My uncle, Mr. Venkataraman (known simply as Venky to some of you bboard folks) and aunt Parvati just landed up at Boston for the very first time from India. They have come to visit their son (the 'Boston Brahmin', ha ha). They were also going to travel around in this land of milk, honey and to my uncle's chagrin, a lot of meat. In just two short weeks afterward, they visited me in Pittsburgh - they wanted to see the Pittsburgh Venkateswara temple before they kicked off their tour. Actually they did go to the White Mountains the previous weekend. 'There was nothing there. Only trees' my uncle dismissed it "The car ride was the best part". My uncle is an extremely thin gentleman, with a long face and yards of nose. And looking at him, you won't believe he sired six children. He is a sort of an existentialist. Every incident, big and small, affected him deeply. His life is one long journey from crisis to crisis. Several of his days have been ruined because his daily newspaper was delivered half an hour late. The first thing he did upon stumbling into my apartment was to peek into my fridge, to make sure I didn't keep any furry animals or their meat inside. "Ramesh, you look just the same, like you were six years ago. I don't even think you have had a haircut since then. Parvati, look. Ramesh has already made some food. He is going to heat up yesterday's leftovers in the microtava and give it to us. Ha ha"
"No uncle, I won't dream of doing that to you. That's not yesterday's leftovers. It is more like leftovers from three or four days ago. By the way, how was your flight ?"
"Don't ask me. It was an ordeal. It was very delayed even at Bombay. All our relatives had come to send us off" "I can understand that. They must be feeling thrilled about not seeing you for another four months."
"Even Chotu was there from Hyderabad". Chotu, for those of you who don't know my family, is my Uncle's (and my father's) kid brother who is about fifty years old and weighs over two hundred pounds. One could only speculate that he was perhaps small at some point in his life. "Ramesh, You won't believe what happened during the flight"
"Wait, let me guess, they tried to hijack your plane.." "Ha haa, Parvati, Come over here quick, Ramesh is cracking those funny jokes like he used to."
"Okay, let me guess again, they hijacked the plane, but refused to take you as a hostage, because they knew you are a solid bore and they didn't want to die a horrible death listening to you"
"As a matter of fact, there were so many security checks and body searches that it was a relief to board the plane. The moment I sat in my seat, I fell asleep. There was this dull aircraft noise. I suddenly woke up and looked at your aunt and she was wide awake. I said 'woman, grab some sleep. I'm telling you. Or you will fall ill or something and cause problems to your daughter in law'. She said she tried but couldn't sleep. 'Parvati, what do you want me to do, sing you a lullaby. Close your eyes and count sheep'"
"You should have bought her a couple of beers. That would have knocked her flat."
"You are a fool. Try growing up. Another half an hour later I got up again and there she was staring at the first class area, like an owl. Your aunt just could not sleep. She just wasn't used to sleeping sitting up. I can sleep anywhere, any time, even hanging upside down like a koala bear"
"Uncle, when you do that, do you wear a dhoti or pants ?"
"Shut up and listen. Finally, I decided to get up and was awake for an hour and I was desparate for a coffee. I could even kill for a cup of coffee. At last, they brought the coffee and breakfast. But it wasn't our type of coffee. They brought the cream and sugar separately. You know, I never drink coffee without milk. I opened one of the creams, spilled half of it, who knows how to open those packs, poured it and the coffee looked dark still. I looked in my tray and found another cream, opened it and poured it and it was still dark. I turned toward your aunt and said 'Parvati, you hadn't slept a wink last night or was it today morning, damn this time change, anyway, you look pathetic. In fact, you look so horrible that had I seen you like this some decades ago, I would not have married you. I know coffee is your opium. But if you drink this non-South Indian coffee your eyes are going to get stuck in a wide open position and you will feel even more miserable. So let me have your creams'. I added one of her creams to my coffee. It was still black. Then I added another one and it was still black"
"Then what happened ?" I interrupted, unable to control myself.
"What could I do ? I had to drink it. My stomach was all upset. By the by, (A little translation - 'By the by' is a typically South Indian expression and every time I hear it, I go into paroxysms of joy) what coffee do you drink ?"
"The kind that has caffeine."
"I meant the brand, you idiot. I think you have gone completely bonkers. I ought to tell your father about this. Well anyway, last weekend I was clipping coupons from the newspaper and I found two coupons for the Maxwell Home coffee and I can give you one and you can save 60 cents"
I was deeply moved by his gesture. "Uncle, you said something interesting happened in your flight. Why don't you come to it"
"Wait. Not so soon. Then I told your aunt, 'Parvati, the bathrooms are free now. Why don't you go and wash up. Once inside the bathroom, it may feel a little queasy, especially if you suddenly realize that you are miles above the ground. But be calm and take your time. I needn't tell you, because anyway you take hours to come out of bathrooms. Remember we are landing at London in another 4 hours 42 minutes. Be back before then. She went out, my poor wife and then after ten minutes she came right back and I asked her 'Parvati what happened.' She said 'You may get angry, but I forgot to bring my bindi (kumkum) and now I cannot have the dot on my forehead'. I said 'Are you serious ? You were preparing for this trip for two months and you forgot such basic things. Search your handbag carefully'. She said she gave it a thorough search.
'You women always have the plastic stick-on dots. What about those ?' and she said she just ran out of them last month. Then we searched our hand luggage carefully, the Sambar powder pack fell off on the gentleman on the next seat and he was sneezing uncontrollably. To add to the confusion, someone behind us kept saying 'bless you bless you'. Then I said 'Can't you mix haldi(turmeric) and something and get something quick and dirty and apply it on your forehead?'. She said 'Yes, but of all the masalas, I did not bring haldi'. I said 'How about the kumkum Prasad we got at the temple just before we left. We did a special pooja for our trip to be a success'. 'Yes, but we have put them in the suitcase. Remember you asked me to put the kumkum and the sacred ash in the suitcase because you didn't want the customs people to think we are trying to smuggle some controlled substance'. I said 'Now what are we going to do ? You always do dumb things like this. I hope you remembered to pack my striped underwears. As such you are looking very scary without any sleep. Your eyes are red and bulging, you look like movie actor Rajendranath. Now without your dot, you are going to scare your grandchildren out of the airport. That's okay. You don't have to have a dot. Most women in the world don't. Look at that fifty year old cutie pie two rows from here. She doesn't have a dot. You can always use your lipstick or something. Where can I go and look for bindi in midair ?"
Then I turned around and I noticed another couple, just like us, I went near them and overheard them. They too were talking in tamil. So, I introduced myself and asked the woman for her bindi. That woman thought I was weird. I said "No no no. It is not for me. It is for my missus. I ain't no Kamalapati Tripathi. Ha Ha. That man applies so much of it on his forehead that he looks like somebody just shot him between his eyebrows." But our problem was solved. In fact, I got to know them very well. I have their address and phone number. He used to work for the PWD. They are not any strangers. They have relatives in our village. Maybe even, distantly related to us. They are going to Montreal to visit their son and told me a million times to visit them and I intend to. By the by, they said they would be visiting Pittsburgh and I gave them your number and told them it is okay to stay with you."
"So, uncle, this is what happened in your flight. I am surprised you even came out of it in one piece..." Of course, the sarcasm was lost on my uncle.
"Wait, I haven't even come to the most important thing. Then they brought lunch. It was some North Indian thing. You know I don't like that cuisine. But what can I do. I was going to eat it. Food is such a problem if you step outside our beloved Tamil Nadu. I told your aunt 'Parvati, you won't like this food. It has garlic. I looked at the various items on the tray. There was even mint chutney, although it wasn't in mint condition. Ha ha. The vegetable looked intriguing, something like our radish. I put my fork into it and pulled it out and when I was about to stuff into my mouth Parvati said 'Wait, my soulmate, it doesn't look like any vegetable. Maybe they got you meat by mistake'. By now, I was shaking like a leaf. What a mistake. Yes, your aunt was correct. I called the airhostess and even the gentleman sitting next to us, the same guy who got the sambar powder in his eyes, also told me it was chicken. Ramesh, I came this close to eating chicken. I was so lucky that your aunt, even when she was groggy and sleepy and hadn't had her coffee, still saved me at the nick of time and then..." "Interesting. But, now you really have to hurry up uncle. You still have the London - Boston segment to cover and we don't have all day. Remember, we still have a temple to visit. Come to the punchline and let us hear the end of your story"
"Golly! Lord Venkateswara ! Ain't I no tellin' you ? THAT was the story. I thought you were listening to me. As usual, you were in your own dream world and didn't pay attention to your own uncle. Now I'll have to go over the details again. Lets see, were you with me when I told you about the coffee......"