For Better English

The gentleman was in his mid-fifties when I first met him was from the Indian state of Gujarat.

It was many years ago, probably the year was 1993. He owned an Indian grocery store in Torrance Boulevard, California. His store was not far from Torrance Airport. I cannot remember his name now and even if I could, I would not mention it here. But let us call him Mr. Patel which to the best of my recollection was not his real last name.

I used to visit his shop for buying Indian spices because his was the only Indian grocery on Torrance Boulevard which was not very far from Rolling Hills, where I was living. I was working for Nissan Motor Corporation on Figueroa Street very near to Down Town Los Angeles. Within one mile radius of Nissan Motor Corporation all the big Japanese Automobile companies had their corporate offices.

It was probably my second or third visit in his store. Mr. Patel suddenly asked me what kind of visa I had. “Just like others”, I replied in the shortest possible way. I was working with a H1-B visa and most of the software engineers from India were working with H1-B visas. However there were not too many Indian Software Engineers working in America during those days. I had ambivalent opinion about the people from Gujarat who were living in the USA. On one hand they were known to Indian communities for abusing American Immigration system, had a bad reputation for visa fraud. On the other hand they were very down-to-earth people, who were very helpful not only to the people from Gujarat but also to any Indian. There craving to go to America was to give better education to their children and therefore to have a better life. However during my subsequent interactions with many people from this community, I heard them saying, “Did a mistake by coming to America after severing our roots. We are not happy here.” It was because after their children grew up and moved out of their families, the parents were left alone to live lonely lives in a foreign country which they could never imagine would happen to them before moving to America. Now let us hear what Mr. Patel had said after hearing my shortest possible reply regarding my visa status.

“I also came to this country by selling off everything I had in India” Mr. Patel said.

“Why did you have to sell of everything, what kind of visa do you have?” I asked after a brief hesitation.

“I have a Green Card” he replied.

“Who sponsored your green card?” I asked again with some hesitation. I am never interested to know about people’s personal matters but I realized if I did not ask him one or two questions, he might jump into conclusion that I was rude and not appreciating his candid, friendly behavior.

“My father came to this country with Green Card and he sponsored mine. He was brought to this country by my elder brother who is a doctor.” Mr. Patel replied.

“So you are independent, you can do whatever you like. You are almost like a citizen in this country.” I wanted to bring our conversation to an end.

“But getting a Green Card is not an immediate process. I had to wait for few years before I could get the Green Card for me and my two children, a daughter and a son. My wife joined me here after another two years.” I realized that Mr. Patel wanted to share with me something which probably he could not share with others.

“Why your wife did not come with you?” I asked.

“I can tell you if you have time to listen”, Mr. Patel sounded very happy to find some listener.

“Green Card applications are processed under different categories”, Mr. Patel started providing the background of his story, “categories like single, married with no children, married with children, divorced, divorced with children &c.”

“Green Card processing time varies depending upon the category in which it falls. When my father wanted to apply for my green card, the processing time under the category ‘divorced with children’ was the shortest and ‘married with children’ was the longest and the difference of processing time between the two categories was five years.” Mr. Patel continued.

“Therefore we decided to apply in the category ‘divorced with children’. So I divorced my wife but we continued living in the same house and our relationship was exactly the same as before, like a close-knit Indian family. Our divorce was only on paper for bringing our children to this country as fast as possible so that they could start going to American schools.

“So did you apply for Green Card immediately after you had received your divorce paper from the court?” I asked.

“No we did not. Americans knew that married couple in India rarely divorce and ‘divorce after having children’ is extremely rare, almost unheard of. We realized that they could reject our Green Card application if they were convinced that we were deceitful. So we waited for one more year and then applied for Green Card. During that time we were figuring out by ourselves how we could answer the questions which we would face during the Green Card application interview at the American Consulate in Bombay.” Mr. Patel replied.

“We did lots of practices in our home about how we would answer the grilling questions during the interview. We did hours of practice at home and also receive help from an expert who knew what kind of questions might be asked and how to answer those convincingly.” Mr. Patel continued.

“But when we were called for the interview, which was two years after I had applied for the Green Card the encounter was far more difficult than we could imagine. The officer had a suspicion that I was deceitful. I was interviewed alone, then with my two children and to make the situation worse and which we had never expected our two children, who were all below eighteen, were interviewed together and then separately. Even after so much of grilling they could not find out the truth about our marital status, we were so well prepared.” Mr. Patel continued.

“As soon as we had received our Green Card we moved to America. My wife started living with her family in India. My children started going to school in America and I started working in an Indian grocery.” Mr. Patel continued.

“So how did you bring your wife here?” I realized that his story was more captivating than Agatha Christie’s crime stories.

“I met another Gujarati gentleman here in America. He was living with his wife and children. His family was well settled and both he and his wife were well educated and both had good jobs. He agreed to help me out.” Mr. Patel answered.

“The gentleman agreed to apply for my wife’s Green Card”, Mr. Patel continued.

“He was unrelated to both you and your wife. How could he sponsor your wife’s Green Card”, I asked in a haste probably did not realize that he was going to tell me everything even if I had not asked.

“He and his wife decided to divorce, on paper of course, which would make his status ‘single’ and he would travel to India where he would marry my wife, whom I divorced only on paper and apply for my wife’s Green Card. As soon as my wife would arrive here with her Green Card, he would divorce his newly wedded wife, who actually is my wife and then remarry his ‘on-paper’ divorced wife. As soon as he would divorce my wife I would remarry her here.” Mr. Patel told me without any kind of expression on his face.

“But it was only a plan but did he actually do that, did he really divorce his wife in America, travel to India and marry your divorced wife and bring her here with Green Card and divorce your wife here and remarry his real wife and then you remarried your real wife here in America?” I asked. I realized I had never heard anything which was so complicated, so interesting and so risky that it could have destroyed at least two families if not more.

“Everything was done exactly as it was planned. My friend and his wife are still living together because their divorce was only on paper to help me and my family. They were glad to help a Gujarati family. And they are our best friends in this country” Mr. Patel replied.

“Why did you take so much of risk? Why did you not apply in the category which was legitimate for you? Was that much of risk worth taking for?” I asked.

“Indeed it is worth. My children arrived here two years in advance and learnt so much English during those two years. But when my wife was alone in India, every single night before going to sleep I wrote her one letter.” Mr. Patel replied with a very serious looking face.

I used to visit Mr. Patel’s shop almost once every week. During my regular visits I met his entire family, his wife and two children. His two children were actually grown up when I met them.

I do not know where Mr. Patel lives now, in India or in America or if he is still alive but I am sure his children are speaking better.

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African legacy

“Aji hote shato ‘barsha’ pare ke tumi poricho bosi amar kobita khani” – Rabindranath Tagore.
(Who you are, reading this poem of mine, many ‘years’ from now?”)

The Bengali word ‘barsha’ (in the poem is used to mean ‘year’) actually means rain. Even today, among many African tribes the way to ask someone’s age is, “How many rains are you?”

Fastening cotton strings around trees for good luck (primarily before travel) is another common practice between these two nations.

Internet routers works in a way which is very similar to African talking drums used to send messages across villages, not too long ago.

Crocodile tears

Long-long ago there lived a small boy in a village.

It was so long ago that the moon was much bigger and closer. It was so closer that one could climb on a rainbow and touch the moon. During those days animals understood each other’s language.

One day the little boy was walking beside a stream in his village. He suddenly heard a crying sound. When he walked towards the source he found a large crocodile caught in a fisherman’s net.

“My little friend please free me from this net” the crocodile said to the boy while crying.

“But if I go near you, you will catch and eat me. My father told me to stay away from crocodiles” the little boy replied.

“If you free me I will always be grateful to you and we will become friends” the crocodile said while crying even more.

The boy’s heart was softened. He decided to set the crocodile free. As soon as he walked closer to the net the animal caught the boy’s leg with its jaws.

“Is this what you call ‘being grateful’” the boy said in a state of shock.

“Everybody does that” the crocodile said opening a corner of his mouth.

“Nobody is as ungrateful as you are. You are the most ungrateful animal I have ever seen” the boy said while his leg was still caught between the jaws of the animal.

“I will be fare with you. I will not eat you till we hear from three animals. If they say I am the only ungrateful animal I will set you free” the crocodile said.

Soon they saw an old donkey walking slowly towards the stream. But as soon as the donkey saw a small boy caught in a crocodile’s jaw it slowly walked towards them. The boy narrated to the donkey how he was caught by the crocodile and asked the donkey’s opinion.

“Men are the most ungrateful of all animals. I served my master all my life but when I became too old my master kicked me out of his house. Why should I blame the crocodile alone”, the donkey said and again started walking towards the stream.

Soon they saw a horse walking towards the stream. Like the donkey the horse also walked towards the boy and the crocodile. The boy narrated the incidence again and like the donkey the horse also mentioned how he had suffered in the hand of his human master and when he became old he was also kicked out of his master’s house.

Through the corner of his mouth the crocodile was smiling. Suddenly they saw a monkey walking towards them. The boy narrated the whole incidence once again. The monkey appeared very thoughtful.

“I would like to see everything from the beginning. How you were crying. How the small boy walked near you while you were caught in the net and repeat before me what exactly you said to each other. I want to see and hear everything with my own eyes and ears. Only after seeing and hearing I will be able to give my opinion” the monkey said in a very thoughtful manner.

“That makes sense”, the crocodile said and it released its jaws.

The little boy immediately jumped few steps back.

“This stupid animal is still caught in the net. Today you and your family can have lunch with crocodile meat” the monkey said to the boy and left.
[Adapted from an African folklore]

Look at me again

The act of taking one’s photo with the built-in camera of a mobile phone, called taking selfie, is primarily a favorite thing among girls. For some reason boys are not so interested to learn from others how they look.

Taking selfie is a very difficult art. Almost in any selfie the girl’s neck appears at least one inch longer than what the length of her neck would be if she were hanged from the neck until death. It appears that the head lost interest to stay with the rest of the body and was about to leave. But that is not all, her one eye, depending on which hand is used for taking the photo would appear so large that one might think that it is about to come out of the orbit.

When these photos are posted in social networking sites there would be hundreds of ‘likes’. Selfies are like modern art. Each selfie signifies something very-very deep but the hidden message is known only to one person and the rest including those who ‘liked’ them will have no clue about it. The compliments that will be posted with those photos are also very thought provoking, e.g., ‘you look beautiful’ and the invariable reply would be ‘ten q’ (means thank you).

These days every boy and a girl are having at least one camera phone and as a result old days’ photography with an analog camera (sometimes called film camera) has lost popularity. Gone are those days when a photographer was called home on special occasions for taking the picture of children with their parents and grandparents. Everyone was asked to smile just before the shutter was clicked. After taking the photograph the film was sent for developing and everybody at home would wait to see how he or she looked in the photo. Sometimes the waiting period was as long as one week. One never knew how he or she would look in the photo, which generally was in black and white, when it would be washed and developed. It was almost like a film star giving an interview to the media and never knew how his or her statements would be twisted when published in a film magazine. Immediately after I passed out of high school I visited a photo studio to get a passport size photograph of myself for college admission. When I went to collect my photo I was shocked to see my face in the two inches by two inches paper. With almost tearful eyes I asked the owner of the photo studio, who was almost of my father’s age, “Uncle why do I look like this in the photo?” He examined the photo and then looked at my face for even less than a second and said, “Stand in front of a mirror.”

During those days very few people had their own cameras. A camera was expensive, films were expensive too and so was the cost of developing films. But we had a camera in our home, a very old Kodak camera, a cuboid shaped mysterious looking black box, similar to a pinhole camera in a physics laboratory. When I was in standard five our eldest brother bought it from a gentleman who got rid of it because its viewfinder glass had a scratch.

Our brother bought the camera for ten rupees. Ten rupees was very serious money during those days which can be understood from the following real incidence.

My classmate Ashok Kundu, a boy having an elliptical shaped head with ears along the major axis and nose along the minor axis was asked by his mother to buy washing soda, coconut hair oil, mustard oil for cooking, and some biscuits from the nearby grocery. She gave him a one rupee note and also reminded him that all those things combined would not cost one rupee and therefore he should count the changes carefully before leaving the grocery. When my friend reached the grocery shop he realized that the one rupee note was missing and he discovered a hole in the pocket where he had kept the money. He searched every single inch of the road he had walked, from his home to the grocery shop with a hope that it would still be lying on the road. But that was not his lucky day. When he reported about the loss to his mother with tearful eyes she only told “Let your father come home.” My friend having never lost so much money before did not know what to expect when his father would return. When his mother reported the incidence to his father immediately upon his return from work his father gave him a sound beating for being careless. When his father had finished his part his mother gave him few slaps. Probably she was waiting for her husband to ‘cut the red tape’. Her beating was not so severe but she was also screaming and cursing. Then it was the turn of his elder brothers, probably two or could be three. Everybody in his home stood up in solidarity for the noble cause of making a boy more careful to face the future and to be a better person.

“You have an elder sister, don’t you”, I asked Ashok when he was narrating the incidence the following day in the school.

“Yes I have”, he told.

“Did she beat you too?” I asked.

“No. At the end of the ordeal when I was crying sitting on the floor with my head down, she sat near me, pulled my head towards her and started wiping my tears with her sari.”

“So you stopped crying”, I asked.

“No, I cried even more” Ashok replied.

“You have no sister?” Ashok asked.

“No I do not have a sister. You are very lucky”, I told Ashok.

I felt a lump near my throat while Ashok was narrating his sufferings.

If one rupee or loss of one rupee could cause so much suffering to a small boy one could easily imagine the value of ten rupees. But still a new camera even during those days was not less than hundred rupees because those cameras were all imported.
Nevertheless the camera which our brother bought was good for taking pictures, only once my brother loaded a roll of black and white film into it because films were too expensive.

He never allowed any of his younger siblings to go near it, leave alone touching it. He used to make a ‘prrrrr’ sound if he found anyone was trying to go near his camera. Our brother used to hang the camera on his neck using red colored cotton string and roam around in the neighborhood. If anybody inquired about the black thing hanging from his neck he used to say that it was his ‘Kodak Camera’. He claimed to be having serious interest in photography. Every photo of his had some uniqueness, either the topmost part of the head or the bottommost part of the leg would be missing in the picture and sometimes the person in the photo would be standing making an angle with the ground, defying gravity. “That is the best you can get from a very old camera” he used to say if anybody questioned him about those pictures.

After roaming around in the street with his camera for few months he got seriously interested to teach others ‘how a camera works’. He opened his physics book and showed everybody present the diagram of a pinhole camera. He explained how images are inverted when light from an object passes through a convex lens and made his audience spellbound when he told that an image captured in a camera film is always upside down. “Now I am going to show you the internals of this camera so that you will understand why this camera is not any different from a pinhole camera, at least in principle.” And he started opening the screws with very small screwdrivers which we had in our home. But he could not assemble it back and make it work again. After that day everyone present had some better idea of a camera and they also learnt one more valuable lesson.

Special English

Whenever I read anything written by Salman Rushdie who reached the zenith of popularity almost overnight for his book The Satanic Verses, I always notice that he uses too many semi-colons and too few full-stops. I have noticed that on an average in a paragraph he sometimes uses one or could be two full-stops. The ratio of semi-colons to full-stops in an average paragraph would be around five to one or could be even more.

While reading any of his books I remember my M. Sc. classmate Amitava Chakravarty (during those days he was more popular by the name Aashish). One day he drew our attention on a welcome note written by the Head of the Department of Biochemistry Prof. Gora Chad Chatterjee (G. C. Chatterjee). I think it was a welcome address for one of our department functions. None of us had noticed till Amitava drew our attention that in each paragraph there was only one full-stop and our professor was also highly charitable with semi-colons. We were fortunate to see one full-stop in each paragraph because the language does not allow any sentence to be broken into two or more paragraphs.

Salman Rushdie’s writing has another unique feature – events are generally not in chronological order.

One day I was browsing his book The Satanic Verses at a bookstore in Melbourne.

A gentleman, who was standing beside me and was apparently browsing a book suddenly asked, “Is this book not banned in your country?”

From his accent I could make out that probably he was a Canadian or an American and not an Australian. At the end of our conversation when he did not wish me a good death I became sure again that he was not an Australian. (When an Australian greets other by saying ‘good day’ it sounds like ‘good die’.)

“Yes it is. I think India is the first country to ban the book” I replied with an intention not to discuss any further on the subject.

“But why, India is not a Muslim majority country”, he asked again. He sounded very curious.

“No it is not”, I replied and pretended to read something from the book in order to avoid any further question on the subject.

“But yours is a democratic country where people vote”, he again asked. It appeared that he was so curious that he did not care to notice that I was trying to read something.

“Yes we vote every five years”, I replied.

“Then” and he kept looking at me in such a way that I had to give some reply to him.

“Because our democracy is still at its infancy, at least it is not mature enough like countries in Europe or North America”. Then I narrated to him my first voting experience.

I was a student of M. Sc. when I first voted. During those days voting was done using ballot papers instead of electronic voting machines.

When I was just few meters away from the election booth I heard an old lady, whom I had never seen before calling me from behind, “Baba-ektu-sono-to” (my son I want to talk to you). When I walked near her she asked me without the slightest hesitation, “Please tell me whom should I vote for.” I could realize that either she did not ask the question to any one in her home or in her home everybody was like her. While walking towards the election center she surely had met multiple election agents belonging to different political parties and each agent asked her to vote for the agent’s party and at the end she was totally confused and asked me for which party she should vote. I realized that voting right should not be conferred to her or anybody like her.
But in any democratic country voting is considered as a right and not a privilege.
In India every political party is allowed to use a unique symbol for election. Examples of few such symbols are cow, tractor, motor car etc. A voter needs to know the symbol of the political party he or she would like to vote for. In the election booth the voter needed to stamp on that symbol in the printed ballot paper and drop the stamped ballot paper in a box. If any voter stamped on more than one symbol or did not stamp on any symbol his or her vote was not counted.
I told the old lady to stamp on the first two symbols on the ballot paper and not to tell others for whom she had voted.

Even after so many years during the time of every election I still think about the old lady and wonder how many such people are still taking part in the largest democracy of the blue planet.

Tax

“It is difficult to understand what income tax is”. This is not my statement. I understand what income-tax is but the person who was able to prove that time is relative, could not understand income-tax. When I think about this I feel proud because I am able to understand something which he could not. Ha-ha hi-hi he-he ho-ho.
If we try to understand income-tax by comparing it with taxes on alcohol, tobacco etc. it becomes complicated. Many governments impose tax on the above mentioned items to encourage their citizens to abstain from consuming those health-hazardous substances. Similarly there is entertainment tax, paid by movie goers for those movies which are not considered to be ‘educational’ by the authority. I think there could be tax slabs for movies. More the ‘adult-content’ and ‘violence’ more tax need to be paid.
In spite of the fact that every government wants to increase its tax base by taxing non-essential and/or entertaining things but the biggest entertainment of all time is still not taxable. The only country which implemented it successfully was China. There was a time when a couple was fined for having more than one child. Probably the idea was ‘having too much of entertainment is not good’. However that rule is slightly relaxed now in other words ‘it is okay to enjoy a little more’.
Sometimes I think that if my father could ever become the finance minister of our country he would have come up with some ‘never-thought-before’ tax ideas. I am listing them in the descending order of their priorities.
Loose motion tax – He always believed that it is the ‘disease of the fools’. It is only when a person eats in a thoughtless manner he or she suffers from it. But every single time my father had attended a social function like marriage or child birth he suffered from it. If you could recall the scene from the movie ‘The day the earth stood still’ in which the astrobiologist was being escorted to the disaster-control center and the only car on the high way was the car in which she was being escorted, similarly the passage between my father’s bedroom and the toilet, which was about twenty feet long, was kept completely clean and dry.
‘Being late’ tax – Almost every Sunday my father and few other people in our village who were of his age met to discuss about how to improve the locality. Generally the meetings were schedule in the afternoon at four. Since my father was a strict adherent of ‘British rules’ he always reported on time but others were always late by half an hour or even more. He never hesitated to criticize others for coming late. But in spite of his repeated criticism habit of others did not change.
Talking too much tax – “Besi kotha bolle dine dine boka hoye jabe” (if you talk too much you will become a stupid) was his advice to his eldest son who had the habit of glorifying to his younger siblings about his heroic actions like – riding his bicycle at an unbelievable speed while keeping his both hands free, how he ate a live fish and digested it, how he fell from a tree but did not damage any of his vital organ &c. His list was endless and his younger siblings used to listen with a great deal of skepticism till he was interrupted with the above mentioned advice by his father. The advice always made him feel very sad and his younger siblings very happy.

Once upon a time

I heard this story from my mother when I was small. I think this was a popular story in East Bengal, currently Bangladesh.
Once upon a time there lived a devotee in some village in the foothill of the Himalayas. The devotee used to sing the name of God every morning and evening. Before taking bath, before every meal even before drinking a glass of water he uttered the name of God. He was respected by every villager and was considered to be the greatest devotee of God by everyone in the village.
The devotee became too keen to know if God Himself considered him to be His greatest devotee. He started thinking about it day and night, praying to God to let him know what God thinks about him.
One night while he was in deep sleep he saw God appeared before him. His bedroom was filled with some divine light. He could clearly see God smiling at him. He felt as if God asked him if he had any question for Him. Therefore without much hesitation he asked God who was His greatest devotee.
“My greatest devotee is the blacksmith who works in the shop near the village market”, God replied promptly.
“But Lord does the blacksmith utter your name day and night like I do?” The devotee asked.
“He utters my name once in the morning as soon as he gets up and once at night just before going to bed” God replied.
“Only two times a day. But Lord I utter your holy name all day long. Even while lying in my bed at night till I fall asleep I utter only your name. But the blacksmith only utter it only once in the night” the devotee said.
“But as soon as his cheek touches his bed he falls asleep. How could he repeat my name?” God replied promptly.
God could sense that the devotee looked unhappy.
“Can you do a work for me” God asked the devotee.
“Lord anything you say I will do it uttering your holy name” the devotee replied immediately.
“Tomorrow morning you fill a copper bowl with oil and take it to the blacksmith in his shop. But remember the bowl should be filled with oil up to the brim and not a drop of oil should spill while you carry it to the blacksmith.” God said and disappeared.
As soon as the devotee woke up from sleep he remembered the instruction he had received from the God. Without wasting any time he filled a copper bowl with oil and started carrying it to the blacksmith. He was very careful not to spill even a drop of oil on the street. He was holding the bowl with his both hands and his vision was glued on the oil filled copper bowl. He almost stopped breathing while he was walking. His entire body started sweating profusely. Everyone who saw him in that condition was surprised and asked him why he was sweating and what he was carrying in his both hands. He could not utter a single word. He could not even look at the faces of the persons who asked him questions.
But he successfully handed over the bowl of oil to the blacksmith without spilling a drop and returned home. He also realized that he felt some kind of jealously toward the blacksmith and was not able to make eye contact with him.
He remained restless throughout the day waiting for God to reappear at night during his sleep. He was sure that God will pronounce that it was he and not the blacksmith who was His greatest devotee.
In the middle of the night God appeared again during his sleep. God thanked him for giving a bowl of oil to the blacksmith who did not have enough money to buy oil on that day.
“Have I passed your test Lord? Have I spilled a drop of oil?” The devotee asked.
“No you did not spill even a drop of oil. You were very careful.” God replied.
“So do you still think it is not me but the blacksmith who should be your greatest devotee?”
“We will see that. But let me ask you a question.” God replied.
“What is your question my Lord?” The devotee asked.
“And how many times did you utter my name while you were carrying the bowl of oil?” He asked and disappeared.

Short Story about human being