Moonrise in Tenkasi, South India
Moonrise in Tenkasi, South India

Don’t seek the beyond

contentment’s always near by

stop, turn, and observe

Puppies, Ambasamudram, South India


Every fleeting click

an attempt to capture light

or a blinking eye

Street smarts

I often vent (offline) about living in a pedestrian-hating city. I think it’s horrible. Some of the roads are full of potholes, mud puddles, slippery plastic bags mingled with garbage, and are just plain un-walkable. Then there’re vehicles and senseless drivers who almost brush against you when you walk. Oh, and on an average day, you’d hear at least fifty different honking frequencies over the course of a five-minute walk.

It’s horrible. That’s why few people walk and advocate for walking as a way of commute. Apart from the mental and the noise pollution, you’d also have air pollution and nostril violation.

As you can see, I love ranting about the street conditions in my area.

A couple of days ago, however, I saw something that put a different perspective in light. A group of women walked with absolute disregard for the vehicles whizzing by them. As a regular walker myself, I make sure I don’t get in the motorists’ way, even by accident. I’d walk on uneven rocks on the side of the road just to avoid the speeding drivers.

These women, though, cared not one bit. They waved their arms in the air talking while they waited to cross the busy highway (freeway) on which trucks cruise every day. Though obvious, they were distracting the driver sending all kinds of mixed signals. Drivers can’t brake at whim, and when someone puts their hand out, it seems to them as if that pedestrian would jump onto the moving vehicle.

I learnt this during my front-seat rides while my brother drove. He’d often swear at pedestrians who run into the street without warning. Though they’re often confident that they can cross the street without getting hit, it always scares the person behind the wheel.

When I saw the women do the same, I wondered how wrong I am to blame only the motorists. We pedestrians aren’t any better.

We need more stringent road rules and decent infrastructure.

Side note and moment of epiphany: From complaining about the masses I’ve begun complain about the authority. How mature of me.

P.S: I describe my observations of the city I live in. I’m aware that it isn’t the same everywhere else. I’ve walked through so many streets in California dropping my jaw at the street sense there. (Portland, I’m looking at you.)

Decoding culture

One of the most prominent aspects of an Indian society is its lack of sociableness. Not that Indians aren’t approachable or jovial. On the contrary, Indians are some of the most hospitable folks in the world—but for someone travelling to India for the first time, our society throws more than a few culture shocks.

When walking on the streets, for instance, people never smile or acknowledge an unfamiliar face. They won’t maintain eye contact for more than three seconds, in fear of the other person misunderstanding. Most people I’ve come across on the streets, look straight ahead and then down as if focussed on avoiding potholes.

It’s not the fear of conflict that makes people avoid expressing themselves. Instead, it’s a habit that stems from childhood, when we learn to avoid speaking to strangers and accepting candy from them. We grow up with the same stigma, so much so that we don’t differentiate potential threats from unassuming people trying to be pleasant.

Most people you’d come across on the streets don’t see the point of smiling at someone they’ve never met before and will never again. When it makes no sense to grin at a wall, why should it make sense to grin at someone who’s as insignificant in their life as that wall?

That’s the reasoning I dabbled in for over twenty years before I landed in the United States. Where tables turned.

I walked into a restaurant, and the staff welcomed me with a gigantic smile and wide open arms. It was the first time we’d met and without a second thought, she made me feel as if I’d known her all my life. I didn’t even ask for her name, but we’re friends by recognition.

It’s her job to be social, a little voice in my head nagged. Not everyone would be the same.

Jet-lagged one morning, I awoke early for a walk around the neighbourhood I stayed at. It was a cold September morning and artificial pumpkins hung from behind locked stores. A single person lumbered on in the distance. When I got closer, I realised he was the garbage collector reporting on time for his duty. He smiled and waved at me for no reason. Without even knowing it, I was reciprocating his gestures. I didn’t think, and I didn’t debate with myself as to why I should wave. It was just nice, two people from such different backgrounds, with nothing in common, sharing a moment of warmth, each wrapped up in their own jackets trying to stay warm.

It’s not his job to be social, I realised. It wouldn’t have offended me at all if he’d had ignored me altogether. I would’ve gone my way and he would have gone his, both of us bracing the cold. Instead, we did go our own ways but with a cheery stride. And that made all the difference.

Later as I sat in the shuttle, a complimentary service my hotel offered, my driver—an employee of the hotel—asked me how I was. She didn’t have to. It was a ten-minute ride from my hotel to my workplace, but she took that time to share a conversation. We didn’t discuss global economy, but we did talk about how difficult it is to find employment nowadays. I left the shuttle a little wiser to the reality of the world, and I felt myself balloon with compassion and sincere respect for my driver. We weren’t venting to a stranger, but instead, we were riders in the same boat, sharing observations.

Throughout my stay in the US, I met with countless people who volunteered to make my day better. With a smile, a wave, a head bob, and even a small nod in the right direction, strangers all around me made me feel at home.

Perhaps it’s all because I was a tourist, my skeptical inner voice piped. No, I answered as I explored the streets further. More about that later.

Interpreting maladies, and stories

I’ve always been a little doubtful of authors with Indian names. A little racist, I know, but having read a few Indian authors whose regard for English was far less than decent, I didn’t feel too guilty about myself either. However, I also know there were some exceptional Indian authors. I’m making a list and a recent entrant is Jhumpa Lahiri.

I have to say, I love her name. I love the way in rings in my ears, and rolls off my tongue. He family must’ve had a great sense of rhythm and respect for the listener. Perhaps that’s why Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing is also so aware of the reader’s mind and how her words would echo in their heads.

“Unsavoury sorts murmured indelicacies at cutlet stands”

Interpreter of maladies is a collection of short stories, some of them based in Bengal, some in Boston. What’s weird about this book is that though relatable in so many ways, Lahiri’s settings and her characters are yet un-relatable in many ways, too.

For example, she narrates the story of a young Indian-American couple. Their tour guide in India muses about their clothing, their relationship with each other and their children, their attitude towards natural beauty and photographed memories. And all the while, he makes judgements, often accurate, about how unhappy the couple are in their marriage — he observes like an old woman does with her hunched shoulders and ever-munching betal-stained mouth. The guide in the story is relatable because he’s a bit like an old woman, but he’s also un-relatable in many ways because he’s attracted to the young American woman he’s hosting. He contemplates his own unhappy marriage and compares himself to the young woman and her husband. He knows she’d go back to America in a week, and still he imagines — of writing letters to her, of nurturing a friendship with her, of explaining his job of interpreting maladies. All these qualities in a tour guide, who himself grew up wanting to be a scholar in five European languages, is a little unconventional, a surprising edge to a typical Indian character. And that’s what Lahiri does so well in her stories. She’s singled out some of the most common characteristics in Indian culture, spicing them up with unexpected behavioural patters to weave characters that refuse to leave the reader.

As a reader, you can’t help but appreciate Lahiri’s subtleties. In another story, Lahiri narrates the life of a young Bengali woman suffering from an unknown disease. Her neighbours talk about her behind her back and spread gossip, yet some offer to help. Referring to the women’s chattering, Lahiri paints a vivid picture so familiar to every Indian: “News spread between our window bars, across our clothes lines, and over the pigeon droppings that plastered the parapets of our rooftops.” That’s the India I grew up in, and yet, when reading Lahiri’s description, I can see the women gossiping along, drying their clothes under the burning mid day sun.

Another great aspect of this book is that the author herself has experienced both the worlds she describes. And I think that’s what makes some of the stories in this book, the stories that take place both in America as well as in India, so vivid and unforgettable. Some even outline regrettable, cringe-worthy incidents. What appears common in America in the late 60s is still taboo in some parts of India. This is an exchange between a mother and a daughter:

“It is improper for a lady and gentleman who are not married to one another to hold a private conversation without a chaperone!”

“For your information, Mother, it’s 1969. What would you do if you actually left the house one day and saw a girl in a miniskirt?”

Mrs. Croft sniffed. “I’d have her arrested.”

Mrs. Croft is a 103 year-old woman who cannot accept a man and woman speaking in private. And for that, her daughter mocks her — in 1969 America. The saddest thing, though, it’s 2017 and some Indians still cling to the same belief. The regrettable reality is that some parts of the world are yet to catch up to the sensibilities of equality and modern civilisation.

It’s things like these that make Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short stories a precious read. As an Indian, I loved reading narratives that I could relate to and smile as I recognised behaviours. As a person familiar with some ways of American life, I could sympathise with the feelings and emotions that the foreign characters portrayed. In sum, none of Lahiri’s creations are over-the-top unimaginable — they’re simple people living simple lives, who invite readers to share a few days in their lives. Interpreter of maladies is a wonderful read.