On the phone from Cuba, I never really lack for conversation material with my father in India. The problem is the opposite, actually: condensing our chats into an affordable number of minutes. A few years ago the situation was untenable. I was paying over $4 a minute for calls to India. Fortunately, the national phone company, ETECSA, saw fit to lower its rates to around $2.50 per minute. This is hardly much more affordable but all the responsibility for communication is on me. For some strange reason none of the calls my aging father tries placing to me from his Kerala home get through.
When we speak the connection is almost always crystal clear. In fact, it is better than when I phone Trivandrum from the United States. Nonetheless, it is hard to stay focused when your consciousness ping-pongs between a Malayali courtyard and the passage way of a Havana apartment building. Satellitized small talk with dad flits over a symphony of ambient local sounds. Like a schizophrenic whose inner voices speak different languages, I struggle to locate myself in the cultural crossfire.
Dad: And-uh, I have been attending classes on Veda.
Me: Yeah, that’s right. You mentioned that last time. It seems it’s quite interesting, illaiya (isn’t that so)?
Dad: And-uh, yes that’s right. You know we have been studying a section on Lakshmi. You know who is Lakshmi, right?
(Since my father returned to India fifteen years ago after thirty years in the United States he often construes me as a Westerner and forgets that my knowledge of Hindu mythology is quite solid.)
Me: Yes, dad. I know who Goddess Lakshmi is.
Dad: Well, and-uh, so there is a new concept, meaning a new concept for me, that I had not heard of, which is also given there in Veda. There are sections which speak of Alakshmi.
(A reggaeton anthem, ubiquitous in this city at any hour, invades suddenly from a neighbor’s speakers. They have already played it three times this morning. The song is composed of a single line which a chorus of deep men’s voices repeats for ten minutes. The metaphors are so obvious that they make no sense.)
Me: Oh, yeah! The opposite of Lakshmi. Now that is interesting.
Dad: Yes, in these sections in Veda it says how the people must ask Alakshmi to go.
Speakers: YO SOY UNA GUAGUA…CUIDADO QUE TE COGEN LAS JIMAGUAS! (I am a bus…Be careful the twins might get you!)
Dad: There are sections for rituals to ask Lakshmi to come home. When people are desiring wealth, they must do these rituals to ask her to come into the house. So many mantras are given for invoking Lakshmi.
Speakers: ACEITE…AGUA…YO SOY UNA GUAGUA…CUIDADO QUE TE COGEN LAS JIMAGUAS!
Dad: But they must also request Alakshmi to leave.
Me: So, one must think about the two, asking Lakshmi to come but she comes only if the other one leaves? They are like oil and water?
Dad: And-uh, yes, that is how it is given in Veda. It’s quite interesting. You know, I never knew this about these rituals for Alakshmi.
Me: Well, also don’t they say that…
(A passing neighbor pauses at the closed gate just a meter from the open door to the apartment where I am seated speaking on the phone.)
Neighbor 1 (with the enthusiasm of a close friend): Compañera! Que volao? (Girlfriend! What’s up?)
Me (without moving my head from the phone): Todo bien, todo bien. Todo bajo control. (Everything’s fine, everything’s fine. Everything under control.)
Neighbor 1 (without noticing that I am on the phone): Y Ale? (And Ale?)
(“Ale” refers to the Cuban boyfriend who is sitting out of sight in the adjacent room).
Me (without moving my head from the phone): Está trabajando. (He’s working).
Neighbor 1 (moving away from the gate and continuing on his way): Ese es bueno, ese es bueno. Hay que trabajar en la vida. (That’s good, that’s good. One has to work in life.)
Speakers: CUIDADO QUE TE COGEN LAS JIMAGUAS!
Dad: What did you say?
Me: Dad, that was a neighbor who came to the door.
Dad: Oh, don’t get me started about that! Yesterday…yesterday here, how many people came! All day long people were coming. I kept on wondering, “Do these people have no work to do?” And you know, Chechi was not well and was taking rest. I had to attend to all these visitors and their nonsense conversations. Two parties came with wedding invitations! But be that as it may, now it is raining. Until two days back it was hot. But now it is raining.
Me: Uh huh. Here it has not rained and it is very hot. Like August already. Terrible water problem of drought.
Dad: And-uh, be that as it may, you know a new hotel had opened here in Srivaraham. In the beginning they had nice chapathi and curry. And I told Ayi that you wait and see, it will be ruined by the Nair caste community here because everything they want with high doses of karam. And sure enough after a few weeks, everything was so chillied.
Me: Uh huh.
(The Cuban boyfriend abandons his post lying on the couch watching television in the other room and navigates his familiar route to the refrigerator. He opens the door and looks blankly inside. I am watching from the corner of my eye to see if he performs in his predictable manner. He does. He waves one hand back and forth to catch my attention, unaware that his mere appearance while I am on the phone is annoying enough for him to already have it. He then begins an elaborate sequence of hand gestures. He points at the rice on the counter, points at the pot where the rice is usually cooked, points at the stove, at his watch, at himself, joins all five fingers to touch and raises the hand towards his mouth, and then finishes the display by lowering the hand and stretching all the fingers outwards in a crude imitation of the South Indian dance mudra which indicates the asking of a question.)
Dad: Now to cut a long story short, now the hotel is closed. (Laughs.) In spite of the chillies. (Coughs.) On inquiry I found that the landlord – it is a very globalized social reality here actually – who gave the shop, the facility, he was asking too much rent, milking them like anything from his home in Dubai. (Laughs). They could ill afford so they had no choice to close. The Nair community is in despair because at their will it was karam. But now the owner raised the vadakai. It was a pure economic equation, and they didn’t want the Nair community to get the benefit when they are running on a loss. So these are how the ups and downs of global, liberal market economy are incarnating here in our socialist paradise of Kerala! (Laughs).
(The Cuban boyfriend continues to hover, threatening to repeat his choreography. I turn my face fully towards him, slowly and deliberately raise an index finger at the phone receiver and then turn my face back towards the mouthpiece. For added emphasis, I swivel from where I am seated on the floor at the entrance to fully face the open door. The sensors at the back of my head detect his bristled impatience as he wanders back to the sofa and television in the other room.)
Speakers: YO SOY UNA GUAGUA! CUIDADO QUE TE COGEN LAS JIMAGUAS!
Me: Uh huh, yeah. The complexities of caste culinary politics in a global world! Ha!
(A neighbor walks quickly down the passage way but graciously does not stop.)
Neighbor 2: Buenos dias, mi chinita bonita! (Good morning, my pretty little China girl!)
(I am the “pretty little China girl.” Occasionally I receive this misnomer here in Cuba. I am told it signals affection.)
Me: Hola! (Hello!)
Dad: Hey! I heard you say, “Hola!” That means, “hello,” right? Hola, como estás? (Hello, how are you?)
Me: That’s right, dad.
Dad: See, I know some words there. Like “taco” and “enchilada,” right? Hola, como estás? Bien, Gracias! (Hello, how are you? Fine, thanks!).
Me: Well, that’s actually Mexican food, dad. Remember? They don’t eat that here.
Dad: Oh, I see. Then what do they eat?
Me: But you know, dad I was thinking about those restaurant owners. Maybe you should tell them that they needed to get rid of Alakshmi before asking Lakshmi to come.
Dad: (Laughs). Yes! (Laughs). Yes! They should have focused on the proper mantras rather than all this chili frying! (Laughs).
Shanti: In fact, I think I might suggest that around here. Observing Vedic rituals for Alakshmi as key to economic reform and prosperity.
Dad: (Laughs). Yes, but I think many deities will need to be propitiated! (Laughs). But be that as it may…Hey! Hello?? Hello??
Shanti: Amma, inge irukken, dad. (Yes, I’m here, dad).
Dad: What is that noise there? Is that some loudspeaker from some temple?
Speakers: YO SOY UNA GUAGUA! CUIDADO QUE TE COGEN LAS JIMAGUAS!