The emotion that is Madras!

Try it! Do a Google search on “there is no place like Chennai” and then repeat it by replacing Chennai with Mumbai/New Delhi/Calcutta or Bangalore. You won’t find as many odes to other cities as you will about Chennai – or Madras as it was properly known.

I did the aforementioned Google search as part of a little research for this post and was surprised and not so surprised by the results. It is true. The love that people of this city have for it is much more than most folks have for their hometown. Chennai is a city that commands a feverish following much like New York City in the USA. In fact, a lot of my friends and family have told me that NYC has a “Madras-like” feel to it.

For those who do not know, Madras is a large metropolis, a port-city located on the south-eastern coast of India. It is my hometown. The city itself was founded almost 376 years ago and was the headquarters of the famous, nay notorious, East-India Company. “Madras” was derived from “Madrasapattinam”, one of the two villages – Madrasapattinam and Chennaipattinam that used to make up what is Chennai today. About 15 years ago, some political parties argued that Madras was an anglicized name and renamed my great city as “Chennai”.

I was born and brought up in Madras and I am true “Madrasi” who doesn’t like being referred to as a “Chennaite”. My love for this great city has only grown with every year that I have been away from it. I was part of the generation that would not accept the change from Madras to Chennai and one of the very last to ever call it so. I thought this irrational reluctance was just me until I saw the campaign slogan that celebrated Madras’s 375th birthday last year:

“Chennai is a city, but Madras is an emotion!”

This statement truly captures the love the Madrasis feel for the city.

So, what is so great about it? Well, what isn’t? Here is a list of pleasures unique to Madras:

1. The Marnia beach – the longest beach in India spanning a length of 13 Km, looking onto the Bay of Bengal. Its all sand and breeze and fresh hot bhajiis.

2. The wonderful mix of temples, churches and mosques. You can actually hear a Muslim call for prayer, a choir singing at Mass and a slokam blaring on speakers within a few kilometers of each other!

3. The idli, vada, pongal breakfast. Don’t forget to wash it down with the filter coffee.

4. The ubiquitous roadside tea shop (perhaps the one thing I miss most when I am in America; Starbucks just doesn’t compare!). Have tea, biscuits, vada, samosa or a paneer soda.

5. Street food – you name it, you can find it. From Chaat to Chinese noodles, bread omelets to brownies, pakoras to Pizza!

6. Shopping in T-nagar/Cotton street/Moore market/Aminjikarai/Parry’s corner

7. The Connemara library – it has a copy of every book published in India. The Anna Centenary library – one of the largest in Asia. Also try cheap roadside vendors selling Indian editions books!

8. Kollywood – the great Tamil cinema industry with Superstar Rajini and Ulaganayagn Kamal Hassan – enough said.

9. The amazing Chennai Auto! Transportation to any tricky location in the city.

10. Silk saris in a bazillion colors and patterns!

11. Fresh flower stalls outside every temple – no matter how big or how small

12. The radio stations – I stream on the net when I am in the US to listen to the musical genius of Madras’s Illayaraja and A.R.Rahman.

13. Chennai Super Kings – the Chennai cricket team is the best, or so I have been told… and I believe it.

14. It may be as hot as the sun in May but I look forward to the mangoes, sugarcane juice, watermelon, tender coconut water and palm fruit 🙂

15. Last but not the least – the amazing people!

These are just a few of the reasons why we love our city. Madras is also known for its safety, diversity and friendliness. Ask any Chennaite or Madrasi you know and they will agree with me. No wonder the British fell in love with India when they landed in Madras and just had to have it!

– Die-hard Madrasi AB

P.S. Someday I will write about the greatness of the suburb that I live in Madras – Annanagar! They say, Chennai is a city, Madras is an emotion, but Annanagar is another country!

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That’s a job!

A long time I was cleaning out some of old junk and came across some of my husband’s notebooks from college. Now, these are always interesting. His notes are filled with about 25% notes, 70% drawings and ideas for video games featuring elaborate robots, aliens, and fantasy figures, and 5% random thoughts that he was thinking of when he was not paying attention to the lecture. I love to browse through them. Every time I do, I ask my husband to do something more with those game ideas, maybe build a game or write a novel based on it. I generally ignore the boring notes about library science. What I really love are those random thoughts. There is one that is extra-special to me. He had written:

“Food critic – That’s a job”

I asked him for an explanation. He told me that he thought that being a food critic would be an awesome job. You go to restaurants, get special treatment, eat amazing food, and then critique it. It would especially ideal for my husband who so adventurous in his food. Since then, this became a private joke between us. Whenever, we came across some interesting work, we would look at each other, grin and say ‘That’s a job!”.

A few days ago, I realized that I love writing and being a writer “that’s a job”. I wondered why I hadn’t become a writer right out of college and even why I didn’t take college classes to become a writer. I tried to remember my earliest ambitions and with some shock I realized that the first time I really had an ambition was when I was in 6th grade and I had wanted to be *gasp* a ‘writer’!

I moved to a new school in 6th grade and I had a wonderful English teacher who made me realize my love for the language. She took the time to sit with me and corrected some of my repetitive mistakes – I didn’t know the difference between ‘there’ and ‘their’. I spelled ‘John’ as ‘Jhon’. This memory suddenly came back to me, I had written a story about as protagonist named ‘Jhon’ and she had read it. She sat with me, pointed out my strengths and weaknesses and encouraged me to write. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a writer. Unfortunately, this English teacher moved to another school the next year. By the time I got another great English teacher in 9th grade, Indian culture had effectively brainwashed me that you cannot get anywhere in life unless you have a career in science.

In 7th grade, we had a new biology teacher, who helped me discover my love for biology and I forgot all about wanting to be a writer. I still loved my English classes in high school but I had fully embraced science by then. I did great with science in college and in graduate school I combined my love of food/nutrition with biology and became a food microbiologist.

You make plans and then life happens. I wanted to join the food industry and climb up the corporate ladder (now I realize how I would have hated that: you do kind of get to know yourself better in your 30s). Then about 5 years ago, I stumbled back into writing. I worked part-time as a freelance writer picking up writing jobs here and there on the internet. Even when I came back to India, 3 years ago, I initially worked in a food research company albeit in as a public relations officer. I had 2 profiles on naukri.com – one for AB the scientist and one for AB the writer and somehow despite having less experience ,the writer one always got more hits (maybe the profile showcased my writing skills?). So the science was not meant to be.

I got my current job when the HR manager at work called me after seeing my naukri profile. I was out on a jog and wasn’t very interested. I came home and saw his email and decided the place was too far away. A couple of days later, I mentioned it to my mother who pointed out that it wasn’t really that far. So i decided to just go check it out. I went there at 10 am and ended up staying till 7 pm taking their tests one after another and having my final interview and getting the job.

The best thing about my current job was that it made me rediscover my love of writing. It is true that we don’t to much ‘creative writing’ at my job but it just felt so good to be back among words! It made me remember how my original ambition had been to be a writer. It felt great to be surrounded by others who shared an equal love for writing and reading. Writing does the same thing for me that my art does. It releases stress in a creative endeavor while actively engaging my intellect. Art does that for me when my brain is tired and I don’t want to think, but just want to create. Maybe I am more of an artist than a scientist after all. I always used to think I am not ‘untidy’ enough to be a true artist. I detest clutter and find comfort in logic and patterns and I used to think that made me more a scientist than an artist.

I think I really have found my calling with writing and will never be far away from writing again. Maybe some day I will be able to make money being some kind of science writer. Now ‘that would be a job’!

-AB

Facebook – Saving my friendships since 2009

Friendship is like a plant, it requires tender loving care and attention to blossom. And I suck at it.

I am one of those people who is neither a true extrovert nor a true introvert. If you ask people who knew me at different stages in my life (i.e. my school friends, my college friends, co-workers etc.,) they will describe completely different persons. My school friends will describe me as an introvert with my head buried in a storybook all the time. My college friends will describe me as describe me as an extrovert and one of the most friendliest in class. The fact is, I go through stages in my life when I am an extrovert and then regress back to an introvert when I can’t be bothered to make the effort. Just like extrovert-ism, friendship requires a lot of effort.

Friendship comes easily and more naturally when we are in school. Through my school days I had 2 best friends, lets call them K and B. We became best friends in 8th grade. Both of them moved to a different class in 11th and 12th (they were both commerce students, I was a science student). In the last year of my school, B and I would get together before school and people-watch from our balcony on the 3rd floor of our school. K, B and I would eat lunch together every day. K and I were born 4 days apart and we celebrated our birthdays together in 12th grade. We all went to different colleges but still stayed in touch. We all have birthdays in July and even if we haven’t heard from each other in a long time, we always make an effort to connect every July, especially when I am in India. We remained in touch even before Facebook. Even if I was not in the country, one of them would call and talk to my parents.

I had two best friends in college, A and S. I am still in touch with A, but I have completely lost touch with S. We had a misunderstanding towards the end of our college, she got married soon afterwards and I never heard from her again. It is quite ridiculous when I think about how close we used to be. I sort of remained in touch with A even through pre-Facebook years and now with Facebook we keep up with each other nicely.

After college, I found it very hard to make and retain friends. I think its genetic. Both my parents hardly have any friends. They never had any close family friends when I was growing up. Maybe that’s why my mother never stressed that it is important that I make friends. But, I find myself telling my children to make friends and to work at it. Now my husband is also a person who doesn’t have many friends. So I still belong to a family with very few family friends. I think I quite easily passed a whole decade in my life without any friends. Some of my friends from graduate school remain my friends thanks to Facebook. It is a blessing to friendship-challenged folks like me.

Friendship is a big deal in India. We have historic examples of great friendships – like Karna and Duryodhana from the Mahabharatam. There are many Indians who swear by their friends, would do anything for them and prefer them over family. So I am definitely in the minority. Being back in India after so many years, I notice afresh how close Indians are with their friends. I still find it difficult to make and maintain friends and I know that its wholly my own fault.

Friendship requires give and take. Although I don’t demand much from my friends, I don’t give much either. I am a soul who is comfortable being alone and sometimes protect my alone time fiercely. Most times, all I need is a book. This time around, I have made some good friends at work and I will go back with to the US and I know I will keep in touch with them. I have Facebook now!

I guess the reason I wrote this post is so I can thank my few friends and let them know how much I appreciate them. They are truly special because the only reason our friendships last is because THEY make the effort. If a normal friendship is 50/50, my friendships are 20/80. I participate 20% and my friends carry the rest of the weight. This post is an effort to contribute another 10% on my part.

So thank you for being my friend despite the lack of my friendship skills. I am truly thankful that you are in my life.

-AB

What’s in a name?

Parents tell you lots of things and try to pass on all kind of advice. Not all of it sticks though. Sometimes, somethings make an impression. One such piece of advice that my dad gave me that made an big impression was this:

“Always ask people their names and refer to them by their name. No matter who they are, what they do, try to remember their names. Especially the names of the people who serve you.”

This little piece of advice really stuck with me and it has now become an unconscious part of me. I make it a point to ask people their names and try to remember it and refer to them by their name. In a country like India, with so many people, this really makes a difference. I know the names of several drivers who have driven me around, the kid who brings tea to my dad’s office, the ladies who wash dishes and clean bathrooms at my work, and the man who sells fruit at the end of my street. Whenever, I meet them I greet them with their names, stop for a minute or two and ask them what’s going on. In return, I get surprise, delight, friendship, concern, and love.

Most of these people get treated like they are part of the scenery all the time and not as the unique individuals that they are. When you make an effort to remember them, they make an effort to get to know you as well. Sometimes you learn hear amazing stories, learn new things, and get to know some great people. For instance:

-My driver supports his wife, their new baby, his mother, his sister who was abandoned by her husband and her kids. His father and brother drank themselves to death, so he never touches alcohol.

-The kid who brings tea to my dad’s office – actually its 2 kids, they are brothers and they are from way north, near Nepal. They work here and send savings back to their family. They visit them once a year, mostly around Raksha Bandhan, because they miss their sister so much. They have only been here a couple of years but can speak Tamil quite fluently.

-One of the ladies who washes dishes and cleans the bathroom, she is covered with burns all the way from her neck down. One day I noticed the burns on her hand and asked her about it. She said that she set herself on fire when she was a young bride because her mother-in-law scolded her about something. She says she doesn’t even remember what she was so mad about. A couple of days ago, she noticed I was limping and stopped to ask me about it.

-The old guy who sells fruit down the street, he had been semi-retired and then money got tight and he started working full time again.

These are little stories I gleaned from them over many encounters. Some of their stories take my breath away. They teach me about human resilience. Its amazing to glimpse into the life and personality of someone you pass by every day. I believe that these experiences make my life richer.

I now remember to pass on this valuable piece of advice to my children. hopefully, they too will be richer for it.

So next time you see someone you pass by every day, stop for a moment and ask their name.

-AB

My Anti-Bucket List

Apparently today is sibling day. So I decided to do something my brother usually does – go against the grain. He would not read Harry Potter just because everyone was doing so. He would choose to do something weird just because no one does it. Since it is all the rage to write down bucket lists, I figured that I would write an anti-bucket list instead. This list consists of things I have never done and never want to do, things I have done voluntarily that I never want to repeat, and things I have been forced to and never hope to do again. Here it goes (in no particular order):

Things I have never done and I never want to do:

1. Recreational drugs

2. Deep sea dive or surf

3. Go on a one-way trip to Mars

4. Bungee jump

5. Eat meat or seafood

6. Sing to an audience

7. Go to jail

8. Get a tongue piercing or a face tattoo

9. Have a pet cat

10. Lose interest in learning

Things that I have done voluntarily but have no interest in repeating

1. Give birth – have done it twice

2. Get drunk – have done it once

3. Go to graduate school – have done it twice

4. Wear high heels, especially stilettos – used to do it a lot when I was an undergraduate

5. Stay up all night long – have done it countless times

6. Chat online with a stranger – have done it several times

7. Go to a college football game – have done it twice!

8. Grow my hair long – done it many times, hated it every single time

9. Cook wax beans – have done it once with disastrous results

10. Watch the movie Vanilla Sky – once was enough!

Things I have been forced to do that I never want to do again

1. Move 5 times in a year

2. Live in Mississippi

3. Commute 4 hours every day

4. Take a Tamil exam

5. Undergo any kind of surgery

6. Live somewhere it snows longer than a week

7. Move to a new country where I don’t know a single person

8. Any job I hate just for the money

9. Skip breakfast

10. Let down somebody who depended on me

Maybe someday I will write a bucket list. Today is not the day.

-AB

The “B” word

I am a Brahmin. There, I said it.

For those of you who are not Indians, Brahmins are one of the so-called upper castes in the Hindu caste system. In fact, many people almost exclusively refer to Brahmins when they use the term upper caste, although there are other communities that are also considered to be upper caste.
Traditionally, Brahmins were highly educated folk, known for being religious and orthodox. They learned Sanskrit, studied the Vedas, and were responsible for taking care of temples. Brahmins are vegetarian and most of them have never tasted meat in their lives. The men are initiated into the study of Vedas when they “came of age” in a bar mitzvah-like ceremony called Upanayam. They wear a sacred white thread around their bodies and a namam or pattai (a mark like the Hindu dot) on their forehead. Married Brahmin women dressed in the traditional Madisar fashioned from a single piece of 9-yard fabric.
Wikipedia defines Brahmin (also called Brahmana) as a varna in Vedic Hinduism and also a caste of people who are members of it. But the word “Brahmin” has power a certain power attached to it and for a long time, I considered it a bad word.

“The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children.” ― William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
In older times, Brahmins have been known to discriminate against other castes, especially the so-called lower castes. People talk about them practicing ‘untouchability’ and withholding education from others. These acts of injustice have led Brahmins to be one of the most hated communities, especially in South India.
I realized my identity as a Brahmin only in my early teens. Until then I did not know that I belonged to one of the minority communities in Chennai. I went to a school that had a large Brahmin population and non-Brahmins were more the exception than the rule. When I first learned of the history of my caste I felt an overwhelming sense of shame. Shame that my ancestors were these terrible bigots who rode roughshod over so many people. I would never admit to anyone that I was born a Brahmin.
When I started college, I experienced somewhat of a culture-shock in terms of my caste. I was only one of 2 Brahmins in my class. All of a sudden, I was really in the minority. That’s when my shame turned to fear. The fact is, Brahmins of today experience a sort of reverse-discrimination in the hands of  society. Reservation programs (akin to Affirmative action in the US) in colleges and jobs tend to discriminate against Brahmins. We are quite simply blamed for the actions of our ancestors and categorically judged as supremacists.
Every Brahmin will probably relate an incident from their lives when their non-Brahmin friends made fun of their vegetarianism. They would have either been hounded to give it up or repeatedly asked explain their religious reasons for it (we believe that eating meat is against ahimsa/non-violence and also that it upsets the purity of our body and soul). Then there is the cruelest trick of fooling a Brahmin into believing that he/she has just consumed meat by accident. There are many derogatory terms used to depict Brahmins from the more hurtful “pappan/pappathi” to the somewhat less offensive “namam/pattai” and the almost-forgivable, more innocent “thayir sadam”. Besides our dietary preferences, our dialect is also used to ridicule us, especially in movies. A Brahmin would never volunteer information or even mention on his caste, lest he be arrested and sued for caste discrimination. They know that if that happened, public opinion will largely side with the non-Brahmins.

And so in college, I actively distanced myself from my Brahmin identity. I would ensure that I talked like the non-Brahmins. Occasionally, I would slip up and use a term that was uniquely Brahmin and my non-Brahmins would immediately jump on it to make fun of me. I also faced another challenge in hiding my identity –  my name. My first/given name is an old-fashioned and exclusively Brahmin name. Strangers only needed to hear my name to realize that I am a Brahmin and I would have to face the judgment that came with it. I distinctly remember arguing with my mother for having burdened me with such an obviously-Brahmin name.

I don’t think I am alone in having experienced this sense of shame and fear. Many Brahmins carry with them a sense of “Brahmin-shame” and you often find many popular Brahmin actors deriding their own heritage on the stage and in movies. Most Brahmins work to keep their caste identity secret and do much to ensure that they do not stand out.
The government reservation policies started a mass migration of Brahmins to the United States and other countries in the 1970s, as they sought educational opportunities that did not discriminate against them. Eventually, my brother and I joined these migrants. A few weeks after moving to the US, my brother remarked that for once in his life he felt comfortable going out in public wearing his namam. During my years in the USA, I slowly outgrew my hatred for my name. It didn’t single me out anymore. It was just another hard-to-pronounce Indian name. My background as a Brahmin ceased to matter. More so when I married an American Christian. Although I remained a vegetarian and a Hindu, I never gave my Brahmin heritage much thought. This changed when I became a parent. I felt a powerful need to pass on my culture to my children and it served as a turning point in my attitude towards my caste.

After 12 years away, I moved back to India in 2012. I had missed India so much and I was thrilled to be back. I soaked up everything Indian and rejoiced in immersing myself in my culture, language and religion. For the first time in my life, I wanted to learn everything about my Brahmin background. I understood the meanings behind routine “Brahmin” rituals and developed a new appreciated for them. I realized how wrong I was to feel shame for something that I never did. The fact is most Brahmins are gentle, timid folk who do not like confrontations. Even in the past, not all Brahmins were bigots. There were many great, kind, and compassionate people who were Brahmins.

The Tamil poet Subramania Bharathi wrote,
“Jathigal elai adi papa. Kulam thazhthi uyarthi solal pavam”
(Translation: There are no castes, little one. It is a sin to discriminate against a person based on his clan/family)
… and he was a Brahmin.
I realize that the change is not just within me. The society is also slowly changing. I find that the Brahmin youth of today embrace their heritage more openly. They do not hide from it. Even though some discrimination remains (on both sides, in isolated pockets), today’s Brahmins are more assertive. They neither possess the arrogance of Brahmins of a bygone era, nor do they suffer from the Brahmin-shame of my generation. The very fact that people openly refer to themselves as TamBram (Tamil Brahmin) speaks of this change.
So yes, I am a Brahmin, a TamBram and proud of it. I now use my gotra (Brahmin clan) name “Bharadwaj” as a pseudonym when I write. It indicates that I am a descendent of Rishi Bhardwaja, a great Hindu sage.
Today, I am only a Brahmin by birth. But every day, I try to become a real Brahmin as described by Lord Krishna. He said that “the Brahmanas would eschew wealth and arms and focus only on the The Brahman (the Great, or the Absolute). They would see Him or That in everything and would therefore never harm themselves or others and be above the duality of like and dislike”.
-A. Bharadwaj

 

Sour grapes

This is the tale of the silent war that occurs in Chennai (and other parts of India I assume) every summer. When I was young I used to think this phenomenon was limited to just my family. But its not. As more and more Indians immigrate to the States, the summer war seems to be becoming more widespread. Its a war between resident Indians in one camp and the NRI (non-resident Indians) on the other side. It is a war between cousins, parents, in-laws, children, and even grandparents, and here is where it starts:

***

They come in May.That is when the school holidays start in the US. It doesn’t sync with the Indian school holidays which start sometime in April. They bring with them American chocolates (that are now easily available here), huge bottles of shampoo and various little gifts. They dress in shorts and t-shirts and complain about the heat in Chennai as if they were not  born here or have never lived here. They talk about the land they come from as if it was a sort of hell and describe the land they live in as a kind of heaven. They wonder how people manage to live in this country that has a population of nearly a billion people. Yet, they are our cousins, our family and it is good to see them again! and we do love receiving their little gifts. It came from the USA, of course it is better!

***

It is almost May, its time for a visit home. We are so excited! We are counting down the days. No matter how much we love America, sometimes it just feels so good to visit India. Too bad we can only go for 21 days. We have to squeeze in all the temple visits, meet all the family, eat our favorite foods and get all the shopping done,  even as we suffer from jet lag. Shopping! its so much fun in India, for our dollar goes a long way! Maybe the kids can take a summer class or a camp while they are there – learn their mother tongue, or some Carnatic music or take a Bharathanatyam class. We better get those huge family pack of mixed mini chocolates from Sam’s club. That will make a great gift. Ah and those t-shirts and baseball caps that we got at work. They will like those too. Just dreading the heat though… the heat, dust, dirt and germs, and the bad roads, and the bureaucracy…Man! I wonder how they live there. We’ll tell them, heck, we can even show them how things in America are so much better. Still, it will be good to be home, see our family, visit our old haunts and take a break from the mechanical life in the States.

***

These are the perspectives of resident Indians and NRIs towards the yearly family reunion in summer. I am a person who has been on both sides of this war. I became aware of this subtle war when I was much younger, when I was like the aforementioned resident Indian. Then I became an NRI. Now I back to camp I and will soon go back to camp II. Although I have been both a resident and non-resident Indian, I identify more with the resident Indian. I always have. Its got something to do with my intense sense of patriotism (something my daughter has inherited, albeit for another nation – USA).

But I do believe this tug-of-war springs from our pride that just won’t allow us to admit that we are a little jealous of the other side. The residents wish to see the splendor that is described to be America, but will not admit it. Instead, they tell themselves that life in the States is dull and mechanical. The NRIs miss their homeland, its unique customs, and culture. But they won’t admit it either. Both camps cover it up by pretending that they are better off than the other. The residents revel in the fact that they haven’t abandoned their country and culture and criticize the NRI’s for doing so. The NRI’s focus on their better opportunities and convince themselves that they would hate living in India, even though it is probably a subconscious desire.

I hope people can put aside their pride, step down from their pedestals and acknowledge the truths. After all, we are all family.

-AB