Chicago Blues

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

Location: Chicago, United States

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Pots, Pans and a Kadhai-full of Memories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Armchair Philanthropy vs. Authentic Altruism

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

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

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

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

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

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