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Sunday, April 1, 2012

"Ya bro, I stay in Bandra but I'm shifting to Juhu"

Today we were going for dinner to a distant relative’s house, just down the road. I say ‘distant’ because that’s what all relatives are to me. Anyone outside the immediate family, I mean. Their surnames, ages and professions become blurred. I know them simply as “first name + Konkani family suffix”. Padmini Thaee, Lucky Uncle, Santosh Dada, Sheetal Didi, Prema Pacchi and of course Ajoba and Dadima, my grandfather and grandmother, would all be present tonight.


I enjoyed walking there in the rain, sharing an umbrella with my grandmother. She talked endlessly as we splashed our way down Pali Hill. Oh how she enjoyed talking. I could just about make out what she was saying over the noise of the traffic that rattled by. She was prepping me for the dinner by filling me in on the occasion. The gathering was being held to honour "Sanjay’s" return to India with his young family, from the USA. With the greatest respect, he was someone’s brother’s nephew’s something. ‘Uncle’ is a wonderfully versatile suffix.


Because of her arthritis, Dadima and I lagged behind Ajoba and Shambhavi, who had already reached the gate. Ajoba was always such a fast walker; that had never changed. I remember him making a bow & arrow set with my every summer and then taking me to Jogger's Park to shoot at trees. I wonder what him and Shambhu talked about - because neither of them were big talkers. It was great to cross the road at walking pace, right during rush hour: no matter how angry or crazy the on-coming driver was, he had to slow down and stop for an old lady under an umbrella.


The house was like any other house in Bombay: a 3 bedroom 3rd floor apartment with a tiny living room and cramped kitchen. Tube-lit, of course. It was Padmini’s house and she greeted us warmly as we entered. We took our shoes off outside and were offered cold water by her daughter, Karishma. Her husband had not yet made his appearance, as was his style. Lucky Uncle was quite a character; he’d slink into the living room much later. The floors were white tiles and the furniture was modest but comfortable. Shambhu and I strategically took the chairs closest to the TV, so that we were as far away from awkward conversations with the ancient aunties. Thankfully the World Cup was on; it provided a starting point for conversations and so it was welcome, by football fan and novice alike. Prema Pacchi was the classic distant, ancient aunty. She smiled warmly and patted Shambhu and I lovingly as we bent down to touch her feet. I had no idea when we’d met or if at all but followed standard protocol as always. I smiled sweetly, said ‘namaste and touched whosever feet were two generations older than my own.


Padmini played the role of anxious host. Shambhavi and I were now grown up so she couldn’t treat us like kids and followed protocol like everyone else.

“So where do you go to college? How many years left? Do you like it? And what about you Shambhu? Where are you going to go for college? Oh that’s nice”, she asked as she tended to a big pot in the kitchen.


They were fair questions but I doubt anyone really cared what the answers were. And to be honest, I really had no idea what to ask her myself. We Indians are poor conversationalists. I knew so little about my relatives that I felt embarrassed to ask. And so I followed protocol like her. Somehow the balance was maintained. Yin and Yang quietly feasted on the mutton curry that night.


Halfway through dinner, Lucky Uncle walked in, fashionably late to his own dinner, accompanied by Santosh Daadaa and Sheetal Didi. Santosh is my dad's first cousin. Lucky was married to Padmini but I’d never have guessed it and always thought of him as this strange, quiet, distant man who smoked a lot. He was rarely around at family gatherings over the years and so no one really knew him. Mum and dad didn’t really talk about him to Shambhu and I much either. All we knew was that he drank and smoked a lot and wore heavily tinted sunglasses. He reminded me of some sort of successful used-car salesman who lived in Dubai.


Santosh and Sheetal were their usual cheery, charming selves. Santosh was loud and dashing and charismatic and Sheetal was pretty and playful as usual. Their children were older than Shambhu and I, yet the two of them left that silly protocol at the door with their shoes. Santosh was someone I could have a proper conversation with (especially after he’d had a few whiskeys!). We chatted about music, politics and the media. He was loud and boisterous but always maintained a light hearted mood. He didn't feign interest, always waited for his turn to speak and addressed the whole room when he did! Sheetal was a sweet, fun, motherly figure who always seemed like she knew what was going on. She could see right through Shambhavi’s attempts to uphold her ‘child-like’ aura. At the risk of sounding like an ungrateful snob, their presence transformed this evening from being bearable to fun.


After enduring Shambhu and I for a while, the conversation somersaulted from English into Konkani and we were lost. We finish our dinner quickly, eyes fixed on the Germany-Argenina game. As soon as the match had ended, she glanced at her phone and announced that she had to go to town to meet some friends. She had betrayed me. I was left alone to fend for myself and dodge awkward questions from awkward aunties alone.


The cavalry arrived in the nick of time. Santosh and Sheetal’s kids turned up at the door. The three of them were my second cousins and we always had a good time together. I thanked Padmini for the food and Lucky for the whiskey and slipped out the front door, glad to be rescued. We got into two cars and headed for a bar on the beach where Samir’s big TV show launch was taking place. The oldest of my cousins, Radhika, had recently gotten married to him and he had even more recently made it big in the India show business. This made my cool cousins, even cooler than before.


There were plenty of ‘hep’ young things at the beach shack although the party was quite dead. As we arrived, we caught Samir’s eye; he was just finishing an interview and did his best to finish it professionally. The gorged ourselves on the free food and cocktails at this event and even got in a couple of pictures. Shivansh, the youngest one, and I talked about football and he introduced me to some of his friends. He now lived in Boston and worked for an insurance company or something. He was tall and handsome but still acted like a teenager who'd had one drink too many. Gopika, the middle sibling, pointed out some of the semi-celebrities at the party to me. After living outside of India for most of my life, I had lost touch with who was currently famous. I was being reintroduced to this city, this country, these people.


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Her name was Simone and she was like a mannequin. The ability of some Indian girls to all look and dress in exactly the same way is utterly astounding. You see them in Birmingham as much as you do in Bangalore: droves of them, wearing the same tights and plimsolls with identical long, flowing hair that makes its way onto the edges of the blackberries in their hands. She was one of those girls who had 50 Likes on every one of her profile pictures but never spoke to anyone for more than five minutes. There were so many of them at that party. The apartment itself was quite big by Bombay standards. It had 3 bedrooms and a living room with an obnoxiously fancy sound system that sprawled across the room. It was there that we talked for four and a half minutes. I asked her questions and she answered like it was one of the interviews she'd seen on Channel V. It was one of the things I'd learnt quickly after moving back to India: you don't talk to girls, if you are suave enough they talk to you. Or rather, they talk 'at' you till you ask the next question.


The windows in the living room were wedged all the way open and so it was a lot less stuffy there. The air wreaked of sweat and house music. The heat hung in the air and pinned me to the wall and to my glass. The ride there was so much more fun than the party itself. I had hopped on the back of Gopika's boyfriend's motorbike and been flung around for the 20 minutes that it took to get from the beach shack to this house. I had bonded with the motorbike's rider to some extent; he was an art director at an advertising company. He had long hair. These good-looking artsy types, I swear.


I prefer them to the corporate types and much, much prefer them to those still being educated. The party was nice in that sense; only the select few from the crowd were invited to the launch event had been invited there. I was one of these, though I was invited more because I was the show's star's cousin than because I was good looking or famous. I wish I was invited for being the latter but I got a free motorbike ride and I didn't care. The rider's name was Nafzar and we made a stop at a seedy basement to pick up some rum for ourselves and our friends. We had a conversation for those 20 minutes that I clung koala-like to his motorbike. I say a 'conversation', it was more me talking into the wind behind his helmet and then nodding at his muffled responses. I was glad to be invited to a party at all. I knew about five people in this town and two of them were my grandparents.


But back to the party. I was in 'friend-making' mode which meant that I had to nod and grunt approval far more often than I'd otherwise have done. I needed friends. I needed cool friends who knew people. I was networking without a business card and it wasn't easy. Talking to Indians is different to talking to Europeans. I was used to people being interested in me and my stories. 'Conversations' with these young Bombayites were just people waiting their turn to speak. I didn't mind because the crowd was full of interesting people. It was full of the India that isn't covered in CNN's 'land of contrasts' soundbite.


There were artists, DJs and 'electronic musicians', real musicians, film makers, story-board producers, actors and a consultant. I knew she was a consultant before I asked her because she was still in work-clothes and wasn't smoking. But then I asked her what she did for a living and she told me she was working for the Boston Consulting Group in Bombay, heading up something to do with 'Risk'. Damn, BCG. How did she swing that? Further investigation revealed she had an MBA from an American university and I was calm inside once more.


I got so used to explaining to people what I do that I was able to fine-tune and stream-line the whole spiel into two sentences, "I work for a foreign policy think tank that advises blue-chip Indian companies. I help research and write policy reports on random stuff that these corporate types need to make their strategy decisions. What are you drinking?". OK that is three but the last one is the most important. You only have a 10 second window at these types of parties - 10 seconds to make someone cooler than you be interested in you. It always helped that I had lived in Europe. A lot of these people hadn't left India and so if I spoke to someone for more than a minute I was genuinely interesting. And that is a nice feeling.


Because this was Radhika and Samir's place and I was privy to the inner sanctum, so to speak, was around well after most of the guests had left. We ate popcorn as we lay on the futons in the living room. By now the smokers had been allowed to vent their tarry tales without having to sit on the window sill. My cousins were the same to me now as when I was a starry eyed 15 year old. Back then they had been the lab-rats - they were the first from our circle to go out into the real world and report back because they were all a good five years older than me. And now that I too was working, there was a new status-quo. They were just as keen on my insights as I was on theirs. Although they were and will always be the cool older cousins, who knew infinitely more about life than I ever would. Radhika was married, Shivansh was working in Boston and Gopika was about to move out of home for good.


I remembered being taken to the movies by these three and I remember looking up to them. They were halfway in between my parents and me. They were adults but not 'grown ups'. But now I was also an adult. I was in their world and I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. I always gawked awkwardly at my oldest cousin's husband who was the big TV star. It was their house and their party and I was in their space. He had this aura that media personalities have. People stopped to hear what he had to say. His broad shoulders walked into the room before he did. Even after everyone had left and it was only us close family, his aura persisted. It still felt like reality TV. He didn't respond, he answered. The honest, spontaneous conversation I'd yearned for with him, felt like rehearsed soundbites ready to be packaged and edited and sold to the nearest teen TV channel. I suppose it was because we really didn't know each other well and I'd only met him a few times. Nevertheless, I clung to his every word like a schoolgirl.


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After much rum, I went home. They called a taxi for me and insisted on paying. I didn't pay for a thing when I was with my cousins and it made me feel like a kid again. I woke up the security guard to let me into my apartment complex. Neither he nor the street dogs who roamed the car-park were best pleased at being stirred at this hour. The sky was purple. I put my key into the lock but it didn't work. I tried again and though I felt the lock click reassuringly, the door didn't budge. I panicked.


I was living with my grandparents till such time as I could find a place of my own. I did not want to wake them up at 4am, stinking of all the cigarette smoke that had been whooshed into my suit jacket. I paced up and down the brightly lit 5th floor foyer, wondering what to do. I worked up the courage to ring the door bell and winced as I did. I hear footsteps within a split-second and the door was opened to reveal my grandparents, my uncle and aunt and my grandaunt who had unknowingly locked the door from the inside after I had left home. They looked at me like I'd just come home from a war.


"Are you alright, Shravan?" They said almost as one.

"Yes, I'm fine. Why are you awake? I'm so sorry for waking you up! The door was locked from the inside... I'm so sorry!" I spluttered.


They pulled me inside, concerned for my well-being for some reason. All the lights in the house were on. They were awake. They were already up. My day was ending and theirs' was beginning. Our community holy-man would be gracing our house with his presence in a few hours and they had begun their prayers and preparations already. As I made my way to the bed in the side room, they looked at me with a curious mix of wonder and pity.


I had taken the holiness of the house down a few notches, hadn't I? Indian people, I swear.