How Nanni Got he Groove Back

December 14th, 2007

How Nanni got her Groove Back

Akbar’s grandmother is a freaking rockstar. She is my favorite character in his whole family scene. One reason is that she really likes me. She doesn’t care if I can understand her Urdu or not (I have a 25% success rate in conversations with her), she just loves to have me sit next to her and have a chat. She is a very pious woman. She has made the journey to Mecca called Hajj, a considerable feat for a woman of her age. Mecca is considered the holiest place for Muslims. It is mentioned in the Koran as “Al Balad Al Amin”, the Holy Land, The Sacred Land. Centered around the House of Allah (the cuboid structure called Kaaba), it was built by Abraham and his son, and subsequently repaired by Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him- you have to say that) and others. The Muslims pray 5 times a day in the direction of the Kaaba. And they perform the small pilgrimage or Umrah (7 times around Kaaba and 7 rounds between Mounts Safa & Marwah). It is forbidden to do any evil in makkah, since it is a holy land and every good deed (or prayer) is worth 100,000 rewards in Makkah. I’ve attached a few pics.

So Nanni is STACKED with good karma, as the Hindus would say. Nanni made so many Umrah that she broke her ankle and came home in a wheelchair, which would have bummed out a delicate traveler like myself, but only made the experience more holy and worthwhile in her eyes. She is a Rockstar. Not to mention that all this elevates her position in her society. She is living proof that even in a small village someone with no gold, no property and no formal education can find power and status. She is consulted on all levels of problems. The most recent case she is fighting for is the alliance (or arranged marriage) between her niece and a guy who is only 2 inches taller than her. The family fears the height difference is not enough, but Nanni feels his good job and property make him stand tall enough. She argues that had he been taller he would not be willing to marry this girl at a bargain dowry rate. In fact, this weekend she is going to view the boys’ property to give her final say.

So Nanni is the heroine of this month’s story. All of us (Akbar, his mother, my two sister-in-laws, their kids, Akbar’s aunt from Bombay her two kids, and our driver – who as you may recall from last months’ episode is named Malla Reddy) piled into a jeep and drove 10 hours to Ponnur. No AC, no shocks, no seatbelts. No problem. Normally when we go there we stay with Akbar’s aunt, who is my choti saas (little mother in law). I love her but can never understand her village dialect. Nanni and Nanna (Akbar’s grandfather) live across the street and complained last time that their grandkids don’t stay with them because their house is small and they have been abandoned by the family. So this time this whole load of cranky travelers descended on my nanni’s 1-room flat. There were 11 of us in total, plus Motti Nanni (which literally translates to fat grandmother), who actually lives downstairs but doesn’t sleep there because she sees ghosts in her apartment. In fact everyone in Ponnur believes that this particular building is haunted with saithans (ghosts) and many people have seen floating figures in the windows and trees. Nanni says it’s all bullshit. See why she’s hardcore? More to come on that later.

When Akbar and I first moved to Berkeley we lived in a studio apartment, and we often felt suffocated, like there wasn’t enough room for the two of us. But here, with 11 people and about 635 mosquitos in Ponnur’s mid-day heat, we were all comfortable, cool and relaxed. We never once felt cramped. The main reason is that in villages homes are build with the central idea of letting the outside in, rather than keeping the outside out. This means that there is always a cross draft, there are two doors and 4 windows in this one room, which are always open. The outside space on this rooftop apartment is just as spacious as the inside space and is used just as much. And their modular furniture could give Ikea a run for it’s money. It is so versatile- the table becomes the bed becomes the deck furniture, becomes the fort for the kids becomes the place to entertain the 35 guests who constantly drop by to say hello to us and stare at me, the American Hindu wife of the Hyderabadi software engineer. Yes, 2 years later they’re not done staring.

The sleeping situation is that straw mats are rolled onto the floor and everyone just lays down and sleeps. The first night I was pretty uncomfortable, and the second night I got the best sleep of my life. So go figure. In the middle of that night amidst the orchestra of snoring we hear loud thumping on the door. Everyone woke up and the room filled with fear in 30 seconds. Why? Because everyone had brought all of their gold in bags to Ponnur. Why would all of us from big cities and foreign countries travel 10 hours in a broken down car with thousands of dollars worth of gold? Because if you can’t show off your material wealth in the form of gold to these villagers then what’s the point of your life, that’s why. As word travels fast in the village, someone had obviously heard of our visit and come to rob the house. It was either a thief or a saithan, either of which would have much practical use for the gold. So here’s the scene- there are 11 of us plus Motti Nanni and NanaNanni laid out in a row on the floor, gripped with fear. No one moved. People were whispering saithan… chore (thief).. and the pounding just keeps on going. And finally Nanni has had enough. She jumps up and screams “KHONU!” “KHONU”! BHOL! BHOL!(who’s there! Who’s there, tell, tell) but unfortunately she was screamed in a stretch without giving the saithan/chore space to answer, and we heard nothing but the continued pounding. Finally she throws the door open to find… a little shrunken nanni (grandmother) from downstairs . She was there because they had just received news that a relative was getting married in a distant village, and in order to make it on time they would have to take a 4 am bus, and she wanted Motti Nanni to go with her. She screamed all of this, out of breath and excited by the pounding. Why didn’t she answer Nanni? Because she’s totally deaf and didn’t hear the questions. Why didn’t she call? Because no one in India uses the phone when you can just walk up some uneven narrow steps in the dark in the middle of the night and pound on the door, regardless of how many people sleeping in a row on the floor you would wake up with the pounding. For the next hour the whole household made fun of each other for believing in ghosts or thieves. Interestingly no one mentioned that as the only strapping young man in the house it should have been Akbar that went to the door and not the 70 year old grandmother. So I feel it is only proper that I mention it here, to all of you.Nanni and Nana

    About This Blog
    This Blog is a collection of my thoughts about culture - my background and culture, growing up between multiple worlds, organizational culture - how we can shift the "feel" of organizations by the choices we make, and cultural competency- understanding eachother better to make better decisions and form meaningful community.

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