The untold stories…

'Do you want to talk or listen?'

We all use them. Some more than others. Whether seldom used or a lifeline, we do need them. I talk about the humble taxi. The little plain yellow or yellow and black inconspicuous little vehicle has metamorphosed into something much more than simple means of transport. It has evolved over time to become  ‘concept’ like uber, lyft and more. When at one time the journey was usually conducted in silence, today the driver and passengers chat about nonsensical things, important issues, politics, movies, books and at times even families. Some journeys intrigued me, others amused me and a few even made me contemplative, staying with me despite time passing by.

Years ago my sister came visiting me with her then little kids and rode yet another inconspicuous cab. Metered fare was not too common then and the driver asked for, in my opinion an exorbitant fare which my dear sister paid without a word. I wonder if his conscience rankled him because on reaching destination he gave both my nephews twenty percent of the charged fare saying, “buy yourselves some toys or sweets with this.” In India it is customary for elders in the family to gift children something on meeting and I assumed this was his way of compensating a stranger with two kids who he thought he overcharged. A kind of late awakening of his humble conscience but commendable nevertheless.

A couple of years back I accompanied the daughter when she went back to college. On telling the driver our destination at the airport taxi rank, he turned around to give a big smile, “great college, great campus” while rattling off about all the colleges in the city, ending with stories of his daughter in med school studying out of state. By the end of the ride we were more knowledgable about the capital of the country than we would have been after google search.

The uber I took on return to the airport was a surprise. The retired veteran from the armed forces, took up the new profession of being an uber driver after a back surgery, started discussing the White House as most people in Washington DC probably do and we ended up having an interesting discussion on the book by Kate Andersen Brower called “The Residence” (Inside the private world of the White House). I was surprised that we both had read that not so well known book, but my jaw dropped off when our discussion took us to a book by Rebecca Skloot named “The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks” that chronicles how the cells of a unknown woman diagnosed with cancer were taken without her knowledge in the early 1950s revolutionizing medical science and leading to the development of vaccines, cancer therapies, cures and more. The beauty of it all was that the elderly African American uber driver was as impressed with his Indian passenger’s reading list as she was with his. By the time he parked at the airport curb I had received an invite to his son’s upcoming wedding.

Recently an old friend from high school came visiting and we took an uber to go from one tourist spot to another as I showed her around our beautiful city. We reminisced about good old times from two decades ago, our conversation a mix of both English and Hindi. She wondered if I still loved my cuppa of tea and I confessed that I still become a nasty woman if I didn’t  get my kind of tea, brewed perfectly for three minutes by a certain time of the day.  As we reached our destination the driver, an Eritrean smiled, “I got most of your conversation except the Hindi parts and I would love to know the remedy to not become a nasty woman without tea. You see, I need that remedy too.”

An unforgettable incident happened in Melbourne, Australia, before the uber days when the hubby was traveling to San Francisco and forgot, yes forgot, to carry his passport with realization dawning kind of late at the check in counter. When I received the call from a very sheepish him, I was, as per Murphy’s law a good forty-five minutes away from home. I, in turn phoned the then seven year old son with instructions to take the right passport, dad’s passport, not the expired passport but the current passport and go wait at the curb with the visiting grandma, while I called them a cab to rush to the airport to deliver the passport to dad.

I then called our regular cab company explaining that a senior citizen and a little boy needed a ride to the airport to deliver a passport. I stressed on the urgency of the situation. The driver laughed and suggested that he could deliver it but the skeptical me wanted family to take the passport so there they were- the Pakistani driver, my very Indian, aging mother in law and my little boy headed to the airport with no time to spare. In India, Pakistan and probably many other nations in the region an elderly lady is addressed as ‘mataji (respected mother)’ and the mother in law later related the predicament of the poor driver, as he asked every few minutes,  “Mataji, er who will pay my fare?” Next day I received a text message from him saying, “I had fun driving your son and mother to deliver the passport.” I replied, “I am glad, we had fun too. Thank you.” This made me reflect that while India and Pakistan can’t exactly be called friends whether in cricket or political affairs, often regarding one another with muted suspicion but in another continent, in a far away land this Pakistani gentleman was delighted to help the Indian lady and her family.

Once a friend was picking up our high school going son from Stanford University after a Model UN conference and told the Uber driver to drive slow while he looked for the ‘kid.’ When my suit wearing 5 feet 10 inches tall boy waved and walked towards the car, the driver raised his eyebrows at our friend and in strong Chinese accent said, “This is a kid?” And our friend replied, “Wait till you hear him talk.” Once our boy  paused for breath from all the stories he was telling our friend, the driver made eye contact in the rear view mirror nodding sagely in complete agreement that this  indeed was a kid.

When we lived in Lusaka Zambia, the city was known to be very unsafe but God be praised that every time I sat in a cab, often literally holding up the broken door by my side,  staring at the road through cracked and scotch taped wind screen, the Zambian drivers had been most concerned that this foreigner, their quite regular passenger should not be mugged or car jacked and drove through safer streets, ready to step on the gas at the slightest suspicion of car jacking. Some discussed recipes, theirs as well as ours,  while others discussed politics and I now think that there is no difference in people, whether they are in Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe or even America. I confess I have not ridden cabs in South America as yet.

Taxi driver says to long-suffering passenger: 'If times get any harder, I'll have to start charging for my witty and perceptive opinions on various topical issues of the day.'

Often the husband takes an uber to go to the airport and relates some of the most interesting conversations with his drivers. One was an ex CEO of a company that got bought over and thereafter he took to uber driving to pass time and meet  people. He spoke about work, mergers and acquisitions. Another was a student supplementing (of course) his income and spoke about academics, his course, credits, cost and value of his education. One was an owner of a fleet of trucks and spoke about the trucking business. One picked his brain on a tech start up and took his card to call for more inputs if needed. There are so many stories, some told, most untold and we realize that cab rides are now roots of some very interesting stories.

Do you have a story from a cab ride to share? Did something make you smile or did you have an experience that can’t be called delightful? Do write in….

Picture courtesy:

What’s in a name…

Been a while since I wrote about all that has been happening. The funny, spooky, hilarious, thought provoking, sad, debatable, happy, heartwarming, nonsensical happenings in life that make the unnecessary details.

jk_cartoon768In my home country India, naming a baby is a major auspicious landmark event. Each part of India deals with the naming ceremony of an infant in a different way, some going close to a war while deciding the nitty gritties of who the baby will be named after, who will have the honor of naming the baby, which letter should it begin with, should it rhyme with the sibling’s or the parent’s or grand parent’s names. In parts of South India, the name could include the names of father, caste, village or other details to emphasize upon the pedigree or how majestic the background was. In the previous decades, I kid you not when I say that some babies have gone without a name for the longest time because the feuding family members couldn’t agree on one. It was not mandatory to write a name on the birth certificate then.  To add fuel to the confusion of naming a baby, where I come from the name ought to have a profound, deep, interesting, beautiful thought provoking meaning meant to leave the one hearing it dumbfounded or even mesmerized and yes not to forget, it is also called the ‘good name.’ We then add further chaos by giving the same person another name, only the polar opposite of the good name, which is the ‘pet name’ or the ‘nick name,’ usually ridiculous sounding few syllables.  Seriously, I still recall our previous generation asking, “And what is your good name please?”

So, having given the above background on Indian names I must share that the daughter is named after a furniture store I loved in Kuala Lumpur. As in, I didn’t love the furniture, I just loved the name of the store. I guess we are kind of unconventional. The son’s name is made up of  ‘only’  twelve letters of the alphabet and when he wrote it the first time as a three year old, that is, when he fitted his entire name in one line of his notebook his teacher and I shared hugs and high fived. Talking of names I am reminded of the time in Tokyo when I picked the daughter from school and walked home pushing the son’s stroller chatting about her day and she regaled me with stories of a game they played.  She answered my query of who all were playing, with “Keito, I, Lou and me.” I corrected her that I and me were not to be used together while explaining the difference as well as usage and asked again only to get the same answer. “There was I, Lou, Keito and me.” Uh ho. And again the same. It took me a while to realize that ‘I’ was actually the name of her friend “Aai.” In the current days, I should probably sigh, my bad. Gosh, English is getting stranger by the day. In one of the central states of India, mother is called ‘Aai’ or ‘I’ and a dear friend from that state was taken aback when while living in Australia she heard her teenage boy’s friends calling her Aai just like her boys. To be fair to them, they thought that was her name having no idea that they were calling her mum.

Each country pronounces names in its own unique way as we realized while we lived in Kuala Lumpur. Initially when the husband and I would walk into parties together, we would hear ‘so many balloon’ while walking in, so much so that I would turn around expecting to see balloons behind or around us. Thank God for divine intervention because we soon realized that I Sohini, was somany and the husband Varun, was balloon. Somany Baloon, indeed! Probably one of the most embarrassing moments of my life also happened in this lovely city. When new at work I came across a lot of men by the name of Encik and assumed that was one the favored names amongst parents when naming their bundle of joy, something like a Jack or Tom in America or an Aditya in India. comics-cyanide-and-happiness-doctor-woman-721628I remember the daughter had five Adityas in her class in Mumbai. Well, before I could literally put my foot in my mouth, my misconception was driven away by another newly appointed colleague who smiled, laughed, laughed loudly, laughed even louder as tears ran down his cheeks to ask, “Er, you are new to Malaysia, are you?” On hearing an affirmative reply the gentleman, the highly amused but very kind gentleman said between guffaws, “Sohini, Encik is not a name, it means Mister!!!” I should probably say ‘my very bad.’ Since that day I admit, I google a country before going to live there. Forearmed with knowledge from google I will not think that Senor is a popular name in Spain or Mexico or even parts of California! To give myself the benefit of doubt, google search started only in 1998 and the Encik episode is pre google era. There, am excused for my faux pas!

While driving in Jamaica with the husband and his colleagues we were stopped by the police as the colleague was found to be driving above the speed limit. The policeman stared for the longest time at his drivers license, looked at him apologetically and asked as to how his name was said. Our friend replied, Kalancheri Ganapati Krishnan Hari Haran. The policeman further went on, “So I should write Kalancheri?” And our friend said, no that is my village’s name. The policeman then wondered if he could write Ganapati Krishnan and our friend corrected him, “No, no, that is my father’s name.” Finally Hari Haran was written on the ticket. Then the patient and courteous policeman man gave his hand and said, “By the way, my name is Joe.” I must add that it was fun to watch the ticket receiver and the ticket giver laughing uproariously on an unsaid but shared joke.

I am pretty sure that by then God was guffawing at us because next we were transferred to Accra, Ghana where it is common practice to have the day of the birth as the infant’s name.  So we were suddenly surrounded by a number of Kojo, Jojo born on Monday, Kobby, Ebo for Tuesday, Wednesday was Kwaku, Yaw for Thursday, Kofi for Friday,  Kwame for Saturday. Go on, look up one of the most famous Ghanian Mr Kofi Annan’s birthday- April 8th, 1938, a Friday.

We Indians are really name snobs! We take great pride in the given name, its origin, meaning etc and I do give all credit to my adopted country -the great nation of the United States of America, where in my community itself that comprises of Swedish, Mexican, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Hispanic, Ukrainian, Australian, Pakistani, Israeli, Iranian, Russian, Indian, American and many more nationalities, we all pronounce each other’s names, initially probably with a struggle but eventually with aplomb and pride irrespective of nationality.

Do you have a story about how you named your baby? Or is there a story on how you got your ‘good name?’

Picture courtesy: Myfuncards & cyanide and Happiness (



Theory of adaptability…

The bitter sweet meeting of perception and reality: 'Yay! I'm saved!!'

Will the boatman adapt to a life on the island or vice versa? How do we perceive change? The winter we left Australia our daughter was in year ten and son in year six in school. We moved to California and not only did we encounter summer overnight but also our daughter became something called a sophomore in high school and son a grade six-middle schooler. Suddenly she was to write tests and more tests called the SATs (Scholastic Aptitude Test) for college admission , CAHSEE- the California High School Exit Examination and working on her GPA. Before I realized the son’s cricket bat was in the garage replaced by a baseball bat, in my eyes- a club instead of a paddle! The Aussie rule foot(ie) ball too was replaced by the American football which by the way, didn’t seem at all like football.

In Australia we saw a few cricket matches in the Melbourne Cricket Ground and I recall the son jumping with excitement as the Aussies slammed runs after runs against the visiting Kiwis. Then for a game between Australia and India, he clapped and jumped for both the teams, sharing each one’s victory and losses. He was an Indian at heart but home was Australia then and both the teams had his loving loyalty. I recall meeting the daughter’s teacher at a Parent-Teacher meet and listening to his enthusiasm and words of praise for her writing as he wondered which school in Melbourne had instilled the love for English language and literature. He couldn’t believe that she was not a native Australian but that her early schooling and foundation of the English language and literature was laid in two non English speaking countries- Japan and India.

The husband’s brother married a lovely British girl so I have an English co-sister who moved to Mumbai and adapted the Mumbai way of life literally like fish to water. A few times cab drivers tried to take her on a merry ride assuming she was a foreigner but she set them right much to their astonishment as well as amusement giving them a piece of her mind with a string of local Hindi abuses. When it was time to get her Permanent Residence Card for India my brother in law as per the undocumented but prevalent law added a ‘suitable’ bribe with her papers which she snatched back right from under the agent’s nose and reduced the amount by half. She had learnt the Indian way of bargaining far better than her Indian husband and accomplished the task with a big disarming smile combined with a reproachful look, almost reprimanding the agent’s exorbitant price.

When we bought our home in California we employed small businesses to do some work before moving in. The business fitting the closets was owned by a Native American with the Comanche background. We drew the plan for the master bedroom walk- in- closet and I explained that I wished to have a place for my prayers. I have a collection of idols, pictures, holy water, holy soil, holy oil from all over the world so my place of worship has the Holy Cross, Bhagwad Gita, holy oil, water and soil from Jerusalem, Rosary, sacred cloth from a Mosque, Buddha alongside multiple idols of Ganesha and other Gods from Hinduism. My place of worship is like the United Nations of  multiple Gods from different religions/nations. Some have been procured by us as blessings during our travels while others are presents from friends from their pilgrimage. So, I went to great lengths to make him understand that I wished to have them together in one place and he cut me short with, so you want a place for your Pooja (Hindi word for prayer/worship) and it was my turn to be taken aback at the knowledge of the gentleman without any Indian background. His take of- ‘I have lived and worked long enough in the Bay Area to know Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese and many other cultures.’

Last week I was away at Washington DC and prior to renting a car commuted by using the lyft app. In the two instances that I traveled by cab, the first driver was an Indian who told me stories of his daughter going to medical school and how he and his wife were managing with her aspirations, while the second driver was a retired government employee, an African American and he regaled me with stories from the Bible, his son’s wedding and by the time we drove up to Dulles International Airport Terminal we had animated book discussions on a couple of biographies we both had read.

I recall saying Jambo (greetings) while in Kenya, ohaiyo gazaimasta (good morning) in Japan and the other day when I was walking by a store at a local shopping strip a young Chinese strum his guitar singing in heavily accented Hindi, a Bollywood song and ending with aplomb, hands folded in salutations saying Namaste. While I laughed and commended his efforts he asked if I knew Shah Rukh Khan, the King of Bollywood. I tried to be funny and replied, ‘of course he is my neighbor’ only to hear the repartee, ‘oh really, he is my brother from an Indian mother.’

cartoon-wine-literature-library-saThe random incidents that I shared above are ordinary though unique, recurrent yet special showcasing our inherent tendency, ability, preference and wish to adapt. Unconsciously and continuously we evolve to encompass our environment, people, beliefs and customs. My faith that the world is a beautiful place despite the acts of terrorism by a select few gets reiterated by these little incidents. I smiled to myself as I read the newspaper that the United States Postal Service (USPS) is commemorating the Indian festival of lights Diwali by releasing a forever stamp  on Oct 5th 2016. While we adapt to our adopted country, our adopted country adapts to us!

How do you percept change? Do you react with optimistic positive thoughts or do you enjoy nitpicking? Do you adapt or do you attempt to change your new environment or maybe you manage to reach that perfect fine balance? Share your stories so we all know the speciality of ordinary random things…

Picture courtesy: & George Aldridge

Living on the edge…

So there was a time many aeons ago when the husband and I lived in Lusaka, Zambia. Previous to that our only overseas living had been in Malaysia. In the early 1990s, coming from India, Kuala Lumpur was a discovery and the transfer from KL to Lusaka was um hmmm a change, or lets call it another discovery

On arrival in Lusaka, we were driven by a person sporting skills of Indiana Jones to our new residence, the first sight of which left me gaping and speechless. I almost picked up my jaw from the floor!  We had swung to a halt in front of a huge intimidating gate with spikes, walls that had broken glass on top and a cute kind of moat surrounding it, only the crocs were missing! The Zambian counterpart probably had a misconception about the Indians he was expecting because he had provided us with a house  with 7 bedrooms, 2 living rooms, 2 dining rooms ( mind you, one for the vegetarians, one for non vegetarians). The little kitchen would have fit most of my Mumbai home and the fridge room, yes we had one of that too-   a room with four refrigerators- one for the vegetarians, one for the non vegetarians, one for drinks and one huge deep freezer normally found in super markets. I guess it was assumed that great wars between my husband and me were being prevented, truly we wouldn’t fight over space or cross contamination between the veggies and meat! And did I say that the house was set amidst a rose garden with an olympic size swimming pool?

Mugging was a normal everyday occurrence as was shortage of necessities making me understand and appreciate the supermarket sized deep freezer. The muggers were a friendly lot, not harmful unless defied though a  mugger I tried to resist doubled over with laughter and left me alone. I guess being defied by  woman who barely reached his waist line, on a street swarming with people in broad day light didn’t hurt his ego. The expats community was extensive and I learned cuisine from Portugal, South Africa, Kenya, the United Kingdom while sharing Indian culinary skills of making samosa, vada etc. Food and culture are two of the strongest factors bringing communities together and we bonded over multiple cuisine, music and movies.
tumblr_inline_n6uzzkkmhL1qcyr71The Indian dessert of kheer, a kind of milk pudding made with rice/vermicelli was a huge hit in the local community and they wished to learn. My explanation of – reduce a liter of milk  on the stove until halved was heard with great appreciation making me feel that I was the next Gordon Ramsey. They looked at me in awe and  murmured, ‘and how and when did you know it had halved’. Uh er um…

Despite the safety issues we have beautiful memories from Zambia. The close bond that we formed with the locals was evident when we heard the husband’s name over the public address system as we waited to board our flight, calling out to him so they could bid him one last goodbye before he flew back home…

Picture courtesy: &