14 September 2010

Bala takes the plunge by Melvin Durai

Who says Indians have no sense of humour!
The last time I laughed aloud so many times while reading a book was about 15 years ago, with Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island.

Bala’s ambition was to direct Tamil movies. When he became famous, he would be awarded an OBE by the Queen. This would make him better than all his friends who were ordinary BEs, having mastered great literature of the nature of Thermodynamics Made Easy, Engineering Graphics Made Easy, Calculus Made Easy – and so on.

And Bala wondered why Appa had become a civil engineer. There was nothing remotely civil about him. If he made a film about Appa (who had once evocatively expounded: “I’m telling you, da, happiness can’t buy money”), he would have to call it The Uncivil Engineer.
But of course Bala became an engineer himself and then went off to America with an H1 – for Happy One – visa, following a path carved out by many before him, and this book is about his life there and the adventures he had while trying to find a suitable bride.
So it’s not just Indian families and aspirations that this book puts under a humorous spotlight, but also American lifestyle, culture and world-awareness, and usually all of these at the same time:

“Got any of his movies, Bala?” John asked. “I’d love to see one.”

“I’m sure Sanjay’s Rice and Spice Shop has about five hundred, John. I have a few Tamil movies, that’s all.”
“Tamil? What country is that?”
Linda shook her head. “You’re so clueless about the world, aren’t you, John? Tamil isn’t a country. It’s a religion. Just like Hindi.”
“Whom do Tamils worship?”
“We worship Rajnikanth. He’s an actor.”
“Really?” Linda asked. “Is he as cute as Share Rook Can?”

And Bala, trying to learn new ways and meet the right young women decided to join the Harrisburg Area Bikers Club. He shopped around for a good bike and got lucky on his fifth stop, finding one for only $60 at a yard sale. Bargaining the price down to $45 he realised that, though he hadn’t bought any tall buildings or casinos, he possessed the type of negotiating skills Donald Trump would envy.
At the Sociable Fun Ride, Bala managed to race out a pregnant woman but comes out behind a middle aged man who, he later realised, is wearing not just a knee brace – but an artificial leg coming out of it.
He looked at the man’s bike to make sure it didn’t have a motor of some sort. Perhaps it was jet-propelled. But everything looked normal, even the pedals. He felt like screaming at the man: “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know that you’re supposed to be disabled? It was crazy what many disabled people were doing these days – accomplishing so much in their lives and making able-bodied people look like total bums. Some were simply amazing. Bala had heard of a blind woman who had learned to play golf, a paraplegic woman who had learned to skydive, and a New York cabdriver with no hands who had learned to show other drivers his middle toe.

Then, hearing that President George W. Bush had a cat named India, Bala decided to name his dog America. It was a good way to honour his new country and confuse people all at the same time. When his neighbour Mr. Cherian complained about the dog’s incessant barking, Bala said, “What do you expect? This is America, not India.” When his neighbour on the other side, Mrs. Bunch, complained that a ripe tomato was missing from her garden and wondered where it had gone, Bala shook his head and said, “Only in America. Only in America.”

Flipping through this book looking for more funny bits, I can see that it’s carpeted with them and it’s hard to pick. Get the book and read it, and meanwhile, here is one of Melvin Durai's "humor" columns to keep you going.
There was one thing I did not care for about the book, though, and that was the cover design, which I found confusing. I got even more confused when I saw the other designs Kedarnath Gupta had offered which I thought were much better.

Finally I must say that I leaped into the story, as always, without reading any blurbs or supplementary text on the cover or about the author so it was only later that I realized that Melvin Durai, though he’s done India, Indians and Indian Americans perfectly in this book, actually grew up in Zambia, studied and worked in the USA and now lives, alas, in Canada.
Go ahead and make them laugh in Canada, Melvin – but do try and send us some scraps now and again …

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