28 September 2007

Pain in the... er...

Small things make me happy. One recent happy thing is that I found a pediatrician who understands English. Yippee. When we first got here, we found a very sweet English speaking pediatrician, but seh retired a few months ago, leaving us in the lurch. Looking for another one wasn't that easy. The list of doctors I had didn't have a single one who spoke or understood English.

One just can't afford to have a communication gap with a doctor. When we first got to Japan, it was cold. Very cold. At least we were. The temperature differerence between Singapore and Tsuruoka was some 30°C. To say that we were freezing would be an understatement. And every trip out of the guest house to get essentials like milk and bread would lead to major discussions on who's turn it was to brave the elements.

And wouldn't you believe it, I developed a rash. In... er... a very sensitive part of my anatomy. And in keeping with Murphy's laws, I picked a long weekend to come down with this. The offices were closed, our liaison was out of town and we were totally on our own. So first thing we did was look up the dictionary. We didn't find a word for rash. So we looked up 'boil' only to find that the dictionary only had listings for the verb, and not the noun. In desperation we ran down the list of words we thought we could use. So we finally got the Japanese words for skin, wound (yes, that's as close as a pocket dictionary lets you get), pain and medicine. Off went the better half, the little one, and yours truly to .... (fanfare please) the ER.

First thing we had to call a cab. Fortunately we could recite the address of the guest house, so we rattled it off, and a cab was soon there. Then we looked up hospital in the dictionary and told the driver where we needed to go. And got to the hospital, and the ER. That was the first battle won.

At ER there were forms miles long with pretty and not so pretty squiggles. So we kept saying "English" until someone managed to get us a form in English. We filled that out, and waited.. and crossed our fingers, toes, eyes... anything crossable. After waiting interminably for someone to acknowledge us, a nurse came up, took my blood pressure, and started talking to me. Actually she was talking AT me. A ten day crash course in Japanese had nowhere near prepared me for this. Once she was done, she bowed and waited. We stared at each other and said the one word that we knew for sure, "wakarimasen (I don't understand).

A and I looked at each other. Well, we thought, let's try telling her what the problem is. So we fired off all the words we'd memorized and gave her a very triumphant smile. And she looked totally blank. Then it hit us that there was this probability that she had no clue what we'd just said.

I mined writing. She smiled, and came back with a paper and pen. And then I drew out (what looked to me like) a human body, much to her amazement. I'll be darned if that didn't look more like the chalk outline from a homicide investigation. Sometimes, I wonder if she thought I'd knocked someone off. I pointed to that drawing and to then pointed to myself. And marked the spot with an "X". By this time she was trying desperately hard not to laugh.

And then, slowly, there was this growing crowd around me while I tried to explain what was wrong. And I had a suspicion that the nursing staff was trying desperately hard not to giggle. With mimes, drawings I think I managed to communicate what was wrong with me. And finally got to see a doctor... who didn't speak English.

After an examination, the doctor asked me to wait outside. Then he handed me a slip of paper with the words "Please Wait" painstakingly written on it. And wait I did for another hour. By this time I was starting to suspect the worst. Anyone who's watched lots of (desi) movies knows that if a doctor isn't talking to you, then something is seriously wrong. My imagination was on overdrive.

Finally my problems seemed that much closer to a solution. The staff at the ER had decided to page an English speaking doctor, get him to come to the hospital and see what was wrong. And finally, without resorting to any playacting or drawing, I spoke to someone who understood exactly what I said, who very reassuringly spoke to me in English, assured me that all was ok, and gave me a prescription. And thankfully didn't call the cops about a chalk outline.

One good thing came out of all this. The two of us started taking our Japanese lessons VERY seriously. After all, when in Rome..... know how to say that you have a whatever in your wherever.

25 September 2007

Thoughts on driving

I never realized that following the letter of the law exactly can drive my spouse nuts. All I need to do is get behind the wheel of our car.

When the speed limit says 30kmph, I do 30kmph. This is small town Japan after all. Little kids can run away when they see a car speeding towards them, but the sweet old lady of 99 doesn't stand a chance. So 30 it is.

Drive on an express highway at exactly the speed limit. So what if all other cars seem to be ignoring the speed limit.

Refuse to overtake the car in front of me. (The speed limit is 70kmph, I'm driving at 70kmph, the guy in front seems to be doing 70kmph, why should I follow the really bad example set by these dudes who are speeding?) Overtaking also means changing lanes. Too much trouble.

What is it about an European make of car that tends to let the nut behind the wheel delude himself into thinking he's Schumacher-ka-baap? Don't these prix realize there's no grand prize for being a pain?

Being first in line at the traffic light on a narrow road AND waiting to turn right. Too much pressure there. Japanese courtesy guarantees that no one's going to honk you out of your mind, but still... there's pressure.

I'd prefer to drive halfway around a parking lot, but I refuse to back up and park, or pull into a one-car space if I can avoid it. I need room. More room, less margin for errors.

Valet parking generates employment.

23 September 2007

Reading Katakana

Katakana... sometimes a boon, sometimes a bane.

It's a boon when we see something written in Katakana. First of all, we can read what's written. Since chances of it being an English word are reasonably decent, there is a chance that we can not only read, but also understand what is written.

The painful part is to decipher it. Easiest way is to read it aloud, repeat it a few times, now add the thick accent of a Japanese person saying an English (sounding) word, and chances are (50-50) that you'll get it. Some of the more common words written in Katakana are ra-ji-o (radio), oo-i-su-ki (whisky) and do-a (door). Some are uniquely abbreviated in a Japanese style like te-re-bi (television) or ra-ji-ka-se (radio-casette player). Some need more than a few repetitions to get right ke-ki (cake), ku-tsu-ki (cookie) or mi-ru-ku (milk).

The bane of Katakana is to read names written so. Ku-ri-shi-yu-na-n is fairly straightforward. But I raised a racket at the hospital when they gave me the medical report of someone called Ooideiya. No jokes there. That's how my name's written in the Latin alphabet. This is after getting totally massacred by entering it the hospital computers in Katakana. After a few of Aditi's teachers struggled with reading my name, they now call me Aditi-chan-no-mama (the mother of little Aditi). And there my poor mother thought she was doing me a favour by giving me (what she thought was) a short and sweet name.

The real fun starts with movie titles. We want to watch a movie today. And I open the local cinema's online listing, and start to decipher. The first thing to do is eliminate all movie titles written in totally in Kanji or Hiragana. If it's part Kanji part Katakana, I'd read the Katakana bit before discarding it as a potential choice.

Once I start reading the Katakana, I repeat the word aloud a few times to see if it sounds meaningful in English. One of the movies playing today is ハリー ポッターと不死鳥の騎士団. The Katakana part reads Ha-Ree-Po-Tsu-Ta. Say that a few times, and you realise that it sounds like 'Harry Potter' spoken in a thick Japanese accent. And Harry Potter it is. The Kanji part reads "With horseman group of immortal bird". I am not making this up. Copy and paste that into Babel Fish, and see for yourself.

Well, we've watched Harry Potter. So what else is playing, asks A? There's to-ra-n-su-fu-o-ma. Say it aloud. Read it out a few times. Sounds like 'Transformer', doesn't it? Yes, that's the listing for Transformers. And there's fu-a-n-ta-su-te-i-tsu-ku-fu-o, mi-su-po-ta and also ra-tsu-shi-yu-a-va-3.

The last one is fairly easy. Think back on on the sequels and trilogies all this year, and it's not too hard to read that as Rush Hour 3. A is not too keen on watching what he calls 'boring movies' like Miss Potter.

Anyone wants to guess what movie we've finally decided to watch??

21 September 2007

The phone rings (a true story)

0945 hours
First I swear a bit. What miserable life form would pick this time to call?? Just when I've sung lullabies and rocked the little one to sleep so I can get on with my day. Ah well, c'est la vie.

"Hello?" In Japan, if one answers hello, the calling party knows at once it's a foreigner. And more often than not, apologises and hangs up.
"Moshi moshi, a good day to you and all that. May I speak to Mr. Sato?"
"Sorry lady, but there's no Mr. Sato here."
"Is this the number .........?" and she rattles off my phone number.
"Well, that is the number, alright, but this is Mr. Krishnan's residence."
"That's alright, may I speak to Mr. Sato?"
"Lady, there is no Sato here, please check your records, this is not the number for Mr. Sato."
Some apologies. And she hangs up.

Keep in mind that these conversations are happening in rapid Japanese spoken at 2000 words per minute, and poor old moi responding at about 3 words a minute. And of course, everytime she pauses for breath, I ask her to repeat whatever she just said ever so slowly. And is smaller sentences, in easier words.

1005 hours
There goes the phone again.
Avani howls.
"Moshi moshi, good morning and all that. It's me, that-ever-so-slightly-obstinate-person calling from your phone company. May I speak to Mr. Sato?"
For the love of God, "There's no one here who goes by the name of Mr. Sato. Could you please check your records?"
"But this is the number I have for Mr. Sato!"
"There is no Mr. Sato here. This is the residence of Mr. Krishnan."
After another flurry of apologies she hangs up again.

1030 hours
"Moshi moshi, good morning and all that. Could I speak to Mr. Sato?"
I'd hoped against hope that the this lady would have acquired a modicum of common sense and figured out their records were wrong. I admire tenacity, but this is ridiculous. So I go,
"Could you please write down this name in the Romaji script?"
"Yes, of course. Could you spell it out for me?"
"K-R-I-S-H-N-A-N. Did you get that? Would you like me to repeat it?"
"No that's all right. Ku-ri-shu-nan. Is that right?"
"Perfectly right. This is the home of Mr. Krishnan. There is NO Mr. Sato here."
Phew... I think this ordeal is almost over. I thank too soon.
"Thank you so much. May I speak to Mr. Krishnan?"
"He's at work."
"May I speak to his wife?"
Who the &*%@ did she think was talking to her all this time??
"This is she."
"I want to speak to Mr. Sato."
After living in Japan for over a year, much as I try to emulate the exquisite Japanese courtesy, sometimes I lose my tenuous grip on my temper.
"THERE IS NO MR. SATO HERE? Can't you understand me?"
"Is this telephone number ..........?"
"Yes, this is that same telephone number. THERE IS NO ONE CALLED SATO IN THIS HOUSE."
"But this is the number I have for Mr. Sato."
I hang up.

And the phone rings again.
It's HER. I don't believe it. She's been sent by demons to torture me and not let my little one sleep.
My grip on civility is totally gone now. If she can be a pain, I can outdo her anytime.

I did what I should have done in the first place. I refused to speak any Japanese, or English. I spoke in Tamil, threw in some Hindi for good measure.

This time she hung up first.

And I took the phone off the hook.

And Mr. Sato, whoever you are, the phone company is trying to reach you desperately!
And you deserve to have your phone cut off and telephone services denied to you for the rest of your life.

Of facts and fiction

I love reading Perry Mason books. Earl Stanley Gardner's suave debonair lawyer is the cat's whiskers.

Half the time he has no case, keeps flummoxing the DA, untangles legal messes with the ease of a magician pulling rabbits out of a hat... I mean, it's all so unbelievably cool. Each time Perry Mason says, "Objection, your Honor. Objected to as incompetent, immaterial and irrelevant," I want to cheer.

Then there's movies.

"Milaad, Tazeerat-e-Hind dafa 302 ke tahat mulzim ko saza-e-maut diya jaaye."
For one thing that gives you an indication of just how many movies I might've watched.

You can almost picture (the usual suspects like) Sriram Lagoo, looking like a legal stalwart, standing there is those frumpy barrister robes and trying to look triumphant, smug and indignant at the same time.

That's somehow how I pictured court proceedings would run in real life. What do I know?

My best friend's wife is a lawyer, and on our last trip back home, A and I asked her whether people said all that in court. She gave us a look that almost said, 'Are you for real?' And proceeded to regale us with tales of what took place in the courts. In Bangalore at least.

Chaos reigns supreme. Prosecuting lawyer puts forth an argument. And (I quote exactly what she said, verbatim) "En saar... eneno helthare" (transliterates, Saar, what the heck is he saying?)

Whatever happened to "Objection, milaad!"

A stared. I stared too. Does nobody say Milaad anymore?? Doesn't the judge use his hammer to restore order in court? Has the motion picture industry lied to me all these years? I object.

Objection overruled.
Pardon me while I read some Perry Mason and restore some lost faith.

20 September 2007

The wheel weaves as the wheel wills

I spent 10 days in hospital, when the little one was born, and used that time to read the entire Wheel of Time series, from The Eye of the World to Knife of dreams.

And finally got the one gazillion twenty seven thousand four hundred and forty characters straight. Well, not really. But it does seem like that considering that I started reading the Wheel of Time series somewhere in college (yes, that long ago). Chronologically, I read the first 8 books over a decade ago, and the next three as they were released. And it's very understandable how easily one can loose the thread of the tale.

When the little one was born, I decided that that was the best time to catch up on all those eleven tomes, and make sense of it all. In an uninterrupted continuous session like that, I did manage to get the story straight, and all the different threads untangled.

And I waited for the final book of the series with a sigh of relief. I now knew exactly who was who, what was what character's point or problem in life.

And now I hear that the thread has been cut and the Creator has been woven out of the pattern.


17 September 2007

Of art and math; move over Leonardo

An acquaintance of ours, Mrs. Y, has been asking me for a while to conduct an "Understand India" session at one of the various organizations she's a patron of. Understand India? It sounded too broad a brief, and I agreed, without a single clue what I was going to do or talk about. My abysmal Japanese notwithstanding.

Once I was given the brief it didn't sound that bad. "Think of a typically Indian activity for kids, that is typically Indian." All right. That didn't sound too bad. But as D-day loomed, I hadn't thought of a single thing that was "typically Indian". Then I realised, that I'd comitted to this session on the same date Ganesha chaturthi, and inspired by that, I said I'd show kids about Rangoli. That was quite safe. No one in Tsuruoka, other than me of course, can tell good rangoli from a totally mediocre one. And it was as typically Indian as something I could think of. So I shot off an email to Mrs. Y about what I was planning to do, links to some sites about Rangoli, and some rangoli designs, and said that all I'd need was coloured chalk, and some rice flour or chalk powder.
My plan of action was very simple. Demonstrate a podi-rangoli, give the kids some patterns, let them draw some with chalk, and we wind up. I totally underestimated the center director, Ms J.

Come D-day, I drove to the center, and was welcomed by a bunch of totally enthusiastic kids. And Ms J was all smiles, and said that she'd organised everything needed for rangoli. Imagine my surprise when I stepped outside, and saw bags and bags of colours. No jokes, there were a dozen hues of coloured powder there. I was stumped. How??

I'd not counted on Ms J's utter resourcefulness. She did her own R and D about rangoli, and was wondering what could be used since traditional colours were not available in Japan. Apparently she was taking a walk by the beach when inspiration struck. She took half a dozen kids and seives to the beach, sifted a few bags of sand, and dyed them with printer ink. And these are wonderful colours she came up with. I was, and still am, amazed at her solution.
I showed the kids how to mark dots, a couple of samples, and once they coloured those, they went on to design, draw and decorate their own creations.

The kids all seemed to be having the time of their lives. And after a bit, the supervisors jumped in too. And the entire driveway was a riot of colour.

Some kids started drawing rockets, etc. They gave free reign to their imagination, and kept drawing masterpiece after masterpiece.

But it wasn't all smooth sailing with art.

My art at least.

One kid said she wanted to colour this pattern. I was happy, and told her to go ahead. She was quite happy, and confided to me that she was very fond of mushrooms.
Sigh... and here I thought my diyas looked so pretty.

During the introduction, Mrs Y introduced India and Indians to the kids as mathematical geniuses. Genius?? Well, the kids started throwing numbers at me, asking to multiply them mentally. And these were numbers they could manage. All under 20. At this point, the imp in me took over, and I started demonstrating the finer points of vedic mathematics to these kids. Just a couple of 'sutras', but sutras that I was very very sure about. The very elementary simple ones. Soon I had kids writing numbers on the board, and writing out the answers before they could key in and get the answer from a calculator. God, that was some ego trip! The awe on the faces of the students, and teachers alike, had to be seen to be believed. So in this neck of the woods at least, we have kids thinking that Indians have a second brain for mathematics.

Thank goodness they didn't want to look at my marks cards.

14 September 2007

Of tragedies and fiction

What is it that would make a nice, jovial, funny person write a thoroughly depressing (my opinion at least) story?

If I wanted a story where the everyone (or the protagonist at least) lives through grief and finally kicks the bucket, I'd rather read some Russian stuff like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. So when a normally funny Mallu writes like a Russian, it makes one wonder.

Does it have anything to do with communist ideology? They have nothing else in common.

Sorry, Tys, but that one was too much to resist!

11 September 2007


Watching movies with a 4 year old is really trying.


Because of all the questions I have to answer. All questions are 'why?' questions.

The little one, and I too, have watched Mulan only about (according to Arun) 29,832 times over the last 2 years. She knows all the songs, knows all the characters, and even knows some of the dialogs.

So far so good?? Well, now lets get to the real fun.

Understand first that my daughter has recently grown into the "why?" stage. So as we watch, someone refers to the villain as 'Shan-Yu'. "Shan-Yu??" she asks in horror. "Shouldn't he have said 'Mr. Shan-Yu' or 'Shan-Yu-san'??" That shows how well we're drilled her in her P's and Q's.

Mulan cuts off her hair, and heads off to battle. "Why is she playing with a knife? Doesn't she know that it's dangerous?"

"Why is Mulan taking a bath at night? Won't she get a fever or catch a cold?"
"Why is Mulan going swimming at night?"
"Why did Capt. Lee take off his shirt?"

... and so on and so forth. Halfway through, my brain shut down, after thinking up easy-to-please answers.

After a while, answering these with "Why do you think that happened?" failed. Very miserably. The first time she looked at me and said, "I want amma to tell me why." When she saw that I took too long to think up an answer, she looked at me asked, "I think amma doesn't knows why." So much for being the all-knowing parent.

But it's my fault. I didn't see it coming. All the obvious signals went off a few months ago, and I ignored them. Recently we saw some shots from Superman Returns on telly, and she asked me, "Why is Superman wearing red undies over his pants?" Before I could recover from a choking fit, she answered, "Didn't his mummy teach him to wear it properly?"

Why me??

06 September 2007

The theory of kids

Theoretically, I should get up by 5am, and finish making breakfast, lunch, a different kid-friendly lunch box for school and get it all packed and ready by 7am.

The alarm goes off. Brrr.. I think to myself, 'it's colder than Siberia in here,' and I curl up for a few more minutes. Avani starts to whimper. I feed her and look at the time. Goodness me, it can't be 6:45 already!!!!! Run, run, run! or I'm never going to have time for my morning cuppa.

Theoretically, I wake Aditi at 7am, get her brush her teeth, eat her breakfast, have a shower and get dressed to go to school by 9:05. The bus comes to get her at 9:10. Theoretically, this gives her a lot of time. And she can linger over breakfast. No need to hurry.

Now it's time for negotiations:
'Oh heavens, look at the time! C'mon baby, wake up or you'll miss your bus.'
'No school. I don't want to go to school'
'You GOT to go to school. All your friends are going to be there. You got to go.'

By this time appa is late for work, and Aditi wants 5-huggy-and kissy. And once A has left the wailing starts. 'I want one more huggy-kissy'

This is usually a good time to observe this phenomenon of catastrophic proportions called 'the sympathetic detonation'. The first law of sympathetic detonation states that: 'for every wail from one kid there is an equal or greater wail from the next, and so on and so forth'. By this time the little one is howling her head off, and I'm ready to howl too.

By some miracle, the older one is washed, dressed, fed and I think to myself that I need to be a little more patient. After I've done her hair, she looks at the mirror. And starts crying. 'I don't want my hair done like this. I want it done the other way'. Another dose of sympathetic detonation. When cajolery fails, I resort to ultimatums. That's how I've fixed your hair today, and that's how it's going to be.

As we head down to go wait for the bus, she looks in her bag. 'Yellow?? I want the pink lunch box'... and cries a little. Sympathetic detonation again.

Second law of sympathetic detonation: 'once sympathetic detonation has occured, there're no laws that apply anymore. It rapidly dissolves into utter chaos, and its each woman for herself. The men are clueless, and will remain so'

Theoretically, now I can sit back and relax with the baby. Get her breakfast. Play with her a bit. Give her a leisurely massage and a bath. Rock her to sleep.

How I want to sit back, put my feet up, and take a few deep breaths. But the little one's breakfast can't wait. She's really hungry and is howling. By the time she's been fed, she's also broken enough records to qualify for the spitting olympics. Her spitting's getting more powerful, and I swear the radius of the mess has increased to over 4 feet.

And between keeping the baby amused and getting something done around the house, I also need to get lunch ready.

Theoretically, she sleeps.

Yeah, right!

Theoretically, I now have time to get the laundry done, and other assorted household chores.

Yeah, that too.

Theoretically, I'm done with all this by lunchtime. Then A and I can have a relaxed lunch, and after cleaning up, I have time for a power-nap before Aditi gets home from school.

Nap?? who napped? By the time the bus gets here, I just managed to catch up with my morning backlog!

Theoretically, Avani now has some lunch and amuses herself for a bit while I get a snack or something ready for Aditi when she gets back home.

"Why didn't you give me a cute lunch?"
"I don't want this for a snack. I won't eat that either"
"I want amma to go to Mysore"
Sympathetic detonation occurs... again.

Theoretically, Aditi eats everything on her plate. And settles down to read, draw, play.

Now let's talk about a very old game my grandmother taught me. It's called 'aadu-puli-aatam', the game of 'tigers and goats'. I've forgotten how it's played, but my kids have developed a whole new way of playing it. One takes the role of tiger, and the other plays the goat. The tiger attacks the goat without the least provocation. And the goat howls. I step in to intervene, and the tiger starts to roar... er .. howl.
Remember the second law of 'Sympathetic detonation'?

Theoretically, I get dinner ready on time, and we all sit down to dinner on time. We all eat dinner, Aditi does her nightly routine of brushing, changing, and is off to bed by 8pm. A and I get the kitchen cleaned, get Avani fed, and then have time to watch a movie, read a book, listen to some music. And then like the famous nursery rhyme, it's early to bed, early to rise.

Dinner table talk is reduced to eat what's on your plate and love it. The older one is washed, changed and brushed. And makes promises to be a good girl the next day, and tells me how she will be nice to the little baby, and asks me to tell her a bedtime story. I leave the little one with A, and we start our story. Halfway through she doesn't want me there anymore. "I want appa. I want amma to go to Mysore".... there we go. There's a change of guard, a little sympathetic detonation, A rocks the big one to sleep, and I try to get the little one to nap.

By the time both are asleep, A and I look at each other, look at the mess that is the kitchen, look at the disaster in the house, and consign it all to the blazes, and crash out.

Tomorrow is another day.