SVL 1.5: A weekend in Michigan

11th August 2014
Dear family and friends,
How are you?
Two busy weekends have passed since I last wrote to you. On Thursday the 31st of July we packed upma and pineapple sheera that we made for Nagar chathurthi (praying for the welfare of children – yours and others’) and made our way to the airport to take the ‘Red Eye’ – an apt name for a type of flight which takes most of the night. We were excited about the trip. On our flight to Phoenix, I stared out the window at the sky as Santosh slept/tried to. I saw so many bright stars in the clear desert sky and even spotted a shooting star. Further on, I saw a town which lit up the large neatly straight cloud above it with it’s night lights. It was as if a UFO was about to beam up the town. The captain very loudly announced changes in direction to avoid a storm on the way – that we flew close to LA before crossing inland. As we neared Phoenix, we saw what this weather was that the captain was trying so hard to avoid. It was a mighty lightning storm right next to Phoenix. We saw lightning strikes near and far, bright enough to light up the whole night sky. Though we hardly felt turbulence for more than a few minutes, there was a delay in landing due to the storm. It is one thing to experience a storm from the ground and quite another to see it from the sky. Amazing!
We had a quick transfer in Phoenix airport and scanned our digital boarding passes from our phones (my first time – yay! the advantages of a smart phone!) but then we waited in the plane for a long time because the storm had come closer and the runways (here they are called ramps) were closed. At this time Santosh and I pulled out our eye masks and tried to sleep. I woke only for touch down in Michigan and gave the pilot a landing score of 8 on 10. Santosh and I call it the ‘Butter Score’ referring to how smoothly he landed.
As we stepped out of the airport I said ‘This feels like -‘ and stopped. Santosh hears about Germany every day and I didn’t want to start again. Nevertheless he guessed what I was about to say. There was a familiar chill in the air and the surrounding were so green, in contrast to the drier colours seen in Californian scenery. We were greeted by Santosh’s cousin just outside the airport. She had been waiting a long time unaware of the delays. As she drove us towards Ann Arbor in the more scenic route, the size of the roads, cars, and even the roofs of the houses reminded me of Germany. When Santosh told his cousin about my impression she told me there were many Germans here. They settled here around the time of the war and have brought many influences to the place, including their cars. The roofs are like that in many parts of the US, she clarified, because of the snow. The US is pretty mixed. In Sunnyvale, I often feel like I’m in India or Australia. In Michigan there were echoes of Germany and I’m sure I’ve felt a UK/Scotland vibe too now and again. Anyway, I felt energised by the greenery and coffee we stopped for in StarBucks (mochachip frappe with cream, yum!) and after getting veggies, we went to her place.
There we were greeted with an arathi (because of the still valid newlywed status) and welcomed into a house full of people. I learnt the names of everyone and who was related to who and how. It felt great to be surrounded by cheerful and busy people. I got into a conversation about my PhD experience with a girl who is just about to start hers. One of the five kids who I’m actually an aunt of tried calling my ‘aunty’ at first and quickly changed to simply Janani after I corrected them rather vehemently. The rule in my head is
  if
     kidage<6
   then
     I=’aunty’
   else
     I=’Janani’
  end
I got to know them better once I figured they watch Avatar: The Last Airbender. I checked out the tent they slept in the previous day. Another smaller tent would be put up for me and Santosh later.
As some of the people there couldn’t make it for the wedding, they took this chance to give us our wedding gifts. We felt very special and touched esp with the road trip/camping set. The cake knives made me crave for cake.
After a filling lunch, we went to the boating place. Though the initial plan was to use canoes and kayaks, given the size of the group, we decided to go with two rafts to increase the bonding. Santosh and I were with two fourteen year old boys and a ten year old girl. The energy and competitiveness of the kids got us to stay ahead of the adult group throughout the ~1.5 mile route. We went down some rapids. Later we got stuck on some rocks because the water levels were lower. I sat at the back muttering ‘left back, right forward’ to remember how to paddle to keep the boat straight despite the occasional imbalance in rowing from the two sides. B, the coxswain of her rowing team, the niece who’s grad party it was the next day, was at the back of the other raft. Apparently she became exasperated with her rowers’ lack of coordination.
We got pizza and checked out Michigan University campus on our way back to the house and then took a nice nap. Santosh went out helping his cousin with recycling and shopping. That night as we ate dinner which we helped make as a group, an interesting conversation developed among the kids (I include myself here). There were some intently attentive older people listening in. It was on religion, specifically contrasting two philosophies on the relationship between humans and god (Dvaitham and Advaitam). The kids get their religious education from Chinmaya mission and I was impressed with how much they learnt and the interest they had in it compared to the relatively culturally apathetic and ignorant youth of India. We got into the role of ‘bhakti’ (devotion) in arriving at more advanced spiritual understanding. B and I were of the opinion that it isn’t the right path for everyone and other paths would appeal to us more, while her brother V argued that both opposing philosophies ultimately agree on bhakti despite the ends being different because it is universally helpful. It got late and with too many people it became hard to continue. I look forward to finishing that conversation sometime.
The night was cold but we were given everything we needed- warm blankets, socks, water, torch and had a comfortable night in the tent. We had a long conversation about caste, culture and our feelings of identity which spun off from the earlier conversation. We also managed to make up for the sleep we had lost the previous night. The next morning we woke up to sprinklers spraying on our tent. After showering etc, we were given tasks to complete in preparation for the party which was arranged between 3pm and 10pm. I prepared two playlists. There was delegating and redelegating, the discovery of a baby mouse and soon after, it’s mother – in the back yard grass. There was an influx of guests, more kids, moving the tents, setting up a music system, finding cables, setting up flowers and candles under the party tent, setting the food above burners for the buffet etc. I changed into a saree and Santosh into a kurta and we got teased for matching our colours.
Once the party started, things eased out. People seemed to enjoy the food, and the company. Many of B’s friends and teachers came. I noticed a hesitation in one kid raised here in wearing Indian clothes in front of non-Indians. I asked her why and she told me there is racism in her class group and this makes her want to dress like the majority to ‘fit in’. How much can a 12 year old do to feel comfortable in her own skin? There was also a conversation about skin colour discrimination within Indians. Looks like kids here deal with a lot of complex issues.
I took over the camera when their family friend in charge of photography had to be somewhere else for some time. I enjoy pointing and shooting with an SLR and how the camera opens a new way of interacting with people. I notice I do this quite often. B and her childhood friend performed a Bharatnatyam dance piece together. It looked so expressive and beautiful. Luckily I could appreciate how tough and energy intensive it was because I struggled with the basics of this dance form when I was a child. Experts always make it look easy. After the party died down, they brought out a vegan chocolate cake for Santosh and me to cut using our new cake knives to celebrate two months of being married. We hadn’t even realised it was the 2nd of August! The cake was great. That night we slept indoors because to set up tents again was too hard with the sun gone. Again there was a long midnight conversation between B’s mum – Santosh’s cousin – and us. I gave her a foot and shoulder massage and she felt more relaxed. She had taken on so much stress organising everything.
It was time to start saying goodbyes the next morning as the youngest kid left and we started packing to be ready to leave. Santosh played his Poonal video and the parents showed their kids different people in the family who they hadn’t met and now couldn’t. It had been a great trip and I didn’t want it to end. We got dropped off at the airport after lunch. During the drive, the car filled up with childhood stories and shared memories of the older cousins as their kids listened and asked questions. I often think about those kids, how they must feel grasping at old stories, videos and references to form a picture of what life was like in India, who their grandparents were and how that affects how they form their own identities and place in the family.
We took home a Tulasi plant raised with care by V and it’s on our balcony enjoying Californian sunlight.

​Things have been busy since we got back and it seems like we always have more to do than we have time for. This weekend was fun too. There was more driving practice at Apple headquarters where I practiced in a new parking lot and on a road for the first time.

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            This was between meeting a group of Santosh&#8217;s friends for Philz coffee and a walk around the Infinite Loop and meeting more of his friends in Zenny, an Ethiopian restaurant in San Jose. We had some interesting conversation because they travel a lot. We also saw a model of Apple&#8217;s Mothership which is under construction.
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            We got home late and woke early the next morning to go to the temple forAvaniAvattam/Upakarma. It was optional for me but I went anyway and my interest in chanting returned. Some close friends have been pointing out how I talk about religious things more often nowadays. I guess there are a lot of festivals this month &#8211; I did a simple version ofVaralakshmipooja &#8211;</p> 

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              ​for prosperity of everyone and food for all children. And my second attempt at Mangala Gowri was far more impressive than my first.
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              ​Apart from the season, I think it is also because as a married woman I feel more responsibility towards keeping the culture alive. I want my future kids to feel familiar with the smells, sounds, foods and feelings of the traditions and culture. Does it have much to do with my position on faith? I see them as quite separable. Culture stands quite well without its association with faith in god and one&#8217;s individual spiritual journey/questions and mental wanderings aren&#8217;t affected by several aspects of the culture. Of course this will be different for different people. I see enough cultural loss around me &#8211; languages dying out faster than biodiversity even in Europe where they haven&#8217;t taken English as their medium of education instruction (eg Plattdüütsch). So what hope is there for Indian culture with language as a key to that door where English is considered &#8216;cooler&#8217; than regional languages and taught as the first language in so many schools? Santosh and I try repeatedly to speak more Tamil/Kannada but complex conversations happen only in English. I worry about my own role in the disappearance of my culture. Culture is alive not when you learn about it academically but when you live it. So I am trying to do my best to live some of mine.
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            Wow, this is a very long email. I&#8217;ll leave you with an interesting related TED talk: <a href="http://www.ted.com/talks/patricia_ryan_ideas_in_all_languages_not_just_english" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">http://www.ted.com/talks/patricia_ryan_ideas_in_all_languages_not_just_english</a>
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            Looking forward to hearing from you.
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            Affectionately,
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See also