Des Mera Rangreziya Babu

Part I. Maybe a part II follows, maybe not. Need to buy a notebook first if it were to.

Before anyone from the west reads this and takes it as my disparaging views on India. Please keep in mind I was born and raised there. So use this as a forewarning if you will, before you plan a trip and want to see the real India. Or anything westerners call “third world” for that matter. Do yourself a favor and find someone like me that you know is from India and has family there. Actually, better yet and more accessible to most, watch Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. All thirteen seasons of it to get a sense. It’s all romantic until one has to slum it out with us natives in the second class train compartment. You can’t just show up in India like you would in Paris or Rome and have a great experience. India is like James Joyce’s Ulysses. Its painful, its excruciating at times, maddening most of the time but if you stick with it (and why would I want to, one may ask?) you will be rewarded. To the question “why would I want to?” I can only say, you don’t. There’s plenty of places in the world you don’t have to be sitting in a room with no electricity typing away on a laptop your views the first three days you’ve been really back after a long hiatus.

The first thing that hits you as someone else, Mark Tully I believe wrote, are the smells and the heat. The smell of raw sewage, sweaty bodies beaten down by life and the heat, humidity, the dust, and of course the glorious smell of food. And this in a town at the foothills of the Nilgiri Mountains that forms part of the famed Wesetrn Ghats of India.
So here are some observations on my three days here thus far, in no particular order.

Indian expatriates in the west, especially in the US get their noses all upturned at how these people hold minimum wage jobs and can’t afford the Christmas presents they buy for their loved ones but yet go into so much debt every holiday season. Yeah. I thought of that when I was sitting in a store chock full of Kumaran Thanga Maligai and Sridevi Silks Deepavali shoppers as the mother and aunt were shopping for some clothes that ancient customs dictate need to be bought for the close ones of a recently deceased relative: mother, daughter, sisters sisters in law, granddaughter etc. The ancient customs that dictated that (Manu shastra maybe) and likely have no bearing or meaning in modern life as we know it in 2018.

Speaking of useless ancient customs. One other contraption I’ve seen south Indian people wear is the ubiquitous molathadu. The word literally means in Telugu, string worn on the waist. The only damn practical implementation of the thing I could ever think of was back in the day when the ol’ veshti was the de facto clothing of choice for most south Indian men. When it could be used to secure the veshti because the western concept of a belt hadn’t yet arrived in India. That or some supernatural powers in that string that helps with performance down there. Although, I have to say, I haven’t worn one since I was, I think six and I can’t put any diminished performance in that department specifically to have not worn the molathadu. You’d have to check with the wife on that though. Because, like most Indian men I have only been sexually active with one woman and the poor woman has nothing to compare against. So I must be the best because I’ve been the only one. So when I see tens of children of south Indian descent dutifully wearing their speedos or swim trunks taking swim lessons at the Frisco, TX public pools with said molathadu secured above their speedos or swim trunks, I wonder. I wonder what that thing is for. I’m ever more convinced it has to do with being well endowed or not down there. I would know, trust me.

Of course the guy that was fine waiting in line all the way from Dubai to Chennai all of a sudden found his Indian-ness and cut the line while three of us were waiting in the customs line. Until I called him out and asked:

“Hey! Where are you going? You see the three of us here? Standing in line? Got here before you? Why’re you special?”

He goes “Oh I thought she called my name.”

“Oh she did. Did she now? How does she know your name? Last I checked you were holding your passport and she just said “NEXT”.

All he could do was roll his eyes and go “You go saar please”. To which I said “I don’t need to go anywhere first. See that gentleman? He was here first. So thanks for standing in line.”

Then there’s the kid. I mean kid is a relative term, getting frustrated because the ticket agent was taking a long time to change my ticket from MAA to CJB from 6:00 the following morning to 11:00 the night before. Because, god help me, I was trying to make doubly sure I could make my uncle’s funeral. A man that was like an older brother to me. I looked him square in the eye and said “Dude, I’m sorry its taking a while.”
To which he replied “I am going to miss my engagement tomorrow.”

I couldn’t hold my sarcasm any longer and said “Well, someone died. So you think that’s a real emergency?”

What I wanted to say was this:

I’m sure if there’s a poor girl out there that’s waiting to be engaged to your esteemed self she’ll wait a day longer. So hang tight my friend. You’ll get to Kolkata eventually. And if that poor unsuspecting girl still wants to marry you, she’ll be waiting.

Let me stop before my curmudgeonly self negates all the good vibes and positive thoughts my previous post generated where I paid tribute to a man that was like an older brother to me.

Thanks for reading if you still are after this.

Lakshman Hariharan
Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu 10/19/18

P.S. This is news to most Indian men I know. The condoms they sell as “large” out here are really medium small elsewhere. So make what you will of that when you turn up your nose on the other culture-less people.

Is This How A Broken Heart Feels

This, I imagine is what a broken heart feels like.

My heart is heavy. They’re dropping on me, people I love, one after the other and there’s not a damn thing I can do. There’s a method to this madness I suppose. God works in mysterious ways they tell me. Words,the ones that usually come easy are deserting me in this state of mind I cannot justifiably explain.

The first early season tender coconut water, the soanpapdi from the jingle jangle push carts with those treasures under that magical plexiglass  — and often times real glass ones, at least the vendors that were worth their salt — egg shaped dome. You’d hand the vendor 25 paisa and he would slide that small door to the dome to the side and give you a few ounces of that fluffy melt in your mouth magic in a piece of old newspaper. The piece of sweet would be gone in less than the time it took to get it from the newspaper to your mouth. None of the hardened ghee infused pistachio and saffron enhanced flavors for these guys. Only the real stuff, just as god intended them to be eaten. Then we waited again, for the next vendor to show at the street. The soanpapdi so sweet and colored such a pristine white that until I grew to be twenty four and saw real snow that was I assumed snow looked (and tasted) like. One could get a small ice cream cone’s worth wrapped in a torn piece of old newspaper, even the boiled nalakadalai wrapped in small pieces of newspapers or elandhavadais, the cambarcats, the bus rides in the #5 bus from Gandhipuram. The Lakshmi vedis and the bottle rockets, the scrounging of unexploded crackers from the night before the day after Deepavali…I could go on and on.. The first ‘gedda”, one of those paper planes made of color paper that would instantly transport you to the stratosphere among the popular kids in the class.. Without Ramesh mama’s expertise I couldn’t even tear the papers the right way, let alone fly them. Growing up he was my role model for a few formative years. One just had to ask the question what I wanted to do when I grew up :“Work for MG Brothers Lorry service Obviously” came the pat reply. Because that’s where he worked. Until I grew up and decided to do see what career paths lay ahead,  Ramesh Mama’s dabbling sounded perfect for an inquisitive young child. The stuff was exciting, one week he’d be fixing and selling Remington typewriters, another season he’d be a carpenter and it was furniture and interior décor. Then it was delivering and selling milk. In his inimitable style on that TVS Suzuki moped, with the lungi raised over his knees so it doesn’t get caught in the chains. Never a dull moment. I just followed whatever it is that he did because it was so cool. More than an uncle he was the older brother that I never had. His jaanvasam car was the fist one I rode the tailgate of and oh what a thrill it was.

Waiting to board my Dubai to Madras flight I  walked into a duty free shop for things to buy for loved ones. My throat got lumpy and my eyes welled up when I realized that the only person I buy something for every single trip to India; someone I loved for to really have those things wont be around to enjoy them anymore.

My first Kamal padam, Rajini blockbuster, matinee, first show, second show. And the inevitable muttai -bajji (hiding it from my grandmother and other vegetarians in the family) right before walking into the Ganga Yamana Cavery theater, the Karpagam Complex. My sister and I (her more than I) grew up with our grandmother a few years of our childhood, in Coimbatore. And experienced the magic of summer vacations with the cousins, but Ramesh Mama’s bucktooth comedy routine beat anything that was on offer.

How can I forget the trip to Ooty where it rained and drank the best tea in the whole world under a cigarette stall and tree as a shelter? Ramesh mama, Mahesh, Uma Aunty, Achu and I. I still remember it like it was yesterday.

Those days our military man father had a distant, larger than life persona we never go to see except during family gatherings. When we did see him he had the aura of a military man and all the respect one instinctively felt in his presence

Ramesh mama and my mother’s mother, that strongest of strong matriarch of the family Kamala, had no strong financial means  at the time but somehow managed to get me admitted into the best high school in the city by using the little influence he could, despite my grades and performance.

That was the kind of man he was and the man I aspire to be: reliable and always present for his family and siblings in particular. The rock that the family can lean on.  I Know his sisters will terribly mourn him and there are no words in any language that can possibly assuage this incredible loss, All my mother had do was to make a call and he would drop everything, literally everything he was doing to be on her side to help no matter what the ask. We could count on him to take care of our mother like not even her own kids could. If she was traveling so much for an overnight trip he would be by her side helping her pack her bags. He shared a bond with his siblings and my mother especially that I am envious of and hope to emulate. I will always remember in my heart and carry to my grave your witticisms and spirit. The Vada Coimbatore station will miss you more than any of us. Rest in peace brother. You have no idea how much we’ll miss you especially Chitra, talking to you at least twice a day.

Everytime I look a bag for travel or every time I see that buck toothed smile I will have to suppress some tears,

Rest In Peace my friend and uncle. You lived a life most of us would be proud to have. A loving husband father, grandfather  son and brother taken too soon from us.

As I’ve uttered this a few times, I’m writing this with a heart that feels its about twenty pounds heavier and is about to break into a million pieces so forgive the typos and the poor excuse of grammar. Thanks for reading.

Lakshman Hariharan
10/17/18. DXB

War

Its a shitty business. War is. Last night I was reading Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell; his experiences on the front during the Spanish Civil War. The experiences that would go on to shape many of his views on totalitarianism in the future and eventually result in the modern classics Nineteen Eighty Four and Animal Farm. As I was reading it, for some reason my mind drifted to a trip my son and I took to Washington D.C. this summer. To Reagan airport specifically, where I saw, while waiting to board the plane, a man wearing a t-shirt that said:

Back to Back World War Champions

He was referring to America’s victories, in World War I and World War II I suppose. Both wars in which America played a decisive influence and without which it is certainly doubtful whether the allies would have been successful. It does behoove us to remember, though, that by the time the United States entered the war the Russians or the erstwhile Soviet Union rather, had lost untold millions. And the siege of Stalingrad was yet to follow. The total deaths of the Soviet Union in World War II are said to be 27 million. The British had been at war with Nazi Germany for three years before the United States officially entered the war. The combined death tolls  for the United States and the United Kingdom? 800,000.  While I am fully aware of the sacrifices made by that generation; that when the bugle call came, farm boys from Iowa, city hands from New York and young men of all stripes everywhere signed up to fight Nazi tyranny, it helps keep things in perspective and how the war is viewed in different parts of the world.

One other fact–and this is personal for me because of where I was born and raised —  that also goes mostly unmentioned in any historical account of the war is the  total number of Indians dead. 2.2 million. The tragic part? 2.1 million of those deaths were a direct result of famine caused by Churchill’s policies; when he thought it prudent to hoard food for the British troops on the front line. The even more tragic part? The stockpiles were overflowing with surplus grain that the troops didn’t need. Wheat and other grains that could have saved millions of lives. Food he refused to divert to famine stricken Bengal in spite of innumerable pleas from Indian leaders. Lives that were deemed inferior and thus dispensable by Churchill; the hero of the twentieth century in most Westerners’ eyes, the greatest Briton that ever lived, according to most Britishers.

While we are on the topic of World War II, if there is one work and only one work you will read about World War II to understand everything that happened leading up to, during and the end of the war — Versailles to Hiroshima —  I would recommend The Winds of War and its sequel War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk. There is a character in that book; a German general who writes his memoir of  the war while awaiting trial after the war. A book within a book. Kind of a loosely fictionalized version of The Rommel Papers. In that memoir the fictional general writes, of Hitler’s desire for lebensraum (living space) for his ever expanding Reich as he invaded Russia. The fictional general draws quite a compelling parallel about India being Britain’s lebensraum. “Russia is our India”, he writes, solely to be used for resources, the people; the inferior Slavic race as the Nazis considered them, for slave labor and the land for living space.  Kind of like India was to Britain.

Returning to the gentleman in the t-shirt at Reagan airport; Kurt Vonnegut, in his wartime classic memoir Slaughterhouse Five writes that the only people who are enthusiastic about war are the ones that have never fought in one. That would explain why Cadet Bone Spurs has to rub one out every time he hears the word missile. So, I was irritated, that’s the best word I can use to describe my feeling, when I saw that man wearing that shirt and wondered to myself whether he had ever been to war ? If he has, then hasn’t he seen the misery wrought upon by it to be so naive? Perhaps he hasn’t. I have never been to war but as part of some service work I’ve been performing I have had the chance to visit a behavioral health clinic that houses many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Veterans makes it sound like they are old or at least middle aged men and women. The handful of men and women I met were mostly barely adults, in their early twenties, if that. They were all there partly for treatment for PTSD as a result of their deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan and partly for other issues.

The historian James McPherson, in his book on the Civil War Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era writes that a common refrain among confederate soldiers was that it was a rich man’s war but a poor man’s battle. That could probably be said of most wars I think. The singer songwriter Steve Earle, in his song Ben McCulloch, narrating (or singing) the story as a soldier in the confederacy under General McCulloch’s command, sings:

I killed a boy the other night
Who had never even shaved
I don’t even know what I’m fighting for
I ain’t never owned a slave

The song starts like this:

We signed up in San Antone, my brother Paul and me
To fight with Ben McCulloch and the Texas infantry
Well the poster said we’d get a uniform and seven bucks a week
The best rations in the army and a rifle we could keep

One of the most haunting poignant anti-war songs you will ever hear is the ballad The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, sung by Shane McGowan of The Pogues. Singing about an Australian conscript in World War I thrown into the hell that was Gallipoli he sings:

We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter
Johnny Turk he was ready, he primed himself well
He chased us with bullets, he rained us with shells
And in five minutes flat he’d blown us all to hell
Nearly blew us right back to Australia
But the band played Waltzing Matilda
As we stopped to bury our slain
We buried ours and the Turks buried theirs
Then we started all over again

It continues:

Now those that were left, well we tried to survive
In a mad world of blood, death and fire
And for ten weary weeks I kept myself alive
But around me the corpses piled higher
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over tit
And when I awoke in my hospital bed
And saw what it had done, Christ I wished I was dead
Never knew there were worse things than dying

And the concluding paragraph:

And now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me
And I watch my old comrades, how proudly they march
Reliving old dreams of past glory
And the old men march slowly, all bent, stiff and sore
The forgotten heroes from a forgotten war
And the young people ask, “What are they marching for?”
And I ask myself the same question

I would recommend one give a listen to that song, the Shane McGowan rendition. It brought a lump to my throat the first time I heard it. Gallipoli, incidentally happens to be the other great, acknowledged Churchill blunder.

So almost thirteen hundred words later, what is my point you ask? The one I started off with. War is a shitty business. And that no one in their right mind should be glorifying it.

Thanks for reading.

Lakshman Hariharan,
09/30/2018 Prosper, TX.