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

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.

Chuck-E-Cheese’s, or Chaat-n-Chais?

In a land where Disney princesses and Tinkerbells rule, hatching clever ploys to win little minds over, by tempting them to dress up, play pretend, and celebrate birthdays spinning around their themes, there is little a poor desi mom of a toddler can do to resist. When my little girl turned one last year, the onus of choosing her birthday theme, and organizing a party that catered to the needs of well-meaning, hungry adults (mostly desi) and of course, some of their sugar-rushed little ones, was entirely on me. But now that she’s turning two, she seems to have been taught a thing or two about birthdays by her little friends, the television, and Toys “R” Us.

Among the scores of fancy themes out there, I learnt just the other day that Strawberry Shortcake is back in the business, and full swing. One of my daughter’s little friends had a Strawberry Shortcake themed birthday party, and like hordes of other desi parents about, I wondered how a casserole full of steaming idlis would go with Strawberry Jelly on the side; or how best one could complement the spiciness of “vadas” with say, Honey Pie Pony patchwork buns. Like all desi moms, I too am bound by the gregariousness and food-sharing values that govern our general idea of fiestas. The Chuck-E-Cheese’s and McDonald’s birthday parties are few and far between for us. We can’t seem to get accustomed to the notion that pizzas, French fries and coke can make for a fairly decent birthday meal. Our celebrations call for a multi-course spread, with savories and sweets that can satiate the littlest and biggest of appetites; besides, kids’ birthdays are merely reasons for our cooking ranges to smolder and whip up delicacies.

Back at home in India, food was always at the center of birthdays and special occasions. Even as my thoughts take me down memory lane, I realize, as a child, I never had a themed birthday party thrown in my honor. No dining tables with ritzy fanfare of food and drinks in gleaming china or glassware, no glitzy trimmings adorning the house, no bean bag tosses or other fancy games to be played, and no party favors hiding under tables or on discreet closet shelves, for a growing guest list that could take my diligent mother by surprise. Neighbors, friends and relatives clocked in and out of the house uninvitedly, ate simple home-cooked food out of bottomless pots, and huddled around one, showering wishes, singing, and sharing more food and stories that bound everyone in a curious sense of belonging. Birthdays were meant to be spent with one’s nears and dears, beginning with an offering of prayers to the family deity, and culminating with a hearty (extended) family meal, eaten, on occasion, out of broad, fresh plantain leaves (a natural, eco-friendly substitute for the synthetic, disposable varieties one can buy from the Party City outlets here). The only embellishments that added color to the house were the attractive “rangoli” patterns in the frontyard, the “puja” corner; and strings of fresh mango leaf frippery that hung from door tops. The open kitchen provided space, warmth, and food for everyone --- right from the weary vegetable vendor who was offered a glass of lemonade, to the uninvited friends who were offered simple servings of home-cooked food, when they stopped by to wish one.

With only a few days to go before my little girl turns two, I am wondering how to reorient the way I entertain, to suit a crowd that is not only eclectic, but also finicky. If the Indian way of celebrating is distinctive, the Indian palate is rather accommodating in relation to the mild American appetite. So, if the “samosas” and “bhel puris” stack up on one corner of the table, one must also pile up hot cross buns and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches across on the other side, to offset all the spiciness. And then, to wash them down with, one must stock up on the Welches and colas, as alternates to the tangy “lassis” and perky “masala chais.” And once the diverse appetites have been whetted and catered to, it will be time for other forms of entertainment, and the indigenous “antakshari” might not go too well with a scavenger-hunt-fanatic pack.

While I figure out the xyzs of obliging to a mixed party crowd later, I must heed a more imperative need for planning the logistics of a mega Toys “R” Us fun time in the heart of Manhattan, where my little one, in her colorful Springwear, will ride on the giant Ferris Wheel, cuddle her favorite plush toy, admire the latest fashion trends of Barbie in her star home, and possibly, squeal in delight upon seeing her favorite mammoth Dino. She will, of course, visit and greet her favorite “elephant-faced” God at the temple, and relish a bowl of her favorite “kheer” prior to all that, dolled up in a bright, embroidered “lehenga.”

Of Bake-a-thons, Trike-a-thons and Wannabe-Soccer-Mom-a-thons

As an active, full-time, work-at-home desi mom of a twenty-three-months old toddler, I am still familiarizing myself with the concepts of play dates, sing-along sessions, friendly Fridays, pretend-play Mondays, and select park fun times. Even though I am aware that these are key activities that will help her hone her motor, verbal, linguistic, cognitive, and socio-emotional skills, among others, I am possibly just in awe of the notion of introducing my little one to a range of pre-planned activities for groomed interaction.

So, while I thought I was getting up to a good start for summer at the onset of spring, I was told off by a couple of park district centers. Apparently, when I was busy building snowmen with my little one, or perhaps, visiting temples to commemorate a range of Hindu festivals, the others (mostly Americans) had gotten their forms signed and enrolments sealed. And now with waiting lists brimming over, I’m apparently only good enough to get on one of them. So while I wait it out to see if my little one can join in with other little gymnasts and water sport enthusiasts, my thoughts go drifting down to the summers of yesteryears, back at home in South India. I don’t recall my parents losing sleep over what I’d do in the summer, or any other turn of season. Summers, for instance, were meant to be spent outdoors, feasting on succulent mangoes and cool melons, taking leisurely, free laps in the officers’ club pool, rolling in a grubby playground playing hopscotch, or “kho-kho,” or even hide and seek, as the sun sank unhurriedly. And with the resulting fatigue making way for hunger pangs, I’d be eating early dinners at neighbors’ homes, chasing a coy moon as it slipped behind feathery clouds, from wide open, balmy rooftops.

And then there were unscheduled visits to aunts’ and grandparents’ houses, where a bunch of equally excited cousins would indulge one with fun activities, including, but not limited to, clambering up random fruit trees in the neighborhood, drinking tender coconut water from street-side vendors for lunch, and going on afternoon riding expeditions on vintage, grandfather bicycles, often barefoot. The only time our activities needed adult intervention was during a brawl or mishap. And of course, as the years rolled on and one grew older, when the good old holiday homework had to be dealt with, which, more often than not, comprised writing an essay on what had ensued, or how productively one had spent one’s holidays.

For now, I am stuck with making more enquiries about organized group toddler activities, scheduling June play dates in April with some friendly neighborhood folks, and wondering what else I can do to get my little one to enjoy the summer. Of course, there are rounds of visits to parks, zoos, and houses of the few relatives and friends around --- all planned ahead, to the littlest detail. But no impulsive sprees, or wayside carousing activities, like I enjoyed in India, to take her by surprise, and enthuse her curious mind.

In retrospect, given that there are not too many choices for a desi parent like me, to engage my little one, it’s perhaps time to accept these exclusive socializing concepts, and go with the flow. What can one possibly do to bring change and freedom in a place where the Ramayan and Mahabharat are reduced to folklore meant to be discussed in the weekends, in the premises of a temple? Or gather a bunch of kids for playtime after scheduling appointments months ahead with their busy parents? Or call to check if the weather, and rules are conducive to take my little one trike riding in the park? (While also ensuring that she’s appositely dressed, in Shimano shoes and light clothes, to ride on the right trike for her age).

I’m sure she’s soon going to learn to see the joys of being independent, and wait her turn at the park, pool, or bake-a-thon. Until then, I’m going to have to make do with prepping her up, and watching on, as she learns to play by herself, and feel belonged in a cosmopolitan community. Of course, I must keep her off the neighbors’ gardens and teach her to ask before she eats at one of their houses.

Parenting in these shores is wearying, but there are rewards, and they’re bigger than life. For instance, those little eyes that seek answers to everything on my face, they’re what keep me going - they wake me in the middle of the night, and boost me to shout hurray, enact teddy-bear-turn-around, or say, put my thoughts down like this.

Enchanted, I look on. She turns away, beaming at her success still, and then, swerving a little out of control, grabs quickly on to the curvy handgrip with tiny palms that were busy making circles in the air. An array of emotions manifest all at once on her face - fear, joy, sorrow. I smile, even as I grind my teeth together in horror, and cheer her on. It works, like magic. And she goes all out for more, and more. And with each encore, she looks at me, as if to check on the pride in my eyes, and flashes her dimpled-cheek smile. These, to put it mildly, are moments I live for. What’s so special about a twenty-three month-old toddler learning to ride a tricycle on her own, you ask? It’s in knowing that for nine months even before she came into this world, you only knew she possessed those feet, and then, when you saw them, and re-checked their authenticity, they still were practically useless. Then came the action - flapping, kicking, and gradually, crawling. Yet, those little booties, they never got dirty, and then came the pre-walkers, and finally, pairs of real shoes. And now, suddenly, it’s time for Shimanos, the easy-on-feet biker shoes. Well, I guess it’s routine for mothers to glorify every bit of progress their children make, and delight in all the fudge surrounding it - even if it’s something as flat as cleaning dirty shoes to a shine. Although I wonder if her shoes will get even half as dirty as my shoes did, when I was growing up in India, given that her playtime has been restricted to the confines of the house until now.

But with summer finally around the corner and the mercury soaring steadily, it’s time for haggard moms like myself to crack and track tot rock and toddler fun programs. It’s all very new to me, and curiously so. While I thought I was getting up to a good start at the onset of Spring, I was told off by a few park district centers, and with waiting lists now brimming over, I’m apparently only good enough to get on one of them. So while I wait it out to see if my little one can join in with other little gymnasts and water sport enthusiasts, my thoughts go drifting down to the summers of yesteryears, back home. I don’t recall my parents losing sleep over what I’d do in the summer, or any other turn of season. Summers were meant to be spent outdoors, feasting on succulent mangoes and cool melons, taking leisurely, free laps in the officers’ club pool, rolling in a grubby playground playing hopscotch, or “kho-kho,” or even hide and seek, as the sun sank unhurriedly. And with the resulting fatigue making way for hunger pangs, I’d be eating early dinners at neighbors’ homes, chasing a coy moon as it slipped behind feathery clouds, from wide open, balmy rooftops.

And then there were visits to aunts’ and grandparents’ houses, where a bunch of equally excited cousins would indulge one with fun activities, including, but not limited to, clambering up random trees, drinking tender coconut water from street-side vendors, and going on afternoon riding expeditions on vintage, grandfather bicycles. The only time our activities needed adult intervention was during a brawl or mishap. And of course, as the years rolled on and one grew older, when the good old holiday homework had to be dealt with, which, more often than not, comprised writing an essay on what had ensued, or how productively one had spent one’s holidays.

For now, I am stuck with making more enquiries about group toddler activities, scheduling play dates with some friendly neighborhood folks, and wondering what else I can do to get my little one to enjoy the summer. Of course, there are rounds of visits to parks, zoos, and houses of the few relatives and friends around --- all planned ahead, to the littlest detail. But no impulsive sprees, or wayside carousing activities to take her by surprise, and enthuse her curious mind.

Soon, she’s going to learn to see the joys of being independent, take charge of her choices, and ask to be enrolled in ballet, or say, ice-skating classes. Until then, I’m going to have to make do with prepping her up, and watching on, as she learns to make friends and feel belonged in the community. Parenting in these shores is wearying, but there are rewards, and they’re bigger than life. For instance, those little eyes that seek answers to everything on my face, they’re what keep me going - they wake me in the middle of the night, and boost me to shout hurray, enact teddy-bear-turn-around, or say, put my thoughts down like this.

Holi Smokes, Where’s the Hungama?

For someone who has never had the pleasure of understanding the true meaning of the Holi festival, and has only celebrated it for the love of cheer and all those myriad hues, it is further saddening that even those windows are not half as open out here. It’s not like I was any less of a cleanliness freak before, but I now wouldn’t dare stain the carpets with obstinate patches of color spills. Besides, if one counts the turmeric on my hands on any given routine day, one wouldn’t discount the marked presence of color in my life. But then, isn’t there more to Holi?

There are certain things one associates with all things desi. And most of them, rather than being culturally or ceremonially oriented, tend to point at Bollywood, by and large. Which desi in his or her true-spiritedness wouldn’t think of Big B’s famous “Rang Barse Bheege Chunarwaali Rang Barse…” during Holi? Okay, perhaps the Gen-X-ers (which, by no means hints at my seniority, or old age, by the way) will think of Shah Rukh’s “Ang se ang Lagana…” but the essence of Bollywood remains.

The only other things that come to mind during this festive season are my mom’s “obbattu” preparations (sweet bread stuffed with a cardamom-infused lentil and jaggery filling, for the uninitiated). Of course, the Hindu temples sell them, but the hurdles one must cross in order to get there are many --- snow and sleet, for one; besides, that magic ingredient, which only moms seem to know the abracadabra to, and all that love in the form of, say, dollops of butter on piping hot goodies will still be amiss. There’s no dearth of anything desi here, if one looks at it that way…but the microwaveable quality still doesn’t warm the foods in a way we’d like.

And so the festival of colors brought little color, so to speak, to my life this year, as any other. I watched forlornly as little children were tobogganing on the snowy landscape the play area has momentarily transformed into; some building snowmen, forts even, hurling little, fluffy, white blobs at each other. My thoughts went back in time to a place where, aside from friends, and neighbors who would come by with colors and sweets, one would even get accosted by complete strangers on the streets, with requests to daub a tiny blotch of red on one’s forehead --- a token of affection, as it were, from unknown people. There were no fears, no apprehensions; just a celebration of something that signified Indianness, and a friendly way of spreading cheer and touching people’s hearts. All this was often accompanied by related diversions, so to speak. If one went to the market, one would see wayside hustlers trying to push mixed colors, water squirts, sparkling vermillion sachets, and hordes of other oddments that insinuated color, and warmth.

Yet, Chicago did come alive this holi in its own special way. If a certain suburban storage facility got painted red, purple and blue, the premises of a Hindu temple were certainly not to be left behind --- visitors and devotees were allowed to play with colors for an hour, outside the temple, even as some of them chose to dance and make merry indoors. A “Holika Dahan” was apparently performed too, and many are said to have braved the chill to witness this annual event. Also, the Indian restaurants around town served their Holi specials, ranging from gujias, chaats, gol gappas, to the more colorful, layered, biryanis, alongside pista-almond-raisin speckled sweets. A well-known upscale bistro even mixed up some exclusive cocktails to make up for the missing “Bhang,” one of them, I hear, was even aptly called “Rang Barse,” which included three distinctly and vibrantly colored tequila shots.

I’m sure desis in the other Metros had their own courses to follow through to herald Spring. Perhaps, in certain clubs and cafés, DJs were mixing up tunes and beats that screamed “Holi Hai…” in unique ways; some unfinished basements were taking generous smudges of color from those who liked to keep the fun indoors; and elsewhere, a section of the hard-working busybees possibly returned home to don on their traditional attires and sport neat little “tilaks” on their foreheads, while also enjoying a fresh, home-cooked meal.

Whatever the case, even with St. Patrick’s Day looming, and the prospect of being able to witness a thawed, greened Chicago river, or leaves and buds that promise to burgeon forth, the nostalgia still lingers on. On a lighter note, maybe, just maybe, if Sholay-2 opens soon enough, complete with a recap of the “Holi ke Din…” number from the original, there is hope --- for color, and warmth, to be revived heartily.

Of Old Dons and New Dhooms

This one’s for the desis among us that crave the saas-bahu soaps and grumble about not having a dish connection – despair not. Help is well on its way, and it doesn’t even entail as much hard work as picking up and dropping off DVDs in neat little Net Flix packages. Nor does it require you to make a trip to your local India video rental shack. You can now watch select Star World programs right in the heated comfort of your own home --- a click on the mouse button is all it takes. Star World is offering a select set of programs for online viewing at a measly sum.

With the upsurge of piracy, the industry has been going haywire, trying to restore a balance of sorts between money spent and ROIs. One sees veteran bigwigs right from Shah Rukh Khan, down to edgy newcomers like Abhay Deol, urging the random public to refrain from buying pirated copies of their movies. But little do they know that the random public, so to speak, would rather not spend at all, and watch movies on shady, free-for-all websites.

For someone who was surprised at a serialized collection of Ramanand Sagar’s “Ramayan” alongside Ekta Kapoor’s “Kyon Ki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi,” at the local video store, the concept of “buying” an episode of Karan Johar’s “Koffee with Karan,” at the price of a gallon of milk online was rather astounding. But when I heard about the possibility of catching sneak peeks of the show, as many others, on You Tube at no cost, I was further astonished. Whether you want to watch Shah Rukh mesmerize his contestants on KBC with his evergreen charm, or catch up on a 15-second post-engagement video of Abhishek Bachhan and Aishwarya Rai, it’s all up there for free.

In the wake of all this, DVD rates have been slashed, and video rentals are now dishing out movies under special rent-to-own schemes. Gone are the days when one had to make do with the rare Filmfare magazine on the stands at a Patel’s store to catch up on filmi gupshup. As are the times when one had to queue up at the local Indian restaurant to watch a game of World Cup cricket alongside hordes of fellow desi cricket fanatics, on big screen television. With the internet and other technological advancements today, it is possible to get real time podcasts of events that pique our silver screen and general desi curiosities. Yet, it leaves one with a wistfulness, a longing for the golden times of yore. The tele-serials and movies that didn’t require heroines to parade in near-nothings in the frozen expanses of Antarctica; the villains (male) to sprout a jagged vein on their shiny foreheads each time they caught sight of heroes and heroines cuddling in evergreen New York parks; and if they’re female, to sport snaky ‘bindis’ slithering between stenciled black curves for eyebrows, to denote their contempt; mothers to conspire against their own children, or vice versa; and where simplicity was just the order of the day. DD was the prime television channel, and fillers like “Sooraj ek, chanda ek, taare anek,” produced by the Films Division of India, actually promoted a feeling of oneness that stretched beyond huddling up in front of a Dyanora television set in the community and cheering Gavaskar and his mates on as they wrung the life out of their opponents. Advertisements never came in the way of a “Hum Log” or a “Nukkad” run, and when they did, people really didn’t have too many choices --- Nirma was always up against Surf (sans Excel or Power); Hamam, against Lifebuoy; and Colgate, against Binaca.

With the number of media conduits today, advertising possibilities that seem larger than life, brands wars, a crazy bunch of desi paparazzi that won’t rest till they get an actress or actor to wash their dirty linen in public (or make it seem so), and alleged underworld connections to the big bad industry that brings to our eyes the glamour and glitz of the Manish Malhotras and Tarun Tahilianis, and to our ears, the reverberating rhythm of the Rahmans and Shankar-Ehsan-Loys, it shouldn’t be surprising if the “Abhiwarya” wedding gets reduced to a complimentary mpeg file. Of course, Shilpa Shetty has stolen their thunder for now, but it won’t be long before the ex-Miss World and current-Mr. Bollywood Badshah fire up the Jaipur Palace, or more appropriately, our very own blackberry screens, with their sensational nuptials. While I go back to pining for the Buniyaads of the old Dons and marveling at the new Dhooms, do buzz me for when that actually ensues.