Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Creature that came from Outer Space

It has been slightly over a year since I reverse-migrated back to India. Now that I am on this side of the NRI-divide, I often play host to expatriate desis on their motherland visits. They come in all varieties - people purporting to be my distant relatives, first cousins whose memories I have been trying to black out, folks claiming to be my ex-classmates (a large social category, given how many centuries I had spent in colleges). Plus assorted wife-beaters, paleontologists and general US taxpayers. They all descend down on Chennai, as if Lufthansa is giving away free air tickets and as if the Mayor of Chennai is personally giving them golden keys to the city.

Their modus operandi is eerily similar. First they would send you an email to your junk mail box. The email would be filled with ‘Suddenly I thought of you’ kind of niceties, ending with an ‘oh, by the way, me and my entire brood are contemplating a trip to India this December. Hope to see you then. Cheers’. This will be followed by a long, deceptive silence, during which time you may lull yourself into denial. But come December, they will hit you with Karmic precision. One cold morning, a surprise local phone call will announce to you that they have already arrived, well-rested and rid of jetlag. And when can we meet?

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But, the Creature that came from Outer Space was like no other.

The Critter was a vestige from my high school days, a vague blur on one of my dying brain cells. In fact, he was so vague I actually remembered his real name and forgot his nickname. I hadn’t seen or heard from him in ages. He called me from his parents’ home. Just like that, the Creature said lunch and I said yes..

“No dhabas or Udipi restaurants, please” he beseeched, perhaps fearing my low-brow tastes.

So, on the appointed day, a mutual friend and I headed toward that star restaurant in mid-town. From afar, I could see a shadowy figure, nervously pacing up and down in front of the portals. It was the Creature!!! It was clad in a circus tent-sized three quarter pantaloon, which amazingly still only barely covered its loins. An undersized ‘University of Minnesota’ T shirt was choke-holding its enormous, desi carbo-belly. Suddenly I started remembering him and all the shenanigans we did in high school. It was him, no doubt!! My god, I never thought I would ever see him again in my life!! He used to be the skinniest kid in the class and would get picked on by everyone. Even I had hassled him quite a bit. We joked about it.

“Do you remember that fat girl from Besant Nagar? “ I poked him in his ribs “She used to beat you up every day. Wonder whatever happened to her.”

“Yes, yes. Those were the days. She really used to wallop me” he reminisced. “By the way, Ritu and I eventually fell in love and she is my wife now. So no snide remarks about her.”

He told us that he had dispatched his wife and kids to a fat farm in Kerala – an Ayurvedic resort. “They give them only one slice of bread in the morning, one chapati in the night and a tall glass of louki juice for lunch and make them run five miles.” He sang praises of the place “They have already lost ten pounds in three days.”

Just then, a doorman dressed in leftover British Raj clothing showed us in and stuck us to our chairs.

“Mineral water please” the Creature ordered even before we could sit down, lest we might conspire him into drinking gutter water that we natives always drink. The waiter respectfully brought in a bottle and the Creature subjected it to a serious visual inspection, like it was fine wine. The label said it was from Mount Everest. The Creature looked very pleased. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that perhaps the water was harvested from under an industrial dump outside Mumbai.

“Last time I came to India, I picked up an infection.” It explained. “This time I am taking no chances. I brought my own toilet paper and enough mosquito repellants also. I don’t want to catch diseases like Malaria and Chimichanga.”

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Like all NRIs, the Creature too had an infinite appetite for Indian junk food. It pored over the ‘multi-cuisine’ menu for hours, changed its mind numerous times and finally ordered various high calorie items and truly enjoyed every morsel. We also attempted to make conversation. It was years since we all met and much had happened to all of us. The Creature was doing most of the talking, especially after the second Kingfisher dark.

It came up with long stories about its office, its boss, office politics and that one cunning Desi colleague who always cuts into his chances. We all yawned. Then a lecture on ‘Single malt whiskeys, beers, pilsners, pale ales and lagers’ - just to display its newfound sensibilities. We still yawned. Inane (and nane), observations about India. (‘To analyze India, we need something stronger than statistics - a super-statistics - because even if you are one in a million, there are thousand people like you’) Some mild jokes to lighten up the mood (‘I used to be athletic A runner. Actually a runner with a drinking problem. Now I am a drinker with a running problem’ and things like ‘In India, even a Dentist becomes a Vedantist at the slightest provocation’) And a major discussion on India and China.

“Look at all the potholes in India.” it pronounced, as it poured itself another beer. “The Infrastructure in India needs to improve.”

Still, we were really not connecting with the Creature. When it was time to leave, the British Raj guy brought the bill. The creature quickly swooped on it.

“Lets not make a fuss” it said, as it fished out its Gold American Express, “Lets see, I will pay for the dessert and one third of his bill plus forty rupees for your coffee and oh, since he didn’t have appetizer, I will pay thirty percent of his bill plus one third of the tip….plus ice cream for …...”

Our mutual friend grabbed the bill from him and paid it. The Creature didn’t resist much.and was deeply moved by this gesture.

“I will treat you when you come to Green River, Montana” it said with a lot of feelings “We have a nice joint where you can get home-cooked baked potatoes and chives.”

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We decided to drop in on our old high school on the way back. So, we all got into my car. I was sitting in the front seat and the Creature was in the back seat. I heard some funny noise from the back seat. The Creature was trying to shackle itself with the seat belt.

“I am so used to putting it on that I have to do it.”

It is India, dude, but Si vous voulez!!

At the school, the schoolchildren were amused to see the Creature and our Principal was excited to see such an illustrious ex-student of the school. The Creature grabbed the Principal’s limp arm in a firm Texas handshake,

“Hi. I am Raaaavi RaviShaandran” it introduced itself to the stunned Principal. (Not to be confused with say, Ram Ramaswamy and Kris Krishnaswamy) But the Princy quickly recovered and pitched for the Creature’s tax-deductible dollars (while completely ignoring the two of us) The Creature too promised him the heaven and the earth. It fingered everthing in the Princy’s room – the massive trophies, old phots hanging on the wall, a centuries-old wall clock – and the Princy was so glad to see us leave.

While on the way to its home, it smiled broadly at cars honking, bicyclists cutting in front of our car, the occasional bullock carts and got to know the price of ‘gas’ in dollars per gallon. It was awed by the fact that even rickshahwallahs have cell phones these days.

We dumped him at his place – a huge apartment complex, where no matter where you park your car, the security guy would ask you to park it somewhere else – and when we reversed the car and about to get out, we saw the Creature running toward us..

:Stop!!!” it yelled “This is not my house. Mine is on the next street, I believe”

We made sure that it was his house, this time and waited till it actually disappeared..

Where did the mutation occur? Why is he like a clumsy Prince Charles trying to lock step with the aborigines in a tribal dance? India, which used to be its life, dreams and love, has now been reduced to something akin to a rerun of a second rate TV show, to be watched with amusement, horror and suspicion – and to be switched off at the end of three weeks, never to be turned on again for many, many years.

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The Creature is also very uncool, in that it still used landline phones. And it had a ferocious, gatekeeper of a dad to answer phone calls.

“Uncle, I am Ramesh….”

“Never heard of you..”

“Can I talk to your son, the Creature, please?”

“No. You cannot. I can’t tell you where he is.Buzz off.” Click. Click.

So, when the Creature invited me to his dad’s eightieth birthday bash, I readily accepted because of my morbid curiosity to see such a rude and grumpy old man.

For all its rude behavior on the phone, the dad turned out to be a creature thrilled with itself and its pack. A sprightly, rodent-toothed, miniaturized human being. I could see the Creature itself busily mingling with the crowd, onion-wrapped in a massive dhoti. Its brat was digital photographing the crowd at random.

The Creature saw me and came up to me, sat next to me.and asked me all kinds of personal questions – how much salary would he get if he quit everything and migrated back to India.

“You see, I always want to do that. What do we have there? Nothing. It is only for my kids that I am staying there. I think my market price should be seventy or eighty lakhs here.” He said without batting an eyelid.

“Is it per year or per month?” I asked sarcastically.

It had all kinds of questions about real estate and stock market and medical insurance.

“Of course, I don’t have time to do any of this in this trip” it confided. “I will have to do it only next time.”

“And when will that be?” I asked.

“Oh, it will be February of 2012. Because next year Pinky has her Arangetram. Then 2008 I have a conference in Kyoto. In 2009 we plan to go to XYZland (where XYZ = Ire/Naga/Switzer/Swazi/Hol) and the year after that is Pinky’s graduation….”

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Our next meeting was dedicated to simply ferrying the Creature and its wife from one fashionable shop to another. It made a big splash in the poshest jewelry store in the city, where the security details rival those of the Rashtrapathi Bhavan. Then a pit stop at a sporting goods store where it bought a cricket bat that won’t wilt away in American winters. A quick stop at a specialty Masala store located at the edge of the town in a vague cul de sac, saree shopping in a Saree House with two million sarees, several hours in handicraft stores, where they make all kinds of junk out of all kinds of junk.

“A statue of Dancing Ganesha. How rare!” It drooled, sticking out its credit card for the umpteenth time, not perhaps realizing that these days the Chinese are flooding the market by mass producing these ‘rare’ things.

A quick hop at the music store to buy the ‘1956 Hits of Uma Kumte’, whoever she is. And lastly, we hit the bookstore. It thoroughly ransacked the entire place and finally emerged with two armpits full of Mega-sized coffee table books with such titles as ‘An Illustrated History of kuans of Hyderabad’ and ‘Lalu Prasad Yadav’s views on Panch Sheel and Windows XP’.

Then it was almost time to drop off its wife at the Tanjore Painting class (!) and pick up its son from its Music class. It whipped out its Palm pilot, checked its shopping list and crossed off items. I could see its smug face in the rear view mirror as I drove off.

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It was the last week of its stay in India and the Creature was busy playing the end game. Hectic visits to various relatives (They are all IAS officers and Bank Managers. And their sons are CEOs of multinational companies, of course. Unlike my relatives, who are all street bums and extortionists.)

Then it disappeared for a few days.

“Been to Mumbai to meet my Brother in law’s mother in law.” It explained.

“Mumbai is such a modern city. Even the beggars have cell phones there.” It marveled. Then it told me that it made a detour to the Taj Mahal for some Patel pictures (‘Our kids should know about our history’) and a whistle stop tour of places like Raipur to visit the likes of its Bhilai Mama and Dalai Lama and finally, a near-mundan experience at Tirupathi.

“Why don’t you stop by now?” It invited me “I am free between 3.11 PM and 4.20 PM…oh, wait, what did you say, mom? Krishna Uncle is coming only at 4.45? Okay, then Ramesh, we can spend time till 4.45….”

I politely bailed out. In fact, I never met it again. And since I never heard from it again, I had presumed that it had quietly slipped out of India. But it surprised me with a midnight phone call – from the free airport terminal phone, while trying to push and shove a hundred others wanting to grab the same phone and make similar free phone calls.

“Sorry my last couple of days were completely out of control” it apologized, somewhat disingenuously “Next time around, I should manage my time better.”

It said it had a wonderful time. It said it accomplished all its missions. And before disappearing into the huge black hole that is America, it even thanked me profusely for my gift to him – a specially gift-wrapped five kilo bag of Toor daal, which apparently was in short supply those days in the USA.