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Funny Ha-Ha!

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 11:03 AM

"There is nothing like a gleam of humour to reassure you that a fellow human being is ticking inside a strange face." - Eva Hoffman

Humour has always held a special place in my life. First, jokes were made about me being an uptight child and I took offence to them. Next, I learnt that the best way to live was to not take myself too seriously and laugh along with the ones who thought of me as funny. Ironically, the laughs stopped and turned into gazes of admiration at my turn-around. But the humour stayed with me. It helped me sail through the time conundrum with ease. Humour helped lift the darkest veils from the most serious moments that I encountered. It made me laugh in times of loneliness and helped nip several confrontations in the bud even before they started. Humour, I realized, makes people likeable.  And now life is a series of constant setbacks lightened by the presence of gleams of humour in sporadic spells of pulchritude.

I do not think that I am funny. But I can laugh loudly at a good joke any day. By accident, I sometimes also end up making some of these jokes. I know people who swear by laughter. Their pure and unadulterated commitment to guffawing under all situations is commendable. I look forward to being in their company, if only to cringe at the occasional bad humour that springs up without intention. But every meet is memorable. I think about these people when I need an injection of enthusiasm. A simple upwards curve of the lips is a solution for most problems in life. If nothing else, this simple exercise undeniably always lifts the spirits. As a young girl, my uncle (mother’s brother) who lives in Delhi gave me snazzy joke-books to read when I visited him during summer vacations. Our dinner table conversations centered around humorous incidents in his personal and professional life. Some not-so-kind jokes about the sardaars in Delhi were his area of expertise. Those family meals were marked with remarkable camaraderie and a sense of ease. By showing us the side of him that always tickled a funny bone, my uncle became endearing simply for his effort of completely putting himself out there, without fearing our judgement or criticism.

Talking about funny people, my husband has turned out to be quite an amusing man too. I first fell for his constantly light mood. Next I realized to my amazement and relief, that he was extremely comic as well. He preserved in him a child-like allurement towards all things amusing. Fast forward to the present, my dumbest sentences become funny when he pin-points what’s wrong with them and spins a joke around it. His favourite show is ‘Seinfeld’ and in our spare time, we go watch stand-up comedies. He laughs at jokes that are sometimes even too sophisticated for my comprehension and thereafter patiently explains them to me following my quizzical expressions. In our cat-to-gossip sessions where we babble about people, I sometimes tell him stories about people to garner sympathy, but instead, he instantly finds them facetious and starts laughing. My mood then changes rapidly from dull to cheerful too and I feel a pang of love swell inside me for his breezy jocular temperament. Television viewing is almost strictly reserved for watching ludicrous shows. The meals shared over these shows encompass perpetual bursts of mirth. He makes me appreciate the presence of humour in life even more and for that I am eternally thankful. Because other than my acquired sense of humour, I am an intensely serious person.


When we moved to Chicago, I got the chance to make acquaintance with a new genre of comedy shows called – Improvised Comedy. These shows are almost similar in format to stand-up comedies, except some of their jokes are improvised on stage from the catch-phrases and situations offered by the live audience. Consequently, no two shows performed by the same group end up being similar. Scenes, poems and opera songs are spun live in the presence of guests from the words that are thrown up for the group. Various tools are employed back-stage to equip these artists to become instantly funny. No scripts and no pre-prepared drama is present. As my birthday gift this year, my husband took me to Chicago’s leading improvised comedy group show called – The Second City. It is an improvisational comedy enterprise, best known as the first ever on-going improvisational theatre troupe in the United States. They are known for the inclusion of live and improvised music during their performances.  I was completely thrilled by their presence of mind and quick wit. Mesmerized by this genre of comedy, we also got a bite of another group called - Four Day Weekend - in Houston, Texas. While they weren’t quite as good as The Second City, some of their jokes did make me fall off my chair. Jerry Seinfeld directed ‘Long Story Short’ performed on Broadway by Colin Quinn (named ‘History of the World in 75 minutes’) is also off our bucket list. The show was the best stand-up comedy that I think I will ever see.


The moot point remains that humour sustains me. It is the de-stressing pill that I pop in everyday to stay in my senses. My brother makes jokes all day, my DVR is flooded with funny recorded shows, I get gifted Calvin and Hobbes comics by my husband and the best time of the day is when I can share a hearty laugh with someone I like over something absurdly slapstick. Knee-slapping wagging humour lights up my days, people with jocose natures attract me and droll antics infinitely rule my attention spans. Like Erma Bombeck once said,

“When humour goes, there goes civilization." I couldn’t agree more.

(Written as a guest post for Project 365 on the Prompt Of The Day – Funny Ha-ha: Do you consider yourself funny? What role does humour play in your life and who is the funniest person you know?)


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Fifteen Credits

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 8:29 AM



(Written on the prompt of the day for Project 365)

'Our Utmost For The Highest' - That was our school motto. She always encouraged women to be all that they aspired to be. She started our school and shaped each one of us into what we are today. She was Maharani Gayatri Devi of Rajasthan. And it is her that I miss the most whenever I return to my alma mater, the MGD Girls School in Jaipur.

She would kick off our academic year with her varied pearls of wisdom. I remember many a rainy day during which our school annual day fell when she would visit to address us. Every Independence Day she would hoist the national flag in the school and speak to us about regal discipline. She held a special place in my heart and continues to inspire me even today despite her being no longer in this world. We miss her!

The above picture was clicked on the author's last day of school in 2005. Maharani Gayatri Devi is seen signing her passing away kurta. This was a school tradition. Even after a decade, the author still holds the kurta dear, a symbol that reminds her of the message of positivity and independence that the Maharani inspired in her and the rest of her classmates.

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On the edge

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 8:37 AM





Radha was perplexed. She didn’t know where to turn or what to do. Despite a recent job promotion, she wasn’t happy. When she had shared the news with her husband about being promoted from sales associate to sales manager in her small pharmaceutical company, his excitement had been muted too. That was how they functioned as a couple. Mostly quiet and equipped to understand each other’s silences. But Radha wasn’t happy. For weeks now, she had been trying to figure out the cause for her deep set resentment. Maybe, she thought, she felt hopeless because despite having tried for over a year, she still hadn’t got pregnant. Or maybe it was because she felt that her marriage was stuck in a rut. Nothing ever changed and both she and Varun, her husband, stayed busy with work throughout the week. Weekends were generally spent quietly inside the house doing chores, with an occasional meal shared in a fancy restaurant. Radha also figured that another cause of her glumness was her in-laws. They constantly reminded her that her biological clock was ticking and she hadn’t borne them a grandchild yet.

Radha didn’t know where to look. Her husband wasn’t a great listener and generally spent all his free time with the newspaper. Her parents did not understand her concerns and only got worried each time she shared her despair with them. A couple of years ago, she had been treated for chronic depression but she didn’t believe that it could have resurfaced so soon. Radha also didn’t have close friends because work didn’t give her much time to socialize and the few people who had been nice to her through the years no longer spoke to her. That was because she had managed to offend every single one of them in the years that she had spent fighting her persistent illness.

She, however, did not like to see herself as a recovering maniac. Instead, her work identity defined her now and she also saw Varun and their supposedly happy marriage as a sign of full recovery. She never accounted for the fact that she still sometimes got overwhelmed with the pressures of life and felt like ramming her moving car into a solid brick wall. She also did not tell anyone that her inability to get pregnant made her want to stab herself in the stomach. No one noticed these tell-tale signs of another brewing psychological disorder because Radha concealed them so well.

One a particularly humid Friday evening in August, Radha came home early from work. She saw Varun’s car parked outside and was surprised to see that he had returned home from work early too. She walked into her bedroom and was shocked to find Varun copulating in bed with their vivacious neighbor, Kamla. Radha was flabbergasted and ordered them both out of the house. After the screaming was done and the door had been locked, Radha succumbed on the floor. She rolled up like a fetus and burst out crying. The wailing and tears didn’t stop for several hours after. She now understood Varun’s silences and knew that their marriage was effectively over. She also understood why she hadn’t been able to get pregnant (she took it as a sign of her body’s resistance at being impregnated by a cheating husband) and for the first time in months, she was glad that there was no baby in the offing.

The events that followed happened in quick succession. She called her parents, the divorce papers were drawn out, Varun signed them without resistance and the marriage was over. Radha was left with their Navi Mumbai house, her job, her car and some money in the bank account. She was now 35 years old and didn’t expect to find another partner anytime soon. In reality, she was tired, exhausted and felt rudely jilted. But she was also determined. Determined to find something that would make her happy again. At this point in her life, there were no answers. Nothing seemed to bring a smile on her face. Her parents tried and even her office colleagues, now sympathetic to her situation, tried to make her laugh. But to no avail. All happiness had been sapped out of Radha’s life. Her innocence and hard-work had only got her to this crossroad. And it all seemed like a huge, complete waste.

And then something changed inside her. Radha quit her job. The withdrawn provident fund money was enough to sustain her for a few months. Before she started looking for a new job, Radha wanted to find her meaning of happiness. She felt like she had been pushed off a cliff and was being forced to get back on her feet again. First, she emptied the house of all of Varun’s belongings. None of them belonged there. Next, she reconnected with the friends that she had once scorned and apologized for the years gone by. The tedious exercise seemed to make her feel a little better. Next, she decided to write poems. Ever since she had been a student, Radha had possessed a natural knack for poetry. She had tried her hand at it as a child and amassed huge appreciation from her English teachers. So she decided to write poems again. And it seemed to work. Out came the vitriol associated with eight years of being married to a cheating husband. Her emotions found expression in the words of her poems. Radha could, for the first time, speak her mind out without being judged by anyone.
 

“He who could not give me a baby, he broke my heart like it was a meandering doll,

I wallowed in self-pity, and thought that it was all my fault.

But the sunshine of happiness dawned when he left,

And I rediscovered myself for what I really was inside the cubed vault.

Now I sing and shine, I celebrate everyday,

Like there is no misery or sadness to take it all away.”

 Radha had found expression in the form of poems that she didn’t particularly know what to do with. Her parents commended her good writing and her friends appreciated her finding some cheer again. But only Radha knew that she had finally found what she had been looking for throughout. In Varun she had sought an understanding listener and with her parents, she sought friends that she didn’t really have. But her poems were the beauty that she created with her own hands every day. No deceit, no expectations, no advice and nothing else complicated. They were the purest forms of kindness and solace. And Radha wrapped herself with this passion for poetry-writing like a silk worm nestles in its solid cocoon. She had found her one true calling and she decided to keep pursuing writing even after she had found a new job.

Years went by, and true to her words, Radha’s poetic well didn’t go dry.  A collection of her short poems based around the themes of betrayal, acceptance and recovery were published by a major publishing house. The book titled ‘Shadows from my past’ made Radha’s life an overnight success. Years after the bitter divorce, she was now famous. She also received the news that Varun had attempted committing suicide. Although he had been saved and was still alive, the right side of his body had been paralyzed permanently.

Radha wasn’t vindictive. But she felt redeemed by how life had turned out. She had remained single through her success. And now, she found herself constantly happy. She didn’t feel the urge to commit any unspoken crimes. No indescribable bouts of crying and wallowing followed her around. She realized that it was Varun’s presence that had kept pulling her spirits down during their marriage. And he was far away from her now. Tied down for life to a hospital bed, unable to move. Despite life’s justices, Radha decided not to concern herself too much with the fate of others. She had just assumed charge of her own life and affairs, and she wanted to make sure that no Varun ever ruined her peace of mind again. She had found her one true love in poetry. And the poetry loved her back. That seemed enough.

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Moved to Tears

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 8:50 AM


(Written on the prompt of the day for Project 365)

As a child, crying did not come naturally to me. Raised by loving parents and looked upon by my two younger brothers, I was a proud child who refused to cry in public. My place in the family was that of an elder. And to always set a good example for my two brothers, I never let them see me cry. Well, at least almost never. Sometimes it was inevitable. Until I turned 17, I stayed with my parents and was never subject to the harsh realities of independently living everyday life. Consequently, I had very few sad memories to relate to when I thought about tears. In fact my biggest fear in those days was not to burst out laughing when the situation demanded a serious face from me. A bad news, a friend scoring less marks or something serious on television. It might have been the lack of maturity or maybe I was just a happy child – either way, I never cried in movies or when I saw something touching. When I eventually migrated from my nest in the pursuit of college education, my experiences with the world changed. I now saw a spade for a spade, and not an ace of diamond. My parents were not physically present around me all the time to shield me from barbed wires of the outside world and my collection of unpleasant memories grew. I also learnt to cherish the presence of my parents more. Another strange occurrence happened around this time. I learnt to cry. A lot. And that trend has only been on an upswing since then. The older I am getting, the more emotions buried deep inside me are surfacing. Fear, anger, anxiety and concern. As I make memories of my own everyday as an adult, I look back at the old memories at home with rejuvenated kindness. My eyes well up when I see a good gesture being done, and all movies now feel like the story of my life. There is always this one character who I can link to someone in real life and their misery & joys become mine. I laugh and cry with them. I also make the extra effort to go out of my way and be extra charitable towards family, friends and strangers. Because I have seen physical proof of my generosity light up someone’s day.

The last time I was moved to tears was while going through old pictures in my family album. There are two reasons why these pictures are immensely precious to me now – First, because trapped in those semi-sepia frames are the moments of my life when I was immune to pain or feelings. And second, because these pictures remind me of golden times when we existed as a wholesome family and ‘mom and dad’ were the key that solved all problems. A compilation of these old pictures, along with a separated set of yesteryear pictures of my now husband, were converted into a montage to play on the big screen at our wedding. Now, almost two years after our big day, I still sift through these pictures to reminisce about the jubilant times gone by. From my home in Jaipur to Delhi to Chicago, I have come a long way and with each increasing mile that separates me from my family, these pictures have become more precious. Out of the whole lot that runs into hundreds of candid snapshots, I have picked four to talk about today. These four pictures summarize the journey and offer a glance into the world that shaped me to be a sensitive and sensible human being. With a flush of gratitude and a look of nostalgia, I view the images of my parents in these pictures and am moved to tears.

The first picture is of my mother holding me in the hospital bed on the sixth day after my birth. She is seen wearing a plain lilac salwar-kurta with a chiffon dupatta covering her head. She is sitting up and has me raised in her arms and is rubbing her nose against mine. My cousins from the house, three brothers and a sister, who were all under ten years of age at that time, look on as they stand on the side of the hospital bed. Mom wears a big smile on her face as she does what she does and her eyes are looking straight at me, squinting with affection. This picture makes me love her more because it reminds me that there will always be this one person in the world whose face will light up when they see me. Irrespective of how I look and what I might have done, my mother has always been an unending sea of tenderness and fondness. Her covered head in the picture also reflects her willingness to live by the customs that demand her to do this gesture as a sign of respect to the elders in the house who would invariably visit her to meet the new-born. The presence of my cousins in the picture reflects that some of these elders might already have been present in the hospital, accompanying these cousins, at the time that this picture was clicked. The fact that I know that this snapshot was from the sixth day of my birth is only because my mother remembers that by heart, justifying how easy it is for mothers to recall even the tiniest details about their first born. The pictures reminds me that I am the one that gladdens her heart and so it forms an essential part of my ‘precious collection’.

The second picture in the series is one where my parents, younger brother and I are sitting on the then-study room couch during or after what looks like a birthday party. The picture was probably clicked in 1992 and my youngest brother had not arrived on the scene then. Our family of four looks happy and my father is seen holding my brother in his arms, with his face & eyes turned towards me and giving a bright smile in my direction. He looks young and unburdened by the troubles of life that later engulfed him. He also looks charming and consumed by family adoration. The table in front of us holds a plate of puffed patties, a tray with some sweet delicacy covered by a plastic sheet and something else that looks like a white cake or pastry. Me and my brother are looking at the camera and smiling. The grins reflect carelessness that I don’t relate easily to now. Seated between my parents, I look loved and taken care of (my husband makes me feel that way now, blessed I am to always have someone to love me). Mom is smiling and talking to someone while looking down at the food on the table. It leads me to assume that maybe she was coaxing one of the guests to eat some more and is eager to get done with the picture and return to serving her guests. But she looks at home and shines radiantly in an orange and rust colored silk suit and wears a brown bindi as a sign of her young and fresh motherhood. She sits cross-legged with dignity and her straight shiny hair are loosely pinned up in a contemporary-style bun. The four of us reflect contentment and family bliss enveloped around us. It also reminds me of how our birthdays were always a big deal in the house. There was never a year when a cake wasn’t cut or when the birthday boy/girl wasn’t given new clothes to wear. Mom devised these traditions and dad supported them. Together, they gave us a childhood where anything other than fun and naughtiness was unknown.

Which brings me to the third picture. This is the only picture without either of our parents in it. This picture was clicked when me and my younger brother sat on our huge windowsill and kissed our youngest brother on the cheeks from both sides. I think the year was 1996 and my youngest brother had finally arrived on the scene. He is seen wearing a traditional golden dhoti-kurta for (maybe) a playschool event and looks gorgeous with a smile that was his constant companion. His hair look wet from a fresh bath and he gives a big toothy uncontained grin as we both kiss him from either side. His eyes are turned towards the wall on the left and he doesn’t seem to be looking at anything in particular. My best guess is that he probably just didn’t know where to look and is ecstatic from the sibling love being showered on him. We both hold both his hands from either side too and smile as we lean in to kiss him. The physical touch is indicative of the easy camaraderie that we three have always shared. My hair are cut short and pulled back in a half ponytail. I wear a denim dress with a crisp white sweater underneath. Maybe the picture was clicked sometime in the winter. My younger brother dons big spectacles with a string around them slinging them on his neck. Maybe this was the time when he had started wearing glasses for the first time ever and wasn’t confident of not dropping them while walking (he wears lenses now). He wears a checkered full-sleeved shirt and brown denim pants (unlike my blue). The flash used while clicking this picture bounces off the glass that makes our window apparent. It appears to be dark outside and I am also seen wearing my going-out sandals. Maybe we had just returned from the playschool event (in which case it must’ve been oil on my little brother’s hair). Or maybe, we were just heading out. Or maybe, it was his birthday. My mother would remember better. In either case, this picture reminds me of the love that we three still share every day as we grew from young kids to mature adults.

The last picture in this series is from my 10th birthday. My youngest brother is seen holding the knife with me and cutting the cake (a famous Ellora Bakery made all our cakes at the time). The candles say ‘10’ and are of the colors that remind me of yesteryears. We don’t find candles like those anymore. Shaded pink, yellow and green from top to bottom, they used to remind me of traffic lights. The picture is important to me primarily because of the presence of my father in it. He has one arm wrapped around my youngest brother and another one around me. He smiles a radiant smile and is seen holding up my forehead with his palm, probably shielding me from the hot flames of the candles. He also gives his fatherly learn-it-properly look as I cut the cake in a brown shirt (and frock, not visible in the picture) that I still remember as my special 10th birthday dress. The picture was clicked in the newly-constructed family living room and our dining chairs wear a cloth cover that was later replaced with leather (because the cloth tore off easily). I am seen cutting the cake with my tiny hands, surrounded by my lovely father and brother. Around my neck is a black thread with a locket in it (bearing the picture of a Hindu deity) that my parents made me wear as a reminder of how never to forget god. It reflects my obedience towards their wishes at the time. Fathers often get lesser credit than the mothers for raising children and their important role goes unnoticed. So I included this picture in the collection to give my dad his due credit for the irreplaceable contributions that he made towards my growing up. My confidence stems from his upbringing and I stand proud in all situations thanks to the self-esteem that he drilled in my head with his constant praise and appreciation.


Several other pictures could have made it to this collection as pearls in the string of my life. First day of school, me holding my second little brother when he was just a year old, my crazy 15th birthday cake, my 17th birthday which was the last that I celebrated at home before leaving for college, etc. were all important moments that form an integral part of my childhood. Sitting half way around the world away from my family makes me miss them more. Their beautiful pictures make me teary eyed every time. A part of me wants to always stay with them, while another part wants to stay close to my dear husband. As conflicting priorities take over in life, old amber memories keep us grounded. They keep us civil, humble and humane. Missing people is as much a part of life as change is. People who you love but don’t live with anymore, people who have passed away but will forever exist in your memories, people who formed a part of your childhood like your school friends, people who you meet later in life and who become important with passing days like college mates, people you look up to like your mentors and teachers, people from the family who you don’t meet very often but still choose to love, people from the family that you marry into, your new extended families, bonds made out of love, even new young people like nieces and nephews who arrive much later, our kids and their own kids… the cycle of life. This cycle continues in progression and stops for no one. Pictures remind us of all of these people. They are a medium for us to stay attached to what is important. If you ever sit in a quiet room like me in an empty house when your husband is at work, open an old album and shed a tear as you sift through it… think about your crying as a means of communicating your fondness to the ones you love. Tears are the soul’s telepathic way of connecting to those who can hear our heart’s voice. Good luck!

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Brief history of an Indian’s driving adventures in America

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 8:32 PM

(This post is part of a series of write-ups about life in America, from an Indian’s perspective who recently moved to this country)

Ever since I was a child, I wanted to drive. I took to the wheel very early and have been driving on the roads for over a decade now. Driving in India was tough. Geared vehicles, heavy traffic and unruly two-wheelers. What I never realized through those times was that the whole exercise was preparing me to drive anywhere in the world. When we arrived in Chicago in August 2013, the right-hand side driving intimidated me no end. We do not own a car here, but those experiences riding in cabs rattled the day lights out of me. I was horrified at the thought of eventually taking on the wheel and steering myself on these roads. Unlike India, the left turn is a longer one and the right turn is a shorter one. Your steering wheel is on the left-hand side of the car and the fastest lane on the road is the left lane too. What scared me more were the surplus traffic signs and instructions on every single inch of this country. It’s all mapped out and a traffic violation can get you hefty fines sometimes amounting to $500! Everyone strictly drives in their lanes and the car’s odometer denotes distance in miles (and not kilometres).

So obviously, when I finally decided to take my driving test in March this year, I was a bundle of nerves. We hired a car (with insurance – which is a necessity for all vehicles here) and my husband gave me rudimentary driving lessons before the real big day (he is a fantastic driver, even in the US). I didn’t do great with the directions and my mind kept making me take reckless left turns and long right turns. We practiced parallel parking as well. I read and memorized the ‘Illinois – 2014 Rules of the Road’ guide by heart. And then came the test. My documents were verified and after furnishing two solid address proofs, came the vision test. I cleared that with ease. Next step was the written test which also, luckily, went well. It comprised mostly of identifying road signs and answering some questions about road safety (it’s always safest to select the most secure option). In my preparation, I had learnt amazing things like how everyone stopped their cars each time they saw a school bus boarding/unboarding children. Things like the ‘right to road’ and ‘yield’ were all very important lessons for the long term. I learnt that white lane lines meant one-way traffic and yellow center lines denote two-way traffic. Solid yellow lines mean no overtaking and broken yellow lines mean that one can overtake with caution. These learnings from carefully reading my road guide helped me sail through the written test too. And then came the third and last leg of my driving test travail. The actual driving test on the road with an instructor. The instructor was an old, quirky guy (nothing like my gentle lesson-giving husband) and after observing me drive for 15 long minutes, he failed me. Yes, for the first time in my life, I had actually failed a driving test. His reason – I was too slow. Obviously, I was gutted beyond belief. We chose to keep the car for another day and give it one more shot (only one trial is allowed per day). When we reached our parking spot the next morning, the car had a parking ticket stuck to the windshield. Fine of $150. The spot didn’t allow parking from 3am-6am. And obviously, because such a regulation was counterintuitive, we were surprised but ended up paying the fine anyway. Anyhow, my instructor was a friendly and warm young fellow this time who was more than happy with my driving and didn’t even make me do the complicated garage-reverse test. ‘I have seen enough’ is what he said. I was issued my driving licence instantly and voila, I was now a licensed driver in America, registered in the state of Illinois!

And thus started our most adventurous driving chronicles ever. My husband and I decided to undertake a cross-country drive from Chicago to New Jersey for the 4th of July holiday weekend. It involved 776 miles of driving (1249 kilometres) and cut across five states (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey). This long adventure required us to drive for 13 hours, one-way. We started off early in the morning and switched the driver’s seat every two hours. Leave alone driving on an expressway in America, I had never even driven on a highway in India! The roads though turned out to be extremely smooth and the cruise-control feature on our automatic sedan was a god-sent. We made three pit-stops for gas (I had packed food for the journey in advance) and were able to make it to New Jersey by midnight (you lose an hour when you go from Chicago to NJ because of a time-zone difference. Even within the US, four different time zones operate. Such is the magnitude of the land monstrosity in this country). Our 10-hour drive in the day was a cake walk. Long easy sweeps of seamless roads. Right-most lane reserved for trucks and the remaining lanes for cars. After my initial hesitation with the speeds (you can get a ticket if you go slower than the minimum speed limit too), I was able to gain firm control on the wheel. The minimum expressway speed limit is set at 45mph in most cases. The maximum is set between 70-80mph in most states too (rules and laws changes in every state). It is however common practice to reach a speed limit of 10mph over your permitted speed limit and set your car to cruise control, the auto-pilot. Once you set the speed, you are almost sure that you won’t over speed and hence save yourself the trouble of being caught by a state trooper (term used here for a traffic cop). The state of Ohio had a state trooper parked after almost every five miles, reading people’s cruising speeds. The state of Pennsylvania had deep gorges and was beautiful to drive through and click. The last three hours of our journey, however, involved driving through the night. Those were probably the most taxing moments. Craning our necks to follow the yellow lines blindly on the road. We passed a fog-zone too where the windscreen totally fogged up and we had to stop to clean it up. Deer zones were crossed too, where actual deer can actually jump out into the middle of the road and sometimes ram into your car. Finally after both of us had rendered stiff unbearable necks, we made it to our destination. The weekend with family was sheer bliss. For the drive back, we made full use of the daylight (summer days here stretch from 5am to 9pm) and didn’t have to drive at all at night. Crazy story to tell our kids… check.

The next drive happened between Houston and Dallas on a trip to Texas. This time our car was a hatch-back and the drive was just 4-hours long. It almost ended too soon for us and we got just 2 hours each behind the wheel. The roads were the same stretches of butter (metaphorically, of course) and the drive was as big a joy as the last one. Except that it was much hotter, because this was scorching Texas.

We now occasionally rent a car to drive around Chicago and get chores done. My fear of driving in America has evaporated progressively through this one year. I now find it easier and much more enjoyable than driving in India. People are civil and no one flouts traffic rules (mostly). 911 is at your service in case you ever meet with an accident (which we haven’t, thankfully) and the non-geared automatic cars are a delight. I have finally made peace with right-hand side driving and having the driver’s seat on the left-hand side of the car. I am amazed at how the road network has been so evenly laid out all across the USA. At some places, I have seen as many as seven fly-overs stacked one on top of another. The word ‘urbanization’ had swirled in my head several times. My new worry is an upcoming trip to India and how I would adjust back to driving on unruly roads with violent traffic and geared cars. But at least I feel elated with the realization that I am now equipped to drive easily anywhere else in the world :) A little bravado goes a long way in liberating you from your fears. Always make the extra effort!

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The US Chronicles: A Welcome Pitcher of Coffee!

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 8:37 PM


(With this post starts a series of write-ups about life in America, from an Indian’s perspective who recently moved to this country)

It all started with the advent of the Coffee Mania. From the day I arrived in Chicago almost a year ago, I have constantly been baffled by the number of coffee mugs consumed by each person, per day. Across colleges and offices, the day starts with either a strong Espresso (black coffee), Cappuccino (espresso, milk and milk froth), Americano (a single shot of espresso added to a cup of hot water), Caffe Latte (single shot of espresso added to three parts of steamed milk), Caf au Lait (traditional French drink similar to caffe latter, except a weaker form), Caf Mocha (cappuccino or caffe latte with chocolate syrup or powder) or Caramel Macchiato (combination of espresso, caramel and foamed milk). On almost every desk is a steaming mug of coffee, exuding delicious aromas every morning and enticing you to buy a mug of your own.

As you down your first cup, it’s time for a refill in a couple of hours. As the day progresses further beyond noon, out comes the post-lunch wake-up coffee. This coffee keeps you alert and restrains you from falling asleep on your desk or work station after a hearty meal. As evening approaches, come more mugs of coffee to keep you focused till you wrap up and get done for the day. And there is no dearth of coffee shops to appeal to all types of tastes. The most famous ones are of course Starbucks, Peet’s Coffee & Tea, Caribou Coffee Company Inc., Tim Hortons and Dunkin’ Donuts. Office-goers go here because of the ease of accessibility. Students are found thronging these chains too and lots of coffee is consumed over chat sessions that last several hours. Extra points go to Starbucks for making coffee ‘cool’. Free wi-fi availability at some of these locations make them even more appealing. Gloria Jean’s Coffee, Lavazza, Panera Bread, Aroma Espresso Bar, PJ’s Coffee, Tully’s Coffee, Port City Java and Coffee Beanery are some of the other chains that see mass following from daily coffee consumers. Non-traditional coffee outlets like McDonald’s have gone the extra mile to aggressively brand and sell their coffee as well.

To me, it sometimes feels like drinking coffee is not merely a hobby, but a sport in America. Like all sports, people have staunch loyalties about taste and source. Some sophisticated elite who only have their coffee with butter and attend coffee-tastings (the regal aura of this activity would put wine-tasting to shame) throw a distasteful scorn at Starbucks. Their coffee preferences reflect their cultural and social persona. For others, coffee means social get-togethers and they are fully capable of enjoying a simple mug of Iced Coffee and Lattes at Dunkin’ Donuts. Whatever coffee might mean to anyone, the irrefutable truth about living in America is that you love your cuppa.

I and my husband were in New Orleans for Christmas last year. A family member introduced us to a new form of coffee – the Cold Brew (marketed by the New Orleans Coffee Company). Cold Brew basically refers to the process of steeping coffee grounds in room temperature or cold water for an extended period of time. This liquid form of coffee needs to be kept frozen and can quickly be mixed with some water or milk to render some lip-smacking coffee. My husband took a real liking to Cold Brew and now my freezer is jammed with its various varieties, including one in hazelnut flavor! Cold Brews can also be found in popular food chains like Trader Joe’s but are a tad bit more expensive than regular coffee.

Another coffee find in New Orleans was America’s most popular coffee shop – Café Du Monde (800 Decatur Street at the French Market in New Orleans, LA). We made multiple visits to this café during our trip and invariably always ended up waiting in queues before being seated. The joint was forever teeming with hoards of eager tourists and coffee-lovers. Everyone wanted a chicory-laced caf au lait and the addictive sugar-dusted beignets. Beignets are pastries made from deep-fried choux paste (made of butter, water, flour and eggs). They are served as a dessert in the US and come with heaps of powdered sugar mounted on top. Warm beignets make perfect companions with hot coffee and can taste good at any time of the day!

A survey was conducted by Live Science, Coffee 4 Dummies and Coffee Research and released on July 12th, 2014. It presents interesting facts about coffee consumption in the US. The survey reveals that 54% of total Americans (over the age of 18 years) drink coffee every day. The average size of a coffee mug is 9 ounces. The average price of an expresso-based drink is $2.45. Almost 35% of the total coffee drinkers prefer black coffee. An average coffee drinker consumes 3.1 mugs of coffee daily. 65% coffee-drinkers added cream or sugar to their coffee. The total amount of money spent on importing coffee to the US each year is a whopping $4 billion!

According to the Huffington Post, Chicago tops the list of America’s Ten Most Caffeinated cities. It is followed closely by New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington DC, San Jose, Portland (Oregon), Miami and Minneapolis. The ranks were decided by analyzing average household spending at city coffee shops, based on data from 20 million anonymous Visa and MasterCard holders. The larger pictures that I am trying to paint here is that coffee consumption in America is a serious business. Surveys are conducted to gauze coffee spends, extensive research is undertaken to stay abreast of people’s changing taste preferences and Starbucks remains the third most popular food chain in America (after McDonald’s and Subway).

I somehow still haven’t caught on to the trend. But my husband seems to have mounted the coffee bandwagon with gusto. At work and in school, he is a loyal Starbucks patron. At his business school, one can get a coffee refill for just $1 if they carry their own coffee mug. Each time I sit with him to audit a class (spouses have the liberty to do that here), students all around us have their proud coffee mugs mounted on the tables. Breakfast can be skipped but skipping coffee is a strict no-no. Professors sometimes have coffee mugs of their own perched perilously at the edge of their lectern. My sense of wonder and amazement refuses to die down. I still relate more easily to cup of tea than I do the addictive mug of coffee. But that hasn’t stopped me from looking up and experimenting with creating different coffee tastes in my own kitchen. I am far from good at being a competitive coffee chef, but I do hope to catch on one day. Till then, Starbucks zindabaad.

8

Small dreams and simple hopes (A short story)

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 6:35 PM
Nandu didn't know how it felt to have a full stomach after a sumptuous meal. Life was not very kind to an insignificant washer-man in a small city like Lucknow. And Nandu's life had been spent first helping his mother wash other people's clothes (while his alcoholic father spent all their money on his addiction), and later taking on the job full-time when his mother's bodily strengths had given way to illness and old-age. He tried to stay mellow and that had now become a habit. Nandu had learnt to smile in the face of adversity because growling had never seemed to help anyone in his situation.

His marriage has turned out badly too. His wife, still in the trance of her old lover, had not birthed him a child and left him when he tried to coax her into having one. His second wife was a divorcee herself, and thankfully, they hit it off as seamlessly as a round roti fits perfectly on a circular black tawa. Nandu and Kanta had built a happy life together. After delivering one girl and two boys, Kanta decided to help Nandu with his work as well.

The couple would set off each morning (Kanta would carry their kids with her) to the various households that had employed them. Nandu would attend to half of them and Kanta would attend to the other half. Scores of unwashed clothes from the previous day would first be soaked in water plus detergent in big buckets typically found in all Indian homes. While the clothes got soaked, Nandu would wash cars for extra money and Kanta (in her own other separate house of work) would make small-talk with the lady of the household. Then they would wash the clothes and hang them out on clothing lines to dry. Both would meet to eat the lunch that Kanta would pack for them and then disperse again to return to their respective houses and iron out the bundles of clothes from the previous day. In the evening, they would set out together to go home and prepare their meals.

On a particularly warm day on a June afternoon, Nandu had to attend to his sick mother. So Kanta decided to manage the day's workload alone. She dressed up in a plain red cotton saree (a proud sign of her happy marriage), put a big round maroon bindi on her forehead, cooked some rotis for lunch and headed out to wash clothes with her youngest son on the hip, and another boy and a girl (her two older kids) walking behind her holding her saree pallu. Kanta was a strong-headed, sharp woman. Instead of feeling pressured by the rigours of daily routine work, she enjoyed the time away from home. She also enjoyed making some money of her and helping out her husband, and had learned to treasure her conversations with the primary women in the houses that she worked in. These women were her window to an affluent life that she could never afford. Their stories about their children's troubles in school, the tiffs with their husbands over money matters and their concerns about nosey relatives were Kanta's staple food for thought. She liked these conversations perhaps much more than any other aspects of work and with that motivation, she continued to make long strides towards the houses.

Midway during her morning work, Kanta realized that today was her and Nandu's wedding anniversary. It had been 5 long years since they had tied the knot in a quiet ceremony attended by only a few relatives (Indians are known to exhibit lukewarm, squirmish feelings about second marriages). And yet, Kanta held the day close to her heart because it had made a huge difference to her otherwise sullen life. Her first husband used to beat her and pushed her out of the house after returning home drunk one night. In the scuffle that followed, he had hurt Kanta so bad that she had to be hospitalised later for a dislocated shoulder. It was then that she had decided to do something about the situation. When she threatened him with a police complaint after getting home a few days later, he had poked her with cigarette holes and revealed having an affair with someone he knew for several years. A heartbroken Kanta had then filed for divorce (after much condemnation from her relatives) and her subsequent marriage with Nandu had been a god-sent. Unlike her previous husband, Nandu was jolly and looked forever happy, no matter what the situation. Leave alone hitting her, he never even raised his voice to scold her. Having finally attained a marital bond worth nurturing and a husband who treated her well, Kanta deeply valued her relationship with him.


She wanted to make the anniversary special for Nandu. So after washing and ironing what felt like truckloads of clothes (the domestic banter did help her immensely in passing the day. The regular tea that people offered to her in the evening helped too), Kanta went to the house-mistress of the last house that she had ironed clothes in and asked her if she had any leftover food from the day. Luckily, the woman had huge quantities of food left in her fridge from the meals of today and the day before, which she was more than happy to offload on Kanta (people generally liked Kanta for her affable and friendly disposition). The leftover subzis made Kanta very happy. In reality, with the responsibility of three young kids, the couple could barely make ends meet. On most nights, they would just eat raw onions with roti because buying vegetables was expensive. Nor did they own a refrigerator to save the produce for the next day.

At around 7 in the evening, Kanta tied the tiny polythene bags containing the left-over subzis in a fold of the saree at her waist and picked up her three kids to make her way back home. The sun was almost down and the sweltering hot ground had now turned partially cool in the wake of the evening breeze. Kanta knew that on days like today, Nandu would only come back after putting his mother to sleep at around 9 pm, and so she had plenty of time to bathe, put the kids to bed and set out the food for him. At home, when she finally opened the tiny polythene bags to look at the food that had been doled out to her, she was happy to see small portions of residual shahi paneer, butter chicken, dal palak and some rajma in a thick creamy gravy. The last subzi looked like a left-over from a restaurant meal that the family must have had together sometime on the weekend. The others looked home-cooked and were still a bit cold from being extracted from the fridge.

Kanta did as she had planned. She took a quick bath, fed her kids and put them to bed. Then she made some fresh rotis for Nandu and lay them out on the floor with the now-heated subzis. The family didn't have much furniture besides a bed which all five of them shared. They often just dined on the floor with a newspaper laid out as a mat. Their 'house' was actually just one big room with a kitchen stashed on one side and a bed on another. The toilet was a dingy small room outside and they took their baths behind a small wall partition alongside the house and the toilet. It wasn't much, but the family could make do.

True to his habit, Nandu returned at five minutes past 9, looking tired and worn-out. Taking care of his mother was not an easy task and it drained him off all his energy every time. He first cooked for her, then bathed her, took her to the doctor, bought her medicines, fed her and finally put her to bed. She lived in an even smaller house in the same locality and was now alone, after her alcoholic husband had passed away two years ago from severe liver damage.

The sight of Kanta sitting on the floor, waiting for him with food , instantly cheered Nandu up. He did love this woman who would wait each night for the kids to fall asleep to share dinner with him. Kanta looked clean and fresh, dressed in a new pink saree that she had recently bought for her sister's engagement. Nandu approached her, cleaned up quickly in the kitchen sink, and sat down next to her. They both finally shared a hearty meal together and talked about their respective days. Both shared details of their work and conversations, and after finishing the meal, Kanta slowly reminded him of their fifth saal-giraah. Nandu blushed a little and kissed her gently on the cheek. He wished her and slowly began to help her with clearing up the dishes. He was happy because his wife had remembered their anniversary and made an effort to put together a nice meal for him. He wore a smile too because his stomach was finally full with delectable food after months of eating just onions and rotis (with achaar) for dinner.

As the couple returned to bed to squeeze in alongside their three sleeping kids, Nandu turned to face Kanta and slowly pulled out a small package from his trouser pockets. It looked like a newspaper wrapped around something small. Kanta removed the crumbling paper slowly to find a dozen bright, red bangles staring back at her. They were plain in appearance and wore the hallmark of simplicity that she now associated with her husband. Her eyes welled up when she realised that Nandu must have sneaked out quietly after the doctor's appointment to visit the marketplace nearby to buy her this gift. With tears dripping down her cheeks, she wore the bangles on her wrists and wrapped her arms around Nandu as a sign of loving gratitude. The couple held on to each other in the stillness of the night and quietly repeated their vows in each other's ears. After that, they slowly drifted back to peaceful sleep... knowing that the circle of life was now complete with their companionship and their three beautiful kids...

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