Portable Roots

/Portable Roots

Portable Roots

(English Translation of the original Tamil novel ‘INI”)


The pod burst with a slight plop. It was dry and whithered on the creeper, its task of protecting the seed completed. The seed released into the wind, unfolded its beautiful, white rounded silky parachute and floated away into the distance. No one knew where it would land and grow roots. The roots of a plant anchor it to earth. They also perform important functions in nourishing the plant, by collecting water and mineral salts and transporting them to all parts of the plant. What happens to a plant which cannot put down roots in the earth? Those are the seeds that this book is about…….It is about them who left India to find a new life in the United States….It is about evolution and adaptation.

The first Indian in the United States…

He came on a ship with a sea captain from torrid Madras to bitingly cold Salem, Massachussetts in 1790. The only trace his visit left was on the dog-eared recipe books of the ship’s kitchen. The pungent smell of masala lingered on the ship long afterwards.

Mythili often thought of him when she was really depressed and felt like grumbling about the long flight from India. How tough it must have been travelling for six months on a smelly old lurching ship. “We belong to the second wave” Venkat often told her. Venkat being a Professor gave an academic slant to everything. What he meant to say was that they were very different from the first wave of immigrants who were farmers and from the lower income groups. Post 1965, Indian immigrants were mostly professionals, highly educated, spoke English and were doing well in the USA.

Mythili was brought up to ‘adjust’. But she could still not get used to winter. She could hear her mother’s voice in her ears ‘You are a girl. Learn to adjust’. But winters were too much. The very thought of winter garments made her flinch. The Omar Khayyam poem “the winter garments of repentance fling…” floated through her mind.

First heavy socks, followed by long johns to keep the legs warm from waist to ankles and over them thick jeans. For the upper body, tee shirt, woollen sweater, an overcoat. And gloves, scarf over the ears and boots. She looked like the Abominable Snowman, she thought. All this, just to walk down the steps and clear the snow that had accumulated along the driveway and sidewalk. Even with all these precautions, in less than two minutes flat, for want of good cover, her nose and lips would become so numb, so that she wondered if they still existed. If she did not hurry, her eyes would swell with tears, nose would run, teeth would chatter unrhythmically. The cold wind penetrated to the very marrow of her bones.

Winters were terrible.

Generally, Mythili hated America’s winters, which started sometime in December and continued till early March. She hated the constant snowfall covering the streets, garden, and the neighborhood. She loved the Spring, delighted in Fall and even tolerated the hot summer, but every year bemoaned the onset of Winter. As far as she was concerned, it was really sad that all the lovely flowers and the leaves should give way to the ghostly white shroud of winter. During that first year when she set up home in America, she was enamoured by the first snow fall; the beautiful white flakes reminded her of her favorite white jasmine flowers. But very soon the novelty wore off and she got tired of the white blanket that obliteriated all landmarks. No wonder. For a woman born and raised in tropical Madras, all the cold and snow was just too much.

Venkat would laugh whenever she got irritated by the cold, saying with a twinkle in his eyes: “Mythili, you should learn to enjoy the winter.” Come July, it would be sixteen years since she migrated to the US and she had yet to learn to appreciate winter or even to get used to it. Who could possibly get used to it? Not just the cold, but the stack of clothes one had to wear. How was it possible to like winter when just to walk to the corner grocery store or even ten steps to the car, one had to bundle up in winter clothes and struggle like a Thanjavur doll. The sari would trip you, the shoes burrowed into the snow… ‘Enough’, said Mythili sternly to herself. “ Stop right now!”. Mythili got up, went to the window, drew open the drapes, wiped the glass and looked out. Garden, trees, sidewalks, road, as far as the eye could see were all white with snow. One would be able to believe that just two months ago all this was lush with greenery and flowers. “Unusual snowfall in New York. Mm snow expected” said the CNN Weather Report. She was reminded of what Martha told her at the supermarket the other day: “We have lived in Springdale for over seven years. We have never seen so much snow in February.”

Mythili stared outdoors for a few minutes. Venkat had cleared a narrow path for his car, from the garage to the main street. Only the path matched with the tar of the street. It was the township’s responsibility to clear the snow on the main roads. Large snow removal trucks would clear the snow. To prevent snowdrifts they would spray salt and sand. For the secondary roads, snow blowers would be used to shovel them away and pile up the snow on the side.

The other day, the township employee who was operating the snow blower, after looking at the snow accumulated on her sidewalk, came up to her house and rang the bell. When she opened the door, he said politely: “Good mornin’ ma’am. The snow on the sidewalk in front of your house has not been cleared. Someone could slip on the snow or fall on the ice. The township regulations require you to clear the snow in 48 hours. You could be fined, if you don’t. Since you are new aroud here, I thought I’d remind you of the rules.”

Having tersely informed her of the rules, he started walking down the steps, but suddenly turned back and said: “You know Dr. Johnson, who lives on the next street? Delayed clearing the snow on time. A lady slipped on the snow and sued him. Five hundred thousand dollars! I just thought you’d want to know.”

Touching his cap with a “Good day ma’am”, he quickly walked to the truck and drove away. Because of her backache, Mythili could not shovel snow yesterday. If she did not do it again today, it could be risky. She removed her housecoat and put on the required clothes from the closet. Walking out slowly, as if clad in a sack, she took the shovel from the garage groawing to herself. Even as she shovelled a few times, a dull pain hit her in the back. She leaned on the shovel to catch her breath. This was a man’s work, she thought.

Till last year, she did not have to face any of these problems. Venkat had started teaching at Washington University and later moved to Columbia University. For nearly 15 years they had lived in apartments. However severe the winters, they did not have to worry about shovelling snow. The management of the apartment complex would take care of those chores.

About six months ago, Venkat resigned his position and Professor and took a job as a consultant to a well known company. With their annual income jumping from about $60,000 to over $100,000, things changed rapidly.

Leaving the apartment in Riverside on the banks of the Hudson near Columbia University, they moved to the affluent suburbs buying a house in Springdale. They were living the American Dream. Although the house was heavily mortgaged to the bank, it was theirs! Three bedrooms, spacious kitchen, separate dining room, living and family rooms, two-car garage. The basement was large enough to accommodate a ping-pong table apart from having laundry facilities and utilities.

As she started getting short of breath, Mythili suspended her activities. Lisa who lived a half block away, waved as she drove past. Momentarily forgetting her fatigue, Mythili waved back. It was Mark, Lisa’s sixteen-year-old son, who mowed her lawn during the summer and would ordinarily have shovelled the snow. But, four days ago, he had got hurt playing basketball and would not be able to work for at least a couple of weeks. Which is why Mythili had to struggle. After struggling for nearly an hour, she finally cleared the sidewalk by which time a severe headache had descended along with the backache. Discarding the boots in the garage, she came in and hung her coat in the closet.

She went straight to the kitchen and warming milk in the microwave oven, made herself a strong cup of coffee. The phone rang as she reached for an aspirin.

“Hello Mythili, how are you?”

Padma, from Toronto, Canada.

Hearing the voice of a close friend had the tonic effect of lifting her for of tiredness instantly.

Years ago, Venkat and Padma’s husband Ramani had worked for the same company in India. When the urge to seek new pastures in the western world hit them, they moved to America, while the Ramanis went to Canada.

“Hey Padma! Welcome back. When did you return from India?”

“About two weeks now … meant to call you everyday. But somehow time passed too quickly.”

“Bharati sangham or Mandir work?”

Padma laughed.

“Both. You know, Thyagaraja Aradhana is planned for April. Hyderabad Brothers are to sing at that celebration. Mandolin Srinivas will perform in March … How about using the concerts as an excuse to visit us. It is more than a year since we met, isn’t it?”

Mythili laughed without responding.

“Hey, don’t just laugh and brush it aside.”

“I am not brushing it aside. OK, we would love to come for the concerts; go to the Ganesh Mandir, spend time in front of all the thirteen Sannadis… and also spend four or five days with you all; but … he has taken up a new job. So difficult to take a vacation now.”

“OK, let Venkat come later. How about you and the children? When we returned from India, we brought silver kavachams for each of the idols in the Ganesh Mandir… They are just beautiful… Mythili, you definitely must come atleast to see them.”

“OK, I’ll try to come. How is everyone at home? Did you visit Madurai?”

“Everyone is fine… I’ll call you next week and we will talk some more… you know, tomorrow is Thai Friday . There is going to be Laksharchanai for Ambal. And after the event, food will be served. Have to make arrangements. I have to run Mythili, talk to you soon… bye.”

During the conversation, the coffee in the mug had cooled down. She did not feel like re-heating it. As she poured the coffee down the sink, she heard the front door open.

She looked at the clock. Time for Gowri to come back from school…

Walking into the kitchen, Gowri dropped her books on the table and slumped on the chair.

“Hi, mom.”

“How many times do I have to tell you not to enter the kitchen without removing your shoes?”

When Gowri with muttered “Oh shit, come on mother”, Mythili raised her voice.

“You forget that there are idols of Gods here and you are not to come in with shoes on; Why do you mutter? And when are you going to stop using foul language like ‘shit’ and all? Sounds disgusting.”

Gowri laughed aloud, forgetting her irritation.

“Mom, when you ask me not to use the word, you said ‘shit’ yourself.”

Realizing that her daughter was deliberately using foul words to taunt her, Mythili changed the subject.

“Go…on take your shoes off, change the school uniform. I will make hot dosais…”

Gowri did not get up. Arching her brows she asked sauciliy “Mom, I have a question. You say that I shouldn’t wear shoes into this room. But it’s okay to wear slippers. Why is it that your Gods like slippers but not shoes?”

Mythili glowered at her.

“You wear your shoes outdoors and walk over dust and other dirty stuff, which is why I don’t like your walking in with shoes on. You don’t question surgeons entering the operating room wearing sterilized gloves, do you? But when I ask you to walk into the cooking area or prayer room with clean feet, you mock me. ‘Your Gods like slippers but not shoes’. Even if your slippers are clean, I still like you to remove them when you enter the Puja room and open the cabinets containing the Gods. But who pays attention to my likes and dislikes?”

“Why should I take my slippers off when I open the cabinet with the idols?”

“Out of respect, of course…”

“Don’t the white people pray in the churches with their shoes on?”

So saying Gowri took a sheet of paper from the daily newspaper on the table and started to scrape the dirt off her shoes.

Mythili chided her again.

“Paper is Saraswathy. I have told you umpteen times not to step on it even barefoot and you still do it. How can you be a good student if you don’t respect the Goddess of Learning?”

Gowri looked at her mother with wide eyes. “Is Saraswathy only in paper? Not in other things? You keep saying ‘God is omnipresent. He is in a pillar or in an atom.’ So we walk on the floor. Is that wrong? Mom, I don’t understand your logic.”

Mythili swallowed heavily and tried to calm down. She was not in a mood for extended arguments. “Don’t indulge unnecessarily in perverse objections. Go change and come in. I have tons of work to do.” Gowri rose slowly and stretched her limbs. Bouncing out of the room, she suddenly turned around and said, “Hey Mom, I totally forgot. Guess what, Mike asked me if I could go to a movie with him. I said fine. Tomorrow evening. My first date, Mom.”

Her eyes sparkled. Mythili was filled with dread.