The affirmation of an outsider

I am an outsider in every country I find myself in.

In the Western world, they see a brown Indian woman who comes from an exotic land filled with colour, spices and promise.

“We LOVE Slumdog Millionaire,” they say, happy to talk about that foreign land of heat, poverty and cows.

I grit my teeth, because I, like every other Indian, hate the movie with a burning passion (“like the light of a billion suns, my Lord“).

But the words for me, anywhere I go, would stay the same – I am an expat in polite terms, an immigrant when countries are determining their immigration policies.

In India, I am in the convenient box that is framed “minority” because of my religion.

And we are told by our government’s even more right wing to embrace ghar waapsi My religion makes my country nervous – even though we have been part of the fabric of the country for the past 2000 years, my ancestors owned land and paid allegiance to the same kings that my Nair brethren did and the only thing that gives us away as other are our family names, or rather surnames*.

I grew up going to church on weekends (and high holidays and fasting, like all good nasranis), singing hymns in a mix of Malayalam and Syriac**.

On weekdays, I was a patriotic Indian child of the Armed Forces, who went to a government school. I sang a Sanskrit/Hindi prayer, patriotic songs (Saare Jahaan se AchaHind Desh ke NivaasiJanmakaarini Bhaaratam) in all languages***, learnt and recited Sanskrit shlokas, contorted myself into yoga positions (my class’s favourite asana– Shavasana) and saluted to the national anthem everyday.

And I didn’t think that was a dichotomy at all. Because, being Indian was about embracing the weirdness of experience and the plurality of our being. Even more, being a Malayali meant being ridiculously tolerant of religions – being equal opportunity recipients/sufferers of Christmas, Onam, Vishu, Bakrid or passing by Palayam which boasted not only of monuments to three different religions, but also a stadium, a monument erected by the communists and if you looked behind it, Kerala University.

And that was that. Till it wasn’t.

The rise of populism and majoritarian politics is obvious in hindsight. However, as an outsider in every country I live in AND a bleeding heart feminist liberal to boot, it troubles me.

Because… the majority need not fear the minority. There is nothing an extremist from a minority can do that you haven’t thought of and done to yourself.

Because… unity does not mean uniformity. If these few years are the last throes of hyper-nationalism, let’s get it over with. Homogeneity, however, does not bring peace and prosperity. You need to look at better education to be able to do that.

Because… goodness is not the bastion of only the godly, nor is violence (in action and words) the last refuge of the heretics.

Because… I would like to reclaim my life back from people who label me as the other. I have the same pride in my heritage and my same/unique-ness as these people who glory in their rightness. Because, I promise you, you are an outsider to someone else.

***

*We use patronymics like all other South Indians, i.e., my surname George is not my family name – it’s supposed to be my father’s given name (it’s not, but that is for another reason altogether) and hence, my surname. So there’s that too.

**Old Aramaic, similar to what Jesus would have actually spoken on the Sea of Galilea. “But Jesus speaks ENGLISH,” scream some Evangelicals. And I am going to ask them to shut up now.

***Because… Kendriya Vidyalaya.

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2011: The Travelogue

The high (low) lights of the past year’s travels.

Namibia:

Waking up with temporary amnesia in the Namib desert,

Having afternoon tea with camels and some nice German ladies in Swakopmund,

Begging the bartender for Savannahs in the best (and closed) Swakopmund bar at 8:30 with puppy eyes, coaxing – English, German, Damara clicks-and our extreme youth,

Drinking aforementioned Savannah lights on the pier extending into the Atlantic, listening to the crescendo of the waves dancing to the light of the Southern sky (and getting nothing but mixed metaphors in my head),

Saying no to fueling the car when half empty, driving for 300-odd kilometers in the middle of the Namib-Naukluft park and finally finding a petrol station after we were running on petrol fumes,

Trying not to show panic about the petrol situation whilst constructing Doomsday scenarios in the head,

Gawping with awe at the Milky Way from the rather posh tented camp in the Sesriem canyon,

Stuffing the face with springbok, kudu, impala and other assorted antelope,

Painting the desert red in Sossusvlei,

Anti-climactically, finding Windhoek amazingly boring.

Western Cape:

Understanding what gale force winds really mean at the Table Mountain,

Listening to the best string trio (and accordion) at the Waterfront and watching an impromptu dance by a 70 year old woman,

Crossing the highways from V&A to the Westin – ignoring the usual warnings of not to walk,

Watching the spectacle of Penguin against the world at Boulder Bay,

Screaming through a 30′ boat ride through roller coaster seas for a Cape fur seal encounter at Hout Bay,

Getting completely drunk on a wine “tasting” tour of the Groot Constantia estate,

Discovering the prettiest cottages in the world in Franschoek and Stellenbosch,

Figuring out that CT is a great retirement option,

Falling in love with the Cape route,

And finally, discovering the meaning of life at the Cape of Good Hope (“Don’t sweat the small stuff”)

Rest of South Africa:

Swaying to U2 in the Soccer City stadium in Jozi,

Using the power of the tele zoom to get close enough to The Edge to touch him,

Driving through Johannesburg CBD at 7:30 PM in a convoy, hoping that noone would smash the car windows…

… hearing that happened to a friend later anyway,

Living in Sandton for so long that the hotel staff welcomed me home when I showed up after 4 months,

Getting utterly lost on the way to Hartbeespoort dam and driving through Alexandra, where they’d kill you as soon as look at you…

… and driving alone through a 6 km stretch of road with the concise warning: “Area prone to car-jackings”,

Partying: in Sandton, Rosebank, Parktown… just partying,

Running through the rain at 1 AM, regardless of warnings not to walk at night and arriving at the hotel filled with awe at our daring,

Getting a massage in the middle of the bush at night,

Finding myself in the middle of a discussion on whether to fuel the car or to break-down and leave ourselves to the tender mercies of the supposed terrorists lurking in every corner,

Meeting and greeting two leopards – mother and son, in the Sabie-Sabie,

Coming face-to-face with a pride of four lions that also would rather kill you than look at you,

Encountering a family of warthog taking the highway in the Kruger and anthropomorphizing them (“Darling, let’s take the highway, nay?”),

Discovering masculine skills like “cooking a braai”,

Finding the South African accent in my English,

Falling irrevocably in love with the country.

Lesotho:

Taking one hour to travel 200 m from South Africa into Lesotho,

Entering the country with just an entry stamp!

Searching for the donkeys that were mentioned in the Lonely Planet as Lesotho’s chief mode of transportation,

Adjusting to the low light conditions in a shabeen,

Making WWII jokes in a group of Germans and Israelis (woe is me),

Checking out the mad skills of a medicine woman (and also her trusty blue steed/storage area).

Europe:

Walking with my mouth fully open in Keukenhof,

Partying till 4 AM on Saturday morning with a bunch of Germans in Berlin…

And partying till 3 AM on Sunday morning with the same bunch of Germans whilst forming an elite club called “League of Shorties”,

Visiting the Ice Bar in Amsterdam with the Shorty and friends, cackling at the joke, “I don’t have the key. I am level 3.”,

Defiantly ordering a cappuccino in Milano at 2 PM and pretending not to see the Italians dying in the aisles,

Exploiting the executive lounge of the Ambassador Hotel, having breakfast in bed and lunch at St. Germain in Paris,

Building up my house with Pooja in Brussels,

Running through Frankfurt airport Terminal C to the First Class terminal with luggage (3 km including passport control) in 15 minutes behind two directors,

Gawping at Hamleys London again and wishing I was 5 years old,

Discovering the finer points of London (shopping).

US:

Spending most of Easter Sunday stuck at church in Philadelphia, praying for the service to end,

Finding Gino’s Philly cheese steak superior to Pat’s,

Appreciating the Rockefeller Center for more than its architecture,

Stumbling on NYC’s best cupcakes at Magnolia’s (yum),

Getting a handle on Warhol at the MoMA,

Signing up for membership at the New York Met and spending 10 minutes next to the half bust of Nefertiti,

Watching Jon Stewart on Monday and Steven Colbert on Tuesday,

Coming away much affected by Colbert’s personality and introspection,

Wearing jeans in the Waldorf-Astoria lobby  and learning about the dress-code later,

Feeling overawed by the New York skyline,

Listening to the story on Osama Bin Laden on the flight home.

The Philippines:

Never figuring out how exactly to cross the street in Manila,

Partying with French folk!

Ingesting most of the ocean during a sailing trip in Boracay and nearly capsizing,

Getting unbelievably sunburnt due to an obstinacy to put sunscreen,

Listening to reggae at 1 AM by the seaside

Reading a book at 2 AM by the seaside,

Discussing life and other dilemmas with a friend at 3 AM by the seaside,

Paying taxes to come to the country, go through the airport, leave the country, sneezing etc,

Paying 600 pesos to get from one side of the airport to the other…

… and missing the connecting flight anyway.

Australia: 

Spending a rather topsy-turvy Christmas in Melbourne,

Meeting the 12 Apostles on the Great Ocean Road,

Checking out the marine life at the Great Barrier Reef,

Equating Cairns to Kerala in my head, down to small waterfalls,

Impressed by Sydney’s unique mix of New York city skyline and Australian panache,

Discovering, once again, the meaning of life during the best New Year’s Eve celebration on a cruise through the Parade of Lights (“Always display a child-like wonder”)

Ringing in 2012 in the best possible way with a million other Australians.

 

Happy New Year, people!

Bees Saal Baad

My attendance at the London Anusmaran was laced with nostalgia. So here goes…

Every time I pass my mother’s native place (on our way to better cities), she starts off on the same memory trail, “I used to walk 7 km every day to school with my tiffin box in hand, my pavada (long skirt) picking up all dirt from the ground. You wouldn’t know how it was to work hard to get educated. You have always had a car.”

The answer to this non-question is, of course, not what I say afterwards: “I went by school bus, if you can remember!”

This one just prompts a tirade of more reminiscences of how it used to be that buses used to be used only for journeys of longer than 30 km, how my parents used to wake up at 5 AM to attend the 7 AM mass after using a boat to go through un-navigable areas and how she used to cook seven course meals for a whole battalion of Indian Army officers AND their wives on a Bunsen burner.

Whew.

So, I wondered, why is it that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be? Why is it that the older generation seems to have a copyright drawn out on “long road to a difficult education” ™ and “my parents had to save for 10 days to buy me a pencil & slate”™? Why are we profiting from their success in life? So much so that I fear that we will not be able to bore our children with these kind of sob stories!

This cannot be allowed to happen. In recognition of the difficulty of recreating nostalgia like your mom made it, I have drafted the New Age IIM Student’s Guide to Nostalgia Bees Saal Baad.

Scenario: 20 years later, our hero sits with his children, (Aju, aged 12 and Anu, aged 8 years) and wife for one of those rare family dinners he has.

His life has been filled with success and he, like all do-good Indian dads, wants his children to do better! Of course, his frequent foreign trips and the time spent leading the company into the Fortune 500 list (from the Fortune 100 one) have meant that he feels a bit disconnected with what his children are up to.

That does not really matter! He can always fall back on pointless nostalgia.

“So, Aju, how are you doing with your calculus?”

“Dad, I won’t be starting calculus till 11th standard.”

“What rubbish. When I was your age, I was differentiating from the time I was ten. Your mother told me that you are complaining you don’t have enough time to study and your grades are slipping. You are now second in class! How can you not have time? You are only attending 7 tuitions.”

“Dad, I only have 5 subjects.”

Our hero has found the non-sequitur response.  “This is what comes out of giving your children the best comforts in life. My parents used to send me by school bus. School was at least 10 km away. You know how much I was troubled by all the children around me?”

By now our hero has just warmed to his subject.

“I used to get only 20 rupees per week as pocket money till I was 12 years old. Until IIM Bangalore, I had never even used a calculator. We used to use log tables. Look at you, I have bought you laptops to use in class. My father always used to say a little hardship was never hard on children.”

The children are a bit confused and ask what log tables are. Our hero can’t really explain the concept! So he takes refuge in the old adage: offence is the best form of defence.

“This is what comes out of giving your children the best comforts in life. I slog and slog and slog for you. Do you want to go to Harvard? You can’t sit like this and expect everything to fall into your lap. When I went to IIM Bangalore, I had to sit and study everyday to get to where I am. When everyone was drinking and dancing on L^2, I was…”

The next question which the hero suddenly finds hard to answer is what an L^2 is. Between the hemming and hawing, the wife informs two very gleeful children that the L^2 is where their father discovered the pleasures of wine. Among other intoxicants.

“Yes, but I got drunk only on Saturdays and other happy occasions.” (You can see the loophole here!) “And this was only after I had studied for next week, exams and done my projects, read the newspapers and cleaned my room. Have you seen your room lately, young woman? It looks like a badly behaved dog has gone through it.”

“Actually that IS what has happened.”

“When I was your age…”

The wife interrupts, “I heard from your mom, half your room used to be a dustbin and you used to sleep in the other half. Usually on the ground. On the other hand, when I was their age…”

10 minutes later, the whole family is a little worse for the wear. It’s time for the bombshell.

“By the way, darling, your parents are coming to visit us.”

The hero is horrified. “No way. I think I am suddenly required in Dubai then. Dad always talks about the good old days.”

Anusmaran was…

What was splashed everywhere
What was splashed everywhere

A perpetual giggle fest.

I’d been planning to go to London for work and just drop into the Hilton and meet up with old friends, but the work didn’t happen. Loathe to change my plans, I still took the Eurostar to Ole Blighty and met up with Baby Fighter to go for our reunion.

Baby‘s been busy in his first year at London- he’s become the secretary of the Alumni Club (Not surprising- he never can take a day off from being super-enthu.) He often blames me for the same failing, so it hardly came as a surprise that we were amongst the first on the scene at the Hilton on 16th May.

I had a huge grin on my face.

There were a dozen guys from senior batches setting up the projector and setting up the banner, but I had made myself pretty useless in one corner.

People were filling up from the Batch of 2008 and I was really delighted. It felt like I wasn’t living in Europe cut off from my friends and we were regaling each other with stories.

Sheru apparently knew who I was only from my nametag. He’d spent the first 10 minutes merrily ignoring me. I got my revenge all right- he kept referring to his current employer as a “boutique M&A firm specialising in technology.” He really sounded like a consultant avoiding mention of his current client! The comparison hurt his i-banker ego a bit.

By the time the reunion started, we went and occupied the front table. And proceeded to make a ruckus fit to wake up the Devil himself. There were around 12 people crowded around a 8 person table and we were hooting and laughing the loudest.

Videos were aired- some brought a lump in our throat and some made us laugh till we cried.

Damn, I want to go back to IIMB.

After a full round of introductions from the approximately 80 people around the room (batch of 1983-2010), we had a flood of IIMA, IIMC and IIML junta for the pan-IIM alumni reunion.

And that was great too.

All in all, a disjointed post, but ye dil maange more Anusmarans!

Cheers!

Verb-ose

Reading: Mindless, trashy, chicklit. Just because I can.
Singing: A variety of tuneless renditions of The Bee Gees.
Smiling: About absolutely nothing.
Smelling: The gorgeous spring.
Loving: This city I live in.
Sleeping: Like a log. But to the time zone in Singapore.
Working: On absolutely nothing.
Wanting: To go across the road for a nice walk.
And yet…
Feeling: Like just walking away from it all.

Saying Goodbye is Difficult

Two days after convocation, I woke up on a mattress shorn of its linen, in a room that did not look like my home for the past year, in a block that was defeaning in its silence.
This had been the scene of the block parties, midnight gossip sessions, of friendship, of laughter and tears, of companionship, of late night meals from Athica’s and hot coffee for 2 AM cram sessions followed by 3 AM Bracket sessions, of lazy weekends spent lolling around, of trying to get back after L^2s (or get to), of charged up weekends seeing volleyball matches and hours spent reading books. This was the home I ran to- the cool refuge, an oasis of green and pink calm and most of all, cleanliness!

I have left the proof on the table…see… that ring was left by my coffee mug. Look at these walls- the paint is peeling because I stuck my pictures and those tiny stars. Look at those flowers painted on the bookshelf. That was done in a burst of creativity that subsided later.
These little signs are all that’s left of my existence in B-204. The rest has been packed up and sent away. Those memories have been filed away neatly. I am feeling a bit nostalgic already… How will the future be?

Maybe I will be that alumna that goes eagerly to her room 10 years hence, look around and explain that this had been my room for my PGP2 year. Or maybe I shall be that alumna who said that IIMB was WAY better then. Maybe I shall never bother coming back… to those faded yellow walls, the dust that had to be swept everyday and the light that woke me up when the sun rose, the lovely blanket I snuggled in at night.

But I bid adieu to that stone maze that was IIMB, knowing I’d come back again.

I take my bags to Mumbai to attend a wedding. It’s 2 days of roaming around and talking. And again the same hugs and promises to keep in touch. I wave my hand at the girls and blow them kisses. The feelings are the same. I am saying bye to the people I lived with and loved.
I reserve a special hug for Vinay and Saikat… It’s been 2 years of bibliophiling with them. Strand book fairs aplenty, loads of birthday mails, sleisha shady stories and again, lovely memories. Another farewell said, and another promise to keep in touch. This time, I can’t seem to let go of their hands…

But, go I must. The auto makes sure of that.

One month later, we’re back for Sonal’s wedding. The whole gang is at Udaipur (minus a few notables who know who they are!) and attending the ceremonies. All of us stay till 2 AM for the phera and then I suddenly realise I have a flight to catch. We get back to the guesthouse in a hurry.

Half an hour later, Sonal is back. We all rush down to see her. She looks like a little doll made to life in her deep red skirt. I watch her take her first steps into the room, her red feet leaving prints on the marble floor.
Noone’s saying a word, but everyone feels it… the gravity of the situation. This does not feel like the other weddings I have been to. A lump rises in my throat and my eyes suddenly feel slightly wet.
The ending is anti-climactic. All of us walk quietly away from the passage and agree that this was… poignant.

I greedily hold those memories close to my heart, looking around trying to blaze into my mind those last moments. Our last card game, the last night talking together, our last trip (Rooti Rani anyone?!), throwing the peas at each other.
We’re still gloriously together but soon it’ll be time to go.

And all too soon, I need to leave to the airport to go to Mumbai. I need to get my visa. And four guys have volunteered to drop me off! Karan says, “Georgy, last night I was the only one who said I’d come. And today you seem ultra popular.”
Abhay*, Ken and Jayarama squeeze into the Maruti as well. I am giggling like a small child and my spirits are high.

Half an hour later, I have been deposited at the small Udaipur airport. I hug them all and stand waving till the car leaves. Suddenly, I feel alone and my heart is heavy. I have just bid farewell to the best days of my life.**

This time, it’s just that distance.

I walk into the marble tiled departure hall. It’s the start of a new life.

It’s hard to say goodbye… To IIMB, my friends, to the life I led, to India, to my family. To those who have made me who I am, to the ones I love so much, this is not a goodbye.

*Yes, the selfsame one.
**Till now anyway.

Of Questions and Love

She looked at me with those big black eyes, accusatory in their fluidness. The question was sure to come.

It was supposed to be a family dinner. The four of us were seated around a table, tucking into fish curry and rice. The conversation had been desultory till now. The usual topics were dominating conversation – school, work, family- what you got when 4 women of wildly disparate ages were around the table.
Till, she turned her gaze on me and asked in that piping high voice (embarrassingly loud that she reserved for public humiliation, usually when a hush had descended on the gathering), “Komma*, why do you sleep so late and wake up at 12 PM?”

I was in the middle of putting a tender morsel of fish into my mouth when I was taken unawares by the out-of-the-blue question. I put my fork down.
Chechi burst out laughing and announced gleefully, “You must remember someone is watching you all the time.”
My seven year old niece continued to look at me calmly.

Now she thinks I am her age, which is funny because I can remember the day she was born. I was a proud 16 year old aunt (Oh, how I hated that moniker of Aunty or Kochamma) and she was a tiny little pink faced bundle wrapped up in white sheets, barely able to open her eyes. She’d fluttered her little eyelashes in the harsh fluoroscent light, struggled a bit against the covering by flailing her arms around (she still does it!) and smiled that smile for the first time. The smile that was crafted by the angels, but had more than a spark of mischief in it. My heart had gone out to her and she had grasped it firmly in her pudgy little hands. My lovely little baby niece.

“Well, I guess I sleep late because I am used to doing that. It’s been two years since I have always slept at around 1 AM every night at college.” Sometimes, I get this unnecessary urge to compete with her… a seven year old!
I wanted to tell her about my exams in eleventh standard, when she was my failsafe alarm. After 2 hours of mugging Organic Chemistry at midnight, I’d tuck myself into bed for a half an hour’s rest knowing that she’d wake up and scream bloody murder till she got what she wanted in about… oh… 32 minutes. And she did, and of course, it was time to get back to learning what acetylsalicylic acid did.

She shook her head because she didn’t get it. And for her, understanding is everything. “Why can’t you be like me? I sleep at 8:30 and wake up at…”
I said, “6:30. You tried to wake me up in the morning.”
She still completed her sentence doggedly, “Seven. Why can’t you be like my Mamma? She always sleeps and wakes up with me.”
“Your mamma stays up late till 2 AM sometimes!”
My sister shot me a nasty glance (gulp!) and soothed her, “Baby, sometimes mamma stays up late when she doesn’t feel like sleeping.”
I continued, “When I was your age I used to wake up at 6 AM. And your mamma used to sleep late when I used to wake up and raise hell at home for breakfast.”
And that was true too. I remember pattering to the TV in my aunt’s house and putting on Cartoon Network when my 6 cousins and one sister were sleeping happily in their rooms. It was the only time I got to decide what I wanted to watch. I even remembered trying to pull chechi off the bed at 8 AM because the school bus would come in 30 minutes, and she refused to wake up. This would go on till I gleefully did what my mom ordered- pour water on her face. She’d wake up with a start and glare at me. I’d yell happily from a distance, “Mamma told me to wake you up!”

My niece doesn’t want to believe that her mother is less than perfect, she is at that age. She’s also the kind that will pursue any subject to the very end. “Koooommmmmaaa.” She’s elongating the syllable now, she must be getting irritated. “I come back from school, sit and finish all my school work and home work. If you don’t finish all that, how will you study well?”
This was getting ridiculous. Chechi was enjoying the spectacle and nodding sagely to everything her little scamp said.

Of course, the brat doesn’t remember those old days when could do nothing but lie on her back feeling amazed by the wonderful world around. I used to go to her and read her all sorts of stories. At a crunch, she deven listened to me reading out Electromagnetic Theory in a loud monotone to her. I still remember that look of fascination on her face and those chubby fingers trying to grab my notes. It always used to earn her a surreptitious pinch of her cheek.

I stuck out my tongue childishly at her and said, “I finished studying. This is my vacation. Even you stay up late during your vacation.” I calculated quickly, “I have had 21 years of studying”
My mother snorted, “You weren’t studying since you were 2 years old.”
I should REALLY do my sums better, “Okay, 2 years of KG, 12 years of school, 4 years of B.Tech and 2 years of MBA makes 20 years. TWENTY!”
My niece still had to have the last word, “But you told me you never went to school and went to college directly.”

Shoot. I should remember that she really remembers every word I say. Next time I’ll keep the tall stories straight.

This morning, I dragged myself awake at 8 AM, just to prove a point to her. And I felt those beautiful little arms hug me around my neck and that sweet cheek rub against mine. “I love you, komma.”

I love you too, baby.

* What a 18 month old baby made of kochamma