It had only been a couple of weeks in Arizona but it already made Madhavan feel that he was a changed man. He felt that he was losing his ability to blend into the background as he used to, in Chennai. That invisible companion, with whom he was constantly communicating in his mind, was slowly taking leave from him, giving him a chance to listen to others. He liked his roommates, though he was more at home with Mac. This was because Mac could talk Tamil well. Mathews talked English with a Malayalee accent, while Sathish's English, a hideous imitation of the American drawl, was quite unintelligible and even intimidating! But, Madhavan realized that they were all awe struck by his academic brilliance. When Madhavan’s turn of cooking came, he shocked them with a proper South Indian meal, cooked with the help of Amma's recipes and podis. All his roommates enjoyed Madhavan 's cooking and showered him with compliments. Sathish who hated vegetarian preparations, loved Madhavan 's sambar, vadaam and moru molagai. Encouraged by their genuine appreciation, Madhavan even ventured to make puris and potato curry, which again, was an instant success. Mac, Suresh and Mathews were all praise for the very intelligent but very simple Madhavan . Madhavan felt happy and confident.
When he called Amma on Sunday, he was bubbling with enthusiasm. This Arizona life was proving to be a turning point in Madhavan 's life. He was slowly getting over his inferiority complex as others accepted him on equal footing. He had been humiliated all these years. At School, he was teased for his pigeon chest, awkward gait, anemic complexion, and ill-fitting clothes. His classmates called him 'Yellow papaya'. His English teacher Ms Mythili always made fun of his poor English and found cruel pleasure in making him read aloud, the lessons and poetry, so that the entire class could guffaw. All his classmates waited for English class so that they could laugh heartily at his awful pronunciation.
Madhavan remembered, how once he pronounced 'cuckoos' as 'kakkoos, meaning lavatory in Tamil, and how the entire class and Ms. Mythili, laughed uncontrollably. His uniform was another source of amusement. His Appa always made the tailor stitch one size larger with this comment- 'The boy is now in growing stage, you see'. Finding the teasing of his classmates unbearable, he approached Amma for recommending a correct size shirt, at least for his birthday, but Appa was angry and said "Ask him to concentrate on studies…Oh! ..one fashion model… look at the progress report he brings! What poor marks in English and Social studies! At this rate, he’s going to fail. He seems to be good only in maths.” Madhavan realized that everyone had treated him like a crawling worm or a repulsive cockroach. He had been a clown, providing amusement to Ms. Mythili and her fans, the rich boys, and girls of his class. He slowly had stopped talking to anyone in his school and had withdrawn into a self-made shell. Then, his teachers had started labeling him as antisocial. At home too, he had talked only to his Amma, because Amma alone would give him hope. She had insisted that her son was a 'Raja' with a great horoscope and would achieve great heights. During her occasional visits to Besant Nagar, Paati too had endorsed Amma's prediction. Though Amma's and Paati's words comforted him, he could spend only very little time with them. Once Madhavan had reached the plus two level, he became an above average student. Absolute concentration on his optional subjects with no friends or hobby to distract him, he got very high marks for the Board Exam as well as the Entrance test and got into the prestigious Anna university. Though Dr. Ranganathan was not wholly satisfied, as Madhavan did not get into IIT, he was not unhappy about his son's achievement. By the time Madhavan got into College, he had improved a lot physically ,but just physically. His pigeon chest, thin arms and wobbly legs which gave him an awkward gait had disappeared as though by some magic.
Though hairless, his broad chest and flat tummy gave him almost a macho look. But, despite all these physical changes, he had faithfully carried one piece of baggage from his boyhood to adulthood, his strange ability to blend into the background and to appear inanimate and therefore barely noticeable. This ability helped him a lot to carry on with his college life almost uneventfully. Except in the beginning, when he became the target for fun-loving girls and boys for their ragging. Under his careful cloak of aloofness and indifference, he housed a breathing anger against the superciliousness of the English- speaking rich boys of his class. He had envied their smart ways, loud talk with the girls in fluent English discussing movies and latest albums, taking the girls to restaurants and movies in bikes and cars, their joint practice for ‘Culturals’ in neighboring colleges. Every day in the Engineering College, he was suffering silently and hurting inside. He wanted to be like those boys, to dress up like them, to talk like them and to flirt with pretty girls like them. He fantasized riding with voluptuous Kalpana, slim Tara, green eyed Anusha, on a bike without silencers or driving latest cars with arms around them to the movies, restaurants and picnic spots. But with all this inner turmoil, he managed to appear, at the most, a middleclass, hardworking, religious Brahmin boy with the sole aim of becoming an Engineer in life. But, Arizona gave a new meaning to Madhavan's life. For the first time, he was recognized as a respectable, lovable human being. Right from the very first day, when he was received by Cheenu Krishnan to the end of his first month that he spent with Mac, Sathish and Mathews, were really happy, fun filled days for Madhavan . Though it was really hard for him to talk and laugh easily like his roommates, he listened to them, and even enjoyed their conversation. He was initially intimidated by Sathish's American drawl but soon started a liking for him as Sathish, unlike his classmates in India, did not ridicule him. In fact, he never let an opportunity pass, to praise Madhavan and his superior intelligence. Madhavan 's roommates, especially Sathish, with his lethargic disposition, sought Madhavan 's help, for completing his projects. Madhavan was only too happy to help him out. Starving for recognition all these years, Madhavan would do anything to retain the recognition, love and admiration of his friends.
Madhavan 's aptitude for cooking which he inherited from his Amma and developed by observing her closely and helping her on holidays, came handy too. Though, he knew how to make sambar, rasam and poriyal with Amma's podi, he never tried his hand at making dosas. When he realized how his roommates loved to have masala dosas and would make an expedition to 'Taste Of India’, an Indian restaurant which charged an exhorbitant price for dosas, he decided to ask Amma for the correct proportion of rice and urad dal for dosas. Amma told him- 4 measures of rice and one measure of dal with a spoonful of fenugreek soaked for 8 hours and then ground fine and kept overnight made good dosas. She also advised him that, though the nonstick pan she had given him for chapathis was good enough for dosas too, he had to put oil around dosas when spreading the dough to get the crispness. She also instructed him, how to make the potato masala to stuff the dosas. So, one Saturday, he followed Amma's instructions, soaked rice and dal and ground the batter when no one was around. Sunday morning, he experimented with Dosa making. To his great surprise, the dosas came out fantastic and his roommates walloped the whole thing. They were so happy and excited about the success of the dosa experiment, that they treated him to a vegetarian dinner at a Thai Restaurant. The next Sunday, they invited Cheenu Krishnan and surprised him with crisp dosas and sambar made from Amma’s podi. Madhavan could never forget their happy, admiring faces, when they ate his breakfast. From then on, Madhavan willingly undertook the cooking most of the days, as they enjoyed his cooking.
As his roommates were non vegetarians, they cooked chicken, the smell of which, Madhavan simply hated. But he controlled his aversion and never made a fuss about it, for fear of offending them. Though Madhavan won the hearts of his roommates, years of suppression made him still reticent. But he loved their company especially Mac's. For Madhavan who was not even noticed, leave alone complimented, their genuine compliments were a novel experience. For the first time, he felt that he was accepted and loved. That revelation gave him a new confidence and his 'pardon me for existing look' had gone forever. But, one night, inadvertently Madhavan told Mac, his extreme aversion to the smell of non-vegetarian food. From then on, they cooked their dinner after Madhavan ate his dinner. That proved to be a good arrangement as that provided a chance for Madhavan's early dinner and retiring to his bedroom, to do his assignments. Madhavan wrote detailed letters to Amma , not forgetting to include a summary of his performance in School, his assignments, his subjects etc. to his Appa. After the first outburst of Vasumathi, Ranganathan carefully avoided any comment on Madhavan or his special bond with his mother. Further, he became less commanding and more polite in his attitude towards Vasumathi. Somehow, he felt that Vasumathi was shrewd and could even read his thoughts, a very dangerous feeling, So, when his girl students were expected home, for getting his help in their research projects, he scratched his head, wrinkled his forehead and said "Vasumathi, that Tara is coming today. I don't know why I should be the guide for such scatterbrains, my fate, anyway can you keep some tiffin and coffee for her? I know you're tired but Vasumathi immediately brightened up and said, “No problem, anyway I've to cook. One more person will not make any difference. Don't worry". On some other occasion, he would say,"Vasumathi, you look so tired today, it's time you train Harini to do some household chores…stupid girl…not interested in studies, all the time watching those useless cinema songs and Tamil cinema. Madhavan sent money with special instructions to buy color TV, otherwise I would n't have bought it."
Then looking at Harini, he would ask, “Aren't you ashamed to waste your time like this?” Madhavan is so responsible. He's so intelligent, he's liked by everyone, not like Somasundaram's son Sankar. Madhavan knows how to adjust, not like you, useless girl" Vasumathi was thrilled, when Ranganathan praised Madhavan so openly. When she wrote to Madhavan , she reported how proud Appa was about his achievements and how he had changed. She wrote,"Kanna, your getting admission in Arizona is a turning point in our lives; Yes… that has changed our lives. Appa is so proud and happy about you. So am I. There's a great change in the behavior of everyone. They look at us with a new respect. In my last letter, I wrote to you, how we were received and treated with great love and affection by Raghavan Mama and his family, when we went to pay back the loan. How Raghavan insisted that we could keep the money and leisurely pay it back. Radha, who is always money minded was generosity personified. We had a hard time in making them accept the money. Amma of course, correctly said, they 've plans of palming off that horse-faced Meena to us. As though we're fools, can't see through their plans! We were given a grand lunch and dropped back in their car. Anyway, I could be with Amma for a long time, that day. Thanks to you, I won't be treated like an outcaste, whenever I visit Amma in future, a great change. You say, you've good friends there. Kanna, you have Gajakesari yogam, no one can touch you. You hardly expected Arizona would turn out to be such a great change in your life or our lives. That's what is meant by 'Good time' by Astrologers, all planets in the most favorable position. As Paati used to tell you, your horoscope was cast by famous Desikachari and he can't go wrong. Yes, you're made of that 'kingly' material and this's the starting of your good time, better time is ahead. Now I'm sure, you believe in your powerful horoscope. Horoscopes won't lie. On Sundays, when I go to that Custom officer's house to receive your call, they keep praising you and say that I'm so lucky to have a son like you. I know that, Madhavan .
It's my 'Poorva janma sugrutham.' Keep praying to Paati's idol, Ganesha. He'll be with you always, guiding you. Harini shows no interest in studies or in music. Once you get a good position, we can get a good alliance for her. Thank God, she's good looking, so won't be difficult to get a suitable boy, provided we give 'Seeru.' PS :I'm so happy that your friends like your cooking and your dosas were a great success. Any doubts regarding cooking, ask me. With Blessings, Amma. Amma's letters were pure joy for Madhavan. He was relieved to know that though she missed him, time had abated her agony of separation from him considerably; just like he had got over his terrible home sickness. Anyway, when he wrote to her, he felt her presence. He could not talk to her freely on Sundays, as he always had the nagging thought that she was talking from her neighbor's phone. So, he talked only for about 5 minutes or at the most 10 minutes, but wrote very big, detailed letters. Madhavan describe his University, Professors, classmates, Arizona's climate, supermarkets, big malls, his collection of a good wardrobe from Macy's genuine sale. Madhavan knew Amma was always right and as she mentioned correctly, his coming to Arizona was a turning point in his life, the most important change being, the restoration of his self-respect. Years of humiliation had made him feel that he was inferior, almost a subhuman being. But right from the very first day of his arrival, Cheenu, who first received him at the Phoenix airport, then Mac, later Sathish and Mathews made him feel that he was one among them. Without their conscious effort or knowledge, those boys with their genuine appreciation and compliments restored the self-respect drained out of him, during his life in Chennai. Days slipped into weeks, weeks into the months, and in his first semester, his grade was commendable.
A happy Madhavan wanted to give the good news directly to his Appa and so called his Appa's College to talk to Dr. Ranganathan. When Ranganathan got the news, he was so happy that he went around telling everyone the great news. Everyone was happy except Somasundaram., who was burning with plain jealousy. To celebrate the success of Madhavan, Dr. Ranganathan, for a change, became generous and bore not only the expenses of coffee and snacks for the staff meeting, but also distributed special sweets (expensive, export quality halwa from Grand sweets). It was a thrilling moment, when Dr. Satyapalan, their principal congratulated him in the meeting, to have a great son like Madhavan. Letters flew back and forth from Vasumathi to Madhavan and Madhavan to Vasumathi. Madhavan wrote everything, how he had improved his health, put on about nine kilos, how he had equipped himself with Denim jeans, T-shirts, Bermudas etc., how they all had gone to Grand Canyon one weekend in a hired car, how he had got his driving license etc. He even included the pictures taken on their Grand Canyon visit. Madhavan kept on praising Mac in all his letters, what a great friend he was and how Madhavan , who had no exposure so far was influenced by such a good friend. But he did not dare tell his Amma, how Mac introduced egg-eating into his life!! One morning, Madhavan happened to observe Mac taking his usual half boiled egg. First, Mac very gently tapped the tip of the egg on the dining table and made a small crack and then with the narrow end of the fork made the crack big enough to stir the inside. When Mac stirred very gently, the golden yellow liquid merged into the semi solid white, then he stretched his neck slightly and poured the contents to his mouth. Madhavan watched the yellow fluid slide down his throat. Watching Mac swallowing it with a satisfactory smile, Madhavan imagined that taking a half-boiled egg like that, should be one of the most delightful experiences in life. When Mac saw Madhavan watching him with his large, scrutinizing eyes, he laughed and said,"Madhavan , want to try a half boiled egg? Very good for health, these are cholesterol free eggs…makes you real fit…better than going to Gym every day” Then Mac showed his muscles and imitating the TV advertisement said, “ I’m a half boiled egg man".
Madhavan was tempted and Mac was only too willing to get the egg ready for Madhavan. Then, Madhavan followed Mac's instructions and tasted his first egg and liked it immensely. From then on, Madhavan never failed to have his egg in the morning. In the beginning, he was slightly guilty that he was doing something which his Amma would not approve of, but then he also knew that he had to do things to satisfy himself. He had already tried 'Bloody Mary', beer, white wine etc. That was, of course, a part of growing up, which Amma should not mind. Even his Appa, who firmly believed that sporting a moustache was a non-Brahmin trait, did not make any adverse comment, after seeing Madhavan 's pictures with a moustache. In fact, Appa's occasional letters with quotations from 'Thiru kural' to 'Hamlet', praised Madhavan to skies, for his remarkable achievements. Madhavan was embarrassed that, in his letters, Appa already elevated him to the rank of geniuses in the family, Dr. Rangachari, and Dr.lyengar. So, he knew, that whatever he did, would be approved by his proud parents. Afterall, changes were an integral part of one's life. Arizona did change Madhavan and he was happy about it. When he looked at the mirror, he knew his yellowish complexion which earned him the name 'yellow papaya' gave way to a healthy fair complexion with almost a pink tinge, his moustache changed his effeminate look to a more masculine look and the added kilos of weight gave him a real macho look. He looked confident and happy. But he still found it difficult to converse in English fluently and had to watch American movies with subtitles. So, secretly he made it a point to make a scrap book with difficult or oft repeated words and phrases. Soon, his book was filled with words and phrases like “Jeopardize, you’re kidding, you know what I mean, scheduled, defuse, resolve, wake up and smell the coffee, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transvestites, homophobia, pedophile, incest, cliff hanger situation' etc.
Madhavan had to admit, that most of the words relating to sex, were revelations to him. It was from TV shows and Mac, he came to know the meaning of gay, lesbian, transvestites, bisexual. pedophile, incest etc. It was interesting, how a casual remark of Madhavan , led to some of the most important information on sex for Madhavan. Mac used to envy Madhavan 's 6 to 7 page letters from his Amma twice a month with unfailing regularity. Mathews too got regular letters from his childhood sweetheart Lilly, who was from Vijayawada. Mathews knew that there would be great opposition from his middleclass parents, who were counting on him to bring a fat dowry, once he got his MS. But that did not discourage Mathews or Lilly, who were determined to get married, after Mathews settled down with a job. Mac somehow thought, it was absurd that the love started at Second standard level, blossoming into a mature love like Mathews'. So, he was only puzzled, when Mathews got thick letters from his childhood sweetheart But Madhavan 's getting letters from his mother twice a month, that too, such big letters full of news, in spite of her busy routine, was, simply admirable to Mac. Madhavan used to share all the news with Mac. So, after a year, Mac knew all about Madhavan 's family, Appa, Amma, Captain Raghavan and his family, Paati, Madhavan 's Appa's sister, who was somewhere in the States etc. So, one day when Madhavan got Amma's letter, he told Mac that, his Amma had written about his Appa's cousin Veeraraghavan's daughter Suganya, a pretty doctor, who was married to another Doctor, passed her United States Medical Licensing Exam and was coming to the States, for attending interviews in many hospitals including The Veteran Hospital in Phoenix. Amma wanted to know, whether Madhavan needed anything from Chennai. She also wanted to know, whether he could spare some dollars as Suganya might not have enough dollars to meet all her expenses, flight, accommodation etc in different parts of the States., where she had to go for interview. Suganya's father was willing to give rupees in exchange of the dollars to Dr Ranganathan. Madhavan was happy that, he could give about 2000 dollars and that transaction was good enough to get phone connection and a second hand Maruti car. While discussing Suganya's arrival, Mac said “Madhavan , if your cousin makes it in the interview, which I'm sure she will, she would be real lucky. You know, doctors mint money here. Once the Residency is over, sky's the limit. I know one Dr. Murali Krishna a Malayalee doctor in Los Angeles. I've been to his house too, awesome with swimming pool, garden etc. What about your cousin's husband, did n't he write the Exam?’
Madhavan replied, “I don't think so, actually she wants to get away from Chennai, where people are very nosey. She was separated from her husband, so she lives with her four-year-old son in her parents' house. They are not legally divorced; both are MDs and work in different hospitals. Both are not interested in divorce, for all family functions and parties, they go together and pretend they are the happiest couple going around; only relatives and very close friends know about their living separately". Madhavan paused and said,” This is the real mystery, her husband is very good looking, they look like a made for each other couple. I attended their wedding and reception in Taj. Even their engagement was very grand, actually the boy was her senior .There must be a reason, Madhavan , after all, they're medical students, the girl must have been in love with someone else, may be someone not her caste and was pressurized to marry this man or he was in love with someone, his parents did not approve of and was forced to marry the girl of their choice; you know these parents, they could be awful, could emotionally blackmail their children and make them dance to their tune. I know many parents, who ruin their children's happiness, really, no excuse for them" Mac nodded disapprovingly, "Wonder how they could do that..disgusting" Mac concluded, throwing up his hands in despair. “No, Mac, l know for sure that, it was not the parents' mistake" ,Madhavan said vehemently. “Actually, Sudarshan was in his final year MD, when the proposal came to Suganya's parents. She just finished her MBBS. I told you, she was very charming, though not very rich like Sudarshan. He was the only child of a very rich businessman. Their horoscopes too matched, after a formal bride seeing, both the parties agreed to conduct the marriage after Sudarshan’s MD Exam was over. Meanwhile they agreed to have a betrothal. I remember, even that was like a mini marriage, in a famous Kalyana Mandapmn and many were invited, even my parents went. But it seems, days before the betrothal, Suganya's father got an anonymous letter that, he was making a terrible mistake in getting his daughter married to Sudarshan, a shady character. Suganya's family, including Suganya, chose to ignore the letter as the foolish prank of some jealous or disappointed classmate of Suganya or Sudarshan. After all, Sudarshan was charismatic and had many fans, as he was a good singer, was in the Medical College Quiz team etc. Later, Suganya's father started getting phone calls almost daily, pleading him to stop the betrothal" Madhavan paused. Mac said impatiently, "Then what happened, come on Madhavan , quite interesting, like a Hindi film”. Madhavan , was amazed at his own capacity to narrate such events, 'Sure, I’ve come a long way from my 'Silent boy" image of Besant nagar days', thought Madhavan. Clearing his throat, he continued dramatically, quite pleased with his newly acquired narrative skill, Then, on the betrothal day, early morning, when the beautician was busy patterning the bride's hands and feet with delicate traceries of henna, the doorbell rang and who do you think came? A uniformed chauffeur, he insisted on Suganya's father accompanying him to the parked car, to meet his boss, who had an urgent message for him. Though hesitant, he followed" Madhavan paused for a second, raised his voice for dramatic effect. "Mac, now listen carefully, here's the climax, who do you think was inside the car? Dr. Sudarshan, his son in law to be. The poor guy, confided in him that it was he, who wrote the anonymous letter and talked over the phone, to dissuade him from this marriage. He said, he could not stop his enthusiastic parents and only Suganya's father could save him from this disastrous marriage. But the first thing Suganya's father did, was to inform Sudarshan’s father of his son's mysterious behavior. His father then gave a firm 'go ahead’ signal, assuring that his son would jolly well obey his parents and marry Suganya. So, they got married. After a year, Suganya came home for delivery but after the baby's birth, refused to go back to her husband's place, continued her studies and got through MD, now almost 5 years passed, they live separately, though they go together for all parties, marriages etc. No explanations are offered by either Suganya or her husband; they do not want divorce either, strange is n't it? Another unsolved mystery" Madhavan concluded with a deep sigh. Mac thought for a while and said,'This guy did not have an affair or girlfriend all these years? “No, no, he's a gentleman, won't look at a girl” Come on Madhavan , that's not the sign of a gentleman, something seriously wrong with that guy. I mean, at least as long as he's in India, poor fellow, he should've been left alone, he must be gay” “No, no, he's a six footer, quite athletic, a real he-man, I told you, I met him for the marriage, he just can't be gay” Madhavan , who thought he knew all about Gay and Lesbians from the TV reports on their conferences, pictures of their procession in San Francisco etc, said vehemently. Don’t be so naive Madhavan , you think gay men are short, small built, sissy types with limp wrists and act like women, oh, no, they could look like the most macho men, trust me. In India everything related to sex is pushed under the carpet. Really sad, this guy is a doctor, still did n't have the courage to face facts. Back home, parents are only interested in seeing their children settled, S-E-T-T-L-E-D means of course “married”. Our society doesn't approve of homosexuals, you see, so to keep the honor and respect intact, some homosexuals marry but continue their double lives; some others like this Doctor, are forced by their parents to marry, the problem is, some could go on successfully with their double lives, some others like this doctor, could not and so they live separately, Wish at least that Suganya's father could be more sympathetic, what to do, he had to look after his interests, his daughter's future' Mac laughed, "So, now the girl wants to be a Doc in the States? Good, she can save both the families' honor, respect and a lot of money too. Anyway, I'm happy, she can bring your Amma's masala, hope she gets the chance here, she really needs a break “That night, Madhavan could not sleep well, his tired brain conjured up a number of miserable pictures, picture of a pathetic Dr. Sudarshan pleading with Suganya's father, a handsome Doctor in Sherwani with his beautiful bride in glittering brocade in the Banquet hall of Taj, now Suganya minus all her charms and a 4 year old son trying to migrate to the States etc. Still, he pitied Dr. Sudarshan more, if only he had an understanding mother like his Amma, he would n't have been forced into a marriage like that. Madhavan was thankful that, he had his Amma, like a tower of strength. He knew, he could always fall back on her. She would always understand him, love him, accept him for what he was. What a comforting thought, once his parents get the phone, he could call her more often and chat with her. Deliberately he brought his mind into a picture of his beaming Amma's going in a white Maruti car to Tambaram, to his brother's place to visit Paati. He imagined Amma's and Paati's eyes gleaming with pride, while Paati examining the Maruti in Raghavan Mamas's porch, bought with Madhavan 's earning. He always wanted his Amma to have all the luxuries which that Radha aunty had. Car was only the beginning, Madhavan smiled at the happy thought and slowly closed his eyes to a dreamless sleep.