Excerpt of “Bala Takes the Plunge”

Bala front
B. Balasubramaniam, B.E., had always wanted to be a director, but not quite the director he had become. He had wanted to direct Tamil movies and work with superstars like Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan. What a thrill that would be, having the power to tell Rajini what to do: ‘Sit here, put your legs up, allow me to get you some coffee, sir.’

He had dreamt of putting his name in the opening credits –- ‘Directed by B. Balasubramaniam’ –- and ending the movie with the initials ABC emblazoned across the screen, which everyone in India would come to recognize as ‘A Balasubramaniam Classic’. The President of India would award him the Padma Bhushan and the Queen of England would make him an O.B.E., which would look far more impressive than just a B.E. Every other Indian, after all, seemed to possess a Bachelor of Engineering degree. India had become the world’s biggest factory for engineers. The government was wisely considering a law requiring all engineering students to wear helmets, so they wouldn’t hurt themselves when they fell off the conveyor belts. They were India’s chief export to the developed world, finding themselves in countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and America, where Permanent Resident status was granted to anyone who could prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that they had a brain.

It would have been exceptional, of course, if Bala had earned his B.E. at IIT, the Indian Institute of Technology, where, even during the height of monsoon season, brainstorms were more common than rainstorms. Bala’s father, a civil engineer, had studied at the College of Engineering, Guindy (now part of Anna University), but never hesitated to sing praises of IIT. ‘It is tops in whole world,’ Appa would say. ‘Even better than Masterji Seth’s Institute of Technology.’

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Appa,’ Bala would gently correct him. But Appa, as usual, was beyond correction.

‘Masterji Seth’s. That is what I said. It is not so good as IIT.’

Bala didn’t come close to getting into IIT and he blamed this on the Indian cricket board. If they hadn’t scheduled a series against New Zealand in the same month as his entrance exam, he would have studied harder and scored better. As it was, he kept getting distracted, much to his mother’s dismay. ‘You are ready, kanna?’ Amma asked one morning, serving idlis and tomato chutney to Bala and his younger sister, Chitra.

‘Not yet,’ he replied. ‘Appa’s hogging the sports page.’

It was a miracle he got into engineering at all. He was granted admission to Sri Harichandran Institute of Technology in Chennai, named after its benefactor, a well-known businessman. Though only a few years old, the college was already well-regarded around the state, being affiliated to a college that was affiliated to Anna University. Its reputation got a further boost in Bala’s third year, when administrators wisely changed its name to Thiru Harichandran Institute of Technology, compelling students to use the much-improved acronym of THIT.

Bala’s dream of becoming a film director was put on hold, not permanently he hoped. He had mentioned this desire several times to his parents and each time they had splashed water on it, like it was a pesky ant climbing up the drain in the bathroom sink.

‘Don’t be stupid idiot, Bala!’ Appa said one evening, his nostrils flaring. ‘What film you are capable of making? Maybe you can make film about me. You can call it The Civil Engineer and show everyone how I am designing bridges that will be able to survive any amount of flooding. That would be blockbusting film, no?’

Bala wondered why Appa had become a civil engineer. There was nothing civil about him. If he made a film about Appa, he would have to call it The Uncivil Engineer. And he would never work with Appa –- that would be unbearable. If he messed up, he would be called a ‘stupid idiot’, and if the film won an Oscar or other big award, he’d be elevated only to a ‘lucky idiot’. No, it would be wiser to find an actor to play Appa, someone with a dimpled chin, receding hairline and moustache thick enough to be the actual hiding place of Osama bin Laden.

His mother was more gentle and gracious, but even she disapproved of her son’s ambition. ‘Look at the films today, kanna,’ Amma said. ‘The actresses – they are showing everything. What I am wearing as a blouse, they are wearing as a dress. One film I saw last year at the theatre – what was its name, I don’t remember – this girl was lifting her sari while walking through a puddle and everyone could see her thighs! Chee chee! Did she not know she was being filmed? How people are paying good money to watch films like this, I have no idea.’

Bala was momentarily confused: Had Amma sneaked into the theatre without paying? No, she was incapable of breaking the law. She was the model of honesty. If a shopkeeper gave her an extra Rs. 10 in change, she would return it immediately. Appa, on the other hand, would pocket the money, saying it was only fair and citing at least three reasons: (1) He had been shortchanged at the very same store thirty-eight years ago; (2) the store was gouging its customers with high prices; and (3) it was up to him to balance out Amma’s honesty. ‘Do unto others,’ he would say, ‘as they would have done unto you.’

Bala’s parents did not agree on many things, so he took it seriously when they both raised objections to his ambition. He wondered if it was worth the effort to go against their wishes and become a film director. They would never understand his career, never be fully proud of him. But on the positive side, he could get beautiful actresses to walk through puddles and show their thighs. He imagined himself directing a movie called Monsoon Rain in which all the actresses walked through puddles, lifting their saris high in the air. It would surely make a killing in the box office –- but then it might also make Amma want to kill herself.

She had wanted him to be more practical about his career choice. ‘I am not asking you to do anything in particular,’ she insisted. ‘You have many choices. For example, you can be cardiologist, neurologist, ophthalmologist, oncologist or gynaecologist. All good choices. You can even be gastroenterologist, like my brother.’

Bala’s uncle was the only doctor in the family and everyone was either proud or envious of him. He worked from morning to night, both at a busy government hospital and thriving private practice, earning so much money that his wife, according to Amma and others, could live in the sari shop if she wanted to. Uncle and Aunty Balakrishnan had a cook, maid and driver (part of a growing staff), three cars in the garage and elegant furniture in their three-storey house, yet still had the means to take annual vacations in Europe and America and bring home expensive gifts. Thanks to their generosity or what Appa considered their constant and overwhelming need to exhibit their wealth, Amma was the proud owner of a cupboard full of shiny white Corelle dishes. She treasured them so much, she couldn’t bear to put any food on them. Even on special occasions like Pongal and Deepavali, she couldn’t justify using the dinnerware, partly because, as Bala surmised, the guests were mere commoners, not the prime minister or president or someone really important like Rajinikanth. Her family and friends were unworthy of fine ceramic; they were treated to fine stainless steel. If Rajini ever came for dinner, Amma would not only bring out her prized dishes, she probably wouldn’t wash them afterwards either. The display in her cupboard would include a few signs, such as ‘Rajini ate from this plate,’ ‘Rajini drank from this cup’ and ‘I poured sambhar from this bowl while staring at Rajini.’ Amma often bragged that she was Rajini’s ‘biggest fan’, upon which Appa would pat her on the back and say, ‘Don’t worry, Meena. You can always go on diet.’

If you enjoyed this piece, you'll love Melvin's novel Bala Takes the Plunge, available in North America through Amazon.com and McNallyRobinson.com You can also find it at major bookstores in India and Sri Lanka or online at FlipKart, IndiaPlaza, FriendsofBooks or other sites. A number of readers have written reviews of the novel. An excerpt of the novel can be read here.