Friday, December 21, 2007

What's in a name?

One of my favorite questions to ask people who are prone to 'intelligent' discourses is the meaning of his/her name. I get awkward pauses and sheepish grins more often than not while I have my two seconds of suppressed glee. Anyway, it's only a matter of time before I get the question directed at me, so I set about discovering the meaning of "Balaji". It didn't seem like a difficult task, given that it is the most common name in South India (at least according to me).

All the senior 'Sanskrit people' (Sastrigal's who unwittingly make eye-contact with me) I asked started enthusiastically - "'Bala' means 'young'" (I had figured out as much from my incredibly inadequate Sanskrit education in school). And then, the awkward pause again. The conclusion they finally arrived at was that "Ji" is the usual suffix meant to signify respect (similar to 'Mr.'). 'Mr. Young'? Really? I mean, 'the Sun who shall smite his enemies with a thousand rays' is a bit much, but, 'He who shall be interesting to a damsel' is a reasonable expectation, don't you think? And imagine explaining the name without any hair or teeth. Sigh. If I get a chance to talk to God, I'd be like, "Dude. You live for a bajillion gajillion years. We get it. Do you have to rub it in?"

Then again, there's the opposite of the mundane. Names that make your jaw drop. Or lock up. I can't help but feel sorry for the guy named Yadnya Valkya (not kidding). Google, trusty as always, turned up four results, even suggesting a spelling correction. It's the name of an authority on Hindu adoption law, according to this book from 1868. The poor guy must have not been able to say his name until he was in fifth grade or something. "Hey guys, here's Mr.I-can't- say-my-name. Let's go watch him drool" would be a good summing up of his early years at school. And God help that guy if he comes to North America.

What could be worse than an unpronounceable name? A name which everyone can pronounce? And then some - Moon unit Zappa, her sister, Diva Muffin (oh, the horror!) and Pilot Inspektor would be willing to comment, I think.

Given the existence of such, er..., imagination in this world, I have been more or less happy about my name. When introducing myself to people here in the U.S., I usually go with 'Bala' (the shorter it is, the better. You will be repeating it at least twice, so names longer than two syllables are strongly discouraged). Now, in all my years in India, I've been used to people not even waiting for me to finish. They usually know the name by the time I say 'Ba-'. I didn't expect any such recognition here in the U.S., so, I was pretty surprised when the response I got was "Really? That's your name? ...". These kinds of pauses are almost always bad, so I asked what it meant, with some hesitation. All I got was a mysterious "Never mind. We use it sometimes".

So Google it was, again. The first one I got was from the Cassell's Dictionary of Slang -

bala n. (early - mid 19C)Coarse or senseless talk (Cornish bal, loud talking)

bala n. a balaclava(full beard)

Mr.Young isn't great, but I felt it still had the edge over SailorMouth or Shaggy. So, I continued looking, hoping the name had a coolness factor in some obscure language. I turned to Urban Dictionary, the encyclopedia of English slang. Sure enough, there was a page on 'bala'. The first thing that caught my eye was the 'Related' section. Now, Urban Dictionary is the place where you look for obscure references from sitcoms and choicest insults to hurl at the friendly neighborhood internet troll. It was the last place where I expected to find my full name -


1. (n.) Thug Of Thugs; OG of OG's. Born in 1990 on the streets of India, he quickly came to america and quickly gained respect form his wise decisions, intellect, and bravery. Later he changed his name to, BallaG. Even though it is spelled differently it is still pronounced the same.

2. (v.);BallaG; to kill or, more street, to cap an ass.

3. (adj.)A person who is smart and makes quick decisions. One who is brave and fears nothing also one who is very athletic.

I come all the way to Urban Dictionary to find that the page is about a guy who is from my country. Anyway, I don't wear jeans around my knees or listen to hip-hop music, so BallaG is also pretty much out.

And this one is pretty much self-explanatory.

Bala: Means "to do something half-assed" in Taiwanese, and is a homophone of the word for "guava".

So, all that was left was the page on 'Bala'. I wasn't too optimistic after MegaBeard and Thug of Thugs -

1. bala

It's spanish for bullet

Nice. We're getting somewhere at last. Further random clicking led to this at Wordreference ( a whole forum for word nerds - where do I sign up?!) -

here are some slang possibilities in (Mexican) Spanish for "you are a pistol"

eres una pistola (literally)
eres un tiro
eres una bala

(meaning that he is cool/smart/too clever ,etc)

Ahh. Oasis. Desert. Vacation. Student. Heat. Minneapolis. Things like that. So meet Mr. Young Bullet/Mr. Cool/ Mr. Clever Young. I'll stop now. So people! Google yourself. It's OK. If you find anything interesting, leave a comment here.

A message to all the people lucky enough to welcome a new life/decide the course of someone's life - Please think of the children! Control the urges to create your longest lasting pun. Really. You cannot call your kid Wind O'Pane, Tea Baggins or Long John. It's seriously not bala.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The $300 plastic card

This is a rather long story without commercial breaks. So please blink and look away frequently to get the soap out of your eyes.

$300 - credit card? gift card? No. It's a Driver's License. This is the obligatory fleeting view of the present before the long flashback, so here goes.

April 2006

All the guys around me were planning to take the written test to get a Learner's License (having secured financial aid and internships for the summer, this was the next "peak" for the PIGS to conquer). It was the usual once we found a copy of the Driver's Manual on the internet (for free, of course) - try to remember every word on every page, try to trap other people with 'trick' questions, take pride in reciting 3 decimal places, revise the material in the bus all the way to the DMV (Dept. of Motor Vehicles).

I cleared the test and was feeling pretty good - only 3 months in the US and on par with people who had come in Fall 2005. I paid $23 for the Instruction Permit, already thinking about how to compensate (eat more free pizzas, shop for bland cereal for a few weeks, etc.). Three of us scheduled a drive test on the same day, ignoring the advice of the elders.

May 2006

My roommate was kind enough to give his car, so the three of us showed up for the road test on the same day. When it was my turn, I started by setting off a blast of hot air in the officer's face. Didn't know they would be asking about all the knobs in front. And then I turned with a flourish from the wrong lane, sealing my fate for that day. Anyway, only one of the 3 got his license that day, so I didn't feel too bad.


Next followed the usual period of procrastination - for the whole of summer, fall till I had successfully forgotten whatever little I had learnt for this test.

May 2007

I finally scheduled another appointment. By that time, all the "elders" with cars had left for the vacation, forcing me to rent a car. And what day should I choose but the start of a long weekend. The rental company did their usual thing - push the car no one would rent onto the unsuspecting guy. So there I was, for my next test, in an uncomfortable cross between a car and a minivan. All I could see when I turned back were the car's huge C-pillars. It was a surprise that I didn't knock over anything bigger than a cone in my parallel parking. "Get to know your car", said the officer, without any sympathy for the $70 that I had just spent.

($23 + $70 = $93)

June 2007

I reached California, happy that I didn't have to rent out a car again for my test. I could drive the car that my company had been nice enough to pay the rent for. I showed up for the written test again, finished it, all the while wishing that road tests were this easy. All I got for the $27 was a piece of paper with my name on it. I confidently made an appointment for a road test since I had already driven this car for more than 200 miles without hitting a cone or the curb.

($93 + $27 = $120)

I was at the DMV early on June 17, for my road test. There was a pre-test screen when the lady at the counter chose to read the entire 3 pages of my rental contract. She settled on the point which said, "This car shall not be used in races, contests or tests". Funny how government offices in any country (well, at least the 2 I've lived in) choose to make the lives of the people who come to them difficult. She chose to interpret the 'test' as a driver test, while it was obvious that the contract referred to a test of the car. So I was turned away this time without even taking the car out of the parking lot.

I made another appointment for the 27th of June. When I showed up that day, I thought I would outwit the lady (has this ever worked?), so lingered around in the queue until I could go to another person. This time, I didn't hand over the rental contract and gave him only the receipt for the rental. Apparently, this guy did not have much to do that time of the morning, so he ended up calling rental office and asking him if taking the test was allowed. Of course, the rental guy was only too happy to say no.

There I was, my 'brilliant' plan foiled, grinning sheepishly at the appointments guy. He just assumed that I must be a really bad driver and gave me my third appointment for July 9.

July 2007

July 9
This time, I wasn't taking any chances, so I went to another car rental and asked him if I was allowed to take a test (I know, stupid). The guy said that he didn't give out permission letters. Weird how I am trusted to drive the car alone all over the state but not in a test, accompanied by a DMV officer, at speeds of under 35 mph. So I showed up at another rental company (it was next door, thankfully) and asked them for their smallest car. The guy at the counter was only too happy to spot a guinea pig without an online reservation. "We are very short on cars now, Sir. I can give you one for $60" (usual rates are around $40-$45). I tried to suppress my groan and made up a story about picking up a friend from an airport and returning the car in 2 hours.

He led me to a gleaming white Ford Mustang (double groan). "We are offering you a free upgrade. Have some fun!". Of course, the real reason was that no one would take the car because no one longer than 3 feet could fit in the back seat. I didn't have a choice, so I took the car and showed up again at the pre-drive check. There was a new lady at the counter. She asked for the letter and I said, "He told me that this company allowed driving tests", pointing to no one in particular. Fortunately, she didn't follow up and waved me through. I already felt like I had got a license.

I started a road test for the first time in California. The Mustang started with a rumble that echoed throughout the DMV. The rest were looking strangely at the guy who showed up for a road test in a sports car. The car moved along at 20 mph, probably the slowest it went since an engine was dropped under its hood. I completed the test without any problems, feeling very good about myself.
The officer looked up from the score sheet and said "Your main problem is speed. You drove too slowly". Then she checked 'Speed' under 'Critical Driving Errors' with the comment, "Driver drove too slow impeding traffic flow". I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. So I said the usual "Thank you" and went to the appointment desk once again. The guy couldn't believe that someone would fail the test by going too slow. He offered his part - "Too slow?? My wife would've run you over". After thanking him for his great piece of wisdom, I made an appointment for the next day.

All this happened in about an hour's time, so I took the car back to the rental and tried to elaborate on my picking up a friend story. I mentioned that I had the date wrong and he would be actually coming tomorrow. I wasn't hoping for anything, but the guy agreed to take half off the rent (wow, I can actually bluff). So the bill was reduced by about 25$, coming to

($120 + $76 = $196)

I mentioned this to my friend who couldn't stop laughing at how I failed the test by going too slow in a Ford Mustang.

July 10
I went to the car rental again, this time with an online reservation. The guy was a bit disappointed that he didn't get to charge his usual $10 premium, but gave me the car anyway. It was a much saner Kia Optima this time. The same person was there at the pre-drive check counter and I was a familiar face now, so I was just waved through without the usual uncomfortable questions. I had to pay a $6 fee since it was a 'retest'.

I started the test again, praying that I wouldn't add more to the total of the most expensive Driver's License ever. I was careful to stay exactly at the speed limit on the road. However, I've never managed to turn without stopping at least for a moment. Guess my mom's advise is embedded too deep in my brain (really). So I was nervously glancing at her sheet from time to time. She was managing to cover it with marks when I thought I hadn't made any mistakes. The test allowed 15 errors for a Pass, so I wasn't too scared.

The test ended. "You need to work on your turns", she said. She already had three comments on the paper. "Driver turns too slow". "Lane change too slow". "Stops unnecessarily". And she had marked speed for 4 of my 8 turns, marked unnecessary stop for 2, and marked speed for 2 lane changes. 15 didn't look like a lot, given my 8 mistakes due to speed. She counted the marks twice and finally wrote 15 on the sheet. "You barely passed. Go in and collect your license". After thanking her profusely with tears of joy (well, almost. there were also tears from my wallet), I went in and got my next piece of paper.

So to bring this rather sorry tale to an end, I returned the car ("You are freaky fast") to the rental, I paid $93. Since I had told him that my friend had come today, there was no half rate this time.

$196 + $6 + $93 = $295 + $5 (gas charges? Since 300 is THE number nowadays, I couldn't stop at 295)

Here I am, still waiting for my expensive plastic card. I've understood one thing though - procrastination makes you pay (literally). Should I write that down? Well, maybe tomorrow...