Not Enough Time In So Large A World

The 13th month after Hurricane Katrina and the flood has flown by as swiftly as it came, and it is now time for your New Orleanian friend to bid adieu to the North Dakotan bunker. My final post was to be an interview with Anjali Niyogi, a young Tulane University physician who stayed behind for the storm and flood to help area first responders. Her idea has now garnered the newly-established Community Health Center a $5 million grant from the nation of Qatar.

The Community Health Center was founded last September when Tulane physician Anjali Niyogi set up a card table in the street to serve Hurricane KatrinaÂ’s first responders. Since then the center has established itself at the Covenant House [at] 611 N. Rampart Street, and served more than 7,800 patients with free adult primary care, mental health counseling, geriatric care and health education.

However, I will end my posts here with an homage to my paternal grandmother, who unexpectedly passed away last night in her Chennai home. Despite never having spent a substantial amount of time with her, I know Bhavani Patti (Grandma Bhavani) because I am her – she is the storyteller, writer, historian, people watcher and mocha-colored, Rubenesque pear-shaped woman in me. She was the inspiration for VatulNet and her death has kicked my rear into working harder on the genealogy portion of the site.

Patti’s children and grandchildren are almost everywhere in the world – India, Europe, Australia and the United States. Now, more than ever, is when we wish we could all miraculously converge in space and time to commiserate and grieve. But, time zones and logistics do not always militate in our favor. Venues like Sepia Mutiny serve to make our diaspora smaller through online discussion, debate, consensus and a forum to make like-minded (or not) friends. It was on SM that I met so many who are “my kind” but their individual selves in oh! so many beautiful and interesting ways. My kingdom for more days in the year to meet and interact with all of them in a befitting manner, at least something more than emails, cards, IMs and the occasional meetups. Multiply that feeling by a hundred and you may understand my chagrin at not having had or made the time to spend with the woman who created and raised my father, uncles and aunts. Yet, during this blink of a geological eye, I was privy to her company and advice whenever possible and grew a hearty appreciation for home and family. For that, I am grateful, and similarly thankful to have met you at all.

Gratitude to the mutineers for making like Bruce Springsteen and pulling this Courtney Cox out of the crowd and onstage, except in a lot less dorky fashion. A flying kiss to Siddhartha for helping highlight my lovely Crescent City and its current woes, which are far from over. I insist that each one of you visit here to witness the still-uncleared devastation firsthand and to act as ambassadors for the rebirth of a great American city, the cradle of its musical culture and culinary taste.

Au revoir, mes amies! Laissez les bon temps rouler encore!

Happy Navarathri, too! Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized

You, Too, Can Take Your Brownian Crisis To Prime-Time

As luck would have it, while at the frigid ND bunker and prancing around in nothing but her tropical New Orleanian wear, your intrepid guest blogger caught a cold and was forcibly isolated from the other monkeys and community computer for a week. Eeek achoo eeek! Hey, the New Orleanian cold front of 75 degrees and 80% humidity just hit yesterday, and this macaca yearns for a mint julep on her sunny porch.


While mired in the hurricane-force sneezes and sea of wadded-up tissue paper, cable TV overcame me and I fell prey to such eye-searers as As The World Turns, Dr. Phil and America’s Next Top Model. Dear Supreme Geek Council, please do not oust me from your favor for this transgression. Your humble servant was merely … ummmm … getting to know the enemy … yeah, that’s it.

Anchal Joseph of Homestead, FL wishes to go beyond model immigrant; she wants to be a supermodel. This 19-year-old sports flawless dark skin, ass-length hair, blue-tinted contacts and a desire to show her people that dark women can walk that catwalk, too. With tears threatening to evict her fake baby blues, Ms. Anchal informed Tyra Banks, Jay Manuel (a planet in the neighboring galaxy is missing its weirdo) and J. Alexander (and I do not quote), “Where I come from, light skin and light eyes are preferable to dark skin and eyes. I want to show them that I am just as beautiful.” Fair enough. So, why the blue contacts? If you want to win on your looks, where is the need for the prop? Then again, Anchal is the only one out of 36 who doesn’t transform into a vavoom covergirl when adorned with that other crutch – lots of makeup. She looks pretty much her beautiful same. (Aside: Check out this definition for anchal)

Conversely, the only personal features I find appealing are my brown skin and black eyes. My hips could use several circumlocutions of the block and 5’4″ isn’t anything to write Elle about. This isn’t to say that my extended family has risen above the inanity of Anchal’s experiences; in fact, I’ve been on the receiving end of such remarks for 12 more years than her. My dark skin has never bothered me, even when met with reproachful stares from the kuppai that populates my end of the South. To each her own pathology or just another plea for Reality-TVTM attention?

Speaking of this past week’s TV, was it the NyQuil crooning or did a segment of Chaiyya Chaiyya open a scene of the Smith premiere? Continue reading

Posted in TV


This was going to be a post about the dreaded E word (“exotic,” in case you’ve erased it from your memory) and its usage on me the other day, accompanied by excessive and unwelcome flirtation. However, recalling the incident renders me ill and sorely tempted to post the guy’s name and contact information here – bad move.

Instead, I’ll celebrate the language percolated down from my ancestors – Tamil, and its offerings to English – and linguistics in general. No, I don’t mean Tam-glish, with terms like shamachu-fy1 or “An’one see my pie?”2 but actual English words that originate in Tamil like catamaran and orange. Tamil Contributions To The English Language contains a list of terms derived from Tamil. The crux of this post is not glorifying Tamil, as the list seems to (“the great antiquity of the Tamil civilization”), but to celebrate the transmutation of language, all languages, when in contact with another. Our ancestors got around a lot more than the current understanding of history allows for and this is evident in language. While physical proof of such contact has been absent, destroyed or undiscovered, how we communicate via our vocal chords is the living evidence of cultural evolution.

For instance, the Italian word for key is chiavi, also the Tamil word for the same item (chaavi – Hindi, llave – Spanish, taste – German, tecla chave – Portuguese, clef – French, nøkkel – Norwegian, sleutel – Dutch). There is one of two possibilities for this coincidence – that the word was coined in one place and carried to another, or that the same word was invented separately in two different places to describe the same thing. Given that a significant majority of the world speaks Indo-European languages, I vote for the former theory.

Language is fascinating, as are dialect, accent and semantics. I feel honored to live in a part of the United States where so many collide. The ethnic geography of Brooklyn on the Bayou is so intricate that navigating it requires the knowledge of several Romance languages and a few African ones, too. In the end, you get used to the speak and the fact that we’re all in the same pot of gumbo no matter where we originated.

1 Shamachu-fy: To cook. I’d love to go out, but have to shamachu-fy for relatives arriving tomorrow.
2 An’one see my pie?: Has anyone seen my bag? Continue reading

Sexy Desi Geologists (Reprise)

Someone want to let me in on the secret that is South Carolina? It was the only state of the union that, until recently, has a capital forgotten on almost every geography bee and prompted one to think of secession and stars-and-bars. Suddenly, everyone from my boss to a close friend is interested in purchasing property there, and this patch of Southern Appalachia is turning into quite the desi magnet. Not only has a doctor friend set up shop in Columbia, but has invited my very eager brother to do so as well.

I considered it all a coincidence until the discovery that famous geophysicist, Pradeep Talwani, is a professor at the University of South Carolina and director of the South Carolina Seismic Network, and Vijay Vulava has joined the faculty of the College of Charleston as an environmental geochemist. Hmmmm … the thot plickens.

Hark, what light through yonder passport photo breaks? Move over, Michael Manga – there’s a new sexy desi geologist in town. Unfortunately, like Michael, Vijay is married. His wife, Sirisha Vadlamudi, is an electrical engineer who specializes in virtual and augmented reality (sound familiar?).

Not to be excluded from the running is UTIG‘s Abhijit Gangopadhyay.

While you investigate the South Carolina riddle, I’ll keep my eyes peeled for more kannu-candy at the upcoming SEG conference in New Orleans. Continue reading

Brothers Gonna Work It Out

The apparent suicide of Moses “Moss” Khumalo in West Rand, South Africa comes as a shock to the global jazz community. 26 years old at his death, the saxophonist was a star on the rise, having performed at venerable New Orleans venues such as Snug Harbor (with Irvin Mayfield) and The Red Room while only 21. In fact, it was in this city that he was discovered as a potential jazz great.

Given the New Orleans proclivity for rearing some of the world’s best musicians, this is yet another loss for its rich musical history at an already bad time. As Mark Clague, assistant professor of musicology at U. Michigan says, “Born at the confluence of Latin, Caribbean, African and European peoples, the music of New Orleans thrives on such a diverse human resource. Today, [its] musicians are scattered. Diaspora is a disaster for New Orleans music.”

Here are just two directories of our displaced or affected music community, all the way from the locally-popular to world-famous greats like Irma Thomas and Henry Butler. Thanks to efforts like Habitat for Humanity’s Musicians’ Village and other grassroots work, New Orleans musicians like Fredy Omar are able to return home. Continue reading

Has It Been A Year Already?

It was a second line and a jazz funeral to mourn the Katrina-dead and celebrate the rebirth of this city. For two hours this afternoon, colleagues and I braved the hot sun and humidity to see … our well-dressed salesman of a mayor, Ray Nagin, his wife and Lt. Gen. Russell Honoré wave at us while a brass band and dancers slid past us on Poydras St.??! “Forget this, next they’ll start throwing beads,” I said while contemplating returning to work. That’s when the fire trucks inched towards us, and the Fire Marshall and his men and women somberly walked behind them, no waving, no music, no fanfare. Hot tears filled my eyes as I put away my camera and thanked them from the bottom of my heart and lungs. The EMS and NOFD were the most hardworking people during the flood, have worked tirelessly since then in a rebounding city threatened by drought and arson, and only recently got a paltry 10% raise.

The Louisiana Military and National Guard vehicles poured forth and the crowd erupted in applause. We are a thankful city, y’all, even with full awareness that such a presence here on the 29th of last year, and not five days later, would have saved many of the thousand dead.

My Katrina evacuation photos weren’t released until yesterday, the first time I was able to relive the gut-wrenching anxiety. Sifting through my pictures, I wondered how many came back that evacuated with us. Was it the last time a number of them saw New Orleans? What a way to close a life chapter. On the other hand, it isn’t simple even for those who remained and returned, especially for the middle-class and business owners whose livelihoods were either damaged by wind and flood or, a year later, may fail due to increasing insurance costs and a dwindling consumer base. With less than half of pre-Katrina New Orleans residents back home, over 70,000 of them living in 240-square foot FEMA trailers, and the rising cost of living, penny-pinching is the norm.

In the high and dry French Quarter, the tourist section is littered with t-shirt and novelty shops owned by families of South Asian descent. When friends show up in town for the first time and want to buy the obligatory Bourbon St. and Mardi Gras t-shirts, I walk them to Decatur St. and to a large store owned by a lovely Sindhi couple and their Oxbridge-educated daughter. On a recent visit, the lack of business was so appalling that I insisted on paying full price, ignoring the loud objections of Aunty and Uncle to the contrary. “Arre, bacchi, how can we take this much from you? It’s not right.” [A note to non-desis: haggling is in our blood and must be conducted, usually at the behest of the store-owner] It is now my personal responsibility to pay full price to Paul (Prakash), Jim (Jahangir), Simon, Kendra, Don and every single small business owner whose store I frequent in New Orleans. “Buy New Orleanian” is the new motto around these parts. But, how long will our activism alone keep these endeavours afloat?

Our ill Hindu points me to an article in today’s Beeb that addresses just this dilemma: South Asians Recall Katrina Disaster Continue reading

The Misogyny Of Chaos

While Katrina’s flood thrives in our memories, Debby peters off to the east and TD5/Ernesto enters the Caribbean, New Orleans holds its collective breath. Whether to extract Rubbermaid containers from storage this evening or wait until Tuesday (when many hope that Ernie opts for the Yucatan peninsula)? Uncertainty is the toll of living in New Orleans during hurricane season.

Today’s confirms the rising cost of living in this city. Surrounded by jacked-up insurance premiums, neighborhoods teetering on the fine line between rebound and abandonment, increasing expenses and a mayor without a plan (or a clue), can the middle class make it during the rebuild? The current answer to this $110-billion-dollar question: We shall see.

Forget stress and money; grey hair is easily painted over and moolah comes and goes. In any disaster, whether natural or humanmade, one that occurs overnight or lumbers along over the course of years, the real price of living is borne by its least-enfranchised. At times of chaos, strife, poverty and socio-economic/political instability, women and children need additional protection. The ACLU investigates violations in New Orleans prisons after Katrina and Spike Lee talks of the overall suffering here; who speaks for the women? As pertains to Iraq, Afghanistan and Darfur, concerns about US military misconduct, extremist violence or the semantics of civil war abound, but why is more light not shed on the real victims – mothers whose rights are decreased or taken away, sisters who are brutalized and raped, daughters who are dehumanized? Continue reading

Salutations from the Third Coast!

Given my affinity for South Asia, monkeys and South Asian monkeys, it is an honor to gain guest access to the ND bunker. I must say – seeing lutefisk placed on the same shelf as mango chutney warms this former Upper Midwesterner’s heart.

Employment ushered me to the other end of the Mississippi. With a choice between Houston and New Orleans, I opted for the city with the most interesting cultural dynamics in the United States. A mélange of European and Afro-Caribbean, New Orleans is 70% non-white, poor in wealth, rich in customs and conventions, and a lot more than the drunken-tourist section of Bourbon Street.

As you know, it has been 359 days since Category-3 Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Buras, LA and laid waste to Slidell, LA and lovely beach towns along the coast of western Mississippi. Whole beachfront streets and homes in Waveland and Bay St. Louis were torn off their foundations by the whipping winds of an unusually angry hurricane.

Thankfully, New Orleans was spared that fate. However, our long-suffering and neglected canal levees could not handle the 25-foot and higher storm surges and the unthinkable happened – the levees broke flooding 80% of this city. Friends who stayed behind were forced to act as rescue workers and witness things no American in the 21st century should. Trapped in their homes for more than five days without food, water, medication and rescue, approximately 1400 New Orleanians, mostly the elderly and little children, perished. Demolition workers find carcasses to this day.

What does this have to do with desi or Sepia Mutiny?
Continue reading