Insanity and the Family

Psychologists, or mind bender as my grandfather calls them, are objects of much curiosity in my family. I don’t mind their playful accusations of me trying to brain wash people; I’ve met far to many people who demand I read their minds for that.

Yesterday my mother challenged me to diagnose the various tales of bizarre behavior that haunted the family. The first story was about an old great grand uncle who lived the life of a simple shop owner and land owner. Since everyone used to walk back them, he walked a lot too. But one day he left his travel companions to pee behind a bush. He soon returned and began speaking to everyone in Malayalam, which no one understood. No was able to figure out how he knew Malayalam either. He was soon ravaged but whatever afflicted him and his metal health disintegrated.

The next story was that of grand uncle who had an annoying habit of loudly narrating whatever he was doing. Even more irritating was his tendency to narrate what other people were doing while he stood about staring at them. When people asked him to stop narrating and just finish what he was doing he’d walk off angrily. My mother recalled that she hates people pointing out the obvious too and wondered if she was crazy too. She was quickly distracted by other memories of his fingers playing imaginary instruments and him singing notes “ahaaa vheeee huuummm” as he walked the long corridors that South Kenaran houses used to have.

The last story of insanity was of a great grandfather who’d have windows nailed shut if people forgot to close them when he asked them to. He also insisted on people waiting for him to wake up before they opened the front door. Since the bathrooms were outside the house, people inside had to wait anxiously till they could relieve themselves.The fact that he’d wait for his cat, that slept on top of him, to wake up before he rose must have made the wait a lot more painful.

The stories of insanity didn’t really interest me as much as the amount of information my mother knew about the family. I can’t even remember the names of all my uncles. I guess she kinda had to pick it up when one of my great grandfathers had as many as 22 children between two women.

The whole thing makes me wonder what normal is. Normal must just be the generic behavior society wants from you, but honestly I can’t think of many normal people. My grandfather isn’t crazy but I’m sure the people who see him walking around the house quoting 60’s movies and random children’s rhymes have a hard time figuring out what’s happening. Not being eccentric is a little odd given our families history.

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Sights Around Mangalore

My neck is usually strained and screaming with pain by the time I reach Mangalore. I can only tolerate bumpy, stuffy bus rides for so long; I always keep my bus window wide open to get as much fresh air as I can.

After the semi-conscious excuse for sleep that only a sleeper bus can offer,along with the unending chatter of passenger who act like they’ve found their soulmates sitting next to them, I’ve half a mind to hop out of the window. You can always see men with legs and mouths tightly shut preparing to sprint at the next stop. Everyone gropes around still dazed while they try to find their things, stretch in cramped quarters and ask the conductor how far away their stops are at least 6 times. They always manage to forget and receive a earful from the conductor.

It is tradition to complain about the driving, roads, sleep and ghat section once we’re off. Soon everyone sporting righteous outrage at the crass, loud nature of some co-passenger. Awkward silence and righteous indignity set in as the relatives who are supposed to pick us up, like always, are late but insist they’ve been waiting for us at another stop for hours.

The streets are quite, deserted, cool. The air is thick, pleasant and smells lazy. Stray dogs eye us as they enjoy their rule over the quit tarmac, the buzzing orange streetlights  their collaborates. We pile into a car, while everyone asks each other how they’ve been. they point out how so and so has gotten taller, thinner. They whisper how so and so has gotten fatter. they all decide they must eat. We leave the car before it has moved an inch and head over to the nearest restaurant. The one’s where regular customers eat are always located in a hotel. There we eat Mangalore buns that are surprisingly filling. When your eating buns and waiting for hot tea/ hoicks in town that’s still asleep and grey, you know your in Mangalore and no where else.

People discuss how the roads where back when they were kids, how certain granduncles were caught by leopards while they stopped off to pee etc. I stick my head out of the window and look at all the trees that seem to rush past me. The cool, green, residential areas that are far away from the main road are always deserted when morning buses drop off passengers. People point to the new apartments and reminisce about the old, luxurious, spacey tiled houses that always seem to invite rain are all but gone. they point to the few survivors and tell each other stories of how they used to play by the compound walls.

The few quite minutes you have after you get home and the age determined ques to the bathroom is set up is a voyeurs wet dream. You can drag a chair out to the large open baloneys that Mangalore houses always have and watch sleepy life sneak out of the apartments and houses. Inevitably I’m told to get potato chips, milk, tukudies,flavored banana chips etc. The shopkeepers, the customers and pedestrians wear dreamy looks. You’d think they lived in a world where clocks didn’t exist.

Someone always insists on going to some temple, visiting some obscure uncle/aunt before they die, so we’re always out of the house. This will always be one of the greater mysteries of life to me. Manglore is the one place where wasting time at home is pleasant. If you disagree the sun and humidity will send you rushing back for cover indoors.My family however insists on packing themselves into a sweaty car and braving the heat. The humidity and sun torture you. I’m always drenched in sweat in Manglore.

The veg restaurants we visit, once someone man’s up and tell’s everyone else that we should probably take a break, always serve amazing sandwiches. I don’t know why but sandwiches always taste better in Mangalore. The petty shops around ever corner are the best places to eat however. They always have some specialty whose name I am too tired to remember. I can remember taste but not where they come from.

My most recent discovery is this guy who has an dd love affair with the coconut. He has multiple shops carved into old house near the port of Mangalore, where the air always smells of fish. He serves you coconut based ice cream, mixed with other melted flavors of ice cream. The ice cream is served in a coconut and is meant to be scooped out with a piece of coconut husk he gives you. You can recognize his shops by the red, 90’s refrigerators they always have.

We leave Mangalore the same way we came. In a sweaty, sleeper but filled with loud gossip, loud passenger, loud conductors, loud streets. One day I want to stay awake through the trip and locate where it is you top smelling the salty air of Mangalore.

An Old Phtograph

I don’t really have many pictures of myself when I was young, I was far to self-conscious and would scatter the second I heard some eager creature with a camera. So when I realize that my makeshift mouse-pad was an old picture of me on my 8th birthday I was quite startled.

I’d say something cliché like “memories came rushing back”, but really, that isn’t the truth. The picture felt like a rough jab because it reminded me that the memory -or even memories were always around. I remember what T-shirts people wore, how they smelt and where my dog had bitten three of my friends. It’s like writing a word on paper, closing your eyes and recalling every curve,swish and dot. On the left, my other wise pretty cousin is on the sofa with us, mouth wide open ready to chomp on a slice of chocolate cake she holds. I am in between. I look anorexic you’d think my cousin was inspired to enjoy her meal because of my plight yet I smile away trying to adjust my red birthday cap. My father sits on the right with his hand awkwardly feeling the wall behind the sofa. He looks like a cat about to be run over.

Most of those parties always went the same way. My dad would yell and throw a fit about me not helping him decorate, I’d ask him why people need birthdays in the first place (while I wondered why I had to decorate if the whole thing was about me). My father wears a simple white shirt and looks 40. He’s looked like he’s 40 ever since he finished high school. Now he’s 55 and still looks 40.

My cousin and I, both skinny and young, both in bright yellow hand me downs and with birthday caps that just won’t stay on our heads look like natural allies. She was almost done with high-school  by then, but had not yet learnt how to avoid getting yelled at by the many aunts who inhabited the mansion. Back then I never understood why she was so eager to drag me away from cartoon network, and talk to me about the most random things. I never got why people kept telling her to go ask her mother to pay her bills. We’d sit by the little outlook on the hill and count the number of black cars and buses that needed a wash. She’d talk about how she’d have to dig up graves to find teeth so she could study dentistry.

I forgot about her entirely when my mother and I left that old house and that part of the family. In my defense I was a kid, I never got her rants about her nokia and pink cycle. I saw her again 3 years ago when both of us went back to the old house. We shrugged and said “meh” to everyone else there. We saw each other. We shrugged and said “meh”. She had a kid apparently.

It’s an odd photo. Very obviously candid. None of us seem affected by the din that must have been taking place in the center of the room. There only three of us three, on a sofa colored like pencil lead, against a bland green wall. For some reason that image always seems to simple,recent and familiar to forget.

House On Mango Street

In English spoken as Spanish, Sandra Cineros tells us all about her life at Mango street, in this short and excellent novella.

Through her tiny tales about Mango streets Cineros talks about nothing in particular, but still manages to effortlessly say so much. Every chapter takes, at most, 5 minutes to finish. Everything from the names for snow, clouds, race, sex, adolescence and culture gushes out from the writing. When you finish the book, you’ll know this living breathing street full of Latin American immigrants. You’ll probably know the juiciest gossip in and around Mango street too.

I’ve read the book twice in 3 hours. The re-reading value is ludicrous. Every entry is so varied, diverse and filled with this exotic reality that keeps you hooked. The tiny length of the stories makes it extremely easy to pick up and read casually.

Latin American culture and the Spanish Language are major sources of influence but it isn’t limited to that. Stories can feature Spanish phrases rolling of tongues and little girls hurling abuses at each other. Cieros makes no attempt to rant about serious issues, discuss the treatment of Latin Americans in America, talk about the usual jazz about life in poverty.

Cieros grapples with her sense of belonging and her futile longing to escape, to not belong, all while narrating terribly tiny tales that fascinate, engross and ooze beauty.

The Slow Wagon To No-Where

My father has this amazing ability to change opinions depending on how far away he is.

When he’s in Mangalore, everyone agrees that a car ride with him is torture. His trusty steed is a dented, old Wagon R, is painted  brown by the omnipresent coating of dust [legend has it that it was once as black as the hair dye my grandfather always gets all over his neck]. The Wagon R has a disturbing tendency to fall apart in the oddest ways, ooze strange fluids that seem to have been food during a bygone age,have strange insects crawl out etc. The furious family head shaking at my father driving [which gets my grandfathers hair dye all over the rest of the family] dies down the closer to Bangalore my father gets. By the time my father has driven into city limits everyone seems to have forgotten about their disgust at his driving, and insist that I have nothing better to do than accompany my father to where ever it is he needs to go.

My family has this weird thing about road. To most people road’s don’t matter all that much unless they’re being launched into orbit by some inconsiderate pothole or being offered an unwelcome shower by a motorist who hasn’t noticed that the pothole you are walking next to is filled with water. To my family it’s the pinnacle of civilization. Show them a documentary on the Romans? “Wow look at those roads!”. Images of Afghanistan? “My god look at those roads! How can they be so good when Taliban and American terrorists are bombing everything?”. My mother has recently become interest in Urdu poetry. Every time the discussion turns to Pakistani poetry and some patriot uncle decides that Pakistan is nothing but my sand, my mother will argue “That’s not true! Don’t underestimate them, have you even seen their roads?”

Perhaps this love of perfectly paved tar can be traced to Mangalore. Mangalore and the villages in the area ,like Bantwal, have for a very long time, had atrocious roads. How atrocious? So atrocious that every single car ride must warrant comment on the roads. There has never, and I mean NEVER, been a car ride without complaints about the road. So my father who has been bouncing up and down the poorly laid mixtures of tar,dirt and speed bumps for most of the day-long car ride from Mangalore to Bangalore  achieves a state of maddened euphoria when he sees patches of good road. Suddenly the accelerator is his worst enemy that needs to be crushed under his foot, the break needs to be kicked violently or it’ll disappear and ever traffic jam a excuse to stop and snooze while maintaining a 7 meter distance from the vehicle in front. Unlike my family, normal motorists have a consistent view about my father’s driving.

Every time we start off from home, a hour later than planned, my father and I spend a minimum of 15 minutes sorting the many many plastic bags, ferrying all the things he’s brought into the house, throwing away all the random derbies and aged fruit his journey has accumulated. My father also has this habit of buying fruit juice every 20 minutes of the car ends up having a lot of thing spilt all over it. Occasionally he’ll hang it on the door locks. If your aren’t careful the paper cups with the juice can get caught between car and door. A wet explosion of water melon is sometime I’m all to familiar with. Once my father didn’t notice I was half red and drenched till we got back home.

Honestly I’m surprised by how easily I’ve reached 600 words. I guess that’s because we travel everywhere by car. It’s always the first option which is weird since none of us can stand each other. My father and I have debates about religion, or at least we used to when I was foolish enough to think I could change his opinion. He has some pretty bizarre ideas, like moon rays affecting everything he does, random anecdotes about wells filled with money being proof of god etc. At one point of time he hoped I’d become an astrologer.

My father also comes up the weirdest of conspiracy theories. Rahul Gandhi is a cocaine addict, the CIA funds global warming etc. Occasionally random friends of his who are almost always filthy rich hotel owner from Goa who dress like hobo’s and share his taste in cheap hotels that where built back when Joseph Stalin was yet to hit puberty. I could go on the utter bizzarness of the conversations but if you really want to keep your mouth shut you can which is a plus. Or maybe he’s learnt that it’s no use trying, I’m not very sure.

He always sends passenger to fetch morning, afternoon and evening papers. They can be any south Indian language, but if they are Kannada he has to get a copy from very specific publishers, who’s names I can never remember. I don’t know anyone else who read’s afternoon or evening papers. I guess this is because he spends most on his day inside the car like some 21st desert nomad on his camel.He doesn’t have a modern phone either [he has three Chinese made one which have survived a ridiculous amount of punishment and are of the following colors: Pink, Bright yellow and violet.

Occasionally if we’re on some scenic route, he’ll start driving slower than butter melts in refrigerators and become the most mundane travel guide ever. Stories of how some random grand uncles, nephew’s wife’s friends  substitute teacher fell down while running barefoot will turn up. At time the choice of sites leaves me baffled. “Look a golf course”,”Look a field of paddy”,”Look a river” . I’m not quite sure how I’m expected to respond to that. Or why we took a 30 minute diversion to go see it. If my mother is also with us, she’ll rip the back of the drivers seat to shreds[ I always ride shotgun, it’s not that I care but it’s been my default position for some reason.]

For a stinky, sweaty, battered, old car that always leads to some fight or outrage, it has a lot of memories that tag with each trip.