Finding Family


I have always thought of myself as an independent and free-thinking person. Growing up, I enjoyed quite a few liberties, thanks to my father. He did not really restrict me with regard to new things that I wanted to do. And that allowed me to have the experiences I have had, to choose journalism, to work in television. I shouldn’t be harping on having been ‘allowed’ to do these things but I know I am lucky to have had the opportunity to do what I have done.

Today, I sit thousands of miles away from him. In a one-bedroom apartment. In a foreign land. Missing what I reluctantly now call my former/other ‘home’. They say it gets easy. But it hasn’t really been. For me.

I’m trying to find my foothold. I’m trying to find all things new. I’m trying to find joy in the smallest of things. I’m trying to find myself.

I recently read somewhere that Indian families never prepare their daughters for life in a different country. We grow up under the protection of our parents, and siblings if any. Parents help us decide every single step in our lives. From which course to study to which motorcycle to purchase to which job to take. And then, when we get married and move out, to a far off place, it hits us. Starting from scratch. Building a new life. Setting up house. Making it a home. Cooking three meals. Ensuring everything is clean. Bills to be paid. Groceries to be bought. It’s a slap in the face if you have never done any of this before.

Fortunately for me, the cooking, cleaning et al have been fairly easy to adjust to. It will never be the same as life was in your ‘home’. But I’m hoping to get there.

The toughest is building a new life. The things you once took for granted are all luxuries now. Not the financial kind. Though that’s there too.

Being able to walk out and talk to your neighbours. Waiting for the vegetable vendor to arrive at your doorstep to buy coriander and green chillies for 5 rupees. Deciding not to cook and instead head to the local fast food joint and eat some Chinese fried rice and Gobi manchurian. Going to friends houses, unannounced.

I did not necessarily do all of these things when I was back home. But the fact is I had the choice to. And now I don’t. These are all luxuries now. Or memories of when I did do them. It’s amazing how you remember the littlest of things and miss them from the bottom of your heart.

While all this is fairly understandable when you move abroad, the worst adjustment is family. No one tells you how much you are actually going to miss them. When someone tells you you are going to miss them a lot, it’s an understatement. No one can even begin to tell you how much you will miss them.

It continues to surprise me, even as I write this, how much I miss my family. And the thing is, you now have to set up your own family. I’m not talking about kids and all though the ‘Is there good news?’ always pops up in the most un-subtlest of ways from an over-enthusiastic aunt or ‘trying-to-be-funny’ acquaintance.

Setting up your own family meaning, now you are the lady of the house and your husband is the man of the house. You turn to each other for advice and discussion and when you hit a roadblock you can’t go running to mom and dad (I’m sure you can, but in the real world you do need to figure out your own stuff unless it’s earth-shattering that parents have to be involved).

The heartache comes in bits and pieces. The smell of freshly-made filter coffee reminds you of making it for your father back home. Looking at fresh flowers in the temple reminds you of the flower-seller hawking your street back home. Watching a TV show makes you try to remember the shows you watched back home. It’s a painful experience. But one that you need to overcome on your own, on your own time and terms.

The wave of sickness can hit you at the most unexpected of times. Don’t even get me started on how it feels when you are actually sick. You want nothing but to be back in that home of your growing up years, to lie down and be taken care of by your parents. A warm cup of milk is all it could take to yearn and crave to go back just one more time and savor everything that you once took for granted.

What I tell myself, every single day, is to try. Because that’s the first step to anything. Trying. Put one foot in front of the other. And try. Try to do better than yesterday.

And so, this new life is like a blank canvas. I get to start from scratch. How many people can actually do that?

I’ve got a new beginning.

Today, I get up at a time of my choosing and it’s a fairly ‘adult’ time to wake up, mind you. Because I know what lies in store in the day ahead and I’m prepared. I make my own rules and decide what I do on any given day. (I know. It’s called being an adult!)

This growing up, this sense of responsibility, this setting up your own family or finding family, is actually pretty cool. No one is forcing me to do it. I’m not unhappy about it. I’m actually enjoying it! And that’s the thing about new experiences. They happen, just like that.

Friends are family for me now. You have them as close as you want but they don’t step on your toes like relatives might. Going out is an event for me. Laugh all you want, but it is. For me. I make a big deal out of the smallest of things i get to do, because I want to enjoy every bit of it. I like holding on to these moments just for a second longer, afraid at times that it may never happen again, but delighted that it is happening.

I get to sit down and ponder things through. Like I’m doing right now, as I write this. This is an opportunity for clarity, for patience, for slow and steady.

I enjoy boardgames. I enjoy cooking (I don’t enjoy looking at a full sink because I’m the one who has to make it un-full). I enjoy reading. I enjoy sitting in the patio and watch the neighbors pets do their thing as the owners pick after in little poopy bags.

This is my life now. And I’m going to make the most of it.

My family is what I make of it. We are two now. We have each other. And that’s what matters.

I get to share all of this every single day with family who live across the seven seas. It’s painful, let me remind you again. But it’s what I have right now. And if you haven’t realized it already, I’ve come to appreciate the smallest of pleasures. And this is one such.

While I do miss the sound of the vegetable vendor shouting ‘Beans, Carrot, Brinjal’, or lighting lamps during Diwali, or navigating my way through crazed traffic, I’ve come to understand the peace and quiet that’s predominant here. It has allowed me time to find myself. To reflect on things gone by and people who have been.

Family is always here, there and everywhere. While my family is far far away, I have another family right here. Family is what you make it to be. It isn’t always about a mother, father, sister, brother and dog (or cat). It can be just two people. Or even friends. Or even acquaintances who could become friends. You build your life with what you have. And this is what I have now.

My new family has made me appreciate my family back home, a lot more. I love them even more. I have also come to realize that family isn’t always blood. They could be anyone who makes you feel comfortable and accepts you for who you are.

I carry my family, old and new, everywhere I go. I think of what they would do if they were with me right then. They sustain me.

I read a quote somewhere that went, “We must take care of our families wherever we find them”. And that’s exactly what I intend to do.

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Street smoke in New York City


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I always wondered why there was smoke emanating from the streets of New York City, very commonly seen on TV and in movies. Turns out that this is actually steam. The city actually has a steam system which carries steam under the streets of Manhattan. There are businesses that use steam. Very often steam can be seen rising from manholes on the street.

Oprah Winfrey’s India visit


Oprah Winfrey’s visit to a Mumbai slum and a contrasting visit to a rich family’s house, has received much criticism. Another firang who has come to coo about our slums, some may ask. Or talk about the unabashed luxury that exists on the other side.

We must first however understand that Oprah’s Next Chapter is a show that is primarily meant for the western audiences. It is a show that airs in the  United States of America on Oprah’s television network OWN. And therefore, the India episode must be viewed from the perspective of an American watching it. It wasn’t meant to be made for us Indians.

That said, okay, so she came and decided to take a tour of one of the country’s largest slums. I don’t particularly see anything wrong with that simply because she chose a topic of her choice and went ahead with that. Now, why take Gregory David Roberts to show you around, is the next obvious question. Again, may I say that if the show was primarily meant for an Indian audience, I would have though Shabana Azmi would have been the ideal person to take Oprah around. But how many people in America would be able to connect with Shabana as much as they would with Gregory? And he anyways did not have too much of a role to play in the episode that appeared on TV. he didn’t act like a mediator between Oprah and the families she met there. He was merely present there and was quite negligible. He did, however, make a very important and honest point to Oprah after she met with the case study family. He spoke tolerance. And it is so true that we as a country are so tolerant and therefore don’t mind the stench from the storm water drain, or the unscheduled power cuts, or the water that does not come out of the tap. We may complain a couple of times but we have lived with these problems for almost always. And it is most certainly because we have tolerated all of this. We have put up with all of this. Gregory David Roberts was bang on.

Now coming to the criticism about the meeting with the family in the Dharavi slum and some of Oprah’s questions. At the outset, I would like to say, that we couldn’t have asked for a better ambassador than the little girl Aanchal. She was simply amazing. She was so real and true and it came through beautifully through the television screens. Aanchal explained to Oprah about how they live in their little home, her father’s dreams and her own of course.

Oprah was very direct with her questions. As she always is. You would know if you have followed her previous show on TV that ran 25 seasons.

How could she make Aanchal’s father cry on TV, some may ask. I don’t think she did. What is wrong if a man cries? She didn’t probe him. She didn’t coax him. She didn’t question him till he had a meltdown. She asked him one question and it was an emotional one. Him crying, showed the reality of his life. His daughters were happy. He wasn’t. He wanted better for them. And he said it. Oprah was simply there, asking questions.

And it isn’t like there aren’t any poor people in America. So before we shout from our rooftops telling Oprah to get over the fact that we have slums in our country, that we have people who are utterly poor, we must also understand that she is well aware of that and has covered it extensively in her previous show.

I remember a show where she showcased a lady living in a really tiny house with some ten children from her extended family, as she was the only one left to take care of them. It was a touching and moving story. And at the end of it, Oprah surprised the family by gifting them a house of their choice.

So for all those criticising her for showcasing how small Aanchal’s house is, please stop and breathe. It’s her show and it isn’t like she did or said something incorrect.

Contrasts

Oprah Winfrey then travelled to meet a more upmarket family in Mumbai. A family that has a priest over to do their daily pujas. A family that writes their kitchen menu on a white board with a marker. And a family that eats on silver plates. That entire portion seemed quite ridiculous to me, not for its programming, but for how that family seemed to me! But it was also the point Oprah was trying to make in her show though she did not say it. The brazen contrast between these families. One, content in their hole of a home. The other, living a luxurious life but claim and that being together is what matters.

And why is Oprah surprised about eating with your hands? Especially when burgers and pizzas are eaten with your hands as well? It is a question that she seemed to genuinely have and the gentleman very rightly responded saying that a large part of India still eats using their hands.

The part that surprised me the most from Oprah’s questions throughout the show were about arranged marriage and love. She asked Aanchal’s parents and also the rich family. And later A R Rahman.

This is what I think Oprah tried to keep as a common thread through her meetings with people. It’s probably a subject that she is trying to understand and even when she was interviewed at the Jaipur Literature Festival, she spoke about this. I doubt, coming from the west, she can still comprehend the concept of an arranged marriage. Again, catering to her audience back home.

Of clichés and stereotypes

So, could her show have been any different? Should it have? Probably not. Because it wasn’t meant for us anyway. It happened to be aired in our country. I assumed that they would air the entire series but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

When people like Oprah visit India, I always wonder why they end up going to a city like Mumbai or Delhi, and not to cities like say Bangalore or Madurai or Darjeeling or Korba. Well, it would have been nice if she did not go to Mumbai and went somewhere else and spoke about something else. But it’s her show. In her next episode, which I haven’t had a chance to watch, I think she visited Brindavan to talk to single women and widows, and later Rajasthan. So yes, she did showcase a different India.

One only hopes she comes back, visits more cities, and talks to more different people. Hey, who else can make A R Rahman as uncomfortable as we have ever seen him and make him speak an amount to last him a while!

What a welcome, Chennai!


As soon as I stepped out of the Indigo flight, the humid air hit my face. Chennai welcomed me with its glorious weather. You know you are in Chennai, when, even as you walk out of the airport, many eyes stare you up and down, as an alien who has just landed in their city. Doesn’t matter that I am Tam as well.

I walked out, determined to not be fleeced by any of the infamous transport modes. A cab would solve my problem, I thought. I walked to a policeman to find out where the taxi stand was. He pointed vaguely in one direction, which eventually led me to the main road, the highway. A concerned gentleman dressed in shirt and tie, unusual at that time of day and with that god-forsaken heat, asked me what I was looking for. Blessed, I asked him about how to get to the taxi stand and he pointed in the right direction.

I reached the Government of Tamil Nadu-run prepaid taxi stand close to the departure gate. I told the man at the counter that I needed to go to Hotel Manhattan (more about the hotel and its fancy name, later) on Radhakrishnan Salai, located next to the DGP’s office. This was the address I had. I paid him 30 bucks and got into my taxi – a black and yellow ambassador, non-AC.

As we took off to the hotel, I made calls to my father and Chennai-based aunt, informing them about the hotel I am staying in. I told them the hotel was in Mylapore, on Radhakrishnan Salai. I couldn’t see much of the city outside, as it was late evening. Chennai was getting Metro Rail as well. The work seemed less shabby than what it is in Bangalore.

We got to Radhakrishnan Salai and the discerning taxi driver stopped near New Woodlands Hotel and asked me for directions. Lost as I was, I called up the hotel and asked them. ‘Come further down the road, close to Marina beach’, said the hotel guy. I told the driver. ‘Aiyoo, that is not Mylapore madam’, he replied. ‘When did I say Mylapore to you?’, I asked, ‘I told you Radhakrishnan Road, next to DGP office.’

The man heard my telephone conversation and put two and two together. Nevertheless, he wasn’t too pleased. I got off at the hotel and took out a 500 rupee note as he bluntly said, ‘Change illa’, and smartly suggested I ask the hotel for some. Which I did. He still didn’t have 30 rupees to give me back as change, which of course he fleeced me of, and sped off in that yellow taxi.

What a welcome, Chennai!

Now coming to the hotel. Hotel Manhattan. Doesn’t the name sound so dreamy? It’s another thing my aunt scoffed at it when she heard the name. But I was keeping my fingers crossed. Well, it wasn’t dreamy. But it wasn’t bad either. Decent, manageable, not bad, these are the words I used to describe it, over the next few days. A double-bed, mini-fridge, walls scraped of paint, room service, central AC and in true Tamil-style, a bowl of fruits.

For the next two days, I slept almost like a baby, waking up every other hour to check if I over slept. The room did me good. Not bad. And the overall Chennai experience? More about that later.