The following account took place in early September. The place: New York, New York. The event: The wedding reception of a dear friend.
“Eat, my son. By the time you go back to Toronto, I want you to gain two pounds.” This shocking start to conversation stemmed, unbelievably, from unconditional love.
After a grueling 12 hour drive from Toronto we tumbled out of the mini van in the driveway of Chitta’s house in New York. The morning was fresh; the breeze gentle. The sun shone benevolently on my sparsely populated head and urged me inside.
Chitta’s daughter rushed into the house with the rest of her extended family. I tagged along, suitcases in tow. Our presence generated a million sound waves. Family members sprung up from leather couches to hug. Mouths, hands, heads, and bodies greeted with emotion. I had entered the mad house of Long Island, New York.
People from South India, from where we originate, do not hug. Kissing is committed rarely, even behind closed doors. And here I was, enveloped by a thousand hearts brimming with pure affection.
The troops poured into the dining room. Dosas arrived steaming from the chatti (hot plate). Tea/coffee, news, views, questions about family back home, and endless talk jostled for space in the extended dining room. After five dosas I indicated to chitta that I’ve had enough. And that was when she uttered the golden words, “Eat, my son”!
A Flaming Torch
Chitta is small; four feet nothing. She is a flaming torch and continues to consume, if caught on the wrong side, entire neighborhoods, families, and smaller counties. On the bright side, she lights up the mood of every person she came into contact for over five decades.
Chitta lives on the edge. Once she drove her teenage daughters through a dangerous part of New York. She jumped a red light and ploughed into the jalopy ahead. Chitta blinked. The crumbling sound of metal, smoke, and steam filled the air.
The girls cringed, held on to each other and started chanting names of popular Gods and some new ones. Chitta peered through the shattered windscreen, and saw a shaking head. The door opened and a giant sprung out. He slammed the door, looked between the cars and proceeded to Chitta’s window.
He bent thrice before leveling eyeballs at Chitta. Chitta rolled down the window and uttered with the sweetest smile she could muster, “Waaaat babieeee!”
The man froze. His expression is now exhibited at an art gallery in downtown New York. After eyeballing each other for awhile the man shook his head, got back into his car, and drove away.
At the party; making small talk
Family and friends bearing food trays arrived by 6 pm for the day before reception party. I felt like a stranger. Did I catch a couple of women sizing me up! Is he married? What friend would drive all the way to New York for a reception?
A few people make up any joyous evening, and fewer people form the life of the party. I will describe the event though a few central characters. It is difficult for me to make small talk. My spouse thrives on it.
Behind the house is a well manicured lawn where I spotted a couple in animated discussion. I descended on them. They were friends like me. The younger, a doctor, is ‘indebted for life’ to Chittappan [Chitta’s spouse] and the family. The other, a war veteran, retired as a colonel from the Indian Army. I have always wondered about people who willingly bartered their lives for their country of birth, adopted country, and other countries. What motivates them?
A band of three brothers soon made their appearance. The youngest brother is a giant of a man with great culinary skill. His shrimp curry was a favorite of the evening. He sat in the middle of the lawn; the chair slowly sank into the wet lawn.
Chittappan is probably the only person who can connect Chitta with common sense. He has a large heart and is equally divided among the people he loves; anyone who crossed his welcome mat over 60 odd years has only fond remembrances. When anyone is stranded in JFK and cries for help he drives down and bring them home. They can be sure of a hot meal, bed, and warm hospitality.
Chittappan has a great sense of humor, a habit he picked up soon after marrying Chitta. He also has an endless collection of stories of people who had one meal at his house those who stayed on for days. He made them all look good.
Sleeping with a Millionaire
BKM owns a chain of fast food restaurants in New York and is a self-made millionaire. A long lost friend of Chittappan, this reception was a luxury BKM permitted himself.
BKM graced Chitta’s house at 9 a.m. When I met him he was firmly ensconced in a wing chair in Chitta’s living room roaring around with laughter and Chittappan. On introduction, I hung on to his hand. If money is a virus, I wanted to contract it. He regaled us with stories of his younger days and later times (before making his millions and afterwards).
Sleeping in an Indian household where there is a major function is a collective effort. By midnight a sofa bed was arranged in the living room and I hit the sack lulled by many drinks. When I woke up, I found another sleepy head on the other side of the bed, that of BKM. I slept with a millionaire. I am still waiting for the virus to take effect!
Driving Ms. Chitra
I was not fortunate at visiting the Daytona Race Track. Our trip to New York were spiced up by two such racing stretches with Chitra at the wheel.
The journey started at around 11.30 p.m. I drove the first stretch close to the US border in Kingston. I was beginning to feel sleepy and it was unanimously agreed that the border crossing was better handled by a woman at the wheel. The switch was made at a pit stop in Kingston.
Chitra clambered onto the driver’s seat. Chitra takes after her mother; she is four feet something! As we piled back into the minivan we found one traveller missing from the original six pack. Charuhasan, Chitra’s husband, lives in two worlds; the dreadful normal one and the one created by his overheated imagination. We get rare glimpses of this exciting world.
After five minutes, Charuhasan ambled out of the rest area. He looked at the general direction of the van and turned his back to us. Then he stood there with both hands tucked into the back pockets of his jeans and looked up at the signboard on the information building. Our eyes followed his gaze. The words’Rest Area’, ‘Get your information here’, etc., were clearly written in neon lights. Charuhasan could have been modelling for an unseen photographer. He continued to stand there. We looked all around. The night and fog had reduced visibility. Nothing existed to distract him. What went through his head during another gruelling five minutes continues to be a mystery.
Chitra adjusted her seat and mirrors. She slid the seat and backrest forward so that only the seat belt separated her from the steering wheel. She fiddled with the iPod and chose her favourite playlist of songs. She looked up and found her husband continued to baffle us. Chitra honked. Slowly, Charuhasan turned around, looked at us and walked to the van.
Save for a truck, no other cars occupied the parking lot. Chitra put the gear in reverse, took the wheel with both hands as one would a pair of heavy dumbbells, raced back, braked with a squeal, and raced forward. All occupants in the van sat up. If anyone had felt drowsy, this turn of events worked better as a stimulant. We checked our seat belts and peered forward into the thick fog and what lay ahead.
When Chitra drives, she drives ahead. She is not distracted by traffic rules, condition of the vehicle, and other such minor irritants.
to be continued.