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Hyderabad Blues-II: The Big Fat Indian Homecoming

Malika the newly wed NRI from Hyderabad is feeling homesick in America. Here no one cares that you just got married. No one invites you for  dinners. She’ just takes the flight home to feel pampered and fussed over, what she misses in the US. She visits her extended family, three generations of her in-laws, her long lost school friend after 23 years, and discovers a lot more – the new young India, that she didn’t get to experience at all while she was away. And she is hounded by the ubiquitous question: “When are you starting a family?”

This is the 2nd part of her homecoming saga, curiously soaking in one experience after the other. You may read Part -I of her homecoming(Hyderabad Blues-I). We start part -II with Day-10.

Day 10 –Wednesday-Begumpet, Hyderabad: My MIL (mother-in-law) wanted me to meet her 95 year old grandmother. “95 year old? Still alive! Is she conscious?” I asked. Naïve me! How dare I question? I was instantly slapped shut. “Of course she is. I was waiting for this moment for such a long time. For all four generations to meet. She will be so happy to see you” mused my MIL.

“Of course she can recognize, she recognizes everybody that comes into her room. My mother is so active to this day,” said the 95 year old’s daughter, my MIL’s mother. I couldn’t say no. The enthusiasm of these ladies was infectious. So we set about on the journey, the three of us, mother, daughter, and daughter-in-law, in an auto rickshaw from Vanasthalipuram to Begumpet in the pleasant heat of Hyderabad.

By the time we reached Begumpet, the Hyderabad heat lulled me to a post breakfast nap. I woke in time to realize we hadn’t reached the destination yet. I had seen my mil scribble the address on a piece of paper earlier. Not a big deal, there will be an address, the auto walla just has to follow the address and look for the apartment name, that’s all thought I.  Wrong! After an hour of searching for the apartment, I couldn’t hold myself. I requested, ”Mom-in-law, please give me the slip on which you have written the address”, said I. She gave.  Scribbled on the piece were the words, Meena Jewellers, Railway bridge, and u-turn, all of which we had already passed. There was no street address, no land mark, and no phone number of the residents. I was hot, thirsty, and shocked. How in the world did we expect to find one apartment out of the teeming apartments in Hyderabad if we don’t have even an apartment name? I couldn’t fathom. I have to admit that it was the pure ingenuity of the auto wallah and the sharp memory of the street side makkaboota vendor that saved the day and we were able to find the apartment.

Finally, we reached the entrance gate. The security guard wanted me to fill his log book. It was a huge apartment complex with all similar looking buildings divided into blocks A, B, C, and D. I turned back and asked, “Ok, so which block?”  As replies I got stares, great, so no one even bothered to ask the block number. To this day, I cannot comprehend the memory of the grandma, who by just looking at the block, (which by the way looked similar to all the other blocks) and exclaiming, “This was the building”, again “this was the floor”, and “this was the house” brought us to the right house. Sheer luck or old age wisdom? Go figure! (Or as they say in Telugu ‘Taaveez Mahima’…..)

In case you are wondering, no, neither MIL nor her mother knew on whose name the apartment was leased so we couldn’t check the names listing either.

MIL couldn’t wait to make the generations meet. A 95 year old with her fourth generation daughter. The poor lady who was sleeping like a baby, was forcefully awakened, who opened her feeble mouth thinking we were feeding her. MIL insists, her grandma even pronounced her name when MIL stepped into the room-not only cognition but memory too! I got another piece of gyaan from grandma -“It is important to wake a 95 year old. Else, how will you know whether she is sleeping or slipped into coma?”

I had a lot of fun talking to mil’s aunt (who by the way looks much younger than her age) her daughter, and grandchildren. Finally met someone who didn’t pop the ubiquitous ‘motherhood when’ question.

Day 11-Thursday-Back to Vanasthalipuram- Spent the day pickle packing and curry puff splurging with bil (brother-in-law). Watched the Telugu movie ‘Nagavalli’ with them. Me and BIL agreed it was a blockbusting bore of a movie. MIL felt it was awesome. Generation gap I guess!

Day 12-Friday- Mumbai Revisited- How are you supposed to feel when you physically meet a friend after a gap of 23 years? When I made the overseas phone call to fix a date, my friend had said ”Surreal!” Is that the right word? Or is there something else? How will I address her? Did we have any nicknames when we were kids? What will I wear? Should I look traditional like I always do or should I introduce her to the now transformed NRI me? I had a million questions in my mind.

Poornima and I studied together since the first grade in a school called ‘Guru Nanak English High School’ in Bombay before it became Mumbai. We were a peculiar lot, Poornima and I, we were fiercely competitive. I was happy when I stood first in the class and not so happy when she took that place. She was the same. But, we were friends. We were together till I reached my fifth grade after which my family moved to Hyderabad. Unable to bear the loss, Poornima and I promised that we would write to each other. We kept up that promise pretty well. We kept track of each other through inland letters till I reached my engineering final year and she, her MBA. Then, life intervened. Through jobs, higher education, getting married, and growing up, we lost track.

After very many years, on a casual day as I was browsing through ‘Orkut’, (google’s social networking website,) I found her. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Through Orkut correspondence we finally met online. When I was planning to go to India, we decided it was time to meet in person. That is how it was decided that I would spend my second weekend after my in-law visit with her.

Now, this visit was what was making me jittery. I was not comfortable taking her home. We would need a lot of time catching up before she met my parents, thought I. “No problem” said she, “Why don’t you come to my company guest house? We can then take it from there.” I agreed to her suggestion. I went home to Malkajgiri from Vansthalipuram, refreshed in a few minutes, re-packed my bag (of course I wouldn’t be needing the chudidhars and sarees I had taken to in-law home right!) with jeans and T-shirts, and boarded an auto to go to Masab tank, her guest house.

Since we had not kept in touch through the internet age, I had no idea how she had aged. The last memory I had of her was the tenth class passport size photograph that we had exchanged in our last letters.  What would she be like today? She sounded supremely confident in the phone call. Is she a typical Mumbai girl, a hip chic, thought I? Will I be able to connect with her after all these years? I being the quintessential Telugu Hyderabadi, at least that was what I was when I met her on Friday evening. I was dressed like a ‘pativrata Bhaaratiya naari’-with bangles, bindi, mangalsutra, and toe rings, and dressed in a shalwar kameez, the whole nine yards-Aargh! this was not how I wanted to meet her, thought I. What would she think, that I am a typical traditional Telugu girl? As I was nervously awaiting for her response she said, ”Hey! So this is how you usually are-the bangles and all haan!” Her first sentence pushed me into an abyss. My toes curled and my confidence flew out of the window. Hmph! Nooooo! Poornima you cannot say that. Meekly I responded with a “Karna padtha hai yaar! I am coming directly from my in-law house, you know”. She suggested we visit the famous tank bund of Hyderabad. I was apprehensive to visit tank bund that late but, I accepted. I couldn’t wait to transform myself from a pativrata naari to a new age global Indian.

She wore a jeans and a denim Jacket, I, a track pant and a pull over. Removed all traces of a ‘Bharatiya naari’. I expected her to pass a new comment about me now. She didn’t. I shrugged to myself, that’s ok, what if she didn’t express it in words. She must have definitely noticed the transformation. The trip to tank bund broke the ice. There, as we strolled in the cool weather, we caught up with our life history so far. We also discovered that it was not such a good idea for two women to stroll in Hyderabad on the tank bund at night 9 o clock. A guy kept following us all through our stroll with weird looks, as if he had an agenda of his own. Hurriedly, I brought her back to the guest house.  I promised I would take her to a better place the next day.

Day 13-Saturday- Early morning. I was having trouble planning the day. Where should I take her? Crap, not having lived in this city for so many years I have lost touch with it. Which is a good restaurant? What would a Mumbaite enjoy the most in Hyderabad? As I was contemplating, Poornima offered “let me find out from my friends. May be they will help us.”

I felt miserable. Me, a Hyderabadi, was not able to suggest a few decent places to a Mumbaite, shame on me. I made an international call to Kiran(my husband in the US) thinking, who better than him in a time of crisis. He gave me his friend’s number who suggested ‘Chutneys’. “Ok, and then let’s go to Charminar by taking a bus and not an auto. What better way to discover a city than the public transportation. And my friends have promised to take us to a good dance club tonight” said Poornima. Our plan was made.

“Oh! by the way I brought this for you” she said as she gave me a beautiful white top to be worn with a capri. “Wow this is so wonderful”, said I “I brought you something too”, I gave her a Bath and Body works body spray and a Cuban Cigar perfume for her husband. She looked at them without an expression. Oh! Oh! looks like she uses them every day here. Not such a big deal I guess. Better luck next time thought I.

The first stop was Chutneys. She ordered different kinds of idlis. Idlis, bah! I had a whole lot, I have satisfied my idli appetite I thought. I ordered steamed dosa and watermelon juice. It felt like heaven. After our sumptuous breakfast we decided to find a nearest bus stop. “This place looks so familiar. Isn’t this Banjara Hills? There has to be a bus stop somewhere. I used to travel in this route a lot” said I. We found a lot of people standing at one spot. I remember it now”, said I. After about an hour of standing at the ‘bus stop’ and finding that no busses seemed to stop there, we finally decided to ask around. I selected two college kids. They must know, they look like they travel a lot. We communicated with them in impeccable English. “No English, only Telugu” said one of them looking bewildered. “Oh! Is this a bus stop? We are trying to go to Charminar” I asked in Telugu. Cross this road, go to the other side to the Banjara Hills bus stop. But none of the busses will stop here” he told me.

Hmm! So much for my memory! The cross road looked scary. I was frightened of crossing it. Of course! I have crossed traffic lights and huge cross roads with no zebra crossing all my life in Hyderabad but now, I was different. I was an NRI, I am used to pressing stop buttons and crossing only on seeing the man figure in America. I have lost the manoeuver-ability of the Indian pedestrian. Unable to decide what to do, we just stood there. Meanwhile, a metro bus came into view.  “This bus will take you to Charminar” said the college student. Like a cheetah hunting for its prey, my friend jumped into action. She waved to the bus driver, stopped the bus, and jumped into it from the men’s side as it slowed down, while I, waited for it to make a complete stop so that I could board it properly from the women’s side. I was flabbergasted. A hundred possibilities ran into my mind. May be she will get down at the next stop and walk back. May be I will follow her in an auto rickshaw. What should I do? I don’t even know the route to Charminar. As I was getting all worked up, my friend coolly requested the bus conductor to stop for a fleeting second. This time, I jumped in from the men’s side as well. All eyes were on us as we found our way to the women’s side of the bus. We must have looked an odd pair. She looked very much her upper middle class self with her goggles on her head even though she was wearing a proper shalwar kameez. I was totally dressed like a tourist with my capri jeans and long top. It felt strange, boarding a bus after so many years. Just like the manoeuver-ability of a pedestrian, I discovered, I had also lost the balancing act of a standing bus passenger, skills which I used to possess long time ago. While I was trying very awkwardly to balance  myself with the help of the railings, my friend asked a 10 year girl to sit on her lap while she herself took the seat. We bought our tickets to Charminar and requested the conductor to tell us when our destination arrived. My friend started conversing with the lil girl. The girl was talking in nothing but Telugu, my friend, in nothing but English. I was itching to be the interpreter, only, she didn’t bother to ask me. Part of her getting to know the pulse of Hyderabad I guess. In due time, our destination arrived. The conductor and the driver announced it loud enough for even America to hear. We had reached Charminar.

A five minute walk brought us to the famed minaret. My view after nearly 15 years. It was breath taking. I had visited it when I had first come to Hyderabad as a pre teen. It was not so crowded then. Now, the lines to view the inside were serpentine, that being a Saturday. We decided to skip the visiting part. Instead, we had a sugarcane juice from a disposable cup and had our picture taken wit  a digital camera. I couldn’t decide whether I was a Hyderabadi or an American.

“Let’s go to an inner gulli here” she said as we were entering the shopping lane, “I know a good shop which sells exclusive sarees”. Sarees in Charminar? I was surprised, the only place I know to buy sarees is Ameerpet, that too ‘Chandana Brothers’. Mom always says, “Chandana is the best place to buy sarees. I never find them better anywhere else”. You see we have a lifetime account there. In one of these days mom will turn our house into a Chandana palace and the guys who sell there will come to our house begging to give them back their clothes. I sometimes wonder whether mom’s favourite past time is shopping or exchanging the goods shopped. “What happened?” she asked. “Nothing, let’s go” I said.

She took me to the gulli shop and casually told the shop keeper how I was an NRI and she, a Mumbai-ite. That is not such a good idea I thought. The shop keeper became very enthusiastic when we heard our backgrounds. “That is what I thought” he said in Hindi. “You people don’t look like you belong here. You know, my younger brother is also in the USA. He gifted me this cell phone”. He brandished his cell phone in front of our eyes. “Will you mind if I give you his number?” he asked. “Aah! hmm! sure, why not” I fidgeted. “Let me look at the sarees first.” For sarees he showed us rolls of fabrics in white of different materials like satin, crape, chiffon and other names which meant nothing to me. “Excuse me! Poornima but you said you wanted to see sarees” I asked my friend. “Yes, these fabrics can be cut into the length of a saree, dyed in any particular color you want, and worn like that” she explained. Sarees cut from a fabric? Revelation to me! With her and the shop keeper’s encouragement, I brought a white ‘saree’ with gold self-design. Wait till mom sees this thought I.

All in all, I had a fun day with my friend. She, the Mumbai-ite, helped me, the Hyderabadi, discover the shopping delights of Charminar. I myself had never shopped at Charminar in all the years I had stayed in Hyderabad, so it was a pleasant surprise for me. As they say, ‘ghar ki murgi, dal barabar’.

Our steamed dosa breakfast at Chutneys served us well till the evening whence I took her to meet the family she was familiar with 23 years ago, when we were both kids. When my mom and her mom would talk to each other in their South Indian accented Hindis and we would compensate by quickly learning Hindi even before our native tongues. It was a strange kind of reunion –her meeting my family-my mother, father and older brother.

My mom served her an authentic Telugu meal with tomato dal, coconut chutney, and raw banana fry, and a lot of her chutney podis. “Wow, I had fun with your family yaar! Didn’t feel like I was meeting them after so long. I feel like I met them only yesterday.” Wait till you them them our dance club plans thought I. Then you will discover their fun genes ‘real’ well. “Show me what you bought” asked my mom. “Sure” I replied and I showed her the white saree I had bought. “What is this?” she asked. “That’s a saree aunty” replied Poornima. “Charminar has a lot of stuff like this.” As my mom was looking at it like it was some kind of a table cloth material, I explained, “This is the same saree that the yesteryear actress Rekha was wearing recently mummy. Look, I have even saved Rekha’s pic on my laptop”, I showed her. “Oh yeah! Rekha had to come all the way to Charminar to buy a saree!” she looked at me exasperated. “You know that this doesn’t mean our shopping is complete right? You will have to make another trip with me to buy ‘proper’ clothes” my mom ordered. I had no option but to nod a yes.

“Ok Aunty, we will go”, Poornima said as we took leave. It was 7.30 pm by then. “What?” all three of them responded. “You will go from Malkajgiri to Masab Tank in an auto at this hour? No! Why don’t you stay home? You can chat your time away. We will accommodate for one night, not a problem.” My guys tried to convince us. Poor girl, she dint know what to say. “Not a problem mama”, we will go, I intervened. “Ok then take your brother with you” said my mom. I looked at my brother. Unless he wants to come with me to the disco, I obviously can’t I thought. With great difficulty, I dragged her out of the house, and we felt safe only when we were in the auto on our way back.

After taking a power nap of one hour, getting an auto, missing the route once because of my great memory, we finally reached the place. I was feeling rather out of place inside the pub. When her friends asked “what would you like to drink”, I stared at them. They understood and ordered a ‘virgin pina colada’ for me. As I was feeling awkward and was staring at everyone, my friend suggested “why don’t we dance”. Initially, I was shy but later I just grooved along with them to the music being played. “So, do you often go to dance clubs in America?” her friends asked. “Ya, I have been to the dance clubs whenever DJs like Suketu come there”. What they didn’t know was that it was only two times in four years that I had been to those discos. “By the way, you said you were being followed at tank bund right? That’s because at that time of the night it becomes a pick up joint” said her friend. We looked at each other…….

The two days I spent with her introduced me to the new age India. The India which like me, an NRI, while not ashamed to own up to religion and customs, does not want to be tied up with the restrictions that come with them. The India which dons a shalwar kameez to go shopping in Charminar in the day and dances away in jeans to heart’s content at night. This felt like the India I was comfortable with. This is the India in which I want to raise my kids whenever I come back, an India free of caste, creed, and religious borders which divide us with our dear friends, I told myself. An India not afraid to marry inter culturally and interracially, yet not forgetting the values and traditions of the old.

Day 14-Sunday- Dad’s side of the family -Got an early morning call from dad reminding me of the baby naming ceremony of my cousin’s daughter.

I had a mental check list.

Maternal Uncle-visited- check

Husband’s family visited-check

My friend visited-check

It was time to meet dad’s side of the family.

After having a road side final breakfast with my friend, hugging her tight, I bid her goodbye to go home by 11 am. Transformed myself from capri wearing new age woman to silk saree donning aunt in 30 minutes. Ha! I never knew I had the skill to get dressed so quickly. Kiran would be proud of my newly found skill.

I was meeting with my dad’s family the first time in many years after briefly meeting them during my wedding, when I hardly had time to connect with them. It was a great way to meet all my cousins in one place, some of whom I was meeting after a pretty long gap. It felt strange to see them all so grown up, adults in their own world. One particular cousin couldn’t even remember me, poor guy, no wonder, the last I met him he was still in his diapers! Wanted to mention that to him but felt he might not appreciate it. Chatted away my time with all my cousins and took plenty of pictures. Remembered the old times as I sat for a banana leaf lunch with my aunt, my dad’s only sister. The last I did this was at the wedding of one of my many uncles where I sat beside my aunt because I dint know what to eat and mom was too busy to help me. With a lot of promises of staying in touch and writing emails, I returned home at 1pm. The banana leaf lunch and the nonstop activity got me. I dozed off for about two hours. When I got up I realized I had only 4 days left in India and a yet unfulfilled promise to my brother. I sprung into action.

“Do you want to go to Imax today?” I asked him. “Today is the best day to go. I donno what will come up next” I told him. “Ok, let’s go” said he. And so we went, brother and sister to watch ‘Tron’ in 3D in the Prasad’s Imax at Himayatnagar. A veggie burger, cool drinks and 3D glasses later, we were all set to watch the movie. Only, I dozed off as soon as Sam Flynn entered ‘the grid’! As I opened and closed my eyes trying to stay awake, I remembered the movie as a massive array of multi coloured neon lights and an oldie goldie actor eating meat and ‘discovering life’ inside a computer program.  “The movie was wonderful, was it not?” asked my brother on our way back home. “Wonderful? hmm, yeah, it was, if you say so!” I replied. Dint have the energy to argue with him as to how come a man was eating meat inside a computer program and what exactly did the hero have in mind by falling in love with an ‘ISO’- to produce many ISO-human hybrids?

Day 15, 16, 17-Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday- Managed to shop for ‘proper’ clothes to my mom’s content, (which meant buying two dresses, returning three and buying back more, from, you guessed it right, Ameerpet ‘Chandana Brothers’), organize a retirement party for my dad, stay for another day at my in law place, give precise instructions to my newly discovered talent, my gully ka tailor how to stitch my new bride gift haul of at least 15 pieces of sarees and chudidhars, pack 13 kilos of pickles and sweets, and be ready for my early morning flight back to the USA.

Day 18 Thursday- 5.30 AM- Hyderabad International airport- Took the help of a porter to help with my luggage. As always, the luggage was over the limit. As always, the porter’s ingenuity helped me from panicking. A few goodbye hugs, texts, and phone calls later, I was on my way back, to familiarity, to Kiran, to America, my foster home. That is when the tears started. That is when it hit me, the bittersweet memory of it all. What followed is the longest twelve page article which you have (hopefully) enjoyed reading, and after reading which, you will agree it was a whirlwind tour. Was it not?

Also read Hyderabad Blues – I


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