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.

Who eats an umbilical cord?

Many parents end up saving their baby’s umbilical cord, after it dries up and falls off. I recently heard of this old wives tale that if a woman cannot conceive, belief is if she consumes a piece of this umbilical cord, it would help her become pregnant. I have also heard that the umbilical cord once dry tastes rubbery. It is usually given with a banana, both to hide the taste and possibly the cord itself.

Medically, what I have heard is that the umbilical cord is a source of stem cells, similar to bone marrow. Therefore you have cases where the cord is preserved.

However, here are two bizarre stories that I found about oral consumption.

What’s all the fuss about Vishwaroopam?

Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam is no big deal as was made out to be. The movie was banned briefly in Tamil Nadu, the south Indian state out of which it was produced by the veteran actor. The reason being that certain Muslim groups were protesting. While for the regular Tamil cinema-goer, the movie may seem to be amazing with the added plus of watching their Ulaganayagan (Universal hero). But for the Tamilian in me, the movie was quite a bore.

Vishwaroopam talks about a subject that has been featured in films across the world umpteen numbers of times already. Terrorism. Haasan has attempted to give a slightly different twist, and I must say failed almost completely. I say ‘almost’ only because of the first one hour of the movie. The first one hour of the movie is the kind of Kamal Haasan movie the Tamilian in me enjoys immensely. It reminded me a bit of Avvai Shanmukhi. (When Avvai Shanmukhi released not many of us had seen Mrs Doubtfire, so there was no question of comparing Haasan to Robin Williams. The movie was a massive hit. It was one of Haasan’s best roles.)

Haasan’s role as a middle-aged kathak teacher in New York City is a delight to watch. The typical Brahmin Tamizh. His feminine expressions. The way he struts across the street. And of course, the most important of all, his dance. Superb. Unfortunately, we don’t get to enjoy too much of this as his cover is blown. And that’s where the movie begins to fail miserably. The flashback to Haasan’s role as a mole (he is an agent of India’s Research and Analysis Wing) in the Al Qaeda is loose and uninteresting. For starters, they talk in Tamizh. While they claim to know Tamizh because of having hidden in Tamil Nadu, for a terrorist outfit that prides itself for its culture (in reality), they sure wouldn’t sit and talk in that language. (If you have read enough books about the Middle East, the Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, you would know this. I’m not sure why Haasan didn’t feel this could be an issue).

For a good 1.5 hours the movie revolves around what Haasan did in Afghanistan. Haasan looks so out of place amidst the Al Qaeda. If I were Omar (played by Rahul Bose) in real life, I would have so known something was up. But the Al Qaeda matter-of-factly took this man in and allowed him to train jihadis. Even the explanation that the Indian Army wants his head, which is shown in a poster, is not believable. The guys at Al Qaeda are surely not that dumb.

And so, talking about dumb, it seems like it is this unbelievable portion of the movie that raised heckles and caused all the banning nonsense. If people took issue to the fact that Haasan is a Muslim in the film and he talks about the Al Qaeda, I don’t understand what the issue is. No where does he bring religion in. He happens to be a RAW agent who is a Muslim by religion. The Al Qaeda happens to be an organisation that is primarily Islamic. Nothing controversial at all.

If anyone had to take issue, maybe the Brahmins, Iyers and Iyengars of the world could, objecting to the roasting of a chicken.

And maybe even George W Bush. His photo is seen used for target practice by the jihadis.

Even the ending of the movie with the Caesium bomb and defusing it using a microwave oven, is all just boring.

Andrea Jeremiah’s role is unnecessary. I’m not sure why she is even in the movie. Shekhar Kapur looks uncomfortable. Rahul Bose is okay. Pooja Kumar has done a decent job. Haasan’s role is interesting in the first one hour of the movie.

All in all the movie was definitely not very enjoyable. If I thought Dashaavataram was bad, this was definitely not better. I’m not sure why Haasan even made the movie. There was nothing really exciting about the story. If he made it for the fight sequences and audio effects, I’m not sure that is reason enough. After so many movies and so many years of acting, he may have made this movie to experiment, which he can afford to.But I, as a not-so-regular Tamil movie-goer, would like to see Haasan in a movie similar in genre to Panchathanthiram or Pammal K Sammandham.

As for Vishwaroopam 2, I’m not sure I’ll be in line to watch.

Note: I’m still trying to figure why the movie is titled ‘Vishwaroopam’. Plus, does India’s RAW really do so much work in reality?

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.


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!

Sonia Gandhi’s 15-minute ‘apolitical’ visit

She came. She saw. She left. The Congress may have termed Sonia Gandhi’s visit to Karnataka as apolitical, but the UPA Chairperson’s brief tour had politics written all over it. On the morning of April 28th, Gandhi was expected to arrive in Nagasamudra village in Mulkanmuru taluk of Chitradurga district, approximately 250 kilometres from Bangalore.

Massive security arrangements were put in place. As the Congress supremo enjoys Z+ security, the Special Protection Guards were there ahead to oversee all the arrangements. She was to arrive by chopper with some state Congress leaders.

I reached Chitradurga district the previous day itself. Finding Nagasamudra was a whole different task. One needs to take a deviation at Hiriyur towards Chelekere, go to Hanagal and then head to Nagasamudra. 50 kms more and I would have been in Bellary.

It was on the morning of the 28th that I saw the village. Hundreds of men in khakhi. Barricades. SPG. The village had been transformed into this high security zone. It had also rained the previous day, quite heavily, so many questioned the whole point of this ‘drought visit’.

Arranagements were made at the Nagasamudra lake, over a century old, which had almost dried up, except for the previous night’s downpour. The village is extremely backward. No proper water, electricity or cow sheds. It was a ‘sample village’ chosen by state Congress leaders to show heir chief about the drought condition in Karnataka. A group of farmers, weavers and women were to present a memorandum to Gandhi. The entire village waited with bated breath.

At about 9.30 AM we heard a helicopter hovering in the area. And there it was. The moment we were all waiting for.

About 15 minutes later the Congress leader walked to place near the lake where she would meet the villagers. Dressed in her trademark cotton saree, white with black checks, the first thing that struck me was how fair she is. Later when I told my sister this, she replied, ‘Obviously, she’s a foreigner!’

She rushed down the barricaded area, started shaking hands with the people, spoke to a few of them, accepted their gifts.

It all lasted 15 minutes. And she was gone.

I had spent the last 24 hours planning this trip for my office. The security personnel were arranging the place for the last two days. The villagers were up and about for even longer I guess. All for a blink-and-miss appearance by someone who is said to be heading the country, if not on paper.

What irks me is the point of the visit. Why visit at all if you are going to be doing it in a hurry? Can we expect any major changes in Nagasamudra?

But the bigger question that I feel requires an answer is the amount of money that was spent on visiting this place. Since Gandhi enjoys Z+ security, there’s nothing we can do about the SPG. Then there was the state police on duty.
Who paid for the chopper from Bangalore to Nagasamudra? Some say it is highly unlikely to be government money and that some businessman would have overseen the charges.

Whatever said and done, when there is so much talk about austerity, isn’t this visit taking it a bit too far? What assessment could Gandhi have made in those 15 minutes. More sadly, the people of Nagasamudra would have loved it if you heard them out patiently. Alas, none of that happened. It was a whirlwhind.

It’s therefore more than obvious that this was only poll tactic. I even asked Gandhi whether this was preparation for the elections next year. She was in such a hurry, I’m not sure she even understood my question. She nodded and kept walking.

Four days in Bangkok

Bangkok. A city of contradictions. Craziness. Traffic. Shopping. Fleecing. And lots more! It’ll feel just like India except for the god forsaken weather. It’s damn hot!

My recent whirlwind tour to the capital of Thailand was a much-needed one. I mean, who doesn’t want to visit Bangkok? So I jumped at the idea. Of course, after my leave was approved.

From the moment I stepped out at the Suvarnabhumi (pronounced International Airport in Bangkok, I knew this city wasn’t going to be easy. There were two queues for Visa On Arrival. One cost 1000 BHT. The other 1200. After standing in the 1000 queue for at least 15 minutes and seeing several people jump the queue conveniently, I decided to just pay 200 BHT more and take the shorter queue. I was surprised that half the Indians didn’t want to pay that extra 200 BHT and get out of there. Well, I did get out of there soon enough.

There are several touts outside the airport waiting to fleece you. After a good amount of reading up on what not to do, I found my way to the Meter Taxi Stand and sped away to my hotel which took me two hours.

The next four days were not like any other.

The filthy Samutprakan crocodile zoo, the never-ending Chatuchak market, the massive MBK mall, the unabashedly in-your-face Patpong Night market, the magnificent Grand Palace and Reclining Buddha, the mall of every girl’s dreams – Platinum, the serene dinner cruise on Chao Phraya river spoilt by renditions of Jai ho and Munni Badnam Hui, the wax museum where you can meet Aishwarya Rai, The Dalai Lama and George Clooney (!), and an ocean world experience inside a mall! I think I’ve forgotten my English after leaving out the prepositions and articles while conversing with the locals!

It’s all Bangkok. It all happened in four days. The streets. The sights. Oh my legs ache just at the thought of how much there is to the city. Just when you think there is very little to do, you realise that there is a lot more but very little time.

Bangkok is a good break. It literally jolts you awake. From arguing with the taxi driver to put the meter, to bargaining at the cheap shops with a calculator for a translator, from tasting authentic Thai green curry to those notorious tuk tuks, you have to do it all. They may claim to be the Land of Smiles. Believe me, you’ll get very little of it at most of the tourist places you end up visiting. But respect the city for what it is and take it all in. That’s what I did.

I saw different sides of Bangkok – the swanky highrises, the slum beneath the flyover, the bumper-to-bumper traffic. Add a generous sprinkling of the blazing hot sun, and you have your holiday in Bangkok sorted out.

I learnt a lot those four days. What to do. What not to do. All I need now is one of those Thai massages (which I didn’t get) and some sleep.

Watch this space for a more detailed travelogue of my Bangkok escapade.