8th Grade and The Three Musketeers

Sampat

I was excited about going to 8th grade, I was finally moving back to morning shift after 3 painful years in the afternoon shift. I hated afternoon shifts, because I wasted all morning doing either homework or worrying about teachers spanking me for two reasons

1) Things I did not do

2) Things I did do.

I loved the morning shift because I  could get out before 1.00 PM and then I could play outside until dad got home. Why only until dad got home? Because dad believed that pressure creates diamonds . No no , not out of coal but out of young malleable minds who should be pressured to better their minds rather than waste valuable time in idle horseplay.I once recited  “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”, he flew into a rage and finally after calming down , he informed me that  it was an English conspiracy to keep the Indian proletariat under their thumbs.

For my first day , I was excitedly awaiting the class teacher , the teacher came in into the class and I saw with great pleasure that it was Mrs. Mascarenhas, the elderly lady who was extremely affectionate towards all the kids. However I learnt to my utter dismay that it was not her who would be the class teacher but Mrs. Sudha, Mrs. Sudha had a reputation for toughness, today they would probably lock her up and throw away the key . There was a rumor among the students that in one of her fits of rage she had pulled an arm out of a socket permanently, the dude apparently walked around with one hand swinging to the ground. Mrs. S’s entrance was followed by a pin drop silence, Mrs. Sudha wore the look of a satisfied tigress who had just devoured a full cow and she announced her plan for helping the repeaters in the class. “I have decided that all the boys who have been in the 8th grade for the last few years need to make a attempt to pass this year, these boys need a role model to emulate and so we are going to have these boys sit with the smart new boys of 8th grade. Srikanth will sit with Sachin, Vineet will sit with Deepak, Sanjay will sit with Virendra and Johnson will sit with Sampat….”. I stopped listening and looked around in trepidation trying to see who Johnson was but I saw so many new faces that I was completely at a loss. Apparently Mrs. Sudha was preoccupied with bigger priorities and she busied herself with the schedules and soon afterwards it was time to go home. I was thrilled when it was time to go home, I was looking forward to playing with my friend Somu  . I really liked Somu and considered him a good natured gentle soul

(Narr – Somu was one of those boys who was scraping by the skin of his teeth each year and his parents had convinced him to hang around boys who were more academically gifted so that intellectual osmosis could succeed where they had failed.)

Our favorite activity was cricket . The baffled reader might query “Cricket with 2 players!!!” ,  let me respond to that with a quote “Necessity is the mother of invention”. The rules of modified cricket were more complex than straight cricket and even a professional player would have been befuddled by the rules but we enjoyed themselves hugely until Somu’s mother came over and screamed at Somu “Arre melya(wastrel), when are you going to read your textbooks? Sampat is a smart boy he can pass without studying, you need to study and work hard. Sampat, you need to let Somu study so he can pass with good marks too” .I smiled a sheepish grin and made off wistfully towards my house and worse it was just 5.00 PM . I chanced upon Amrita , my neighbour as I was walking back home, she was growing up to be a beautiful girl .  Alas , it is one of tragedies of my life that the poetry that flows in  my heart cannot make it way to my tongue so I walked on, tongue tied , trying hard to think of something clever , something impressive , anything but myself but before I could succeed in my brilliant plan, she passed me oblivious to my pain , more concerned about the state of her makeup . Probably getting ready to meet her boyfriend Pramod who liked to brag about her .

As I morosely entered the house, the gloom pervaded and I wondered gloomily about homework.  I hated homework with a passion. The school bag held no attraction so decided instead to re read the latest issue of Chandamama . I loved the story of Vikram and the Vampire and the story involved a beautiful princess trapped by a wizard and a handsome prince rescuing her and the Chandamama artist had done a great job of depicting the beauty of the princess on paper along with dressing her suitably to arouse a normal full blooded male’s passion. I stared at the princess long enough to get uncomfortably aroused, when my uncle happened to spy upon me and he snapped ,”You better stop that or else you will go blind”.

Fortunately for me , my evening turned out to be entirely uneventful with the only piece of conversation between me and my dad being a gruff inquiry about my first day at school , after I started my unintelligible mumble about him being unhappy about Mrs. S being the class teacher, dad said “well done , you have to make us proud in SSC”.  Mom is usually more sympathetic but she seemed disinterested in my woes today . I wondered morosely at the purpose of academics and the futility of it all . At that fateful moment of self-pity and inner contemplation, I ‘realized’ that my wife would be that person . She had to be!!! after all everybody knew that the quality of the procured wife was directly proportional to my grades. After more deep contemplation on those lines, I decided to try my textbooks again , but the ungainly sight of that wretched school bag undid all my efforts and add to the distraction when dad had turned on the Television for his news so I picked up my Chandamama for the umpteenth time and opened up the page which showed the beautiful well endowed princess.

The next day turned out to be a nightmare . Johnson was a bully who looked old enough to have a child as old as me, he looked at him in contempt and spat out “So you are Sampat huh, ” It was followed by a long list of profanities in chaste Marathi directed at my mother , my father and general ancestry.  “The smart mother f*&$#r who is supposed to help me pass this year”. went on Johnson.  I was extremely offended by the choice of his language but wisdom honed by centuries of survival instincts dictated that I dare not air my annoyance . So I smiled as pleasantly as I could and spat out “That stupid Sudha, she is brainless” to which Johnson laughed and  I seemed to create a spirit of bon homie in him by inventing a common foe. “You are a smart sisterf#@$r, I like you. Just know one thing, mind your own business and don’t tell me what to do and you can sit here peacefully else I will f$@% you up . This here is Sanjay and Srikanth, you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us . Got that , Shorty?? ” I had no clue what ‘f$@%’ meant but I understood enough not to ever raise Johnson’s ire or Srikanth’s or Sanjay’s. Some might call them the unholy trinity of our school but having just read Alexander Dumas’ three Musketeers , I knew what I was about to christen them.

So I patiently bore Johnson’s annoying habit of spluttering saliva all over the person nearest to him , or his odious habit of chewing tobacco or his awful  body odor.

One day however the three musketeers did not come to school which was a big relief ,I decided to move and sit next to my oldest pal Virendra , who has been with me since 1st grade. The teacher discussed the Aryan invasion of India about 5000 years ago and mentioned that Aryans were fair and tall whereas Dravidians were short and ugly and the Dravidians had lost to the Aryans. Dhani and Virendra decided they were Aryans since they were fair skinned decided to gang up on me.  I was told that I was a dravidian because I was short and dark and from South India . Some pals, right??  I was annoyed with my ‘ancestors’ for having lost the war to the stupid Aryans and putting me in this position today. I went home brooding and wondered what made my stupid ancestors lose and decided to ask my father in the evening , but he was not the least interested which made me feel even worse and I invariably dreaded the next morning.

However the next day Johnson returned and I lovingly toyed with the idea of letting Johnson know what Virendra and Dhani thought of dark short people since Johnson was just a touch lighter than coal but then I did not like the thought of being labelled a ‘chamcha’ (squealer) for the rest of the term.

Johnson was singing a song in the same tune as V Shantaram’s immortal classic “Eh Maalik tere Bande hum” in terrible Hindi.

oh darling, I am in your homestead

admiring your wondrous bedstead

your softness beckons

my manhood hardens

The original lyrics in a vulgar dialect of Hindi was in a language so colorful that it would make a sailor blush and sure to offend the refined senses of my readers so I will forego that.

The actual translation took several years for me to fully comprehend .At the time it sounded like some vulgar gibberish. Johnson looked extremely happy so out of courtesy I asked him why he was so happy to which he replied, “Ooooh , I saw my whore yesterday”. I had always heard the term whore in a derogatory manner and yet Johnson seemed to say that with real affection and of course I had no idea what ‘saw’ meant so I decided I would rather not play too stupid in case Johnson got mad. So I ventured casually “Where did you see your whore?” to which Johnson bemusedly replied “In the whorehouse , of course?” , it was follow by a guffaw from Srikanth who was listening in. He asked me with a conspiratorial chuckle , “Do you know what we do with a whore?”

I was too dumbstricken to answer. I was not aware of the quote “Deer in the headlights” but I imagine that was probably me , Deer with a 18 wheeler barreling towards me at 100 miles an hour.

“You just have to go there and pick yourself whoever you think you like the most and then you take her into her room and take her clothes off and make love to her” Johnson replied as if that was the most natural thing in the world for a 14 year old to know.My eyes glazed over “make what??????” . Johnson looked at me affectionately in that manner which a venerable wise man looks at a eager student who is desirous of all the knowledge in the world. “Tell you what, get 15 rupees next month and I will take you with me to meet my whore and you can kiss her  too” and he winked. My joy knew no bounds and the excitement made my head pound. Starting that day,  the sole purpose of my existence was to collect 15 rupees.

I walked home with a spring in my step feeling somewhat powerful and the delicious feeling of stealth that comes over when you know you have a secret from the whole wide world. I felt a feeling almost bordering on contempt as I saw people that I interacted with daily. I then started worrying about procuring 15 rupees from my mother without her finding out what I was planning to do with it. I decided maybe I would try to run more grocery errands for her, that way I would sneak out a few rupees and hopefully have the magical amount by the end of the month. Now much as I thought I could not conjure up the magical amount by the month end cos my mother was just too sharp so my last resort was hoodwinking my uncle into letting me run errands around the house . But try as I may , I could not think of anything useful that I could do which would enable the magic amount to change hands .

The magic number 15 etched itself in my mind , my soul . Johnson however seemed to have all but forgotten his promise and seemed disinterested in me. The next couple of weeks seemed like eternity stretched out and no solution or end in sight .One of those days, our biology teacher was teaching us all about the mating habits of frogs.  After all the gory details were laid out , Johnson , Srikanth and Sanjay chuckled and Johnson said in a low tone “wonder if he has to give Rs 15 too”, it was a sneaky chuckle . I was baffled now , I failed to see the connection between the mating habits of frogs and the magical amount of Rs 15. I imagined that I had somehow missed a critical part of the frog commerce due to my own affliction with the number 15 .  After school , I saw the three musketeers at a Kulfi (Indian icecream) stand , the science of making kulfi is honed into a fine art by these kulfi artists.  The sweetened cream spiced with cardamom is dropped into thin metal pyramidal moulds and a bamboo stick is inserted into the center and stuck inside an ice box . There are 3 sizes to choose from , the thin one which lasted maybe a dozen licks was 25p , the one bigger than that was 50p and then you had the giant for Rs 1. Magically the kulfi vendor knows which one is frozen solid and which ones to leave in longer . When you give him the money, he will whip out a mould and dip it in a water canister that he keeps nearby and viola the ice cream stick slides out like butter. It would take two more years before I found out that it was actually salt water and why it slid out so easily but at the time, it seemed like magic . I could never get the ice cubes out of trays by merely dipping them in water .

But coming back the three musketeers had each bought the 25p one and gawking at the girls coming out  so I ventured to ask Johnson if he would still take me with him at month end if I did not have the money  . He told me to “f@#^ off” in no uncertain terms and also picked up a few pebbles and threw them at me just to reinforce his decision .

Come the month end and I was all antsy , I was in school but my mind was not in school.I was still too busy trying to figure out how to get that magic amount and convince Johnson to take me along . I could visualize myself with this extremely gorgeous woman who looked like the personification of the princess in my Chandamama . I imagined that she would be pleased to do the slightest bidding when I handed her the magical amount of Rs 15 . I was lost in my own private melodrama when I heard something akin to a thunderous roar , I jumped up and realized that Mrs Vasantha was upon me. I looked up petrified at her

“Sorry , maam ”

She roared this time “when do frogs mate??”

I have not the slightest clue but Johnson’s comment came to mind and I decided to venture an answer  “When the frog gets 15 Rs” .

I will never forget the expression on Mrs. Vasantha’s face ,nor will I ever forget the laughter that arose from the class . I looked around and saw Johnson glare at me.  Needless to say that was warning enough for me not to rat him out . I realized I was in trouble, but little idea as to how deep I was in, I was made to kneel down before the principals office for the whole day but before that I got a humiliating whacking from Mrs. Vasantha in front of the class and then from Mrs. Shanthi the principal. My parents were summoned the next day, I will never forget the heart wrenching panic I felt. I would have liked to be a fly on the wall for the parent teacher meeting. Luckily for me , my father did not come along. When my mother came out , she came out in a daze, I guess it never crossed her mind that her dear son had actually grown up and lost at least part of his innocence, though in all honesty looking back I have to say that I had lost none of that innocence yet but somehow I was guilty . Her face made a terrible impression on me , one that I never forgot . It was one of anguish and confusion, for the life of me I could not understand why I had hurt her so badly , her look which seemed to convey disappointment and shame , all in one glance . It seemed too terrible a punishment . But she pulled herself together very quickly , not before I swore to myself , never ever again would I ever do something that would hurt her so terribly.

We stopped outside the school at a guava vendor and she asked him to cut up a guava for us and spice it up with that special mixture of salt and chili powder . She took one slice and gave me the rest started walking home . She started talking about the spice mixture and how it never seems to taste that way when she made at home .I could care less about the spice mixture and dreaded the moment my father found out, if my mother seemed so shook up, I shuddered to think what my dad would say and do.   I was silent on the way home dreading the inevitable. Finally the terror of having to explain this to my father got the better of me, I turned around and asked her “Can you please not tell dad about this?”

She looked at me silently ,”I wont but I need to know where you found out about this” . Shamefacedly I told her about Johnson and also imploring her not to complain because a Chamcha (squealer) gets ostracized and beaten up at school.

She smiled at me and told me not to worry . She kept her word , my dad queried as to why she needed to go to school , she fobbed him off with some answer that seemed to satisfy him.

The next day at school seemed as though nothing had changed , Johnson sat next to me and leered at me and said “Whats up , Rs 15?” . I politely smiled and said nothing. After that point I tried my damnedest to ignore him and focus. The week passed by uneventfully but I had a big surprise on Monday when I came back .The three musketeers were missing , I figured they had pulled another disappearing act but Mrs Sudha announced that Johnson , Srikanth and Sanjay had been transferred to a different division . To say that I was relieved would be an understatement.

That afternoon after returning home , I told mom the news . She acted surprised and happy but I knew her well enough to know that she was not truly surprised. She had managed to somehow pull strings  or make calls to make this happen. All my years in that school, I had never seen that happen before or happen since .  I looked at her with gratitude and pride , my mother was not one who was about to let anybody harm her cubs . She caught my look and smiled benevolently and went back to the kitchen .

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The Surrogacy of happiness

Sampat

‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Tennyson

I was an arrogant stripling in my teenage years, an infuriating know it all. I was also an insufferable chauvinistic pig , my poor sister probably bore the brunt of those years but so did the few female classmates who seemed overly interested in me and would land up at my house without invitation . Perhaps the quality of those girls was suspect but my egoism and scorn for the female gender just got worse as time passed and I was convinced that getting married was probably the dumbest thing that anybody could do. Add to that arrogance a general contempt for the foibles and fallacies of the common man and a general conviction that an IQ test be administered before one is allowed to breed and you have the perfect bachelor, not  that he is perfect but his air of smugness would ensure that it would drive away any self respecting woman within a radius of a 100 miles.

The idea of being bound to a single woman seemed like fiction, something that I could not even begin to fathom because it seemed so ridiculously absurd . Matrimony seemed akin to a prison that a man unwillingly walks into, blackmailed into , forced into by social norms, by parents who having undergone the ordeal of matrimony and who cannot endure the thought that their offspring be happy forever or perhaps more charitably put, a myth specifically perpetrated on the human race to ensure the survival of children, in short social norms formed the walls of this prison . The price of breaking through these walls are worse than breaking through prison walls, one is ostracized for life so fear keeps us in check.

I was convinced that blissful bachelorhood was the fate that I was destined for, I was certainly going to fight tooth and nail to ensure that , I was compiling a long list of arguments that I was going to offer my dad when time would come by when he would insist on me getting handcuffed to some girl who would probably be as unwilling as me .  My arguments and demands were as follows

  1. I want to travel the world , wife and family will hamper that
  2. I want to read all the great books and unless she is as interested in reading those great books and discuss with me, I will not marry her because it needs to be a wavelength match . I know what I want and don’t mind being alone.
  3. She should be exceptionally fair  (good luck finding that in my caste)
  4. She should also be exceptionally beautiful otherwise I might get enticed by the next beautiful woman who comes along. Only way to guard against that is to make sure that she was exceptionally beautiful
  5. She should be a cook as good as my dad or my mom (I was firmly convinced that 4 and 5 are mutually exclusive)
  6. She has to smarter than me (I was arrogance personified and I just knew that to be not possible )
  7. She should know as many languages as I do , through an happy accident of fate, I could speak 5 languages fluently and learning two more so I knew damn well and certain that I would never find anybody else who could .
  8. She should be exceptionally good humored and keep me in good humor at all times (a tall order!!)
  9. She should be extremely patient.
  10. She should never criticize me , merely lovingly correct me
  11. She should encourage me to reach for the stars and if things get too hard then provide TLC as she lovingly continues to encourage me.

 

Having just graduated from high school with grades that I perceived as a cut above the rest ,I thought no end of myself , I was self assured and deliriously over confident with a chip on my shoulder , the world was for my taking. High school was a place of known rules and restrictions with definite and concrete consequences for breaking the rules . These rules envelopes one into a comfortable cocoon . Like moths bursting out of a cocoon , we were  introduced to a college which had no rules , no  strictures that would be dealt with stark punishments when violated .  The sudden liberty got most of us intoxicated and it was followed by two years of wasted potential. Years later , I would encounter this quote and still marvel at its brilliance and succinct wisdom

Sudden power is apt to be insolent, sudden liberty saucy; that behaves best which has grown gradually

Benjamin Franklin

Pride comes before a fall , always . You can have a million and one reasons not to fall in love but when Cupid’s arrow finally finds it mark , the million reasons vanish quicker than hope after a lottery announcement. Cupid finally had me in his sights on a sunny July morning.While everybody around me seemed to be in awe of my mysterious silence and other sundry qualities that had been automatically assigned to me thanks to my seemingly impenetrable aura of silence , she seemed blissfully unaware and could penetrate my ‘invincible’ shield at will . She had several weapons at her disposal and I would have been utterly helpless against any one of these let alone the entire armory , first off she had her own feisty irrepressible sense of humor that could send me into peals of laughter, her voice sounded like the musical tinkling of bells ;a celebration of sorts by themselves that I could listen to for hours  , her eyes had a mesmerizing quality that could freeze me in place , a heady ,intoxicating fragrance always enveloped her , utterly self assured she seemed to have little or no trouble putting me in my place and while these interactions would send me to a fit of fury, she also seemed to know mysteriously how to calm me down just as quickly and as if all these qualities were not  enough she was extremely beautiful. With magic like this in the air , it would hardly come as a surprise to anyone but me that I quickly and completely fell in love with her. I was not old enough to understand what I felt or even what she meant to me and that those feelings are meant to be encountered only once in a lifetime . Having overdosed myself on Ayn Rand’s philosophy as spouted in the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, I had come to regard altruism as contemptible . But falling in love changed my purpose in life ; overnight altruism seemed all too essential . Seeing her smiling face was the only thing that made me happy . I existed just to make her happy . In that spirit seeing her unhappy made me miserable ,or anybody passing lewd comments made me near homicidal . I developed a pathological hatred for some of these folks and tried my damnedest to sabotage them in anyway that I could , with all the enthusiasm of an overconfident , hormone crazy teenager. In short everything in my life was transformed the moment that I met her ; I was totally and completely in love. It was as though my life before her was a black and white morass transformed overnight into a rich feast of colors , sounds , taste and sensation ; a sumptuous feast of life ,there was no other time in my life that I can remember having that zest for life as I had felt in those days. Those days were heady and intoxicating, years later I would learn that the oxytocins that the brain releases when you are in love are the same as released by cocaine , no wonder that drug addicts had such a hard time giving it up.  As time passed , I knew that there would be nobody else that could walk in her stead and I decided on the unthinkable , I actually decided to tell her that I was in love with her and was ready to walk the path of monogamy with her , the same path of monogamy that I had always scoffed at, but in this case monogamy was not something to be dreaded but welcomed like a prized crown jewel, it would be the crowning glory of my life . I suddenly encountered a thorny problem,  with all my knowledge and my reading and my erudition , I had a realization that I had missed out on learning some basic life skills ,namely asking a girl out. Some of my so called friends came to the rescue  and I had an eclectic collection of solutions from these idiots .  Though you will agree that I am the biggest idiot for considering these solutions.

  1. Hang out around her house all the time . After all we covet what we see so to make her covet me, make sure that she sees me everyday (this was advice from one who was obsessed with Silence of the Lambs, I am still waiting to see if his girlfriend disappears).
  2. Send her a letter , letting her know how I felt . This posed a second thorny problem , how to present it to her . So more idiotic solutions followed which only raised more questions
    1. Mail it to her house  .Question -How do I get the address????
    2. Steal a book from her bag and slip the letter into the book . Q – How will she know to look and who is going to steal ?
    3. Borrow a book and then slip it in. Q- same problem as above
    4. Have my friend deliver it
    5. Have her friend deliver it .Q – Who was to approach her friend?
    6. Telegram it . Q – Again begs for the home address?
    7. If I was worried about her reaction to the letter then write the letter in code and deliver it, that way she would not be able to decipher what was written. This particular idiot works on Wall street for a big investment firm these days , probably caused the financial catastrophe of 2008 all by himself  !!!
  3. Have one of my friends tell her how I felt and propose on my behalf (Hopefully it would be a loyal friend who would not interject his own proposal to her)
  4. Call her on the phone and tell her. Q – How do I get the Phone number???

Finally the pressure of desiring to let her know overcame me and I ended up creating acquaintances with undesirables for the sole purpose of getting her phone number instead of just asking her. The length to which I was willing to go for her had already convinced me that there was nothing that I would not do for her with the exception of being utterly honest with her about my feelings for her. I worshiped the ground she walked on , but paradoxically I would not tolerate chinks in my aura of fake invulnerability , priorities in life is a lesson that is hard to learn and harder to apply.So finally I managed to make that dreaded phone call, and as soon as I heard her voice , I froze up . I could not bring myself to tell her the reason for calling her, instead asked her about her dog . Needless to say, she was quite miffed but somehow deep down I knew that she already knew why I was calling. After 5 such calls where I asked about the dog, the chemistry homework, the physics practical , the botany exam and the location of the class (which never changed) , I shot out “I lvu” , understandably she was confused and asked me to repeat myself at which time, the syllables flowed out a little slower , just a little slower but enough to be comprehensible, “I lv u” . There was a short pause and then she said very coldly “So” . I don’t think that I have ever been deflated so quickly , so effectively, so ruthlessly , so completely. I listened in stunned disbelief , my emotions trampled underneath a giant steam roller, I would rather than I had been trampled underneath that steam roller instead of my emotions, humiliation surged through me like a hot knife through butter, my cheeks flushed and I could suddenly understand the sentiment of wanting the earth to open up and swallow me whole.After what seemed like an eternity , I heard my voice from another world snap “What do you mean by so? ” To which she responded just cool as a cucumber ,”What do you want me to do?” I could endure the humiliation no longer so I simply hung up.

The burning humiliation of the cold contemptuous rejection was like septic bile surging through my system . The impotence of rage finally gave in to the only possible avenue open to me, I cut off all ties . Eventually the foolishness of youth and the unhappy happenstances of providence cascaded into a series of decisions where by I ended up losing her before I ever had a chance to ask her to marry me.

The erstwhile quote from Tennyson has always bugged me . I wonder if Tennyson really understood what he meant , to me it sounds like he could duck hunt with a rake when he wrote that.

But I realize now that perhaps it was my former arrogance, my withering contempt for all and sundry that had come back to haunt me as a sense of contempt for myself because now I longer measured up to her and was obsessed with the incessant need to better myself , do something worthwhile so that I could be worthy of her . That was the effect she had on me, she made me want to be a better man .So maybe Tennyson did know what he was talking about.

Travelling to Phoren lands

Vivek got up early at 4.00 in the morning today. Today was the big day , he was finally going to see the ‘phoren’ land where beggars come to beg in expensive foriegn cars and girls were coming in from nowhere and begging you to do wicked things to them. His friends had told him about foreign lands where people walk naked on the street and make love with you on the street at the slightest hint. Then he came out of his reverie and looked outside at the dark street and felt a wave of nostalgia engulfing him as he realized that it would be a long time before he saw this sight again. Then he decided that he should complete his morning abolutions, the Hindus believe that the morning abolutions and toilet rituals are to be performed as soon as a man gets up. He picked the bowl of water and walked into the latrine and squatted down thoughtfully, he had heard that in the western world, you had to sit on a chair to defecate. He thought to himself that the ways of the western world were pretty weird, “why do you need a chair to do something as dirty as defecate, unnecessary waste of a chair if you ask me”.

After finishing he came out and brushed his teeth .He went to the kitchen and saw that his mother was already busying herself in the kitchen. She looked at him with hurt eyes the moment her eyes fell on him, she was scared that her son would never come back, she had heard that once young boys went to ‘Amricca’, ‘firang pori'(foriegn girls) are just waiting to entrap these innocent boys and then these boys will never come back to pay respects or take care of their ‘aai-vadil'(mom-dad).

He was an only son, the fond apple of her eyes and the first person in her family to go across the seven seas. She had fainted when she heard that her only son was going to travel in some giant bird, the last time she ever saw something like that was in a movie called “Sant Tukaram” which depicted the great sixteenth century saint being taken to the vaikuntam or the other world on the wings of Garuda , the giant eagle which served as a vehicle for lord Vishnu. Despite her acute dissent to having her son going away, her husband had listened to Ramadoraisamy , Vivek’s Madrasi friend who had told him that Vivek would be paid 1.3 lakh rupees a month and decided that it would be in Vivek’s best interest to have the boy sent to ‘Amricca’ and have the boy earn for two years before he could come back and buy a nice house in Phaltan so that he could show off to the Patil that he could afford a house much bigger than the Patil’s bungalow. Now Vivek’s mom was peeved at Dorai and decided he was an infidel and he looked like a one too. Dorai was a South Indian boy with shifty beady eyes and skin that was so dark that he would be invisible in a dark room, he talked with a weird accent and he could not speak Marathi at all, he spoke with Vivek’s father in Hindi and that too with great difficulty. Vivek’s mother was convinced that Dorai was from some place called Affreecca that she had seen on TV long back when she had visited her brother in Pune. But she thought that it was awfully decent of Dorai to wear some decent clothes to come here, after all were not those people wearing only some piece of cloth around those ‘parts’.

She had heard that you could not get good food in those places; she had seen those people eating only raw animal flesh and drinking animal blood. She had issued dire warnings to Vivek that it would be the sacrilege to eat god’s creatures that would not be pardoned even if he performed penance for seven ‘janmas’ (incarnations).She reminded him that the cow had 64,000 gods living in it and he should never think of drinking cow blood. She had decided that she would send Vivek with atleast a year’s supply of jowar and rice so that her boy would not have to hunt and eat animals. Then for good measure she wanted to throw in a few quintals of wheat just in case . She had also packed all possible spices she could think of, in the trunk that was used by Vivek’s grandfather that weighed at least 100 kgs. Then she looked around and saw the 5 pieces of luggage that she had packed, one for the clothes and books and the rest for his food, and she let out a satisfied sigh and she called out to him, “Arrre Vivek, if you finish this rice or jowar , send me a letter a week before it gets over and I will pack more for you and send it by post”. The postman in the village was a very friendly man and she always gave’baksheesh’ to him during Diwali so she was sure he would do the needful. Vivek came over and she got out his cup of tea that he so loved in the mornings, he took his first long sip which sounded like a duck in water trying to swallow the lake in one gulp, he let out a satisfied sigh and told her “You know Aai, the one thing I would really miss in America is your chaha(Tea), I have heard that they drink only coffee there”. His mother looked at him and said “Arre halkat, you will miss only my chaha, you won’t miss me or your Baba?” Vivek looked at her and her eyes already seem to be moistening, he was immediately struck down by guilt and pleaded with her not to cry, and he gave her Pundalik’s example of how he would come back and serve her and Baba, that seemed to pacify her and she repeated her advice “Stay away from firang pori”.

He decided to take his bath and get ready to start for the Airport, though the flight was late at night, he wanted to get to Bombay before 8.00 PM and he knew he had a long drive from Phaltan.

As Vivek set foot in the airport completely overawed by the milling crowd at the airport, everybody hurrying about, seemed to Vivek like this was the first time in his life he had seen so many people actually look as if they had a purpose on their minds. As he stood there gasping in wonder the police constable rudely asked him, “Ticket????” which bought a wonder struck Vivek back to reality. He fumbled in his pouch for his passport , ticket and his school and college certificates , and as he got ready with his pile of certificates and showed them to the constable, the constable looked with some disgust at the huge pile and then caught eye of the ticket and waved him ahead. As he pushed his trolley ahead he saw a weird looking box with rubber flappers. He saw luggage being sent into the box , he wondered if this was some shortcut way for the luggage to be sent directly to the plane and he started wondering about the intricacies of the tunnel that they would have had to dig to send the luggage directly to the plane .He wondered if he was standing on the roof of the tunnel and how much it would hold with so many people walking on it. He started panicking about his delicate luggage and he wondered if he should ask the man near the ‘tunnel’ if he could carry the luggage with him on the plane personally so when the roof collapsed due to the weight of so many people he would not have to search for his luggage among the debris, as a kid he had the seen the movie ‘Kaala Pathar ‘ where they had shown a mining accident and he did not want any of that to happen to his luggage. As he walked towards the box, he saw that the boxes were being spit out from the other end, his first thought was that this was the luggage of some arriving plane. His theories were swiftly disbursed when he saw the same man walk to the other end and pick the bag. He was baffled by this apparently stupid activity where you send the baggage thru one end and get it out the other , seemed like a lot of heave ho for nothing. He wondered if he should ask the man if he could skip it for Vivek, maybe he could tell him that he was leaving for the USA and that would impress the man enough to leave him alone so he started walking towards the man standing near the end and shoving the luggage inside.

“Saaheb, I am going to the USA.” said Vivek.

“So?” the man said in a irritated tone.

Vivek caught eye of the TV monitor behind the man and he could see a pressure cooker in the bag and then he saw the bag come out of the other end, still closed. He decided to watch the next bag more closely and he saw it go in closed and he could see a couple of utensils and then the bag came out of the other end seemingly untouched, now he was convinced these people were upto no good and were probably scrutinising the luggage to see if they could find something they liked. ” I don’t want to put my luggage in that box” whined Vivek.

The man looked at him suspiciosly

“Everybody has to go through security check” barked the man

“But I am going to the USA” , pleaded Vivek

“I don’t care where you are going, you have to go thru security check, otherwise you can’t check-in your baggage” the man snapped .

Vivek decided one last try, “I don’t want to check-in my baggage”

Now the man got irritated, he turned around to him “Then you can’t fly to the USA”

Vivek pondered over his predicament, he then turned to the man and said “Please don’t take my ‘launcha’ and chutney from the box, my mother packed that especially for me”

The man looked at him as if he was mad and then proceeded to load his luggage into the box.

Vivek was convinced that there was a man inside the box who was opening all the suitcases with a master key and examining them. Vivek was almost driven to tears when he thought that the man inside the baggage would almost certainly take his ‘chutney’ and ‘launcha’ once he smelt them. AS soon his luggage went in , Vivek got on the rollers on all fours, the man standing there next to entrance was flabbergasted and he pressed the emergency button to stop the machine.

“What do u think you are trying to do?” Asked the man very angrily.

“Sir, I wanted to request the man inside not to take my ‘launcha’ and ‘chutney'”, whined Vivek

“What man???” bellowed the police officer who had come on the scene

“The man who is lookin at all the luggage inside the machine”, said Vivek in his smallest voice.

“There is no man inside ,look”, said the police officer and sure enough when Vivek looked there was nobody. Vivek was wondering if the man had disappeared like the means that they used in Star Trek when became aware of the laughter behind him, he got back from the rollers and looked behind and sure enough there were people grinning widely at him. Vivek decided he never felt more foolish in his life. He turned around to see the police officer leave chuckling to himself

‘Take your luggage with your precious chutney and launcha’, Guffawed the attendant

Vivek walked to the other side and picked his bags and loaded his trolley and looked behind him one more time, this time only to see even more people looking at him with amused looks on thier faces. He walked over to a side so he could check if his goods had been stolen, satisfied that they were intact wondered where he needed to go next , he felt he had to ask somebody but he decided against asking the attendant or the police officer.

He decided as soon as he got a chance he should write a letter to his parents and tell them about this wonderful machine which could see inside bags. AS he wondered about the machine he thought to himself it would be so nice to have that capability himself, he could probably see inside clothes and he saw a beautiful young girl walk in front of him and the thought of being able to see inside her clothes delighted him enough to cause a tightening of the pants , not wanting to be embarassed further by any other discretion, he fled to the toilet with his trolley and wait until the tension in his pants ceased. As he walked in , he saw several people in the toilet so he turned to the sink and pretended to wash his face. He was impressed by how clean the toilet seemed to be as compared to the public toilet near his house where the excrement always seemed to be flowing out and you had to be real careful not to step on it when you went in to pee.

Vivek walked out slowly marvelling at how clean the whole place was.

After coming out the toilet Vivek looked about and for the first time since he has entered the airport Vivek forgot about his launcha and chutney and stared goggle eyed at the uniformed lady officials in the airport and decided he had never seen prettier women. He was sure he could impress them by letting them know that he was going to the United States.He was too shy to walk upto them and introduce himself but he was sure once they knew he was going abroad they would be more than happy to introduce themselves. He pondered over this seemingly insolvable problem until a brainwave hit him, he opened his passport to the page containing his US visa and then walked upto one of them and asked her for directions to get to his flight, the girl looked at the passport then at him and said politely “Sir, Do you have a airplane ticket?” . Vivek was disappointed by the cold shoulder but consoled himself that she wanted to make sure that he had a ticket, she must have had lots of young men walk up to her and try to impress her by showing their passport. Eager to oblige, Vivek got out his ticket and thrust it in front of her . She took a cursory look at it and his luggage and said “Sir, please stand in this line “. Vivek was aghast, he looked at her to see if she was trying to hide any feelings but she seemed disinterested.

A thoroughly disappointed Vivek stood in the line wondering to himself about the strange behavior of girls, while he was in college he never seemed to get any of the pretty girls to talk to him and they always seemed to be talking about their fiancees who seemed to be abroad and making esoteric amounts of money (of course converted into Indian currency) and now Vivek expected the same treatment to be meted out to him. It seemed to him like God was constantly playing a game , the side that he was not on seemed to be getting the girls . He wondered why his luck seemed to be so hopeless with girls, wondered if it was something to do with some curse on the family. He had heard stories of his great grandfathers have concubines, wondered if some of dejected suitors had cursed the family and the effect of the curse was taking place now, he cursed his forefathers for being so promiscuous. The Hindus believe that a man cannot leave the earth until it is cleansed of sins, Vivek wondered despairingly if he himself was one of his own forefathers and then the seeing the picture of his old great grandmother naked made Vivek sick to the stomach and he hurriedly started thinking of his pet project , his 3D transformations library and how he would implement the Bezier curve . At the counter, he was asked for his tickets and passport and he wondered if he should present all his school certificates when the man asked him

“How many pieces of luggage are you checking in?”

“Two” replied Vivek , uncertainty in his tone.

“Will you please place them on here.”

Vivek wondered if he should tell them to be careful with his launcha and chutney , then realizing that he might make a scene, he changed his mind and hoisted his two bags onto the counter.

The man asked him to take a immigration form from the side .Obediently Vivek picked it up and moved aside where the girl guided him to a nearby desk where he could write.

As our astute reader might have guessed through Vivek’s earlier tantrum near the XRay machine this was the first time Vivek was in a airport and the more he saw rich people around , the more he was determined to show everybody that he was comfortable and was completely in his element here so much that when he felt thirsty and thinking of going to the tap to get some water , he froze remembering that rich people do not drink water but soda pop . He decided to look around for a Thums Up or a Gold spot vendor, but he gave up after seeing that all the pop vendors had either Coke or Pepsi. He argued with himself and then justified his decision to drink water by telling himself that he won’t have water this once he left the country and so surreptitiously walked to the water fountain and was pleased to see the packet of paper cups that the airport authorities had so generously decided to leave for thirsty travelers. Satisfying his thirst he heard his boarding call and promptly choked on the water, spluttering water all over himself. He ran to the immigration queue only to find it long and snaking and seeming to take forever. Having passed the immigration officer who was keener on discussing his colleague’s neighbor’s daughter’s habit of wearing skimpy clothes to college. As he stepped past the desk of the immigration officer into a long corridor which had signs laid all over the place, Vivek suddenly felt choked realizing that he could not go back to that side of freedom where he could walk as he pleased , spit as he pleased and pee wherever he liked, he was leaving the free air to go to a new land where you had to be careful cos people mugged you for as little as a dollar , could not afford to litter cos you would be slapped a fine which would eat up your pay packet or even worse you could be sent to prison. Full of misgivings , Vivek slowly headed towards the Delta gate and felt acute misery when he saw the moving elevator and the pretty girl right behind him. He cursed himself for this mad desire for going to ‘phoren’ and gingerly stepped on the moving elevator, he grabbed the side rail for support clumsily but Vivek congratulated himself on succeeding from hitting the ground, he thought to himself that he needed to mention to Aai about his deft handling, she would be proud to know that her son could handle any situation with calm and poise.

He saw the end of the elevator approaching and saw with horror that there was no support to get off. Vivek panicked and when he panicked , he also managed to lose his balance and almost fell flat on his face had not a sweeper caught him and steadied him and was rewarded with a withering glance from Vivek as soon as he saw that his guardian angel was a sweeper .Ironically Vivek was more upset with the sweeper having touched him rather than be thankful for rescuing him, he wondered how he would tell his mother that a ‘shudra’ who cleaned the floors had touched him before such a important occassion. He hoped it was not a inauspicious sign.

Vivek passed the time in the lounge worrying thus and giving dagger looks to the attendant whenever he caught his eyes. He started picturing himself as Amitabh Bachan beating up the hapless sweeper whose only crime was that he earned his honest bread through sweeping. The boarding call dispelled all his dreams and he ran towards the gate, the bemused official looked at him and his passport and let him through to another waiting lounge, this time it seems Vivek learnt he would have to wait for only an hour before boarding the place.

Now the sweeper was swept out of his mind to be replaced with a nagging worry bout the flight, he remembered the Kanishka flight with great terror and hoped that the Kashmir terrorists would not place a bomb on this plane then he remembered that he was flying an American airliner and he experienced relief cos he felt the Americans were a lot more smarter and could take care of such eventualities, like most Indians Vivek felt a emotion that bordered on envy and respect for all things ‘phoren’ and had a complete disregard for most things ‘swadeshi’.

—————————————————————————————

Sampat

My boss Pushpak Khare told me today that I was picking up another consultant from Pune. His name was Vivek Joshi. Apparently the boy was from Phaltan and had spent some time working in Pune at our Indian offices and had proved himself to be a very talented programmer. Our Indian liaison in Pune, Sid Patel had sent him with great praise for his talent. Waiting at the Cleveland Hopkins airport I watched and waited for Indian faces alighting from Delta Flight 117 and sure enough I saw him but what I saw appalled me , Vivek was a man built on bountiful lines , a pock marked chubby face, a gut that he was trying hard to hide and luggage that seemed too hard for him to carry however none of that proved to be the reason for my disparaging judgment of him. I saw him wearing a blazer and I could see the stains of sweat on his shirt and by some dreadful insight I knew he had worn at least a few shirts under that blazer. It was agonizing just to imagine him riding all through the Bombay heat in multiple shirts and a new blazer.

As soon as he reached up to me, I smiled warmly and his first words were “it is so hot” in chaste Marathi. It was December in Cleveland and our pal was complaining of heat, he did not seem to realize that the airport was heated to maintain a comfortable ambiance. The next few minutes were spent by him berating us for our mails to him asking him to bring warm clothes and claims of temperatures being below zero.

I saw him eye the Dunkin Donuts shop in a wave of emotions starting with a hungry delight, then trepidation. I decided I would be civil though I was pissed off with him and asked him if he would like to eat something there. His first question was “Do they use non-vegetarian to make this? ” my first impulse was to laugh it off and I did so, he persisted, “They do not use fish or anything”

“No, are you crazy?”

“Do they use eggs?”

That stumped me; I knew eggs are used for almost anything here. Donuts are probably no exception, I told him I did not know but we could ask

So as we waited at Dunkin Donuts, trying to decide what I should get to make our pal happy, he walked to the lady behind the glass and asked her in what I realized later was English “Dhoo yuuu ooze ” and then turned to me and asked in chaste Marathi “What do they call eggs in English”, by now I was reduced to monosyllabic answers so replied as quietly as I could “Eggs”.

“Dhoo yuuu ooze eggggs to mek these?”

The poor server was dumbfounded and being as busy as she was, I could see comprehension was the least of her worries at that point. So I decided to herd him out of there as quickly as I could , I saw the server and her friend exchange smiles .

Another damned foreigner who could not speak English!!

I decided to take him to a smaller restaurant across and it seemed like a decent place and then I told him to get something that would be just vegetable. His first reaction was one of disgust, “these people eat their veggies raw, I cannot eat that” ,

“Look boss, either you eat those veggies raw or else eat meat”

Out of frustation he decided to take a look at the menu and recoiled in horror. On inquiry I found out that he was appalled that Americans eat horses, on more questioning I found out that his impression was due to the “Hors De vours”. So I explained to him that his deductions were not entirely correct that it meant appetizers in French, he then jumped to the conclusion that the French eat horses, the server who wished to know what we wanted to eat rescued him from me.

“Have you all decided what you would like to eat?”

“wat is hot ?”

The server wore a bewildered look.

“Arre, garam kay aahe kase vicharu?” (How do I ask what is hot?)

Coming from a place where we are used to having rogue shopkeepers selling stale foods we are accustomed to querying the shopkeeper for freshness and one way to be absolutely sure that the food is fresh is checking if it has just been cooked. Of course back home it does not really matter, the shopkeeper will lie with a straight face ”Of course of course, it has just come out of the kitchen” . But it has become a habit and as we know habits die hard even in the presence of gleaming technological marvels like the Microwave and other fancy ovens in use. I was in a quandary, I did not wish to appear rude to him and at the same time I had no desire to embarrass myself. So I replied in Marathi

“Ask him what is fresh”

“wat is phresh?”

The poor server was obviously taken aback and took some to time to realize that he did not understand what was told to him so he responded with

“Excuse me”

, Vivek realized he was making a fool of himself so he tried to salvage the situation with “Tea vith Biscoot”

As soon as the waiter was out of earshot, Vivek looked at me and promptly passed his judgment on the American people

“What re, theesse Americans cannot undershtand Engleess only”

I did not know him enough to tell him that his English was probably only good enough for impressing people in Phaltan so instead grinned politely.

His next question was one of inoculation. He claimed his parents had tried to get him inoculated for malaria, diphtheria, influenza, diarrhea, yellow fever, typhoid, cholera and after Doctor Sahib told his father that Americans suffer routinely from diabetes, blood pressure, heart disease, they had tried to see if he could be inoculated for that too.