Pondicherry Diaries


Everyone has, or should have, a place that when they think of, a place made completely of memories, like an inflatable fun house, and whichever way you turn, you bounce softly and happily.

To me, that’s Pondicherry.


Bring Back The Sauce, Olive Garden!

It didn’t hit me when she left home to begin her undergraduate studies. It wasn’t when she started raiding my closet for my clothes from Ann Taylor. It didn’t strike us as a sadhappy thing when she insisted on doing her own taxes, or cooking. I smiled fondly, indulgently, when she alternately yelled at me and tried to bribe me with puppy perks to drink more water, and to exercise more.

All these events, all these milestones and rites of passage had a move forward quality to them and I didn’t even think of them as the loss of her childhood. Sure, every new thing she did, every new experience she had, was a reminder that a. she was becoming an independent adult, and b. I was getting old.

But two days ago, she called bawling. And laughing. Yes, laughing in between sobs of complete heartbreak. I panicked. Kashew has had some health issues, and I thought something had happened to him. (Yes, my first thought is always Kashew now, much to her annoyance). I think she’s actually jealous of the puppy – her own puppy, and the love and attention he gets from me.

But no, it wasn’t Kashew, thank god. (I know she’s rolling her eyes at this). Instead, what I got out of her between her laughter and sobs was that Olive Garden has stopped carrying FOREVER the sundried tomato sauce, in all the restaurants. She went on about how unfair it was, why oh why they had to discontinue the one last thing that still remained from her CHILDHOOD.

Ah. That’s when it hit me, clueless me, who was laughing because I know how attached she is to Muncie’s Pizza King, the crazy pizza place that is a local landmark with a cult following, where you can “ring the king” from your table to order your pizza, the queso sauce from Puerto Vallarta, and the breadsticks from Fazzoli’s Real Italian!! Her cousin once gave her a book of Queso for Christmas. That’s how obsessed she is with it.

No. It wasn’t just an obsession. Olive Garden was the last remaining thread to her childhood. OG carried the sauce that reminded her of her birthdays when she was growing up. It was the second most favorite birthday place, the first being Don Pablos, the Mexican restaurant chain.

Actually the birthday sequence was playtime-at-Discovery Zone-followed by-a-trip-to-Barnes-and-Nobles-followed-by-dinner-at-Don-Pablos for both my children’s birthdays, which we did for several years, until Don Pablos closed, sadly, and then it was Olive Garden.

I was stunned. I was happy that she had such fond memories of her birthdays. I was sad that it was gone. I told her she still has the memories. To which she replied Nick, her boyfriend, said exactly the same thing. Nick also asked her, alarmed, if she usually cried over sauce like that, Nick who has known her for two years, and has never seen anything like it.

This incident, while it saddened me, reminded me of the power of good childhood memories! It’s not the trips to Hawaii. It’s in the simplest of acts—that of families spending time together.

Olive Garden, if you’re reading this, please bring back your sundried tomato sauce, my girl needs it!

She’ll probably kill me for posting this, but we didn’t take many photos those days and this was one of the last ones at Don Pablos!




An Immigrant’s Food Diary

I play American Mahjongg (as opposed to Chinese Mahjongg, or simply mahjongg) with a few women in our community once a week. On a recent mahjongg (MJ) day, after about 3 games, I was complaining to my fellow MJ girls about the big bag of potatoes that Raj had picked up from Costco. (Complaining about our husbands is a common passtime among all cultures, I have found.) We are just two people, and don’t consume a lot of potatoes. I asked Linda, who loves the puff pastry with the samosa filling I make if she’d like to make some with me to use up the potatoes. The other two perked up from their intent staring at the tiles to say “well what about us?”

And so, the mahjongg was abandoned, and we came back to my house to quickly make 3 batches of yummy, warm North Indian samosa filling wrapped in puff pastry sheets and baked to a golden crisp. I made the filling, while each of them rolled out a pastry sheet, one placed the filling and wrapped them, and one of them took pride in “forking” the edges and being the best “forker”. This group is a bit rowdy, and not at all prudish, so we usually have a ton of fun with some bawdiness thrown in for good measure.

This is what America IS and being American means. I interact with a group of women—via my weekly mahjongg games, and monthly book club discussions—women who have varying cultural and ethnic backgrounds—American, Jewish American, African American, Pakistani,Korean—it’s almost a mini world. Getting together once a week to play a game that originated in China. In the southeastern state of Florida. Eating crackers, and Frenchbrie. And sometimes spontaneously abandoning the mahjongg game to make Indian samosas.

I also belonged to a book club in which we only read books of non-American cultures and that was aptly called “Crossing Cultures”.

I am an immigrant in this country of immigrants. I can’t imagine my life without the enriching, nourishing, and soul-sustaining experiences that every immigrant adds to mine. Be it the ones whose ancestors came on the Mayflower, or on the slave ships, or on more recent flights from all over the world.

And the way I connect with anyone is through food.  Be it cooking for someone, or sharing a meal with someone, I think food is the greatest common denominator. Seriously, who can be cross at someone when they’re eating a delicious meal?

I have found, since my early days in this country as a green, fresh off the boat immigrant, that through food, I could easily start a conversation; relate to someone; and sow the seeds for a long friendship.

From office potlucks where I made new friends through an ethnic food, to lunches I packed for my young children that included desi favorites like chutney sandwiches and lemon rice that attracted kids and adults alike, to my current adult friendships through book club and mahjong, a delicious samosa, or poori, or a simple vegetable rice, has paved the way for long lasting memories, and friendships.

On this 4thof July, when immigration and immigrants are a hot topic, painful ones at that, I raise a toast with spicy Indian lemon pickle to this country of immigrants. Melting pot or salad bowl, assimilated or just landed, born here or naturalized, immigrants make this country. Happy 4thof July!



Middle-aged And Meandering: How A Recipe Finds Its Way To Rasaala.com

  1. Airdrop photos from iphone to laptop for the new recipe
  2. Open tinypng (fabulous website that compresses your big jpg files to tiny byte-sized files, ergo the name) to compress photos, and upload them
  3. While it’s doing it, check Facebook because there’s a notification – it’s a recipe request by someone on a photo shared
  4. Get the recipe link from rasaala.com
  5. Post the link, and tag the person who requested it
  6. Friend posted picture of a bobcat sighting in her backyard, it’s huge!!! Make an admiring comment on it, with a “haha” emoji
  7. While still in FB, notice a post on an Indochinese menu in a foodie group I follow – looks so good, wonder if I can make it for dinner
  8. Check fridge for ingredients. All I have is soy sauce and Sriracha. Add stuff to grocery list
  9. Reminded of the green beans plant in vegetable patch – recipe calls for green beans, go outside to check on it – it’s doing fabulous, but no flowers yet!
  10. Back to laptop – notice that tinypng is frozen, refresh it
  11. Get distracted by an email from a friend who’s in a google group I manage about changing her information, and go to change it
  12. While there, check another member’s settings to make sure it’s correct as she’s been saying she’s not getting any emails
  13. Before posting recipe, want to settle on the couch with a show or a movie in Netflix to run in the background while posting
  14. Open Netflix and start browsing Malayalam language movies specifically Faahad Faasil’s. Rainy weather makes me want to watch artsy Malayalam movies
  15. Pick one, but only after reading the reviews of a few in a trusted site (filmcompanion.in)
  16. Get distracted by a story there about an upcoming movie based on a book (The Extraordinary Life Of A Fakir …) Hmmm. That looks very interesting
  17. Go to amazon.com to check out the book, debate whether to buy it in kindle!
  18. Member in google groups wants her address changed again, do it and text her
  19. This weather making me sleepy – it’s after 3 pm. Debate with self on the wisdom of drinking coffee this late as won’t be able to sleep
  20. Go make some coffee and drink
  21. Wonder if my meandering and distracted writing will be a somewhat interesting blog post for the Middle-aged And Restless blog which I’ve neglected for a while….
  22. Write the blog post, edit and publish
  23. …Wow look at the time! Where did the afternoon go?
  24. 6 websites, 3 hours, 1 strong cup of coffee later – recipe is finally up!22c3a954f95d01caf8cfe22252fba341




The Story Of Us

IMG_7126 This blog would be incomplete without the story of how we happened to get married.

I abhorred the thought of an arranged marriage and had been managing to reject and/or be rejected successfully by all the “boys” who were potential grooms. I had no solid plans of how I was going to be married, and yet for it not be arranged. And being the eldest of 5 daughters, I was kind of blocking the way for my siblings. It was a responsibility that was cramping my style, a bit.

I was practically just floating along. And that’s when I met him — at the ripe old age of 24, as I  was getting close to spinster territory. He was someone at work, transferred from Bombay to Madras, where I lived. TDH – in the language of Mills & Boon, and Silhoutte romances of those days – tall dark and handsome. What every Indian girl wanted in her groom.

I was one of two females in my team of about 8, surrounded by guys, working with Railways officers/staff who were mostly men. I had seen my share of misoginy, and guys who couldn’t look a woman in her face while talking. I sensed he was different right away – different in a good way.

Quietly confident, great at what he did, without a need to be loud about himself, well read, smart, and with great work ethics. We became good friends, going out for work lunches, doing crossword puzzles in the off-site location (Central Railway Station of Madras) whenever we had time while implementing the ticketing system for the Southern Railways. He easily won all the games we played (okay we had some downtime) which made me mad, but also made me admire him for he never gloated. He would bring copies of horoscopes of potential matches his mother got for him, and we would go through them together. A railway officer with a very qualified sister-in-law (iyengar, me being a mere Iyer :)) had his eye on him for a potential brother-in-law, which I knew and used to tease him about.

And then one day there was a big problem with our software, and it was pretty tense for a day. He was handling it, and had worked through the night (the railways in India never sleep, trains run 365 days a year, and they were our biggest client). I spoke to him from home in the morning. Later, a co-worker who had been with him when I spoke said to me: “I saw him smile for the first time since the problem started (it had been a long day) when you spoke to him”. And that was my clue that there was something.

Sometime later, the railway officer above had a surgery or broke his leg or something, and we decided to visit him together. Yes, in India, especially those days, the lines blurred a bit. Anyway, we went, and afterwards, he asked me if I wanted to go to the beach (my beloved Marina beach). We went. I still had no clue where any of this was going. You have to remember this was the 80s India, and a boy and a girl standing within ten feet of each other was cause for scandal. But, I never was one to worry about what other people think, and didn’t think twice about going out with him. So we went, and talked. And then he said: “I wish you were an Iyengar”. Not “I love you”. Not “I want to marry you”.

(I was born in the sub-caste of brahmin community known as Iyer. He was born in the Iyengar sub-caste. While it helped that we were both born in the Brahmin community, it wasn’t altogether common for marriage between the sub-castes. We didn’t know how his parents would react, I knew for sure mine would be relieved)

We talked a bit more. Still no proposal. He said let’s go to Dasas for dinner. It was a new continental cuisine place by the owners of Dasaprakash, a fancy place in Mount Road (Anna Salai) then. It served strange (for those days) food like baked pasta, and leafy salads. As we checked out the buffet and were sitting, he said “look there” and pointed to someone. As I turned, and looked back at him, he had removed the rose from the table, and was hiding it behind him. When I turned around, he popped it and finally!!! said the magic words.

The rest, 28 years later, is history. His father asked if it was okay that he had only known me for three months. His mother guessed that it was me. His grandmother, bless her heart, wanted me to pierce my nose for the wedding, and also become a proper Iyengar by undergoing the branding ritual known as samasrayanam, to which his mother said no. I do have a cool mother-in-law!

Well here we are, 28 years, 2 children, and 3 grandpuppies later. It’s been quite a ride. We’ve both seen the good, bad, and the ugly – of life, and of each other. And remained best friends. We still laugh together and that is the most important thing for me. As I was looking for some deep writing online, I came across Kahlil Gibran’s poetry. More than his writing on love, and marriage, these lines on friendship hit a nerve with me.

Here’s to our friendship! Looking forward to continued friendship, and companionship, as we journey to our sunsets.

“And let your best be for your friend.
If he must know the ebb of your tide, let him know its flood also.
For what is your friend that you should seek him with hours to kill?
Seek him always with hours to live.
For it is his to fill your need, but not your emptiness.
And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures.
For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.”

~Kahlil Gibran on Friendship


We have been coming to *Cabo since 2006, roughly every couple/3 years. This is one place that, as my husband astutely observed, slows time down. Personally, Cabo is a sort of windshield wiper for me. It seems as if every time my vision had been clouded, coming to Cabo seems to have sorted it out. Cleared the cobwebs, so to speak. Gave me perspective. Even if it was temporary.
The first time we came here in ’06, I had been going through a change of sorts with my health, and a restlessness had crept into my soul. When we went back home, I started writing more seriously, with a couple of dear friends, on a private blog, and discovered the joy of writing.
We came again in 2010, and a few months later, I retired from professional life, (at least I thought I did, but it lasted about 3 years), and spent the senior year of my son’s high school at home, practicing SAT words with him, and delivering hot lunches. And opened up my blog to the public.
It’s 2017, and we are back. This time, I wasn’t necessarily looking for any inspiration, but was looking forward to getting away and relax. But Cabo never disappoints. For the first time, we got an ocean front, first floor apartment, which we always ask for but never get. This time, we asked almost as a routine, not really expecting to get it, but guess what! We got a first floor, walk-out-into-the-ocean apartment, and discovered that we could watch the sun rise as well as set.
But we also got a bonus gift that we didn’t even know existed—we got to watch baby turtles (hatchlings being the correct term) being released into the ocean, right in front of the apartment we were assigned to. And I learned all about turtle hatching, imprinting, nesting, and, incidentally, finding your way home.
This is how it happens: mommy turtle finds a good spot on the beach (mating happens in the ocean) to lay her eggs, does her job, and buries them in a nest in the sands. She covers the nest with sand and vegetation for good measure to camouflage it. Then she leaves them, completely untended, and sets off for the ocean without a backwards glance.
These eggs, if they survive the predators and natural disasters—birds, dogs, ghost crabs, humans (by trampling on them accidentally, or stealing prized turtle eggs), weather, hatch. It seems every resort has started an outfit to commercialize this natural phenomenon by offering “Baby Turtle Release” as a tourist attraction, but we got it watch it as it unfolded in the place we were staying. Around 9 pm one night, I watched two guys with flash lights digging in the nests. I am not sure how they know where the eggs are, and none of the words in my 10-word Spanish vocabulary of greetings, inquiring about another’s wellbeing, saying thanks and counting to ten were of much help in getting the details.
At dawn, I hurried out to see if they were still there, and was delighted to find them with a pail into which they were collecting the brand spanking new hatchlings. I ran down to where they were, phone in hand. I asked them if they had stayed there the whole night, and they responded “Si”. I don’t know for sure, but I think they understood my question. They had about 20-30 of tiny wiggling hatchlings in the pail, and with gloved hands, released them on a downward slope, in the direction of the big old body of water. They use gloves because these turtles, when they are ready to make their nests of eggs, will use what’s known as imprinting to find this exact beach to do it. The temperature of the sand, the nest, the winds, and many other factors help them retain this imprint, and touching them with your bare hands interferes with this beautiful mechanism.
As the guy poured the hatchlings like he was spreading fertilizer on the sand in a row, they all started wiggling their way towards “home”. There was one that was facing away from the ocean and miraculously turned towards the ocean before moving. The white crest of the waves is their guiding light, and for this reason, most ocean sides these days have a light ordinance, as the artificial light, especially if white, could disorient them.
It was at once the most moving, and the most painful sight I have ever witnessed—the hatchlings seemed stunned at first, and then slowly started moving, their tiny flippers going strong. Most moved towards the ocean, but some moved sideways, or not at all. Some turned over on their backs, waving their flippers ineffectually, and one of the guys would flip them on to their belly if they seemed really stuck.
There was one that seemed to have not bought into this whole deal at all, and simply wouldn’t move. I panicked, thinking maybe it had died, or worse, couldn’t move. The guy picked it up, moved it a few feet down, giving it a head start. The word privilege crossed my mind briefly, which I regretted immediately.
My heart was in my mouth as the waves came closer and swept them into the ocean. Their journey had begun.
It’s been seven years since I thought I retired. I went back to work, but now am on the cusp of another life change, at a crossroads again. As my journey continues, I have more questions than answers anymore. I don’t know if this journey is charted into a pre-determined path, or if it’s all completely random, driven by the winds of change, guided by unseen hands and distant horizons, and vague plans for the future. Where will the next 7 years, 7 months, 7 days, 7 hours, or 7 minutes take me? Wherever it is, the journey is mine, and mine alone. I think that is Cabo’s answer to me this time, obvious though it may be.
Watch my videos of these babies being released into the ocean at the links below.
* From Wikipedia:
“Cabo San Lucas. Cabo San Lucas (Spanish pronunciation: [ˈkaβo san ˈlukas], Cape Saint Luke), commonly called Cabo in American English, is a city at the southern tip of the Baja California Peninsula, in the Mexican state of Baja California Sur. Cabo San Lucas together with San José del Cabo is known as Los Cabos.”

Where Everybody Knows Your Name…

A link to this post on Huffpost:


Growing up in the early 70s and 80s, every household in Madras and Pondicherry (and I suspect, everywhere in India) was surrounded by a small village. Or at least that’s what it felt like.

Our grandparents’ house in Purasaiwalkam where I spent my early years in a joint family, and pretty much every summer vacation after we moved to Pondicherry, was a teeming hub of life, and part of a complete ecosystem that sustained itself.

We lived in an upstairs portion overlooking the super busy Tana Street, across the big church which was always a happening place. It had a huge bell that rang every hour (I think). Purasaiwalkam and the neighboring Vepery, being home to many Anglo Indians, there were always weddings happening there, with the brides dressed in actual “western” style gowns, sporting short bobs.

Downstairs was Dinesh Bakery – run by a Keralite guy. Even though we didn’t traditionally eat bread in our typical Tambrahm family (bread was, typically, a “fever” food), there were exceptions when a cousin from Delhi visited, and his mom, my aunt, would buy fresh bread and load it up with butter bought from a family a few houses down the street. I haven’t had bread like that, or the wholesome, thick, creamy, golden yellow butter, although Kerry Gold comes close, since my childhood. The mornings always smelled of freshly baked bread, in odd symphony with the aroma of dal, and the ghee-laden tempering of hot rasam, and incense and camphor from the puja room.

A couple of streets down, there was “Kanniyappan Provision Store”, the family grocer. Every time we visited Madras, a trip to Kanniappan store was a must. Ah, the things that made us happy! The store had the peculiar smell of gunny sacks, spices, sugar candy, “kadalai urundai” (peanut brittle), and all kinds of mysterious things. The lighting was part natural and muted. When “Aradhana”, the Hindi movie (that’s what we called them before there was Bollywood, and before “Boycott Hindi” was a big thing down south) was released and was a big hit, the story goes that Kanniappan actually named his newborn granddaughter Sharmila Tagore – last name and all.

Then there was the incense seller who visited the house, bringing his wares, and the whole family sat and chatted with him. The downstairs also housed a textile store, Maraikair Bros, and I would spend hours at his store, dreaming up dresses made of the beautiful fabrics. Mr. Maraikair (not sure what his first name was, he was always Marakair mama to us) had a handkerchief tied around his head. I am amazed at how well his face and his voice are permanently etched in my memory, even as I struggle to remember names of my coworkers from a few years ago.

In Pondicherry, I remember the lady who came around selling yogurt every morning (“thayirkaari”). And the “kudukudupandi”, the fortune teller, shaking his mini drum, and chanting “nalla kalam porakkudhu” (good times are here), in that peculiar sing song tone.

This guy was the father of the chain mail. If we gave him money, we would be blessed with a wedding in the family, good times, big lottery wins, and the next baby born will be a boy (we are a family of five girls). Heaven help us if we didn’t – our family would be cursed with very bad luck for a very long time. We were terrified of this guy.

There was also the “keerai kaari”, the lady who sold all kinds of greens. And the various vendors throughout the day who would make the trip to sell their wares – fruits, pots and pans, sarees, anything at all!

If that was all the vendors, there were entertainers on the street as well – the famous “puli aatam” in which guys painted themselves like a tiger and danced on the streets, and the guy who staged a snake-mongoose fight with an actual mongoose and a snake, and the “poikal kuthirai” in which people stood in life-size horse models tied around their waist and danced. It was all fascinating for a little kid.

There was also the beach, with its “thengai manga pattani sundal” (boiled peas seasoned with tart mango pieces, coconuts and lime juice, absolute to die for snack). I don’t remember the old lady of Marina beach at this age. She seems to have become a fixture in the late 80s, the fortune teller who tells every girl with a guy that she should have been born a boy in a scary, foreboding tone, and extracts a hefty sum. What girl wouldn’t fall for this line when she’s with her date? I didn’t realize she said the same line to every girl until much, much later, in my 30s, when I met a girl from Madras who said she was told the exact same thing by an old fortune teller at the Marina beach!

I miss those days when we go back to visit – these days, everything is delivered with a phone call. While the convenience cannot be beaten, I am nostalgic for the charm the old way of life held, a pace that was relaxed, and immersed us in each experience. How many of us know the grocer’s granddaughter’s name anymore?


Puli Aatam (Tiger Dance)

poikal kuthirai

Poikal Kudhirai (Horse with Fake Legs)



Let’s Take Sides: An Immigrant American’s Perspective

We came to this land with two suitcases each, a head full of dreams, with memories of another life, and blank pages of a life to be written. We didn’t have any specific reason to leave other than to have an adventure in our (still) youngish lives, travel some, and make some money. Benign, almost touristy, shallow reasons.

But once we had lived here for a few years, slowly, slowly, the reasons unveiled themselves in layers, and became apparent.

Firstly, the creature comforts. The conveniences. The things that were a given here, some of which were a daily struggle back where we came from – such as fine roads, free public libraries, the medical system – yes, even as broken as it is here, it’s still a hundred times better than where we come from.

As I traveled with a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old back to my homeland for the first time, I fretted about being able to find milk for my babies in the middle of the night!

The kids started going to school. I watched Sesame Street and Barney with them, and immersed myself in the American culture. A cookie is a biscuit. What is Maths back home is Math here. The kids were in grades, not “standard” – as in 1st grade vs. 1st standard. Mr. Rogers was an angelic, friendly, inclusive “neighbor” who asked me every day if I would be his lovely neighbor. What was not to love! I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House On The Prairie series with my daughter, and absolutely loved it. It gave me a sense of the early settlers and their lives that no history book could have.

Of course, it wasn’t all roses. There were a few thorns – the moms in my daughter’s ballet class who didn’t want my daughter playing with their girls. One mom in particular comes to mind – she didn’t want my daughter hanging out with hers, apparently, because we lived in an apartment. I came to know of this through a mutual friend, who happened to be American, married to a Brit, and who loved our family and my food. Another mom commented, “It smells funny, like curry,” when I walked in to the moms’ waiting area in gymnastics class. It wasn’t me, because I smelled it too, and I made sure my clothes never smelled of cooking – it was another lady. But it was clearly directed at me simply because I looked the part.

I also found great friendships in a Math Bowl club at my daughter’s elementary school that one of the moms and I started, coached, and got 2nd place for the school. There were white kids, Asian kids, and black kids who were all my children’s friends. My kids played tennis. They played after school in the neighborhood. My son joined T-ball, and later, baseball.

I learned baseball with him, and found that it was not one bit like cricket, despite the popular misconception. I had been hearing the phrase for years, but finally understood what “heads up” meant, and its origin. I tried explaining the differences between baseball and cricket to my American coworkers, after I got the hang of it. My coworkers (not ‘colleagues,’ as one of them snickered in a friendly manner) were incredulous, and the discussions didn’t lead anywhere near an agreement or understanding of cricket, but were seriously hilarious, awesome bridge-building sessions, complete with white boarding.

“You score hundreds of runs? That’s crazy!” (“Yes.  You are out after 3 strikes? What fun is that?”).

“You play for 5 days? Who works?” (“Not anymore, sadly – it’s all one day matches. And we manage work/school and 5 days of cricket very well, thank you.”)

The teachers at the elementary school my children went to treated me with respect.  And a little bit of friendly and appropriate cultural curiosity led to several “Show and Tell” presentations for the 3rd graders. My daughter recently discovered an “Honorary Member” certificate of Mrs. Eden’s 3rd grade class, awarded to me, one of my treasured possessions from my children’s elementary school years. One of the teachers, Mrs. Brown, loved the chutney sandwiches I packed for my kids and some days, I would pack extra sandwiches for her. I like to think the curiosity at the lunch table didn’t embarrass my kids, though they always said no to rice because it was a bit tedious to eat. Fair enough; they wanted to talk more, and spend less time on eating.

My children enjoyed school, and flourished. This was the definitive signal that we had made the right decision by staying and becoming residents of this wonderful experiment called America.

There were more positive affirmations along the way. There was the coffee shop guy at the Chicago airport. We were in line, and right behind us, a white guy came along – he looked like a business traveler. The coffee shop guy tried to serve him ahead of us. The white guy gently, but firmly told him, “I think these guys were here before me.” In that instant, with that small act of fairness, in the fairly inconsequential life event of getting coffee at an airport, he became a hero to me. (Ironically, the coffee shop guy wasn’t white – I couldn’t place his region of origin, but he was definitely not white.)

And then 9/11 happened. For the first time, we felt people staring at us, as if unsure of what to think of us. Someone threw a bag of feces at our garage door. We felt shook up, and scared, in addition to the unbelievable sense of shock and sadness that 9/11 could and did happen here. My daughter mentioned the incident at school. And the next day, a Volvo came and parked in our driveway, and out walked Mrs. Patrick, with a plate of cookies. She was the mother of a classmate of my daughter’s. She said this to me: “Lata, I wanted people in this street to see that a white person is parked in your driveway, and has come to share some chocolate chip cookies with your family.” Or something to that effect. I was overwhelmed. The sheriff who lived down our street patrolled the streets to make sure whoever did it got the message that it wasn’t right, and that law enforcement was onto them. Protecting anyone who has been a victim to a crime, even if they’re immigrants, even if the perpetrator is an American.

It is this sense of fairness, of doing the right thing, of being there for the underdog that I loved love about this country, and the people of this country.

We chose to become citizens of this wonderful country and proudly vote in every election. Because we care about this country. The country of immigrants. Of opportunity.

And along the way, as I learned more of the history of this country, I happened to watch “Mississippi Burning” one weekend on cable. I had been through a number of Black History months, and several MLK days and kind of thought I understood racism and segregation as it had happened here. But this movie made it real. Maybe the visual impact? The water fountains marked “colored” and “white” sent a shiver down my spine. The unease lasted for a few days. It was like discovering someone you love and idealize has an ugly side that you never imagined in a million years they were capable of having. It rocks your core and shakes your foundation and makes you question everything. I made sure my children watched the movie with me.

I got over the shock eventually, but understood the pain of racism, the hardcore hatred, and the black perspective to some extent. I breathed a sigh of relief that this was in the past, and said a small prayer of gratitude that my beloved America is not like that anymore.

Ha! But of late, the other shadowy face of this country is making itself known more and more. The joy we felt at the inauguration of the first black president dulled a bit with the sorrow that was Trayvon Martin–the plain, puerile, vitriolic hatred based on skin color. Race. Religion. I have seen it making not just the first-generation immigrants like us, but ones who have been in this country for several generations, uncomfortable, sad, and outraged. I saw shades of “Mississippi Burning” during the election campaign in 2016 and realized that those feelings had not disappeared post segregation. They had simply gone underground and were breaking through again in a climate that promised nourishment and revival.

But, I still believe in this country, and believe that the America we have come to love, cherish, be a part of, and fight for is not lost, and will emerge successfully out of this brief eclipse.

But for that to happen, there needs to be moral outrage on the part of everyone. This is not the time to be uninvolved or stay neutral.

In the words of Eli Weisel, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”

Let’s take sides. It’s really that simple.


Read this on Huffington Post



Strings That Tug At Your Heart

Once upon a time, there was a little boy who was the most active, mischievous, and funny little boy in all the world. He loved to play, have fun, and laugh all the time.

The little boy’s mom was crazy about music. She hoped her kids, a little girl, and the boy, would grow to love music just as she did, growing up with music as she herself had. “Vividha Bharathi” in the mornings for Hindi and Tamil songs from movies, Ceylon Radio while doing homework, and haunting Carnatic instrumental at night that her parents/grandparents liked to play right before bedtime. She imbibed most of the classical songs she knows not from lessons, but through listening without even knowing she was listening. Music was, is, the constant in her life through the good times, and the bad, especially the bad. Music gave voice to her emotions when she couldn’t.

Therefore, she had this (annoying to the kids) habit of always playing music – Indian film, Indian classical, western popular, jazz, … – in the car, at home, and everywhere.

The boy, who didn’t look like he was paying any attention to the different kinds of music, would surprise her every once in a while by singing a Tamil movie song, pitch perfect. He was not yet 5. The girl, who was learning to play the piano, composed a little endearing piece that she named “Contrary Motions” on the piano when she was 7 years old. Mom was thrilled to bits.

When the boy was 5, mom decided he was ready to start music lessons and chose violin.  And thus started 5 years of fighting before every class. The boy would come home from school, having finished what little homework he had at school, drop the backpack, have a snack and run out to play with his neighborhood friends until it was dark. Mom dragged him to his violin lessons once a week, kicking and screaming, away from his playmates. But once he got there, he was okay. His teacher could tell he was good, but didn’t really enjoy the lessons especially in the warmer months when he longed to be outside, and the winter months when he loved to play in the snow.

His first violin recital was plucking just 3 notes, (G-D-G) with a little foot stomping after the 3rd note. He looked adorable in his white shirt, hair all combed back, and a pint sized violin – the smallest there was. His little heart was stressed before the performance, but ace it he did, especially with the foot stomping after the 3rd note, bringing the house down. Afterwards, he came running to mom, and fell asleep on her shoulder immediately, not even touching the cookies his teacher had made.

His violin lessons continued until he was ten, when he entered middle school and he could choose an instrument of his choice, offered through the school band. He chose the trumpet, mostly as an act of rebellion, but excelled at it too.  He was first chair in the high school band, and was a member of the city’s youth symphony orchestra. Mom was just happy he was still playing music.

Dad especially loved it when, some nights, he sat at the top of the stairs, after lights out, and played soulful music on his trumpet.

Over the years, even though the music lessons stopped, mom and son continued to bond over music– the Beatles, the theme music from the West Wing, Godfather, to name a few. They once sang to an entire album of The Beatles on a late night drive home from Indy to Muncie.

Fast forward 13 years. The boy is now working, after his undergrad, and living away from home. One day, he calls mom and dad and says he has a surprise for them. Mom holds her breath. The surprise was this: he was starting music lessons again. And the instrument was…not violin, as mom had guessed but close. He chose mandolin.

He loves it. And facetimes mom and dad so they can hear him practice. The first piece he’s learning is the Wedding Tarantella. Mom requests he also learn “Speak softly” from The Godfather – both their favorite. And some Beatles songs. Michelle. He looks up sheet music online and tries them out while on the phone, and promises he would call for more practice sessions on facetime.

This mom is thrilled and is looking forward to, as the boy puts it, “wow mom we can now bond over the Beatles in a different way”.


On Fear Of Fears

Conquering your demons. Fears. Phobia. Whatever you call it, I am talking about that thing that nags you at 4 am in the morning. It could be something small  (why can’t I make a decent biryani), or it can be climbing Mt Everest. I have them, and assume (read: hope) you do. In all sizes, shapes, and forms.

And as I get older – if only I get a nickel for every time I say that! – I have been making an effort to knock these out one at a time. See how many of these I can get rid of in this lifetime.

When I was not quite ten, I used to be afraid of the dark. My mom’s best friends lived in the house across the street and after dinner most nights, she would go to their house and chat with them while my dad was at work (he used to work in shifts). Sometimes I would need to come back home to get something. This meant crossing the small residential street to go across to our house (which was the top portion of the house that we rented from folks who owned the house), climb the stairs, and walk across an open terrace to reach our portion. The second floor (or the first floor as they call in India, and the first floor is called the ground floor) contained just the bedrooms of the owners, so there would normally be nobody at that time, and therefore no lights. The terrace would be usually lit by the light of the moon. I used to be terrified to go alone but over time, I reasoned to myself that there really was nothing to be afraid of, of course ghosts weren’t real, and would make the trip and back to mom.

One of my cousins also told me recently that she thought I was very cool because I used to wade in the farthest when we went to the Marina beach in Madras.

I was jolted into being aware of my many fears when a friend casually, and not at all in a mean way, commented that I had a lot of fears when I froze in fear at her 5 lb dog. Fear of the dark, fear of water, fear of heights, dogs, rollercoasters (yep, I’m not so much fun, but I’m great for watching your stuff while you have fun), and for a very brief, but scary time, fear of highways that I talked myself out of—fears that somehow crept up in my adult life, fears that didn’t exist in my childhood, or my adolescent days.

I have finally completely gotten rid of the fear of dogs (at least the domesticated, pet kind) when my daughter brought this little guy into our lives. Now I have gone to the other extreme, and scare away friends with photos of Kashew, and have become that person who seeks out dog owners to pet their dogs on walks, and is constantly sharing dog videos to my family.


I also learned to finally completely ride a bicycle a couple of years back, with my son’s help – read all about it here. What can we call this fear—fear of balancing? (“what do you mean, completely ride a bicycle?” Well, before that, I never was actually sure I rode it myself – someone may have been holding on and I sometimes wonder if I did really ride at all.)

So last weekend, when lunch plans came up, an opportunity presented itself to face one of those fears head on. This is not so much a fear, but a social awkwardness. Raj had some appointment, and I didn’t feel like cooking or eating left overs. And I was really really in the mood for a pancake. So, I told Raj I would pick up a pancake from a local pancake place.

Raj: Pick it up and eat in the car? Why don’t you eat it there?

Me: Eat it there? By myself? All alone? In a public place?

Raj: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

Well, I don’t like eating by myself if I can help it. Eating is a social thing for me. I can do breakfast by myself, at home, but that’s about it. When Raj travels, I try not to cook and make do with something I eat over the sink for the same reason. I grew up in a family where at each meal there was a guaranteed minimum six people. For 26 years. And I never really got used to eating alone.

As for lunches, I can do a smoothie on the run by myself if I’m running errands. But for lunches I need at least one more person, unless I’m working through lunch and eating at my desk which is not very often.

But to eat by myself in public? Doesn’t that mean I’m friendless and uncool? But the said opportunity got in my face, looked at me square in the eye and dared me.

So I went, armed with my phone and my ipad as a backup in case the phone died. As luck would have it, at the restaurant they said it would be a 40 minute wait and I almost sighed in relief. See, I’d tell Raj, it wasn’t my fault, I was ready to do it, but it was a 40-minute wait and I was too hungry.

But then, they said wait! There is a community table (I shuddered). If we can find you a place, you’re in.

At first it seemed like the worst idea. But on second thought, this was actually a great “dip a toe in” kind of situation. I would sit with total strangers, and if anyone looked funny at me, I would pretend I had come with one of them.

The community table was a high table that had 8 seats and six were occupied. One vacant seat across another lady, and one with a set of 3 frat-looking boys. I chose the one across from a lady who looked like she had come alone, and hoped she wouldn’t leave while I was still eating (which she did).

After I placed the order (one humongous multigrain pancake, and a kale tonic), I got busy with my phone. A few minutes in, I looked up to see what all the people who had come with friends/family were doing. Cool, everyone was on their phone. Hey! This ain’t so bad, after all. I didn’t feel out of place at all.

When the food came, I actually put the phone down, and ate, people watching. And found that it wasn’t as awkward or uncomfortable as I had imagined—even after my imaginary friend across left while I was still eating. Nobody looked at me funny, or with pity.

That’s one more down. With about 97 to go.










Previous Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: