Tarun and Kavita


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On my deck, with my neighbour’s trees in the background..

When Tarun announced he was getting married, we were living in Lake Gardens, in the flat made famous by The Cantankerous Cat. This was the ground floor apartment where we dealt with Nosy Neighbours, Peeping Toms and performed Midnight Cooking Rituals to the consternation of our neighbours. Yes, that one.

Tarun was in school with me. Then Tarun was in college with me. He wasn’t what you would call a high-jinker. Nicknamed “Jaws”, after Richard Kiel’s iconic character in the James Bond movie, he displayed a dry and subversive brand of rebellion. Not for him were quips and wise cracks. His was a more subtle brand of weirdness. Let me illustrate.

In Grade 12 the signs of teenage rebellion in us took various forms. I took to deliberately and causally (at some other time, I may explain that. No, I did not mean “casually”. ), not adhering to the strict uniform policy in school. My grey trousers weren’t quite the requisite shade of grey, my maroon tie had a white pattern in the middle of it, which I successfully hid every morning by carrying my bag over one shoulder with my fist and forearm covering the pattern. This had the happy effect of also concealing the fact that my white shirt pocket did not have the requisite monogram expected by the school authorities. Others grew their hair long or had their trousers cut with ever widening flares. Flares were all the rage in the late 1970s. Eric Clapton even recorded a song called Bell Bottom Blues.

But Tarun? Tarun decided to bring in khaini for us all to eat in class.

Khaini is tobacco crushed and mixed with lime. A deadly and potent unifier of people. If you are ever in India and you see someone, it could be anyone, grinding their thumb into the palm of their hand, all you have to do is wait till they are finished and hold your hand out, palm upwards. You will be rewarded with a pinch of this lovely gum-rotting carcinogenic. It matters not a jot that you have never seen the generous person before in your life and will never, ever see him again, but for that one brief moment you are brothers-in-instant-gingivitis. Hygiene? Pshaw!

When the, mercifully very brief, khaini-gate was over, he moved on to those tiny blue-berry sized plums. This was more fun than the khaini and we would sit there, berry in mouth, placed there behind the teachers back, waiting for him to turn again so we could spit the stone out.

Tarun had a brief fling with the stage. The world of theatre lost a true master of deadpan dialogue delivery. My first play was written in Grade 12 as a tribute to the teachers for Teachers Day. ( It sounds very grandiose, but it was a rotten and highly plagiarized set of jokey and controversial one-liners. ) Tarun played the role of a teacher shooting the breeze with his colleagues. He had one line in that terrible play, which he delivered in a masterpiece of understated acting.

“Hot! You don’t know what heat it is!”, he said in a staccato monotone.

We, ( all of us directed… ) urged him to put more disdain and sneer into his line. He responded with a more forceful “Hot” before the monotone took over again.

Tarun, Suzy ( it’s a contraction of a boy’s name. Suzy is a middle-aged man, like me. ) and I all attended Ratan’s sister’s wedding in Allahabad; a winter wedding in north India. The nights in the plains of North India are cold, with temperatures in the low single digits, and even during the day there is more than a nip in the air. Late at night from a visit to a friend’s hotel, we hailed the only rickshaw we could find. There were, four of us, but only three could sit squished in as the rickshaw driver pedalled away in front. Tarun declined the offer of a seat. With encouraging cries from Suzy, snorts of laughter from Ratan and bemused amazement from me, he jogged along beside the rickshaw all the 2-3 miles home.

With long lines for bathrooms, it was his idea that we young guys bathe in the open with a bucket of water pumped from the handpump in the bottom of the yard. Cold water with an air temperature of around 4c is not the greatest way to have a bath. But we did it and lived to tell the tale! The trick is pour the bucket over your head in one fell swoop… Count 1,2,3, under your breath, lift and whoosh. Simple.

He moved to Delhi after qualifying as an accountant and we saw less of him. He then came to town to tell us he was getting married to Kavita, a girl we didn’t know at the time. It was a classic Indian affair. Lots of booze, lots of partying, spread over many days.

My Beloved Bangalan ( or to give her her real name, Rita) and I have many wonderful memories of the wedding and the late nights we spent in celebration. A few moments stand out. Around 6 am, Rita and I were at our front door fiddling with the keys when the milkman appeared on his morning rounds.

“Ah!”, he said, beaming from ear to ear, “Been out for a morning walk?”

Given the fact that I was in a tie and dress shoes and Rita was in a sari and jewellery, I wonder now whether he was being deeply sarcastic or profoundly unobservant.

One other memory really, really stands out. This was the night we almost got killed. Its a miracle we didn’t. We were, obviously, all very soaked in alcohol. Packed into 2 cars we decided to go for a drive. The two guys driving had pretensions of being race car drivers. Late at night, Calcutta in the late 1980’s slept the sleep of the just. Traffic was non-existent. The two cars raced down the street oblivious to the fact that Calcutta was in the middle of the Twenty Year Dig for the subway. Our car hit a mound of mud, jumped clear over on the other side and landed with a crunching, shuddering crash on the other side, in the best tradition of the Bluesmobile. In the shocked silence, we heard the quiet voice of Tarun’s quiet friend from Delhi, the guy with the quiet wife.

“Well, looks like my heart surgery has worked.”

We drove home at a snails pace.

For the big night after the wedding, someone found out where the newly-married couple were going. To a hotel. Of course, we all headed there before the couple could arrive, all dressed in our best clothes. It was thought that Rita and I stood the best chance of posing as the newly-wed couple, so we checked into the bridal suite. The rest of the crowd followed and we hid around the room waiting for the newly weds to arrive. We jumped out to surprise them and spent some time teasing them before heading down to the coffee shop. A quick headcount revealed we were one short ! Frantic calls were made to extricate Prasad from under the bridal bed before it was too late. We have not yet been able to get him to relate his tale.

Kavita, we found, was a bright and lovely character. I realize now that I’ve never seen her glum-faced or gloomy. A stranger coming into a closed group of barely-grown-up schoolboys, who’d barely grown up together, she took it all in her stride. I never once saw her stressed out over the two daughters, even when they were young. I don’t see her stressing over them, living as they do now thousands of miles away from her. I’m sure she must have stressed over something, sometime. I certainly have seen no evidence of it.

Tarun also featured in one other episode, the one where we attempted to schmooze with the school authorities to pave the way for our kids into our old school. You can read that shameful story here.

Now we’re on different continents and neither I nor Tarun are the world’s greatest keep-in-touchers. We know, though, that we can pick up where we left off when we do meet. ’tis enough. ’twill serve. It has all these years.

Happy 30th Anniversary, you two.

This was actually written for their 30th Anniversary, which was a few weeks (months? ) ago. Hey, my alter-ego is the SloMan, remember? 

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Immigrant Tales – Arrival


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Ok – This was taken in Niagara about 8 months after Arrival, but it is still represented of my handsome self. My hairstyle has changed, as has my waistline since then…

This was my second ( or third, if you include the Nepal adventure ) foreign trip and I had much on my mind. This was my second trip to North America and the first hadn’t exactly been a carefree and joyous one, if you remember. I don’t think it is easy to describe the wealth of feeling and emotion an immigrant carries with him ( or her, if faux feminist). While the earlier trips were temporary excursions, this one had the element of finality about it. This was it. I was burning some of my bridges. I was forsaking the land of my birth, the friends I had made over the years, the memories of a thousand little events would fade, I thought. I was leaving my wife and two young kids behind me. I had no idea when I would see them again, if ever. I do remember, the chest clenching feeling of pain as the A310 opened up its engines and started its run down the runway on its way to Bombay. I hadn’t been expecting it. I hadn’t anticipated the lurch of emotion as we raced down.

And so The Great Immigration commenced. The A310 took me only to Mumbai, where, after some initial confusion, I boarded Air India Konarak to Delhi and on to London’s Heathrow airport. I sat in the aisle seat of three on the left hand side of the plane, or port side. Beside me sat an elderly Indian couple, a very polite and slightly sheepish looking couple. They seemed embarrassed by the whole business of flying to a foreign land. I got talking with them, polite conversation to satisfy my natural curiosity.

They were flying to Toronto to spend the summer with their son, an IT engineer, who had paid for his parents to visit him. They were painfully shy with the flight attendants, not knowing what to say, or how to respond to the queries about tea, coffee, lunch and dinner options. I helped where I could, but at one point during meal service all communication completely broke down. Most Indians believe that ice cold water is a terrible idea and seriously detrimental to good health. Most North American’s drink five drops of water with their ice to lie at the other end of the scale. During the previous meal service the attendant had done the usual scooping of ice cubes into the glass before pouring a few drops of water. This was in reply to the horrified response to the query about wine or pre-dinner drink. My poor neighbours knew not what to do with their glasses of ice cubes and thus drank no water after their first meal on the plane. The second meal service came around and the gentleman next me spoke up in his hesitant English.

“No cold water.”, he pleaded, accompanied by the Indian sideways head nod, “hot water. Hot water.”

The flight attendant nodded and continued with serving meals. She then disappeared back to her galley and came back a few minutes later with two steaming glasses of gently boiling water, which she handed out to the non-plussed travellers. It took a few minutes of confused conversation between the now very embarrassed gentleman, the irritated attendant and the immigrant interpreter in the aisle seat. Finally, the couple got what they really wanted; room temperature water with no ice.

I don’t recall the meals otherwise, but I think they were basic Indian meals, rice daal, some curry, maybe there was some chicken too… all those details I keep giving you are mostly useless bits of trivia that don’t do anything for this absolutely riveting story, other than enhance the flavour of boredom. I knew you’d see it my way! Soon, we were landing at Heathrow, where I had been before. We were all offloaded and herded out into a lounge, so crews could get in there and clean up the mess made by us. I also think, they must have refuelled and generally taken a look at the plane in preparation for the hop across the Atlantic. I’m guessing here, I’m not an aviation expert, even though I do know what ETOPS means and can tell a wing from an engine pod.

And then we were on the long boring Great Circle path south of Greenland and on to landfall over Newfoundland and Labrador before sweeping down on the north bank of the St Lawrence into the Greater Toronto Area. As we started our descent, a disembodied voice came over the PA system.

“As some of you may have noticed, we have started our descent into the Toronto area. The approach at this airport usually has some swirling winds, so expect a bit of a bumpy path in. Buckle in and thanks for flying with us.”

Around 2:30pm on the 2nd of June, 1997 I finally received service for the Right To Land Fee I had paid Her Majesty’s Canadian Government over a year ago as Air-India Konarak, VT-ESM Boeing 747-400 put its wheels gently on the runway at Lester B Pearson International Airport. The Immigrant was home, his New Home. I had traded in my old home for this new home. What would the new home bring? In future instalments we shall explore such topics as Jobs, Life, Food and other mundane details of the Immigrant Tales

Oh, yes, also we shall chat about the Great Canadian Okra Crisis! We don’t lightly forget!

Immigrant Tales – Departure


International Driving Permit photo. ( A waste of time getting that.. )
International Driving Permit photo. ( A waste of time getting that.. )

Actually, the notes are not early. They’re late. Late by about 19 years now, will be exactly 19 years late on the 2nd of June 2016. Yes, you are very correct in your maths. I arrived in the great country of Canada on the 2nd of June, 1997. ( Sorry. I wrote this when the post was titled “Early Notes”. I forgot to edit this. I saw it later and felt obliged to offer some explanation and not leave you mystified.. How nice of me, no?) 

Before I left Calcutta, I inquired about taking some foreign exchange with me. The Reserve Bank of India was stingy about people taking foreign exchange with them. I was directed to the American Express office, where the clerk looked at my requisition and asked “How much do you need?”

“How much can I get?”

“Show me your passport and visa.”

I did. He opened up the folded Immigration Visa. Folded it back.

“500 bucks in USD. That’s all you are entitled to take with you.”

“You kidding me? It’s my money! Why can’t I take my own money with me?”

“RBI rules. Sorry bud.”

“Oh! OK, give me what you can.”

Appropriate forms were filled out. Rubber stamps went on my passport and 30 minutes later I had USD 500 in my pocket. All the money I was allowed to take with me to start my new life in a strange, cold land. A rather cold start to my immigration story.

At the airport, I found out I was eligible for a further USD 50, so I changed my INR for USD 50, bringing the total amount of cash I was carrying to a whopping USD550. I was booked on an Air India flight to Toronto; a barnstorming flight, as we shall see. An Airbus A310 left Calcutta on the 1st of June, at 8:30 in the evening with me on board. It landed in Mumbai about 2.5 hours later. I was off loaded into a transit lounge in prep for the plane that would take me to London, UK and onwards to Toronto, ON. I took the time to visit the washroom, receive my boarding pass for the onward flight and headed down to the exit to the gates. This is where the uniformed, gun carrying dudes at the gate stopped me and asked me to show my boarding pass. I did so. They stiffened up and became alert.

“How did you get here?”, they asked.

“On a plane from Calcutta. I’m on my way…”, he cut me off.

“Answer my question! How did you reach this gate?”, he was inistent.

“I told you. I came on the flight from Calcutta and they offloaded me into this lounge.”

“Ok. So you came from Calcutta?”

“Yes.”

“But how did you get into this lounge?”

“I told you.”

“Who let you into this lounge?”

“The airline folks did. There was no other way to go except into this lounge.”

“Wait here. Do NOT wander off. I need to talk to my supervisor.”

He nodded at his companion, who took up a position of alertness. An intense conversation ensued over his walkie talkie and 2 minutes later, the supervisor showed up. My friend showed him my boarding pass. Supe looked at, flipped it over looked at the other side. Flipped it over. Held it up to the light. Peered at it again. Then he looked me in the eye and asked his first question.

“How did you get here?”

I took a deep breath; repeated my story.. flight from Calcutta.. on to London, Toronto..

He was unimpressed.

“You cannot have this boarding pass and claim that you came from Calcutta and are enroute to London and Toronto. It is impossible. So how did you get in here?”

I felt like a gold fish in a bowl. “Hey look! A security guard!”

He saw my bemused expression.

“Look,”, he said, “your boarding pass is not a normal boarding pass. If you were a genuine transit passenger it would have a big bold T printed here.”

I looked at it. He was right. The T was missing.

“Where did you get this boarding pass?”

“At the Air India counter. Over there. I pointed behind me.”

“Come with me.”

I walked over with him to the Air India counter, where the lovely lady in the Air India sari was reaching for the phone. She replaced it as we came up to her.

The supe showed her my boarding pass.

“Oh, good,” she said, “I was just going to page you, Mr Sharma! We gave you the wrong boarding pass.”

She took my pass, tore it up, reached under her desk and gave me a new one. This one had a nice bold T printed on it.

Just past midnight, I was on the plane, foreign bound.

Sort of. For the plane headed off to New Delhi, where we were not allowed to get off. Some more passengers entered. Finally, around 5:30am we took off for London on an Air India 747-400. Around 8am, about 12 hours after I had left Calcutta, I left Indian airspace for the first time as an immigrant.

Immigrant Tales will continue. Same batty blog, same batty writer. Come back and read as I recount every hour of the journey to London, the off and on trek through the lounge there and the landing in Toronto.

Immigrant Tales – Alien food


Toronto skyline with CN Tower (c) Ajesh Sharma
Toronto skyline with CN Tower (c) Ajesh Sharma

I think you all know by now, or should, that I moved countries. In fact, I moved continents. Not physically, no. No, not literally! That’s impossible! I moved myself from one continent to the other nearly 2 decades ago. Whew! I’m glad we got that sorted out. Well, I had a request to write about that experience. Specifically, the issues faced by immigrants in a foreign land. Food wise. For immigrants, read ‘aliens’. Never one to miss an opportunity to write about something, anything, no matter how weird, I jumped at this one. About 5 days ago. I’m currently suspended in mid-air…

Anyway, back in the summer of 1997 I left Calcutta ( modern day Kolkata ) bound for Toronto’s Pearson Airport. I came via Bombay ( present day, Mumbai ), then Delhi ( modern day Delhi ) and finally Toronto ( modern day Chandigarh-Shanghai ). I came with 2 suitcases, a passport with a fold out permit and US$ 550 in my pocket. I shall chat about that some other time.  As a penniless immigrant, I took up a room in a high school on Hurontario Street in the city of Mississauga. The school lay behind a funeral parlor and abutted Trillium Hospital, which figures in another couple of stories, to be told later.

Living in the school was a very strange experience. The entire 2nd floor was rented out to an odd collection of immigrants and refugees. The incumbents included young immigrant couples, married but temporarily single men like me, elderly refugees, a very odd single woman 3 doors from me and a crusty old man who had the room next to mine on the other side of the corner common room. The rooms were tiny, with space for a single bed, a built in desk, a cupboard and a sink. I also paid extra for a tiny refrigerator and a phone. It was a very interesting few months in there……A detailed article about the suicide, the murder, the crazy lady, the fire alarms, my crusty neighbour on the other side of the common room etc. is out of scope of this article.

The bathroom, shared with the other residents, was across the corridor to my right. The large common kitchen was half a floor down. I bought myself a small plastic crate to carry my oils, spices, pots down to the kitchen. I would cook simple meals for myself. In the early days, I didn’t venture into cooking any meats at all. Just stuck to simple daals, okra ( of course 🙂 !! ). I learned to make cauliflower, broccoli, basic potato curries and rice. I would take a book down with me, start up the cooking, then sit legs up on the window sill and read while the food simmered. Not too bad as times go.

Grocery shopping was done on weekends and consisted of basic elements. Potatoes, onions, tomatoes, bread, milk, coffee. There were two grocery stores about 500 metres from me. One took credit cards and the other didn’t. I don’t know how to make rotis. I know all about the geometry of rotis – I wrote an article on that once, remember? The art of kneading the dough, the rolling out and the actual making though, is still not one of my few skills.

The choice, therefore , was rice, or a roti substitute. At the time, the closest thing I could find to rotis was tortillas. Not quite the same thing, but not very different either. Then finding fresh okra was difficult. Frozen okra was a challenge and it took a few tries to get it right,so the ice off the okra didn’t make the curry into a sticky coagulated mash. Fresh okra was the gumbo variety not the Indian okra I was used to. Again, close, but not quite there. I had brought with me a round stainless steel container with 7 round bowls inside. I had also brought with me basic spices. Coriander powder, Cumin powder, red chilly powder and turmeric. Salt I could find easily at the grocery, the others were hard to find.

As I got to know the residents of the school, I found a couple of Indians who had been around longer than me. They pointed me to an Indian grocery store just a bit further on, at the corner of Hurontario and Dundas. That store has since expanded and taken over most of the strip mall now. At the time, it was much smaller, carried a few odd Indian vegetables but the main attraction of the store was the Indian spices and lentils which I could not get in the regular grocery stores.

I bought only limited quantities. First, I had no storage in my room. Then, cooking for one person was hard to do at first. Cooking for 2 or 3 people is easier than cooking for one. Many a day, after a long day, spent in public transport and on foot, dressed in a suit, I would come home totally exhausted and barely be able to throw a curry together. When tortillas were not available, I had the curry with slices of bread.

On the beat, looking for a job, I had to make do with cheap sandwiches. I started with McDonalds McFish and McChicken and often ate at small delis in Toronto or tinier convenience stores that carried shrinkwrapped sandwiches with indeterminate deli meat labelled “turkey” or “ham and cheese”. Some days, I was so hot from the walking around that I would stop and grab a small bottle of orange or apple juice. I can happily report that in nearly 2 decades of life in North America, I have not eaten a Big Mac, or a Whopper. Good, no?

It was a far cry from the world I’d left behind. Sandwiches in Calcutta were not the norm. Fruit juices were not available freely, other than Mohun’s Apple Juice, which my mother served to us when we were convalescing from the usual kiddie maladies. Food, especially after marriage, was varied and included raw papaya curry, encho curry, fish, chicken curries, usual daals, rice and fresh rotis. Of all the things, I missed the rotis the most. Tortillas just didn’t cut it. Once I found the Indian grocery store, though, I was able to get packs of naans and kulchas. A step up from tortillas! I learned how to heat up the kulchas / naans on a griddle from my sister-in-law; soak under tap, place on hot griddle, apply butter, flip apply butter, wait 20 seconds and off. Comes out soft.

As the summer wore on, I was violently sick, carted off to Trillium hospital next door in an ambulance, had my first taste of grapefruit juice and then moved out of the city. First for a 4 week stint in Amherst, NY and Williamsville, NY and finally, Niagara Falls, ON. And the Indian food scenario became even more dire.  More on that in the next instalment.

Damn, I miss fresh rotis! Still!

The Chennai Conflict – 2


My stay in Chennai was not a very happy one. I was already well-short of being gruntled. ( see history in Part 1 ) I found the ultra-conservative nature of the locals disconcerting. Every light switch, every fan, fan regulator, every keyboard, monitor and tape was Continue reading “The Chennai Conflict – 2”

The Chennai Conflict – 1


Me - 1985 at CSI. Notice incipient fatigue ( onset of tiredness )
Me – 1985 at CSI. Notice incipient fatigue ( onset of tiredness )

I once worked for a very large IT / computer company. This job led to some very strange experiences. A lot of it was due to my inexperience with the world and my lack of communication skills. ( Which continue to plague me to this day…  🙂 )

As a newly wed, I was often Continue reading “The Chennai Conflict – 1”

Midnight cooking


English: (2nd Hooghly Bridge), Kolkata, West B...
English: (2nd Hooghly Bridge), Kolkata, West Bengal. 457.2m, built in 1992. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We spent a brief year in the little flat in Lake Gardens. You have met this flat ( apartment, if American ) before. This is the same flat that saw us beat off the Cantankerous Cat. You know also, by now, that we had to contend with Peeping Toms. And, of course there were neighbour. Some were Nosy Neighbours. Other neighbours, though, were quite confused.

Just like we were. We’d moved in with Continue reading “Midnight cooking”

Alice doesn’t wear drawers, anymore


It’s funny how words have more than one meaning. It’s funny how that one fact can give rise to some very funny situations. Here is one I remember from an earlier time.

English: Flowchart about how to become an Indi...
English: Flowchart about how to become an Indian Chartered Accountant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Regular readers will remember that once upon a time I was a young man living in Calcutta. This is a story about a time when, as a 19-year-old, I was serving my 3-year sentence as Articled Clerk to a firm of Chartered Accountants. This was a mandatory service required to be a Chartered Accountant. You had to pass two sets of exams too, the first of which I failed miserably and did not bother to retake. Thus, you’re reading the words of a loser, dropout and quitter, all rolled into one. I prefer to think of it as a providential escape from the humdrum world of accounting to the exciting world of a lion tamer, which is what I became. ( But that’s another story… ) Continue reading “Alice doesn’t wear drawers, anymore”

First Day of School – DBPC


English: Picture taken from the roof top of th...
English: Picture taken from the roof top of the High School wing of Don Bosco School, Park Circus. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I spent 8.5 years in DBPC, or to give it its full name Don Bosco, Park Circus. My last day there was the 17th of March, 1978, and I well remember rushing down the stairs after the last ISC-12 exam, excited at finally finishing with school. But I’ve also never forgotten my first day there.

Shortly after I came to Calcutta, chronicled here, I was told that Continue reading “First Day of School – DBPC”

Spittle, Drool, Saliva, Snot and Slime


Kleenex logo
Kleenex logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just over 4 years ago, I had a nose job. Why, you ask? Wasn’t your old nose good enough for you? The short answer is, No. It wasn’t good enough to perform its primary purpose. From a purely external aesthetic standpoint, it was perfect, or as near as perfect as one could want, but the internals were defective. I wrote about that here.

About 20 years ago, I was sitting with my sister on the terrace of my other sister’s house. In the deepening gloom of the Calcutta evening, she peered at me and said “Why is your right eye smaller than your left eye? Does it feel different?” Continue reading “Spittle, Drool, Saliva, Snot and Slime”