My Cousin Balaji
My cousin Balaji’s full name is Balarama Taraka Krishna. Since his birth, his mother affectionately called him “Bala” (child). Since the name “Bala” is feminine, she later changed it to Balaji. The suffix “ji” was generally given to respected people or older folks like title “sir” but the name Balaji was just the opposite, the overwhelming affection towards the child rather than respect to an older person.It was sad that Balaji lost his father when he was only two years old. His father died of heart attack suddenly while he was playing with his son. With nobody in the vicinity, Balaji played around his father’s body until his mother noticed the still body of her husband.
Balaji grew with utmost love and care from his mother and other relatives out of compassion and sympathy towards him for not having a father from his childhood. Balaji grew up like a daredevil. He climbed tress without fear of falling off; trees like mango, coconut or any tree for that matter. He had no fear of height either, once he climbed a 50-foot tall toddy palm tree without any shoulder and feet restraint made from jute or coconut coir that the professional tree climbers used. He climbed up and down like a cheetah, and jumped from branch to branch like a monkey. On his body, he always had one or two open wounds from the accidental fall from trees. While the open wounds were reminders of the recent fall from trees, several scars on his feet, legs or arms were the reminders of the past accidents when he fell from a tree or from a fight with the neighborhood kids. He earned the nickname “Bandage Balaji” for always having strips of bandages to cover open wounds somewhere on his body. He never appeared to have felt the physical pain from the wounds or the broken bones. He took it in stride as a cost of doing business, useless as it might be.
Balaji’s other passion was playing marbles with the boys who spent time minding their cows and water buffaloes near his house. While the cows and buffaloes were resting comfortably on roadside chewing on hay or wastepaper, the boys played marbles on curbside. Balaji competed in playing marbles with them. Whenever he lost a game, he ran inside his house to avoid relinquishing his marbles as a penalty. When he won, he demanded every marble from his opponent as a reward; otherwise he pelted stones at them and got into fistfights. That’s how he received some of the injuries. He nursed the wounds like his pets with love and care. He self medicated with aspirin as a painkiller for body pains and for the open wounds he applied boric powder or iodine as antiseptic, and covered them with the bandage. For every wound on his body, he had a story to tell like a war veteran.
Balaji was a very skillful in kite flying. Most kids in his neighborhood flew kites from their flat rooftops, and some from the open areas. During the kite-flying season of November, Balaji acted like a kamikaze to destroy his opponent’s kite without fear of losing his own. He outperformed others by zapping the competitors’ kites by cutting off the line with a special powder made from crushed glass pieces applied to his own kite-line, an un-sportly act but all competitors used anyway. When flying kites, his vocabulary used to take a deep dive. He used every imaginable cuss word, and challenged the opponents’ kites to come closer to his own (his opponents could hardly hear his shouts since they were too far apart), then he would intertwine the opponents kite skillfully with his own kite-line, and brought it down to collect it - a skillful art at best in kite flying. All the neighborhood kids flew their kites at a far distance from Balaji’s with fear of losing to him. At the end of kite flying season, Balaji would collect scores of kites, mostly pirated from his opponents by his skillful and ruthless techniques of flying kite, it was like a cutthroat business for him.
He was quick-witted, and nobody would dare argue to win over him. His friends and close relatives, both young and old, let him have his own opinion at the end. Arguing with him was like running on a treadmill, people would get tired, and conceived victory to him at the end. The easy way out was to agree with whatever he said and that made him speechless. Otherwise, whatever others would say was like fuel for further endless arguments with him.
Balaji was an intelligent person in many ways but at the college where rules were enforced, he couldn’t keep his thought process in check, getting physical with his classmates only got him into hot water. At the end he couldn’t cut the grade and failed to get into medical school, his mother’s cherished wish. Somehow, Balaji managed to filter-through the education system and graduated with a degree in Botany, nicknamed the “wedding credential.” Since a diploma of some kind was essential for a matrimonial alliance for a man or woman in degree crazed India, students who failed in every field, generally majored in Botany, considered chop-liver among other fields of study.
Balaji continued his academic pursuit to get a doctoral degree in Botany. After he worked on his thesis for a few years, his professor rejected Balaji’s Ph.D.thesis as gibberish with no sufficient experimental results. Frustrated, Balaji used his friends to harass his professor to approve his thesis. The timid professor was frightened by midnight threatening calls, being followed by strangers on the streets, and the fender benders while riding his scooter; all these incidents terrified the professor for his life, and he succumbed to the pressures to award the doctoral degree to Balaji.
During a seminar on brain drain from developing countries to the United States, Balaji met a Professor from the United States. Balaji impressed upon the American Professor that he was keen on coming to the United States for a short visit to expand his horizon in his field and bring back additional knowledge to impart on his Indian compatriots and thus reverse the process of brain drain. The American Professor heard similar stories before, but was impressed by the sincerity of Balaji. Besides, Balaji did not even raised the subject of financial aid, and said “knowledge is money.”
Balaji invited the American Professor to his home to further impress him with authentic South Indian homemade meals. The Professor was previously familiar with the run of the mill dishes at several Indian restaurants in the United States was impressed with a variety of genuine home-cooked dishes like massala dosa, coconut chutney, sambar, yellow rice with fried green chillies, stuffed eggplant curry, sour bread donuts saturated in plain yogurt, and sweet rice pudding with cashew nuts.
The Professor highly recommended and sponsored Balaji for a short-term post-doctoral position at his department without pay since Balaji insisted on working without pay.
A few weeks after Balaji arrived in the United States, he grumbled that he needed a monthly salary to sustain himself in the country. Surprised, the Professor realized that it was just a trick Balaji played on him when he said that knowledge is money to get sponsorship to come over to the United States. The Professor felt betrayed by Balaji, nevertheless, decided to give him one more chance by providing a small stipend to continue his work.
After a few months, Balaji confronted his Professor, and accused him of plagiarizing his work. Stunned and frightened, the Professor shook his head and asked “Dr. Balaji, are you sure about this?”
“Sir, I read your recently published paper in which my ideas were expressed without acknowledging my name.” Balaji was polite but firm.
“ I could not give you acknowledgements based on your rhetoric, that would be silly. I am sorry you felt that way,” replied the professor.
Still not convinced, Balaji started spreading rumors that how his own professor had stolen his serious work. Disappointed, the professor had to let go Balaji from his position with a favorable recommendation letter, an intelligent ploy to get rid off him. Armed with a good reference letter, Balaji managed to get a job with a better salary at a research institute in Arkansas. There, he impressed his superiors with his oratory that with his experience in plant breeding, and gene splicing techniques, he could produce rice that would smell like rose or jasmine. The Research Director was excited to the idea of producing Jasmine Rice or Rose Rice.
Balaji in his new position traveled extensively to participate in the scientific conferences, and spoke eloquently on the possibility of growing aromatic rice. After the research funds were exhausted, Balaji produced neither Rose nor Jasmine Rice. When he requested an extension of his employment contract, the Research Director asked “when do you expect to produce the aromatic rice?”
“I have a simple formula that cost far less to make aromatic rice than using complicated plant genetics, said Balaji with a twinkle in his eyes. I recommend adding artificial flavoring or essence while cooking plain rice, as matter-of-fact this approach gives a wider choice to the consumers. People can add whatever flavor they like, including raspberry or strawberry or even vanilla, just imagine eating vanilla rice,” Balaji’s reply was sharp and crisp. Balaji sounded more like a con man than scientist.
The reply stunned the Research Director, and he politely requested Dr. Balaji to resign, and provided him with a good testimonial to find a job elsewhere.
Dr. Balaji moved from place to place like a “Tripadhi Nakshathram” or roaming star named after a star not so famous for brightness but for roaming all over the sky.
Back home, Balaji’s mother disappointed that her son failed to fulfill her dream of becoming a medical doctor wanted him to marry a medical doctor so that at least her daughter-in-law would be a medical doctor. After screening several matrimonial alliances, she found a bride, a medical doctor from a decent family to marry her loving son Balaji now a Research Scholar albeit-a “Roaming Star” in the United States.
Balaji introduced himself as Dr. Balaji without mentioning any specific area of specialization or expertise. Among biochemists, he spoke eloquently on biochemistry; among immunologists, he lectured on simple blood tests to find allergies. Lecturing in any area of specialty came easy to him since talk is cheap and that kept him afloat wherever he went, at least for a short periods of time.
Balaji shuttled from coast to coast and changed his jobs every so often. At every place of employment, his research grants ran out in less than a year for mysterious reasons, and yet he received excellent recommendation letters from his superiors. During one of his stints at a Timber Research Institute, he advocated growing timber trees with poison ivy characteristics so that any beetle or bug that attacked the timber would scratch itself to death, this was to eliminate chemical treatment of timber for pest control. While this idea sounded revolutionary at first, after a while people thought it was a joke. He was kicked out from his research position within 3 months, the shortest duration of time he worked at any place.
Dr. Balaji was in a constant motion, traveled from place to place changing jobs and fields of specialization. At one stage, he thought of getting into Information Technology (IT), a hot field but then potential employers asked him too many questions in the job interviews and the job required special training, so he abandoned the idea of jumping into IT business and declared that it was only for the people with pigeon hole mentality.
He went to India and got married to Sujatha, the doctor his mother selected, and came back to the United States with her. Immediately on arrival to America with his wife, he jumped onto his new area of interest or specialization- his wife’s career. Balaji considered his wife as an investment in the medical field. Sujatha worked in a temporary job and studied meticulously during the nights to complete the qualifying tests to gain entry into the residency medical training.
Sujatha and Balaji argued when it was time in selecting the specific area of medical training. Sujatha was interested in Pediatrics since she loved babies so she wanted to apply for medical training in Pediatrics.
“Why you are applying for pediatric training? Are you out of your mind?” Balaji went crazy.
“I love children and which other field give more opportunities to work with children than Pediatrics?”
“Listen, do you know how much Pediatricians make in this country” asked Balaji in a sarcastic way.
“It was not the question of money,” Sujatha was adamant.
“Then, what is your second choice of interest?”
“Umm, I like Anesthesiology.”
“Anesthesiology? Even a nurse-Anesthesiologist can do the job, it was not a job for MDs,” Balaji showed his expertise in the medical field.
“It was not so much of a challenge but my own personal interest in the field that matters. Why you specialized in Botany of all the fields?” Sujatha challenged Balaji.
Balaji was in trouble now. He couldn’t say to his wife why he ended up in Botany, the “wedding credential,” without which no girl was interested in him for a marriage.
“Okay, what is your third choice?” Balaji ignored his wife’s inquiry.
“Radiology or Pathology, but I do not have to take your permission to choose which area I would specialize, you know,” she said.
“Oh no, the Radiologists would spend whole day reading x-rays for a pittance, and Pathologists were not real doctors either, all they do is examine slides and write reports.”
Sujatha filled the application forms prioritizing her own choice of interest, and totally ignored Balaji.
“I gave up on you, you are here in the United States because of me. If not for me, you are worth nothing,” Balaji reverted to his strong-hand tactics on his wife.
Sujatha was selected for the residency medical training in Pediatrics, her favorite field of choice at a hospital in a city hundreds of miles away from the place where they were living together. Although Balaji insisted upon travelling with her to the new place, Sujatha suggested that he should stay put, and continue to work at his current location.
Balaji was fearful that Sujatha who now called herself Sue might become too independent by living on her own, kept calling her every other day to tell her that he would like to quit his job, and join her at any moment.
Sue on the other hand, postponed his planned trips on the pretext that as a first year medical resident, she was very busy working more than 80 hours a week, and she would not have time, even for a romantic evening with him.
One day, Balaji received a letter from Sue in the mail. Anxiously, Balaji read the letter loudly to himself.
I am writing this letter to let you know that I have decided to live on my own forever. During the few years I spent with you, I was treated as an investment you made to make money in the medical business, and at no point you expressed affection or love. I remembered you said during our courtship that you were an expert in kite flying when you were a kid. I believed it now after I saw how you want to control me like your kite, but you know what, I am not your kite any more, I am too far from you, besides the string was permanently cut now. I am a Kati Patang (a free flying kite) now. I could take care of myself without your help.
PS: Don’t bother to come over here to meet me at the hospital. My decision is final. You would hear from my attorney since I filed for a divorce.
Balaji was shell-shocked after he read the letter. He now realized that all the shopping she made on his credit card, and his car registered on her name were totally pre-planned. At last, Balaji met a person, not anybody but his own wife who matched his wits. He came too far to go back to apologize to her. He tried to call her several times, but Sue never returned any of his calls.
Balaji had spread rumors that his wife was unfaithful, and claimed she had illicit relations with others while she was married to him as a last resort to malign her. Balaji’s mother heard only one half of the story from her beloved son and believed it. She immediately started looking for a bride for Balaji, this time she was only interested in potential brides with a degree in Information Technology (IT), and agreed with her son that female doctors tend to get too independent after marriage.
During one of the depressing days after Sue left him, Balaji thought about a huge overgrown Fig tree near Hanuman temple at his house that nearly engulfed portions of the temple just as his own kite-line that intertwined the opponents’ kites to bring them down. This time around, it was Sue like a smooth creeping-vine that tangled with him to bring him down. “I should never allow this happen to me again,” he thought, waking up from the daydream. Balaji decided that this time he would further shorten the leash on his would be IT wife. “I should have known better, the longer the kite-line, the more difficult to control the kite,” he thought.