Friday, February 16, 2007

Life As A Dim-Witted Jammai (Son-In-Law)

After the world’s slowest flight out of Seoul (our pilot never exceeded 450 mph, ostensibly because of fierce headwinds over mainland China), we arrived in Delhi at 1 in the morning. While Kaberi slept soundly, Vik (who is pathologically incapable of sleeping in moving vehicles) lamented the thought that we could have made better time on a Japanese bullet train. Upon touching down, we received a traditional Indian government welcome (a long, interminable queue at Customs). A few decades later, and somewhat worse for wear, we emerged in the arrivals hall to catch our ride to the home of Kaberi’s aunt and uncle, the Mejos, or middle aunt and uncle in Bengali vernacular.

In Indian families, and especially Bengali ones (Bengali’s hail from India’s northeastern state of West Bengal), there is a sophisticated and highly complex nomenclature identifying the relationships between brothers and sisters, uncles and nieces, aunts and nephews, etc. This may partly explain the Bengali’s well-deserved reputation as India’s intellectuals since the mental effort required just to remember what to call a particular aunt or uncle must certainly sharpen a young Bengali child’s mind.

For example, in Bengali, there are at least five different terms for aunts: mashi (mother’s sister), pishi (father’s sister), maima or mamima (wife of mother’s brother), jettima (wife of father’s older brother) and kakima (wife of father’s younger brother) and at least five for uncles: mama (mother’s brother), meshomoshi (husbands of mother’s sister), jettu (father’s older brother), kaka (father’s younger brother) and pishimoshi (husbands of father’s sister). In addition, the same person is invariably addressed differently by different relations. For example, the middle of Kaberi’s mom’s three brothers is Kaberi’s Mejomama (middle uncle). But to Kaberi’s cousin Joy (whose father is Mejomama’s older brother), Mejomama becomes Kaka. Confused yet? Good, now you know how Vik feels (especialy since his verbal repertoire has been limited to aunty and uncle for the past 33 years).

Further complicating matters in Kaberi’s mother’s family is an exception (that seems arbitrary to Vik, which he strives to point out as respectfully as possible). Kaberi’s mom, who is the second oldest of three sisters is not Mejomashi (middle aunt) to her sister’s children, but, rather Chotomashi (little aunt). This is the case because she gained the title when she was the younger of two sisters (before the third sister was born) so as to simplify matters for her younger brother, Kaberi’s Boromama. And Kaberi’s mom’s youngest sister, instead of being called Chotomashi, is called Rangamashi. It’s not entirely clear what “Ranga” means. All of this leads a very cheeky Vik to surmise that there is a Bengali family somewhere with a Mistake-mama and an Accident-mashi running around. Kaberi’s only response is to just to roll her eyes exasperatedly. But we digress.

On the morning of February 16th (a national holiday in India to commemorate Shivratri), we awoke refreshed after a good night’s sleep. Our day kicked off over tea and biscuits with our Kaberi’s Mejomama and Mejomaima. Given the Mejos' busy schedules, the serendipity of having time with them was something to cherish, as they are both incredibly-warm, generous and funloving (Vik especially enjoys their company because they laugh at most of his jokes). Mejomama and Mejomaima had great advice on where to go in India, and helped us shape our itinerary. The only downside to the morning was learning that Kaberi’s Dad was diagnosed with a torn ligament in his thigh, relegating him to total bedrest for eight week and precluding his ability to travel with us in either India or Southeast Asia.

With Mejomaima attending to the upcoming evening’s puja preparations, Mejomama took us around to various Indian state tourism offices to help plan our India travel itinerary. After several offices proved to be closed due to the holiday, we made a pitstop for some Indian snacks before making our way to the Indian airlines office. There, we priced a 21-day Non-Indian Citizen Discover India ticket (which turned out to be $1,080 per person for unlimited flights within India over a 20 consecutive days; Vik would soon discover that one could save 60-70% by booking flights directly over the Internet at the Indian rupee rate).

We then returned home to attend Shivratri Pooja. Shivratri, which literally means “Night of Shiv,” marks the occasion where mothers welcome the god Shiva (the destroyer in the trinity of Hindu deities along with Vishnu, the creator, and Brahma, the protector) into their homes and ask him to bless their daughters with good fortune. We learned during the evening that there is a critical mass of Indians who count themselves as disciples of lord Shiva or of lord Vishnu, but very, very few who count themselves as disciples of lord Brahma. Apparently, this is because Brahma is fair-minded to such a degree that he grants his devotees’ wishes at a slower pace than the other two gods. The tie between self-interest and religious devotion is further evidenced by Brahma’s having only one temple in all of India devoted to worshipping him. Vik is now determined to give Brahma props whenever possible because he doesn't like the idea of a Hindu god being neglected. Props to Brahma!

The next day, Vik booked all of our interior flights in India on the Internet thanks to Mejomama's credit card (which allowed us to qualify for resident Indian rates). Our Indian itinerary takes us from Delhi to Kerala to Bangalore to Jaipur to Udaipur to Jodhpur to Jaisalmer to Delhi to Uttaranchal to Hyderabad and then back to Delhi. Later in the day, we had the pleasure of having lunch with the Mejos and Kaberi’s Chotomama (after the tutorial above, you now know what that means) . Lunch was a typically fun and festive affair and everyone got a kick out of Vik trying to pronounce the Bengali words jhaal (spicy) and jhol (water). As if Vik wasn't traumatized enough by the whole family title thing, he now had the pleasure of having five people yelling Jhhaal! Jhhaal! Not Jhhaal! at him.

After lunch, Kaberi's Chotomama heard Kaberi lament (to put it mildly) that the famed Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur was booked through June, and took matters into his own hands. He hit a speed-dial number on his cellphone, and miraculously (and much to Vik’s chagrin) found us a lakeview deluxe room for the one night we’ll be there. Kaberi is now in seventh heaven about staying in a real palace. Vik is ruefully watching all of the money he just saved on airfare fly out the window in the direction of Udaipur.

1 comment:

Vik said...


I don't think you're dim-witted at all. I think you're great.