My Cousin, My Uncle

by Ramesh Mahadevan

If you are born with a name like Ramesh, it is a cruel fact of life that you are blessed with a cousin who is named Suresh. In fact, till his dying day, my grandfather could never tell Suresh from Ramesh and always ended up talking to the wrong one. Actually, a couple of times, I have escaped my grandfather by simply telling him "I am not Suresh" and running away, even before he could open his mouth, leaving him utterly confused.

Little had I realized when I emerged into the world on that auspicious day when the planets were in their harmonic convergence, that I had set off a competition of sorts between the two cousins. My extended family, all of whom lived within a busride of each other, had split into two camps. A major group touting Suresh and his exploits and a very small minority faction, comprising mostly of my mother, singing my praises. It eventually turned out that the only thing I did better and ahead of Suresh was being born. A mere six months after my mundane happening, baby Suresh popped out, much to the delight of doting uncles and aunts, who carried the kid everywhere and never once minded his runny nose.

He was a skinny brat. In fact, the doctors used to take Polaroid pictures of him instead of x-rays. While at school, he collected stamps, autographs, coins and anything that nobody else cared to collect, while I still languished, unable to determine how many states there were in India at the last count. Whereas I was in my colony cricket team purely because I owned the stumps and the bat, Suresh was a star of his team and was even allowed to bat at his will. Gentle folks of SCI, you can sense what I am getting at. I am human after all. Yes, I was insanely jealous of my younger cousin.

His father, my Uncle, (No, this is not Uncle Venkat) was a 'redneck' Tamilian, if there ever was such a person. He would shower incestuous praises on his darling son even if he only walked across the room without falling. Fate pushed me into Kanpur and Suresh into an obscure engineering college in a far corner of the country and suddenly he was out of my life for years and years. His college was always out of phase with most colleges in India due to strikes and 'sine die' closing.

Still, I would bump into Uncle whenever I got home during vacations. He would update me on Suresh. "You know Suresh is the president of the Astronomy club. Do you do any of those things ? You know you should get into these extra curricullar activities too." To which I would say something dumb like, yes, I had dedicated my hostel room to be one of the temples for Rekha.

"Suresh is also into debating and he is the captain of the kho kho team. He is also active on the Leo club. In fact, he had lunch with the state governor last month." My Uncle would brag on. "Anyway, all I want in life is all of you to prosper and do well in life."

I'd get this incredible urge to open a trap door under my Uncle's chair and watch him free fall. But instead I would give him my best sheepish grin and let it pass. Heck, even if the governor of UP walked in front of me, I wouldn't recognize him. Who knows, maybe they even forgot to appoint a governor for UP. Lunch with the governor - for heaven's sake. Sadly, I started hating a lot of things just because Suresh was doing those things.

I moved to the USA and spent several more Suresh-free years, while he joined a 'software company' in India and made money. One day, my peace and quiet were shattered when the phone rang and Suresh was on the other end ! I almost thought of hanging up. But instead had to listen to his babble. His company in India shipped his body to an American software company. He asked me some tantalizing questions on B visa, which I could not answer. But in about six months, he had jumped ships and started working for a Wall Street company. He moved to an apartment in a Desi ghetto, right next to Jackson Heights.

Meanwhile, in India, my Uncle was bragging about his son's house, which was right in the center of 'everything'. "Suresh even goes and gets curry leaves everyday, just like India." He would tell my parents. "He has not one but two bathrooms in his apartment. What, Ramesh shares just one bathroom with two other roommates, that must be a little tough." It is another story that Suresh got burglarized twice in two months and although he milked his apartment insurance, he grudgingly moved to New Jersey and paid a higher rent and yes, lived with only one bathroom. Soon his phone calls to me were getting deadly and annoying. He was the kind who would call home every three days and write home every week. He would update me even on my parents' activities. While my parents were convinced that I was doing something very wrong behind their back, his parents knew every one of his moves, even the last time he did his laundry.

He always got the best deals on anything - to go to India, overseas telephone calls, the cheapest pizza, car insurance - a lot of these things almost bordering on the illegal. His quest for knowledge of such things was so great, that he completely neutralized my advantage of having come to the US several years before he did.

He was also a maha 'kanjoos', although he preferred to use the politically correct term for himself, 'Monetarily challenged'. You know, he is the kind of guy who would buy a double breasted coat instead of a single breasted coat because he thinks that way he was getting more breasts for his money. Once when he and I went to eat in an Indian restaurant, one of those dark and dingy restaurants illuminated only by candles, I discovered after half an hour that he was eating off my plate. He was also the most secretive person. After half an hour into a phone call once, he informed me that his parents, my obnoxious Uncle and his wife, were arriving from India the next day.

One of the most inexplicable things I had done in my life was to actually visit the three of them over the Labor day weekend. I was expecting to see two skinny Gandhian legs on Suresh, sticking out of an oversized pair of shorts. I wasn't disappointed, but what I hadn't expected to see was a huge beer belly, about three fourths of which was popping out all over his t shirt. He had strangely grown into a very old person. In fact, he looked like a replica of what my Uncle used to be.

In turn, my uncle looked like an aged pro-tackle of Chicago Bears. He talked to me only in english and even gave me a lecture on why the divorce rate was high in the USA, although he had not met a single American since he came here some months ago. "Let me give you a piece of advice" He told me "It is alright to keep on studying and doing Ph. D, but why are you taking years and years ? Get a job and come to the real world. I am ready to go to my grave one day after my Suresh finds a nice Tamil girl from a good family, decent education, good personality, nice cultural and moral values ...... You too should look for a nice girl. If you want, I can tell your parents."

My aunt was a one woman idli-sambhar factory, making industrial quantities of sambhar. When I observed more closely, I discovered that she was cooking every minute of the day since I arrived there. I inquired about her ruthless cooking and even kidded if Suresh was getting married. "No, didn't they tell you ? Your uncle and Suresh have decided to celebrate Ganesh Chathurthi very elaborately. Actually, the festival isn't until next wednesday, but this being a three day weekend, they thought it would be a good idea to do it tomorrow. Actually, the basic reason is Suresh has so many friends. We haven't invited most of them home for dinner yet. So he has called nearly a hundred of them to attend the festival. You see, we will be already back in India for bigger events like Dussera or Diwali. So we might as well have a token celebration of one of our festivals."

What ?! Here I am with absolutely no idea when these festivals come and go. Calling a hundred people to celebrate Ganesh Chathurthi ? How ostentatious and snobbish can one get ? Flaunting one's 'culture' around. It was truly sickening. And the smart, secretive, smoothies didn't even breathe a word about it to me. I was getting even more angry at them.

Celebrate they did. My cousin got a 'Community Hall' in his friend's apartment complex for that evening. Flowers and garlands came fresh from the City. There was a real Punditji too, who quickly got out of his polyester clothes and into priestly habit. Much to my chagrin, my cousin even had the entire array of Pooja paraphernalia - a little bell, various lamps, ghee to light the lamps, idols - you name it, presumably brought from India by his parents. My Uncle and Suresh put on their silk dhoties, became bare chested, sat in the middle of the hall and went "Om ....." echoing the Punditji, sprinkling water and rice. It was like two teddy bears doing a Pooja.

About a hundred Indian men, women and children showed up, most of whom probably lived in my Uncle's very neighborhood in India at one time or the other. Although most of them timed their arrival to be just in time for food, they had vastly underestimated my Uncle's religious zeal and the length of the Pooja. Bored, many of them were simply hanging around outside, tossing frisbees and listening to baseball commentary. Some women were helping my aunt in arranging the food. And yes, many of them were inside the Hall, simply spectating the Pooja.

After several gruelling hours, the Punditji said 'Arti' and immediately the word went around. All the desis who were scattered around the Community Hall were ushered inside. The priest went into high gear and placed the lamps on a plate and was even demanding camphor to be lit. The milling crowd jostled some more near the piece of action, to get a better view of the climax of the evening. The Punditji said "All of you - please stand up now. We are going to have the Arti now".

And then the tragedy occurred.

Everyone did get up, including my Uncle and Suresh. But due to some conspiracy of the collective laws of physics, my Uncle's dhoti did not. There he was standing up, striking a dignified pose with folded hands, invoking Lord Ganesha, but with only a skimpy fig leaf of a dirty underwear to cover himself. There he was standing, for what seemed like an eternity, with desis to the right and desis to the left, Arti plate in front and Punditji in deep shock. My aunt, stunned like the hundred of us, switched her voice into a high octave and shrieked "Ayyo, dhoti, dhoti." At which point, recalling my memory in super-slow-motion, my uncle bent down, picked his dhoti and wrapped it around in one swift sweeping motion and pretended to go on with the Pooja and Arti, as if nothing had happened. People trooped out one by one, after throwing their flower. Their embarrassed smiles became full throated laughter and this Ganesh Chathurthi story is probably being told a million times, even to this day, on the east coast.

As for me, I never felt better in all my life and it was an important win for me in my ongoing battle with Suresh and his father. God must have finally relented and let me have my day. People tell me that actually Suresh and my Uncle are normal and it is me who ought to get a perspective on life. Even now I get psychiatric help for acute 'Unclophobia'. (Irrational fear of one's uncles) At any rate, my minimalistic relationship with them has certainly become more bilateral since this event.

Copyright Ramesh Mahadevan