Personal journey: Marriage

The story of how I rejected an arranged marriage and wed a woman outside my caste, community, and country.

Or, The Adventures of Sunil Thankamushy Continues..

Mother's fear

It is unimaginable, the amount of faith a conservative Indian mother has to have, to send her firstborn halfway across the world, in a virgin unmarried state.

What if he comes back with a,.. (gasp) ‘foreign madamma?’ is the terrifying fear that must surely run through her mind as she sees him off.

I was preparing for my great flight to the US, to go to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to study animation. After years of struggles, I had won two extraordinary scholarships to fully fund my three years of graduate study. My father had purchased two large bright-blue plaid-patterned luggage and I was busy stuffing them with things to begin a new life in the opposite end of the world. Clothes, two suits, a stainless-steel pressure-cooker, a pot, and a pan, essential spices, and a small library of books. There also were cultural artifacts – miniature paintings on palm leaves, three kurtas, two Kashmiri skull-caps, and twenty-six carved wooden elephants. My luggage was Indian culture, in miniature form. I was going as a Rotary cultural ambassador, after all.

The mother may have extraordinary faith in the resilience of the Indian culture, which typically tends to place a bulwark against any foreign influences, in matters of marriage. The bulwark is so massive in fact, that it tends to ward off even extra-communal influences, in matters of marriage. ‘Thou shalt not marry outside your narrowly circumscribed caste’, is the unsaid mantra that runs deep in the Indian psyche. India must have over 3000 castes and sub-castes.

My father thankfully was blissfully unaware of all these fears going through my mother’s head. Mundane matters of marriage and community did not move him much. My father finds the greatest satisfaction in life when he is fully engaged with working on his inventions or explaining atmospheric phenomena, and ocean current patterns to unsuspecting laymen. Or discussing local politics. He was particularly energized when proudly talking about the Marxist values of the Left in my state of Kerala, “..the most progressive state in the country, because of Leftist policies that started in the ‘50s”, as he has informed me dozens of times.

Indeed, having grown up in a unique family where my fathers’ relatives were Marxist-leaning, and my mother’s relatives were derided (by my father) as ‘bourgeoise’ that traditionally leaned center-left with the Congress party; I grew up clueless as to what our caste really was.

As a child, when I had made some discreet inquiries to more knowledgeable relatives, I was given contradictory answers. I was told in hushed tones by some that we were the traditional warriors employed by royalties. Others informed me that we were the traditional liquor tappers and basket weavers. I quickly dismissed the latter. Warrior it must be, I determined.


The golden ring

Though my mother had placed a great deal of faith in the Indian culture, she decided she needed some extra security. A few days before I took the great flight to the US, she shyly called me aside. In her palm was a gold wedding ring. She was trembling.

‘Wear it”, she said.

‘Why?’ I asked.

“It will help you ward off foreign women.”

“You mean, I should pretend to be married?”

“Do this one small thing for your mother.”

Sometimes a young man has to do, what a young man must do. And that meant stepping back from the ring in revolt. My mother never brought up the golden ring again.

My mother never needed to have worried on my behalf. I was blessed with the best foreign-lady repellent, after all. I did not know this, but years later I would learn this sobering truth from my wife. It was not my mauve shirts or dad jeans. It was not my soft-spoken mumbling speech or my just-off-the-boat accent. It was my proud large, untrimmed mustache, and my big poofy hair. What were proud embodiments of manliness for the Indian male were sadly outdated by at least a decade and a half from the polite streets of the US.

Many a time I had had the fleeting idea of how I might look if I did a fresh western cut. I wondered who lay beneath all that poofy hair. Each time, at the saloon I would change my mind: I had never trimmed my mustache since it finally grew in my college years, and I was not about to start it now.

Thus, I lay quietly underneath all that big hair, singularly focused on my prime objective in the US: learning animation.

Life in a US university campus after all my struggles to get here was extraordinary. I do not recall touching the ground with my feet in those heady years. Walking on a perpetual cloud, I was zooming from one class to the other, doing the work, engaging with my colleagues, establishing rapport with the professors, working on various class projects, working late nights in the lab, all the while sporting a gentle smile that would not go away. On weekends, I would often visit Paul and Melody, my Rotary host family for fun conversation, great mid-western style food, and watching the antics of their beloved dogs and cat.

Having achieved my place in the US university after the struggles I went through and having seen the workings of providence in my personal journey, I glowed with an inner confidence and personal power that animated my days.

People noticed.


“What are you smoking? “

My professor asked me part jovially, and part out of curiosity. He could not fathom this level of energy and enthusiasm in a graduate student.

I was naive to the idiom. I answered him dutifully that I do not smoke. Nor do I drink. I had absolutely no vices that I was aware of, I self-certified.

“Spread some of that energy around”, he said and made me a Teacher’s Assistant.

And so, I spread myself around.


The family of friends

The best part of the college experience – no matter where in the world – is the family of friends one develops. And my family of friends included lots of amazing women.

This was a new experience for me.

Growing up in India, one just did not have close female friends, in my rather traditional social circles. It was considered eye-brow raising, to say the least.

I recall a casual chat I had with an Italian ‘foreign’ man whom I had met on a bus in my teen years in India. He was a carpenter by profession and was on vacation in Kerala, my state. As the bus trundled along country roads and highways, we spoke about various things- carpentry, road conditions in Italy, temple cities in India that he wanted to visit, movies, and presently it came to women. He told me that he preferred female friends because it was, ‘possible to have close friendships with women, in ways that are better than with men’. Because he said women make better conversationalists and are far more intuitive. I thought it was dubious, at the time.

Now in the US, I remembered the wisdom of that carpenter from Italy.

My large group of friends on campus was a mix of men and women. They included students and staff of the film, television, theater, and animation programs of UCLA. As graduate students, we had free rein on almost all of the facilities in our area, and so we were at the program at all hours of the day and night, working hard on our various animation, film, and TV projects.

Caught in the pure bliss of immersing myself in learning what I craved to learn – animation – after long years of struggle, I threw myself into to job of learning the craft. Figure drawing, storyboarding, timing sheets, digital painting, controlling the animation crane,…

My cohort of students was my family of friends. We helped each other with their own projects, critiqued each other’s creative work,

To me, the women in the group were like the sisters of the family. They were from different parts of the country, different religions, persuasions, and in general, liberal-leaning.  Some were from various parts of Europe, Africa, South America, Israel, and Russia. Friendly, highly opinionated, strong-willed, artistic, talented, they each seemed to have lived a full and eventful life already. The animation films they made in the university reflected the dreams, and scars of their recent past lives. And mine shone with the possibilities of the future.

When arguments arose, as they do between friends from time to time, I played the calm enigmatic Indian, letting things slide, staying out of the debate altogether, or smiling through it all. “Don’t mind me. I am just lucky to be sitting here among y’all”, is what would go silently through my head.


‘Do you want to go see the new Chinese Movie?’

It was Mellow Girl, who asked. She was not from my group. Not even animation. Film production, specifically.

I had seen her about the school. A petite figure, dark hair, full red lips, bright thoughtful blue eyes. A striking beauty.

Who was she talking to, me? I casually glanced around me to make sure. Nope, the hallways were empty. It was directed solely at me.

Maybe she really meant, ‘Do you want to go see the new Chinese Movie with-a-big-group-of-friends’?

My mind went crazy with the calculations: Calm down, Romeo. If she meant to go with a big group of friends, there is nothing to this. It would mostly be a waste of my evening. I’ve got lots of work on my animation projects to catch up on. But if she didn’t, that would be something different altogether.

My mind fizzled out.

‘S-sure. Th-that’d be great’, I heard myself say.


This must be love?

From the glimpses I caught, the movie was something about some Chinese exodus, a baby dying, bombs falling, luckless ladies sitting around eating and playing cards, etc., etc. I could not focus on the screen. Not with the strikingly attractive Mellow Girl sitting next to me. She was quiet, elegant, beautiful, intelligent. She was most definitely my Type, I noted. Did she really ask me out? And did I really say yes? Was this a date? What do I feel about all this? Surely this must be love?

Maybe she’s blind.


“Can you walk me home?”

We were intensely busy at the UCLA Film School. Animation students, live-action students, production students all work long hours all through the day and night to keep their productions afloat. The animation students had it a little better: all our work is done indoors, without moving around too much. Give us the animation crane, or a desk in the computer lab, and we have every tool we need to get our work done. Live-action students on the other hand were constantly checking in and out heavy equipment – cameras, lights, reels, dollies – and lugging them all over campus or the city of Los Angeles to do their shoots.

Though there is a certain glamor attached to the lifestyle of the live-action film students, I preferred the quiet lifestyle of the animator: working in the labs late into the night and walking back home in the early hours.

“Can you walk me home?”, she said.

It had been a few days since the Chinese Movie. I had not seen Mellow Girl around. Now there she was, asking me out again in the moonlight at 2 AM. Surely this must be love?

“Y-yes, definitely.”, I said gallantly.

I have always admired guys who were able to hold smooth and spontaneous conversations with attractive females. In my case, any encounter with a gorgeous girl – if she was my type - always led to instantaneous shell-shock. The two lobes of the brain fused, and my mind went blank. I have always wondered why evolution set things up this way. Perhaps it was to ensure that gorgeous women always ended up only with smooth guys, I thought.

How incredibly unfair, I mused bitterly as I stumbled through the campus, alongside Mellow Girl, struggling to get a few words out through my incapacitated brain. She seemed to not notice any of this and chatted away about her day merrily. She talked about the film she was working on, the difficult professor, the new furniture she had bought at a discount. “Surely.”, “Indubitably.”, “quite”, “Yeap”, “Uh-huh”, was the best I could offer to mix up the conversation.

“Would you like to see my apartment?” We were standing in front of her apartment building at 2.33 AM.

“W-hy?”, I was suddenly alarmed. Perhaps she wanted to show off her new furniture?

Remarkably, I saw my feet walk themselves up the stairs a few steps behind Mellow Girl. “Yeap. I shall see this apartment. I certainly am interested to see the type of furniture natives of this country use..”.

I froze at the doorway as Mellow Girl opened the door, and turned on the lights. My eyes lingered on the large pile of clothes that lay on the floor. Still standing at the doorway, my eyes then fell on the dirty dishes stacked in the sink. They looked like they had been accumulating all week. There were dirty socks lying around the couches. The entire apartment looked an unholy mess. My mouth twisted in confusion and agony as I tried to reconcile beautiful Mellow Girl, with this beastly-looking apartment.

My horror must have shown on my face.

I do not recall clearly if I showed myself the door, or if the door was shut on my face, but I found myself walking to my own apartment sadly, soon after. I would like to have seen the furniture.

A few weeks later when I saw her sitting next to a film truck and smoking a cigarette, love abruptly ended. I never cared for beautiful girls that smoked cigarettes. Even if they were my type.

The near-close encounter had its effect on me. “No more close-encounters. And definitely no more evaluating apartment furniture!” I resolved. I need to focus on my prime objective: study animation. So, I learned to willfully avoid beautiful women that were, ‘my Type’. The campus had a fair share of them. I ducked, dodged, and weaved around them.

The months rolled by.


Life of the animation student

Life moved on, full steam ahead, busy with animation classes and projects. The graduate program in animation is a program that encompasses studies in live-action film making, television, and screenwriting, in addition to animation. So, there were classes in storyboarding, screenwriting, sound editing, cinematography, computer classes, television production, papers in film criticism, film design, drawing for animation, and many other minor classes.

A hand-drawn animated film is done at 24 frames per second. That is, for every second of animation, the animator has to draw an average of 12 drawings, as each drawing is shot twice. That’s a lot of drawings to sketch out. And then clean up, scan, paint, and composite. An animator has to not only love to draw but more importantly, have a passion for telling stories. The will to draw disappears after the first hundred drawings. It’s the passion to tell the story burning in his head, that pushes him past the first hundred. Only that passion can hold him through the long days and nights in the lab slaving over drawing tables, scanners, computers..

Animation these days are a largely computer-related affair, with little or no manual drawing ever made. Still, some aspects of animation can be a very tedious effort. Outsiders are surprised at the amount of work it takes to create an animated film, even if it’s short animations that we did as graduate students at UCLA.

My passion to tell stories knew no bounds. I have been -without taking it too seriously technically a ‘storyteller’ since at least my fifth grade. My biggest joy had always been when I would show my comic book stories that I had hand-drawn and stapled together and published around the classroom. By the tenth grade, I had created approximately 25 comics, with rich characters, and adventures.

In college in addition to still entertaining my classmates with comics, I had started publishing comic strips in Indian magazines and national newspapers. These also were rich with characters, personalities, and stories.

It was on the strength of these past works that I had been selected to the prestigious Animation program of the UCLA film school.

Like myself, the other 14 students that made up my cohort of graduate students too were working hard on their films.

Now in this film school, I slaved away on an extremely long animation film. The story was about ‘God’ creating his finest creation, the human. The film had God, as a mad-scientist housed within a large Hindu temple, a talking dinosaur, a baby, Albert Einstein, and many other ideas. “Genius ideas!”, Cheerful Friend would marvel. I glowed at the attention of my friends.

The film festival hosted by UCLA Film school at the end of each year is an exuberant presentation of all live-action and animation films made that year. It is also very competitive, as the best films get the attention of studios in Los Angeles. Many careers start at the film festival.

My ambitious animation film about ‘God’ got a very mute reception at the UCLA film festival, at the end of the first year. As clever as some of the ideas might have been, there were significant story problems in it. I was crushed.


Creative failure and dealing with it

The consolation of any failed creative project is the vain notion that even though the project failed, and lots of time, effort, and money was lost, at least, “..One proved to oneself that one was capable of conceiving, planning, and executing complex creative projects. The experience alone is worth the time, money, and energy spent.”

Sadly, the unsaid fact is that the cost of a failed creative project is also bitterness, a steep drop in self-esteem, and lower confidence in starting a new one.

I noticed how some other students – Americans in particular – handled rejection and failure differently. I noticed that instead of going into a deep depression or a funk like myself, these folk were able to ‘bounce back’ stronger after just a couple of days.

As an Indian, I did not have that superpower to bounce back so quickly. My culture however did endow me with advanced techniques in suppressing my feelings, and in putting on airs of bravado. So, most of my friends did not notice that I was actually quite depressed.  Not all were fooled, however.

Was there something in the Indian mentality that encouraged fatalistic thinking, and brooding over unhealthily?

“Your Next animation film will be amazing; I am sure of it.” Driven Animator told me, patting my shoulders, encouragingly. Driven Animator was a supremely confident student. So confident in fact, that he spent all his energies the past year in simply improving his raw animation skills – drawing, and making simple motions, instead of a real animated film with a real story in it. In a year he had compiled a reel that had over twenty simple motions. Not good for a film festival, but really good to show off pure animation talent to a studio.

Being on that campus filled with big and small personalities coming from various walks of life, and very different cultures and countries, I quickly began to fill my personal notebooks with things I was learning about life and life experiences through their unique viewpoints. Everyone had something to contribute to my notebook.

From Boiler Man I learned that it was possible to live without taking life so seriously and enjoy the lighter moments as much as the achievements.

From Happy Friend, I learned that it is okay to pursue a career that is meaningful to oneself, rather than for just material gains.

From Surfer Friend I learned to take in coffee in great quantities.

From Calm Friend I learned that for some people, recycling trash has an almost religious significance – I have seen her wash empty cartons before depositing them into the properly marked recycle bins.

From Neat Friend, I learned to enjoy teas other than chai. That it’s possible to boil up random dried leaves and flowers and call it, ‘tea’.

From Debit the dog, I learned that the happiest beings on earth were not people. They are well-cared pets in American households.


My first love

It was coffee.

The first sips were confusing. Bitter and strong. The coffee- taken black- had none of the characteristics of the beloved Madras-coffee, that great standard-bearer of Indian coffees. Could this tar-like substance really be the liquid American people were walking up and down the streets of LA with?

Surfer Friend brought in a coffee maker into the computer lab, and introduced me to the best coffee in the world, according to him. ‘French Roast. Mmmm..’ The aroma from the brewing coffee was very appealing. But like all coffees – with the exception of Madras coffee - , there was that great disconnect: the reality of the taste never matched the promise of the aroma. So, I was disappointed.

Surfer Friend took a sip and uttered that phrase all coffee drinkers in the US offer: “Mmm.. that’s good coffee.”

I settled on milder and tastier varieties. With my friends in the lab, we would walk downstairs to the vending machines and get coffee mocha (coffee with chocolate), coffee Vienna (coffee infused with whipped cream), coffee Latte (coffee with steamed milk) were swigged in large quantities.

It would take years until I learned to drink coffee – black, and genuinely enjoy it. But that is another story.


Coffee culture

In India, when you need to drink coffee or tea, you drink it sitting down or standing by the vendor, gulping it down as fast as possible, put down the glass on the counter with a clunk, suck air through your teeth registering satisfaction, and you dash off energized.

In the US, you carry the coffee with you.

I first saw the coffee mug in Paul’s van. It was nestled in a mug-holder next to the stick-shift. His beloved dog, ‘Debit’ was in the back seat – Paul is a Chartered Accountant. As we drove around Hollywood boulevard, I watched with marvel as he swerved the van about the busy streets steering with just his left hand, while taking contemplative swigs of coffee with his right.

Initially, I had assumed that this was a Paul-specific behavior. Very quickly I realized that the entire streets of Los Angeles were filled with good people walking about up and down with a coffee mug in hand! And in cars people were not only drinking (coffee) and driving, but also eating sandwiches, egg salads, hamburgers, foot-long subs, nachos, and potato chips while driving at 70 miles an hour on the freeways! This was truly an American habit.

I wanted in. Particularly the part of walking on the street with a coffee mug in hand. “café méditation dans la rue.”, as Neat Friend would comment.

Walking with a hot steaming mug of coffee without spilling was tricky. Several coffee stains later, I got it right. The trick I realized, was to use my background in Physics. By holding the arm very loose, I found, the energy of the walking body dispersed off, before reaching the mug. It allowed the wrist holding the mug to use its own inertia to sustain its stability. Like a Steadicam, Neat Friend mused. “Comme un Steadicam”. She was a live-action student, who knew her cameras.


Land of dull clothing

Growing up in India, I had always wondered: “Why does Jughead have only one outfit?” Or for that matter, why do all American comic book characters have the same outfit? Does Jughead’s wardrobe cabinet have 10 of the same ugly sweater with a J written on it?

Now walking among my new friends in the US, I looked around and saw that everyone had a unique sense of individualized fashion. And each of them chose just about the same outfit every day of the week. Their wardrobes must have manifold copies of the same jeans, black sweaters, green shawls, brown jackets, striped pants, and polka-dotted socks.

In contrast to this dull monochromatic look, I on the other hand had arrived in the US with 2 luggage filled with a dozen varieties of shirts and jeans. Each was distinct in pattern, color, and texture. This was not because I was particularly fashionable. It was because I was Indian. In India, we still had a distinctly Indian style of outfitting: Pinstriped shirts, plaid blues on fuchsia. We dressed to impress.

Here in Los Angeles, the center of the entertainment industry, I noted with amazement that people were unpretentious in how they dressed. Dressing to impress was held off for special occasions like parties, clubs, other social gatherings, and Halloween. But during the daytime, people settled into their monochromatic character wear. Many looked positively shabby.

I had a hard time simplifying my outfit to find my own character wear. So, I relied on my friends to advise me in these matters. And they jumped into my rescue.

Within the next few months, piece by piece, my transformation occurred.

Cheerful Friend bought me a wonderful vest. I wore it over my pinstriped shirts. Cherished Friend supplied me with a neat sheriff’s badge from the novelty store down the street. Happy Friend got me a jacket for my birthday. I walked about campus strutting about like a curious-looking Indian sheriff. East Indian.

While I was settling into my character outfit, I noticed one particular girl that seemed to change her character outfit every few days.


I notice “Her and the green eyes”

‘“She” was petite with a wonderful figure, thick lustrous chestnut brown hair, olive skin, a terrific smile, a dimple in “Her” chin, and emerald green eyes.

One week I would see “Her” with a Parisian red artist hat and a green shawl; another week “She’d” be in a stunning red dress with an open back that showed off a well-toned shoulder. And another week “She’d” be in a bohemian look with a large grungy jacket and long skirts that swept the floors.

“She” was one of the few students with a multi-character outfit around the campus.

I wondered who ‘“She” with the green eyes was. Probably a new student that joined the film school recently, I assumed.


Beautiful people

Cherished Friend in the meanwhile, was a true one-character outfit woman.

I had met Cherished Friend through a male friend of hers, whom I had, in turn, met in a cinematography class. UCLA Animation students take a vast variety of classes outside of animation, to get a well-rounded education. I had apparently made quite an impression with this male friend, that he took the time to introduce me to Cherished Friend.

Cherished Friend was not in the animation program, but we quickly bonded. She was laid back, focused on her film studies, attractive, with a lovely child-like smile.

Almost every day when she had a break from her classes, she would pop into the animation lab looking for me.

“Why?” I could not stop wondering. Why me?

“Sunil is always surrounded by beautiful girls!” Boiler Man would say more than once, with amazement. Boiler Man was an older student, who had spent years in the animation industry and had returned to school, to develop his skills more. He drew the best, in my cohort. I was always intimidated by his skill level in animation. But in return, he was one of the kindest and most cheerful people I knew in my group.

In hindsight, I attributed my charms to a combination of a perpetual sunny attitude (thanks to my feeling of relief and thrill of having made it to the US after my trials), and native naiveté.

Western societies, for all their glorious achievements in equality, fraternity, and high standards of living is quite a jaded group, I had noted almost as soon as I had begun to live in the US. Cynicism, sarcasm, and self-deprecation were the key qualities of most if not all young individuals. The movies and TV shows reflected this. Friends, Seinfeld, Beavis & Butthead, South Park were just the beginning of decades of this style of social self-reflection.

In contrast to this, my positivity and exuberance must have seemed tiresome to some, but likely delighted others.

“Sunil, do not lose your wonderful child-like innocence,” I remember Melody telling me as I was settling into their beautiful Hollywood home. I had landed in the US only a week before, and I was to stay with them for a month before moving to my lodgings near the campus. What she had meant was, “Don’t let the US make you jaded.”

Now having lived more than a quarter of a century in the US, and having gone through several difficult times in my life and career in that period, I no longer look fresh-faced and just-fallen-off-the sky. Still, I am quite foolish to the ways of the world, as my wife dutifully reminds me every so often. "Thontito!", she would punctuate her statement.

This has helped me in my work. The source of creativity, I have discovered, comes from being in a profound sense of wonderment, curiosity, and a feeling of foolishness. But that is a story for another time.

Cherished Friend and I walked all about campus talking about nearly everything under the sun. Movies, politics, film making, Hollywood, art, food, culture, comics. She had lots of ideas and opinions about all these matters. And I told her that. “You are the most opinionated person I know”, I said. I did not see her for a week after that. I learned that my knowledge of the nuances of spoken English needs to develop further. I used that week of absence from Cherished Friend to brush up.

The campus had several book shops. Many held Sales on weekends. I picked up as many books as my monthly allowance would support. Comic books, short stories, anthropology, sociology, science were my favorite topics.

I loved my conversations with Cherished Friend. It was like having a wonderful friend to whom anything could be said. Within limits, of course. She was a girl, after all. We watched movies, had tea, coffee, lunch, at various restaurants on campus, and we helped each other’s projects.



I heard the word first, from Happy Friend. She was one of my close friends in my cohort. What you have with Cherished Friend is a platonic relationship. Ie, a close friendship with no ‘physical’ matters to complicate things.

This is what the carpenter from Italy was talking about, I suddenly remembered. It suited my mindset quite well.

There were certain topics that we did not bring up. We did not talk about each other’s families. Or friends. Nor did we talk about relationships.

We were just two students fully engrossed in each other’s company and interests, helping each other with a space to relax in peaceful conversation, in the middle of our hectic lives as graduate students.

And just like that, one day, Cherished Friend disappeared. From my life. Was it her program that had ended? Was it some trouble in her circles that I had not been privy to? Was it something I had said? Had one of us inadvertently edged into the special boundary of the platonic relationship?

In Hindu mythology, there are several stories about the curse that is placed in a relationship. It goes roughly like this: If the couple can enjoy each other’s company with no physical contact, they may live forever. But if one of them transgresses that sacred boundary, the woman would ignite into flames and disappear for good.

I looked around the campus for what looked like charcoal. Nope, her program must have ended, I mused sadly.

Life on campus moved on.


Mounting pressures

The cost of calling Kerala, India was $2.50 per minute. It was heart-wrenching to talk to loved ones back home by counting seconds and minutes. I would set up a small timer next to me before I called. The stress was greatest on my mother. “Be brief! Talk quickly!”, she would caution. How was it possible to talk to my beloved family that I had not seen in over ten months quickly?

I resorted to writing letters. I wrote pages. No female friends were mentioned. My conservative family would not know how to handle reports of Cherished Friend, Happy Friend, or the Amazing Song Lady. I stuck to reports of male friends only.

The conspicuous absence of female folk in my letters must have triggered a tiny alarm in my intensely intuitive mother. She knew her eldest son more than anyone else in the world.

In the next phone call home, my mother was uncharacteristically brief with monosyllabic responses. “Hmm..”, “Good..”, “Nice..”. She was clearly able to detect an anomaly in my writing. I should have included at least one female in my letter, to throw off any suspicion, I winced.


The incredibly eligible bachelor lands home

The newspapers announced my arrival back home. “Sunil arrives from Hollywood.”, went the headlines, roughly.

The fragmentation of newspapers into city editions had not happened yet. So, everyone throughout the length and breadth of the state of Kerala learned of the prodigal son of animation. My struggles to get into animation, and the journey to ‘Hollywood’, had been featured before my trip to the US. Now, these newspapers were keen on reporting about my progress when I came home for a visit. This was also due to the enthusiastic support of Mr.Verghese, a very close family friend and a senior editor of the top newspaper of the state. He made sure that his best reporters and photographers knew of my arrival.

One such photographer was a young man who possessed a calm and focus that I noticed in particular. He was well dressed, trim, spoke softly, did his work in the drawing-room of our family home efficiently, politely declined tea my mother offered, and left me feeling proud that our state of Kerala produced not just animators, but also journalists with grace and professionalism.

I recalled this young photographer again, several years later when the same newspaper reported his violent death while on duty, as he was tragically caught in a mudslide in Kerala during an unusually fierce monsoon.

Phones would keep ringing off the hook during my trips home. Reporters, a local TV channel, cousins, my maternal uncle, my father’s friends, an odd film director, the local schools that wanted me to come to talk. Everyone wanted a piece of me.

The field I was in being a source of great magic and mystery, often led to great comic confusion.

Was I working with Steven Spielberg? “Y-es.. But not directly. He has thousands of people he works with.”

Did I not animate the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park? “No, no, no… I animated some of the dinosaurs in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, the video game.”

What was it like, working with Spielberg in Jurassic Park? “Actually, I did not work in Jurassic Park. I just told you that a moment ago.”

How often did I meet Spielberg? “Oh, do ask me something new.”

In one newspaper there was a picture of me shaking hands with Walter Lantz, the great American cartoonist who created Woody Woodpecker, and a childhood hero of mine. Mr.Lantz was in his 90’s at that time. The caption said, “Sunil Thankamushy meets Stephen Spillburger”.

While my mother beamed with pride at the extraordinary attention her son was getting, the role of the ego-buster fell on my father. This was a role that always came quite naturally to him, and he took it on with great relish. “This is all temporary”, he would say as he lowered his newspaper, and glanced at me. “Don’t pay attention to all this.” “Be like a mountain. Don’t let praises raise you. Don’t let criticisms lower you.” Words of wisdom I would recall several times the next few decades during times of great turmoil in my life. But that’s a different story.

In the meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, certain folk in my family were noticing certain indicators of great significance: Sunil is 24 years old and is a most eligible bachelor. They rubbed their hands together and gave each other knowing glances.


The wedding wheels get set in motion

Indian society revolves around weddings. The Raison de Vivre. It is what families look forward to, and count the days towards.

Curiously, in my observation, it is not the immediate family that is the most interested in weddings. Weddings are after all a very emotionally draining affair in India. And life-altering. And family altering. And extremely expensive.

It is family members in the very next circle – the uncles, the aunts – that move the wheels of this great paraphernalia with the greater enthusiasm. In my case, at the head of this paraphernalia stood my maternal uncle Babu.


Uncle’s Joy, Uncle’s Pride

My maternal uncle Babu was one of the most joyous, jovial, amicable, and boisterous people I knew in my family. Tall, lean, energetic, curly-haired, he walked with a long-paced stride, and a spring in his step as if each day was his day to express his overabundant zest for life. He was child-like in his exuberance for life, with a big smile always ready at hand, and loud and explosive laughter. He was a much-loved scion of a prominent family. As the only male child of my grandfather, he took his roles with great zest.

Uncle Babu cared deeply for relations and relationships. His network of friends was wide and vast, and his social network of relationships that he had nurtured over his lifetime grew to the several thousand up and down the state of Kerala, and outside as well. Politicians, police, businessmen, traders, farmers, priests, drunkards – all were among his close network of friends.

Uncle Babu was the person people came to when they needed help. For introductions to get jobs, connections to get close to prominent families for marriage needs, negotiations with local toughs to extricate people in trouble, and more. Much more. Every few years I would hear of yet another daring exploit by my Uncle Babu or a clandestine operation he undertook to help someone. All this risk and liability for absolutely no benefits other than the satisfaction of yet another eternally grateful human being in his social network.

My father was always exasperated with Uncle Babu and his antics, as he put it. He did not understand the lifestyle of someone at the exact opposite end of the spectrum of his own. But Uncle Babu was my mother’s younger brother, and so he ground his teeth and learned to tolerate Uncle Babu.

Years later, when my Uncle Babu was doomed to go through possibly the most devastating of conditions, and his health deteriorated every passing week, my father was seen to stand silently in the hospital corridor and sob silently and passionately, at the horror and the unfairness of fate. But I digress..

Maternal uncles have a particularly elevated role in certain south-Indian societies. In olden times, within some castes of my state, it is Uncle Babu’s daughter I might have wed traditionally. This was an unsettling piece of information I had come across in my childhood, and it had rattled me quite severely. In current times, however, maternal uncles such as Uncle Babu were the ones charged with the roles and responsibilities of taking the lead in the greatest wedding he would organize for the family to date: Sunil’s.

And he jumped into this role with the greatest of gusto.


The formula for the arranged marriage

The formula for the arranged marriage – roughly- is to match boys educated in computer science, engineering, MBA, medicine, or civil services, with girls educated in roughly the same, or similarly prestigious sectors. The socioeconomic statuses of the families need to match. The castes of the boy and the girl have to match. Horoscopes of both parties need to show planetary alignment. And then, of course, there is the matter of the height of the boy, the complexion of the girl, the straightness of the nose, etc, etc. All these variables fit into the formula that determines the ‘match’.

Any variation outside these narrowly circumscribed values would cause a mismatch, and those unfortunate souls would have a hard time going through the rituals of social life.

The formula of Life in general – roughly - also is articulated to near-precision. Men should get a job as soon as they are out of college, get married soon after. Women needed to get married by 24, according to the formula. Children should be borne within the first three years of marriage. They should come out, ‘pop’, ‘pop’, ‘pop’, as one relative had clarified for me. All this to make sure that by 30 the caravan of their life was set in motion. Continuing on, people should retire at 55, and then move back to their native village and live in the grand country home they should have constructed by then. To guarantee succession of this plan to the next generation, their children too should be encouraged to stick to the same timelines for themselves.



Ordinarily, when the US-settled Indian boy comes home, he is paraded with a range of suitable girls arranged by the families, on an occasion loosely translated as, ‘girl-viewing’. Admittedly it sounds crude in English, but then most subtle Indian ideas do tend to be seen as jarring and alien when seen via the sanitized lens of the west.

The occasion is semi-formal. The matchmaker and the two families arrange a day for the event. On that day, the boy’s family arrives at the girl’s home with his parents and very close relatives. All are dressed splendidly. The boy might be encouraged to show off his sophistication by wearing fashionable clothes.

The more sophisticated the boy, the more nonchalantly he would sit. No one wants a provincial bumpkin for a son-in-law.

In my childhood, I have witnessed many comedic events during this format, including the case of my cousin who proudly sat in the living room with a large glittering golden watch. Every few minutes he would stretch out his right arm with a wiggle, and bring his wrist close to his face to study the watch. No one else knew the significance of this action. Peeking through the crowd of onlookers I alone knew. The watch was Seiko. How else could he draw attention to that expensive gem of a watch that he possessed?

This show is the Indian equivalent of young Maasai men from Africa springing up and down in vertical leaps holding spears, in front of girls, to show off their virility, and impressing the girls in hopes of getting a wife.

The girl, demure, or pretending to be, eyes cast to the ground, would come in carrying a tray of tea to offer the gentlemen.

The gentlemen, particularly the elder ones, would take in the charms of the girl, with a big open-jaw smile, demonstrating their approval of the potential match at this early ‘optics’ stage.

The boy may glance at the girl briefly, still holding on to his dignity by struggling to not break away from the posturing of indolence he has been exhibiting. The girl may after all be a post-graduate in medicine, engineering, or computer science. In many cases, she may be more qualified than he. He squirms in his seat and postures a bit more, to assert his dominance in the event.

This ‘girl-viewing’ may be done with five to twenty-five other prospective partners before all parties are fully agreed on the ‘match’ and the marriage has been ‘arranged’.

This format has changed slightly over the past dozen years, to suit current levels of sophistication in Indian middle and upper-middle-class society.


What to do with Sunil?

I was an oddity.

My relatives were not quite sure how I fit into this structure and formula. My academic background was quite perplexing and vexing, to the average Indian. Engineering, medicine, architecture, computer science, they could understand. But animation? Games? A career in Hollywood? There certainly was glamor, but how would it translate into the formula? But then there were all those newspaper articles to account for. My relatives scratched their heads.

Babu Uncle certainly did have hushed conversations with my parents, but there was also the matter of a certain level of disinterest shown by me in the entire matter.

I had always been different, and had, ‘marched to my own drummer’, as had been described as such by a recent magazine article.

And there was the ever-present fear: Was there a ‘madamma’ in Sunil’s life that he is waiting to spring the family with? Oh, the horror! Was that why Sunil was pretending to be so detached, from this most important step in his life?

Babu Uncle had had a certain figure in his head: The value of how much this most eligible nephew of his would get as a dowry. Though the term is never used, money certainly changed hands as the girl’s family gifts her with significant wealth to start off their life, in the form of 22-carat gold ornaments that she would deck herself with during the wedding, and gifts the boy (or the boy’s lucky father) with an expensive car. He had indicated the number to me recently. My head had reeled, and my stomach had lurched.

After a month’s vacation, I flew back to the US, having partaken in no ‘girl-viewing’, to the silent disappointment of my relatives. Privately, I was distraught at having let down my family from having partaken in what might have been proud moments, they could have reminisced over, for years and years. I felt particularly bad for Babu Uncle. I had deprived him of the thrill, the most.

My father thankfully was not particularly upset. He had papers to write, concepts for more environmental measurement equipment to design, and some new classes to develop in the local university. There was another university all the way in Mumbai he had been invited to teach a class in as well.


I notice “Her with the green eyes”, smile

At first, I had assumed that “She” was a very friendly person in general. Why else would I be graced with the smile? I smiled back. I had often seen “Her” around in “Her” bohemian outfits. Though grunge was the rage of the time, and most film students were clothed in it, “She” looked strikingly different with “Her” bohemian-looking hats, skirts, and pants.

Vintage clothing was a thing at that time. Ie, one could go into a vintage outfit store, and purchase pre-used clothes. Many of my friends used to get their threads that way. Using vintage clothing, one could assemble a ‘look’ that matched their inner perception of themselves. The ‘ensemble’ could make one look like the intellectual writer type, the surfer look, the preppie look, the hippie look, the trucker look, the hooker look..

Using clothes to intentionally create an ensemble allowed one to develop the ‘character’ they wanted to project to the world. This I thought, was a very liberating idea. However, the notion of wearing someone else’s discards did not sit well with me then. Vintage or not.

In retrospect, I now think that Vintage certainly is one of the ways forward in the menu of things to do to reduce global waste, and run-away consumerism. But I digress.

After some hours of analysis, I realized that there was something in that smile that had been directed particularly at me. The eyes had been holding on to me a few frames more than was normal. 8 frames, in fact. Animators develop an acute sensitivity in Timing.

I had my doubts about “Her”, however.  “She” had a cool bohemian vibe, but seemed a bit too much of a hippie to me. I was not sure if “She” was my Type.


I try not to be a stalker

It was late at night. 10 PM. I needed to know how to place cameras in a scene in the 3D animation film I was making at the animation program. This was my thesis film. Though as animation students we learn a lot about camera positioning during Storyboarding classes, I felt my knowledge about how to make engaging camera cuts were not where it needed to be. Who else to ask, but live-action film students?

I walked the halls towards the editing rooms. Live-action film students dominate those rooms all day, and all night cutting their films. This evening, the rooms were empty. Except for one of them. And in it, was “Her”.

Something about “Her” presence caused me to lose my nerve. I walked right past the door. After walking the entire length of the hall, I did a U-turn and walked back. I needed to know the answer to my question regarding camera placements.

As I walked closer to “Her” editing room, I noticed genuine discomfort in me. I walked past again.

My self-image was at stake. I would not make a fool of myself walking back and forth someone’s editing bay like some creepy stalker.

And more troublingly, why was I having anxieties with this girl? This never happens to me no matter how attractive someone was. It was a problem only with girls-of-my-Type.

Did my Spirit know something my Mind could not?

I walked in, taking care not to trip.


It begins

Once I got to talk, the conversation flowed. I asked about the camera placement issue, and she gave me an answer that was surprising, not quite satisfactory. Live-action film students, still are students. They too are just learning the craft, after all, I surmised.

There was one other question I wanted to ask Her. What were typical career options for a live-action film student after schooling, was what I wanted to ask. Yes, this would be a good thing to know, in my own understanding of the movie industry, I thought. Always aim for a well-rounded knowledge, my professor Dan had told us.

“What are your plans for the rest of your life?”

I shut my mouth as soon as I heard the words tumble out of my mouth.


Connectivity issues

One of the highlights in campus life for me was going to lunch in the campus cafeteria. Or going to lunches in the dozens of restaurants around the campus. After a lifetime of eating rice, curd-rice, dal, masala dosa, idli, puttu, chappati, fried rice, spinach curry, kadala curry, sambar, rasam; I was now treated to a veritable feast of cuisines from all parts of the world.

I have always been a big fan of food. This explosion in my cuisine possibilities was heaven served on plates.  Mongolian, Italian, French, Thai, Philipino, Chinese, Indonesian, African, American.. I was in heaven.

Though I did not mind going to grab food alone, as I did most times, I most enjoyed going out with a small group of close friends. This was when rich conversation added the next dimension of enjoyment at the table.

“She with the green eyes” walked up to me, around noon and asked if I was free to have lunch with “Her” at the campus cafeteria. I was standing in the hallway with my classmates discussing a matter about compositing 2-dimensional images over 3-dimensional art.

I suddenly felt self-conscious. I felt foolish about blatantly stopping my conversation with my friends, and ditching them abruptly to go have lunch with this pretty woman.

I politely declined, while I suffered greatly for it. The discussion about compositing images raged on. I was silent and distracted for the rest of the conversation.

Remarkably, “She” came up to me again a few more times the next two weeks seeing if I wanted to join “Her” and “Her” friends for something or the other – lunch, coffee from the vending machines downstairs,..

Each time I wanted to shout out a YES. But there was something or the other going on at exactly the same time that prevented it. I was either helping out a student in my capacity as a tutor, in the middle of a group project, or heading to class. I was vexed at the situation.

That is when I felt for the first time, that there was something cosmic about what was happening here. I felt very cold.


Something cosmic happening here

In my life, I have never received anything easily. Except for the natural gifts that I was born with, nothing else came to me without extraordinary struggles. The universe just would not let me have something without putting up a big fight.

At that moment, standing in the hallway looking at this beautiful woman and declining her offer a fourth time, I recalled my JK Uncle’s words from some years ago: “You will be made to suffer through all the gates of hell, one at a time, before you achieve any big goal. That seems to be your fate.”

I suddenly felt fearful. Something huge was brewing in the cosmos relating to this Woman and me.

I determined to not taunt the cosmos, stay out of trouble, and stay away from “Her”.


The Wonderful Song Lady Cometh

Two weeks later, Amazing Song Lady informed me one day with great enthusiasm that I should ask “Her with the green eyes” out. I felt a jolt of shock. How could the Amazing Song Lady have known about “Her and I”? Was the Cosmos taunting me, by bringing in new characters to push me into action with “Her”? I stayed silent. But the stress in my wide eyes may have shown.

I later found out that Amazing Song Lady and “She”, took classes together. They may have talked.

Two days later, Amazing Song Lady invited me to a small get-together of film students.

“Sure! Where is this get-together?”

At the green-eyed girl’s house, I was informed.

My face went pale. Cosmos was moving things forward, and orchestrating my future, with or without me.

These were the final months of my graduate program at the UCLA animation program. Along with my cohorts in the animation program, I was busy with all my projects, deadlines, thesis work, and presentations. Most importantly, there was the film festival at the end of the Spring semester, when the entire film school – including animation, and live-action - students show their final films to the public. The public included friends and family members of the film school students, students from all across UCLA, people that lived in the neighborhood around UCLA. And recruiters from the film and animation industries. It is a high-stress and high excitement occasion. The dream is to attract the attention of a Hollywood recruiter at the film festival and get immediately hired.

The animation industry was booming in those years. It was what came to be known as the second golden age of animation. Toy Story had been released recently, and there was talk of more studios being set up to create 3D animation films.

My dream was to get into a new studio that had been in the news recently. Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen had dreamt up a brand-new studio that was to engage in live-action, animation, music, television, and games! This was the biggest news in Hollywood. Getting into DreamWorks, was indeed my secret dream. I needed to have a good show at the film festival. And I could not waste any time with any beautiful girl, Cosmic or not.

Yet, I went to the get-together. No one fights the Cosmos, and wins.


Home of Marilyn Monroe.

It was a long walk up the Hollywood Hills to Her house, from the bus stop. The house originally belonged to Andre De Dienes, one of the most famous photographers of Marilyn Monroe. It was a very long single-story building, nestled on the hillside, with a cold stone floor, wooden and stucco walls, French doors, fireplaces, and an eerie feeling in the damp and cold hallways. There was a dark room where the late photographer worked, with a shelf on which was enigmatically carved, ‘M.M’. Several Marilyn Monroe photographs hung on the walls, many of them iconic. Marilyn Monroe apparently frequented this house, for the photography sessions.

The house was currently owned by folk that lived further up the hill in a stunning fortress of a mansion and had been renting the Dienes house to UCLA students. And in this house lived Her.

“This house has the spirit of Marilyn”, She said as she served me smoked fish on crackers. A variety of them had been arranged on a large silver platter in circular patterns. I did not care much for smoked fish, but the food was curiously satisfying.

There was film equipment, including a Canon Scoopic 16mm camera in the corner. Books by Borges, Campbell, Castaneda, Paz, Yogananda, and others sat stacked neatly on her bookshelf. Bohemian clothes hung from a rack. Scented candles and incense burned on the window sill. And I spied a deck of tarot cards on her table. And what did I feel about this beautiful woman with an oddly raspy voice, gentle smile, alluring green eyes, and the demeanor of a diva?  Who was this woman?


Mexican Independence Day

The first official Date was on Mexican Independence Day. She came into the animation lab on time as agreed, looking stunning with scarlet lipstick, and an iridescent shirt with bright greens and yellows on it. The colors of the shirt matched her eyes. The cotton pants were some sort of bell-bottom, with pinstripes, the likes I had seen my cousins wear more than a decade ago in Kerala. It had not suited my cousins. But it suited Her perfectly.

We watched a movie starring Denzel Washington. She sat to my left, and I noticed that I was holding her hand. Odd, I thought. This feels very natural. I don’t feel the anxiety or anticipation that I had felt with Mellow Girl, or anyone else. I felt natural and at peace.

Later we walked on the Sunset Strip, holding hands. Low riders cruised about low and slow, blaring their horns, and pumping songs from the previous decades. The Mexicans living in Los Angeles always made it a point to display their presence in the city, and their Latin cultural pride during Mexican Independence Day. I cannot imagine the mixed feelings Latinos of Mexican descent may have to live in California. This land was, after all, a Mexican country a little over a hundred and fifty years ago. These cultural events may serve the need of exhibiting cultural pride for many Latinos, while still living rooted fully in the USA.


The problem with Her name

A date later, I realized I needed to confront my greatest fear of that week: I do not fully remember Her name.

Since I came to the US, I had developed a strange disability with people’s names. Names were easier in India. They were more colorful and provided a character sketch to the personality it adorned. When I met a “Ganesh”, I was quickly able to associate certain features of the face of this new person with the name. “Arun”, “Varun”, “Sita”, “Janaki”, “Vinod”, “Shyla”, “Meera”, “Gayatri” - all these had a particular coloring, texture, audio-signature, and cultural connotation with which I could map a face on to.

Even Christian or Muslim names - “Dennis”, “Anthony”, “Zacharia”, “Mohammed” – were distinct enough with plenty of syllables and audio-anchor points to associate to a face.

In the US, people like to abbreviate names. “Elizabeth” became Betty or Liz, “William” became Bill, “Robert” became Bob.

Wonderful, historic, and powerful sounding names – Alexander, Thomas, Christopher, Veronica, Jennifer – all got distilled, reduced, condensed, and minimalized into Alex, Tom, Chris, Ronnie, Jen.

For a highly visually-oriented person such as myself, this reduction caused havoc in my audio-video-mental complex. Meeting 3 different people named “Mike”, did not create any audio-visual impact on me.

Names are very special. To the person, their name is often the sweetest sounding word. People subconsciously appreciate it when you call them by name.  People consciously and often violently react when you mangle their name. Names are so special that in fact, in the US people routinely rename themselves if they don’t like the name their parents gave them.

I knew that “Her” name had reminded me of the wife of the Prince of Wales. The confusion was compounded by the fact that I had never been formally introduced to Her. We just got to know each other’s presence in the hallways of UCLA film school. Each time I heard her name called by a friend of hers, it was different. Some called her, “Di”. Another would call her, “Diannie”. A professor would call her, “Diane”. And a male friend of mine referred to her as, “a hot biscuit.” I was exasperated. I could have asked Amazing Song Woman of course, but that would be embarrassing.

So, I spent almost a month ducking, dodging, and weaving around conversations with her that needed to include her name. I secretly hoped that her name was the same as the princess of Wales. Which also happened to be the same as the wife of the Phantom, my all-time favorite comic book character. And that also happened to be the name of a powerful DC comic book character.

I would learn soon that her name indeed was, “Diana”.

Year of Dreams

Within a few months of meeting Diana, I got a job at DreamWorks, the hottest new studio in Los Angeles. I was appointed to the games division of the company in their new complex in Bel Air. I was to start as an animator creating motions for dinosaurs for a new game they were creating. My dream job had materialized. And I had a wonderful relationship with a green-eyed beauty.

All this, and I was still officially enrolled as a student at UCLA. Though I had completed course requirements, I wished to do one more short animation film as my thesis project.


The dream turns into a nightmare

“What was I thinking?” I could hear myself say out under my breath in cold panic every other day as I biked to work from UCLA.

“What am I doing? Do I intend to marry this woman? How can this ever work out? What will my parents think? What will my relatives think?” In those dizzy months, I had conveniently overlooked the hard reality: in India, no one marries outside of their community, unless they want to be completely ostracized. Even pre-marital relationships were completely taboo and utterly discouraged. Only very sophisticated upper-class folk, and Bollywood folk could get away with it because after all, they did not live in reality.

I decided to end the relationship. This was going to be very difficult. I braced myself for a very complicated conversation ending in tears, heartache, angst, and sadness.


The attempt to break the relationship

“Okay.” She said.

I was speechless.

That was it? That was easy, I thought as soon as she had uttered it. I felt relieved.

But something about the way she said it, troubled me. Was there a glint in her eye? Did I detect a shade of amusement in her tone?

Diana disappeared from my life. After five days, I began to feel the torrent of the classic emotions in five discreet packages. Shock, denial, guilt, anger, and finally, depression.

I would see her in the hallways. She would pass me by. She would smile, but it was the same friendly wide smile she gave her other friends. I had been turned off. We were strangers again.

Two torturous weeks passed.  Work at DreamWorks suffered. As a junior animator on the Lost World: Jurassic Park game, I had been given the task of animating dinosaurs. I needed to prove my worth in my first months at the job. Though I got into the studio effortlessly thanks to my work done at the UCLA animation program, I had been feeling a bit out of depth. The software they used at DreamWorks was new to me. The expectations they had placed on me were quite high. I had to match the quality of other seasoned animators in my team. The void in my heart made my work sluggish, and my dinosaurs moved like sloths.

I have always been amazed by people that claim to turn a personal loss into a fountain of productivity at work. They were able to gather themselves and put their heart and soul into their work, to overcome the pain. The loss makes them work harder, it was said. This is not something I could relate to. For me to do any work, particularly creative work, I need to be happy. I need to feel the joy of life flowing through my veins, to give me the focus, and produce anything worthwhile.

I did not see Diana in the hallways when I would visit UCLA in the evenings. Perhaps she had taken classes at odd times.

I called her phone. It kept going to her voicemail. Could we meet up, just once? I would leave a message. After seven or so messages the cold realization came to me that I may have lost that amazing woman for good. My dinosaur at work continued to wobble. My producer would sigh silently and raise an eyebrow as he reviewed my work. Had I made a mistake, hiring this Indian fellow? I could hear him think.

I asked Amazing Song Lady about Diana. She too did not know much, she said in her melodious musical speech. I felt truly lost.

It had been a solid month of no contact with Diana. On a Saturday afternoon, I caught the Sunset Boulevard bus to the Hollywood Hills. As the bus wound its way through Beverly Hills and straightened its path through Sunset Strip, I tormented myself with dark thoughts: What if Diana had left town? Would I find her house empty?

She was sweeping her rooms with a wide broom. Her white love-bird Ponchito sat on her shoulder. As soon as she saw me, she smiled that big smile. As if nothing had happened between us. And as if she was expecting me that very day. At that moment, Ponchito flew at my face twittering angrily and flapping her wings on my face. I ducked. He always had been possessive of his mistress.

We were back together. Fiercely, this time. Yes, this definitely is love, I knew finally.


I will fight for you

My favorite breakfast is Eggs-Benedict Florentine. That, with French coffee in the morning, is heaven on a plate. We sat at Clafoutis, a restaurant on Sunset Strip one Sunday morning, pondering our future. Could we see a future for ourselves, each of us coming from vastly different cultures, social expectations, conditioning, and values? I was not particularly concerned about her Mexican culture. I have always admired the values of Latin folk – strong family values, joy for life, strong work ethics, industrious nature, and devout Catholic beliefs. And I was a big fan of Latin music, food, and the Spanish language.

Indeed, my fear was the Indian side of things. Would she fit into my culture? Can I see Diana walking around in a sari, talking in Malayalam to my aunts and cousins? Can I see my father and mother accepting her? I had a hard time picturing any of this.

Diana must have been pondering these very thoughts. She looked up from her plate of a simple salad, and orange juice, and said, “I will fight for you.”. Latin people can be very strong-willed as well.

A new dimension was revealing itself in the personality of this beautiful woman. And I loved it. I was falling in love with her all over again.


Storm clouds gather

Next summer, I went home to India with fourteen photos of Diana, and a heart full of anxiety.

The usual media and social homecoming parade took up the first week – there was a local TV channel that wanted an interview, three or four schools, including my Alma Mater, to speak at, a few Rotary club speaking engagements, and a few newspaper interviews.

All this was a welcome distraction. From the main task at hand: to announce to my parents about the special person in my life in the US. My stomach tightened every time I thought of how I would break the news, and how the news would ripple through my family circles. It was much easier to handle a three hundred-strong audience of perfect strangers during a public speaking event, than talking heart-to-heart with the dearest members of my family.

My mother suspected something. Her speech to me was guarded, and her eyes searching, looking deep into the mind of her eldest. I knew she was the first I had to break the news to.


Did you bring any photos?

I told my mother the next afternoon. We were sitting on the porch on rattan chairs, facing the garden. The teak trees my father had planted the year before were already shoulder-high. Their saucer-sized leaves glistened from the light rain that had fallen that morning. She took a full four seconds for the news to sink in. Then she casually turned to me and asked, ‘Did you bring any photos?’

As she scanned the photos – Diana wearing a lovely white dress in Malibu beach, Diana with her cheerful smile at UCLA, Diana wearing a cute long-sleeved gown at Lake Shrine – she took a deep breath. Just like that, my mother had decided to accept this foreign person into her family.

She simply looked up at me with wide eyes and said with trepidation, ‘You must tell your father without any delay.’


Darkness sets in

The moment I told my unsuspecting father about my relationship with a ‘foreign girl’ the evening of that fateful day, the world went dark. Literally. It was 7.30 PM. The electricity shut out. It was the daily brown-out scheduled by the city.

We sat frozen in state in our family living room for a full hour. My father at his station facing the TV, I in the chair at the opposite end of the room, my mother in a chair in the kitchen. All frozen into the silence and the darkness. The only sound that could be heard was of the mechanical clock that hung above my father.

When the electricity came back one full hour later, we were all still in the same places. No other word had been spoken during that long, dark hour.

My father was staring at the floor, in shock.


World in turmoil

Word got around fast. My aunt, uncle, cousins, and other close relatives were the first to know. The world was in a tizzy.

Babu Uncle hopped on a train from his town and arrived home. As my mother’s younger brother and confidante, he wanted to be at the epicenter of the family drama, to offer any help or leadership that he could to his sister and family at this time of chaos and confusion.

Babu Uncle had the unique capacity to take in any problem life created– in particular problems concerning his loved ones – and offer his time, energy, and support unconditionally until the problem was resolved. He would risk life and limb to help a loved one in trouble. Indeed, he was one of the most large-hearted, and daring men I have known.

But this problem that his nephew has created, was international in scope. How does one deal with situations that involve people from the exact opposite end of the world? He felt out of his depth, dealing with this.

So, he called me out for a talk, and we walked. We walked through our neighborhood in silence. Babu Uncle’s strides had always been long, but this time I had difficulty catching up. I could see the turmoil running through his head. What advice could he possibly offer? What could he possibly tell his nephew on whom he – and the rest of the family - had pinned so many dreams and hopes? Mine was the next big wedding the large family had been expecting and looking forward to.

So, we walked on, in long strides and in silence. His brow was twisted, but his mouth showed a degree of incredulousness at the situation. Should he scream at his nephew? Or should he shake his hands, at having done something unthinkably alien?

The only Americans that people in my community knew were characters in movies and US presidents. Rambo, Superman, Clint Eastwood, Marilyn Monroe, Lincoln, JFK, Bush, Clinton..

Many Indians were critical of American politics and foreign policies of the past decades. American interference in various countries including Latin America, Southeast Asia, the middle east, were topics that did not sit well with many educated and patriotic Indians. The fact that many Indians had relatives in the US, and that many Indians actually looked up to the US to help uphold geopolitical peace, was not considered in this analysis. My father’s position was, “Americans may be good people. But America is a rogue.” But he would add slyly, “..In contrast, India is a good country. But Indians are rogues.”

We walked quite a while in silence, my Babu Uncle and I.

“…they are Mexicans.”, I spoke up.

“…very family-oriented.”, I added.

“… she is very close to her parents.”, I pointed out.

“..big family..”, I was losing steam.

“Hm.”, he responded, finally.

With that simple sound, Babu Uncle had secretly given me his blessing. Malayalam is a language very rich in intonations.

I shed a single tear of gratitude.


Enter, the psychologist

My father’s despair knew no bounds during this period. He ran from pillar to post going to a whole range of emotions – anxiety, shock, depression, anger, frustration, mockery, cynicism, sarcasm, and rage. “Would somebody please tell this fool not to wreck the family by marrying a foreigner!”, he would plead desperately. He poured out his heart to close family friends. He was utterly terrified at the unthinkable change his eldest son was forcing upon the family.

“What will our relatives say? How can I ever face them again!”

“How can you possibly do this?”

“Your mother is a diabetic. She is utterly devastated!!” (she was not)

“Oh, the humiliation!”

He decided to do an intervention.

He hired a psychologist. Nobody sees a psychologist in India unless they were suspected to be going mad. They are seen as one step away from seeing a psychiatrist, which is just one step away from being thrown into an asylum.

Just a few years ago, I was a cartoonist with a psychology column, “The Doctor is In.”, in a short-lived psychology magazine published in Mumbai. The full-page column written and drawn by me while I was in college, centered around the antics of a short bald and bearded psychologist called Dr.P.Sycho, and his strange patients.

It would be interesting to see one in real life, I mused.

The psychologist was known to a close family friend of ours. He arranged to meet one evening at the friend’s house. I would be brought there, and be confronted by the professional. He would try to ascertain my mental health. Surely Sunil was unhinged, my father sincerely believed. Surely a professional intervention can correct the defect in his son.


Kundalini Rising

It was a six-member squad of the family that included my parents, brother, sister, and uncle, that accompanied me that evening to see the psychologist. There were an additional four people including the family friends at the meeting site. The things a simple fellow has to go through, to marry for love, I thought.

As I took stock of the humiliation I was being put through, I felt a surge of righteous rage rise up my spine, pass through my neck, heat my ears, tingle my face, and settle peacefully at my crown chakra. Must be Kundalini rising, I noted mentally. I had just begun practicing meditation the previous year and fancied myself as a great yogi already.

The psychologist shook hands with me. He cross-examined me by asking various questions relating to the nature of my relationship, about my outlook on life, my understanding of my parents’ concerns, and my own aspirations. All the while, I struggled to make sure that I did not sound irritated or insolent.

In the end, we all had tea, shook hands again, and left. That night I agonized over my responses to the psychologist. What if he recommended isolation and a dose of electro-shock therapy? I comforted myself with my knowledge that a psychologist cannot prescribe medication. That would be a psychiatrist.


Microsoft Excel Sheet

My difficult vacation still had a few more days left before I returned to the US. My father still was desperate. I agonized seeing his pain-stricken face. I could see him age in front of my eyes. He had been exuberant and jovial the week I had landed. Now, he looked fifteen years older. He now did what he was best at: reasoning with me.

He sat down with me and outlined his concerns in a clear, structured, and logical manner. He first put me at ease by disclosing that he was not particularly bothered by my choice of life partner. His concern was the implications of my choice. Wouldn’t my marrying outside my community distance me from the community, he reasoned. Wouldn’t my marrying outside the country distance me from my country? Wouldn’t my marrying outside my culture distance me from my culture? Was I not causing myself to simply drift away from my family for good? Wouldn’t my future children be less connected with India, and the Indian culture? Wasn’t I fracturing the family for good?

He was losing his son. He wanted me to make decisions with that full knowledge of the outcomes.

Think deeply, he advised me. Do a pros and cons of marrying outside the community. Don’t be in a hurry to make a decision.

That evening I set up an Excel sheet. With two columns. Pros of marrying Diana, Cons of marrying Diana. I definitely was my father’s son.

Over the next few days, I came up with many good reasons to marry Diana, and many good reasons not to. I arranged them neatly in the two columns. Every time a new idea would strike, I would run to my Excel sheet to type it down. After four days, there were six good reasons to marry Diana. And there were eighteen, not to.


My horoscope awakens

In Kerala, most people’s lives are governed by what has been written in their personal horoscope. This mysterious document is commissioned by parents at the time of their child’s birth. Good horoscope writers are astrologers skilled in the art of divining the future of a new born, based on the time of birth, and the positions of the planets at that auspicious time. A horoscope predicts large events in an individual’s life: his career, his marriage, his chances of having progeny, and sometimes his death as well. It talks of time periods of prosperity, and periods of suppressed health, and wealth. It is indeed, the most significant document of a newly born, valued more than a birth certificate.

I have always hated this tradition of horoscopes. Because, I could never understand how people could believe in it. How was it possible to predict all this? It’s clearly nonsense, I thought. I have surreptitiously, or accidentally listened in on a statement of two from my horoscope at various times of my childhood that my aunt or cousin had mentioned. I had always felt violated and immediately run away from the scene, without wanting to hear anything more.

I never wanted to know what was written in my horoscope. It went against the grain of everything I had believed in. One makes one’s own destiny, I strongly believe, through his outlook in life, vision for this future, continuous improvement and education, learning from mistakes, thoughtful planning, and consistent action. The reason I did not want to know any statement in my horoscope is, I did not want to be negatively affected by any potential bombshell in the horoscope. Even though my brain would not believe that it was possible for humans to work out happenings in another human’s life span, I did not fully trust my heart in these matters. What if I got emotionally affected by what I heard? I had always been a very sensitive soul. Though praises do not move me much, I easily succumb to insults or criticisms. There can be nothing worse than an insult by the planets, surely.

And yet today, my horoscope came to my rescue.


My horoscope speaks

I had been quietly impressed by how my mother had been calm and collected during all this. After she had seen the photographs of Diana, she had seemed quite sanguine about what lay ahead. I was puzzled by this, until she told me one afternoon.

“It’s in your horoscope.”, she said quietly, staring into a thousand feet.

“What is?”

“Your horoscope says, ‘No arrangement of marriage for this one. This one will bring home his own.”

I was stunned. Not particularly by what was written in the horoscope, but on how effectively my horoscope gave strength and assurance to my mother. By shifting the blame onto planets, my own faults could be excused.

My close relatives also seemed to know what had been stated in my horoscope. Now they all looked at each other with knowing nods.

I flew back to the US. A new game was being developed at DreamWorks. Steven Spielberg was particularly keen on this one, as it was to be inspired by his recent World War II movie, Saving Private Ryan. I wanted to make sure I was in the core group that developed this game from day one. I threw myself into its development working long days and nights.

Unknown to me, Diana was making her own plans. She needed to know for herself if this was right for her life. She had to see India for herself, to get that answer.


Goddess on the move

‘Diana’ is the Roman name of the Greek goddess, Artemis. She is primarily known as the goddess of the hunt, but she is also known as the patron of family, marriage, and child-birth. She is the archetype of the competent, free-spirited, independent female. Qualities that had attracted me to her.

She now told me that she wanted to travel to India. She had applied to and been accepted to a unique program wherein a group of US students would be sent to India, for about three months, to learn about its arts and culture. The program was to be held in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of the state of Kerala. Remarkably, the city was only a few hours’ drive from my own city, Kochi.


Goddess descends into India

The week Diana landed in India, I was a nervous wreck. Specifically, my heart left my chest and lodged firmly in my mouth for a whole week, before slowly descending back to its proper location over the next few weeks.

This was a big test for us both. I was happy Diana was living in my home state, but would she like it? Would she like my country, my culture, and my people? Would this western lady who was born in Mexico, but grew up in the comforts of the US appreciate India in all its extreme qualities? Its sultry heat, its drenching rains, its dust, it’s hot outdoors, it’s hot indoors, its intensely flavored foods, its super sweet teas, its sickeningly syrupy sweets, its dense clouds of mosquitoes, its crowded streets, its pushy hawkers, its screaming vehicles, its garbage piles in street corners..

Would she be able to appreciate the beauty hidden just beneath the surface of all that seeming madness? Would she be able to see and experience the rich wealth that lay just below? The honesty of the people, the genuine-ness of the smiles, the innocence of the children, the earnestly of every activity, the resilience of the people, the pride we have of our culture?

And, would her mind settle long enough for her to see past even this? To the sublime meaning of India – it’s accumulated wisdom that spans over five thousand years of known history and several thousand more that every child born Indian is deeply aware of? Would she understand why this culture is among the foremost on earth to understand the truth of diversity?

Would India grace Diana to reveal to her the essence of Indian wisdom – that indivisible truth, that it is the One, that manifests as everything? And that, therefore everything is One?


Family pays a visit

My family could not contain themselves another day. They had to go see this woman that has captured their son and has now boldly come to investigate his country.

Within a week of Diana landing, a grey jeep left Kochi for Thiruvananthapuram. It was driven by my brother. My brother has always been daring and adventure-minded. The jeep suited his rugged tastes. Alongside him sat my father, anxious and jittery. He had not been thrilled when my brother had sold the family car and exchanged it for a jeep. These jeeps were descendants of the World War II-era Willys Jeep, which had become popular in Asia and were produced under license by Mahindra & Mahindra. Jeeps were used in India mainly by the police, and folk that owned large plantations. My father thought a jeep most impractical as a vehicle. Uncomfortable for long trips, and too jumpy for short ones. My teenage sister and my mother sat in the back. My sister had been going giddy with excitement at thought of seeing the ‘girlfriend’ of her brother. No one had girlfriends – or boyfriends in our conservative family circles. One met them only in movies, novels, and comic books. Today she would meet a real one in the flesh.

The family picked up Diana from the large house the American students were living in, and spend the evening together in a fancy restaurant. The photographs from that meeting show a very subdued and suspicious father, a buoyant mother, a bubbly sister, and a thrilled brother. And with Diana basking in the center of it all, wearing a purple churidar, presented to her by my mother.

Diana needed to study the family more. She decided to pay a visit on her own.


Diana pays a visit

I consider myself a voracious reader. Yet, nowhere in the history of the world have I read of a potential bride going to live in the house of her suitor to research and evaluate the liaison.

But Diana was not alone. It was an invasion. A busload of American students and their Indian teachers and instructors of the program Diana was part of, landed at my family’s doorstep one fine weekend.  My mother cooked her famous fried rice, and curried chicken for all 23. My brother and sister played host to this international delegation. After the meals, the students lined up in a queue for dessert of vanilla and chocolate ice cream. My mother was fascinated. It is very rare to see a queue formation in India. No one has ever stood in a queue in my mother’s kitchen, prior to that day, or since.

The neighborhood was energized. They had heard of a ‘madamma’ in Sunil’s life, and were now seeing a parade of ‘saayipps’, and ‘madamma’s walking up and down my home with a large tour bus parked in front. Were they outraged by the audacity of the Thankamushy family to host a, ‘girlfriend’? Were they Scandalized? Or were they merely fascinated by the drama in the neighborhood?


Did that girl leave?

Thankfully, I was not witnessing any of this, safely tucked away in the opposite end of the world in Los Angeles, busy animating US soldiers, and World War II weapons for a new game at DreamWorks. I had completely given up trying to worry about Diana and her decisions. Diana would do what Diana wanted to do. She was a mini-force of nature, I had learned by then. I would just sigh, and busy myself with more work.

After the invasion, and the dust had settled down, my neighbor-aunty whom we love and care for very much- could not help herself, and asked my mother with great consternation: “Did that girl leave?”.

“No. Diana, staying with us”, my mother politely corrected her.

Indeed, while the rest of her group used the last two weeks of their program to travel within India, Diana decided to use those weeks to stay and partake with my family.

I knew I had no choice but to make this remarkable woman my own, for the rest of my life.


My excel sheet

The excel sheet was no longer in digital form. I had printed it out and carried it folded in my pocket alongside my trusty ringed to-do booklet and small pen. It had by now ten pros, and twenty-two cons to marrying a woman outside my culture.

I knew I had reached a point where the decision was going to be between what my head knew, and what my heart felt.

I tore up the excel sheet into tiny bits and watched as the bits floated down into my trash can at DreamWorks.

I then started to plan ways to officially, ‘pop the question’.

“Will you marry me?”

That famous line had not been posed yet to Diana. Where would I do it? When would I do it? How would I do it? Should I propose at one of our favorite Italian restaurants? Or perhaps in the park next to UCLA? Should I hire a small Mariachi band to spring out and play when she said, ‘yes’?

But, would she say Yes? I was not sure. What was really going on in her mind, as she took in my country, culture, people, and family? Was she going to come back to the US transformed? Or, would she return with distaste or disgust?

Yet, I prepared my line. I practiced in front of the large mirrors at DreamWorks. I practiced in my living room. I practiced in the park. I practiced saying the line in various tones, trying to hit the balance of assuredness and tenderness. And I tried saying the line after taking a knee. I was, and am a secret romantic at heart. I wanted to do this right.

And I sincerely hoped that I got a Yes, from Diana.



She walked out of the arrivals gate in LAX in slow-motion, it seemed to me. She was pulling along her red cabin bag and had a brown handbag on her shoulder. She had an elegant platform shoe on was wearing a brown-orange silken churidar that hugged her waist tantalizingly. And she had a radiant smile on her face.

As I hugged her, I noticed that she had lost some weight. Though Diana has always been petite, the change of diet and lifestyle had improved her figure even more. India suited her, I remarked to myself.

The first words out of her mouth were, “Let’s get married, Sunil.”



We wed on an auspicious day in January the next year. Diana came back to India – this time to be a bride- with her mother, and sister. The wedding was held in Kochi next to the Shiva temple, in the midst of over thousand-strong friends, relatives, and well-wishers. My teachers, old classmates, my wonderful Math Sir, my Indu Aunty, my Babu Uncle, of course, were all present. My parents made sure that no expenses were spared for that grand wedding. My father had even chartered buses to bring in people of our ancestral village in the next district. It was to be a grand treat for them all. One does not see a ‘madaamma’ bride very often.

We broke a few other traditions as well in our wedding. No ‘bride-money’ was ever exchanged. And since there was no brides’ home for Diana to emerge from as is part of the tradition, she was led out of our favorite family-friend’s own place across town.

And as I sat there in the groom’s throne, with my American bride dazzling in a golden sari beside me in our Hindu wedding, listening to the resplendent music that had been composed just for the two of us, I could not help but imagine that as this adventure was coming to an end, a new one was just about to begin.

Los Angeles, USA

Personal Journey