Posts Tagged ‘Venu’


I came downstairs last Friday afternoon to find Rathnama with Klepto-Bride and her child at the side door talking to Venu, who was outside. They were all whispering.

“What’s up?” I ask.

Rathnama points out the window, and then puts her hand to her throat; I’ve come to know this hand-to-throat gesture generally means that someone is ill.

“Wow, now the neighbor is sick too?”

A nasty virus has moved through all of us in the past couple weeks. Venu and Rathnama have been popping our Tylenol like Pez for the last three days, and I still have a lingering cough that isn’t really digging the Bangalore pollution.

“Neh, neh,” Rathnama points to the ceiling fan.

I’m confused, as usual. Our communication really hasn’t gotten any better over time. Rathnama prattles on in Telugu and I prattle on in English. We act like we each know what the other is saying, but we don’t. I leave her what I think are clear instructions to cook scrambled eggs, come back into the kitchen ten minutes later and see that she has tossed the eggs in the trash. I say, “It is such a beautiful day today,” and she sprays the house with Lysol.

I give her the confused puppy head tilt. She comes to the other side of the table and now wraps her hands around my throat.

“Someone was strangled ?”

“Neh, neh, neh,” she points again at the ceiling fan.

“By a fan ?”

For five months now Phil and I have been trapped inside a marathon charades game. Earlier today I decided to start asking people to draw things to help me understand what they are talking about. Unfortunately the first time I tried it was with Venu, and he categorically refused to participate. It later became clear he was trying to tell me that the dog had diarrhea. I’m still laughing.

Rathnama holds one closed fist above her neck, slightly tilting her head to one side; clearly making the international symbol for:

“The guy who lives next door hanged himself.”


“Holy crap…” I sputter, and hold my fist above my own neck, confirming.

I’m shocked.

“That is so sad,” I wipe away imaginary tears, like mime.

He was a twenty-seven year-old software engineer, part of the new up-and-coming India. This area is full of men who, like him, have left their families and villages to come to the city to work in Bangalore’s burgeoning high-tech industry. This part of the city is being ransacked by developers building gigantic apartment complexes right next to slums: the vacant lot next to our house is being turned into a three-story shopping center, and a sparkly new glass-front “Mommy and Me” department store for expectant mothers is nearly complete now, directly abutting a tiny tent-city where half-clothed children run, play, cry, and beg. But while all this progress is going on, no effort seems to be made to update the city’s infrastructure. The roads are mostly dirt, and sewage runs through the trenches that run beneath the sidewalks, and the sidewalks are indiscernible from the rubble, which is often indiscernible from the shops. The majority of the new apartments already built in South Bangalore stand vacant for miles around.

This sad event painted a cloud over the entire block. We all tried to politely ignore the sobs of his family as they cleared out his possessions the next day. Apparently the sister found a diary that helped explain the situation, as much as anything like this can ever really be explained. This was his fourth and final attempt, so he really must have wanted out.

That evening Venu came to our door requesting our help in finding a new job; the roommates of the departed came too, to translate. It seemed Venu and his family no longer felt comfortable being in their little caretaker’s apartment, knowing the young man took his own life just one floor above them. And being the caretaker of the building, Venu seemed to feel some personal responsibility for the event. We expressed our sympathies to the two shell-shocked roommates, and could see the trauma on their faces. I know that trauma; it’s something you don’t really ever get over.

We agreed to help Venu, and Phil promised to talk to the people at his office the next morning. Three days later, Venu started his new full time job with Adobe’s maintenance department.

My sympathies go out the family and friends of this young man, and this experience confirms what I already know to be true: life is short and precious, and if you can have the grace to appreciate as much of it as you can, it really is worth the ride. And the cloud that still lingers makes me very, very conscious of all we have. These people, Bhaskar, Venu, Rathnama, Harish, Hari, Klepto-Bride and the skinny baby, even Rathnama’s conniving husband; these infuriating and beautiful people who surround us, and the thousands of years of culture I pound my head against every day, have become a family to us, and the swirling chaos of India, a home.


Venu came running up the front steps with a handful of red powder and a wooden stem broken from a stick of incense. He went around to the side of the porch and ran some water from the spigot there into his hand and came right back, looking like he was bleeding from an artery, speaking at me in rapid-fire Telugu and pointing frenetically at my forehead with the stick.

This could only mean one thing: it’s time for a makeover !!

He dipped the stick into the thick red goop in his hand; then deftly pressed it to my forehead and removed it again in a single motion, leaving behind this perfectly vertical red mark.

The red stuff is a powder called kumkum, but Venu and his family call it “kumkuma” as they speak Telugu. These marks are, as I understand it, primarily a Hindu custom, and it originated long long ago with blood sacrifices. As messy animal sacrifices became less fashionable, the powdered kumkum eventually took its place; serving the same wide variety of purposes, but without making so much noise. The velvet adhesive dots of various colors and the jewelesque adhesive Bindis are also descended from the same origins. Anyway, these particular kumkum marks indicate to which of the many manifestations of the Hindu goddess you are devoted; in the case of this single vertical line, I think it indicates devotion to Shakti and/or Lakshmi. And though this is a primarily Hindu thing, forehead decoration in general here is for anyone to enjoy.

Your Cheatin’ Help

I’ve never looked into someone’s eyes and unabashedly said, “You are lying to me,” unless I was sleeping with them and they were sleeping with someone else, or I suspected they were.

Venu, the guy we inherited to clean the pool and feed the dog, is a tricky one. He is small and delicate, with green eyes and a smile that would, somewhere else in the world, get him anything he wanted; and right now he wants 300 rupees. Around six bucks. But instead of just asking for a loan, or a gift, he has made up an elaborate story about buying milk for the dog while we were out of town last month.

“Venu says ma’am owes him 300 rupees,” Bhaskar translates.

I laugh. It is true that we often feed the dog yogurt, for his digestive problems. Yesterday, I accidentally fed the dog milk, thinking it was yogurt, and he spent the morning throwing up all over the lawn. “Kaiser doesn’t drink milk,” I say, “it makes him…” and I act out throwing up because my translator is an unreliable resource.

Bhaskar pretends to speak and understand English as well as the next Indian, but yesterday when he answered the question, “What is this neighborhood called ?” with the words, “Yes ma’am, we’ll go on the weekend,” I became concerned that his daily translations of more important matters might be causing more problems than they are solving.

“How much did he spend ?” I ask.

“300 rupees.”

“Okay, let’s see: one bag of milk costs about twenty rupees, right ? That’s fifteen pints of milk, and we were gone for maybe five days. So that means Venu fed Kaiser one pint of milk, which by the way, makes him VOMIT, three times a day, for five days, and that adds up to – he’s LYING.”

I lost both of them a long time ago and I know it, but I take advantage of the fact that they can’t keep up with me, and just blow off steam. I want to let them both know that I am not just the nice white lady who kisses babies and gives out money – I am also the crazy white lady who has lived in India for long enough to know when she’s being taken advantage of.

“Why is Venu lying to me ?” I ask.

“He is telling lies, ma’am,” Bhaskar shrugs.

Venu stands there trying hard to look innocent. He sticks to his story: “Three hundred rupees. Mil-ik. Kaisher.”

I stick to mine: “You. Lying.”

I douse Venu with badly translated logic; he wobbles his head and chatters emphatically to Bhaskar, who chatters back with words that sound like Count Dracula with a stammer: “Blah blah, blah…” I have no idea what is transpiring between them, and at this point Bhaskar’s explanations are of little help.

“Venu says he tell sir of the necessity to purchase mil-ik for Kaisher.”

It takes a few seconds for the meaning of this sentence to sink in. “I need to talk to sir for a minute,” I say and go upstairs to the air-conditioned cave Phil calls home.

“Did Venu tell you of the necessity to purchase mil-ik for Kaisher ?” I ask. Phil is in his signature position, half sitting, half lying down on the bed, his head and shoulders nestled into pillows with a computer on his lap. He looks over the screen and wobbles his head, “Maybe. Maybe not. I’ve never actually understood a word he’s said.”

“You are no help.”

“I’m beddy beddy sorry, ma’am,” Phil chuckles, and goes back to pimping our blog.

I’m torn. I hate being taken advantage of, I also hate the idea of having an unhappy employee who has access to our house and everything in it.

The owners of the house, from whom we inherited this drama, had warned us not to let Venu’s wife into the house, as things tend to disappear in her presence, a rumor which has earned her the name, “Klepto-bride”. Also, last month Venu’s brother, Hari, disappeared with three thousand rupees the maid had given him to deliver to her daughter in their native village. He never arrived, and hasn’t dared show his face back around here.

Apparently the family isn’t as concerned about their karma as their red dotted foreheads imply and the locks on all the cupboards and drawers in the house are starting to make more sense.

I go downstairs; Venu and Bhaskar are still standing in the dining room. I really have no idea where to go from here, so I say the same thing I said to the last cheating bastard who lied to me: “I really don’t want to deal with this right now,” and I walk away.

A nation of over a billion people, and half of them are in my kitchen.

Before we arrived a little more than a month ago, I heard over and over again that there is no such thing as privacy in India. I am a social creature by nature but I’m easily exhausted by humanity.

Turns out, those people were right: there is no such thing as privacy in India. We have Rathnama, our delightful maid/cook who came with the house; her husband, Amitabh; her nephew, Venu; Venu’s adorable baby girl Lakshimi and his adorable baby wife Manisha as well as his brother Tusshar; our driver/nanny/translator Bhaskar; and Shankar who shows up at the house randomly and fixes random things; plus our landlord Satish and his restless five-year old who keep trying to get the pool to stop being green. And these are just the regular players! On any given day, at any given time, you can look up from whatever you are doing and find one or more of these people in your line of sight.

After less than two weeks this parade has come to feel normal. People interact with us and each other with ease, and don’t demand a lot of our attention. There seems to be a built-in respect for humanity, if not space. It might be a function of the necessity for such a large population to get along, or simply the fact that we can barely understand each other; either way the population boom in our lives is surprisingly comfortable.