Monday, 30 June 2008

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost

To travel from Rochester, NY to Kent, OH, by road, you get onto Interstate 90, a long straight road that runs through flat green countryside, punctuated by tractor-trailers, truck stops, and road-kill, for about 4 hours, and then get onto smaller state highways and keep driving for another half hour or so. If you haven't punched in the destination address into your dinky, little GPS receiver, you also call up any Mallu family friends you know approximately every 5 minutes and ask for directions. At least that's what my aunt and I did, my last weekend in the US. I landed in Rochester late Friday night, and we set out early next morning - 4 AM - aiming to get into Kent by 9 for some kind of orientation program at my cousin's university. Having driven through bucolic, white-dominated, 'fly-over country', it was surprising to land up at the university and see the number of Indian/South Asian and Asian parents with their kids at the place. But then again, my cousin is studying medicine, so I suppose I shouldn't have been too surprised.
Kent had limited options by way of entertainment - a cheap, single-storied multiplex where we watched 'Get Smart', a chipotle chain and a random white woman with mottled skin who was very vocal in admiring my cousin's tan - and having exhausted them in a day, we headed out again the next morning back up the I-90 to see the Niagara Falls and then get back in time for my flight to New York and thence to Boston. This time, the GPS receiver was suitably set up, and we made it to the falls in good time. While the city that's grown around them is a complete tourist trap with, among other things, sari- and salwar-kameez-clad women walking around all over and cheap, vegetarian, Punjabi thalis prominently advertised, the falls themselves are really quite spectacular. I too joined the throng, pulling on the souvenir bright plastic raincoat and yet getting drenched, both at the Cave of the Winds and on the Maid of the Mist. By this time I was perilously close to missing my flight back from Rochester, and so we sped off back up the highway, stopping only to pick up gifts for the people back home and making it to the airport half an hour before the scheduled departure.

Things started going awry at this point. I was told that my flight was an hour late. Then two. Then indefinitely delayed. Apparently New York had been hit by a storm which had disrupted all air traffic along the east coast. I spent the next few hours navigating the JetBlue interactive voice response system trying to figure out if I'd be able to catch my onward flight to Boston, or if I ought to cancel and fight for a refund, until I finally found a woman - a real honest-to-goodness, human being - who told me I ought to try my luck and fly to New York and see if I could catch the next flight out to Boston.

My luck, unfortunately, was not very good. I landed at JFK at 9, only to find that my flight to Boston took off at 8, and the next flight that was supposed to leave at 10 had been canceled. I got a ticket on the next flight - at 7.30 the next morning. At this point, I thought to myself, only partly in irony, "What would Ragupathy do?". My next thought was, "I ought to put that up on the blog". I considered trying to take a train or bus back, and even got to the nearest subway station, before I realized it was rather stupid and pointless.

And so it was that I lugged myself and my 2 bags into the Arrival lounge of Terminal 5. There were already a few people there who seemed to have made peace with the fact that they would be stuck there for the night, and had sprawled out on the floor or across a couple of chairs to sleep as best they could. The coffee shop upstairs had shut, but there were still a few people sitting there trying to last the night, most noticeable amongst them a man of possibly Middle Eastern origin who wore a long black faux fur coat that stretched from his neck down to below his knees, who sat up straight in his chair and dozed, and a another figure, possibly a woman, possibly of Sri Lankan origin, looking a bit like Ranjit Fernando with Albert Einstein's hairdo, who wore a shapeless white shirt and black pants and thumbed through a book, determined not to sleep. More people seemed to trickle in through the night, clustering at the various tables, talking softly, rearranging themselves amongst the furniture till they could find a position where they could give in to their weariness. Half asleep, I couldn't help thinking of 'Tokyo Canceled'. I wondered what stories we would all have shared, if we had spoken to each other. Instead, of course, we shut ourselves off from each other and our predicament as best we could. I looped the straps of my bags together and under the legs of my chair, briefly considered brushing my teeth in the men's room, put my feet up on the chair in front, and slept.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

A Geek bearing Gifts

As kids, my sister and I, and indeed most of the extended family, would get gifts from various aunts settled in the US as they came down to Kerala in the summers to expose their kids to the land of their forefathers, pick up the latest sari styles and attend sundry marriages/funerals/baptisms/engagements/memorial services. Their huge Samsonite suitcases would be filled with stuff that we in pre-liberalisation India could rarely, if ever get our hands on - chocolates (especially KitKats and Toblerones), clothes, make-up for the women, electronic thingummies and grooming products for the men. The chocolates would be finished off in the first couple of weeks, but the clothes would be made to last for years, being passed from cousin to cousin until too frayed or smelly or out-of-fashion to be handed down anymore (I believe I once referred to the hand-me-downs as being 'secondhand imported', a term which my parents thought incredibly funny and smart and repeated for a long time). While the clothes may never have been considered tres chic, I used to find them fascinating - partly because they all had a certain smell and texture (both due to the generous use of fabric softener by the aunts, as I later realized), but more so because they seemed to come from exotic places like Colombia or Ecuador, places I had only read about in back issues of National Geographic or random GK books ( I am not ashamed to admit it - I read a lot of those books as a kid). I had a pair of shorts from Kenya, and they made me feel like a global citizen.

That, however was in the heydays of the Multi-Fibre Agreement. Since then, India has come a long way, and so has China. Which brings me to the point of this post: I'm down to the last 2 days of my US trip (I leave Thursday evening), and I need to figure out what to get for various people back home. It's pretty confusing because
(a) a lot of the stuff you find in the US would probably have been made in India (including man-hole covers, though I would not want to buy them) and is therefore available back home as well;
(b) even more of the stuff is made in China these days, and I find that somehow less exciting than if they were made in, say, Mexico - I have travelled all this way west, after all;
(c) I am fairly clueless about what it is that people would like, or at least, what they would like that I can afford;
(d) Assuming I wanted to buy clothes, I don't know what people's clothes sizes are, for the most part, and US sizes are a little larger anyway; and
(d) I am scared of being stuck with buyer's remorse (I don't actually suffer from it often, I'm just scared I might, which limits my willingness to splurge).
So far I've managed to buy an assortment of caps - Red Sox, one-size-fits-all - and a few shirts at Filene's Basement (thank you, Han). Assorted chocolates are, of course, on the shopping list. But somehow, I find this rather boring. I almost see myself telling the Customs guys at the Bengaluru International Airport,"I have nothing to declare but my lack of imagination", at which point I suppose they would seize a couple of packets of chocolates and some foreign exchange purely for trying to paraphrase Oscar Wilde and getting it wrong.
So, considering that the last bleg did generate some interesting commentary, I'm putting up another one: if you think you're one of the lucky people I should be getting something, leave me a comment with your preferences. Even if you don't personally want anything, drop a comment if you can think of something interesting to spend money on. Black Converse shoes are ruled out, incidentally.


Incidentally, is anybody checking out my Twitter feed (it's on the right,panel, under the picture, also available at Let me know if that's any fun.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Lucy, Jesus, Buddha

One thing I've done in the US which I haven't gotten around to doing much back home is visiting museums. Unfortunately, most museums in India are looked upon as glorified warehouses, with very little effort taken to engage or educate. Out here, a lot more effort is put in, but I guess that's also because they aren't just under the aegis of some governmental agency with a limited budget. Also, I get the feeling that there's just so much stuff that is of some sort of historical significance pretty much strewn around all over, we get a little jaded by it after a while.
Anyway, back to the story at hand: I've managed to visit two museums so far - the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. The major crowd-puller at the former was an exhibit called 'Lucy's Legacy', which ostensibly was about Lucy, the skeleton of a nearly 3.2-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis, but also had a lot of stuff about Ethiopian culture and history (Lucy was discovered in Ethiopia). The MFA had an exhibition of Spanish painters from El Greco to Velasquez, but since I don't really have any clue about them anyway, I chose to wander the halls on my own (also, they were charging more for the special exhibit).
Here are the highlights, if you will, in bite-size pieces:

Jesus with curly hair

More than Lucy, the images that really stayed with me from the exhibit were the icons that are part of the traditions of the Ethiopian church. What struck me was that although the arrangement of the figures in the icons was similar to Christian imagery elsewhere, the actual depictions of characters like Jesus and the apostles were different from that found elsewhere, where they all have European/Aryan features. That might possibly be because the church was founded based on contact with early Christians from Israel and the Middle East itself, not European proselytizers. It's interesting to see how the standard depictions have spread throughout the world though. I wonder if the early Syrian Catholic/Malankara church also had distinct imagery, at least to begin with. Funny how I never really thought of that till I traveled half-way around the world.

The Buddha didn't bother with maintaining a six-pack
The MFA has some good collections of art and sculpture from South-east Asia, including a lot of Buddha statues. While the Buddha may not be the sort of alpha male beefcake, it's still interesting to see how he is never depicted as having, ahem, chiseled abs. Neither, for that matter, does Michelangelo's David. While David, especially, is fairly buffed-out, he doesn't have the extreme definition of underwear models and body-builders. I guess the ancients knew the futility of getting 'cut'. Note - I have no issues with working out to stay in shape, I just think it's pointless to focus on certain muscles only so as to get attention.

Only rich societies equate skinniness with looking good
Through the ages, most depictions of women show them as being fairly well-fed, irrespective of time or location. Look up Nell Gwyn, for example. I suppose being well-fed is an evolutionary sign of being able to survive through lean times or something. I doubt if it's a coincidence that the size zero figure has come to be considered desirable at the same time that human prosperity is at its highest. Kate Moss doesn't have to worry too much about disease and famine.

There was more stuff I learnt, but most of that would be better discussed by the experts. I'm just a blogger, you know.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Maybe I should get around to reading Zadie Smith sometime

On the train in to work today, I saw a woman reading 'White Teeth'. She was really engrossed, occasionally smiling to herself, and sometimes, almost subconsciously, running her tongue over her teeth, as if to clean them of any leftovers from breakfast.
A book that simultaneously makes people think, laugh and bring about a change in their behaviour - even 'Das Kapital' only managed 2 out of the 3 at any point of time. Maybe there is something to Zadie after all.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Read any good books lately? - A quick blegging experiment

I'm out of reading material and I don't want to have to keep staring at my comp screen for intellectual stimulation. Also, I don't have WiFi, so I can't take the laptop (or my spanking new iPod touch) into the loo to read through the RSS feeds on my Google Reader account (673 new items, at last count). I'm making do (or doo-doo, in this case) with a free copy of 'Men's Fitness' someone gave me on the street my first weekend in Boston, which is especially irritating since I prefer 'Men's Health'.
So instead, since all of you readers are such intelligent, cultured, beautiful people, I'm inviting you to recommend stuff for me to read in the comments for this post. It doesn't have to be something you think I will definitely like - just something you wouldn't mind sharing. I won't promise that I will go out and read it, but if I do, I'll post my views here. Let's see how that goes.

Oh, incidentally, this is what I meant by 'blegging'. But you probably knew that already, right? Right?

Friday, 6 June 2008

I'm not Avoiding Eye Contact, I'm Looking Off Into the Future

I'll admit I'm a bit of a gawker. If I see something interesting, I stare. If I see someone reading something, I'm consumed with curiosity trying to figure out what it is. In crowds, I get my kicks looking around and observing everyone around me. And I guess back in India, not too many people mind.
Which is why one thing I find really difficult in the US is maintaining that particular, unwavering gaze that's aimed off into the middle distance, meant to be non-threatening, yet not making it obvious that one is avoiding eye contact. It's especially difficult in places where you're packed in tight, like elevators, corridors and subway trains.
A related problem is what to do once eye contact is made - some sort of acknowledgment is usually necessary, yet an actual conversation is too much. It's like the gunslingers of the Wild West, making eye contact, sizing each other up, and then firing off a quick "Hey, how's it going?" and turning your gaze away before the other person makes the mistake of thinking that you actually care. So far the most I can manage is a quick nod and some sort of a gurgle in my throat. It's something I'm working on, though, and, hopefully, I'll get it right in a couple of weeks. Maybe I'll even be able to say "Have a good one" without laughing. I'll just have to stay strong and tell myself, "Yes, I can".

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Let me root, root, root for the Red Sox

I have to say, I really love my job. First, I got to watch a match from the IPL as part of a team outing, and today (that's Tuesday night), I got to watch the Red Sox play the Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway Park, which is sort of like a pilgrimage in Boston.
One of our hosts was sweet enough to give us a quick debriefing on the rules of the game before we left (being the thorough Wiki-trawler that I am, I looked up the rules there as well). As a game, I'd say baseball is a lot less complicated than cricket. No worrying about no-balls and free hits and stuff. There is a certain charm to it though, and as we were told repeatedly, it's very 'American', notwithstanding the fact that a lot of the stars seem to be from the Dominican Republic or Japan.
After an early (all-American) dinner of beer, fries, nachos and sandwiches (chicken for me, veggies for the others from B'lore), we found our way to our seats in the bleachers, which is apparently where the crazier sorts of Sox fans sit. Fenway Park is, (Wikipedia informs us) the oldest of all current MLB stadia, and its got a lot of charm. The size of the ground itself is a little smaller than a few cricket grounds, but that's also because of the shape of a baseball diamond vis-a-vis a cricket ground - you need a lot less space down the sides and back. You sit closer to the action than in most cricket stadia (or at least the ones in India, which leave a fair gap between the crowds and the players). The fans - the Red Sox Nation - are pretty vocal and yet supposedly fickle: they'll willingly heckle one of their own if he doesn't find favour with them. They're also very enthusiastic about showing their loyalty, wearing caps, tees, sweatshirts all emblazoned with the 'B' or with the red socks. Out of about 40,000 people, we were probably the only group not wearing any Sox-related outfits (as an aside, I've noticed that in the city in general, the desis are probably the only group that don't seem to wear much stuff related to the local teams, except for a few people wearing cheap knock-offs of the caps).
The game we saw was fairly exciting as far as regular season games go, with a few home runs, a little bit of decent fielding, some tension in the middle innings and some impressive pitching at the end by the Red Sox' closer, Jonathan Papelbon. On the whole though, I'd say cricket's got a lot more action going on at every minute, especially when it comes to Twenty20. And some of those specialist batters make Sourav Ganguly look athletic. No wonder they wanted Gilchrist to try out.
Based on my limited experience, I'd have to say though that baseball is a lot more fun to watch live than cricket. The fans were loud and foul-mouthed - as one of our hosts pointed out in understatement,"There's one obnoxious American in every crowd"- but they were really into the whole game. One even managed to jump the fence and run across the park, evading three security guards, till he crashed into the seats on the opposite side and got tasered. There were also the quaint traditions that kept the crowd's interest alive just in case the beer high started wearing off, like the seventh-innings stretch and the karaoke-rendition by the crowd of 'Take me out to the Ball-Game', followed by 'Sweet Caroline' in the middle of the eighth. It's a lot more fun than trying to find clean seats and dying of dehydration.
The IPL was supposedly modeled on American sports leagues, but there are are obviously a few lessons more for them to learn. One important lesson is in how to build the fan base. There have been a few quotes along the lines of how it would take time to build up loyalty among the fans, but that sort of loyalty comes only with greater engagement. The Red Sox Nation, for example, also gets involved in charitable causes locally, which fosters a greater sense of community amongst the members. Similarly, some of the 'traditions' themselves have only been around for 5-10 years, built up by shrewd team principals at Fenway Park. Part of the reason, though, why the local fans get more respect is because a fairly large part of the revenues for each baseball team comes from the gate receipts, whereas the IPL mostly gets its revenues from TV. Perhaps as the IPL franchises decide that they need to sell more team memorabilia to the fans to generate money, they might give them a bit more respect, but in the meantime, I'd say the chances of getting clean seats at Chinnaswamy stadium are probably lower than the chances of seeing an Indian version of Sox Appeal.

This calls for a celebration

I got a little itty-bitty mention on Ultrabrown! Yay!

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Where the Streets Have No Names (for the most part)

Way back in school in Cochin, a friend once told me confidently that the song 'Where the Streets have No Name' was about New York, because the streets were numbered, not named. I am, of course, better informed now thanks to Wikipedia, but it was still a story I liked.
And so it was that this weekend I met with Bansal (may his tribe ever increase) and Kracker (may his blog readership increase). Being neither Yale students nor Cary Grant/Tom Hanks wannabes, we eschewed Grand Central Station and the top of the Empire State Building as possible meeting places and chose to meet in front of the Port Authority bus station at approximately 1 o'clock. Due to a lack of organization/lot of silliness on my part, I ended up waking up late and taking a Chinatown-to-Chinatown bus which, in the fitness of things, deposited me in NYC in the middle of a fairly robust shower. With neither a map nor a clear idea of which direction to head to, I did the manly (i.e. fat-headed) thing, plodding along in the shower in the general direction of the bigger buildings on the horizon, not bothering to ask for directions. I finally managed to find a place that sold me a map, from which I ascertained that I was going in the right direction, after all, and then continued plodding, until I met the others, approximately an hour later than planned.
Having filled up on pizza and Gatorade, we continued to plod, though thankfully the sun had come out. We managed to cover Central Park, the Rockefeller Center and Times Square, all the while enjoying the unique freedom that knowing a second language like Hindi offers, namely the ability to cuss without being comprehended. It's like having a mild super-power (besides the one we already had). After all that, we went to a place called Virgil's for beer and dinner (more of the former, less of the latter) and then packed off to Connecticut for the night (what can I say - I move in less upmarket circles than the Han).
The next day involved further roaming around NYC - a couple of rounds of Grand Central Station trying to figure out how to get south, a walk past the entrance to Wall Street, further wandering in and out of various subway stations (grimier than Boston, more reminiscent of Delhi/Bombay), and then a free ferry ride past Mme Bartholdi herself. Having taken umpteen photographs of the statue and of Kracker grimacing in the glaring sun, we then moved on to Chinatown, where I had my first taste of Malaysian cuisine (yay globalization!). I ordered stir-fried noodles, which tasted a bit like the sort of stuff you get in cheap Punjabi-Chinese restaurants in India, only with better ingredients and not so much of a greasy feeling afterwards. I think I may have impressed the waitress with my chopstick-wielding skills, although I did have a couple of beers, so I may have confused amusement with admiration. Then it was back on the Lucky Star bus to Boston.
So there you have it - My Visit to New York. I suppose I should have done a few more touristy things, like buying an 'I love New York' t-shirt, but then I'm sure I can probably get an equally authentic one back in India itself. They're all probably made in Tirupur anyway.