Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ladies Left at the Door

Kannadi Mama passed away in Toronto, few days back.

I always called him Kannadi Mama (Spectacle Uncle) because I’ve never seen him without the spectacles and it rhymed well and easily for a toddler, from which age his family is friends with ours. The best memory I have of him is that he usually stops by our house on his Raleigh bicycle, with a woven basket attached to the front bar, parking the two wheeler by leaving one of the pedals down to hold on to the paved sidewalk. Although a ten second event, I can replay it anytime with no lapse in details.

The funeral ceremonies of Kannadi Mama were held at a parlor in Scarborough, another multicultural melting pot of Greater Toronto. These parlors - large buildings with facilities to conduct many funerals simultaneously - once privately owned, are now part of a major U.S. chain of funeral arrangers. Having improved since the cooperate takeover, just like a wedding planner, the professionals at these establishments cater to multi-ethnic, multi-religious communities with their unique needs of last rites, ceremonies and procedures. Death being an event that received no impact from economical trends or recessions, theses parlors also churns out steady business, thanks to aging population of Canada.

Muslims and Jews bury their dead within twenty four hours. Hindus in other hand doesn’t have such restrictions. And due to globalization of families, it’ll be very hard and impractical to arrange and conduct funerals in such short notice and time. While researching on this subject, I found a good book, Saiva Funeral Rites with Explanations” written in Tamil with a one page summary in English, by Mr. N. Mahesan, an expatriate based in Australia.

While Kannadi Mama slept peacefully in his Mahogony box, in his trade mark spectacles, in traditional Tamil costume and garlanded by colorful flowers, while an unofficial funeral crier recited and chanted Hindu hymns, while a priest conducted poojas, while the only son of Kannadi Mama carried the 'kollikudam' - a clay pot - and splashed holy water around his soul-departed body, while he was symbolically lit by fire at the feet (the real pyre will be at a crematorium at another location), while all sobbed, cried and wailed, while the world came to a temporary halt, while the pall bearers assembled around, closed shut the coffin, then slowly rolled him away to the hearse, the ladies were stopped and left at the door of the funeral parlor.

According to Hindu custom, the ladies aren't allowed at the crematorium. Google doesn't help on this subject. Does anyone know why?

Krishna! - my Barber

National Post, one of Canada's semi-national dailies recently published an exclusive interview most people thought unattainable. While the article had nothing to do with Iraq, President Bush, President elect Barack Hussein Obama or recently infamous Illinois governor Blagojevich, it certainly created a little buzz amongst the Tamil Diaspora of Canada and around the world.

For my readers whom aren't Tamil, Sri Lankan, Canadian or any hyphenated versions of the latter or not necessarily care about dragging old bags along, here's a little history of the so called Tamil Diaspora and on "old-bags" they carry along:

The Post's interview was with the elder sister of Mr. Velupillai Prabhakaran, who is the supreme commander of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the most revered and disciplined freedom fighting organization in the world and the group which invented suicide missions - according to defense and security pundits. While Mr. Stewart Bell's - the Post's reporter - interview dived into the early days of Prabhakaran and made an attempt to extract information of his transformation to be guerrilla leader, the interesting part was of the link it made to Bagavat Geeta and Mahabharata, the Hindu mythological epic, being told and written over many versions over many thousands of years.

The Post however, erroneously notes that Lord Krishna told Arjuna, that he must fight in the war because he, the God, is saying so. The written scenario of the Geeta, in fact interprets differently that, Krishna, the God of Protection advises Arjuna of the evils of war and why sometime it is necessary to wage war against your relatives - for the greater good of the masses. Arjuna, a world class marksman during his era, who invented cluster archery – predecessor to cluster bombing, was having second thoughts while sitting on his chariot, well armed and ready to attack but looking for reasons and detachment. In simple terms, Lord Krishna's advice is like making sure you take the paint cans away if your brother happens to be the graffiti villain of neighborhood fences.

Recently, I visited my Barber, whose name also happens to be Krishna, for a number three bladed trim. Now, this Krishna is not a Lord of Protection or an advisor of any kind and in fact just a destroyer of evil, unruly hair and dandruff. He is also a very charming young man, who broke traditions with South Indian caste system, in which becoming a Baber is an hereditary profession that is usually shunned by non-Amabattan casted population (see: Having gone to hair styling college in Toronto, Krishna, against the wishes of his high-caste family, now cuts hair at twelve dollars per head and an additional two if you need art work on the back of your skull.

However, similar to Lord Krishna, the barber-ic version also advises me to fight the evils of grey hair that crops without fertilization, despite the high protein shampoo that I buy at four dollars a piece. He says that having thick full of hair is one thing, but having black thick full of hair should be the ultimate goal. Although grey spells wisdom, knowledge and in some instances loads of stress, the black hair showcases young, distinguished looks and during economic downturns and recessions helps to land jobs that would have been normally be allotted for young chaps, with real youth and obvious blackness.

So, like Arjuna, I'm also okay to fight my relatives, the grey colored little strands that peeks through my 'blackened' head, after the second week of sessions with 'Hair Color for Men', that I had with Krishna - my barber!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Looking After Dad..

I meet Kevin, in Kalookan, on the rooftop of his abode, nearby sits a wood stove with slow cooking meat; the aroma spreading over hurriedly built many roof tops of this semi-slum suburbia of Manila.

The alley-ways are five feet wide, stinking sewer, covered by concrete slabs, running in the middle, mothers sitting at their doorsteps, talking and children playing, staring at the new comer, clothes dry on extended poles that poke out of windows with iron grills, making a colorful 'pandal' overhead, while we walk towards Kevin's house.

The house is narrow and three stories tall and twenty feet deep with no windows on the sides, giving privacy to another two and rows and rows of houses. We climb steep stair cases that takes late afternoon breeze from the narrow alley, through an always-open door, upwards, towards the rooftop, where chickens and ducks and pigeons live in corrosive steel cages filled with aged bird drops, along a lonely rooster, tied at the foot with brown twine to the two feet tall railing, emitting coo-coo sounds and trying very hard to make acquaintance with a colorful female.

In an adjoined room with open and airy windows, a loud TV with wavy pictures, a blue step stool and a backless chair, lay a shirtless tall man with twisted face, in large diapers covered with over sized shorts, in an old hospital bed. Stink of old urine arrives and depart. A two inch thick rope hangs in front of him, for him to use his usable right hand to pick on, get up and sit, unassisted. The man is paralyzed. The whole of his left side. He's Kevin's dad.

It's been like that for the past five years, of which the man has seen the outside world only during the first year, during visits to many doctors, specialists and hospitals, when Kevin try to revive him form a near-deadly stroke. Nothing worked; no medicine, therapy or the continuous prayers Kevin placed at the San Roque Cathedral in Kalookan. After those 'trying' time, his father gave up treatment and had been bed ridden ever since, with the flickering TV, sounds of chickens, pigeons and occasional visits from his other children, living on the second floor and around town.

Kevin, 31, a fair skinned, little plump man, was working in Tokyo, as a driver for a Pakistani importer, who imported Halal food from Islamabad. His dream at that time had been to save some money, wear fashionable clothes, find his dream girl and settle down somewhere overseas with no aim of ever returning home. However, his father's sudden illness brought him back home, gave him some sort of a wake-up call or realization and since then Kevin leaves the rooftop abode only to his job, to buy medicine or groceries.

When asked for reasons, Kevin, now a serious church going man, smiled and looked away and then at his glass of Red Horse beer, that we bought on the way to the rooftop, a dark brown substance, hidden in a white bottle.

"All I did was to picture myself forty years from now, on this rackety bed and step stool, with no wife, children or people to take care of, with no way to move, eat or even to clean myself of my own natural waste."

I expected a biblical reason from the heavy lifting church go-er but he came out very practical.

Kevin remains single, unattached, with a job at a call center so to give him more time to tend to his dad, with a devotion, dedication and passion.

"Although I always prey for his well being everyday, I also know that he'll be gone one day, permanently. But my aim is to keep his integrity, so that he'll never get into a situation where a stranger has to wipe his bottom, to have him feel lost of his bond to people, the seeds he sow in this earth and to lose his self esteem that he's holding since young, able, rich and with plenty to throw away."

I didn't know how to respond to such a statement that my glass of Red Horse empties pretty fast.

As a traveling consultant, I work with teams of people who converge from different countries, different cultural and social background to do a project. These lonely home away trips would bring us together to chat about each others dreams, after long days, over beer at café's in language unknown strange countries. Then suddenly, one day, a phone call would come to one of us about their parents demise, a serious illness or death from a far away land to suck away the cheer, laughter and to bury our heads in sadness and shame. I have witnessed, in several occasions, when these professional and mature people, break, cry and lose all their hope in that moment of hopelessness, their inability and failure to protect the very people who provided every stones to build their career and success.

Many of us never had or will have Kevin's determination and courage to give up our dreams and be with a sick and dying parent so that he or she could sleep, un-awaken, with peace, love and integrity.

When my father passed away, I too was living in Toronto - secured in a dream refuge with dollars and a fancy car. When the news came with an ultra-early morning ring, I was only able to fly to his bedside, on the day of death with a firm time of departure. It'll be exactly nineteen years on January 20th, when Barack Obama becomes the first African American president, when my current project expected to go-live and when I became torn, low, small and hurt with shame at wards of the Cooperative hospital in Colombo.

In my situation, it was also strange and spiritual as to how a parent, who was left alone, without his children by his side during his dying years, could even help me to find a future wife.

I found my future wife at my father's funeral ceremonies and three years later our first son was born on my father's birthday! Only a parent can have that sort of built-in forgiveness, to give, give and give without any returns or expectations.

Here I quote, with a grand salute to Kevin - not his real name by the way, from the Nobel Laureate Mr. V.S. Naipaul:

"Most people are not really free. They are confined by the niche in the world that they carve out for themselves. They limit themselves to fewer possibilities by the narrowness of their vision."

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Jackson Heights Video Club

The white lettered 7 on-a-purple-dot was the cause for the whole thing.
This little long thing never stopped running until two in the morning, rattling from Flushing to Time Square, through the drug infested borough of Queens, Puerto Rican Junction Blvd., Indian Broadway, Irish Woodside, Greek Astoria and crossing into Manhattan under the Queensboro bridge, rattling, rattling and carrying early morning commuters, mid-afternoon nurses, college kids and late night drunks.

It covered a mere twenty two stations, the shortest subway route in New York's mass transit system, like a baby snake in the farm of Anacondas. I don't know who selected the purple color for this line of non-air-conditioned subway cars, in 1980's by the way, but the color certainly emitted a queer look, an object of mixture and diversity

In late August, some brave affluent patrons from Manhattan would ride this subway line to get to Arthur Ashe Stadium at Flushing Meadows, the host of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, where history was made by men, women and at least one out-of-closet lesbian, with corn dogs to munch during sets that lasted many hours into the night. When Mets won their only World Cup in 1986, the subway line became an instant carnival on tracks, dancing to the tune of emerging baseball fans from the Shea Stadium, yet allowing some somber crowd to get to the Grand Central Station, catch a train to Boston and bury their sobbing head in Red Sox' sagged bosoms.

I lived in a derelict apartment block, four floors high. Built with dark brown stones, the building sucked in cold air like a hungry infant, during the winter, in a neighborhood called Jackson Heights. Queens Boulevard to the south and Northern Boulevard to the north sandwiched J.H. into a BLT with Cheese from a New York deli. There was nothing in J.H. to write home about, except that during summer, you could witness some liberal Puerto Rican beauties in their revealing attire, accompanied by admirers, large Chevy Impalas and salsa beat.

A United Nations of people lived in these apartment blocks, not cordially always, but with an understanding to not to mess with each other. From time to time, there would be skirmishes outside the Laundromats on 37th Avenue, between pouring the detergent into the washer, between folding dried clothes and between youngsters from different communities, mostly over the subject of girls, after few Ballantines ale that sold at dollar a liter.

Kavi did not come from these derelict communities. She rode the number 7 from Flushing, where middle class people stayed, close to temples, synagogues and the Queens College that proudly delivered Nobel Laureates every few years or so, with easy access to JFK and the parkway that took you to Jones Beach in Long Island, when summers become too hot to bear.

During our mostly silent relationship, I met Kavi only once a day, during the return trip from Grand Central to Jackson Heights, at night, after an exhausting day working at the Ham Haven on Warren Street, making ham sandwiches on wheat-bread to lawyers, stock-brokers and Wall Street alike, near the City Hall where Ed Koch ruled the City like a smiling king, earning five dollars an hour to save for college that would start around four in the afternoon to go on till ten at night. These exhausting days and long evening of books and lectures would bring instant nap on the A train from 23rd Street to 42nd; then during transfers I'd see Kavi, in her warm colored clothing and pleasant smile with dimple filled cheeks.

The ride on Number 7 at night is usually a non-event. Most passengers would be dozing, reading or listening to Walkmans with cassettes. An occasional transit police man would wander into train cars, stay near the door that said "do not stay near the door" for few minutes to wander away into the next one. A tired child would cry in her mother's arms; a drunken lost lover would be weeping at his loss; an over-dramatic teen-ager would be swinging to an unheard tune, such that it brought an entertaining variety of people who called New York as their home away from home, into this twisting tube.

After cruising through the tunnel for about eight minutes, the Number 7 would emerge onto outside overhead tracks near the Vernon Boulevard station. From that point onwards the subway would thunder over the Roosevelt Avenue, cracking every window that's close to the tracks, waking lovers embraced in passion and homeless drifters sleeping under cardboard boxes, neatly stacked near the entrances of Dunkin Donuts, with remaining aroma of honey-dew filling the cold night's air.

One dull evening, an old pal of mine, half drunk, made a grand entrance into the subway car I was riding, at the Queensboro Plaza station, near the double decker-ed grand bridge that would take you into Manhattan if you are brave enough to maneuver the traffic and yellow cab drivers, whom according to Hollywood movies, all wore turbans.

This 'grandly' entered friend started blurting to me in Tamil and that's what made the little connection between Kavi and I, who until that time only had a smiling acquaintance.

The next night, as I was getting out of the subway car at the Jackson Heights station, Kavi, who was seated near the door, slipped a note to me. The note, simply said:

"I think you're a Tamil person. Is there a store in Queens where I can rent some Tamil movies?"

As the train moved towards Flushing, with the light flickering inside, due to malfunctioning electric current that ran through the tracks, I saw a blushing little woman, with a look to hold your breath, to whistle your favorite tune, to open your jacket and walk through the wintery blocks, feeling warm in my good old and beautiful Jackson Heights.

Following Saturday, I walked twenty three blocks to North Corona, via 90th Street and Elmhurst Ave, past many brown stone buildings, past fenced out basketball courts and past a Hospital where my tooth was extracted, painfully, to Chettiyar shop, the only place during the early eighties-Queens that rented Tamil VHS movies.

And, in days and months following, many cassettes were delivered and returned and re-delivered, on the rattling, white lettered number 7 on-a-purple-dot that twirled through the borough of Queens, like half hour episodes of a mega serial. But, that first episode of romance, the glittering eye contact, the warmth on a wintery road never blossomed to any great length.

Kavi couldn't talk, even if she wanted to.