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"The accidential tourist" or "Pie and tacos"




Without Subtitles

I remember the first time I saw you. It had been cloudy and gray all day as only a San Francisco summer can be. But by late afternoon the clouds had all burned off and the street was flooded with sunlight that seemed new and clean and fresh. You were sipping a Thai iced coffee and talking to a friend. And the sunlight played on your hair - burnishing the brown, giving you glints of gold. And then someone running down the street knocked into you, sent your coffee flying and rushed off without even an apology. You seemed stunned as you pulled yourself together. Your friend picked up the magazine you had been holding. The coffee lay in the gutter. You looked at it and shook your head ruefully. And then you shrugged and laughed. And I wanted to buy you another coffee then and there. But of course I did not dare. That would happen much later after I "officially" met you at that Halloween party.

But that day I couldn't help remembering when I was seven and had saved up to buy myself an ice cream. It was a new flavor -- choc-o-nut. I had gone to two ice cream wallahs before finding one who had it. Clutching my ice cream I started going home, licking it very slowly, to make the pleasure last longer. Then these boys ran around the corner chasing each other and whooping. Intent on my ice cream I didn't look where I was going. Intent on their chase they paid no heed to me. And the one in front crashed into me. Without a backward glance he shoved me out of the way as he ran across the street. His friend charged after him. I watched them disappear in stunned rage. My ice cream lay in the ditch.

I was startled how in the middle of San Francisco, you took me back so effortlessly to a crowded street in Calcutta almost two decades ago. For everything was so alien, so different here. "But it needn't be," I mused as I walked home pondering the universality of human emotions and feelings.

And they are universal. Except they are not the same. And through the prisms of our individual cultures everything acquires new meaning. Remember how interested you were in going to see Kathak dance programs? And Bharatnatyam? But you were not really going to see the dance. You were going to see me see the dance. And sometimes if the dance was not quite up to the mark I would be angry. I would feel let down. Like they let you down. And gave you a less than perfect picture.

After a while you stopped going. Sometimes I went alone. And I would emerge from the dance in a daze. I would come home with the anklets still ringing in my ear. And the first thing I would hear would be the TV. Perhaps Star Trek: The Next Generation. Or Roseanne. The canned laughter raucous and jarring. You lying on the couch. A half-empty glass of Diet Coke in front of you.

"How was your concert, honey?," you say without taking eyes or ears from the TV.

All of a sudden I want to rush over and switch off the television. I want to explode with anger. I want to drag you through my culture. I want to give to you the dance in all its beauty and intricateness. But I am too clumsy to do it, to even begin to describe it. Instead I just say "It was good" and go away to the kitchen.

Then "Sholay" came to town.

"It's the definitive Hindi movie," I declared.

"You said that about Pather Panchali," you retorted.

"That was Bengali. Anyway we are talking a whole different genre here. "Sholay" was like the big multistarrer megahit that just ran for months and months."

"Multistarrer?"

"Yeah it had everybody Amitabh and Snajeev Kumar and Hema Malini and Dharmendra and Jaya. And..."

I stopped, realizing I might as well have been naming species of butterflies in the deepest Amazon. "Well anyway it was the big commercial movie that everyone just has to go and see. It's kind of a ritual almost."

"You mean commercial - like its going to be four hours long and have endless songs?"

"Well, it's not that long. But Sholay is different. its just an edge of the seat kind of film. Please," I begged, "all my other friends are going. Can't you come, for my sake?"

What I didn't realize 'till the film started was that there were no subtitles at all. I glanced over and saw you watching the screen patiently waiting for the subtitles to appear.

"Ummm," I said nervously. "I think there are no subtitles."

I try and translate Amjad Khan's dialogue but it sounds totally neutered and stripped of menace. "This scene is just bantering - it's not important. It's just this Hema Malini character talks too much and too fast."

I keep glancing over to see if you have fallen asleep. I wait for you to say "Can we go home now?" But you don't and when Helen appears on screen shaking her hips, I lean over and tell you, "She's the biggest vamp of Hindi movies." You nod.

By the time the final chase winds around I have been pummeleled to tears as usual. I know my eyes are going to feel raw and dry when the lights come on. I glance over to you and am amazed. You are sniffling too.

I am so happy I could cry. Well, I am crying anyway.

"Next week they are showing Hum apke Hain Kaun," I said picking up a flyer. "It's the biggest hit in the history of Indian cinema."

"I thought Sholay was," you say.

"Yeah well, umm" I say lamely.

"Well" you say firmly "you can go see it if you like, I don't think I am going to. I don't think I can deal with another 3 hour live whispered translation so soon."

I know when not to push. "Do you want to stop and have ice cream?" I ask as we get into the car.

"Accha" you agree in the one word of Hindi you have picked up from me.

The next day the solution hits me. Not for Hum Apkehain Kaun but a long-term one. On an impulse I go over to you and stand in front of you blocking your view of the T.V. set.

"What, honey?" you say smiling at me.

"Do you want me to teach you Hindi?," I reply.

You pause and look at me quizzically.

"Then you won't feel left out when we see movies."

Then seeing I am serious, you shake your head just like you've seen me do when I am talking to my Indian friends.

It could mean yes. And then again it could mean no.

Or maybe?

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