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India

7 '95 In Which Our Hero Faces Exterme Peril viz. The Family.

Day 0: Return to Paradise

On the flight, the plan was to try and visit the flight deck, and then ask to sit in on the approach. Visitation attempts: 0 for 3. But I did find the secret of IC travel: drink early, drink often.

Arriving, I felt like weeping. Why does everyone seem so unhappy? Why are these people (lounging around, doing nothing) so unfriendly? If I were a tourist visiting India for the first time, I would be daunted. I joined the passport control queue. When I get to the counter, yet another unfriendly official; and this one being an immigration official, I suppose his guild prevented him (just like immigration officials anywhere in the world) from showing any human emotion whatsoever. I kept having to say to myself: ``You are not trying to sneak into the country. You are a citizen. This is YOUR country. There is nothing he can do to you.'' but somehow it was still nerve-racking. (And as usual I felt like apologising to the tourists.)

There was the visitor's gallery upstairs, but behind tinted glass--I couldn't see a thing. But I knew that if I were to not wave, Mom would be very hurt so I just turned, paused, and then waved furiously. (After a while, I even caught sight of them.) Then I discovered that the two streams--visitors to the terminal and travellers--are kept separate, so I have to leave the building before meeting them. The humidity hit me like a solid wall, and I reeled. This at 2 am! And no sign of the parents.

However, the usual gauntlet of cabbies now surrounded me. I concentrated, and refused their offers in Hindi (amazing what you can do under extreme stress--it all came back to me, in a native accent even), which took care of most of them. Some of the more earnest ones still persisted though, and I explained to these gentlement that my parents were going to pick me up. One continued ``Well, if they don't show up, what are you going to do? Why not come in my cab?'' I explained that I had in fact seen them in the visitor section, and his services would not be required. He finally left me alone, although not without dire warnings about what might happen if they didn't show up.

10 minutes later, still no sign of the parental units. Well, no point in sweltering, I should go and wait inside the building, I thought. A burly security guard had other ideas--he stopped me and told me to go around to the visitor section. I did that, to find that there is a fee--Rs. 10. And I have no rupees! What the hell do I do now... just then I noticed Chubby, standing inside, looking excpectantly towards the interior of the building towards customs. A loud shout (drawing stern looks from the cops) finally attracted their attention. Exchange of pleasantries and off we go!

Now for the traffic. The first disconcerting fact: no seatbelts. Second: the amount of traffic, all chaotic. The speeds: 65kph (40mph) on the highway. And the distances are all so small! Dhaula Kuan to home is only 6km? Hmmm.

Then back in good old Prasad Nagar and all the haunts of my childhood. ``Zounds, the streets certainly are narrow!'' is my overriding thought. Just about wide enough for 1 lane... if it hadn't been for the cars parked on both sides! A totally happy-go-lucky attitude to parking--just leave the car anywhere there's a reasonable amount of room. Reasonable in this case meaning around 6'' on all sides... And then another shock: on TV, what do I find but: Beverly Hills 90345912...! the OJ trial! AAagh, CNN strikes again. But at least they also had The Simpsons....

Day 1

Up at 6:45 am before everyone else, I finally got a chance to look around. The house looks like an antique shop, with the ethnic furniture and sundry objets d'art . (A small shop, but a shop nonetheless.) Outside, it reconfirmed my initial suspicion: everything was so small! The streets--so narrow! the bus stop--so close! the visibility--so poor! the heat--not so bad, actually. Or was I getting used to it? But also a welcome sight: the newspaper. A real newspaper, at last! With a real cryptic crossword. But no Tour de France coverage--I suppose we must take the rough with the smooth.

It turned out that Chubby was in town on one of his frequent trips home from the air base. Mom had decided to take a couple of days off work (to celebrate both sons being back, I suppose) and started trying to fatten me up. The food was wonderful but in that heat I just couldn't think of eating.

The heat was not just ever present, it was the central focus of life itself. To spice things up a bit, the electricity keeps going out. The ancient Chinese would have approved of this modern form of torture--one never knows when they will strike next! Surprise is our only weapon! Fear and surprise. Everyone assures me that this is not normal--the rains have apparently been delayed but the humidity rolls in on schedule. (This is also the topic of endless cartoons in the paper with the butt of the joke being the meteorologist.)

And then Chubby dropped his little bombshell--wedding plans! One of his Air Force buddies, ex- Delhi College of Engg., radar specialist; with the date set for later that month! To top it all, she's a Hindu; a north Indian Brahmin. Ah, kids today... . Good for you, I say; but Mom's reaction was apparently shock and despair. The shame, the horror! I decided to play the rôle of longhair liberal to the hilt and scoffed at her concerns. She wasn't really shocked at the thought of him marrying a Hindu, though; I think her main concern was what her father would say. She then gave me a nasty shock: when I visit the grandparents (and the rest of The Fmaily) in Mangalore, I was to be the one to tell them! At the time I laughed lightly (I might even say with delight) but little did I realise what peril I was in.

In the evening, saw Rinku [old friend]. Plus ça changé! All married and respectable, with a 6-month old daughter, and making travel documentaries for a living. Luckily, underneath it all he was still the same guy. After dinner he took me ``cruising.'' Culture Shock city! The traffic is truly insane! Motorcycles and scooters zipping along with headlights off! Apparently they believe that you burn less gas with lights off. Lanes--what are those? Amazaing inflation too... 4 ice-creams and it's 60 bucks. Casual talk of CD players in the thousands. Ye gods!

Travels with My Grandfather

My journey to see the grandparents (and break the news) started out pleasantly enough. I had decided to stop in Bombay for a couple of days and see dear old Bubu and also visit IIT (where I had been an undergraduate). The flight to Bombay was also quite pleasant, and the terminals were much nicer than the international one. (Either that, or I was adapting.) Bombay was much cooler too, and lovely heavy rains.

Bombay

Bubu is such a darling! It was wonderful seeing her again after 9 years. So much has happened to each of us but we were still as close as ever. There was an excellent view from the apartment and we just sat around all day looking out over the city through rain showers. The second day we went to the IIT campus and I took her to see my room. My misty-eyed nostalgia was interrupted by Bubu: ``The campus is so beautiful! But man, these hostels! They're so poky and disgusting!'' Ah, Women! Of course I'm madly in love with her.

We did have a bit of an adventure when we first got to IIT. The Main Gate was closed! I told the guy to just boldy drive on, and voilà! the gatekeeper opened it and we went triumphantly through... only to have our way blocked by a security guy (or, as we liked to call them, screwty). What in the name of Jove was going on? Actual security at the gate? He wanted to know where we were thinking of going.

``I'm going to my hostel, of course! And these are my friends.''

``So you're a student here?''

``Yes.'' (Do we ever stop being students? No, for we are always learning. And I was sure I'd learn something that day in IIT.)

``Ok, show me your identity card.''

Damn! ``Er... I forgot to bring it.''

``Well, you know you're supposed to have it in your possession at all times when on campus.... Ok, I'll let you go in today. But next time...''

It was lovely to see how little the place had changed. We went up to Vihar lake (past another guard box--jesus, this place was like a war zone!--luckily unoccupied) and walked around for a bit before heading back. On the way back, we were stopped by the same guard. He wanted to know where we were going (``Damn, we need a clearance to leave too?'' and ``Should have gone to the Y-Point gate instead'' were the two thoughts uppermost in my mind). When we told him, he asked if we could give this other guy a lift! Well, sure, why not.

It turned out that our passenger was the deputy chief of security or something. And with him, he had a letter of transit for the pipeline road! (The major water supply of Bombay are these reservoirs in the hills north of the town, and Lake Vihar is one of them. The water is carried in five huge pipelines, and there's a maintenance road that runs alongside. Strictly off-limits, but that was one of our favourite haunts in college.... ah the times we've been chased off that road.) Apparently the land the pipelines were built on belongs to IIT, and IIT staff could get authorisation to travel on the road. Of course since it was not open to the public there were no potholes, and no traffic.

Further on, we drove through the Aarey Milk Farms which is a toll road; again, it was actually maintained, and there was almost no traffic. The Farms themselves are lovely--the place is run more like a nature preserve, and with it being the rainy season the place was wonderfully lush.

Later we went out to dinner at a pretty good chinese restaurant. The food was not too bad but the service was astounding! It's the only place I've been in where the waiters actually know what you want before you do, and do it for you. A very fine way to end a superb visit. I wish I'd had more time to spend hanging out with Bubu, but it was time to meet my fate.

Mangalore

After that, on to Mangalore where Grandpa has been in hospital for 10 days. He sprained his back, and the doctors told him to go home and exercise, but he insisted on staying! He agreed to go home that day so my plan is to wait till we're home, and then after dinner break it to him. I start to soften him up according to instructions: tell them you're prepared to consider an arranged marriage, Mom said. Felt rather like Faust. (I hope Chubby appreciates all that I did for him!)

But it was not to be: that oaf on an uncle, who I'd already told on the way to the hospital, goes and blabs, in the worst way possible. At the worst possible time, with all these distant relatives (who'd showed up to see Grandpa in hospital) present. With all the wailing and beating of breasts that was going on, I had to get out--decided to go to my uncle's house for lunch.

The rest of the trip was just hell. *Everyone* treats it as though it were some calamity that had befallen the clan, something like ``Gas explosion slays six''--``We never thought Chubby would be the one to do something like this!'' the implication there being, I suppose, that I was the one they'd expected to do this sort of dastardly deed and disgrace the family. Long patronising discussions about how I must marry a Muslim, any Muslim. Why should I be any happier with, say, a woman from Iran, than with a Delhi-ite Hindu from IIT?

The true realisation of the peril I'd been in came much later, in Poona among reasonable people. That was when I realised how close I'd been to accepting their premise. If they could have that sort of effect on me in 3 days, what would a week--or a month--do? I'd probably be married by then. (Even with the 3 days they had, they wanted me to look at some girls. Sort of like going shopping, except I'm the one on sale with the current price being $300,000 or so.) I'm definitely not going back there till I'm safely married. Present them with a fait accompli, as it were.

Poona was such a refreshing change. Mom and Dad solidly for the good guys--three cheers for the parental units!--and the squadron a solid phalanx of support for Chubby. Ceremony at 11:40 am (mild fracas caused by last-minute appearance of her father - who was still very opposed to the whole thing--throwing a tantrum and showing up late, and then refusing to speak to anyone including his daughter... he and Grandpa should get together some time!). A hearty lunch and then dinner followed.

Everything went off rather smoothly. Deepa seems a very nice woman, so I gave her my favourite green fleece jacket. (Chubby had already taken most of my other clothes... he seems to have this strange power over the family--he also has the TV, VCR and stereo that used to be at home) Bride and groom safely on their way to Goa for the honeymoon, we returned to Delhi.

Seen now from a safe distance of 15,000 miles that trip to Mangalore seems like a dimly remembered nightmare, and something quaintly humourous. But every now and then I remember what it felt like, and I still shiver!

The last week

After having been gone for a week and then returning to Delhi, I was almost in a state of nervous collapse thinking of the traffic. I saw an amazing number of accidents, and the pollution was really starting to get to me too. Everytime I had to venture out in a vehicle I'd start getting a tight feeling in the chest, a racing pulse and fear. Just thinking of it would start the process. Quite bizarre.

Highlight of the trip: Mother-son relations reached a new high! When I went with her for some shopping, we talked of where to lunch; and she said ``Why don't we go to ... [forgot the name of the restaurant], you can have beer there.'' Amazing! (This was one of those intelligentsia hangouts--we ran into Mira Nair [director, Salaam Bombay and Mississippi Masala] and Protima Bedi [classical dancer].)

I decided that armed with the mighty dollar as I was, I might as well go to Calcutta and visit Paromita... safe in the knowledge (or perhaps gossip is the right word) that she has a guy. And it will also be nice to see Krish again. Krish was very much the executive, huge office, wife, child etc. but Paromita was still the same person... in a somewhat eerie way. In that perhaps there was still some of that old feeling? This relationship she's in seems to be rather destructive: the guy is apparently some sort of psycho (``but it's ok, so am I'', she says) and they have a very stormy life. Occasional violence too... and a few years ago, she was hospitalised after a nervous breakdown and some suicide attempts. Yikes!

It was very nice to see that we still got along so well, inspite of not having been in touch for 5 years or so... we have both changed, but the strange thing was how much we'd changed in the same ways. It was a nice way to end a very pleasant trip. But a little chilling... she said that the one day I was there was ``the best day of the last nine years.''

(Pleasant except for the trip to Mangalore, of course. And the traffic and heat.)


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Copyright © 1995,1996 by Shamim Mohamed.