For over the last few years, my Christmas routine was to go to my village and celebrate it with my parents and my ever so pretty niece at the little church nearby at Bodhan. This time I cant do that, so I thought I will just recollect the memories and count the blessings.
The journey along the unlit road: To me, Christmas’ specialty is that we welcome the day right at midnight of 24th Dec which is different from how we enjoy other Indian festivals like Ugadi or Deepavali. For the lack of any transport at that hour, we pick an auto at 10:30 in the night and start off on a 15km journey in the chilling December cold. The auto guy Afsar, a Muslim by religion, has a persistent calendar entry for this in his mind and never forgets to call and tell that he is gonna be there on time (even before we ask him for a ride). As the auto motors along the unlit road, my Dad, Afsar and I start a discussion on the current hot political topic and then come to a conclusion that we cant do much about it (yes, it happens every year and we never learn). All the while my Mom switches between dropping in her two-cents on the topic, coaxing me to be away from the cold wind and protecting my niece’s cheeks from the cold breeze (I actually think she gets prettier as the cold breeze gives her cheeks a tinge of pink :)). The usually modest-looking church wears a spectacular look on this night with those colored lights, glittering X-mas tree and a ceremonial mood all around. It amuses me that although no one says so, each family splits up in to three units, the men, women and children .. and sit separately as long as the prayer goes on.
Children and God: The children usually lose the luxury of sitting on the benches on busy days as there are too many adults but it works very well for them anyway as they all want to form their own group. The beauty of this festival is in how much it revolves around children. Last year, they got gifts from all over the world from unknown benefactors. I usually sit with them on the floor rather than occupy the benches which are reserved for the elders. I forget that I am over 28 now but most of the kids are still nice enough to use ‘Anna’ instead of ‘Uncle’ .. pretty nice feeling that. The entire mood changes my priorities on what I should pray for from the entity called God. My thoughts run from things like Atheism/If I am really religious or agnostic or atheistic/If me praying makes sense etc/If I am being a complete jackass in thinking like that in a church. Then I see the cute kid who tugs on my shirt to make some space for her. She does not care about all the crap that is going on in my head. She simply wants to enjoy the new dress, sing and dance with her friends and wait for the gifts and cake. With that I ditch all that crap in my head and simply conclude that I should think of God as a supreme scientific being who probably chose evolution etc. as his methods of going about creation. If anything we should try and be very scientific, productive and rational like him and that is a way of knowing if at all he exists or not. Its like in under 15 min I have rediscovered my own theory of religion which I frame every year and forget over the next 12 months. That gives me peace and I again get back to this world. Then, instead of asking for money and other stuff, I usually end up asking for the ability to make this world better over the next year, be more productive and smart, come back again to see these children and their innocent faces knowing that I have made things better for them. Yeah, the mood that makes me think of productive work as a form of worship, as a license to exist and enjoy the beauty of the creation of supreme scientific being also makes kinda feel altruistic.
The community get-together: The prayer itself is actually a semi-religious affair which has a dose of general wisdom as well religious stuff getting delivered. I talked about Vatican’s respect for local cultures and how they take the path of least disruption with rituals etc. So I don’t feel very odd or as if we practice a very different religion. In fact, the priest usually includes a ton of local problems in his regular prayer which is pretty amazing. (last time, the prayers even included a plea for a speedier solution to Telangana problem so that everyone could get back to work). The part after the mass is what I guess everyone looks forward to. This is the phase where families do not rush home after the roughly 1.5 hr long prayer and instead brave the cold, gather around the small bon fires in front of the church, meet each other and exchange warm wishes. This is the part where everyone gets a 1-1 meeting with the priest (‘Father’ is more common word and I dislike having to use priest for him actually). This is where I meet my school teachers (the school is right beside the church) to seek their blessings, or my Mom comes to know of my cousin’s marriage and migration to Australia, or my Dad plans a friends get-together for the new year. This is where I get to meet distant and close aunts. cousins, nephews and pretty much everyone I care about in the entire parish. This is also precisely when calls from every corner of the world start coming in from distant sons/daughters to their parents. This is the part without which Xmas would be incomplete for me. This year I will miss that feeling. But at least my Dad will proudly speak of how he makes a skype call to me every evening, uses facebook/gmail/maps and will use the line ‘maa vaaadu states lo unnadu’. And of course, I am gonna call him right at that time :).
Counting the blessings: By the time the get-together is done, my niece will have had more than her share of cakes, and will be fast asleep with her head on my shoulder. We would wake up Afsar and offer him some tea and cake. We return with great memories. We seldom sleep before its 4:00 am or so, just recollecting how the year has been. It always feels that year has been good when I sit with them and think about it. This year I have already done that exercise with them on skype and in fact this year has been better by any objective standards as well. So here is the list (I am going with the top 5 chronologically, with a bit of detail on each) :
1. Built something : Professionally there was a lot of improvement. I contributed to a real product at Microsoft and the code will see light this time. Its gonna be my first such project and I feel good about it. Of course, I left Microsoft. If someone were to a write history of Computer Science,it would be incomplete without a chapter on M$, good or evil .. does not really matter. It feels good be associated with them. I worked closely with Nokia as well. They are still ‘the’ phone company for me. Hope they will come out well.
2. G$ and FB : Two of the biggest blessings have been being able to get offers from Google, Mountain View and Facebook, Palo Alto which are almost universally considered as the big two in tech. currently. Google was a long-time dream come true because it had so much aura around it, I admired it like hell because all the smart and cool kids from my college days went there. I fumbled with their interviews so many times that I began doubting myself. This year I got an offer to be at the root of all their awesomeness i.e Mountain View which made me feel pretty confident. Probably I carried that confidence in to Facebook interview and did well. It was a heartbreak to have to choose between Google and Facebook ( and another personal goal, see blessing 3). Google was the place I always loved for technical excellence, but the latest coding champions and cool kids (who did well at things like ICPC, topcoder) seemed to hold Facebook as the place to be. In short, Facebook seemed what Google was when I left college. They also gave me my first trip outside India for the interview. A solitary walk then along the corridors of the great Stanford University suddenly made me realize that I am not too old to seek a retirement job and since I knew by that time that I would mostly make it to fb, I made up my mind even before I got back to India. I chose the riskier path with the hope that what does not destroy me will make me stronger.
3. Civils : There was another little blessing but which was as big as the above for me. My Dad always wanted to see me as a collector. My constantly shifting priorities never allowed me to focus on it. But this year I managed to get through the Civil Services Examination – Prelims and that too with little preparation. It suddenly made me realize that I don’t have much time to explore this other path which could be very impact-making one. After some weeks of confusion, I decided not to get carried away by that result (which could have been serendipitous given that the pattern this year seemed to favor Engineering students). The other reason was the humbling experience I got from the visit to Facebook and Stanford. Its still a long way before I can claim that I am a great engineer. But the awesome initial phase at fb convinces me that I am on the right path.
4. (No) Marriage and NRI-tag : I luckily escaped getting married last year by a thin margin and consciously avoided it during this year. It turned out an awesome choice because without it 2 and 3 would have been very tough to do. Also, I met some pretty good girls, went to theater/acting auditions, spent more time with kids from my village and did my bit in their job-hunt. All of this would have been harder with a wife who would take a lot of the time away. I even enraged a few friends for suggesting that marriage is an impediment to the creative and productive abilities of men and that they should prolong the bachelor phase as far as they can. Avoiding those curious relatives is still a pain though. Now its more tricky since I, to quote a relative, ‘moved to the states’. I think Andhra folks are obsessed with the NRI-tag. I dislike the needless emphasis they put on this. Nevertheless, I feel good about moving here with a full-time job without the cushion of having an American Masters degree or the luxury of being an IITian. But, the sudden rise in my value in the groom-market is indicative of the prejudice that the typical parent has. If the girls think this way too, then God save them.
5. Computer literate family : After my decision to ditch the civils path, my Dad took the technology angle pretty seriously and began using it fairly aggressively. Hope it catches on well with the rest of the village folks. I wish to see a village full of technology consumers changing the whole landscape of the region. If that happens, the next gen might as well start companies by the time they are 20. Right now Mom and Dad use computers well despite the fact that neither of them went beyond Intermediate. My niece is already using it. She stood ‘First in Class’ this month. It makes me feel proud that she actually flashes her badge with pride. It pretty much looks like the one I used to wear when I was at the same school. Boy, am I proud of her :).
There are many other things .. too many to count : A few good friends got married or engaged, some had adorable kids, I made a ton of new friends, joined an awesome group at fb, came to terms with the American life pretty soon (sooner than I got used to the urban life in India). So here go the thanks for all those blessings. I hope I will be blessed with the ability to make the world a better place this year as well and hopefully I will be able to go home next year and see those children and the little community again. My new church is the The Church Of The Nativity at Menlo Park. Innocence of children and celebratory spirit are universal. So I hope to have a good time tomorrow. Happy Christmas Everyone !!