Close Encounters Of The Blue Kind!

October 20th 1990 is a very memorable day for us!  No! it’s not our wedding day or the day our child was born or any such thing. That was the day we got our first speeding ticket! You all do keep track and celebrate your 1st speeding-ticket-anniversaries, right?  🙂

Here’s what happened…

That was a Saturday and we were excited about going to a party in Allentown, when we were pulled over in Coopersburg! The officer was very polite. He inquired if I knew why he stopped me (hmm.. what’s with this quiz?). I was very  nervous and mumbled a “No! officer”.  I felt like every one driving by was slowing down to take a look at me! The officer asked me for my  driver’s license and registration. Then, after what seemed like a long time he came back with a speeding ticket for $150 and then told us to have a nice day!! I appreciate the politeness .. but that almost felt sarcastic!

“Nice day”?? He pretty much ruined our day. The only saving grace was that the party that we went to, turned out to be a surprise baby shower for Uma!! Of course, THAT is the real reason we remember Oct 20th!

The next day, when I discussed this ticket with friends at work, I got a lot of advice..

You should have known that Coopersburg is a speed-trap town!” one said.

“Contest it – the cop never shows up and therefore you will beat the ticket” chimed another!

You should have told him that your taxes pay for his salary”, said another wise guy!

“Next time you should be prepared – when he asks “your eyes are red, have you been drinking?” you should say “Officer, your eyes are glazed, have you been eating donuts!!”

Ahh.. everybody is a comedian.. when passing out such free advice!

A few weeks later, I went to court to contest the ticket. I was dressed in my best jacket and tie, even though, those were usually reserved for weddings and funerals! I had seen enough episodes of “LA Law” to know how the system worked. I walked in with a briefcase in hand. I gave a look that said “I am an engineer, I know what I am doing”, while the faint, nervous voice in my head said “damn, I should have gone to the bathroom before coming in.” I was quite disappointed to see that the officer did show up. When I asked him about the calibration data on the radar, he read out all the dates and measurements – as if he was expecting this exact question! Finally, I opened my brief case and brought out my Exhibit A – a receipt from the grocery store in Coopersburg, where we had stopped earlier to pick up some flowers for our host. Then, I took out Exhibit B – the speeding ticket itself! I told them that the distance from the grocery store to the place where the cop stopped me divided by the time taken should be the speed at which I drove! Based on the evidence, I stated that the speed thus computed does not match what the officer noted. I therefore declared with a flourish that the speeding case against me be thrown out! The judge and the officer were taken aback by this display of theatrics and middle school level time-and-distance math! I was prepared to be yelled at by the judge for wasting his time. Surprisingly, he and the cop had a hearty laugh, after which the judge said something to the effect of  “get out of here!” and reduced the fine to $35, I guess just for my efforts! I thanked him and got out of there. I could hear them laughing even from the outside. I can definitely tell you  – that was not an “LA LAW” performance.. it was more of a  “My Cousin Vinnie” performance!

That day,  I had learnt a valuable lesson: no more speeding…  in Coopersburg! But, Warrington? That’s an entirely different town and I got my speeding ticket #2 there, a few years later!  This was another ticket for 40 mph in a 25 mph zone! I was not as nervous this time around.  When I showed up in the court, I did not do the phony lawyer routine. I was dressed in my business casuals. As soon as I walked in, the judge’s face lit up! He pointed to the “Lucent Technologies’” logo on my shirt and said “that’s a great company”! I was befuddled by such an opening! By way of brief background – that was a brief period of glory for Lucent (my employer), when its stock was skyrocketing.

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A brief period of glory for Lucent!!

The judge and I reveled in our mutual admiration of Lucent! He said that he had a lot of Lucent stock and of course he was thrilled about its performance. After this bit of distraction, he almost forgot to admonish me on my speeding infraction! He reduced the speed and I just had to pay $25. I gave him a thumbs up while the bewildered cop just looked on!

If you think that I am the only one in the family that’s always speeding, you are totally wrong! Uma had her share of tickets too! There was this one time when she got a ticket for 50 mph in a 35 mph zone! Being the veteran with traffic courts, I accompanied her, to show how it is done! As we pulled into the parking lot, we saw an older gentleman walking slowly . We stopped and waved him on with a smile, while cursing him under our breath for being the slow poke, as we were getting late for our court appointment.

As soon as we got into the court, we saw that the cop was there with all of his documents to make the case… and when the judge showed up, we saw that it was the old man from the parking lot. He recognized us and smiled and winked at us! After that it was smooth sailing. He sent us off with a minor admonishment to Uma for not being careful with the speed. Yay!! Another successful overturning of a speeding ticket!

There are several lessons that I have learnt from all of these court appearances:

  1. Always contest speeding tickets.
  2. Always be respectful to the officer and the judge. They are just doing their job. Having a nasty attitude towards them is not going to do you any good.
  3. Wear proper clothing that will make a good impression. I wonder what would have been the judge’s reaction if I had worn an “Adult World T-shirt” to court!
  4. Be nice to people walking slowly in parking lots… or just everyone around you. You never know who will be in a position to judge you!
  5. Final lesson – Try not to speed…  too much!
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A Bumpy Ride

-By guest blogger Uma

   A sequel to “Are you happily married?” 

(These two pieces were given as speeches at Toastmasters meetings)

Since Yash gave a cinematic presentation of our arranged marriage, I figured I will share my version of our marriage beyond the beginning. Obviously our parents thought of us being a good match for each other, but little did they and we know how different we were in terms of our personalities and communication styles.

Personality characteristics influence and inform our communication styles.  Yash, having a supportive and an easy-going style, was more accepting of my differences than I was of his. He is more sociable, spontaneous, fun-loving, free-spirited, very enthusiastic about trying new things, likes a relaxed, no tension environment and avoids conflict. Contrast this with my direct and analytical communication style, being very goal-oriented, purposeful, organized, and focused on getting things done. I could not understand why Yash wasn’t thrilled about us planning and organizing every detail of our lives to make it a smooth sail. Shouldn’t he be thankful to me for bringing some order and purpose into his life? 🙂  I would get very frustrated with him, and being the direct communicator that I was, I had no trouble expressing that to him. Being the supportive communicator that he was, with a tendency to avoid conflict, he would get quiet, which would only irritate me further.

In the first few months of us living together in Allentown, I would be in the apartment all day while Yash went to work. I was in a foreign land with only 1 or 2 brand new friends that he had introduced me to, who I could talk to on the phone. I did not know how to drive. I couldn’t call home and talk to my parents frequently because every minute cost about $4 while I wasn’t earning a penny. Being home alone all day, I would eagerly wait for him to come home. He would also come home in a good mood but seemed more eager to watch “Cheers” and Three’s company” than to spend time talking with me. Obviously he wanted me to sit and watch the shows with him, but I had no interest in them because they were so foreign to me. My direct style of expressing frustration didn’t sit very well with his fun-loving and conflict-avoidance style.

On top of these individual differences, there are gender-based differences in conversational styles. Remember, Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus? 🙂  Once we went to a jewelry store to buy something for his mother. I pointed out some pieces that I thought looked good. We bought something for his mother and returned home. I bet the men don’t see anything wrong in this picture, but the women can see it crystal clear, right ladies? Offering to buy me something would’ve showed me that he thought and cared about me. Never mind all the other ways he showed me that. Of course, that was not the time to use my direct communication. I let it brew for a little while until it exploded, and poor Yash had no clue what it was all about. If I wanted something, I should’ve bought it. That’s all there is to it, as far as he was concerned.

Our natural tendency in communication is to use our own style. But if we want to be effective partners, we need to adapt our style to that of the other person. Putting the relationship first makes it a little easier to deal with the differences. With much trial and error, we came to understand and accept our different styles. We learned to make allowances rather than taking the disparities personally. Now when he gets home we watch 1 or 2 shows together, and I plan to do some spontaneous activities together.  Once in a while Yash takes the initiative and makes to-do lists which makes me happy. Every time I make a passing comment about liking something in a store, I have to literally hold him back from buying it for me.

 I wish I did this project (“Understanding my communication style”) about 30 years ago; our marriage would have been a less bumpy ride.

 

 

“Are you happily married?”

(aka.. “How I really met your mother”)

“Are you happily married?”

That was the question one of Uma’s colleagues (in the US) asked her when they found out that her’s was an arranged marriage. We were both quite amused by the question. I wondered if they thought an arranged marriage was where Uma’s parents forced her to marry me in exchange for a few goats!! I could imagine the concept of an arranged marriage being so foreign to them! In India, back then more than 95% of the marriages were of the “arranged” kind. The rest were called “love marriages”.

Typically, in an arranged marriage – the parents do the initial screening based on their particular criteria in order to narrow down the choices to arrive at a shortlist. This is their own version of “29 points of compatibility” like eHarmony etc. The parents usually look for compatibility of: education, family history, social standing, caste etc.

During my grandparents generation, the parents just literally arranged it and the boy and girl would see each other for the first time at the ceremony! When I say boy and girl, I literally mean a boy and girl – as they used to get married quite young. Maybe 10 – 15 yrs old or even younger. These marriages were for forming relationships with other families and to get an extra pair of hands to help out on the farm or in the house. Also, that was a time when some older guys married very young girls, by paying a sort of  dowry (known a Kanyasulkam) to the girl’s parents. My maternal grandmother’s marriage was one such case that I had covered in one of my earlier blogs Our Very Own Proof of Heaven?

 Indian Newspaper Matrimonial Ads (2018)

By my parents’ time it got a little better – they typically got a chance to meet and have somewhat of a say in the selection. Well, most likely only the guy did. Unfortunately, the girl rarely got asked! My dad was a path-breaking pioneer – he rejected the suggested local , uneducated girls from the village (who were ideal from his parents point of view – as they would start helping with farm work and chores right away). My dad wanted to marry an equally qualified, college educated woman. For this, he did his own groundwork via “matrimonial ads” in papers, and finally connected with my mom’s family in the neighboring zilla (county). This was quite revolutionary back then. He was asked “What’s wrong with all the girls in our neighborhood that you had to go all the way to the next zilla??”

As for me – I was working in Iowa and had gone home to India for vacation and to attend my brother’s wedding. My parents thought that since the elder son was settled, it was time to get me hitched as well! So, they suggested Uma.  Uma’s family was friends of ours. They used to live down the street from us when she was in pre-school.

While the families had known each other and have been friends, we haven’t ever talked to each other before. I liked the proposal and told my parents that I wanted to talk to Uma one on one (which apparently was considered an unusual request back then, and was promptly attributed to my exposure to western culture).

One evening, my dad and I stopped by at their place for tea. Of course, this was no ordinary casual visit. It was specifically for the explicit purpose of deciding if we would be a good match. NOT for dating, but for getting married! In a sense it is like those “coffee meetups”, except it was at the girl’s house when the entire family was right there hovering around. We were expected to give the go/no-go signal at the end of that one meeting!

This is like a job interview, and like any job interview, the fact that we are sitting down for the interview means that we both have passed the initial screening. We are trying to see if the in-person interview confirms what was promised in the resume.

“Hmm.. he looks quite different from the photo that was sent earlier? Was it photo-shopped?”

“She looks shorter than what they claimed?”

“Is he stuttering? Is he just nervous or is that a real problem?” etc..

Even before we get to such physical and superficial tests,  aspects of behavior and personality were typically checked out through 3rd party references. For e.g, if someone you know was a student in the same college as the “candidate”, you ask,  “Do you know if he is a good kid?”, “Does he have any bad habits?”.  Remember this was before Internet, so there were no Facebook photos of you partying at spring break or video clips of your racist rant or even videos of you helping the blind lady cross the road!  So, a lot of the background checking happens through the network of family and friends. By the time we are down for “the interview” – most of the decision would already have been made.

After the initial pleasantries, Uma and I got to go to the terrace of their house for the “interview” portion of the evening!

As can be imagined, this was extremely awkward for both of us!

I quickly got to the point and covered 3 items that I considered were important:

  1. Are you interested in getting married to me? You are not being forced by your parents?
  2. I am very happy in the US. I like it there and have no immediate plans of coming back to India. Are you OK with moving to the US? 
  3. I explained that I was not into religious rituals and that I would respect her beliefs whatever they may be. I expected the same tolerance for my lack of beliefs.

Finally, I asked her if she had any questions for me?

She had none..

She did answer the 3 questions to my satisfaction..

That was the end of our roof-top interview session!

Next day I told my parents that I wanted to get married to Uma. My parents informed her parents and we were engaged. I returned to the US less than a week later. All my colleagues at work were shocked that you could go on a vacation and come back engaged, just like that! Yep.. that was their first exposure to how marriages got “arranged”!

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Engaged!

Last year, our daughter got married to someone she met in college. A “love marriage”, if you will. So, in our immediate family we’ve had a variety of marriages – from traditional arranged marriages to a love marriage!

I am guessing that you all are now curious if I am happily married? The answer is a resounding and emphatic  “YES”!!

She reads my blogs.. Do you think I will give any other answer? 🙂

Feel free to write about your own experiences/vignettes with arranged/love  marriages below in the comments section..

 

 

Gone Too Soon…

Growing up in Hyderabad, Ravi, Sridhar and Srinivas were very common names, with there being 3-4 in each middle school class. So, by necessity we had to add a descriptive prefix or suffix to the names. There was choTa Ravi, moTa Ravi, PeddA Sridhar, chinna Sridhar etc. Ravi was – choTa Ravi, potti Ravi, MN Ravi Kumar, MNRK, Kannada Ravi and more recently Ravi Mysore. ChoTa Ravi, with a baDaa dil left a void for all of us that is much bigger than his physical self. We recently gathered to reminisce about the fun times we had with Ravi all these years and to honor his memory. Please join me in this walk down memory lane

Open House @ Pratap Mahal

Picture an old apartment complex. Two floors of tightly packed units seemingly representing all of middle class India. There was plenty of open space, and all this was enclosed in a compound wall. This was the famous Pratap Mahal complex of Khairatabad. It was just a few blocks from the main road and you’d get to it by walking on a narrow road that straddles a naala (creek) on one side and the Institution of Engineers building on the other. At the end of the road, you will enter Pratap Mahal, which was next door to Nasr School, which was a prestigious school for girls.

My best friend Ravi and his family lived in the corner unit and I was a fixture at their place from 1975 onwards. We were classmates from 7th grade in Kendriya Vidyalaya Golconda, KVG (“passed out” in 1977 🙂  )  and all the way through engineering college (@ JNTU). There were 5 members in the family. Murthy uncle, Rathna Aunty, Ajji (grandmother), Ravi and his younger brother Manju. 

It felt like it was always open-house and open-hearts at their place!  While we were classmates and friends since 7th grade, we became even closer during college days (Engineering at JNTU).

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The gang in August 1983 (From L-R : Yashodhar, Sashi, Ashok, Ravi, Ravi Shankar, Aditya

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In Allentown (1989) with Ravi, Aunty, Uncle and Manju)

Ravi, Ravi Shankar, Ashok, Aditya and I became very close during the last few years in college and we used to study together. We used to call it “combined studies”, and to be sure, there was some amount of studying involved too! Coincidentally (wink-wink) it was almost always in Ravi’s house (or Ravi Shankar’s sometimes). I am sure it had something to do with the inviting-atmosphere or the awesome music or yummy food during breaks!! This is where I got my intro to Kannada language and Kannada ootaanna, pallya, saaru, thuppa, BisiBeleBhath, uppitte, dosa, sandige and proper Mysore coffee with just the right amount of chicory (that aunty used to get it ground up at this coffee mill in Khairatabad). Aunty and Uncle were always the most welcoming and gracious hosts ever. Aunty would talk in slightly accented Telugu. I have never heard uncle talk in Telugu. Ravi could manage Telugu quite well, although it was heavily accented and did not have the finesse for some people or situations! When Ravi tried to talk to our classmates Shobha and Jayalakshmi in Telugu, they appreciated his efforts but politely encouraged him to switch back to English. BTW, through all these years of interaction with Ravi and his family – I have picked up enough Kannada to understand the language and manage a few sentences in a pinch!

They had an awesome stereo system with amazing speakers! I had never experienced such a sound system before! By contrast – we just owned a basic cassette player (not even a stereo). Fun fact – Murthy uncle was an avid audiophile and had built several powerful audio amplifiers. The powerful amplifier and large speakers could have easily powered a decent sized discotheque! So, you can imagine what they did to the small living room (or the neighboring apartments)! They had an extensive collection of vinyl LP records. The western collection had Neil Diamond, Simon and Garfunkle, Boney M, Abba, BeeGees, Beatles, Carpenters, John Denver, Cerrone etc just to name a few. The most notable Bollywood one they had was Sholay, which they bought as soon as the movie was released. RD Burman’s score for Sholay blasted from those speakers was phenomenal. We used to spend hours on weekends copying the songs from his extensive collection of vinyls on to cassettes. These were our version of “recording sessions”, and my introduction to western music. We used to come home with all these recordings and blast them away in our puny cassette player. My parents used to freak out and complain about the “racket” we were creating! “What’s all this noise? Why don’t you listen to some nice Indian music?”

There is no better blend of east and west or spiritual and material than listening to MS Subbulakshmi’s  “Vishnu-Sahasra-Namam” immediately followed by Boney M’s Daddy Cool or ABBA’s Waterloo or BeeGees’ Stayin Alive!

This was part of the morning routine at the Ravi household. Aunty or maybe Ajji would request Vishu-Sahasra-Namam and then right after that we would start off with the loud BOOM-BOOM-BOOM of BoneyM or Abba or BeeGees! We pretty much monopolized the music. Very rarely did any other (Kannada or Hindi) music get played. I do remember they owned a couple of 45 rpm vinyl records with good Rajan-Nagendra hits like “Neerabittu Nelada Mele Dhoni sagadu” and “Jeeva Veene neeDu miDitada Sangeetha” from the movie “Hombisilu”.

Quizzing Times

In the first year of college, Ravi, Sitaram and I discovered our common love for quizzing. We participated in the college annual quiz competition and beat all the other teams easily. We repeated that for the next 3 years! Ravi was our pop culture expert who came up with the correct obscure details about Rock Stars, western movies etc. to save us in competitions! At various intercollegiate level competitions in Hyderabad, we got a couple of 2nd place finishes and a first place in Nizam College festival! It was always fun showing off our knowledge of the trivia and we made some good friends in the quizzing fraternity – who we kept running into at every competition. We later started our own (short lived) quiz club called “Quizibisa”. I covered all the fun we had during our quizzing days in an earlier blog entry: Who or what, is or was… ?

Bindaas

Both Ravi and I came out of our “shell” in college. We were reserved and kept to ourselves in school. In college, the differences in our basic personalities became apparent and amplified. He became a more spontaneous, free-spirited, outgoing and ”bindaas” type of guy. In contrast, I remained a more serious and reserved one, although, his nature did rub off on me over the years. He would make friends easily with folks from other branches of engineering, seniors, juniors, girls etc. He was very approachable and didn’t have the traditional airs of someone who is a couple of years senior in college. He was always helpful and would dole out advice to the juniors on which topics to focus on for exams and which professors repeated old exam papers etc.  By the time we graduated (in 1983) and I moved to the US, he had a large group of close friends from our junior classes who were in touch with him all through these years.  Since JNTU days he moved to IIT Kanpur, Gainesville Florida, New Brunswick NJ, Freehold NJ, Conshohocken PA, Ridley Park PA, Bangalore and Columbia Maryland, with one summer in Amsterdam. Since his last move back from Bangalore to Maryland (around 2008), he has continued that “open house – open heart” tradition and helped out his extended family and friends with whatever was needed. Ravi and Chandrika have helped children of several of our friends who were either going to school in the area or moved to the DC area for jobs. Just a couple of months ago he had sent a whatsapp message to our friend and classmate in India offering to help his daughter when she comes over to the US for grad school. He said “Don’t worry, I will help her out! She is the same age as my kids and is like my daughter. That University is only 3.5 hrs. from my house!!” That is so typical of Ravi!

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Four Turbaned Ravis at Ramya’s wedding

Torrent of Memories

  1. When black and white television was first introduced in Hyderabad, Doordarshan used to televise one movie per week (on Sundays). I used to come down to Pratap Mahal to watch the movie (as we did not own a TV back then). It was always a fun experience! We would sit outside and watch through the window, because there would be a sizable crowd already in the living room and also it was more fun goofing off with friends (and trying out one-liners) than sitting and seriously following the movie! Sweet memories..
  2. As a goof, we all decided that Ravi should contest in the student body elections (for General Secretary) to represent the cool and nerdy non-political students! There were two extremely polarized politically supported candidates representing ABVP and PDSU, who could not give a proper speech in English (we thought) and that was where Ravi would come in and dazzle everyone, we thought! Of course, these were not intellectually challenging times or elections, so nobody cared about this “independent candidate”. As expected, one of them won and Ravi came in a distant 3rd place. But on the bright side, while we did get threatened with violence (which was quite normal during student elections, in those days), we actually did not get beat up. We did have a lot of fun networking with the student body and also provided much needed comic relief! 

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    With Sashi. Modelling the ‘election campaign look’ 🙂

  3. On the college trip to the Thermal power plant, we had a sumptuous lunch at Ashok’s relative’s house in Vijayawada. After that Ravi, Ravi Shankar and I came back to the hotel room and on the way had some MeeTa Paan.  We got back to the room and passed out for several hours. We were so out-of-it that we did not even shut the door of the hotel room.  We suspected that the Paan was spiked with some kind of drug!
  4. Ravi and I came up with an original approach to calm ourselves before stressful exams. We picked a Neil Diamond song (“Solitary Man”) that we both loved and then used it to calm our minds for weeks before the exam. Then on the day of the exam, we listened to this just before going to college. This Pavlovian method worked wonders! Looks like we came up with an early form of “Mindfulness”!!
  5. I have vivid memories of experiencing my first (and only) full Solar eclipse with Ravi at Pratap Mahal on Feb 16th 1980. 
  6. Ravi, Ravi Shankar and I did a month of summer Internship at HAL – Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (thanks to Murthy Uncle who worked there). It was here that we saw the application of what we had learnt in the dreaded “Antennas and Wave Propagation” class)
  7. Ravi and I were regulars at all the movie theaters in the city that showed western movies – Skyline, Sangeet, Liberty, Plaza and Paradise. I have fond memories of watching some of the classics in these old stand-alone theaters – Saturday Night Fever, Jaws, Godfather, Airplane (released in India as “Flying High”), Raiders of the Lost Ark etc.
  8. Just before we graduated from college, the gang of 5 (Aditya, Ashok, Ravi, Ravi Shankar and I), went on an outing to Ananthagiri Hills, which was a nice forested area and had a government guest house on the top of a hill offering amazing panoramic views. It was about 50 miles to the west of Hyderabad. We took 3 scooters. On the way back Ravi’s scooter died! We could not find a way to get it fixed. So, we did the next best thing – to tie that scooter with a rope to another one and tow it all the way! This was some precarious towing over 20 miles while Ravi Shankar balanced the dead Vespa being pulled by a rope. Obviously there was no easy mechanism for him to know if the guy pulling would need to brake! How we managed to pull that off (pun intended) is one of those youthful miracles that cannot be explained!
  9. Over the years our typical phone calls would always start off with a mock Kannada conversation (remember that my Kannada is limited to basic pleasantries) : “Yo Ravi.. Yen MaaDthaide?”, “Yaenu iLLa Yashodhar.. Chenna Gi Dira?” “, “Of course, Chenna gir gaya”! , “Yaaru Beku ree?” “Meena Bakery”!! Ha.. ha!!     I had a very similar conversation in the 1st week of May when we talked about the kids and long term plans etc. He was his usual mellow self (which was a gradual change over the years from his boisterous college days). Before we ended the conversation he touched on his and Chandrika’s plans of moving back to India for retirement. That would be our last conversation, as he passed away 2 weeks later on May 20th 2018, quite suddenly, drowning all of his loved ones in shock, dismay and sorrow.

I will cherish these fond memories of Ravi forever! Chandrika, Ganesh and Ajay have a large extended family here in the US. We are all part of that extended family and we are here for the journey forward with Ravi always in our hearts.

I would love to hear your personal fun stories of/with Ravi. Please add them in  the comments section below..

That’s not burnt! It’s Blackened Cajun…

…and other helpful excuses in the kitchen!

The trick to making soft and delicious Gulab Jamuns is the butter that you drizzle into the Bisquick and Carnation milk powder while mixing and kneading into little balls! This little tip was not in the recipe that I copied from Cedar Rapids public library. I am proud to say that it’s something that I came up with!  This was just one of many gastronomic techniques that I had developed during my bachelor days in Iowa!

More science than art!

Like every other Indian  grad student in the US, I learned cooking from those that came before us. Every student’s pantry had the requisite cans of Garbanzo beans (for Chhole) and Red Kidney beans (for Rajma). Starting with the easy staples of Chhole , Rajma, scrambled eggs and V8 sambars we eventually graduated to pizzas made from scratch as well as more complicated sounding Indian non veg items. Every desi grad student was self-taught and, by the end of the first semester, could easily whip up a meal for the roommates as well as for weekend parties. The new comers just watched and learned. It was no big deal .. a little bit of this and little bit of that and then go crazy with the spices and cook the hell out of the whole mess and voila..  in no time you are a genius in the kitchen (at least in your mind)!

When I started living by myself as a working bachelor, I did try and bring some finesse to the cooking style and even consulted some recipe books to expand my repertoire! I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Saranya Mandava – a copy of whose popular recipe book was acquired from a friend. This was the first recipe book that had all the traditional Indian (and Andhra) dishes suitable for the US market! During those bachelor days in Iowa, I had the patience, time and aptitude to experiment in the kitchen – and more importantly, there was no one to throw cold water on my enthusiasm. Even if the end result was an inedible horrible mess, (not that it ever was),  didn’t Thomas Edison fail multiple times before he hit on that perfect element for the light bulb? I certainly was no less of a scientist in the kitchen!

Back in those Cedar Rapids days, when I was craving for Idlis (South Indian breakfast/brunch item) — I used an Idli mix packet (imported from an Indian store in Chicago) to make one large idli as shown – using the inverted lid of a rice cooker for pouring the batter and steaming it, in a 5 qt dutch oven (since I didn’t own the requisite “Idli Plates”). It was perfect! Who cares what its shape was as long as it tasted authentic! This was also the first time I had made the traditional Idli chutney with Peanuts+Coconut+Tamarind+Chilli peppers!

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One Big Idli!!

Another time, when I felt like having proper whole wheat chapatis and not the store bought tortillas, I started with whole wheat flour and improvised with a 2 liter bottle of coke (as a substitute for a rolling pin)! Ahh.. how can I forget those early days when the smoke alarm used to trip quite often (or the time when the apartment supervisor showed up in panic), just because I ended up with blackened Cajun Chapatis (quite unintended, of course)!!

Queen of her domain!

By the time Uma arrived on the scene, I was already an expert at cooking and more importantly,  I enjoyed cooking! When Uma was in college, her mom had told her – “Once you learn cooking, you will be cooking for  the rest of your life.. so there’s no rush , you can learn later”. So she had never stepped in a kitchen till she came to the US! Which is no big deal, as that was the case with me as well! Uma came to the US armed with a few written recipes from her mom and a recipe booklet! I was her first cooking guru. I taught her the basics and the rest is an amalgam of recipes, phone consultation with me (while I was at work) and hours and hours of phone consultation with her mom (AT&T did send us a thank-you note  that year for helping them meet their revenue goals)! As far as cooking is concerned we are polar opposites – She doesn’t really enjoy cooking, but does an excellent job of it when she does cook and is very particular about starting and ending with a clean kitchen. I, on the other hand, love to experiment in the kitchen, and have been told that I “leave a mess behind” (of course, that’s debatable, in my opinion). 🙂

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In 1989 Uma came to the US armed with these recipe notes

Uma is a strict traditionalist in her style of cooking. She will not mix two ingredients or spices unless her original notes or her mom says it’s OK to do that! She still hates cooking – but whatever she cooks is tasty and traditional! (I am required to mention this per the legal contract!). 🙂  She rules over the kitchen and says that I make a mess and create extra work for her when I do cook! She gets upset that I don’t follow a recipe or that I do not name the item till it’s all done (really, who knows what it will turn out to be anyway). I have  essentially been kicked out of the kitchen for all practical purposes and only invited to take  care of a few selected items which are my signature items, such as the aforementioned Idli chutney,  Avial (which morphed into Vegetable Korma – after some key ingredients were subtracted by family members) and Masala chai (which I have been told is too strong, sometimes)!

Today, I am happy to report that after all these years, a little bit of me has rubbed off on Uma and vice versa. She is in the mood for experimenting with different spice blends as well as some combinations of vegetables which were a taboo earlier. As for me, I have been more careful to not make a mess (“an ounce of prevention…”) while cooking.  She has picked up newer recipes from VahReVah.com and also added her own twists to some of the recipes to come up with awesome results! She makes a mean Hyderabadi biryani and authentic Paalak Paneer!

On one winter weekend morning, the kids wanted pancakes or waffles for breakfast but Uma and I were not quite in the mood for a sweet breakfast. So, I experimented with topping the waffle with chopped onion, chilli pepper and some Andhra style gun powder! The delectable result was thoroughly appreciated by 2 out of the 4 in the family. The other 2 screamed – “Sacrilege”!

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Belgian Waffle —>> Mysore Masala Waffle

There was another time when we bought Paani Puri shells from store and got very creative with the filling – different salsas, Adobo, Cajun and Creole seasonings instead of  the usual ‘Pani’. The kids used to turn out delicious Naanzas (Naan + Pizza) for a quick meal – improvising different toppings based on whatever was available in the house! So, all in all the inventive streak does run in the family.. and we have fun with it!

Chicken Biryani (Paprika waala)! 

In those early days in Allentown, when we were hosting a party, I was making chicken curry and as usual, I wanted to experiment with some new spices (I was always a scientist in the kitchen!), so I decided to add paprika in addition to chilli powder. The end result looked very impressive, till I tasted it and realized that it was extremely bitter! We panicked briefly… and then, with guests arriving in less than an hour, I jumped into the the Mr Fix-it mode! I quickly washed every single piece of chicken under running water and then turned it all into chicken biryani! The guests thoroughly enjoyed the dinner and especially loved the biryani. When they asked for the recipe, we gave it to them – every single step including the first pass with paprika and washing the pieces in the sink!  I am not sure if they remember this, but after 27 years, we still remember this (and chuckle) like it happened yesterday! 🙂

As Ramya and Vidya get ready to try out Indian cooking on their own,  I decided to create a cheat sheet of sorts for them as well as all others who like Indian food but are generally intimidated  by the seemingly complicated steps involved in preparing it.

Indian cooking for dummies

Intro to Indian Cooking (Click on the link below for enlarged view)

Indian cooking for dummies

Analyze that!

Most likely, because of my experience and interest in cooking,  I am too analytical (when it comes to food) for my own good. Whenever we emerge from a restaurant, I immediately deconstruct every item we had for lunch/dinner down to its nuts and bolts to minimize the chef’s efforts  (and to ruin the experience for the family)! ):

“Looks like they went crazy with the Aamchoor in that Chhole!”

“$7.99 for that Double-Ka-MeeTa?? I can make that in 20 mins with toasted bread, milk and nuts!”

“That biriyani reminds me of our  twice cooked paprika chicken biriyani.. wonder how they got hold of our family recipe?”

“Hmm that Gulab Jamun seems to have the stamp of approval from the American Dental Association!!”

Sweet Tooth?

Back in Iowa, where it all started, when word spread among my friends in and around Cedar Rapids/Iowa City that I was a Gulab Jamun expert, I started getting requests to make and bring some for parties. One particular party stands out in my mind after all these years (for reasons that will become apparent soon)! It was a big gathering in Iowa City for someone’s farewell dinner (I think). They asked me to come over and make my world famous Gulab Jamun. I was, of course, more than happy to oblige. I followed the recipe word to word, including the trick about butter in the Bisquick and Carnation milk powder. I must have made almost 100 of these balls! Some of the ladies at the event suggested that I should start my own catering business! I pushed any such suggestions aside with a modest/sheepish smile.  When it was all said and done, just before arranging the food, I tasted one of the syrupy balls and I almost chipped a tooth! It was as hard as a marble. I could not believe that my tried and true formula failed me  in such a massive, humiliating way! Someone said “Don’t worry, they are  not too hard.” to console me!.. One good thing that came out of that disaster – No one dared to ask me to come over and cook ANYTHING after that!

Who or what, is or was… ?

(This story is certified 100% Organic and  95% non-fiction!)

We were on fire! It must have been our lucky day- we were breezing through all the questions…

“Who is Lot’s wife?”

“What is Mahayana?”

“What is Hejira”

“Who is Odin?”

There – we demolished the Religion and Mythology category on Jeopardy and high five’ed each other as the show went to a break before “Final Jeopardy”.

It was winter break for Vidya and this was our daily routine as soon as I came home from work.  We would sit down with unhealthy munchies  in front of the TV waiting for Jeopardy to start. We would answer (or “question” in  this case -as Jeopardy has an “Answer & Question” format and not the other way around) along with the contestants. We had our favorite categories – Vidya’s were Pop & Rock Music, Mythologies, Geography & Current affairs. I was generally good at Religion, 70s, 80s, 90s Pop culture & TV shows, Movies and Current Affairs. It turns out that, under pressure, we were pretty good at making intelligent guesses. We were both pretty good that day! Barring categories like Sports, British Monarchy, American History, etc., I was generally good at Jeopardy, as long as I was in my pajamas in my family room and in front of my TV! I would probably fail miserably if I had to do that in the studio! In fact I may not even make it past the qualifier rounds!

 

Nothing Trivial about this Pursuit

Early in our freshmen year of Engineering (1978 in Hyderabad, India), my buddies Sitaram, Ravi and I discovered that we had something in common – all three of us loved digging up and storing obscure & generally “useless” information! I was thrilled to find this niche that we were good at! We used to show off to each other and others around us, at every possible opportunity…

“What is Karen Lunel famous for?”

“Who wrote the script for the English version of Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman starrer ‘Guide’?”

“In a Vintner’s world – who or what is a punt?”

Remember – this was all before internet, Google, mobile phones, etc… heck, forget about a mobile phone.. we did not have any  phone in the house. It was before quizzing was made popular by “Quiz Time” (the TV Show by Siddhartha Basu)!

Sitaram had prior experience with the quizzing circuit of Hyderabad and was plugged into what competitions were scheduled and how we could get in. He was the de facto leader of the team and was an expert on current affairs (world & Indian) and overall general knowledge.  He had friends and acquaintances in the circuit. He would point out the strengths and weaknesses of the regulars to Ravi and me.  As we went to a few of these, even Ravi and I started recognizing the regulars among the contestants as well as the Quiz masters. There were teams from all the prestigious schools/colleges of Hyderabad.

The regulars included teams from Hyderabad Public School (HPS), Nizam College, Osmania Engineering, VV College, Little Flowers, etc. There were a  whole range of characters among the participants – from the snobs of HPS to the  shy ones from “Madapati Hanumanth Rao High School”! Our team managed to surprise everyone (including  ourselves) by  consistently placing among the top 5 in the city. Among quiz masters, I clearly remember  Satya Prasad (of K-Circle)  and Y.Prabhakar who were quite popular in the Hyderabadi quizzing circles for their unique styles.

Bala the wunderkind

Those days, you couldn’t miss Bala at any of the city quizzing events!  He stood out at every one of these competitions for the genius that he was. He was probably in 10th or 11th grade and his depth and breadth of knowledge was jaw-dropping!  He would go one up on the quiz masters by giving them more than the necessary answers, on questions which were considered extremely obscure to start with!  “What’s the name of the character from Homer’s Odyssey, which means ‘burner of ships’?”  Bala comes back with “Nausicaa… and her parents were King Alcinous and Queen Arete of Phaeacia”!!  We were sure that he had memorized all the volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica. I wouldn’t doubt it – as I saw him in action! He was proficient in every conceivable area. In the audio-visual portion he could identify the 5th of Beethoven as easily as Charukesi Raga! All the girls were in awe of Bala (so it seemed from the jealous corner that we were sitting in, anyway)!

Ravi covered Western, Rock, Pop music areas as well as mythologies. As for myself – somehow pop culture became my thing and then I sharpened this by going through certain magazines that were popular in those days – India Today, Illustrated Weekly of India and Bombay Magazine – from which I culled obscure, useless (for everyone else) details like – “Who is  Alyque Padamsee’s wife who acted in the Movie KhaTTa MeeTha. For a bonus point – What was her religion?” I remember once, in the audio/visual section, they played the signature tune of “All India Radio”, and then asked –  “This signature tune of AIR was based on Raga Shivaranjani. Who composed it?”. After the first few guys went for the obvious guesses of “Ravi Shankar” or “Hari Prasad Chaurasia”, Bala jumped in with “Walter Kauffman, in 1936, a Jewish refugee, originally from Czechoslovakia, who was then the Director at AIR!”

 

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Certified!!

Our own Quiz club?

It turned out that Bala actually lived not too far from my house. As we kept running into each other at various competitions, we became friends and decided that the city was big enough to accommodate another Quiz Club – so we started one! We named it Quizzibisa (a take-off on the name of the British Afro Pop band  – Osibisa)! It was a very small group that met in the Community Hall across from my house.  As far as I can remember now, there was Bala, Ravi, I, and a few other friends from my colony. We took turns being the quiz master and running through the standard quiz routine. We started the club with a lot of enthusiasm, but could not sustain it past a couple of months – as real life interfered in the form of crucial exams!

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Sure.. This could happen!

On a typical Hyderabadi summer day I was  standing at the bus stop with my signature cloth bag and this beautiful girl walked up and said – “Weren’t you the one that  won the quiz competition  at our college yesterday?!!”. I figured she was from Osmania Medical College, as she had that white coat and stethoscope on her arm. “You guys were amazing! I especially loved how you answered the question about AIR signature tune! By the way – is that tune really in Shivaranjani Raga? I used to think that  it was Mohana Raga!”. Looks like she mistook me for one of the guys who actually won the competition! Oh well… no need to clarify these minor details! She was going on and on about specific questions from the other day… “It’s amazing how  you guys knew that a grand piano has 16 fewer black keys than white ones!”. “Do you take this bus to go home everyday?” “Wow, really? Me too!”… etc, etc…

That, dear Ramya and Vidya, is how I met your mother! 😉

 

 

Popcorn for Breakfast!

We drive by “309 Cinema” all the time and never pay any special attention to it. As the name implies, it is a multiplex (quite old.. compared to other multiplexes around here) on Route 309, not far from where we live.  We’ve often wondered how it is still in business competing with  all the state-of -the-art theaters with fully reclining seats and some that even serve food and drinks inside the hall! Yesterday when Vidya and I walked up to the ticket counter at 9:40 AM and bought a couple of tickets – it evoked waves of nostalgia for me! Continue reading