Neel a.k.a Neelakantan R Iyer, to the outside world, was living the American dream and had arrived in life. He had 4BR house in the Palo Alto, 3 cars; he himself was driving a Beamer. Or whatever, he thought! His lovely wife – when was the last time, they had a good conversation – Pam (a.k.a Parimala), who had a career of her own now; and two children – A girl who was a senior in the High School – was it 12th? Or as he would have said in his days – “My name is R.Neelagandan, 10th Standard B section” in his small town back in Tamil Nadu. Today, as much he tried to avoid, he had to pick his daughter from the special math class that she was going to a tutor on the south-side of the town - he had not wanted to face the very uncomfortable silence that fills the chasm between them and compensate with banalities. Pam had an important meeting that she didn’t want to miss and had asked Neel to do the chore, as an exception to their division of labor. So here he was, down the 85S in the start-stop traffic, driving from rote without really concentrating…
As he got into the steady moving traffic, his mind once again rewound to black and white… He had married Pam after both the families had matched them up; He had stars in his eyes and dreams in his head. The American dream. He was a hot-shot techie who was very good in what he did. It was a great time, a time that he always looked back in fondness – they were both genuinely happy in each other’s company and made plans. Work had been good, in fact, feel-good too. Then life happened, he thought wryly – they had Shreya, their daughter; Pam had put her own plans on hold. Pam was very keen to stay with the kids in their formative years. As Shreya grew up, she was a bundle of joy for Neel; she was there when he left for work and then made sure she was awake when he came back from work, however late it was. He adored her; his life seemed so complete and blessed when Sharan arrived. Pam spent another 5 years with him. As both the kids started school, Pam started on her career – she went to school, got a degree and joined one of the few start-ups. That was nearly 10 years ago. He was growing fast in his company; from an individual contributor, he climbed the ladder of Technical lead, architect and was behind some of the company’s key innovations. . He was busy, she was busy and the kids were busy. But slowly, something gnawed at him. He wasn’t sure what it was initially… Was it burn-out? Was it lack of time together as a family? Pam now is in a place in her career that he was when he was growing rapidly and feeling the glow. He never found the kids at home – they were either some class or the other; or were at sleep-overs. He often came to an empty home, pottered around the kitchen, and cooked something up for himself and the family. They hardly had dinner together. If they were all at home, they were all doing their own thing. His attempts to get all of them together were all thwarted by lack of cosmic alignment of everyone’s calendar! Or my feeble attempt, rather.
Neel got off the free-way and slowed down at the stop-light. It was red. Was it a symbolic message? Am I the Bruce Nolan? He waited behind several cars for the light. The light turned green, he eased into the traffic again. He was in the back-roads. Back-roads he thought aloud… or cross-roads… Neel’s career had hit a plateau. He wasn’t certain (and possibly didn’t care) if his sense of ennui was due to that; or his ennui created the career slow-down. He was also increasingly finding himself not able to connect to materialistic culture – yeah, it is easy to be not materialistic, when you drive a beamer! He had that inner urge, overwhelming of late, to reconnect with his roots – people, friends, language. He wanted to be able to connect to his parents, his friends, his childhood memories back home. The last time he was back in India, he had really enjoyed the time – connecting back with his father with their usual arguments and meeting his friends over a drink! He had instantly felt at home with those guys. He had started reading tamil literature; also tried and flamed out spectacularly in teaching in Shreya and Sharan Tamil. He was hoping this would be a project to reconnect with Shreya. Shreya had rejected the whole process outright, leading to a still-born project. She had just moved away from him during his hectic days and she had her own ideas now. He had heard Pam talk about some boy-trouble at school, a boy of apparent Indian lineage. Neel didn’t probe too much since he was sure if he knew all he would certainly not like what he hears.
The American dream had become a bit stale and rudderless. He had a sense of longing for something that he couldn’t really pin-point. He felt like a cast-away, without a sail shifting in the high seas with no frame of reference and no control. He and Pam talked a couple of times of returning. But it always fell through and they had, in the mean-time acquired the citizenship. He was an American; and his last tie to being an Indian officially was cut off, as he returned the Indian passports. Try as he may, he just could not relate himself to be seen an American. He tried the local Indian, South Indian, Tamil and micro-org meetings and gatherings – the ersatz culture left him more restless. Neel wondered all this restlessness stemmed from to the fact that he was culturally adrift and when the end comes, he would not know where he belonged. He yearned to be in the place where his heart knew it belonged. The only solace was he felt a reasonable sense of stillness, when he visited the temples in non-peak hours; he preferred to go alone there; he’d pray quickly and sit there for long. He wondered if it’s that hope in the faith (or was it faith in the hope?) that kept the sanity sometimes and do, eventually, what is pragmatically possible given where he was.
Neel smiled wryly, as he turned the corner - have I?; it seemed his life here matched the quote from Jack Higgin’s novel Eagle has landed – “Son, you don’t play the game anymore, the game plays you”. He knew that he was just a Bot in the flow. It was like an assembly line that he has gotten onto and some connected sets of strings had taken over his life; and he just have to go with those pulls and pushes in the flow, that he had no real control over.
He parked in front of the building where Shreya’s class was on. As he waited, he saw her coming out with a boy talking animatedly – they had stopped, Shreya with her back to him and continued the conversation – it was obviously not pleasant. Then Shreya turned abruptly and walked towards the parking lot; she was crying – and she was surprised to see him instead of her mother. She quickly and furtively wiped the tears off and got into the car.
He looked at her, unsure if he could ask what was wrong; instead he smiled and asked her how she was. Shreya, responded with a simple ok and turned her face away. He guessed she didn’t want him to see her tears. He started the car and eased into the traffic; as he exited into the free-way, he stole a glance at Shreya; He reached out and smoothed her hair; she smiled weakly and looked out – she was still crying. He had a sudden urge to hold her as he’d done when she was a small girl and talk to her and if he could help. But he just couldn’t…
…Instead he entered the high-way, did the dance with the traffic, maneuvered himself to the car-pool lane on I-85; it was now automatic, the strings were activated – the flow would take him to his 4BR, 3B, 3Car Garage house. And to the next day. And beyond.