Chicago Blues

This blog is an online repertoire of my columns that run in the Indian Express, North American edition. Here I rave and rant about life, mostly as seen from the large vistas of my little world.

Location: Chicago, United States

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Pots, Pans and a Kadhai-full of Memories.

Once the variegated, regional roll of New Years kick in, there is no exit gate out of the barrage of festivals that crash in on us; at least for the average, traditional desi like me. While some prefer to sit back and be a part of the celebrations (not to mention wipe away that wistful, lone tear) over the course of long-distance phone calls with their folks, some retreat into their kitchens to whip up a feast, given that the desi palate is at the core of every festivity.

Since Ugadi, for instance, we have sprouted, overnight as it were, unappeasable sweet teeth. While volumes of fancy desi cookery books stare back at me from atop the kitchen cabinets where they have been stowed away to gather dust until the annual Spring cleaning sessions come about, what I really miss is not tucked in a book of recipes - be it hand-written or printed. No scrap of paper that bears grease stains or indulging aromas or the secret codes of pinches and dabs of special ingredients that go into making the perfect dessert can match up to what I require in order to recreate the taste of festivals past from my childhood - my mother’s pots and pans. Some round, some oval, some dented, some bottom-lined and caked with fragments of over burned sweetness. There is something about mixing, frying and sautéing stuff in my mother’s pots and pans that seems to add a whole new dimension of flavor and tang to family recipes. It almost makes me wonder why my mother bothered to invest in sparkling new cookware to hand me, like all good-thinking mothers do for their daughters. I’d much rather have taken a few of her pots and pans as hand-me-downs, in solid iron or aluminum as opposed to stainless steel or copper-bottomed, shined with morsels of wet earth from the backyard for that new-fangled feel.

Speaking of stainless steel, however, all the fuss over bisphenol-a, a chemical widely used in the manufacture of plastics (be it bottles or food containers or in canned-food linings), has had me thinking about healthier choices to drink a beverage out of, or eat food from. And my faithful old Eddie Bauer steel flask sure seems a better pick over the fancy plastic bottles that fizz and pop and squirt upon snapping a button placed strategically in the cap. However, the copper carafe with its age-old dimpled center and the tall steel tumbler with its serrated-rim back at home are certainly worth considering over this modern-day thermos. And then there’s that earthern-ware that I have eyed for years - a perfectly globular terracotta decanter with a spout the size of a crane’s beak, that keeps water not only chilled, but lined with just the right amount of earthiness to quench anyone’s thirst on a sultry day. It stands pompously beside the china pickle jar in my mother’s South Indian kitchen, which also has room for a ground-level stone hand grinder amid its recent acquisitions of avant-garde appliances.

Without as much as taking a kink, may I add that what could be a trifle more overwhelming than missing your mom’s festive cooking or her pots and pans in which to create your own is the fact that David Smith, author, and dealer of historic cookware (or the modern-day “PanMan,” as I like to refer to him), may have just the right skillet or pan that could help turn a cooking experiment into exquisite, melt-in-your-mouth recipes that could put your grandmother to shame ( While that suits the Americanized desi yen alright, I live in wonderment and hope that someday, someone will unearth and amass ancient Indian “kadhais” and “tawas” and possibly even “tandoors” that one could bring home to replicate the magic of delectable spreads from bygone feasts.

Living to Tell the Tale from Hell: The H4 Visa Syndrome.

Recently, I had chance encounters with two acquaintances - both well-educated, competent Indian women, their only shortcoming being that they have been cursed with dependant visas - after they re-surfaced with horror stories of having endured excruciating belligerence from their allegedly intelligent, educated husbands. Their anger, anguish and helplessness are perhaps inveterate by now. Both are emotionally drained out, physically worn out, and while one has managed to live with an aunt to come to terms with her pain, take up a course to hone her skills, and think of brighter future options; the other is still struggling to get a hold of her miserable, financially tottering life as a young mother of a three-year-old toddler, with divorce proceedings taking forever to wrap up. What’s worse, her dependent visa is about to expire; but the fairly relieving part of her story is that she has sought legal help and will hopefully find a way out of her more immediate visa turmoil.

The travails of H-4 visa holders are never-ending, and appalling. Turn a corner and chances are you’ll run into dependant “wives” of H-1 Bs, who, more often than not, well qualify for a six-figure salary job, but are forced to squander their time and skills away doing nothing. The most they could get up to is volunteer at a local not-for-profit organization, or, in cases where it is financially viable, take up new hobbies. While there are some who up the ante a notch and take up higher education courses, some are left feeling wretched and lonely in their struggle to find independence and financial stability.

For most of these dependants, even as the whim of the good life in this land of golden opportunities begins to wane, the complications and distressing ramifications that arise out of this dreadful situation are multifold. Especially between couples that are hastily married off, thanks to new age Internet-alliances. It takes a toll on the partners’ emotional sides, sapping them out and leaving little of their ability to think and act rationally, wisely and maturely. The result - suicidal tendencies; often brought about by domestic violence; a blight not limited to any one class or creed, rather touching even the finer, educated, intelligent groups.

According to statistics presented by an assortment of volunteers with South Asian help groups, and media persons, as many as two out of five South Asian women are impacted by domestic violence every year. There are many help groups for victims of abuse; also, a Victim's Visa Program that aims to help these victims. But owing to a strange set of reasons, immigrant victims of domestic abuse refrain from seeking help or even trying to find a way out of their horrendous situations. One unfortunate basis that repeats itself with alarming regularity in such situations is a lack of proper understanding of the laws and rules; while fear that stems out of taxing mores follows as a close second.

For the uninformed, the Violence Against Women Act, passed by the Congress in 1994, protects victims of domestic abuse by authorizing spouses and children of US citizens or lawful permanent residents to apply for a petition for their own lawful permanent residencies. Also, some of the abused immigrants are permitted to file for immigration relief without the abuser's knowledge or assistance.

Shivali Shah, co-founder of KIRAN - a Domestic Violence and Crisis Services organization based in North Carolina, has launched an all-encompassing research project on H-1B, H-1C, and H-4 visa holders. The proposed “H Visa Survey” is set to record all information pertaining to the experiences of living the American life, while having been or being on any H visa. All former and current H visa holders are encouraged to participate in this survey, and it might just be the next best thing to actually lending a helping hand to a victim of abuse., a community of dependant visa holders, is aiming to raise awareness on the travails of H4 visa holders by, among other endeavors, seeking help and funds to make a documentary film on the topic.

Thus, a little research that was triggered by my unexpected trysts with two women contacts who are struggling to find their voice after a long spell of being abused and muted, has opened up many vistas to finding and helping provide relief and strength to battered young, South Asian women like them with ruinous fates. Perhaps, like the term “Awaz” connotes (a South Asian Network endeavor, aptly tag-lined “Voices against Violence”) it’s time to raise our voices to a decibel so intense that it shakes the putrefying hell out of domestic abuse.

Armchair Philanthropy vs. Authentic Altruism

For a self-confessed paper tiger like me, it is always heartening to hear about swashbucklers who not only do brave things, but also end up becoming good Samaritans in due course. Which is why I felt a keen sense of admiration and pride well up as I read about Veeramuthu Kalimuthu, a 40-something Columbia University employee-turned-hero, of desi origin to boot, who rescued a stranger from being runover by a train on New York city Subway tracks last week. Kali, as he’s being referred to in the media, is said to have “sprung into action,” by simply jumping on the tracks and hoisting the unconscious man, allegedly a drunk, to onlookers on the platform, before casually walking across the tracks to board his train.

How many of us can boast of “having it in us” to heed the need of the hour, go all out to save a life, or even just help someone in danger or distress?

There’s the truly stirring story of Vinay and Sameer - both were diagnosed, not long ago, with Acute Myelogenous Leukemia. Their family and friends, with the help of complete strangers, were able to put together a Bone Marrow Registry in the hope of finding matches for the two of them. After months of hard work, perfect matches were found for both from the 400+ bone marrow registration drives that were put forth, registering nearly 24,000 donors to date, with a staggering 20% increase in South Asian representation in the National Bone Marrow registry. Although Vinay has gone back to hospital since the initial signs of recovery were discerned, with unfortunate complications; and Sameer, after a long, painful struggle, has passed on; the good thing is that there has not only been an increase in awareness about the significance of a Bone Marrow registry, but, among other cases, the success story of a 33-year old pharmacologist - Meenu Bedi - who donated her stem cells to a leukemia patient last year, has inspired many more Indians across the US to take the swab.

And then there’s another story, closer home, if you will - not too long ago, these friends of ours shocked us with a sudden, unusual decision they’d made - they were moving lock, stock and barrel to a tiny island in Central America, to help reconstruct the lives of its hapless citizens who weren’t as much as aware of the meaning, let alone import, of terms like “trade” or “riches” or even plain old “drinking water.” It came as a shock to us simply because we couldn’t understand this power of the unknown that had led them to give up their perfectly normal, urban lives, replete with decent, well-paying jobs, to take off to a barren land to help a bunch of aliens where anything could go wrong. But they did go, and even though we haven’t heard from them since, there’s something inside of me that assures me they’re doing well.

Perhaps a reality check is due for some of us, who, like me, not only shrivel and cower at the prospect of having to jump off a train platform, bridge, or high-rise to help someone in need, but tend to ease off our nerves from feeling powerless by simply signing off a check to donate to a charity. Like in the case of Dr. Nilima Sabharwal, a physician at Kaiser Permanente, who made a generous donation to an orphanage in India, about a decade ago, heaved a sigh of contentment, and forgot all about it. Later, around tax time, she recalled her act of generosity, and took the initiative to organize a fundraiser in the Bay Area, where she and her friends raised a few thousand dollars, which, as she later found out, had helped build clean bathrooms for the children in the orphanage, saving them from an appalling epidemic outbreak. She has since done much more, including establishing an organization, Home of Hope (HOH) that helps fund projects for destitute and disadvantaged children, enabling them to become self-sufficient.

Maybe there’s more to a philanthropic deed than the celebrated, high-and-mighty NRI-checkbook charity…

Monday, March 17, 2008

Signal-Dewan - The Resurgence of Simon Legree?

I was recently traveling back from India via the Middle East, and at an airport there, heaving sighs of discontent over delayed flights and lost baggages alongside other stranded passengers, I noticed a rather indiscernible passenger who had other reasons to feel discontent over. The slender, hungry-faced, hunch-backed woman was being tormented by a tinier person - a child, perceptibly not more than three years of age. He was spritzing out drool, yanking her hair, and generally being unruly in demeanor. I mean, I know some very boisterous three year olds, but this was totally off the wall. From what one could see, the woman was the little boy’s nanny, and the mother of the child, who was also present, was staring into oblivion for the most part, noticeably aloof and travel-weary (the nanny too had traveled across oceans and unending miles, but she had little choice but to put up a resilient front).

And then I return home to this big explosive news about battered guestworkers in Mississippi striking me hard, as a possible parallelism to what I’d witnessed. Well, it may be distending things a bit out of kilter with the point of reference at hand, but really, what is the threshold when it comes to mistreatment? Where are the so-called boundaries when it comes to racial and overall plebeian intolerance, and therein, does the human race really stand upright or feebly totter at the abyss?

In the words of Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) Immigrant Justice Project Director Mary Bauer, “Guestworkers are usually poor people who are lured here by the promise of decent jobs. But all too often, their dreams are based on lies, their hopes shattered by the reality of a system that treats them as commodities. They're the disposable workers of the global economy."

Possibly, “disposable” is what it all boils down to. Ever since the one hundred and odd Indian “disposables” with H2-B visas, employed at a shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi, staged a walkout earlier this month, not only have they attracted media attention, but also shaken the leaderships in India and the US off their inertia.

While the employer of these guestworkers, Signal, and the Mumbai-based recruiters, Dewan Consultants, who aided the shipping of these workers, face the music; US Congressman George Miller, in an endeavor to delve deeper into this deplorable scam, has helped throw light on some other dirty hands that may have been involved, including but not limited to big staffing agencies in India and the US.

One worker, initially promised a Green Card, was allegedly threatened of dire consequences, including having his passport confiscated if he refused to sign H2-B documents just before he boarded his flight at Bombay airport. He and several others have not been mere victims of abuse, but have possibly been rendered penniless and consequentially, shorn of morale, as they have had to sell homes and other assets in order to get these dreadful “jobs”. The point everyone seems to be missing in this struggle for a fair dealing is - even if the companies are indicted, and justice in monetary form meted out to these workers, would they ever be psychologically ready for another low-paying, low-level job?

While on the topic of slight jobs, my mind inevitably harks back to Girija, my mother’s housemaid, who not only cleaned the house, and helped manicure our little green patch, but babysat for me when called upon; and eventually became my little girl’s best friend in what was otherwise an unfamiliar environment to her for the entire span of our holiday. While she welcomed the help and compensation that she more than deserved when offered, she gleefully accompanied me on my shopping jaunts across my hometown, seated in a rickety Indi-cab, as my toddler got her beauty winks, stretching between our laps. We even spent warm, languid afternoon hours organizing closets, snapping sweet peas off their pods, and flipping rice crisps moist side up on the terrace, sharing with each other our life’s ups and downs. Although I did take pity on her for the things she’s had to endure in her personal life, I’m relieved, in retrospect that I didn’t let her know, or let her down. I’m thankful, among other little things, for being blessed with the wonderful, affirmative upbringing I’ve had, which has given me the gift of good insight and civility so I know to regard every human as one. Girija may be the “housemaid,” and I her “akka,” but she works hard for a living, like we all do, and at the end of that line, for all the hard-working, resolute, indispensable “guestworkers” in the world, there ought not to be place for anything but respect and acquiescence.

If nothing else, our children, be it boisterous three-year-olds or docile pre-teens (or boisterous-again teens), shouldn’t have to be all clued-up when it comes to Simon Legree.

The Learning Deficit in Desi-ism

Ever since Thomas Macaulay, the initiator of the English learning culture in India, referred to us as a sect that is “Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, opinions, words and intellect,” the scope for learning and education for all desis - homebound or outside - has been rather marginalized. For years, what we learn about our own civilization as well as that of the Western world has been more or less defined by those precincts he set in the 1800s. Which is why, perhaps, one doesn’t often happen upon “erudite” desis taking genuine pride in our heritage. There is always a hankering for an “East-West” flavor, for that mysterious medley of mores; as if dressing up like new-world androids to a desi do in the US makes up for the lack of knowledge on our heritage; and as if listening to the Beatles alone opens up vistas to Indian classical music. Even with all the manner of progression and advancement India has seen in the recent past, it appears as if it is merely the influx of wealth and resources from “outside” that has fueled this new-fangled power status of India on the global map. Our B-schools are still rarely spoken of in the same breath as those here or anywhere else across the world, and parents will go to any length to ensure their children get admission into these schools, whether or not the children are inclined to, to begin with.

A growing trend that has emerged lately is the highlight on the conduit of sports that leads straight to the Ivy League. Desi parents are scrambling to get their children in by way of athletic recruitment; and according to reports by the NYT, many squash players from India have made it to the great American Ivy League solely on the basis of their clout over the sport.

In the lower school levels, desi children are being pulled out and treated, to use a politically correct term, “differently.” A Sikh teen was singled out in his New York city high school and his hair forcibly chopped, in an incident last year. Some claimed that the incident was purely an offshoot of a xenophobic mindset, while some others averred that it was simply an average high school bullying case. And then in a more recent case, parents of a Brooklyn girl who was denied admission in a top-notch public school is taking legal action to ensure the incident doesn’t recur. The school has apparently stuck to strict standards on its recruitment tests in order to sustain a 6:4 “white” to “minority” ratio in compliance with a federal court order from the 70s, according to reports. Eleven year old Nikita Rau scored a “meager” 79 on a music admission test at the school in question, against the 84.4 limit set for minority groups; whereas the limit for “white” students remains strong at a much lower level of 77. This has given enough reason for her parents to sue the school for the enforcement of preposterous racial double standards. Another point that has been given emphasis by her dad is that the school’s discriminatory action could further ruin her chances of making it at “Harvard, Yale or Princeton.”

There are, however, rare cases that exemplify a reverse trend. For instance, several students from top of the cream schools across the US work with Indicorps every year in an effort to understand the import of their roots, and to give to India. Occasionally, some techies and other high-flying professionals take a kink out of their routine work lives to join hands with similar not-for-profit outfits and partake in India’s progress. But what can possibly be called the best instance in such a tenor is the cropping up of a new breed of hi-tech public schools in India. These are exclusive learning centers that train students for a British secondary school examination or the International Baccalaureate for admittance into universities across the world. While there has been a steady influx of NRIs sending their school-going children to India, to sophisticated boarding schools that cater to the whole new-world, “alternate” education whim, but this particular class of “public schools” has everything that one would generally associate with IT parks and Silicon Valleys: massive, well-stocked libraries; state-of-the-art IT systems; superior counseling services; cafeterias that serve global cuisine platters; 24-hour medical service…to list a few. And yes, many of these schools have been conceptualized and established by NRIs.

While there is no one way to glean complete knowledge about our rich heritage, emerge out of our cocoons, and take pride in the foundation our schools and elders have laid for us, learning to tell the difference between a mélange of bits of anachronism and authentic Indianness could definitely be a good way to start. To quote Tagore, “school forcibly snatches away children from a world full of the mystery of God's own handiwork,” and we as Indians should feel blessed for the finesse of that handiwork bestowed upon us. The best way to deal with the strain of bi-culturalism and inculcate in our children the greatness of our ethos is simply to not thrust the burdens of new-age technophilia-driven standards on them. Perhaps like Vijay Prashad says in his book, “The Karma of Brown Folk,” it is not enough to receive accolades for being gifted in the technical arts, or being able to live up to the levels expected of our genes, and children should never have to endure disapproval on those accounts.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Another Year to Live

With all the manner of hurrah and ho-ho-ho filled New Year wishes streaming in, I must say I’m sorry, for what I’m thinking through isn’t exactly as thrilling, and may even screech-stop the music to the whole dandy-bandy. I am rather annoyed with the cheery all’s-fine-and-dandy-with-the-world-and-God’s-in-His-heaven messages I’m being bludgeoned with. I’ve woken up every so often in these past few months completely overwhelmed, emotionally sapped, and sporadically even fearing the worst, as more people are killed and more injustice is meted out to thousands of innocents for nothing. While it is hardly possible to overlook the recurrent flak over Iraq, and more recently, the horror of Bhutto’s slaying, several ordinary, middle-class Indians living here have been killed or dealt atrocities for no reason or rhyme.

So, grim as it may seem, as another New Year dawns and the norm of making resolutions is carried duly out, one wonders if the phrase “goodness and peace for all,” has merely been relegated to the books and the occasional greeting cards. Is a sectarian ideology better than cosmopolitanism, and irrespective of either, can we ever really stick together as one, for the sake of humanity, not partisanship defined by absurd precincts? In what can be best described as a near-peace-deprived society, do the Virginia Tech shootings that left several innocent students, including some Indians, dead; the Louisiana State University killings that took the lives of two Indian doctoral students; suicide and homicide attempts by Indians across the US…mean that we are living in a senseless one too?

Closer home, there have been three ghastly incidents involving Indians lately. In August last year, 32-year Nimisha Tiwari, set her house on fire killing herself and her two children in suburban Chicago. Reports claim that her troubled marriage was the cause of this dreadful act. In November, 34-year old Kaushik Patel of suburban Chicago doused his two young sons with gasoline and set them ablaze. He later drove them to a relative’s house in his car, and the episode has been described as a blotched suicide attempt involving him and the children. The three are said to be in critical condition, and while reports say that Patel is likely to be in the hospital for weeks, if not months, the children remain in drug-induced comas.

As if this isn’t enough to choke you, a third such case in five months has cropped up. In all these cases, fire is a common factor, as is the cause - domestic dispute, involving Indian families in the Chicago area. This one has particularly left me numb and utterly irate - 57 year old Subhash Chander of Chicago brutally burned his pregnant daughter, her husband, and their three-year-old son to death, because he apparently disliked his son-in-law, who belonged to a “lower caste.” While the man is believed to have his own contorted take on the case, nothing he or his relatives say can possibly heal the situation. Not only has he ruthlessly slain his own daughter and her family, including her unborn child, the psychopath has left several people in the apartment complex homeless, but mercifully, alive.

In another stray incident, non-violent, but baffling all the same - 24-year old Anu Solanki from, yet again - Chicago, went missing recently, causing considerable alarm and costing the investigation nearly $250,000. She has since resurfaced and had apparently taken off with a male friend, deserting her husband. Latest news on her case is that she may not be charged with a crime, but the question that still remains unanswered is whether or not the county will attempt to recover the money.

The blow in all these and any violent incident anywhere else comes not from the number of people killed, but from the fact that as humans, we can embrace the culture, the attitude, or the need to destroy every shred of peace in the world and take lives. So while we usher in another year amid this dire, reprehensible state of affairs, I think it is time we made serious efforts to create for ourselves an inner state of harmony and calm, which will radiate into our environs to produce a credible balance. While it may not be a bad idea to get in touch with our roots, and appreciate our mores, and stick with each other as modest NRIs in this faraway land, the exigency of the situation calls for something that is more significant than that. It is something that is as indigenous as is universal - to come together for humanity, to heal the world.

Perhaps it’s time to put the music back on track - something that will reverberate as the music of the spheres in all generations among us, beginning with the “Vaishnava Janato,” fanatics, to the Gen-X-ers, who should delve into the meaning of the more recently popularized “Mool Mantar,” from the movie Rang De Basanti, before blasting it on their I-pods.

Here’s to a New Year filled with compassionate deeds, equitable justice and inner peace to all.

Chak De, NRI!

Right from the early immigrants, mostly of Punjabi origin, who toiled 19 hours a day on farms and mills in the Northwest, for a meager 18 cents per hour, to the high-tech IT pros swarming an ever-distending Silicon Valley, working the routine, white-collar, eight hour stretch and minting the big bucks, NRI wayfarers have surely come far. What fetches us here as immigrants isn’t just the notion of El Dorado anymore. Somewhere beneath all that it embodies - comfortable living, labor egalitarianism, and the whim of a “free life” that dangles precariously between summers (the stretch of time when the Indian equivalent of tradition-bound Toryism surfaces with the arrival of most parents from home) - lies the classic, often hackneyed desire to “make the best of both worlds.”

With all the manner of immigration rules being constantly picked up, tweaked, and constricted further to boot, and the recent fiasco that left thousands of temporary workers in a flux, there is still an upsurge in the number of immigration applications. Amid all the frenzy of repatriating NRIs with their lofty “reform India” missions rooted deep in Gandhism, there is still a section of us that wishes to disentangle from the furor of resettlement, and stay on, funneling our goodwill to the homeland in donations made to the Sankara Eye Foundation, or some such. While that might sound shallow in more ways than one, I, as an ecumenical, freethinking immigrant, believe that there is nothing unpatriotic about wanting to live outside the native land and acquiring new experiences. This belief, of course, goes beyond the premise of a newfangled “How Indian Are You?” quiz on Facebook, which has rendered me inept by putting the “Bollywood Superstar” tag on me - and I assure you that my Indianness is not theatrical by any measure.

It is hard to put a finger on it, but Indianness is a relative term. While most of the Gen-X NRIs, like I do, believe they still “have it in them,” despite submitting to the impulse of innovation in the new world, the baby-boomer generation of NRIs has a pre-set definition of the term. To them, a dip in the Ganga is still the epitome of sanctity; one of the, if not the only, way to feel that unique, deep connectedness with their homeland. To most of these first immigrants, moving to America was the only way to overcome sober, bourgeois conditions and attain financial stability. Post-independence, when the 6000-odd Indian populace entered the United States, the numbers increasing steadily thereafter, thanks to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, the issues of biculturalism, objective nationalism, and stringent alien-resident policies were the least of their concerns.

Right from the outset, from apprehensively filtering in, then gradually entering the mainstream middle-class communities, and eventually establishing a visible and strong identity for themselves, these early immigrants seldom lost their grip on the bigger picture - to earn a decent living while in America, and save enough to be able to retire gracefully in India, in the caring embrace of venerable family and friends’ circles. Every other first generation immigrant that I’ve crossed paths with has shrugged at the mention of the typical American, “laissez-faire” high school experience their children have had to endure. And the mention of the other far out Yanksville elements like dating, unhinged sexual explorations, inter-racial marriages, drugs, invariably solicit the un-cool look.

And then there’s us - the new breed, if you will, of immigrants or Green Card hopefuls, for whom crossing the hurdles of immigration laws entails much more than financial security or the idea of the “better life.” For us, the immigration process is akin to a safety “blankie,” a thing of great value for our hard work and hard-earned moolah. It allows us the liberty of acquiring rich educational and professional experiences with an autonomous edge as opposed to the pecking order control-driven atmosphere back home. Further, it allows us to stretch and live freely, and garner the best of everything this land of opportunity has to offer and carry it all with us when we return to India. It gives us a purview of life in a developed and prosperous nation that is beyond the “burger-fries-coke,” or “Walmart - ‘great-value-for-your-every-dollar’” notions as read about in books; or the geometrically-perfect layouts of streets and motorways as seen from the window of an Air India flight.

A few months ago, a section of us found ourselves in dire straits as the USCIS turned its back on our immigrant applications. Several hopes were crushed, dreams shattered, and at various parties and potlucks, the only topic of conversation was “So, are you giving up and moving back?” There was no longer, however, the tension over assets and savings, as the considerable devaluation of the dollar has, in recent times, changed that equation and much more. Many of us scurried to bag interviews with companies in India, and seal job offers before we booked our tickets and hopped on a plane. And then, in a sudden turn of events, when the USCIS reversed the rules and opened up windows for fresh applications, we re-strategized our options and decided to take on the challenge of reaching the finish line on the course, on one of the toughest immigration marathons in the world. And even with the Green Card fever that has gripped us so hard, some of us still consider ourselves as belonging to the alien resident gang that is often singled out like a magnet for qualms about employment visa status, among other things.

While the election season is heating up the immigration debate; and a National Social Security registry is discussed, to help employers track down potential employees and their work authorizations; and H1-B quotas are talked of in escalating numbers, it is yet to be seen whether the repatriating NRI count will dwindle.

If the new legislation act of the 50s helped fashion a bustling new wave of Indian immigration, enabling entire clans of early immigrants to settle in, aside from protecting the status of skilled immigrant workers; one wonders whether merely increasing the numbers of visas for skilled workers, introducing stricter workplace enforcements, or eliminating the backlog in processing visas constitute a good package deal for this day and time. Will all that help solve the “out of place in America, not at home in India” angst we endure as we strive to strike a perfect bicultural balance as Gen-X immigrants? Will we hurriedly whisk our pre-teens away before they get fully exposed to the over-liberal ways of school life here, or will we stretch ourselves thin just to get a slice of that lived-in, worldly feeling before we move back for retirement? Does immigration policy really hold sway over our thoughts, feelings and actions, or is the reverse more veracious; in that we shape and reform our lives here, replete with borrowed thoughts, mixed feelings, and painstakingly balanced actions, based on our proactive stance to go through the entire, ten-yarded rigmarole of obtaining a Green Card?

The answers to those questions are as ambiguous as can possibly get, and they seem to further wince away into hazy oblivion when I update myself with the latest developments on the Green Card processing times and hoopla, courtesy While I wouldn’t say I’m proud to have donned on a “world citizen” tag, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been bitten by the immigration bug, even with its flogging rules, sealed walls and hinged doors. I have no specific explication for having one foot planted permanently in India, or allowing my thoughts to drift time and again, to the realms of the unembellished life lived there, where rules were often breakable, walls openable, and doors unlockable. I can’t say I’d usher the New Year in by bopping on my left foot with as much élan as Madhuri Dixit. Even she shares the “mixed feeling” syndrome, and at the end of the day, I’m just another Fresh-Off-the-Boater, even after my half a decade’s worth of stay in America. And even as oldfangled guitars thrum the famous Chicago Blues notes in the background, I will realize yet again that I may possibly never feel right anywhere, or comprehend entirely the import of my roots amid the clangor of the current up-and-coming façade masking India, but a girl can dream.

Perhaps the Facebook quizzers have a point - I see myself getting into an overly histrionic mood just before the annual trip to “desh.” But if I can say “Chak De!” with the same spirit as that of the hero of a movie on India’s national sport, I doubt if my Immigrant-Patriotism-Quotient is out of kilter. Is yours?

Friday, December 21, 2007

Of Cheap Bulks, Hip Hulks, and Related Toys.

With all the manner of statutory warnings and recalls for children’s toys to be taken off the shelves this festive season, I was pleasantly surprised to note the debut of Hanuman and other great Indian epic heroes in figurine form. I mean, I’d heard of animation films on Lord Ganesha and others, but the idea of a dapper, monkey-faced demigod standing tall in a GI Joe-esque pose was rather unforeseen, even in this day and age.

Kridana, a Pennsylvania-based start-up has triggered more than curiosity and fascination with its new line of epic comics and action figures, and is all set to move on from Rama and Hanuman to the evil, ten-faced Ravana next year. While it is hard to imagine our very own little tykes acting out their pretend-wars with an angry-faced Hanuman and a bow-and-arrow stringing Rama as opponents (at least until Ravana makes a smashing entry) under the big tree or hanging mistletoe this Christmas, one wonders if it will be long before Indian festivals, like Dasara are celebrated with these action figures in tow, adorning the displays.

Sometime last week, in the throes of the toy hazard fiasco, I caught snatches of a television news telecast where an average American family was trying to find things (mostly in the spirit of gift-buying for the holidays) that were not made outside the US; or not made in China, more precisely. And unsurprising as it may seem, they couldn’t find a thing. So the question raised was - were the bulk of the toys coming from outside the US? And was it that the cost-effectiveness of the manufacturing practice was unable to provide adequate safety?

Curiously enough, I found, upon further prying, that there were certain items on the recall list that bore the forbidding tag, “Made in India.” The products - children's rings embellished with metallic dice or horseshoes, imported by a company in Baltimore, were reported as having high levels of lead content. Surprised? Well you wouldn’t be if you had been worn-out from scrolling down bottomless web pages with the over-accessed information on toy recalls. I mean, if Sony can recall a category of AC adapters that were sold with the Slim Version PlayStation-2 Systems, then it wouldn’t be as much hair-raising to note that low-cost products that were streamed in from outside the US would be on the list. Yet, to come across something of this order can be disgraceful, being an Indian in these shores; worse, if one has randomly picked out similar things albeit unknowingly as stocking stuffers or birthday party favors to gift to other children.

The company website for Kridana claims high safety standards - that not only satisfy children’s health and safety levels, but are also environmentally friendly. They further aver that their dedication to the initiative is so genuine that they have gone to great lengths in the inspection procedures for their products, and even display their inspection results on the website.

While that is rather commendable and is something of value that makes us chin up, one can’t be too sure that Hanuman’s “gada mace” would be thought of in the same vein as GI Joe’s “9mm with drop down holsters.” Then again, GI Joe’s “Mountain Scout” could turn unimpressive when Kridana’s hip and sassy Hanuman lifts him high up in the air, along with his mountain!

Noise, Poise, and Saying “Om Shanti Om.”

What can one, even if one is a seriously critical movie-goer, or a light green, possibly do when Shah Rukh Khan’s six-pack abs are being spoken of in the same breath as global warming or something equally and earth-shatteringly imperative? There’s something about being blessed with desi genes that makes it hard to ignore the roll of larger-than-life Bollywood Diwali releases as they crash in on one’s television and computer screens like moths to a bonfire, and cash extravagantly in at the box-office across the world.

For months now, Bollyville has been churning out ripples of juicy hearsay around the two biggest movies of the year - Farah Khan camp’s Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone starrer “Om Shanti Om,” and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s mega launch pad for Anil Kapoor’s daughter Sonam, and Rishi Kapoor’s son Ranbir, in “Saawariya.”

There was a time, even in the not-so-recent past, where old, superhit Hindi movie songs were only exclusively available on good old tapes, rare television programs like “Chitrahaar,” or, if one was lucky, on vintage gramophone records owned by one’s grand-dads, dads, or favorite uncles. The commoners’ only link to filmi gup-shup was hidden in the pricey, glossy pages of Filmfare or Stardust. The odds of one running into stars or superstars were limited to inadvertent, opportune occasions. Of course, a lot has changed since, and one can stumble upon a film unit anywhere across the world, not to mention the bustling streets of New York; and one can buy the golden oldens, as well as a section of the new breed of cutting-edge, technology-powered, refreshingly mellifluous music, at the click of a mouse or i-button now, and catch glimpses of the actors’ glitzy lives on multiple channels and websites. Further, a bulk of fresh talent that goes on to belong to the precious music circle where the ilks of A R Rahaman and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy rule the roost, is being discovered by classy talent shows like Sa Re Ga Ma Pa and Voice of India.

While a general sense of tolerance prevails around me, as I see people taking in the behind-the-scenes glimpses into the making of potential blockbusters with awe, and listening intently to new top-of-the-charts tracks on their fancy, reverberating speakers, an overwhelming feeling of anticipation taking over as they wait for the DVDs to hit the shelves, what completely gets my goat is that the trivialities that get undue attention often ruin the elegantly built-up expectations. Why, for instance, should it be important that Shah Rukh Khan has worked out for three rigorous months in order to develop the perfect abs for his new movie? Or that Deepika Padukone’s presence at a cricket match should insinuate her alleged secret admiration for one of the eleven boys? Or that Anil Kapoor and Rishi Kapoor threw lavish parties to show off the stylish debuts of their daughter and son respectively, for the cream of filmdom?

All said and done, even all the noise from my whining, and the dhamaka from stray fire-crackers this Diwali, cannot take the thunder away from the fact that “Om Shanti Om” has fetched close to $1.8 million at the U.S. box office over its opening weekend (which, according to reports, places it at a decent #11 spot on U.S. charts, even if only on 114 screens); and “Saawariya,” having lost its sparkle to this Shah Rukh Khan starrer, will still go down in history as the first ever Bollywood film to be produced by a Hollywood studio - SPE Films India, a part of Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE).

While still on the topic, I might add that “Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag” has failed morbidly to revive the magic and magnitude of Sholay, and that Madhuri Dixit-Nene’s comeback vehicle, “Aaja Nachle,” is being hyped as the next big thing to Om Shanti Om. While she nurses her winter blues in Denver, and I, my cold sores in Chicago, I will still make a trip to my video-wallah shortly, to ensure I lay my hands on all these flicks, to watch them back-to-back, sitting snug in my Windy City home while my little one sleeps her beauty sleep…and quietly re-living the thrills of thronging the big-screen cinemas back at home, like back in the college-going days, for a first-day first-show, and drooling silly with just as much petticoat grace as sheer madness, over a certain King Khan’s knock-you-down screen presence.

The Festival of De-lights.

Every year, as Fall kicks in, haggard NRI moms like myself get busy cleaning, shopping, as well as toiling in the kitchen, concocting secret recipes for meringues and marshmallow peeps for Halloween, alongside “phirnis” and “barfis” for Diwali. Given that almost all our festivals spin around good food, Diwali needn’t be any different. In fact, it’s one among the more popular festivals that hogs up all the hype because of the ritual of dispensing sweet assortments that has come to rule over the years. Moreover, with the advent of the Internet, age-old grandma recipes for that incredibly delectable, perfectly viscous “kheer,” or “laddus” with a light saffron-tinge and rotund shape just so, are only a few clicks from Google. One doesn’t have to be Saroj Kering, or Sanjeev Kapoor to whisk up Diwali delights like a genie blessed with a magic pot and a silver spoon.

As always, the festive season has sparked off an overbearing sense of nostalgia in me. The sights of glimmering diyas lit up at the onset of dusk, arranged in calculated geometrical order all around the house; the intoxicating aromas of coconut milk, sugary thick Milkmaid, neatly trimmed squares of jaggery melting away in a cauldron with equal parts of water, and fresh cardamom ground in the brass mortar-and-pestle; the sounds of firecrackers and prayers competing with one another, each equally strident and powerful in a way that makes one’s hair stand on end; they all imbue my senses with a longing that will possibly only wane with the turn of season. But for now, I would like to wallow in the wistfulness of the moment, and try to re-create some of the effects here, in a land so far away and completely oblivious to the intensity of the celebration, just so I can assuage my yearning heart a little.

So, what does the average NRI kitchen smell like at this time of year? With the heavy impact of Paula Deen’s weakness for rich buttery desserts cooked slowly and unperturbedly, and Sandra Lee’s obsession with all things quick, easy, and semi-home made, which is ostensibly more in line with the be-all, do-it-all Super Mom like myself, I’d like to believe there is no one way to make or bake. Further, with the little scraps of paper tucked in my hand-written recipe book that have logged the littlest of details - like a dollop of ghee at the end - that could do wonders for a certain type of “halwa,” and the colorful platters of pista, almond, and cashew-infused Diwali sweets that stare back at me from my little Macbook screen from an online Haldiram’s sweet shop, I am eternally re-thinking and re-aligning my ways of cooking during the festival. Influences of the Western bake culture could have myriad, wondrous possibilities to quickly turn-over an Indian version of any dessert (much to the dissent of slow-and-steady cooking moms in India); the time spent toiling in front of the stove can be reduced in half, and even if one wishes to indulge, the thought of sweating it out on treadmills often plagues us enough to go easy on the fat, which can be achieved without as much as a niggle, courtesy the good old conventional oven. Further, there are scores of quick-fix microwaveable options too for those in a great hurry.

While the prospect of toiling away making these sweet delicacies for Diwali - be it for a few minutes or hours on end - seems less appealing than that of heading to the nearest Sukhadia’s, or better yet, ordering some online; it is the enormity of the venerable, warm concept of “homemade” that binds us to our past, and might even open up vistas for handing-down a delightful little tradition to our children. While you’re still riding high on the notion of nostalgia I have managed to stir up this Diwali season, let me sneak in a recipe that will bring the zing back to your kitchens, and infuse the walls of your well-lit homes with the essence of India.

For those with a sweet tooth, as well for as those who like it light, this recipe is sure to be an instant hit - for it has all the makings of an avant-garde, stylized sweetmeat - a true example of East meets West, replete with cardamom and coconut, and cream cheese and almonds. What’s more, it goes right into the oven, then in the refrigerator, and melts like honeyed silk in your mouth, after.


Almond Bars:
1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 8-ounce package cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
1 cup chopped almonds
1 pinch finely powdered cardamom

1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 cup lightly roasted, sweetened desiccated coconut

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8-inch square pan. Whisk the confectioners' sugar, cardamom powder, and flour together in a bowl. Use a pastry cutter or a simple kitchen fork, and cut the cream cheese and butter into the flour mixture till it gets all crumbly. Press this mixture into the greased pan, spreading it out uniformly. Sprinkle the chopped almonds on top and then press down gently. Bake for 30 minutes flat. Once done, set it aside to cool completely.

While it cools, whip the cream and granulated sugar with a hand-held electric mixer until stiff; fold in the desiccated coconut. Spread this topping over the cooled bar in a swift swirl and smooth roll, cutting into squares gently after. Cool in the refrigerator before serving.


Now, as those frost bites are balmed, scented candles burned blazing red to supple blue, bells rung and long-distance phone calls made, new “Dhanteras” possessions sought, and lest I forget - this recipe tested, here’s wishing all of you a most glorious Diwali. Let there be light.

Deliquescing in Diwali Dreams

With Halloween around the corner, and the barrenness of Fall settling in, there is not only enough spookiness in the air; but if you put your mind to it, you might hear, along with the haunting hoots of owls and hum of fiendish tunes, the clamor of firecrackers cannonading somewhere faraway; you might smell, along with the sugariness of candies and pumpkin pies around, the sweet essence of milky, cardamom-laced halwas and kheers permeating through the walls of Indian homes. Of course, the aura of scented candles that burn slyly behind closed windows, functioning as makeshift diyas, are bound to suffuse your senses too, but there is no patisserie that comes even close to our good old Indian mithais when it comes to bringing to us the spirit of the festival we miss the most being where we are - Diwali.

My earliest memories of the festival comprise mainly of cartons of firecrackers stacked away on an unreachable, cozy attic in the guest room at my parents’ house; early morning Pujas - where one woke to the mellifluous sound of the sacred bell ringing, and the whiffs of burning diyas and incense sticks; and an assortment of special dishes, eaten and relished with the family huddled up under a reverberating roof that was exposed to shrieking, fired-up “rockets.”

How that carton of firecrackers would get up on the attic was a mystery to me for years, but when I persisted once during the detective-minded teen years, I found out that it was actually a yearlong plan - there was actually a “fund” allocated especially for the festival - the typical proletariat way of maximizing efforts and investments in those days - this monthly fund would be deposited in a box at my father’s office, and at the end of the scheme, there would be a sweepstake, with no losers, for there would be only one winner each year who walked away with the big prize, but every participant would walk home with a kitchen appliance, a cutlery set, or a household item of their choice, plus, the big bonus, a carton of firecrackers. The carton would only be opened on Diwali, and the firecrackers would be rationed among the children, with the eldest, sober sister choosing her share of enormously risk-free, long-handled “sparklers,” the daredevil brother getting all the big, “dhamaka” bombs, and I, being the smallest, having to make do with teensy packs of the less-dangerous red “patakas,” the spouting-hissing “snake-tablets,” and “flower pots” that spewed smithereens of glittery-lighted sparks.

As for the Pujas, the three days of Diwali (as well as several consecutive days that led up to “Tulsi Puja”) were each auspicious in their own merit. The sound of the sacred bell, a prelude to the “aarti” would begin filling the house on the first day of “Naraka Chaturdashi,” flow into the following evening, when Goddess Lakshmi would be worshipped, and resound through to the following day, when the culminating Puja would be offered in the name of “Bali” on “Bali Padyami.” In the days leading up to the festival, the house would be transformed into a pandemonium of marigolds (which would be tucked in little cow-dung pyramids, embellishing the wooden ledge at the foot of the main door) and other flowers, fresh fruits, and a load of ingredients for the festive fare, including but not limited to dry fruits, Milkmaid tins, lentils, and herb varieties.

The kitchen fires would light up right at the crack of dawn - pots and pans clanking away as if rhythmically, the gentle crackling of butter as it melted down to take in raisins and cashews, the sickly sweet smell of milk as it boiled down, browning up the sides of the container, the smokiness of chillis as they roasted in oil, the pungency of asafetida as it disintegrated into seasonings with sputtering mustard seeds and cumin…would kindle enough hunger to keep the entire family hogging relentlessly for days, with steaming cups of coffee or “badam milk” dispensed tactically to fill the gaps when the “idlis” took longer than anticipated to steam up for breakfast, or the spicy savories were taking too long to fry up at lunch hour, or sweets soaked evermore lazily in their ghee or syrupy coatings before hitting the dessert table.

With all the manner of things here - Diwali celebrations restricted to hushed little cracker-simulations fired off furtively in secured basements; Diwali cleaning pre- or postponed opportunely to Springtime; Pujas scheduled for weekends to suit conveniences; candles and electric lamps lit and turned off strategically, alongside spooky lanterns; sweets either exclusively store bought, or readied in a jiffy from thawed, frozen packs; and new acquisitions in the form of handy dust-busters that seldom get used, or cool new laptops that connect us to the folks back in India so we can see and hear about the whole ten yards of full-blown celebrations from them - it simply makes me cringe, and hum this old Lata-Mukesh number, melancholically…

“Lakhon tare aasman mein, ek magar dhoondhe na mila…Dekhke duniya ki diwali, dil mera chupchaap jala…”

Gandhigiri - A Class of Its Own.

Gandhi is not just a name that all desis, especially NRIs, are routinely expected, and ought to be proud of. Gandhi is a phenomenon - forgotten, revived, forgotten, and revived again, over the decades. The term “Gandhi” insinuates patriotism, peace, and whether we’d like to believe it or not, poverty too, to an extent. Gandhiism, or “Gandhigiri,” to use the celebrated Indianism, has been given a fair share of attention lately. First, there was “Lage Raho Munna Bhai,” a typical road-Romeo-with-quirky-sidekick Bollywood comedy, which shook the box office, the nation, and other NRI-populated countries across the world with its simple yet staggering theme - it had Gandhi appear miraculously in his Khadi attire, for the hero’s eyes only, and teach him the age-old lessons on truth and non-violence. The movie was a breakthrough of sorts, as it brought Gandhi to the masses, to the autorickshaw drivers, the pan vendors, and even the black-market ticket sellers - for whom he remained, up until then, perhaps, an unknown enigma, given that Gandhi has been turned into a familiar text-book concept for school-goers alone in India. And of course, continuing in the same vein, we recently witnessed an incredible NRI-groupie episode right here, at the time of the Green Card fiasco, where a Gandhian style passive-protest led to re-opened doors and renewed hopes for hordes of hopefuls among us.

Then, there was the movie, “Gandhi, My Father,” and even though the crux of the film’s matter revolves around the troubled relationship between Gandhi and his son, it brought to light the lesser known, personal anguish that Gandhi bore in his heart. But the highlight of the film was Gandhi’s choice of principles, and his relentless pursuit and respect for dignity and humanitarian values…over everything else in his life. Also another reference to Gandhi, and his principles can be seen in Ramachandra Guha’s recent book, “India After Gandhi,” which, as the title suggests, is about India’s emergence as a secular nation, after Gandhi.

With all the manner of things that surround us today, in a world filled with violence and myriad injustices, and with the countless allusions to Gandhi, and Gandhian philosophy, how much of it do we actually care for? And how much of it have we really imbibed? If it takes a Bollywood masala movie or two to bring Gandhi back in vogue, and if our children have to heed TIME’s 100 most influential people (they don’t exactly have to know Gandhi was runner-up to Einstein in TIME’s Person of the Century ranking; not that there’s anything absurd about Einstein as an apposite choice for that one), what good is it hailing from Gandhian territory?

Okay, not that we should go overboard, and turn overly patriotic, and truthful, lovers of peace, and weave our own Kurtas and quilts; but one can’t help wonder how we’ve demoted the good things about being Indians. For instance, going back to “Gandhi, My Father,” the producers of the film abstained from putting up posters of the movie across India for fear that they might get spat on, torn to shreds, or disrespected in other ways; or perhaps even become the cause of unwarranted riots. So, while audiences abroad, and in South Africa per se, comprising the likes of true-blue Gandhian cohorts like Nelson Mandela, sat in peace and reverence watching and appreciating the movie, the Indian cinemas had to use caution before screening the movie, for fear of stirring up unnecessary troubles.

Every time a communal clash results from the slightest of provocations, and Hindus and Muslims get caught up in bloody turmoils, no stones go unturned in setting the tone to besmirch Gandhi, as the topic invariably flits to Kashmir. Even sitting oceans away, we are not totally exempt from or oblivious to such debacles, for every riot there has rippled effects on the lives of Muslims and Hindus here. But what fails to manifest, each time, is the camaraderie that Gandhi would’ve wished to see, and the solidarity he prioritized and preached, which seems superficial somehow, like say, getting patriotic over a game of cricket and then, with a Miller Light or two downed, blissfully forgetting all about our roots.

It’s about time we moved on from relegating Gandhi as a mere fashion statement, and heed his simple beliefs, put them back up on the pedestal they deserve. That’s not to say we should discredit the value of Khadi, or simply revel in the repentant tone of the Nobel Committee for not having bestowed the prestigious Peace Prize on Gandhi. As lame as it may sound, if Leicester Gujaratis can campaign for a statue of the Mahatma, to denote the city’s multiculturalism, the least the throngs of NRIs elsewhere can do is think Gandhian thoughts and, shedding all fear, take true pride in them.

The Kissa of Cricketing

Okay, I know enough has been said about it. But being the desi that I am like any other worth her salt-and-spice, with heart and soul reserved for cricket and Hindi cinema, I cannot possibly let an opportunity to write about it pass by. So here it is - India has finally clinched a cricket championship title, sans the smashing “big three” of Indian cricketdom, Sachin, Saurav, and Rahul; and above all, against legendary archrivals Pakistan.

While it may be fair to an extent that some of us desis, since that hapless fallout from the World Cup in 2003, have shifted loyalties and longing to other, more popular Yanksville sports, a win like this one is more than is required to bring out the cricket-crazy fanatics in us. Cricket to most of us is more than just a game; it’s like an inheritance, a fanaticism that is passed on from generation to generation. It is more than likely that every second desi among us would have played street cricket, or watched and cheered as some of their friends did. And that many grandfathers and fathers would have dragged their uninterested wives to a stadium somewhere in India for days-long test matches, and tuned themselves out of the roll of curses, while the lilting voices of some of the early commentators along with the swish of the mighty bats of Gavaskar or Vishwanath, made them sway and rejoice.

I have friends in India who have had to queue up in order for their children to get into elite cricket academies, which, I’m told is a privilege that only few can afford or dream of. Kamblis and Jadejas may come and go, but the Shastris and Patels live on. The Brijesh Patel Academy for cricket is one such, and I know at least two little boys who are training to become the next Sachin, or Srinath.

So, are the NRI kids missing out on all the fun? Have you ever mentioned “cricket” to a little sporty desi child and seen him or her turn around trying to listen in to the whirr of an insect? If you have, then chances are you’ve ended up throwing a ball in a basket with them. And with all the hoopla about the poor encouragement given to the sport in these shores, you’d probably even think there is no hope. But there is.

According to the very American MLC (Major League Cricket) board, cricket clubs were established as early as the 1700s in America, not very long after they became popular in England. The sport has sunk into obscurity, been rediscovered, and gone down again since. But with cricket-loving immigrant populations streaming in, the collective makings of their sportiness and support has enabled ways, if small yet, to give cricket the merit it deserves and enjoys on a global level. Several cricket leagues have burgeoned across the nation lately, and you’d be surprised to know that there is also a one-credit course dedicated to the sport in the Midwest. Given the testing weather conditions, and struggling levels of financial backing and moral support, however, most leagues have had to cross some serious stumbling blocks since their inception. While some have been lucky to thrive on assistance from outside - Australian and British, to be more precise - ends, the rest are still struggling to make their mark in a world where NFL and MLB are all the rage. If the BCCI’s revenue has hit the one billion mark (in dollars, not rupees), and can afford to dole out a couple of millions of the same to its Men in Blue, then dollar-pocketing desis can surely come together and back young cricket enthusiasts in the US.

Haunted by memories of an antiquated Phillips transistor screeching itself into action from my granddad’s room at the crack of a test-match dawn; and sepia-toned glimpses of a nail-biting one-dayer flashing on a dial-less Orson television set, as entire neighborhoods huddled together cheering a Chetan Sharma hatrick, back at home…I wonder if the same magic and spirit can be restored as we cheer our own little budding cricketers score fours and stump wickets at school and state levels. With a little nudge here and a dollar dropped there, perhaps it won’t be long before cricket is rediscovered by desis in the US, and its thrills reveled in even as Jay Leno mocks at every second HughGrant-type on his show. And with many a Hindi flick shooting locale cropping up in the US, the odds of getting Shah Rukh or Saif to chant “Chak De…” at local cricket grounds are many.

Little Wonder, Mammoth Blessings

The good old elephant God, as I know it, is the only Indian god who is omnipresent, in the truest sense of the word. From the humble hands of the rural Indian potters, to the more sophisticated, crystal-studded glory of Swarowski, Ganesha has duly been covered. He has been envisaged and crafted in many poses, and He is the only God to have set a trend following, among the old, the young, the old-fashioned, and the contemporary. Peek into a desi’s car and you may well happen upon a magnetic, glittering Ganesha in a Yoga pose, sitting unreservedly on the dashboard, ready to bless them along their trips to strange destinations on foreign roads.

Every year, like many other Gods of His standing, Ganesha is beckoned and worshipped over a period of ten or more days, usually in early September. The commercialization of this festival, which has now touched American shores, dates back, ostensibly, to the 1800s. According to ancient lore, it was Lokamanya Tilak who encouraged the making of the festival a public event, in order to foster friendly relations among the various strata of the Hindu community, in a way that would scream to the Britishers how unified they were, with their cohesive prayers for the God of “everyman.” But it makes one wonder just how private the worshipping of their favorite elephant-faced God, who is considered the sole harbinger of good fortune, used to be prior to that, for the select few Hindus who considered themselves chaste and eligible enough to do so.

When I see the throngs of people gathering at a community association hall (which, more often than not, is merely the stiff-walled confines of a district school classroom), or the local Hindu temple, scurrying to make it in time before the holy water is sprinkled, the consecrated flame is offered, or the “prasadam” is distributed, just so they can make that one last prayer, one last request before the curtain falls, it makes me realize just how profound the effect of this perfect, charming God is on us all.

With every flicker of a scented candle flame, which is, more often than not, a makeshift for the cotton-wicked lamp, I see flashes of a childhood steeped in forgotten mores. Of times when entire colonies of trusting adults flocked a small, brick-tiled-platform version of a “temple” in my city to see the finely chiseled stone idol of the elephant-headed God take in gallons of milk through His winning, coiled trunk. Of moments when every new beginning, including something as meager as the first day of school, was always ushered with a little prayer to Him. Of a memorable, touching glimpse of time when my grandma handed me a “growing stone,” one that she had found amid abandoned temple rubble in her native village in Southern India, and one that had, as her innocent childhood thickened into an affirming adolescence, taken to sprouting hints of an elephant-face. And even though the life-size clay idols are greatly missed, and the chants reel off from speakers attached to precariously wired electronic gadgets, as opposed to the animated vocal chords of a family priest, the goodwill and harmony that the festive season generates is overwhelming enough to make one feel completely at home and at peace, even sitting estranged by oceans and miles from the homeland.

Even as I clutch on to my grandma’s secret little miracle “Ganesha,” and carry on with my praying routine almost perfunctorily, chanting His name invariably in times of distress or joy, the real jolt stems from something else. It is not often that one sees the universality of a marvel such as this, especially when, through the mind of a foreigner, wearing a “Ganesha” locket is depicted a surefire way to hope for a win at a contest on a television show. Religious preferences aside, Ganesha is surely as big a phenomenon as Eid, Christmas, MLB, or World Cup cricket. He reminds me every so often, from the moment I wake to his smiling countenance on the nightstand, that He is as prevailing as a blue, sunlit sky would be on a bleak winter’s day in Chicago.

All His modern “avatars” notwithstanding, even if it depicts a computer “mouse” and Him lounging and listening to i-Tunes on a Macbook, or Him in any of Lladro’s elbow-resting poses, as a real mouse fans Him devotedly, He will always stand out in unique grace for His sundry believers, smiling His coy smile from beneath a tusk.

The Inside Story on In-sourcing.

After months of speculation, and much fuss about it, the term “outsourcing” seems finally to have found its perfect antithesis - no, not “reverse-outsourcing,” as an archaic indigenous version may have you believe, but “insourcing,” is what they’re now calling it in Yanksville.

But given the current rate at which India’s economy is growing, and given that nearly four-fifths of its annual revenue is generated from IT industry exports, with the US making close to half the mark among the top players, it would be interesting to see how the mounting white-collar salaries in India would balance out in order for the rupee to continue to appreciate and stabilize. Especially given the big “insourcing” hoopla, which seems to be gaining impetus in light of the looming elections.

How, you might wonder, could this affect the middle-ground-H1B holders, and Green-Card-aspirants? Or even just how much this would impact the life of any NRI. Well, if the plunging dollar doesn’t seem to concern Indian investors in the US, and if all this insourcing were indeed to create more jobs for Americans than “outsourcing” were to cart off, in order to help unassuming BPO workers in India, where does that leave the hoi polloi H-1Bs? If software jobs are moving back to America and benefiting American techies and enriching the lives of well-heeled CEOs of Indian IT giants, will the middle-grounders be forced to move back to India and strive to find decent jobs again? And to even begin to imagine the effect this would trigger off on the lives of the general NRI lot is a mighty task. Then again, if the dollar continues to sink, gas prices continue to escalate, cost-of-living indices remain status quo, and long commutes, stiff working hours, and diminishing savings continue to cause stress and distress, the lives of ordinary NRIs may just continue to crumble, leaving little to no scope for revival.

As the election hungama heats up, more and more Indian software corporations are signing new-fangled lobbyists up to help them downplay the relentless, episodic tittle-tattle that not only goes on about how outsourcing has been costing America jobs, but also derides the English-speaking fancy of modest call center workers in India.

In fact, according to an article in the New York Times, a certain Washington lobbyist revealed recently that information on Indian corporations’ investments in the US was being collated in order to advocate Congressmen and lawmakers from the districts that the investments have generated jobs, and explain to them just how much the “insourcing” is benefiting Americans.

While Obama may not be the best person to go to with this, Hillary would certainly have a word or two to say on the topic. But would this really help promote the expanding Indian middle class as a positive streak to an American middle class that’s currently battling fiscal uncertainties? And whether or not the outsourcing versus insourcing battle continues, the pressure is building up not only for Presidential candidates, but also NRIs. The point in question is not to be or not to be, but whether to be in-source-side or out.

On a lighter note, perhaps, like the Simpsons say, outsourcing is yet the best form of sourcing, at least till insourcing helps the “common man,” to use an Indianism. And wonder what Lou Dobbs would have to say out-and-out on this one. Or should that be inside out?

Flighty Frills And Mighty Bills

If you think cutting into a microwaved “strictly vegetarian” meal (with options of Gujarati, Jain, and “raw” varieties), suspended in mid-air above sea level, is progressionism, you don’t know the half of it. The desi air travel industry is back in the business, despite the good old navigational glitches and hostess hitches that are often scorned upon, with exclusive in-flight features and low fare deals being offered by most companies.

While Air India’s Maharaja with his smiling, curtsying countenance may have, over the years, become representational of desi air travel, there are other competitors seeking earnestly to steal from Air India’s limelight. Jet Airways, for instance, which up until now had dominated the Indian domestic market, has introduced an 18-hour direct flight from Newark to Mumbai with a short stopover in Brussels starting this month. What’s so great and unusual about that, you ask?

Well, how would you like, on this high class Boeing 777, an ultra-comfy private cabin, with a seven-foot seat-cum-flatbed (which is not only spacious, but vibrates and wiggles to assuage those worn out limbs), big screen entertainment monitors, all-purpose buffet wings, and also a personal closet, if you’re traveling premiere class? And if you’re traveling economy, how would you like soft, downy cushions that distend beyond your seat’s stretchability, giving your legs extra comfort, without you having to fret over thumping your feet against concealed metal extensions underneath?

Well of course the premiere class extravagance comes at a price, but if you’re willing to shell out a little over 10 grand, you can be sure to kick up your heels and delight in the finest cuisines and wines as you lounge back in your King-style chaise, crank up the volume on your music station, and maybe even text or email your friends around the world about the luxury you’re steeped in.
And well, if you’d rather take economy, you wouldn’t have to worry about the ergonomics of the arrangements, which are more than optimal, according to the buzz.

Of course, the imperial comfort provided by Air India has been upgraded too, lately. Not only are its first class travelers given Maharaja treatment in airport lounges, they are also given 6.5 foot-luxury seats, and televisions with up to 500 channels.

And well, if Air India and Jet were to stop vying for the “better” title, and enter into a tie-up instead, like Jet’s CEO Naresh Goyal recently expressed, they’d possibly augment the market share (for Indian carriers) to a whopping 50 percent in the near future, from the present meager 20 percent.

Meanwhile, other international airlines are bucking up to follow suit and offer high-end services to their desi customers. Virgin Atlantic, for instance, has upped the ante a notch by offering suites with recliner seat-cum-beds made of fine leather, and complimentary massage services and free champagne, for its upper class London-to-Mumbai travelers.

Yet with tags like “dirt(y), cheap air shack,” “cattle car,” and “flock fest,” given by irate passengers, Air India is not the only one in line to endure reproach. Even with all the fancy fittings and frills, air travel is getting increasingly exasperating, and moreso for us desis. And if you think getting singled out like magnets at airports and being questioned about trivial things such as purpose of visit to India, or just enunciating the convoluted names some of us are blessed with is daunting, you’re in for surprise.

What’s more, if you share your name with any of the array of suspects deported from the US, or with a member of any of the stealth extremist groups under acute vigil post 9/11, you’re bound to go through a series of humiliating and infuriating security checks before you can get on board.

On a lighter note, the liveries we desis sport can also turn into travel nuisances. And then there are the “usual suspects” - stapled packets of colorful powders, reeking of pungent, dangerous spices.

The “Naya Daur” of Facebook Avatars.

In an age where Internet and Web 2.0 fanatic desis are finding ways and means to connect and reach out to global NRIs through their blogs, networks and startups in order to stay on top of the social circuit, there is a new rage that is gaining impetus - Facebook applications and avatars. For the uninitiated, Facebook is the trendiest, coolest new online “social utility that connects you with the people around you.”

In fact, if you’re not already in there, this would be a good time to start. And it may be a good idea to purge off all those unwanted (in some cases, ersatz) e-identities you may have and go web-green by sticking with a real visage on “Facebook” alone. That’s what the insiders swear by anyway. In fact, if some of them are to be believed, the latest water-cooler-cool-quip doing the rounds is, “Have a Facebook application up yet?” as opposed to what yesteryear’s technophiles may have had you presume, like, “Have a blog yet?”

From Krutal Desai’s “Web 2.0,” to Michelle Haq’s (who poses with Kal Penn) “Desi Hits,” the desi Facebook groups are burgeoning by the minute. Of course, not to be left behind are other e-business groups by the likes of Rajesh Lalwani, like the “e-business evangelists,” or the “business of brands.”

But what about the pedestrian desi classes who may not be familiar with Facebook, and whose internet savoir faire, in the form of “curry-for-thought” or “bollywood-bhangra-balle-balle” blogs are only yet taking shape? Well, one can hope that “dingchak” would create an interface to generate online hubs with names that are most likely to catch the NRI readership attention, within Facebook. Well, at least based on what “dingchak” claims, it is a considerably fair wish:

“Since every third desi blog title is either a “confused writings of.. “, a “random scribblings from..”, a “mad thoughts of.. ” or a permutation of other such similar apologist disclaimers, aimed towards pre-empting readers from commenting on how shallow and lame the posts really are, to save time, has a cool new utility that will generate these titles for you [wordpress/ blogger plugin to follow soon]…”

Even though Facebook is already ranked number 22 in order of popularity in Indian circles, and right on top of the social network scenario, the gurus are contemplating on whether or not it makes sense to “Indianize” the content, (replete with widgets and subgroups) on Facebook. At any rate, if an Indian version of Facebook were to be initiated (Chak De Chehra?), it is the “trolls” that the sticklers would need to fear, aside from the monetization potential of the plan in the so-called applications democracy triggered by Facebook.

Now, for sticklers, the problems created by so-called “trolls” on other networking sites can be dealt with on Facebook as simply as one would deal with, to use an Indianism, a “housefly” - bat them away to zombie status.

And if you’re still wondering what “trolls” are, you can look them up at wiki. For some queer reason, desi trolls that even bite the dust seem to be far more popular than exotic ones. While we’re at it, for some pure fun about alleged “stalkers” on Facebook, look up Penn Masala’s (in)famous video on YouTube, called “The Facebook Skit.”

I may as well conclude by asking you the question of the year - so, what’s your Facebook avatar?

Diddler-fiddler, Diaspora-ducker

Ever been snubbed by fellow-desis at a local shopping mall, restaurant, gym, or even in the modest corner of your neighborhood elevator? I have often wondered, like you, why anyone should ever cold-shoulder anyone, and with desis in particular, why an element of superiority interferes, when in essence, at some level or another, we’re all seeking that wee shred of familiarity or a sense of a shared heritage.

Although, I must say, if it weren’t for my own attempts at being amicable and striving to break the ice at awkward “I’d-never-talk-to-YOU-at-a-Mc D’s-even-if-it-were-in-Timbuktu” instances, I’d have been at the receiving end of such rebuffs more often than you’d imagine. The great American hamburger and fries combo meal doesn’t, as it were, bring vegetarian, lard-conscious desis together. They’re more ashamed to admit their qualms and fears about meat and animal fat in front of their indigenous comrades than their (in some cases, far-fetched) friends across Yanksville.

Of course, there is a thin line between ignoring someone and shaming them, and it’s only reasonable that despite sharing common ground, all desis have the right to express their culture in forms they deem suitable. However, in a land where we make close to 1% of the millions of American populace, it is not unreasonable to expect a show of solidarity, if little.

I live amid an ocean of desis in an already desi-dominated Chicago, and every day is a new learning experience. There are incidents that remind me time and again that more than being bound by nationalism, it is where we are, to be able to uncover or recognize that bond that is more important. For instance, when I take my little one to a tots’ fun time session, I am forced to turn away when the desi moms start crooning out in their cheery voices, “Chubby cheeks…teacher’s pet…very fair…” - a rhyme like that could be veto-ed for the politically incorrect nature of its possible connotations in an actual American toddler group setting. Yet, blissfully unaware of this, the show goes on, and I cringe, feeling inflicted with a tinge of violation. So, I wonder, is this about trying to “fit in” or just trying to do be fair and fine given the time and place we are in?

And then there are times when I find myself exhibiting typical Indian sentimentalism, when my attempts of greeting or even recognizing the presence of a desi go unnoticed. That’s not to say I’m customarily on a befriend-everyone-spree; but I like to socialize and schmooze and on occasion, study incongruity when it’s around. And let’s get real - I do like the little thrills of synchronized eye-brow-raising that comes from just being with another normal desi woman when the lady at the American spa refuses to crank up the heat, leaving our feet to soak in tepid (or, to use an Indianism, “mild”) water. Or the way in which, when dining out at Indian restaurants with our American buddies, the mention of “tandoori” elicits a peculiar manner of attuned head-bobbing and shrugging from the desi waitresses as they lock their eyes with ours.

Does it mean that I don’t really conform to the white preferences and proclivities I have acquired and flaunted over the years of living here? Or that I weep and wail when a desi woman looks right through me in a public place? No, certainly not. But that’s not to say I don’t enjoy a little gloating when my Indianness is discerned and validated through lesser-known or even humdrum social touchstones that are unique to desis alone. And it certainly bothers me when fellow-desis fail to accede our very rich, common background, and say, would rather hit the treadmill than do yoga.

And well, I’m immensely annoyed when fellow-desis skip the Hindi phonemes and rattle off hurriedly in an inevitable Apu-esque tone while conversing with a Hindi-speaking desi cabbie or vendor, just because an American is in line behind them.

Battling Green Card Blues

Last month, when the USCIS made an announcement that could have helped several thousand H1B workers get one step closer to their timeless Green Card dreams, there was a different kind of logjam to battle - at the doctors’ offices, picture studios, and perhaps even Kinko’s. These excited GC hopefuls were scrambling to get their files and papers in order to maximize the opportunity, to take that one last step needed to apply for permanent residency. While some requested exemption from re-immunizations, some fumbled around in vain to lay hands on their birth certificates and other documents. Consequently, they had to assign the task of raking up old records in their hometowns in India to their aging parents or relatives. Some others, including a friend of ours, canceled important appointments, to the extent of even calling off birthday celebrations, just so they could confabulate with their attorneys and work things out in time.

Then, on the 2nd July, which was the day of the deadline, their fates were altered, just like that. The USCIS withdrew the announcement, closing all windows for these expectant H-1Bs to be able to attain Green Card status. The reason - the USCIS claimed that it had already met the annual quota for EB (Employment-Based) applications.

At a local USCIS-approved medical practitioner’s office in the last few days leading upto the deadline, I ran into scores of eager H1-B visa holders, some with their relatively happier spouses, getting their routine check-ups. I witnessed the flurry of activity that had kept the staff working 22 hours a day in order to fulfill the sudden surge for medical report requests. After the decision was reversed by the USCIS, amid all the retreating clockwork-like action, I noticed two women, both pregnant, and a trifle more restless than the others, but for different reasons. One, a Chinese woman, with virtually no patience to wait for her records to be disentangled and ferreted out so she could just get out of there and possibly, never return; and the other, an Indian, bursting with mixed emotions - anger and an acute sense of desolation - and readier than ever to return to India after having spent close to $2000 on the same medical test twice over (The USCIS shut the window for EB-based categories last year too, just before she and her husband could turn their files in).

But a slightly more interesting incidence ensued in the aftermath of this fiasco. While some of these dejected Green Card hopefuls engaged in melancholic story-telling through their blogs, some simply kept to themselves and began looking for options to counter the injustice they had been meted out. But a majority of them grouped up, and through participation in online forums, networking, and personal meetings, came up with a curious little plan to get the media attention they deserve, while also sending out a hidden message to the USCIS. No, they didn’t flood the USCIS or the media with grievance letters, nor did they stoop to the level of engaging in hideous or harmful activities. They decided, instead, to follow the Gandhian philosophy, triggered rather ceremoniously by the recent Bollywood success of “Lage Raho Munnabhai,” and send out flowers to USCIS director Emilio Gonzalez, as a form of peaceful remonstration. All bouquets were standardized (purple roses, or pink lilies or yellow daisies) and customized to reach Gonzalez’s Washington DC office on July the 10th, with the message, “All the best for future Employment Based visa estimates.”

So, did the Gandhian mantra help? Well, it got the H1-Bs and their debacle some media coverage. But beyond that purview, things remain status quo at the USCIS office. Some attorney offices are working overtime to collect sufficient “rejection” stamps on EB-based filed applications to work out the logistics of a potential lawsuit against the Immigration Department. On the other hand, while the USCIS strategically accepted the flowers and sent them off to recouping soldiers at an Army Medical Center in DC, the symbolism behind it all has stirred enough spirits to be able to see the greener side of things. And consequentially, perhaps, several perturbed Green Card aspirants have decided to move shoo their blues away by returning to India, where the grass may not be greener for now, but hope lives on. Green Card fever seems to have finally abated for wannabe immigrants, but it looks like the USCIS needs to warm up to the chills.

Dollars to Doughnuts - Yeh Desi Dil Maange More.

It is hard to tell exactly why, but living in the US makes us Indians crave and chase an elusive state of “happiness.” It’s like an American conundrum that seems to saddle and befuddle the Indian mindset. When I say Indian mindset, I mean the celebrated tradition that has for generations made us slog, spend little, and save a lot for a “rainy day.” There’s not a convenient store corner you can turn without noticing a new desi entrant frantically converting the price of say, a pack of lentils, or a boxed set of mangoes, into Indian rupees, and shrugging at the steepness. And even with the fortune of having the American essentials that make up a good life, thanks to the credit system - car, house, and on occasion, boat - one finds a state of unrest and a secret yearning for a better life, among Indian Americans.

So, has the whim of big bucks become the core of this “pursuit of happiness” for us? Well, we’re no longer satisfied with one house and a car; we want more houses, cars (and where applicable, RVs, SUVs, and yachts). This also means clearing credit card dues, which means daily grind, and it leaves us with no time for anything but work. But it doesn’t seem to stop there - this also makes us fore think, and plan our retirement, and for those of us who prefer to cross the oceans and settle down in our hometowns, it means investing in property in India. And with the real estate prices escalating in a fiscally budding India, it makes us toil harder and, consequentially, completely detach ourselves from our already limited social circles.

Can the mediocre lot among us leave our day jobs and turn to movie making, or singing to attain overnight success and glory, like Nagesh Kukunoor, or Shankar Mahadevan? Perhaps not; yet one hears every so often, of a star emerge somewhere in the midst of a bunch of bourgeois NRIs. As a stay-at-home mom (although I wonder how accurate that hackneyed tag is, given that I’m on the move mostly, running menial errands like returning books to the library, and stocking up on groceries, or baby diapers), I am often inspired by such accounts. And as an intransigent seeker of story fodder for my expatriate-centric features, I have even had the pleasure of meeting with and speaking to a few. For instance, the sister-duo of “MeeraMasi” fame in the West, who produce and sell CDs and books with limericks and stories in Indian languages for NRI children. (‘I could have very well thought of that, why didn’t I…?’ I lash out at myself in thought). But I will have to make do with waiting for an opportunity to collaborate with them sometime.

And then there is the bunch of NRI moms in the East, who conceptualized the quarterly magazine “Kahani” for children of South Asian descent in America. Given that these children are seldom given an opportunity to learn about and assimilate the significance of their heritage, “Kahani” definitely takes care of that and more. (Of course I could have come up with something like that! After all, I have a deep interest in children’s literature and have a stories collection waiting to be published…but I digress). I found solace by writing about them instead.

Somewhere in the corner of my vacillating mind, there are a few dreams waiting to be realized. And not one of them is any less a potential jackpot than another. There’s a restaurant, a patisserie, a bookshop, several ideas for simple household widgets and tools, an arts and crafts store, or a gallery that will showcase some of my own designs and creations…all waiting to be worked out, funded, set-up, and turned into million-dollar-realities. And in my overwhelmingly restless, stress-ridden life, I still find time to dream and aspire. I hold on to a scintilla of hope that gets flimsy at times, yet it makes my desires soar and my hopes float higher.

But the reality perhaps is that I will follow the well-tread path, rather than give up writing to take a jab at these so-called dream projects. While simply saying so won’t exactly excuse me from a getting a ticket to a guilt trip, I hope, while I’m at it, I don’t turn into a hustling, avaricious NRI for whom the essence of having a good life is measured in cash and chattels. The pursuit of happiness is overrated, and I believe that if one chooses to see it that way, happiness is hidden in the littlest of things, like in the attainment of inner peace, as opposed to getting lost in the noise of the materialistic world.

That said, if a certain Gauri Nanda can patent a “clocky” that runs and hides each time you don’t wake up to its alarm, then the power of my own “whatsis” shouldn’t be underestimated. And to find out, you’ll just have to check this space often.

H1 Fever and Homecoming Hoopla

With all the hype surrounding the Immigration Bill, the hordes of H-1 hopefuls are left wondering if they’ll be “chosen,” or whether this dream chase is worth it, after all. But even without that, a group of middle-field desis beleaguered by a relentless dilemma is burgeoning across the US. Their prime concern is whether to head back to India while still scaling new heights in their pursuit of success and big bucks, or stay back and cringe while their children, oblivious to authentic Indian mores, live the American dream the American way.

And then there is a bunch that sits on a rickety groupthink fence, strategizing how to spend the wintry months in the tropical pockets of Asia, and enjoy the warmth of the American sun the rest of the year. But what about the golden beaches of Hawaii, or Florida, that can provide the much-preferred warmth year-round, you ask? Well, what about the friendly seaside mongers, the spirited banter and nonstop gossip, the roar of the local dialects, and more importantly, the sense of belonging that only setting foot on Indian shores can bring, they ask. So, they relent to traveling back and forth, choosing merely the seasons that suit them.

This approach, if one looks at it that way, could be the perfect ground for the bicultural-mélange. Unfortunately, the birds of this feather cannot quite make that work --- they either don’t have children, or if they do, they’re in college, or don’t live with them. Besides, with the admission impasse prevalent in India, only Shankar Jr. could think of having his child study there every semiannual semester. But I digress. The point is --- this extravagance is not one the rest of the wannabe-RNRIs (Returned Non-Resident Indians) can afford. For one, it does cost a lot to endure the “floating NRI” expenses. And then, there is also that guilt factor that could haunt the minds of the stanch wannabe-RNRIs --- aging parents that need caring, the unfussy manner of meeting friends or attending a family function (and not essentially scheduled for weekends), which could hamper their returning to the West.

This RNRI-syndrome applies rather aptly to the IT geeks, although scientists, physicians, and architects are not to be left behind. Now, with 60,000 of them having turned RNRIs in recent years (according to a report by TiE), one wonders, will there ever be a scarcity of foreign talent here? Or, given that close to 25,000 of these have landed in the erstwhile “garden city” of India, which is now a hapless concrete-and-metal jungle, thanks to the “Americanizing-India” initiative that has erected high rises, swanky malls, and non-pecuniary, customer-is-king stores that could put Walmart or Sam’s Club to shame; could one anticipate a reverse-again brain-drain sometime soon? One can’t possibly tell this way or that, but it should be interesting to note that the RNRI Association in Bangalore is going strong, and has only recently celebrated its 12th anniversary. Even as the whim of “outsourcing” and “being Bangalored” wanes gradually away into the background, the RNRI populace is gaining impetus.

But what about the transitional NRIs --- the ones who want to make the most of what America has to offer, retain their Indian values, and take with them the acquired conviction and credence when they do return to India? People, who, after slaving to earn a coveted Masters from a good school, scrambling for a H1, and slogging till they can afford to pay off hefty credit card dues, realize that they have actually learnt a lot about work culture, and the lowliness of being contingent on the so-called (elusive) cosmic forces for success, among other things. These are the people who want the best of both worlds, and are not essentially under any kind of pressure to make the much-hyped move back (yes, we’re among them, thank you); yet, they want to go back because they’d really like to.

It is not uncommon for these transitional NRIs to envision a clean, greened, developed India, where the masons that build their homes have literate, healthy children; their workplaces value time and talent (and not just when it comes to “overseas” clients); their children learn and appreciate the rich Indian heritage beyond weekend discourses at a temple; clean water, air, and electricity are not unaffordable luxuries; giving generous alms does not help ameliorate the poverty rate; and where the simple pleasures of life, like having the entire family together at dinner, does not come at a price. But that’s not to say they’d forget the enrichment they gained from living in a germ-free world, replete with social courtesies and life-size opportunities. And no Immigration Bill can pinion them anymore than can their free-spiritedness liberate their minds.

On or off the “Inde” Platform?

While the so-called bigwigs of Indian filmdom are busy settling recently sparked feuds from the low-key invite list to the Abhi-warya wedding, two of the three most popular women in the business, even if slightly off by a tangent, are cooling their heels from hot controversies their films have stirred up lately. While media coverage of anything to do with Indian movies and stars usually makes page three material, these proceedings have made it to the front-page headlines, breaking all “kosher-curry,” and “star-o-typical” barriers.

So what if the rest of the world cannot tell a “Bend it Like Beckam” apart from a “Monsoon Wedding”? Deepa Mehta has taken a part of the same world by storm with “Water,” but everything about the polemical making of the movie was conveniently sidelined; given that its singled-out actors, what they wore to the Oscars, and who accompanied them, were milked dry to the limit of their thrill-yielding potential by the media. But what of the essence of the story, its reflection on the low ranks allocated to women in ancient Indian society? All the movie itself has gotten is backlash from Hindu fundamentalists back in India, who were angered by what they say are historical inaccuracies and unnecessary exaggeration of lesser-known facts. And more recently, Mira Nair’s adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake” has opened up a rusty old iron curtain on the quintessential immigrant experience --- of feeling detached in a foreign land, coming to terms with the distinct nuances that dichotomize them from the natives, and so forth. Again, the media has unabashedly puffed up Nair’s endeavor by labeling it evidence of the current rage of “Diaspora Dandy” creating waves in the Western world; although for a part of the diaspora, it may seem to bear a rather droning, sluggish effect.

As a part of the movie-fanatic diaspora that is often plagued by the issue of what really constitutes the big idea of biculturalism, I can unreservedly say that these moviemakers, being the ellipsis in this map-notion don’t seem to help a great deal, nor do the media, with their rather sly, shifting applications. Most movies made by these crossover filmmakers concentrate on a rather non-progressivist image of various sections of the Indian population, and more often than not, the people depicted in them are a confused NRI lot, some stinking-rich, while others, good old struggling-straggling middleclass. For instance, in “Bend it Like Beckham,” the gumption of an Indian girl and her family’s support to her in her Beckam-isque pursuits, that came by eventually, were depicted as an Indian tradition, which was only yet changing. In “Bride and Prejudice,” the ending was a compromised, happy, near-perfect union. But not before the radical, plebeian Indian heroine chastised a “gora” businessman, (before he saved her from big trouble, and consequently, wooed her), by telling him in her typical essentialist tone that brown-skinned women like her needn’t be looked down upon as mere second-rate images of Western gratifications. And then, there was “Mistress of Spices” - a movie based on Chitra Divakaruni’s novel, which basically brought out the slave in the Indian woman. Slave, of spices, the kitchen, and the general liability of homemakerly onuses, a long-standing mold, which even the most modern of divas haven’t been able to break out of. In essence, most of these “Hinglish” films continue to focus on and grapple with monotonous issues of “lineage,” “traditionalism,” and "identity crisis,” as was seen in a series of the diaspora films, like “American Desi,” “Green Card Fever,” “Flavors,” “American Chai,” which simply don’t cut it anymore. And it doesn’t help when the media focus on where these movies are being filmed, who fought whom on the sets, or whose fashion faux pas was caught on a random camera phone, rather than the issues that need to be addressed.

Occasionally, movies like “Black Friday,” or “Kabul Express” come along, but duly get lost in the glare of a non-monsoon, “desh ki sabse badi shaadi,” buildup, or the new-fangled hairdo of an actor at an award ceremony. Further, when Madhur Bhandarkar comes up with a “Traffic Signal,” it gets disregarded because of a mainstream movie shot in the modish gridlocks of New York city, where extra-marital affairs (God forbid the Hindu fundamentalists get an inkling of that!) loom.

So, amidst images of the pinked-hype surrounding the subject of homosexuality in “When Kiran Met Karen,” and repetitive snatches of a 30 second post-wedding footage of Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai that define new heights in cosmopolitalism-lined, gossip-for-profit media culture, the true-blue NRI segment is left with no choice than to deflect from acute transnational issues that solicit their attention, and look out for a skimpily clad Rakhi Sawant being ousted on a substandard reality TV show, or wait tolerantly as the media scrape the bottom of the Richard-Gere-necks-Shilpa-Shetty stories barrel.