Date: 01-Jan-00(2000). Place: JFK airport, New York.
I pulled out my pager from its pouch buttoned to the hip belt and looked for new messages. No messages. I then checked my cell phone. No messages or missed calls either. Things must have gone smooth, I told myself. I walked with a sense of pride.
I went in to the busy airport restaurant, managed to find a vacant chair with some luck and ordered for a bowl of salad. As I waited for my order, I kept looking at the Eagle Airlines counter near the departure gate.
The gentleman behind the counter answered a call on his cell phone. I studied him. He spoke in a low voice that I could not hear him. It was difficult to make out anything from his gestures.
The salad bowl arrived. I skimmed through the lettuces with my fork and located the broccoli. After gently trapping its stem between the tines, I put it on my plate and showered it with pepper.
The gentleman was done with his call and proceeded to attend to his customers as before. So things are really normal today. But today is not just another day. It is special. The first day of the new millennium. The millennium which changed the mindset of the computer programmers who were thinking until a few years back that any year could be represented by just a 2 digit number. That is, the year 1970 was represented merely as 70. The century part '19' was almost forgotten for many decades.
The good thing that this millennium had brought was a world of opportunities for the software companies and their employees to convert all the 2 digit years to 4 digit years in all the software applications that run the world. The applications that used the 2 digit years were considered applications with a bug, aptly termed Y2K (Year 2000) bug as if the year 2000 itself was one big multi-legged insect.
The 2 digit to 4 digit conversion work undertaken by the software companies was called the Y2K conversion. Y2K conversion was a worldwide phenomenon which gave ample job opportunities for software engineers like me across the globe. It was also the reason why I was here in USA. My job was to fix (kill) the bug.
Our team believed that we had fixed the bug in the applications that ran the Eagle Airlines Corporation. Now, here I was wondering if we really fixed it alright. If the bug had not been rightly fixed, the consequences could be disastrous. So far, I did not receive any page (message in a pager) or a call. So, apparently, we fixed it right! This accomplishment ought to be shared with someone and has to be celebrated. But who would be interested in listening to the story of what a software engineer went through to fix a bug.
How you tell, matters, more than what you tell, her words echoed in my mind. I gazed at the Eagle Airlines counter again.
An Indian-looking girl approached the counter. The man behind the counter scanned her boarding pass and let her board the flight. It appeared that boarding had begun.
Before she passed through the gate she looked back and gestured someone to get boarded. I saw her face. What a co-incidence! She was the girl I saw(admired) the previous evening in the new year eve's party at Hotel Maharaja. She wouldn't recognize me though. I now knew to whom I should be telling my story.
The waiter asked me, “would that be all, Sir?”
He left and came back with a hand-written check.
“You don't give printed bills here?”, I asked suspiciously.
“There is some problem with our billing system today”
“Tell me more, please”
“These billing softwares suck. Things were better when human beings did the work”, he said in a low voice.
“I meant, tell me more about the problem with the billing system”
“I don't know. Our manager called the head office. You know what - all the restaurants in our chain have this problem. All these restaurants use the same software. These software engineers come take our jobs, don't do their jobs right and blame it on the new year. Pathetic people”. He went on with a few other nicer words for the software engineers.
I asked him no more. That was none of my business. I was glad I didn't do any software work for this restaurant chain. After paying my bill, I left the restaurant and boarded my flight.
Where is that girl? I scanned all the passengers who were seated as I walked through the aisle. There she was sitting by the window and mildly nodding her head to the tune she was listening. I threw my shoulder bag on to the overhead cabin and sat next to her.
"Excuse me", a teen aged American boy who came behind me showed me his boarding pass, "20B is mine".
"Can you please take 32A?", I politely asked, "I'm with her".
He didn't seem to have a problem, but walked away shrugging his shoulders and murmuring "whatever".
Luckily, the girl didn't hear what I had said, thanks to her ear phones.
"Hi", I said.
Her eyes were transfixed on her magical cellphone that rapidly read 128000 bits of ones and zeroes per second from a .mp3 file located somewhere in its hardware, transforming it into beautiful music and routing it to her ears via her blaring earphones. She apparently didn't hear me. Should I pull out her earphones?
After a few unsuccessful attempts of 'Hi' s, I got her attention by waving right in front of her eyes. She pushed a couple of buttons on her cell phone and looked at me. I established a conversation by wishing her a happy new millennium. She forced a smile and wished me the same.
“I'm Sreeni”, I said.
“Weren’t you part of the chorus that performed yesterday in Hotel Maharaja?”, I asked.
“Yes, I was”, she said proudly, “I'm glad someone noticed me”
“My friend sang in that. You got a great voice by the way”, I said.
She smiled and said, “I sang in a group of 10 members”
“Yours simply stood out”, I lied.
“Well, in a chorus my voice is supposed to be in sync with the rest; not stand out”, she chuckled.
I realized that I shouldn't have made my last statement. I blushed and said, “Alright. I lied. But nevertheless, your voice is great. I hear your voice now”
“Thank you. You made my day”
I thought I'll add that she looked great too, but that will only make her think that I'm a flirt. Not sure if she got that opinion already.
"Do you like to hear a story?" I asked.
She gave me a strange look. “What story?”, she asked.
“That is what I would like to tell you”
She looked at me for a while and asked, “Did someone tell you that I have contacts in the publishing industry?”
I hesitated and said, “Yes, I got to know that in the party last night.”
She continued, “God, I can’t believe I’m becoming so famous”.
“Will you be still interested in the story?”, I asked.
“If you will keep the story interesting.”
“No promises. But I have some testimonials from beta readers”
“Testimonials? That’s something. Can you quote some?”
“This is the best story I’ve read my whole life”, I quoted.
“Who says this?” she asked.
“Where does he work?”
“He doesn’t work. He is going to 4th grade next summer”
She sighed and asked, “Any other testimonial?”
“The author’s best work till date.” I quoted and said, “This is from my close friend and colleague.”
“How many stories do you have?”
“Just this one”
“If it is the only story, why would your friend call it the best work”
“Well... he was comparing against my day work in office”
“Please quote testimonials from someone not related to you”
“The second testimonial is from a friend not a relative”, I defended.
She gave up and asked, “How long is the story? Let’s just get over with”.
Another Indian girl from one of the back seats stood up, came next to me and spoke to me pointing at the girl next to me “She's my friend but we couldn't book the seats together. Would you mind swapping your seat with mine?”
She was simply trying to protect her friend from me. I was not inclined swapping this seat with anyone, “May be after sometime?”
The friends exchanged some views and the girl next to me conveyed through her expressions that she was fine. Her friend went back to her seat.
“The story length depends on your patience. Can you spare this journey time of yours?”
“All 4 hours? I’ll go mad”
“How about 2?”
Miss Varma looked at me curiously and then must have thought what’s the big deal. Then she hesitantly said, "Alright, but do not follow up with me after this for publishing. If I like the story, I’ll reach out to you for the manuscript.".
“You got it”
Where do I start? I leaned back, closed my eyes and organized my thoughts for some time. How you tell matters more than what you tell.
In the meantime, the airplane taxied on the runway. Taxied for a long time that made me think that the pilot was planning to drive all the way to Dallas. The engine whirred and the airplane accelerated forward. I opened my eyes and looked at her. She was still looking at me wondering if I had slept or if I would be telling her any story.
The flight took off defying the gravity of its own weight and its passengers while the undigested food of one 5-year-old boy followed suit. I looked through the window to see if I could locate the 'Statue of Liberty'. No visitor but me would go to New York without visiting this landmark, I cursed myself. But I had come to New York for a better purpose. I was returning satisfied.
"Are you ready?" I asked her with enthusiasm.
“I’m all ears”
“You are all mine?”, my voice turned a little romantic.
Looking a bit annoyed, she said pronouncing carefully, “ears not yours”
“Does it mean you are ready?”, I asked.
“God, what have I got into!”, she murmured.
She nodded, “Yes, it means I’m ready” and plugged out her earphones showing some eagerness. Who doesn't like stories?
Chapter 1: Immigration
Date: 10-Jan-99 or 11-Jan-99 as I was unsure of the time zone I was flying. Place: High in the sky
I turned down the overhead air flow knob. The mild hissing noise wasn't heard anymore. I turned it up again and I discovered that the more I turned it up, the louder was the hissing sound. I also turned the light switch on and off a few times to find out how soon the bulb came to life since I turned the switch on.
This was my first flight travel. I wanted to very well try every facility this airplane had to offer. Of course I did not propose to try the life jacket or the oxygen mask which the crew members clearly demonstrated as the ones to be used in case of emergency. From time to time, I had an eye on the emergency exit doors just to be sure it was perfectly closed. Of all the facilities, the in-flight entertainment was my favorite. This was the time for me to catch up on all the movies I had missed. I had already watched the recent ones during my employment at Modern Tech. The ones I had to catch up were the ones missed during my 10th, 11th and 12th grade.
'You can watch the movies anytime later. This is the time to study; these golden years will not come again', different flavors of the same statement came from my parents. These statements especially came when Narain came to my house and asked me if we could go out for a movie, echoed in my ears.
My neck started aching after I finished watching a couple of movies in this British Airways flight. I rested my neck on a small pillow placed over the head rest. My excitement to visit the foreign land only grew with time. A few hours back I had a transit at London Heathrow airport. What an airport! A clean, big city with lots of shops and spacious lounges brightly lit. A two-hour transit time gave me the opportunity to traverse the length and breadth of this airport by escalators, trains and stairs before I got on to this Airbus A320.
The captain announced that we were flying at an altitude of 40,000 feet. During my childhood, I was stunned by the height of a Ferris wheel. Now I tried to imagine how many Ferris wheels high I was flying. I looked through the glass window. We were above the clouds; the ground wasn't visible and it seemed like the Airplane was standing still. My head leaned on the window as I wondered how a heavy object like this airplane could just stand still in air without holding on to anything. Even though physics, aerodynamics and my father would have some explanation, it still made me wonder what courage and belief Wright brothers should have had when they built and flew this machine's prototype for the first time.
"You don't talk much, do you?" an Indian girl in her early twenties sitting next to me broke my train of thoughts (should I say flight of thoughts?).
She had been asking me lots of questions since we took off at Heathrow and I have been giving her a yes or no answer for most of her questions. For the rest, I smiled. I was having a longer journey than hers and I was too tired to keep up a conversation. She wore a black top and a black skirt to contrast her fair skin color. She had allowed her long untied hair fall freely covering the right half of her face. I wouldn't be able to tell if she was pretty unless I dared to pull her hair aside to see her full face. I hardly liked the looks that resembled a long furred dog whose eyes are fully covered by its hair but managed to see through the strands.
"Not much" I replied. Of the flight full of American and British people, how did they find a talkative Indian girl to sit next to me?
"See, I have been talking about myself, my childhood, education, likes and dislikes for the last one hour. Tell me something about you ", she said.
'Was that just one hour?', I wanted to ask. Did she talk all about herself? Apparently I wasn't listening. I guess she said her name was Neethu and that her parents are Indian and she's born in US. That makes her what she calls herself, an ABCD - American Born Confused Desi. She was returning from London after visiting her BFF.
'What is BFF?', I guess that was the only question I had asked in curiosity over the last 1 hour of the conversation that she claimed.
'Come on... Are you living in Stone Age? Best Friends Forever!!', she replied.
After this, I believe she continued talking about her BFF, what she meant to her, her own future, philosophy, world peace and politics. Of all her story, I wanted to know only the part which made her go nuts. But that story never came out. May be she was born this way. And now she wanted me to talk about myself, my views on life and world.
"Actually, I don't have much to talk. Things are so simple around me and I haven't thought too far in to future", I said.
"That's a very shallow response. Lots of things happen around each one of us. You probably aren't paying attention".
"Maybe true", I faked a smile and continued watching the movie that I had paused.
An air hostess appeared with a very pleasant smile and asked me if I would prefer a vegetarian or non-vegetarian meal. Her smile must have left me senseless as I was replying 'vegetarian'. While I instantly realized my mistake, I didn't correct it to 'non-vegetarian' as I thought it might spoil any impression that the lady would have on me. 'Can't he make up his mind on a simple food choice?'
She handed me a tray with food boxes neatly packed. I returned her smile and it lasted even after she handed another tray to Neethu and moved on with her food trolley to the next row of passengers.
“She's long gone”, Neethu remarked in a soft voice but without looking at me.
My smile turned to a frown. I examined my tray. I lifted the bowl’s lid. That was a vegetable salad.
'Damn, goats eat these leaves', I cursed myself. What a simple mistake had cost me? I'm supposed to be eating those goats rather. I looked at Neethu' s tray. She had ordered the same (but probably consciously). She tore packs of salt and pepper and showered them over the salad. As she was eating, she seemed to enjoy the food. The salad dressing tasted sour. How could she enjoy this food? I then tasted a few vegetables and then put aside some of them on the bowl's lid.
"You don't like it?" she asked curiously.
"The cauliflower doesn't look or taste normal"
She laughed, "It is not cauliflower. It is called broccoli"
"What?" I sounded embarrassed, but continued putting them aside, "Anyway, I don't like it"
"Add some pepper; it will be good" she advised.
I generally hated advice. I hated even more, in this embarrassing moment.
"Pepper can fix anything" she continued enthusiastically.
'Can it fix you too?' I wanted to ask. What's wrong with her? Let me eat what I like. I continued to put these broccolis aside and ate the rest. Neethu probably sensed that I didn't like her talking too much as she didn't speak till I finished my food.
“Do you know someone in US?”, she asked when I returned my tray to another air hostess.
“A lots of people”, I lied as I thought she might start giving advise on how I need to make friends there.
“Tell me about them”, she knew no way to end a conversation.
“What about them?”
“You have to tell. You know how much I talked about my BFF. By now, you must think you knew her very well.”, she said.
I didn't disappoint her saying that I didn't pay attention to anything she said about her BFF; or actually to anything else she said.
“Well, I don't have much to talk about them”, I snapped.
“Let me help you then. Give the name of your best friend”
I sighed and said, “Narain”.
“Is he in US?”
“What does he do?”
“He is also a software engineer like me”
“Why didn't he come with you?”
“It is not like I'm on vacation here to pull in my friends with me. My company has sent me for work. Our work doesn't demand him at US right now. He'll come towards end of this year”.
“I've always wondered what you software guys really work? I work on people's mind. I am a psychology student. I hardly know anything about machines” she laughed shamelessly.
How can someone not know about computers? I wanted to educate her. But I didn't have all that time. Neither was I sure if she was keen to learn about computers. I thought she simply wanted to talk or probably wanted me to talk. May be she would read my mind in that process. Or is she doing some psychological research on me? I might have already become a specimen in her analysis of humans for her thesis. I didn't want to be her experimental rat.
“Computers have a mind too. We work on their minds” I said implying I have my own rat to experiment.
“Wow”, she said and seemed to relate, “that's interesting”
“We teach them how to behave”, I added.
“I see. I have heard about Artificial intelligence”
“No. That is entirely different. I just program in computer languages and tell the computer once as to how to behave. It simply does what I have programmed it to do. It cannot think on its own.”
“But this is a good start, isn’t it?”,
“It is. Artificial intelligence is something where the machine can think on its own. We are far from getting there”.
She thought for a while and said, “Sometimes I wonder if human beings really think on their own. Somehow I think we are all programmed by someone.”, she said in a very philosophical way. There seemed to be so much similarity in our professions.
“Did you know computers have a memory too?”, I asked trying to bring in even more similarities.
“Yeah. Keep hearing that all the time. But I have no clue how it works.”
“Computer memories are made of flip flops that can store a high or low voltage”
She nodded, but changed the conversation, “Tell me about your family”. She was clearly not interested in computers. She was, what she called herself, a 'people person'.
“We are a family of 5. My father, mother, brother, sister and myself”, I replied.
“What do your parents do?”
“My father is a Physics professor in Trichy. My mother is a house wife”
“Nice. Tell me about your brother and sister”
While I tried hard to think of nice things about them, she asked, “Are you your father's pet or mother's?” as if I was either a 5-year-old kid or a dog.
I knew only my brother was everyone's favorite. Everyone in my family except me saw my brother as a 5-year-old kid while I saw him as an 18-year-old dog. Anyway, I wasn't here to discuss my family details with some ABCD.
“Don't get me wrong. I'm just a little too tired to talk”
She made a funny smile which probably meant 'Did you not just eat?'. “Being a psychology student, I tend to ask too many questions. You must be thinking I'm a talkative girl right?”
“No no. I wasn't thinking like that” I was now rather thinking she was a freak.
As the flight landed in Dallas-Fort Worth International airport, she said "I'm connecting to Chicago from here. Hope we'll meet in future. Call me if you need anything in US. I've been here long enough", she winked.
She then pulled my right hand and stuffed a paper bird that seemed like she made out of some magazine cover. I wondered if she tore the British Airways magazine that was provided to the passengers and my eyes instantly looked at the magazine that was tucked in front of her seat.
"It's not what you think," she read my mind, "it's my own paper. Pull the tail of that bird", she ordered.
I did and the bird flapped its wings. "This is beautiful", I said.
"This is just for you. You should always keep it with you and remember me", she said as she stood up to pull her baggage from the overhead compartment. “there's also my number beneath the wings”
I was moved. This was the first time when a stranger gave me a gift specially made for me. I felt she didn't just speak with me to kill time, she wanted to make a difference in others’ lives. Or maybe I was assuming too much. She is just a psychology student who probably is studying my reaction when I receive a gift. Still, I thought I could have talked to her a little kindlier.
She put her bag over her left shoulder and with her right hand she brushed her hair over her head. I now saw her face in full for the first time. But she was already starting to look beautiful.
She then waved, "See ya later".
As I stepped out of the aircraft on the passage leading into the airport, I prepared myself for the immigration procedures. I had been given 2 forms to fill; one was called I-94 and I wondered why I had been given a form with a number whose summation (9+4=13 -for those who can't sum it right) I had strongly believed inauspicious and unlucky. The only consolation was that I knew all other immigrants to US have been given the form with same number. And there was the other form whose form number I didn't remember but it wanted me to promise that I wasn't a terrorist and I wasn't carrying arms in this flight after killing a few folks back in India.
"Business or Pleasure?" an officer whom I'd seen in a Hollywood movie asked.
This was my third direct interaction with an American, the first being my interaction with an American girl at the US embassy in Chennai.
“Hello, I'm Catherine,” the stylish American girl had said. She spoke slowly and softly so that I could follow her accent.
“Good morning, Madam”, I replied.
“You can call me Catherine. How are you doing today?” it was the first time someone in a government office had ever enquired how I was.
“Why do you want to go to US?”
“To fix the Y2K problem for our client”
“Y2K...! Vaaw.. the whole world is bugged with that. Isn't it? How long would you be staying there?”
“As long as it takes”
She gave a friendly smile and asked me to move over to the next counter.
That was a very short but a memorable conversation. The second interaction was at the shore temple in Mahabalipuram.
Narain and I were standing on the beach admiring the art works of the Pallavas. Though we had come here before, we were stunned every time we saw this rock temple. And every time we debated who were the better architects – the Cholas or the Pallavas. Hailing from Trichy (which was the capital city of early Cholas), we decided in favor of Cholas every time. This time we were distracted by a scream, “My camera”. A lady voice with an American accent! I looked around to see where the American was. Narain looked around to see where the lady was.
We spotted her. She screamed again, “he stole my camera”, pointing at the man who quickly climbed up the rocks holding the camera by its shoulder strap in one hand. The man made it to the top and ran towards us. Myself and Narain made some way for the man to run between us. As the man came closer, Narain stuck out his leg in front of the man's while I grabbed the camera. The man fell on the ground hitting his head on a stone. The camera strap was severed, but the camera was safe in my hands. Narain bent and twisted the thief's hands in an attempt to hold him, but the thief threw some beach sand on Narain' s eyes and escaped. When the lady approached, I handed over the camera to her. She thanked us many times. She said that the camera meant a lot to her as it was a gift from her father.
“Is there something I could do in return of this favor?” she asked.
“That wouldn't be necessary” I said.
“Are you ok?”, she asked Narain who was rubbing his eyes, “your eyes are red”
“I'm fine”, Narain said.
I was glad that Narain couldn't see 'my' American girl. But that happiness was short lived as she held him by her arm and made him sit on a stone bench. She then poured some water from her water bottle over his palms so that he could rinse his eyes.
She learnt that we were software engineers and that I'd be traveling to US in a few weeks.
She said her name was Elaine Smith and that she lived in LA. She gave us her number and asked us to give a call if we ever went to LA.
“Business or pleasure?”, the officer repeated.
I was glad I could follow his accent; thanks to the Hollywood movie I had seen in the flight.
"Both Sir" I said honestly.
"What?" he apparently didn't get my accent.
"Mostly business sir" I corrected hoping he could follow this sentence.
"Where would you be staying in US?"
That initially seemed like a very personal question, but later I realized he was just doing his job. I gave him the name of the Hotel that Rajan had emailed me.
“What exactly is your business here in US?”
I elaborated on my Y2K project for which I had come to US. I wasn't sure how much of that information he understood. The officer looked at me confused and opened my passport again.
"How do you pronounce your name?" as he looked at my I-94 form where I had clearly shown the US government that my name doesn't fit in the boxes they've provided.
I pronounced 'Sreenivasa Velayutham Imayavaramban' in proper Tamil accent.
"And that's just your first name? "
"Sreenivasa Velayutham is my first name. Imayavaramban is my last name, Sir!"
He pretended to count the letters of my name in the passport with the tip of his pen. Then he tried to pronounce, laughed to himself, then shook his head saying, "Not gonna try".
What is funny about my name? Let me see how many characters make up his name. I read his badge. 'ED NOEL'. 1,2 and 1,2,3,4. He had all the right to make fun of my name.
He stamped on my I-94 form, stapled it to my passport and returned it with a smile, "Welcome to the United States of America"
Tears almost ran down my eyes. I'm all cleared. A few more steps and I would set my foot on the American soil. Or at least that is what I thought.
Chapter 2: Pay Phone
My red baggage, a 2000 Rupees Samsonite hard case, could be clearly spotted by anyone from a distance. My 20 character first name 'Sreenivasa Velayutham' made out of a stencil-cut paper was diagonally stuck across on both sides of the baggage. The way my little brother Kathir positioned my name on the baggage, I'm pretty sure most people would have mistaken it to be the brand name of the baggage. Anyway, since that was the only contribution from Kathir to my trip plan, I didn't want to disappoint him by stripping it off.
My little sister, Indu claimed that the bottle of lemon pickle that she made was for me to take to US, when she very well knew I didn't like pickles in general and lemon pickle in particular. It is a favorite for her and my mother. So, I had to leave it back home (as probably she expected). The red baggage contained most items that my mother had packed. My mother stuffed many spices I didn't even know the name of, a pressure cooker, few utensils and a cook book. When she was about to pack some onions, tomatoes and rice, I lost my temper and yelled, 'I'm not going to moon', not realizing that I couldn’t take those to moon either.
The second baggage was a blue soft case which had my clothes and some travel documents. My father had come up with an elaborate checklist of what I should be carrying. That came out as a very lengthy list but a useful document in my trip. In the chaos of what spice, utensils and other food items that I needed to take with me, I might have missed to carry any of the important documents like passport, tickets, foreign exchange, insurance or the petition papers but for the checklist.
I was glad when I spotted both my bags in the conveyor belt. They seemed to have withstood their handling by the airport staff and remained undamaged.