Growing up meme

From here.

Did you do what you were told when you were young, or did you rebel?

We had it easy. Mom wasn’t Hammurabi. We had latitude and free reign, but rebel I did, raging (ha!) against conformity and uniformity (societal) for a while. My cringe period, ladies and gentlemen. There was some edict about haircuts and new clothes, but that wasn’t enforced after thirteen, as prearranged. I was a veritable brand ambassador, straining the family budget to flaunt authentic jeans (which I’d then tear up or defile with indelible ink, but that story has already been told.) It amuses me that the Chinese counterfeit Levi’s 501 I wear now are only one-third the price I paid twenty years ago, and that’s not factoring in inflation. The humanity! I sent money home yesterday, part of the ever-ongoing atonement. I add a secondary layer to my donning deceptive denim by labeling it a political statement against mediocre boilerplate modern art. Go figure.

What did your childhood bedroom look like?

A 14” Toshiba TV missing a couple primary colors, the table it perched on, two wooden chairs, a combination bookshelf/trinket ledge, attic with wooden crossbeams from where I could hear rats scurrying at night, and the inevitable calendar on the wall in which I’d check the phases of the Moon. This rented house with the tamarind tree infested with hairy “itch worms” and the mango tree neighborhood girls liked to climb was where I was born and featured in dreams well into my twenties. We moved to our own three-storied (including basement garage) air-conditioned marvel with the harmonica-shaped TV antenna when I was 13, and I had my own bedroom with posters of choice, music system, and home computer, and I’d lie listening to Bruce Hornsby reading Sagan late into the night. Two decades later, things are more or less the same. My rags-to-riches wife accuses this opulent upbringing to all my character flaws.

Are there foods, smells, songs or sounds that bring back memories of childhood for you?

gothambu puttu, ozhichu koottan (vellakkari (not madamma)), netholi fry, vellari maanga, ari nellikka, Sip-Up, Big Fun, Nestlé milk powder, barbecued cassava, baked arrowroot, thin breadfruit chips, etc.

Ponds Dreamflower, green Cinthol, Pears, Mysore Sandal (apparently, I spent all my girlhood in the bathroom), lemongrass, damp hay, dislodged moss, burning leaves, etc.

Songs. Ha! I just have to list my “Most Played” column on Winamp.

The clink of chains of an elephant walking by, grind of bullock-cart wheels, soldiers marching early in the morning (we lived a kilometer from the Pangode military camp), ice-cream man’s bell, whirr of the yellow Cessna in the sky, etc.

What is something you often did on Sundays when you were growing up?

Have kanji and potato fries (Sunday special), watch the fare on TV, and run to the fields and ponds to torture lower vertebrates.
  • Current Mood: need a bath
  • Current Music: Envelopes - Sister in Love

The Quiet World by Jeffrey McDaniel

The Quiet World

In an effort to get people to look
into each other’s eyes more,
the government has decided to allot
each person exactly one hundred
and sixty-seven words, per day.

When the phone rings, I put it
to my ear without saying hello.
In the restaurant I point
at chicken noodle soup. I am
adjusting well to the new way.

Late at night, I call my long
distance lover and proudly say
I only used fifty-nine today.
I saved the rest for you.

When she doesn’t respond, I know
she’s used up all her words
so I slowly whisper I love you,
thirty-two and a third times.
After that, we just sit on the line
and listen to each other breathe.

—Jeffrey McDaniel

A poem


Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive
“Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!”—
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
who wrote “Don’t be a ninny”
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls “Metaphor” next to a stanza of Eliot’s.
Another notes the presence of “Irony”
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
hands cupped around their mouths.
“Absolutely,” they shout
to Duns-Scotus and James Baldwin.
“Yes.” “Bull’s-eye.” “My man!”
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written “Man vs. Nature”
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird singing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page—
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of more often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

a few greasy smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil—
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet—
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”

—Billy Collins

Incontrovertible proof

Capricorn (astrology)

Capricorn (astrology), tenth sign of the zodiac, symbolized by a mountain goat. Astrologers believe that people whose birthdays fall between December 22 and January 19 are born under the sun sign of Capricorn. The planet Saturn rules Capricorn, which is an earth sign.

According to astrologers, Capricorns have responsible, disciplined, practical, methodical, cautious, serious, and sometimes pessimistic natures. Capricorns believe that anything worth having is worth working hard for, and they assign the highest value to things won through the hardest work. Typical Capricorns are aloof and shy, sometimes even awkward, because they stay so focused on responsibility. To them life is serious business, and they sometimes have difficulty relaxing and having fun. Because of this, Capricorns may be lonely.

Astrologers believe that Capricorns respect power, authority, structure, tradition, and old things whose value and durability are tested by time. Capricorns are ambitious, and they typically are not satisfied unless they have reached a level of power and authority. They have a deep need for security, especially financial, and often will work very hard to get rich. Professions traditionally associated with Capricorn include banking; government, big business, and other situations with power hierarchies; mining; farming; and construction.

Gemini (astrology)

Gemini (astrology), the third sign of the zodiac, symbolized by twins. Astrologers consider people whose birthdays fall between May 21 and June 21 to be born under the sun sign of Gemini. The planet Mercury, named after the ancient Roman messenger god, rules Gemini, which is an air sign.

According to astrologers, Geminis tend to be quick-witted, changeable, talkative, versatile, and sometimes crafty or mischievous. Geminis are known for their ability to express themselves, and are witty, clever, and often well-read. They usually have something to say about everything. Astrologers believe that typical Geminis have highly developed intellects, and that they place greater importance on learning than on emotional or practical issues. However, they consider Geminis to be so clever that they can give the impression of deep emotion or of the practicality of their desires.

Astrologers believe Geminis have the ability, and often the need, to do more than one thing at a time. Geminis are so interested in everything that they get bored easily and often cannot resist moving on to the next subject, tendencies which can make them seem shallow and fickle. Professions associated with the sign Gemini include teaching, journalism, publishing, sales, and other professions that require verbal skills and flexibility.

Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia 2004. ©1993-2003 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.
Uncanny, isn’t it?
  • Current Mood: star-crossed
  • Current Music: R.E.M. - The End Of The World As We Know It

The interjector of maladies

Winter’s last lap brings bracing cold at dusk and dawn, and cool daytimes for the populace to bask in the lukewarm Sun. This is spring in the desert. The tiny garden at the antique shop downstairs blooms in all its (morning) glory—miniature bushes bursting with yellow, pink, and violet blossoms—a small slice of Swiss valley amidst the concrete wilderness. I keep forgetting to bring my camera to work. I have a PDA and a cellphone with advanced reminder functions. Pearls before swine, garland to a gibbon, … you get the idea. I’ll have to snap it up before the flowers wilt.

A bone-dry atmosphere with the only moisture a twice-yearly rain or atypical hailstorm makes one gaze longingly at puddles left from car washes. Riyadh is depressingly far off from the ocean and thus lacks an accessible beach, relative humidity, and fresh seafood. Fish bought frozen from the market lacks the familiar home flavor. I prefer canned tuna heated up in corn oil, with a dash of masala—an excellent complement to dry chapatis.

At Kovalam, I had fried barracuda caught fresh and served in massive chunks, along with beer in white porcelain mugs, watching the sky grow dark over a tangerine horizon, as twinkling lights from distant fishing fleets came into view. The ceaseless pulsing swoosh of the ocean rolling in and out of a sandy shore has much-celebrated soothing qualities. It’s true. Sitting in the sand warmed by the setting Sun, trying to squeeze the beach between your toes and fingers, listening to the white noise and gulls, and watching the Moon come up is better than a whole bottle of Prozac. Cheaper too.

Wait, I got distracted from the main theme. Was there a main theme? I am sure you wouldn’t have realized, but I had something else to talk about when I started. Yes, I was talking of moisture, or rather, the lack of it. The chill, dehydration, and hot water baths with Cusson’s Imperial Leather transformed my skin to dandruffy rawhide that itched like hell. Mathematically,
Cold weather − humidity + lathering soap + hot water = dry flaking skin + (itch)n
I had always been thankful for my low-maintenance skin compared to my cousins’ leathery exteriors, who expended tons of Nivea, Pond’s, and Vaseline daily just to be publicly presentable. My gloating days are over. Like them, I was on a surface diet of creams and lotions, just to keep me from scratching myself like a mangy baboon. Then I rediscovered Dove soap. Folks, if you think you are flaky or going to pieces, try Dove. That filmy feel I had detested earlier is now my best friend. I itch no more; my hands are free to fashion marble masterpieces, pen soul-stirring poetry, create delectable French cuisine, excise difficult brain tumors, fly supersonic aircraft, play Nintendo, throw Frisbee, and even type out ridiculous journal entries. And all thanks to a wonderful product called Dove. Three cheers to Dove! Dove for mayor! Yeah! If only the Lever company would pay endorsement fees.

Do things happen in phases? Or does the human mind categorize experiences into distinct segments? I am sure it’s the latter. The universe is indifferent and it’s random chaos out there. I mention phases because I haven’t been perfectly healthy since I returned from my vacation; there’s always some bug messing me up. I might look back on this as my “sick phase.” Last night I went to bed with an itchy eyelid and woke up with a full-blown sty—proud owner of a very eye-catching Genghis Khanesque epicanthic fold. On my only good eye. If you didn’t know already, I am blind in my left eye, since forever. Detached retina, atrophied sclera, busted optic nerve, some shit like that. My right one has slowly been losing power and now is at a respectable minus nine (−9) diopters. That explains the thick lenses; I am as blind as a mole. (Bats have above-average vision.)

I am hoping the degeneration has stabilized (it’s supposed to, after 30 or so) and that this will hold until I am in my late 40s and the condition would reverse—myopia to hypermetropia—so I can start being less spectacular, so to speak. But, if the deterioration trend continues, I will be completely blind at 35. Just in time for my self-planned retirement. Hooray! That’s such a happy thought! I opted out of contacts not only because of negative vanity, but also in fear that I would harm the one good eye some way. We can’t afford that, can we? This is also why I haven’t considered a laser scalpel (LASIK), for fear of “fixing” something that ain’t completely broke, with disastrous consequences.

Kamal advised applying a warm compress, soaked in hot tea, a traditional Arab remedy. I joked about collecting discarded teabags and starting a mobile clinic, but I did try it out. I made myself a cup of sugarless tea, Lipton, and steeped a neatly folded bundle of tissues. The first try singed my eyelid, but later, it was a relief and the swelling went down a bit. Encarta® tells me I should apply a warm damp cloth for ten minutes four times a day, but that’s impossible at work. I have a bona fide excuse not to come in tomorrow, but strangely, I want to. This must be what they call irony. Man proposes but microbe disposes. In case you wanted to know, a sty is hordeolum to those Latin-loving scientists and caused by staphylococci, which in the dead language means “bunch of grapes.”

That reminds me of a sexist, insensitive, anti-feminist joke (which suits my current mood just fine):
A woman rushes into a police station screaming, “Officer, officer, I have been graped!”
The cop asks in surprise, “Raped, you mean?”
Woman replies, “No, there was a whole bunch of them.”
I guess it’s funny when told. Out loud. To drunks. Who hate women. Who have no sense of humor. Who will laugh at anything. Because they are pissed drunk morons who are waiting for any excuse to stay longer at the bar. So yeah, where were we? Sour grapes. A pun is the lowest form of wit, they say, and I have to agree. Why? Because that’s the only thing I can manage.

For a while, I had been bothered about my chronological age’s mismatch with my mental age. I just don’t feel mature or grown-up, except maybe when shaving (as I’ve mentioned elsewhere). But I’m changing; there is hope, I realized. When I get a mail I don’t like or when I have to reply to somebody I don’t give a damn about, I am extra polite. So, when Khurshid sends me some ayat from the Qur’an to repeat 50 times, I delete the scathing response I typed and just keep quiet. When I have to send a mail to one horrendous asshole of a subcontractor, I pepper (sugar?) it liberally with pleases and kindlys and warm regards. And I feel good about it. In a way, it’s my perverse means of being sarcastic; too bad the other guy won’t get it ever. To me, this is a sign of maturity. Maturity. Wonder why my blood pressure rises so. We had a chapter in high school moral science called “Maturity, Our Goal.” Well, this is all I could manage in my thirty odd years. Sorry Berthold father, sorry Gerald father, sorry Patrakalam father. You guys are sick deluded idiots, but no worse than other crazies out there.

I left early today, in the middle of a dust-fog. Is that a neologism? That describes it more accurately than sandstorm. There is no howling wind or raging blast of sand. A haze of silica swept up from faraway deserts reaches the city where it loses momentum and drifts gently down, slave to gravity and friction. You can stare straight at the Sun during a dust-fog, when it’s all white and tame as the full moon. I should think the ultraviolet would still get through, so be careful.

It’s a lucky coincidence that the Sun and Moon are at just the right distances from Earth to appear to have the same diameter. This is why you have perfectly close-fitting solar and lunar eclipses. I had wondered about this at school, and tried to invoke a designer for such a curious match. Yeah, and then I discovered Carl Sagan who set things right. It’s funny how humans fixate on the coincidences—the hits—and ignore the rest—the majority. We are the best (worst?) pattern-seeking animals out there. Weird patterns too. I have tried and tried in vain to figure out how the ancients came up with a bear, hunter, crab, lion and whale among those random scattered points of light in the night sky. These ancients are crazy! A more modern star chart is in order, and Mr. Mustard (one of the leading entertainers on LiveJournal) has come up with just that. Not only is he a brilliantly funny and intelligent man, he’s a real nice guy too. How do I know this? Gut feeling. Intuition. Sixth sense. (I kill myself.)

So yeah, I left early. And when Kamal gave me a bunch of tissues to protect my sty-eye from the dust, I told him about my left eye. I don’t usually tell people this. I don’t know why. Only a handful know. Today, I guess I was feeling reckless, breaking down old unnecessary taboos. Well, I had problems with my medical certificate to come to the Gulf, because of this. So in a way, it might be prudent just to keep quiet. I had to change doctors and clinics and take a new physical altogether. This is going to be an issue when I apply for a driving license here, but I think I’ll get a vision fitness certificate from my wife’s clinic. All that’s in the future; I just can’t picture myself driving here. It’s too scary even to be a passenger. Every day on the way to work I see vehicles kissing butt and pulling over for paperwork. I read about an accident that killed a passenger and three camels—the poor beasts had strayed on to the highway through a broken fence, late evening. Hurtling metal moving at 180 kmph is lethal to organic matter, both inside and outside the chassis.

It’s amusing when some tell me I have an eye for things—I think to myself, yeah, that’s so true; if only they knew. I am the guy who can be trusted to keep an eye on something; that’s how I am by default. But you won’t find me in situations that call for “an eye for an eye,” because it’s obvious that I’ll be a loser no matter what. While it’s quite literally possible for me to turn a blind eye on certain things, such as a hurt or personal affront, it pains and vexes me that I cannot. Maybe I just need to turn my mind’s eye on other things. Like writing about the whole damn thing.

Yeah, I am done. Thank you for your precious time. You can shut the damn browser and go back to whatever you were doing. Have a nice day!
  • Current Mood: bugged
  • Current Music: Clare Teal - Out of Nowhere

Kindergarten entrance

Yesterday (Thursday) was Nazreen’s entrance test, at Al-Yasmin. Yes, that Malayali school we’d rather not associate with, but are forced to, as we are sorely out of options. We loosely knew the test involved writing the alphabet, sequential numbers, identifying first letters of words from pictures, etc., but were unsure of what else. My daughter’s conversational English isn’t excellent (her accent is Yankee, but grammar undeniably wonky), yet her comprehension isn’t too bad. There were discussions on preparation and we decided some amount of groundwork was in order. I hate putting a child through any kind of stress regarding a “test,” but I am not the only parent. My misgivings were swept aside by another who had struggled to come up from nothing, to whom ultra-competitiveness is an ingrained ethic and being prepared synonymous with survival. And so the firstborn was put through her paces and, reassuringly, found not wanting. Apart from academic stuff, we prepped her on questions involving age, nationality, hometown, her mama’s and papa’s professions—you know, my mother is a doctor, my father is an engineer, etc. (I corrected mine to kaaperukki, but my flippancy was frowned upon.) I compared this with the eve of my engineering entrance; I was walking along Statue junction with my friends, drunk, and singing songs. But that wasn’t exactly an option here.

Nazreen didn’t show any irritation, nor did she appear worried about anything. Or so we thought. I sleep in the TV room, because of everybody’s coughs and sneezes. It’s difficult for anybody to get restful sleep, what with protracted hacking in alternating shifts. Also, the wife has pleurisy with shooting pains in the ribs, so it’s separate rooms until the supposed cordon sanitaire lifts. So, coming back to Nazreen, her mama told me in the morning she was mumbling doctor, engineer while tossing and turning in fretful sleep, and she wet the bed. She hasn’t had a case of incontinence in ages. This was extremely distressing. Kids are sensitive to minute vibes and nuances, however hard parents try to hide with cheerful conversation and lame jokes. We, as parents, aren’t exactly subtle either. I hated myself for not being perceptive enough to detect her foreboding, and for being accomplice to fostering anguish. She’s just like me—all brave and cocky outside, but full of dread and terror inside. It took me a while to get her to smile after dressing up. We set off.

Anxious parents with fidgety kids queued up near the school office. Nervous faces all around. The tension hung low. After a disorganized registration process and sidestepping a clumsy faculty photo shoot, a tall guy in a blue suit led us to the test room. We accompanied Nazreen till the door and saw other kids inside already taking the test. She didn’t even look at us as she walked inside and sat in one of those tiny chairs. The doors closed, we were asked to wait outside, and we did, back among concerned brooding parentage. I recalled my first days of school at Carmel Convent, the scenic route the school bus took, the strange children, and the snack of stale biscuits that upset my stomach. I remembered I just wanted to be back home, back with people I knew. (Things haven’t progressed much since, have they?) My daughter would be feeling the same, I thought. We must fight these personal battles, and grow up to fight more, until we die. Pointless, but that’s how the world works.

It was a half-hour test. We walked around the school, disappointed by poor facilities and meager means of recreation. The only thing of interest was the art and craft of little ones pasted on numerous notice boards. I scoured for signs of originality, but found none. Twenty minutes passed, and a teacher brought a diffident Nazreen out, a strange mix of emotions on my daughter’s face. Nobody else had left the classroom. Catching sight of us, she smiled wanly. The teacher disappeared inside. Nazreen must have failed to perform in strange surroundings with strange people and they had to let her go, my ever-optimistic wife muttered. Better ask her what happened, empirical I opined. So we did. She was reluctant to talk, and I felt she didn’t want to recall what had happened inside. But there’s no stopping an impatient mother, and the daughter had to come clean.

There was writing the alphabet, which she completed in two minutes, counting of various objects, another two minutes, writing numbers from 41 to 100, five minutes, and identifying the first letters of words, one minute. The only thing she had trouble with was the first letter of a bird the teacher showed her. My daughter was trying to decide whether it was a sparrow or a lark. Well, it was just a bird, and the first letter was B. Oh, well. She, who knows Danny DeVito is The Penguin in Batman Returns, whose favorite Nick Park movie is Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit episode the one with the burglar penguin, who hates the wicked falcon in Stuart Little 2, who knows Zazu from Lion King is a hornbill, that a pterosaur is the flying dinosaur in Jurassic Park III … was stumped by bird. Bird! Imagine that. I couldn’t help but laugh, a laugh of relief and pride. The other kids hadn’t come out because they hadn’t finished; the teachers were helping them along, and most were sitting confused and dazed, wanting to see their parents.

So yeah, that was good; and it felt good.

The results will be announced the end of this month and admission happens thereafter. We are yet to hear from Middle East International School; that’s where we’d really like her to go.
  • Current Mood: paternal
  • Current Music: Steve Winwood - Roll With It

Alf Laylah wa Laylah: Night 105: The Story of Geo and Demo Graph

Considering it unfair to the hitherto unestablished tenets of online journalism to leave unmentioned the various events, experiences, trials, and tribal Asians encountered whilst repositioning to a new climatic/time/danger zone, I have herewith determined to relate specific observations pertaining to the particular location, renowned, through myriad news channels that permeate the globe, as Riyadh. As much as I’d like this to be an interim journey-diary of sorts, the ineluctable fact that I’m destined to be deserted here for a substantial period of time—perhaps even a full one thousand and one nights, or more—makes this story, and the stories that follow, more correspondent to LiveJournal’s very own changelog, detailing the adjustments and modifications committed, as opposed to a blithesome travelogue.

I promise what follows will not be as la-di-da and ponderous as above; it’s just that I’m currently reading some 19th century fiction. Okay, I know, that’s no excuse, but it’s a fact that I’m reading The Return of the Native just the same. An altogether splendid book which apprised me of the fact, among other things, that people of England in those days drank straight from ponds.

So, coming back to the place where I am … well, to put it plainly, it's a desert. And a pretty big one at that. From a cruising altitude, it’s difficult to discern signs of civilization or effects of technology, as multihued dunes predominate—tiny clusters of building or bush are lost among the vast expanses of sand. Now and then, you spot a thin dark streak stretching for miles—a highway or pipeline connecting one middle-of-nowhere to another. I am sure the first humans trying to land on Mars (the lead being a black pagan lesbian, thanks to NASA’s PC and PR) would get a feeling of déjà vu, if they are familiar with this terrain. Yeah, I know, Arizona is more Mars-like, and so also is the train-route to Tamil Nadu; I was just trying a simile for effect. Saudi Arabia is one humongous stretch of silica, and that was what I was trying to get across (literally too, on my connecting flight from Abu Dhabi to Riyadh). I come from a comparative jungle, and it takes more than official claims of mountains and forests to the south to make me change my mind, however enforcing-negative-stereotypes my opinion is.

On terra firma, Riyadh is a king(dom)-sized, sprawling, overcrowded city with modern highways and flyovers, progressive architecture, parks, museums, restaurants, thousands of shopping malls, millions of cars, offices, and apartment buildings crammed with people—a city barely distinguishable from Bombay, if only by the lack of a coastline, naturally-growing flora, cloudbursts, individual freedom, intoxicating spirits, and exposed skin.

The day I landed, more than three months ago (funny how time doesn’t fly), it was a chilly 16°C during the day (transpose digits for rough Fahrenheit scale) for a rookie from the tropics. The mercury has since climbed, burst through the glass, and is poisoning the upstairs plumbing as I write. I came to know that summer was unseasonably severe back home this year and a lot of unfortunate people (mostly poor) succumbed to heat waves. Tragic. Thankfully, that does not happen here. The general standard of living is good, oil-burnt alternating current is cheap and unfailing (not even a single brownout the entire time I was here, a marvel to somebody accustomed to the vagaries of hydroelectricity), and everybody has recourse to air-conditioning. Blessed air-conditioners. Which run fulltime and conk out periodically due to the load. It is indeed a good time to be a coolant monkey.

We inhabit the top floor of a two-story apartment located conveniently midway—a minute’s walk—from the wife’s clinic and the daughter’s tutor, on a street I like to call Car Accessory Ville, with over a quarter-kilometer of shops on either side selling varieties of automobile ornaments. The whine of drilling equipment, the hiss of spray guns, the exhortations of shop salesmen, the incessant honking, the fumes, the blast-furnace breeze, and the occasional sandstorm are bothersome only when we de-cocoon from our air-tight, sound-proof, hollow-brick suite. Which is all well and good, except for times when you feel the urge to storm out of the house slamming the door behind you for a long walk to cool your head after an argument or general vegetation-induced* madness. I have since learned to hyperventilate like a beached whale and count till twenty … thousand.

Speaking of the pitchmen downstairs, I shudder at the memory of a short, wild-eyed, bearded guy straight out of Tolkien, who came running at me brandishing a menacing dark cylinder shouting, “Sunken troll! Sunken troll!”
I went, “Wha … ? Aaaah!”
It was later when he unfurled the tube that I realized this overenthusiastic marketer was just hawking tinted film for car windows. Whew!

My street feels so much like home, it’s annoying. Malayalis shed new light and quantitative significance to the term “teeming millions,” and crawl over every supermarket, apartment, hospital, cab, ATM, sidewalk, rooftop (fixing dish antennas), lamppost (fixing streetlights), barbershop, restaurant, crook and nanny. The signboards are in Arabic (mandatory), Malayalam, and occasionally English; my mother tongue supersedes Hindi as India’s national language.

As for other ethnicities, Bangladeshis fight it out with Pakistanis, while Filipinos (or Pilipinos, as they like to spell it; they have the cutest kids), Egyptians, Palestinians, Afghans, Jordanians, Sudanese (their teeth are the toughest to pull, informs my wife), Eritreans, Kenyans, Moroccans, Libyans, Nepalese, Syrians, and a bunch of other Indians watch from the sidelines. The native Saudis in their white robes and checkered headgear try to blend in as inconspicuously as possible, the poor buggers. There’s a fast-growing wave of government-implemented Saudization (yes, it’s an awkward spelling), wherein all businesses are required by law to hire natives in a prescribed ratio (sometimes even exclusively), as unruly, semi-qualified, unemployed youth are a growing law-and-order concern. This, by no mere coincidence, reduces my odds at gainful employment a good deal. I am still on the hunt. More on that later.

*Inactivity, not olive trees.

This post dedicated to a dear constant nag, to Sir for the inspiration, and to Kiri for cheering me up one day.
  • Current Music: Belle


This story is from around last October and pieced together from various e-mails and fragments of ethanol-resistant memory.

My company, which was in a much better financial position then, wanted me to make a two-month-short trip to California—for training, they said. Instant messaging technology and insiders at the parent company apprised me that in reality I would be a cheap replacement for two women who would be going on leave—for recreational and procreational purposes. Since it is a documented fact that one woman does the work of two men (at least in my household), I was dreading the prospect of doing the work of three (discounting the project manager, who doesn’t do anything), at the same time feeling thrilled about getting to see old friends and new places.

Selective percolation of the news prompted Oolan and KVK to make plans for a trip spanning multiple time zones to meet up, and even do a Las Vegas run, à la Feynman. The Mentor expressed a desire to do likewise, besides booking two tickets to see The Boss in concert at Atlanta, hoping I’d fly there and take a sneak peek at his un-exoteric lifestyle and fabulous home theater system (the Mentor’s, not the Boss’s).
Then there was the whiskey sampling and leisure de Maine I could indulge in, courtesy the standing invitation from Eve_L. It was Mountain View, CA, that I was headed to, and I was hoping I could go meet this lady at the SETI Institute. I even had a dream in which I met a few of my LJ friends and got to ride in the legendary TimMobile™—only that it was on the NH-47 at Attingal and we stopped to give a lift to some coconut climbers who started arguing with us about hauling their load of palm leaves along. (It’s amazing what random brain-stem firings and a pinch of dopamine can do.) And then there was the discerning sightseeing to do, not to mention the even-more-discerning relatives seeing.

With such an elaborate program planned, I postponed my half-hearted Middle East immigration process and got started on procedures to obtain a visit visa to the U.S., downloaded forms and fixed an appointment via the Web. To avoid potential difficulties during the visa interview, I thought long and hard on these questions in the mandatory DS-156 form:
- Do you seek to enter the United States to engage in export control violations, subversive or terrorist activities, or any other unlawful purpose?
- Are you a member or representative of a terrorist organization as currently designated by the U.S. Secretary of State?
- Have you ever participated in persecutions directed by the Nazi government of Germany; or have you ever participated in genocide?
And answered in the negative. Clever, aren’t I?

My boss, a not-so-frequent-flier to the West (his in-laws are British) assured me that getting a B1 visa was as simple as taking a baby from Candy, and honestly, I didn’t think it was such a big deal; a visit visa for three months—surely no biggie.

The nearest American Consulate is at Madras, so I entrained with my best bud (who works there and was in hometown for holidays and a wedding—Hi, Syam!) and stayed at his place, preparing for the big day with rum and chicken that cost three times as much than back home. The next day dawned, and after being sheared at the Consulate gate by a shady guy who does a growling business of safekeeping belongings of prospective travelers in a battered icebox with a wire lock, a sweltering wait, and striking petty acquaintanceships with fellow queuers, I reached the bulletproof counter of the Grant Panjandrum—the maker/breaker of travel agent fortunes.

To stretch a short story long, I was rejected a visa, even though I was pretty confident I’d answered every single question (three) by the Inquisitor to his and my satisfaction. I was surprised at the abruptness of it all. And the reason I was given? “Based on your situation, we are unable to determine that you will definitely depart the United States after a temporary stay.”

Everybody sympathized, except for my wife who was glad I would be joining her soon. I rationalized the rejection as due to my erratic employment history, which was asked for in one of the forms. A few of my friends suggested it could have been due to my Muslim name. While it’s true that my middle name is the Prophet’s (oh, the irony!), it would be too ridiculous a reason to keep me out of the Land of the Brave, right? Now, if they had said something about the maniac with the crazed eyes sporting a suspicious goatee in the passport photograph, I would’ve given the hypothesis a little more weight, but they didn’t.

I let the matter rest and headed straight to Bangalore where I drowned my disappointment in carefully crafted cuisine, congenial conversation, conspicuous consumption, a cozy Café Coffee Day closure, and a close finish at the coming away corner (all that would make sense to just two people on the planet, but anyways). The Madman accommodated me, showed me how to make the perfect omelet, and I overstuffed myself with exotic obscure-named Thai food he dished out. I got independent confirmation from an expert on authentic Thai cookery—he really can cook.

Two days later, another guy from the office (sort of a backup) applied for a visa citing the exact same reasons and similar documents and got it stamped without any difficulty at all. His last name? An old-time favorite with Indian movie stars—Kumar, which set me thinking, does the Muslim-name hypothesis really merit consideration?

My boss took the rejection as an affront to the integrity and reputation of the company and wanted me to apply again, this time with tons of additional supporting documentation. So I fortified my second application with affidavits stating I had plenty of property, a wife and kid and an aging mother to return to; bonds declaring I would pay the company enormous amounts of money should I fail to return; copies of certificates—birth, marriage, daughter’s birth; letters, faxes, minutes from the board of directors’ meeting mentioning how much they wanted me there; company profile and registration info; photographs of me in various stages of undress, er… strike that, etcetera, etc. There’s no way the Consulate could deny me a visa this time, assured my boss.

And so the wait began, while stories poured in from friends recounting visa denial due to racial profiling post 9/11, which happened to their friends and friends-of-friends. Still not convinced, I dismissed them as exaggerated hearsay and instances of counting only the misses and not the hits. One-and-a-half months of agonizing waiting later, during which a lot of things were postponed or not done because my passport was held up at the Consulate—including having my 3½-year-old daughter fly all alone to her mother with total strangers (a bittersweet story for a later date)—the whole bundle returned, slightly heavier, with the same old rejection slip citing the same old reason.

Oh, well.

Kiron’s wife helped me coin a term for myself—“profilactically challenged” (which in its wordplay kind of way is a little too much information, so let’s not go there), and I reconciled myself with the fact that yes, there is such a thing as being too paranoid, for whatever reasons.
It was heartening to note that my friends were outraged, indignant and ready to respond on my behalf—to a much greater extent than I could ever hope to be. One urged me to sue, another pressed me to send a mail to Congress (Dubya’s, not Sonia’s), and another, who’s with Reuters, wanted to do a story with me and Azim Premji, but most people jokingly suggested I just change my name. Too much bother, especially the last one, so I let them all pass.

I first read about the Iranian director being denied a visa on Kieran's journal, and on searching further, I found this letter on the Web:
Abbas Kiarostami’s Letter to Richard Pena, Program Director of the New York Film Festival.

September 18, 2002

Dear Richard,

Thank you for inviting me and my film to your festival. The enclosed letter will explain the reason why I shall not be attending.

As you see, I was refused an entry visa to the United States of America, despite the exceptional circumstances and your kind attention as well as the protection and help of many friends.

I certainly do not deserve an entry visa any more than the aged mother hoping to visit her children in the US, perhaps for the last time in her life, or myriads of other urgent cases.

I feel deeply about this unfortunate situation. I am not just sorry because I was not granted a visa or can not attend your celebrations, but as a privileged person with access to the means of public expression and media, I feel profoundly responsible for the tragic state of the world, for the betterment of which we the public people have not done enough to ensure.

For my part, I feel this decision is somehow what I deserve.

Abbas Kiarostami
Which, in a way, is what I feel, but since I am no Kiarostami and nowhere near as articulate, I’ll just say, “Gee, this sure sucks!”

“What’s in a name?” asked the Bard (which was most likely rhetorical, judging by the lines that followed) in his famed teen tragedy, but let me tell you this: Bill, if you were around today and your last name were Sheikhspeare, let’s just say you’d have a tough time collecting that best screenwriter award at the Golden Globes in person.
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Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey

I’d like to see a nature film where an eagle swoops down and pulls a fish out of a lake, and then maybe he’s flying along, low to the ground, and the fish pulls a worm out of the ground. Now that’s a documentary. —Jack Handey

I wish outer space guys would conquer the Earth and make people their pets, because I’d like to have one of those little beds with my name on it. —Jack Handey

Sometimes I think you have to march right in and demand your rights, even if you don’t know what your rights are, or who the person is you’re talking to. Then on the way out, slam the door. —Jack Handey

If you’re a cowboy and you’re dragging a guy behind your horse, I bet it would really make you mad if you looked back and the guy was reading a magazine. —Jack Handey

More Deep Thoughts by Jack HandeyCollapse )
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