy peasy lemon squeezy these past ten years.  I cleaned, band aided and kissed a boo-boo here, untangled the mess from a weird hair styling session with friends there, helped clean up paint and play doh off the carpet and so on. Up until now I never really had to help Aditi with homework or study, except for a short period when she decided to resist learning Hindi while in India (that foray wasn’t so successful either considering my own glaring lack of Hindi skills). This was business on a whole different scale though.

First off, we can’t decide on the best place to work together. She wants to be at her desk with the radio on. Suddenly I turn into my Dad. “No distractions while studying” I say, as my Dad would, on the rare occasions he or my mother ever deigned to show interest in our academics. It was laissez-faire at chez Shetty and how we enjoyed it. But then, that’s a whole different story. Anyway, Aditi’s radio is set to some station that blares out the most inane, current pop music played at eardrum assaulting levels. It gives me a headache in 5 minutes flat. So we compromise. It’s going to be the little dining table in the breakfast room. I turn on the iPod to play some sublime Hindustani classical music but she starts complaining right away. “Would you prefer me  to have a headache?” she asks with perfect pre-teen sarcasm. Off goes the iPod. Don’t want to disturb the little princess, do we? Oh no but we must have some music she says. Compromise #2. We switch it on to the classic rock playlist which we can both enjoy. We smile at each other as the Steve Miller Band rocks on. And there ends any semblance of mother-daughter understanding.

Everything that comes after that most resembles the shambles left behind by Alexander’s decimation of the Persians. In fifteen minutes we are at each other’s throats, One of us is screaming in frustration, the other is alternately weeping and being sarcastic. Every suggestion I make is met with a stony ‘that’s not how we do it in school”. Ok I’ll be the first to accept that I have no idea how it is done at her school. Still, there is a method to everything in science and math isn’t there? And me being such a History and Civics buff (and not such a dummy) surely I know the answers to most of these things. The thing I lack though is patience. I don’t envy schoolteachers who have to deal with about 25 of these creatures every hour of every school day.  I think of all those children whom I spared when I decided not to do a certification course in elementary school teaching. I’d probably come home and commit a horrible bodily injury crime on my family  if I had to deal with this all the time.

The upshot of trying to help Aditi with her schoolwork is that I turn into a screaming banshee and she into a sniveling, angry animal. It had to end didn’t it? We’ve decided to go our separate ways on this one. She’s muddling along all on her lonesome, trying to figure out the ‘awful’ 4th grade curriculum and I’ve decided I’d rather keep my sanity. So we give each other a smile as she sets off upstairs to her desk and her infernal radio while I stay downstairs serenely nodding along to Bhimsen Joshi, reading the book du jour.

Cheers y’all.

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