Goodbye Pittsburgh

by Ramesh Mahadevan

I have lived in Pittsburgh for almost an eternity. And now it is time to move on. In a matter of weeks, I will be relocating to the Denver/Boulder area. (look me up folks, I will be in a village called Louisville) I guess, this will also have to be a goodbye to SCI, unless I somehow get access to the net. Let me look back on old Pitt. Get your handkerchiefs.

Many of you must have been to Pittsburgh. It is a beautiful place, don't you think ? It is nestled in the mountains. Rivers crisscross through it. It is as old fashioned as it gets, in terms of American Midwest. Most Pittsburghers are the type (no, I cannot generalize) who would watch you with suspicion and curiosity initially, and once the bonafides are established, they tend to be close friends and would gladly give their shirts off their backs to you, if you need it. In a country where migration is a way of life, a good percentage of the local population simply stays back in the local county. The same pimple-face has been pumping gas for me for the last so many years and the waitress at the neighborhood diner knows exactly what I would order. There is a sense of permanence.

It is also a very livable city. It is crowded and human, like most Indian cities. The public transportation is so good it rivals the Madras or Bombay bus system. The public schools are good and the crime rate is low. They have fine hospitals where they transplant organs wholesale.

I know some of you must be curious about the 'desi' aspects of Pittsburgh life. You may wonder how many desis are in town. (and how many of them are unmarried, stunning-looking 'females') Are they stratified into Maharashtra Mandal, Bongeeya Samiti and Tamil Mandram ? Say, which are the desi restaurants to visit and what is the deal with the temple ? The answer to all the questions is 'maybe'. Ha ha.

Pittsburgh is a very religious city. There are churches practically at every street corner catering to every denomination, a lot of them are architectural beauties. There are mosques, synagogues, a very active Gurudwara and a Hindu-Jain temple. One of the biggest Indian icon, the Sri Venkateswara temple, (SV temple) pops up in front of you as you drive by the only freeway in town.

More about this temple. Even if you are a skilled driver and are armed with specific directions, the first few times you reach the SV temple are purely stochastic arrivals. Once you are there, you find yourself at one of the oldest and perhaps among the largest of Hindu temples in the USA. It has a complement of extremely courteous and professional staff of priests, cooks and office staff. You can perform years worth of religious things in one weekend - right from shearing your head to getting a marriage performed. If you are looking for a 'match', then you can register your horoscope in the temple database and wait by your phone.

Locals like us have a different perspective about the temple. Besides being a religious place, it is also like a country club where the local desis socialize. It is not uncommon to see deals made over a power lunch of yoghurt rice. By the way, you get sumptuous 'prasad' in the temple kitchen for a meagre donation. And the people at the other end of the kitchen counter, doling out the prasad, are actually professionals like you and me, who are simply volunteering their time. The temple makes enough money in the kitchen and in other donations that they organize dance and music recitals for free. In the summers, they have Hindu summer camps for kids and music courses in vocal, violin and percussion instruments with teachers brought from India. All these are also subsidized by the temple. It is a sheer pleasure to just sit in the parking lot and watch desis descend from their tightly-packed vans and expensive cars with personalized license plates. There are fat desis, thin desis, brand new desis, n th generation desis, parents of desis, neo-desis, anglo-saxon desis, desis who come in shorts and T shirts, desis who dress in three pieces, desis who pretend to have forgotten what they do in temples - all spend a few religious moments to cleanse their huge backlog of sins.

If you forgot to have a solid go at the temple kitchen, you can check out one of the four desi restaurants in town. There is a fast food (well, not that 'fast' really) joint right near the temple called 'Vegetarian Delight', an euphemism for a heat-less, AC-less dhabha (shack) where dosas and idlis are made for a huge premium. Then there is a 'Shish Mahal' which is supposedly run by a doctor couple as a 'tax shelter'. By the way, this restaurant had the worst rating of all desi restaurants in US, in the now defunct, SCI restaurant rating system. The lady who runs it, divides her time between surgery and subji-making and would readily sit down at your table and talk your ears off, even though you had planned on a quiet evening with your friends. The service is pathetic and if you repeatedly goad them, you might get your food, in microscopic installments. A couple of slaves imported from their native village in India would maraude around the tables, keeping a keen eye on you. The son of the owners would sit by the money pit and idly eat nachos, watching others nacholy eat idlies. In the middle of everything, even Dominos Pizza would deliver a pizza for the son ! Avoid this place, unless you are one of those who don't love yourself and on the verge of manic depression.

Then there are two restaurants with high sounding names, 'Darbar' and 'Star of India'. There is a big war going on between these two establishments. (and you think they have a war in the Middle East) The owner of one would go to the parking lot of the other and insert flyers in the parked cars to lure them to his place. The other owner retaliated by replacing the 'yes-boss' type, desi waiters with local good-looking women. The first restaurant simply slashed its prices. The customers are the clear winners. I was even given free gulab jamuns in one, for merely saying bad things about the other restaurant. By the way, one of the restaurant tycoons in Pittsburgh is an Indian, owning a clutch of popular Thai, French and Italian restaurants. ('There is no money in running an Indian restaurant in Pittsburgh')

A town is not worthy of desi living if it didn't have a dumpy Indian spices store. And 'Bombay Emporium' is a veritable landmark in Pittsburgh. A Shylock-like merchant trades in everything Indian, with a one-stop convenience. You park your car illegally on the sidewalk and before Smokey comes around and gives you parking tickets, you can get yourself a term life insurance, buy an air ticket to Delhi and browse through the jungle of 220 volts appliances. You get Indian jadoos (brooms), khadais (woks) which are so authentic you won't get them in India itself. They have every single desi spice and associated bacteria. Their pickles are so old you need carbon dating to fix their approximate manufacturing date (at least you are sure they are pickled well) and their mithais are as stale as the liquid oxygen joke. They have a computerized inventory of all hindi videos. (some of them pirated) Methinks only one student at Carnegie Mellon is a member of their Video Club and all the rest of us simply try to pass off as Abinandanan and borrow their videos. (Thus far, I have been the only one to get caught trying to do this) The owners are still amazed at Abinandanan's propensity to see movies, coming into the store ten times during the weekends and looking different each time.

There is an old skeleton that works at the cash counter, the legendary Bombay Emporium 'buddha'. He is so old-fashioned and low-tech that he still does not trust his cash register and would add the entries mentally for verification. He actually winks at you when you borrow the Indian dirty movies.

Carnegie Mellon has several Indian students, like any other place. Even though everyone has his or her own life, we operate as a community to a good extent. We are a really small community, the college campus hardly the size of a usual engineering college in India. Fortunately, we don't have a caste system of IITs vs others, metallurgists vs computer scientists and the more blatant, Northy vs Southie divisions. People are so much into their research and courses that they don't have time for petty ego trips. Meeting other desis tend to be pleasant and the norm is that you try to be friendly with your fellow citizens. You can literally walk into anyone's apartment and will be asked to stay over for dinner.

There is a well-oiled India Association (called Mayur) at Carnegie Mellon, which shows regular movies/newstracks and publishes a newsletter and runs a bboard. The brains and muscle of the organization are the undergraduates, about half of them were born in this country. It is not surprising to see senior students such as the sixth year grad student doing menial volunteer work, (such as cleaning up after a Mayur dinner) without griping. Everyone knows everyone else, almost and that helps. Besides, it is our association, see ?

And us guys from Carnegie Mellon are very active on the SCI bboard. You may probably be curious to find out what kind of people we are in real life. (I for one am curious about some of the posters - is Asim Mughal really a Bart Simpsonesque brat and is Martillo really a kind and gentle person who is merely putting on a front on the SCI to compensate for his feelings of inadequacy ?)

Do you know that Arun Gupta is an unassuming physics Ph.D from Caltech. (and has other disgusting achievements right from his IIT days) Sohan Ramakrishna-Pillai, the only guy to have a hyphen for a middle name, is a chess wiz (not 'cheese whiz' ha ha) whose car people always bang into. Milind Kandlikar is a pacifist who went to Washington to protest the war. Sudheer Apte, another prominent voice of secularism, ran Mayur (Indian association) for a long time and made many positive changes. There cannot be a cultural event in the vicinity of Pittsburgh without Prashant Rane participating in it. He is a key(board) member of the Carnegie Mellon light music group 'Anamika'. (Yes folks, we have a nice music group to enthrall you with Hindi, Bengali and Tamil songs and we even have non-Indians in the group) No, I really don't know Pravin Ratnam. (I caught you there, didn't I ?) Carnegie women such as Yashodhara Pawar and Sonali Laha have made posts on topics ranging from environment of love to love of environment. Of course, there is a silent majority, who uses the SCI in the read-only mode and discuss the postings.

Finally, what is living in a place, if it were not for the associated memories. I live in one of those beehives, partitioned into a million apartments. My next door neighbor, till a while ago, used to be an elderly Sikh couple - my adopted uncle and aunt. Uncle used to be a top Indian government official, and chose to retire in Pittsburgh since his kids were in neighboring towns. The couple was so vigorous and active that they wouldn't miss their daily walks unless there is a weather advisory. Uncle never once took up my offer (should I say insistence ?) to drive him to the grocery store. He wouldn't even take grocery rides from his own brother living a block away. Uncle was always curious about everything, including my research work and always had a bagful of stories. He was employed somewhere, volunteered his time in senior citizens' projects, found time to help aunt with cooking and was pursuing a degree (even though he already had some other advanced degree) in Accounting, all at age seventy ! Never an idle minute. When I expressed my amazement at his infinite energy, given that I am already ready to retire and laze around, he pointed to an India Abroad clipping about his uncle in Canada, who at age ninety had just enrolled in a Ph.D program in economics in Ohio State ! (Anyone from Ohio State who knows how he is doing ?)

Uncle never lectured to me on anything, but he did leave me tremendously impressed and inspired. And I always thought I wasn't easy to be influenced.

Well, what more can I say ? I had a great time, personally and professionally. It's time to move on.

Goodbye, Pitsburg.

Copyright(R) Mahadevan Ramesh