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, November 16, 2006

Mamma Mia – Confessions of a Doggone Desi Mom

As a full-time mom of a pre-schooler, pre-play grouper, and all-rounder-little-miss-mischief, I have joined the bandwagon of classic desi moms that handle home, work-at-home, and host play dates, aside from the entertaining and cleaning and ironing and everything else. While the idea of hosting play dates, like the infamous desi ‘kitty’ used to, sounds fun and exciting, it simply means that you’re willing to forego another night’s sleep conjuring up images of playing mommy to a few other kids alongside your own, and, if you’re lucky, you might swoon yourself to sleep. Or not. But the point is, you also have to ‘wake’ to bake or make goodies, and the worst part of all, clean up the house. If you are willing to stoop to the level of considering an ocean of toys as a house, that is.

I always have to ask my guests to inform me in advance if they’re visiting because the house is a constant wreck, and I need to make it at least mildly presentable. Of course, there is no way one can get everything in order in a meager few hours, so one finds shortcuts, and stuffs drawers and boxes and cabinets with things that don’t belong, or worse, fit in. And then one makes a mental note to spare a couple of hours in the weekend to undo that, but the weekend often has its own devious plans of getting one into other tricky situations. And of course, the parents in India will give one a protracted lecture about how they used to manage things when we were kids, and yet find time to cook a fresh, decent meal. By decent, I mean a twelve or thirteen course meal, the recipes of which you may never find in a fancy gourmet Indian cookbook. So there’s not a chance one can seek sympathy from that quarter, when one is feasting on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Of course, one can bring up the issue of the absence of domestic help here as opposed to there, but they always find a way around it. So, in order to discuss the miserable state of affairs with a co-desi-mom who’s as haggard and distraught as myself, I must make the time for a long telephone session. Or make note of it as a to-do on the post-it glued to the refrigerator door, which will later have fallen off and been made into a paper swan or a rocket that I’ll sit on and never see again.

I just hosted a play date, and I’m still reeling from all the frenzy. Especially given that we just dealt with the enormity of the rumpus that Halloween was, and the kids were all high on candy and refused to behave. I am not sure if Lego or Playskool or any of their affiliates have researched the destructive tendencies some toddlers are gifted with, but this would be a good time to start if they wish to. My little one is endowed with the best of these abilities, and she is more curious about what Pooh’s tummy can hold, than she is about his squeezy-squeaky right ear. So she rips his body parts apart, and realizes his tummy cannot be pried into after all. But in the bargain, I’ll be blessed with a bleeding, throbbing toe given that she’d have flung his pointy little shoe away and I’ll have tread on it, in an attempt to reach out to her little friend who was having a hiccup emergency.

The worst part is handling the little brawls --- especially when one is playing host, and the other moms are watching one with their magnifying parenting-foible-reader lenses on. That’s not to say it’s easier to go attend a play date as a guest. Then one is obliged to carry a snack or two, and that, coupled with the fact that it’s winter, can be quite a daunting task. I say this about winter because getting the little one into layers of clothing can take half a day, and if one is lucky, one can make it to the play date without limping and shuffling from running a stroller wheel on one’s foot while trying to bend over and get the cap to stay on the little one’s head.

And yes, here too, the parents would say they’d rather have carried the child in their arms. But given that I have never been in a professional circus, I wouldn’t want to risk that, knowing how heavy the diaper tote is and how loosely I tie my shoelaces for sheer lack of time. Speaking of which, I think I’ll take some time out, untie my hair, and have a cuppa (instant) Folgers. Unless, I’d want to risk brewing a fresh pot and saving it for later, as the beep would wake the little sleeping beauty.

Halloween Hokum Meets Diwali Delight

As Fall kicks in, haggard desi moms like myself are not only busy cleaning and shopping, but also toiling away in the kitchen, concocting secret recipes for honeyed candy and Marshmellow peeps, possibly, alongside laddus and barfis. Fall brings with it a new hope, of color, and merriment. And while the entire citizenry around us in this land of big bucks is busy stocking up on gifts and goodies, we are busy choosing Halloween costumes and Diwali candles (unless, ofcourse, diyas are reasonably available and safe to use). For us it’s not just about pumpkin pies and cranberry sauce, but also about halwas and vadas. Our string lights are not only to adorn the Christmas trees, but also to illuminate the ‘Puja’ corners, tucked away in a closet somewhere, or another nook that the kids can keep from.

We pride ourselves on the plum cakes we bake and turkeys we stuff, just as much as we do on our Dushhera sweets and Diwali treats. If Fall means bringing out the wool and fleeces, it also means dusting off the silks and silver. If the Magnificent Mile represents the quintessential holiday embellishment, Devon Avenue helps our suburban Chicago homes light up. In these homes, stars and candles glimmer in harmony; meringues and mithais sit pretty on the tables, in multi-colored bowls; the welcome wreaths lead you to the tinkle of the sacred bells; the stockings and garlands brim just as fresh; and, underneath the spiffiest and scariest of tiny Halloween costumes, a trinket or two clinks, waiting to complement kurtas or lehengas that may well follow suit.

Yet, in all this fervor, there is a void somewhere that lurks, and reminds us of our roots. Call it what you may, but the pleasure that derives from knowing that a festival like Diwali is arriving in all its glory on a weekend, is second to none for us. That, or if a severe snowstorm is looming large, forcing everyone to stay indoors, and usher the festival of harvest, Pongal. Diwali, for one, is not as much fun without the sounding and spattering of firecrackers. Which is why, in all likelihood, one might catch a bunch of desis reveling in a fourth of July fireworks display, likening it, in whatever minuscule manner, to their own Diwali dhamakas back at home. Every Diwali, I am reminded that my little one will never get to experience all the excitement and thrill of Diwali like we did when we were children. She won’t even, possibly, get to impulsively light off a sparkler, or blast off a ‘rocket’ into space. That’s not to say I’m not a light green, or that I would love to see the atmosphere defiled.

And then there are the lights. I remember lighting scores of diyas and helping my mom arrange and display them around the house, punctually refueling them when the oil dried out. Living now in a suburban multiplex across the seas, the most I can do is light up candles, and remember to turn them off before the wax melts down and messes up the carpets, or worse, spreads the fire and triggers off the alarm. Of course, there is no hope for anything as fiery and dangerous as ‘fire’ to stay put at an elevation of three feet or below, to begin with, given the curiosity of my little girl. Sure, there are electric lamps, and there are fancy earthern diyas, but they don’t seem to befit the sternness of these walls and the rigidity of these statutes.

Last but not least, there’s the food. No festivity is complete without the “mooh meetha” tradition. But the only difference is that we don’t exactly enjoy sweating it out in the kitchen like our moms do. So we turn to our Sukhadias and Haldirams. Sure, we miss the authentic homemade ghee and Milkmaid flavors, but we make do for the sake of the festivity, and on occasion when we do hit the stove, we substitute them with cottage cheeses, or half-and-halfs. Of course, cholesterol and health consciousness never bothers us, and anyhow, we look for summer to hit the treadmill, just so we can fit into the beachwear, only to distend and bulge again in the Fall and Winter - it’s like a vicious circle. As they say, all this food talk is making me hungry, and it’s time to queue up at the temple for a quick ‘darshan’ and a bite of the ‘prasadam.’ And yes, I will have to carve out the pumpkins, whisk up the meringues, and spook up the house, but not before I’ve dug into my paneer rolls and rasmalais.

Craving Consecration in Chicago

Gandhi once said, “A nation's culture resides in the hearts and souls of its people,” and his words ring particularly true for us desis, or the Indian diaspora, in America. Of course one could say that this curious spirit of harmony stems from the craze of Bollywood movies and cricket matches - they never fail to bring us together. But beyond this broad, national purview, I have seen that strong ethnic correlations are abloom – be it at a graduation party, a pre-wedding Sangeet ceremony, or simply a visit to the temple during the festive season – we come together to revive and celebrate even the most arcane of traditions.

In a country where life is always on fifth gear, and mostly materialistic, most of us seek spiritual serenity in temples. To get away from the hustle-bustle of everyday life, we all flock to our local sanctuaries. We attend weekend discourses on the Gita, and partake in festive
commemorations. And it’s in these simple, unnoted proceedings that our Indianness is kindled, just as it is when we recount stories from Ramayana, or say, Vikram Aur Betaal, to our children.

If the Sri Venkateswara temple in Pittsburgh can bring the matchless spirit of Tirupathi alive, Chicago’s own Aurora and Lemont temples are certainly not to be left behind. And it’s not just the efforts of the managers, volunteers, and trustees that make these temples special. It is also the diligence and dedication of the priests that add extra merit to these shrines. So I decided to go on a sublime sojourn to discover the divine obsession and way of life of these unassuming Godmen.

Even on a chaotic workday, the Aurora temple is brimming with devotees. A serenade of ‘shlokas’ falls melodically on my ears as I calmly walk the untainted floors of the temple. A whiff of burning incense mixed with fumes of the ‘aarthi’ gushes into my nostrils, and the tinkling of a bell that follows makes my hair stand on end. I am face-to-face with the most beautiful idol of Lord Krishna, and suddenly, everything else seems insignificant. No worldly thoughts to stir my mind, and no apprehensions to disrupt my feelings. It is a moment of sheer bliss, almost celestial, and it makes me want to freeze and hold on to it forever. The priest, Hanuman Prasad, offers a platter of dry fruits to the Lord, and steps out with a gleaming silver carafe in his hands. Without uttering a single word, he begins to proffer pint-sized drops of holy water to everyone. Everyone just knows what to do - how to hold their hands out in devoutness, and sprinkle the remnants on their heads. It’s almost like a powered, perfunctory action.

Later, with a simple wave of his hand, the priest beckons me to a spot where his prayer books lie scattered, behind a soaring pillar. Greeting me with an assertive ‘Hari Om,’ he tells me that it’s been a decade since he left Tirupathi to set up home here, taking me down memory lane with his fluid, chaste words. “I have attained utmost contentment - performing pujas and imparting the spirit of sanctity on thousands of devotees - in these ten years.”

Pointing out that the ‘Sathyanarayana Puja’ is the most popular service among South Indian devotees, he quickly adds that the number of weddings he has conducted easily outmaneuvers its repute. He jokes about how he is forced to explain the appositeness of ‘gulika kala’ and ‘rahu kala’ of performing pujas, given how weekend-oriented people are in this super fast world. “But on occasion, even the rules have to be overlooked,” he says. “These ten years of my life have been the most rewarding, and the one thing that still makes me heady with satisfaction is the relief on their anxious faces when I counsel and point them to righteousness. That makes my life worth living.”

“Do you have your family here with you?” I ask. He smiles, and says, “Not yet. I got married last year, and hope to have my wife here by the next. But if you insist, the temple, and all of you devotees - make my family circle complete. Hari Om.” I bow down in reverence and look in awe as he takes leave gracefully, to tend to another devotee.

The scene in the Lemont temple is much the same. The same sacramental sensation and the same sense of belonging hit me as I pass fellow devotees with a knowing look on their faces, as they scramble to receive a morsel of the ‘prasadam’.

Chanting his ‘mantras’ with the ultimate ease and commitment, priest Krishnarajan culminates the end of the day’s pujas by bowing obeisance to the Lord. He then flashes a cherubic smile at me, and coyly breaks the ice by using a South Indian dialect. He is happy to learn I’m equally conversant in it. “I hail from a small South Indian town, and have been serving at this temple for the past two decades, my dear,” he says. “Although I had my initial struggle with acclimatization to settle in here, I always looked back to the one piece of advice that my guru had given me - ’Desha-kala-sankeerthya,’ meaning - regulate your life depending on the time and location of your subsistence. Yes, it does matter to me that the disparate timings, the environs, and overall, the distinctive way of life affects the manner of rituals in this faraway land. But it’s still the same sun that rises and sets, the same moon, the same stars, and the same earth. And I am here to serve my fellow Indians, through my prayers to the Lord. That is more important to me, as is devotion and wholeheartedness.”

He says he has blessed several thousands of inter-continental couples over the years as they entered holy matrimony. He finds it surprising that the number of Indians marrying Indians is severely low in comparison. “But it hardly matters. Where there is love, there is the presence of the Lord,” he adds. His family lives with him, and they visit their native town every couple of years, just so they can stay in touch with their roots. Even as he excuses himself to serve sanctified droplets of water to new devotees queuing up, I curtsy respectfully and stare in awe at the positiveness he exudes. I then turn around, and heave a sigh as I leave the premises to join the blast of peak hour traffic. But the elephant-faced, pot-bellied, adorable little Ganesha sitting pretty on the dashboard, reminds me of my heritage and to be proud of it.

As the festive season rolls in, a nostalgic nip fills the air. I have come across a dozen-odd fellow desis in the past fortnight who have talked about the festive season and how they miss being home to enjoy the spirit it exudes. But they have also heaved a sigh of small relief relating the ways and means they have invented to be able to duplicate the effect out here.

Not a big brainteaser - as most of these so-called ideas revolve around eating and the one other thing that puts us apart - chattering. When the Maharashtrian “Ganapathi Bappa” nostalgia kicks in, it is said, Mumbaites and Puneites convene to pray and eat together, hashing over how minuscule the idols are here as compared to the gigantic ones back home. And in the sound of silence they reminisce the blaring devotional songs that beamed out of every street-corner loud speaker.

During Gowri Puja, the Kannadigas flock to their association hallway, enjoying classical music recitals and slices of ‘obbattu,’ with the womenfolk groaning about the hazards of lighting the ‘Aarti’ in their homes, and the absurdity of stirring out into their offices with turmeric-doused bands around their wrists.

During Onam, the Keralites gather around, sharing coconut-laced fare, and quibbling over how the carnations and daisies are but a poor match for the bright, golden marigolds that are used to adorn flower patterns back at home.

And then there are festivals that bring birds of all kinds together. Like Janmashtami, and Diwali, for instance. On both these occasions (as on many others), they queue up at their local sanctuaries, for a peek at the Lord, and a morsel of the ‘Prasadam.’ The cafeterias brim with delicacies and for every group of ten bachelors, at least one will choose to pay a buck for two packs of sambhar carryouts, to relish till midweek. Of course, the sweets and savories will be hankered after too, and some volunteers get a whiff of them even before they’re sold.

It isn’t unlikely for a segment of morning-temple-goers to assemble in a family home at night, to share stories, memories and, yet again, food. Diwali enthusiasts even sit for a gambling session, biting into deep-fried snacks and sipping their Budweisers, while the kids are tucked away in another room or the basement, and allowed a special screening of their favorite movie. The ladies, on the other hand, are happy to light the candles, catch up on their gossip, and recipes.

All this talk of food brings us to the one big fictitious feast concocted by desis who miss the festive merriment back at home. The big old American “potluck,” a rather twisty celebration route for food lovers. Even though potlucks are more rampant during the festive season, they are also for teas, book clubs, mom’s clubs, baby clubs, and any other daily routine that needs more than one person to deliberate over. Funny how they all insinuate the presence of women - the men either just saunter in and join them, or if it’s strictly a men’s gathering, they don’t call it that. So one way or another, the term “potluck” has come to be known as a women’s thing, and as the American equivalent of the desi “kitty party.” Only, here, there needn’t be a kitty to usher the food or fun in.

I have been to at least four potlucks in the past four weeks, and none had a real reason whatsoever. One was to catch up with friends over tea, another to discuss the kids’ playtime, another to simply while time away, and yet another, to do nothing but eat. And in the last one, there even was a prize - no, not for the one that ate best, but, sorry to kill the excitement, for the best recipe. I’m afraid my book club doodads are limited to a cuppa from Starbucks and the shelves of Borders, and occasionally, when my daughter behaves, the hubby, and of course, myself.

While Durga Pujo is just around the corner, my mind is already darting off in a hundred directions. Of course, there’ll be a potluck after the Pujo, but what I’m slightly more anxious about is the one before it - where the outfits and jewelry might get discussed. Not that it doesn’t happen at the venue itself, but I guess that’s a different kind of potluck - one where you discuss what others are wearing, and pay to eat someone else’s food. And well, I do wonder what Goddess Durga is thinking, after all.