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  Vol II : issue 4

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  Arun Kolatkar
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  Victor Rangel-Ribeiro
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Illustration by
ARNAB RAY GHATAK

Victor Rangel-Ribeiro

37-39 75th Street

Jackson Heights, NY 11372

January 5, 1989

My dear Mukund,

Since you probably received quite a lengthy note from me last week, as well as the money that we cabled to you, this second typewritten letter, following so closely after, may well come as a surprise. Well, blame it on your mother and your grandmother. Both ladies are now enforcing their "eleventh commandment" with a vengeance. "Keep in touch," old Mataji admonishes me, at odd hours of the day and night. "We must keep in touch!" She first started her campaign when you left for Paris and the Sorbonne last spring, and I soon realized she must be using the royal "we". In all the months since then, I’ve been the one who’s been keeping in touch, writing to you regularly, while all Granny’s been doing is — ahem! — reminding me.

Your mother has also been leaving the writing to me, but apparently she has developed her own unique system of communication. This morning at breakfast she had her head in her hands, and I said, "Having a headache, dear?" And she said, "No, I’m having an omelette." Ha, ha! Not to be disrespectful of your mother, but there’s one funny woman for you, because she had absolutely nothing on her plate. Then she explained that she was sending out a powerful telepathic message.

And I said, "To whom are you sending your omelette message?" And she said, "To Mukund, of course." I said, "A telepathic message, across three thousand miles of waveridden, windswept Atlantic? It better be powerful! What’s the message?" And she said, "It’s powerful because I’m visualising it, and since he’s our son, he’ll get it. I’m reminding him to eat a good breakfast, so I’m visualising him eating an omelette."

I tried to explain to her that at the time she was transmitting the message you were probably just finishing lunch, what with the six-hour time difference between Flushing Meadow Park and the Bois de Boulogne. Your mother’s answer was, "He’ll get it at the appropriate time." Anyway, she said, omelettes at lunch are the in thing in Paris, and always have been. You could have an omelette chasseur, she said, or an omelette herbes fines, or —

"I hope you’ve been visualising just one type," I said, "you wouldn’t want to get our boy all confused, or have him eating too many omelettes at one time."

"Mukund has eaten his already," she said. "I can sense it. I myself am feeling quite full." She said it with so much conviction, I felt she actually saw you reaching for your napkin.

Now for a bit of family news. Our Aunt Usha has been visiting us a great deal lately, partly because her younger brother finally decided to immigrate and is living with her. She claims your Uncle Prabhu is at one and the same time intensely lonely and increasingly horny. She put it in rather more delicate terms, of course.

Aunt Usha and your mother and Mataji also became quite concerned when months passed without our hearing from you. To tell you the truth, so did I. That must have been some terrible trauma you endured in not being able to write to us until your funds ran out at Christmas, and all because your typewriter element was missing two crucial characters. Ordinarily — that is to say, with most American families who have a teenager away from home and in college in a distant country — such a lack of communication would be taken for granted and glossed over lightly; but remember, son, we come from a different culture altogether. Your mother, she worries, and to a lesser extent, so do I.

But Aunt Usha worried the most. She in particular got it into her head that you have fallen prey to some wily Parisienne. ‘Chit of a vixen’ is the term she used. She reminded us that Uncle Prabhu too, when he was young, had wanted to study at the Sorbonne, but their parents had vetoed the idea because too many of our young men who left India to study overseas were falling into the clutches of foreign women. She said, not only did our fellows marry them, but they then became nonveg. She wasn’t sure which was worse, being married to a foreign woman, or the smell that she claims emanates from being nonveg. Your Uncle Prabhu, on the other hand, took quite a different tack. He hoped you were sowing your wildest oats, adding — I thought rather wistfully — that he would give all his remaining teeth to be in your shoes. Since he hasn’t too many left to give, you can see he is certainly young at heart.

Not unreasonably, now that we’ve wired you the money, your mother’s new fear is that we will once again have to endure a prolonged silence from your side. Perhaps she did not entirely buy your ‘malfunctioning typewriter element’ story. Neither did Mataji. It was then that I led your grandmother gently to my own machine and showed her how rapidly that little ball spins round and round as I type, and I told her that it is so very fragile, the least thing can damage it. That was a mistake, because immediately she wanted to look at it up close. "Such a wonderful thing it is," she cooed, "can I hold it? With my cataracts, I can’t see it that far away." Naturally, I took it off the machine and let her hold it. "This is very, very light!" she said, tossing it up in the air, and the next thing I knew she had missed catching it and the ball had dropped to the floor. Fortunately, it fell on the rug. At first, I wondered whether she had done it on purpose to cast doubt on your excuse, but her hands do tremble a great deal now.

When I picked the element off the floor I could see it had developed a hairline crack at the base. At that moment, I wished I had been a genuine one-hundred-percent native-born red-blooded American, capable of yelling at one’s elders, of shouting freely even at revered elderly relatives. But you know how it is with us. No doubt forbearance takes its toll, psychologically speaking, in terms of suppressed anger and such, but if you are really unaware of it there is no real damage. How many of us Indians have to visit psychoanalysts, do you think? None that I know of.

Still, it is surprising, isn’t it, that you and I, living as we are in a swiftly changing technological age, stubbornly cling to what is now considered antiquated gadgetry. Computers are everywhere, but you and I still place ourselves at the mercy of a bouncing ball of lightweight pseudo-metal that was once at the "cutting edge", and now, alas, cannot even be readily replaced. Sentimentality, son, may be at the root of this; think how easily we cry!

That much being said, the fact remains: the crack in my typewriter element is real, and there is the chance that it too may soon self-destruct, as yours did. It is therefore with a deep sense of urgency that I will now wrap up this letter with some practical suggestions.

Follow this closely, Mukund, and you will see how a little ingenuity plus some circumlocution can make it possible for you to bypass even so grave a problem as a mindless, malfunctioning, metal ball. Consider: the first of your two missing characters, an important consonant, can be either an aspirate or nearly silent. It can therefore be omitted Cockney-fashion, as in the sentence:

A ouse is not a ome.

In a case where an aspirate is absolutely indispensable, owever, or where our missing character alters the sound of the preceding consonants, you can easily replace it with a symbol universally recognised as aving value: you guessed it —t$e ‘$’! "A$a!" you cry, and wonder, w$y didn’t you yourself t$ink of t$at?

Now that we’ve coped wit$ a missing aitc$, let us turn our attention to your second missing character. Anybody p$amiliar wit$ t$e vagaries of t$e Englis$ language s$ould know t$at t$e best possible substitute p$or t$at second missing letter is — you guessed it again —the combination p$! Don’t laug$ (lap$?). T$is is not at all p$ar-p$etc$ed: t$ink ow one spells t$e very proper Englis$ words ‘p$ilosop$er’, ‘p$osp$orus’, and ‘p$otograp$’!

T$erep$ore I ope t$at in p$uture you will no longer be p$azed by such simple problems, but will cope wit$ t$em wit$ t$e necessary sang-p$roid. (Ow appropriate t$at p$rase is, in @ p@rent@l epistle going to P$r@nce!)

E$eu! You must g@t$er from t$is t$@t my own m@c$ine just lost its lower-c@se @. It p$ollows, @s surely @s nig$t p$ollows d@y, t$@t it will soon lose t$e upper c@se @ @s well. #l@s! Now t$@t w@s @ selp$-p$ulp$illing prop$esy ip$ ev+r t$+r+ w@s on+!

M@y I point out, b+p$or+ w+ quit+ run out op$ l+tt+rs, w+ $@v+ @lr+@dy d+vis+d two (@nd ind++d t$r++) ing+nious w@ys op$ sp+lling "op$": t$+ r+gul@r w@y, i.+., "op$", p$ollow+d by "op$p$", @nd @lso by "oug$". ("Oug$p$", w$il+ @dmissibl+, w+ will dismiss @s b+ing @ltog+t$+r too p+d@ntic.)

My own *ncl*n@t*on *s to us+ t$+ d*p$p$+r+nt sp+ll*ngs to r+pr+s+nt d*p$p$+rnt m+@n*ngs, @s *n t$+ s+nt+nc+:

Op$ cours+ t$+ t@nk+r w@s oup$g$ cours+.

T$*s solut*on *s not to b+ l*g$tly scop$p$+d @t. S{ , w$@t+v+r @pp+ns, d{ w^*t+ @g@*n. K++p *n t{ uc$, s{ n, k++= *n t{ u} $!

W*t$ @ll { u^ l{ v+,

D@d @nd !{ !

 

 

Victor Rangel-Ribeiro has been literary editor of The Illustrated Weekly and
music director
of the Beethoven Society, New York. His honours from a
varied career include the Milkweed Prize for fiction for his first novel,
Tivolem.
He writes in English and lives in New York